In Luke 5:32 Jesus clearly states His mission: “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Of all the things that we do on Sundays during the teaching time, calling sinners to repentance is a huge part of it. C. S. Lewis once wrote: “Christianity tells people to repent and promises them forgiveness. It has nothing (as far as I know) to say to people who do not know they have done anything to repent of…” That means that my sermons need to consistently challenge my own sins and point the way to grace-induced or Spirit-empowered change. In Luke 5:27-32 there are two kinds of repentance needed. One by Levi, the rank sinner; the other by the squeaky clean religious leaders who were self-righteous. We hope, of course, that we’re preaching each week to the Levi’s who respond to Jesus’ teaching. However, in many of our well-established Bible Church-type churches, we’ve probably got our fair share of the other. Does your application factor in the Pharisees and Scribe-like congregants? If you decide to preach from the Gospels, Jesus’ numerous encounters with the religious leaders of His day will ensure your sermons deal with that kind of repentance.
Luke 5:17-25 records the story of Jesus healing the paralytic man who was brought to Jesus by his friends. It is very tempting to apply the narrative with something like: win the lost at any cost. Most of us naturally see the story as designed to teach through the example of the friends. The repetition of “forgiven” and “forgive” in verses 20, 21, 23, and 24 helps guide our search for dominant meaning. The narrative highlights Jesus’ authority and power to heal and forgive, not the actions of the friends. This doesn’t mean there is no value in applying along the lines of the exemplar of the friends’ action. It just means that the narrative is structured to feature another, primary meaning. Of course, the rest of Luke’s Story will explain how Jesus could heal physically and spiritually.
If you could divide your congregants into only two categories, sinners or Pharisees, which do you think would be the larger group? I’m guessing most of us would say, “Pharisees.” That means preaching in the Gospels is very relevant, especially those narratives when Jesus experiences sharp conflict with the religious leaders of His day. Brace yourself for some tense sermons. Like Jesus, you can expect to get opposition from parishioners who know their Bibles best. Bible churches or Bible Church-like churches struggle with self-righteousness and superiority complexes due to their extensive Bible knowledge and morality. That means we are often very critical and judgmental of others. Religion seems to always lead to this. But, if you will preach to the Pharisees in your faith-family, God may just soften their hearts. My history has shown that some Pharisees sincerely want to be in the sinners category. Those are the ones who hear Jesus’ teaching and alter their hearts and lives accordingly.
Be courageous my friend.
I just finished reading, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, a brief discussion of how philosophical hermeneutics affects the church. On page 110 the author writes, “To understand is to apply; to apply differently is to understand differently.”
Probably the best example of this is how sermons on the Prodigal Son are usually applied. The most common application of Luke 15 is to call all prodigals to come home to Christ. We understand the parable to revolve around the prodigal who left his father’s house. To understand is to apply. You probably know that the parable is designed to focus attention on the attitude of the religious leaders (cf. Luke 15:1-2). To understand the parable that way means applying it differently: focusing on the older brother (the only one who does not rejoice when the lost is found). This requires a different kind of altar call.
Whenever you’re preaching on a narrative, check to see if your application (often some form of exemplar: “go and do likewise” or “go and do otherwise”) points to a different understanding than the preaching portion is intended to communicate.
The same week the bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, I was preparing to preach on Luke 4:42-44. Verse 43 reads, “…I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
Tim Keller defines the kingdom of God as “The entrance into the world of God’s ruling power–and that power will heal and ‘re-weave’ all of creation back together, spiritually, psychologically, socially, and even physically….relationships between races and classes, between individuals, between man and God are healed and re-woven into one fabric again to the degree that they come under the authority of Jesus, through his word and Spirit.”
I couldn’t help but think how such a gospel sounds like good news in this broken world. Too often I’ve preached only this good news: “Jesus died to save you from your sins.” That is certainly true and good news for anyone who knows they’re a sinner in the hands of an angry God. But as you know, forgiving an individual from their sin is only part of God’s intended salvation. In a world where bombs go off at the finish line of marathons, the gospel that God’s healing power has broken into our broken world is indeed good news to those that have ears that can hear.
Which nuance of the gospel did you preach yesterday?
Check your last few sermon titles and see which of the following you created:
- Market-driven title (like Fear Factor, which plays off the TV show)
- Content-driven title (The Damaging Affects of Fear)
- Application-driven title (How Christ Conquers Our Fears)
Most of us tend to gravitate toward one form of title. Over the last several years I’ve noticed an increase in the number of sermon titles designed to gain attention. You can maximize the impact of your title by creating them with an applicational element. Considering that the sermon title is often read before the sermon begins, an application-driven title can help you communicate before you begin preaching. Before the sermon begins, anyone who reads the title begins to process what your preaching portion is intended to do.
Listener reaction to Jesus’ first recorded sermon in Luke 4:21 led to Him using two illustrations: the ministry of Elijah and Elisha. Jesus’ shed light on listener unbelief by giving two examples of people who reluctantly listened to the prophet’s message and received miracles. Jesus wasn’t only using the illustration to show that He would reach “outsiders.” His listeners became furious because of the racial message. They missed the main point of the illustration–the need to believe Jesus’ word in order to receive His salvation.
First, Jesus’ example helps me focus my illustrations on the main points, not minor points of a preaching portion. I’m guilty at times of shedding light on rather insignificant information. Sometimes that happens because I have a “killer” illustration that “has” to be in the sermon, regardless of where it is inserted. What is the main theological concern of my preaching portion? Do I need to shine light on that concept? If so, then the illustration helps me clarify a main idea.
Second, however, is what Jesus’ illustrations says about interpreting the OT. Jesus’ understanding and use of the OT stories help us realize that they often mean something “more” (not entirely different) when they are interpreted in the context of “the rest of the Story.” Read 1 Kings 17:24, for instance. What Elijah accomplished through the miracle, Jesus was trying to create without a miracle. The miracles would soon follow, though, in Luke 4:31ff.