I’ve never looked forward to preaching at Christmas time. Then R. T. France made it worse: “There is a significant mismatch between what most Christmas congregations expect to hear and what Matthew and Luke were primarily interested in conveying in their opening chapters. They did not write to tell the story of how Jesus was born….do congregations today either need or want to be convinced from Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah promised to the Jews….Is this what our Christmas congregations have come for?” (pp. 39-41 in his chapter, Preaching on the Infancy Narratives, in Preaching The New Testament).
For the past several years, I’ve started my homiletics classes with an audio clip of the introduction of an infant narrative sermon. The preacher introduces us to lessons we can learn about marriage from the interaction between Mary and Joseph as a result of Mary’s visit from Gabriel. Well, what do the infant narratives mean for the Church?
Well, certainly, at times Mary and Joseph are good examples to follow. We should emulate their faith. We should follow their devotion to God. The focus, however, seems to be on the information we receive about Jesus and His mission. Jesus is God’s promised Messiah who will do exactly what God said He would do. You know that and most of your congregants know that. Christmas sermons are a great time to urge us all to believe the descriptions about Jesus. Christmas sermons are a great time to help us all evaluate the extent to which our lives reflect faith in Jesus.
Along with misguided moralizing (e.g., lessons on marriage), Christmas sermons are also potentially dangerous because we can get so immersed in the details of the Story, we forget why Luke, for instance, included them in his Gospel. Gabriel told Mary that her Son would “be great” (Luke 1:32). Ask your parishioners if they believe that He is great. Ask them if their experience shows evidence of having such a great Savior.
What aspects of preaching at Christmas time are easy for you? What aspects are difficult?
Chapter 7 of Wright’s book, Simply Christian, begins: “Christianity is about something that happened. Something that happened to Jesus of Nazareth. Something that happened through Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, Christianity is not about a new moral teaching….This is not to deny that Jesus, and some of his first followers, gave some wonderfully bracing and intelligent moral teaching. it is merely to insist that we find teaching like that within a larger framework: the story of things that happened through which the world was changed” (p. 91).
However, as I listen to sermons, it appears that we’re teaching congregants that Christianity is primarily a new moral teaching. That is largely due to the fact that we consistently separate the instruction from the Story. I recently heard a sermon on anger that made no connection to what happened to Jesus. That’s why there was also no connection to what happened to Believers through Jesus. You’ve heard them; you’ve probably preached them–the five ways to manage anger-type sermons. According to Wright, such a sermon cuts out the crux of Christianity. I stop preaching moralistic sermons when I place the teaching of my preaching portion in history. So, back to the sermon I heard: Because something happened to Jesus and through Jesus, Believers can be angry and not sin.
Then, would you give five ways to manage anger? Just wondering…
Last month, Michele and I made our trek to the Evangelical Homiletics Society annual conference. This year it was hosted by Talbot Seminary on the campus of Biola University near Los Angeles. The conference theme was, Spirit-led Preaching, and our plenary speaker was Jack Hayford. If you’re not familiar with Jack’s ministry, he is probably the most well-known and well-respected Pentecostal pastor in the U.S. The plenary sessions contained heavy doses of anecdotes, sprinkled with insightful one-liners. Hayford, for instance, described praying over your preaching portion as “interfacing with the One who breathed the Book.” In preparing to study he would pray, “Let me breathe in what you breathed on.”
Hayford gave me a passion for the Spirit’s active presence in my study. He helped me realize that my grammatical-historical-literary-rhetorical-theological method is inadequate. Hayford firmly believes that a passion for the Spirit’s active presence in my study contributes what good study habits can’t (the concept is his; I added and emphasized the word, active). He made me a believer, too. I’m sure you know that it is the Holy Spirit, for instance, that brings the Word alive. Think about what difference, if any, exists between the interpretation of an unregenerate scholar and a Spirit-led scholar. Then, think about the difference between a sermon preached by an unregenerate preacher compared with a sermon preached by a Spirit-led preacher.
Except for the grace of God, it’s possible that I could be working in my study just like a non-Christian theologian/pastor. I have been trained fairly well and possess adequate study skills. But, in the end, those study skills are inadequate. I want to buttress them with a passion for the Spirit’s active presence in my study and during the sermon. So, I’m trying to remember to pray for the:
- Spirit’s help before I begin studying
- Spirit’s help during my study
- Spirit to change me during my study
- Spirit to show me Christ and how faith in His work sanctifies (cf. John 16:14 “He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”)
- Spirit’s help right before I preach so that my learning and growing occurs in the moment.
Share your ideas about Spirit-led preaching.
I recently read the lead article of Crosswalk.com’s newsletter which arrived in my inbox on November 1, 2013. The article was, How to Spot a Healthy Church–Quickly, by Ray Pritchard. Ray suggests there are two indicators of a healthy church that visitors can spot immediately. The first one is hearty congregational singing. The second one caught my attention: obvious affection between the pastor and the congregation. It made me wonder what we can do while we preach to show genuine affection.
