Yesterday, I got to preach the hardest sermon I’ve gotten to preach (so far).
The text is Matthew 25:31-46, what is commonly called “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats”. It’s also the one where Jesus shows up as a naked and hungry beggar and prisoner. It’s one of the most difficult, confusing, and doubt-inducing texts in the Gospels. Let me know what you think. Sermon cameos include Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Martin Luther, and homeless Jesus. Here’s the audio:
Believe it or not, even after preaching my first real sermon ever, my church let me preach again. All jokes aside, I had the honor of preaching this past Sunday as part of our Advent series.
The text is Luke 1:26-38, the moment in the life of Jesus known as The Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. Cameos in the sermon include Mary, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Barth, the podcast Serial, racism, white privilege, and the story of everything. Here’s the audio:
Sure, I’ve done some lectures, taught some classes, led a home group, and preached a sermon in a seminary class, but I’ve long believed that there was something truly sacred and “other” about preaching to a church family in a gathered worship service. And it’s something I had never done.
I’ve always been an over-zealous guy, and very wise leaders have pulled the leash on me, telling me to just sit and watch for a while, until the time was right to put me in front. This has continued through my life at my church in Philly, as they’ve slowly discipled me and loosened the leash bit by bit in service to our people.
Well this past week I had the honor of preaching my first Sunday morning sermon to my church family. It felt good and I myself experienced such a grace and blessing in preparing for it and offering it to my brothers and sisters. And so, I’d like to share it with all of you as well.
It’s the final sermon in our series “Finding Freedom” that went through the Ten Commandments. The text is Matthew 7:13-29, the very end of the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the audio:
Believe it or not, I don’t really have much experience at all in preaching. Yeah, I’ve spoken and “preached” at some things, but I’ve still never offered the preached proclamation at a Sunday worship service. It’s an area I’ve wanted to grow in for a while.
To that end, I took a preaching class last semester for my seminary program. It was a powerful course that changed my whole relationship to both the Bible and the act of preaching. Each of us wrote and presented a sermon on an assigned text. The sermons were recorded, and I’m offering mine here today. It opens with some brief words on the context I had in mind when preparing this.
Special thanks also to an old friend, J. Chord Barnes of ASERWorks Media, for fixing some audio issues in the original recording and remastering it for me. Check him out at the link above. Continue reading
Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.
Wow, here’s the whole Trinity at work in leading God’s church! Would that we give more attention to this Trinitarian nature to the sustaining of our churches. Also, notice how Jesus’ blood “obtained” the Church. He didn’t merely create the space of possibility. He went out and got it. It is is his.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
—1 Corinthians 2.1-5
This encourages me so much in preaching. No matter the exegesis, eloquence, or whatever, we preach Christ and him crucified, and that makes a good sermon. We also live a life in accordance with that outside of the sermon and it supports our preaching as well. Just as in the nature of God Himself, our words and our deeds cannot be separated from one another.
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.
When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.”
Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
This is in contrast to Paul’s later methods at Mars Hill in Chapter 17. Here we see that not every “contextualization” is created equal. Sometimes, your “relevance” could be dragging people to worship yourself or false idols. As preachers, we should always be on the lookout for this, and to constantly speak against it.
On another note, that bold part (v.15) should be the model for every single sermon.
If I’ve learned anything the past few years, it’s that Evangelical Fundamentalism is absolutely right: as I’ve embraced more and more what conservatives often label a “liberal” view of the Bible, it really has negatively affected my spiritual and devotional life.
When you think the Bible is itself the “infallible, inerrant, Word of God”–when you think that the precise words themselves hold a magical power–you do approach the Bible with a greater amount of awe, respect, and mysticism. I’ve written before how it wasn’t until college that I read any of the Gospels on my own, because I had this fear of reading the “literal, unfiltered” words of Jesus. They seemed so big and other-worldly to me.
I’ve loved the Bible my whole life. I still have the first Bible I was ever given as a child. I still vividly remember the evening on my parent’s bed after they had read a Psalm that had been stuck in the middle of the stories about David that it finally clicked for me that the Bible wasn’t just narratives, but also poems and other kinds of writing.
My Southern Baptist upbringing has got it engrained in me that my entire spiritual and devotional life should revolve around this book. No matter how much I tell myself otherwise, something in me always has (and always will) “evaluate” my spiritual health by how I engage the Scriptures, in both quantity and quality.
All last week I was in Holland, MI attending another one of our in-person sessions for my seminary program. It was another week with amazing people, at an amazing place, learning and discussing amazing things.
One of that classes I had was my preaching class. Over the course of five days, every one of us in the class got up and preached a 15-20 minute sermon