I’m a firm believer that people skills have a greater affect on a sermon’s hearing than exegetical skills. I must love my listeners as much as, if not more than, I love to study and preach to them. And the affect of interpersonal relationships on communication are well documented. Every communication event, including preaching, contains a content element and a relational element. The relational element affects how we receive the content and what we do with it. When our relationship with our congregants is healthy, they place more importance on our content. When our relationship is unhealthy, they place less importance on our content. In an unhealthy relationship, the words don’t mean as much or the same thing we intend. That’s part of the reason why when two people are arguing during tense times, you’ll hear something like, “That’s not what I meant!”
So, what can we do to let our listeners know we love them while we’re preaching?
- smile at them
- laugh with them
- dialogue with them (besides being an effective teaching tool, dialogue during a teaching time is a great way to build rapport)
- tell them (say things like, “you know I love you dearly…”, at appropriate times
- join them as a fellow struggler on the Way
- (add some others…)
Does your faith-family know you love them? Let it show while you’re preaching. Our best listeners are the ones who feel the love.
If you’ve preached in church for a while and watched your listeners, you’ve probably noticed that some don’t listen. I realize some may be faking it; they may actually be listening even though they look like they’ve checked out. However, it is a reality of pastoral preaching that some parishioners don’t listen. Some do not hear God’s Word, don’t receive God’s Word, and are not changed by it. It’s very easy to get upset with them.
In Luke 9:54, Jesus’ disciples, James and John (a.k.a., sons of thunder!) ask Him, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” What a way to react to those who don’t listen! Yikes! Jesus’ abridged answer: “But he turned and rebuked them” (v. 55). That’s it. Ryken says, “it was still time for mercy.”
What were they thinking? Well, they were protecting Jesus; their Lord was being insulted. They were extremely zealous for God and for souls (OK, at least they were extremely zealous for God). It’s easy for us pastors to harbor ill-will towards those who don’t listen. It’s extremely difficult for us to shepherd people we wished weren’t there! However, Jesus made it very clear that His disciples’ plan of attack was inappropriate. Later on in Luke 23:34 we read our Lord saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” May our Lord extend grace to help us love those who don’t listen.
My friend, Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla, has written an excellent book, Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic For Preaching (Moody). In his attempt to interact with the subject of Christ-centered preaching, Abe presents a fresh angle on application. He advocates what he calls, Christiconic interpretation, utilizing the Greek word, eikon, in Romans 8:29. “God’s goal for his children is, ultimately, to conform them into the image…of his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who perfectly exemplified ‘faith-full’ obedience. He alone fulfilled divine demand. Thus every pericope [every portion of Scripture you select to preach] points to a facet of the image of Christ; to that facet God’s people are to conform, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (p. 269).
I found the discussion helpful because it gives me a way to tie sermon application to the larger picture of God’s goal for every Christian. It also helps me realize that the divine demand in every preaching portion is calling me to one slice of the life of Christ. Without this angle, it’s possible that we will only talk in terms of morality. Abe’s angle on application helps keep application distinctly Christian.
For instance, the wisdom and humility of Christ is displayed in Luke 9:49-50 “John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.’” When I encouraged us to adopt the humility that does not attack other Christians and other ministries, I was urging us to take on part of the image of Christ. He was secure in His relationship with God and wise enough to have such perspective and balance. God wants the same for His children.
What part of the image of Christ did your preaching portion call you and your people to yesterday?
Some of you recognize the young Cassius Clay in the above picture. He once said: “I said I was great, even before I knew I was.”
In Luke 9:46-48 Jesus teaches that we must all be great in order to qualify as a Kingdom-of-God citizen. Here is another example of the need to add theological thinking to your exposition (see August 13, 2013 post) and to thicken your sermon with theology (see October 7, 2013 post). Like many of Jesus’ parables (and I take it that this instruction is a quasi-parable), Jesus ends the teaching in a way that forces us to evaluate whether or not our faith is well-executed. In this case a well-executed faith replaces arrogance and ambition with true humility. This is required of all true Believers and we must explain this to our listeners so all of them can be counted among the great that get into God’s Kingdom.
This requires us to show the connection between saving faith and a certain kind of lifestyle, something that occurs throughout Jesus’ teaching. According to v. 48 anyone who receives a child in Jesus’ name receives Jesus, which is equal to receiving God (“…receives him who sent me…”). By the way, virtually no one in our churches thinks of being saved as receiving God. Most all think of receiving Jesus. The attitude and accompanying action of receiving a child in Jesus’ name is synonymous with being “least.” And being “least” is being “great” (according to God’s criteria of greatness). Craddock writes, “Whoever welcomes the lowliest has shown humility appropriate to the kingdom.” The humility authenticates our faith in Christ. The humble are great in God’s Kingdom.
I think most of us preaching Luke 9:46-48 would do fairly well explaining why the disciples’ argument about who was the greatest among them was ugly and completely inappropriate. I think we would explain the significance of receiving the child. I hope that we would also preach in such a way that our parishioners would feel compelled to make the same choice Jesus’ hearers were forced to make: “Am I going to be great by grace that makes me least?” If you follow Jesus’ theology and logic, you will inevitably urge the proper response that constitutes worship during the teaching time.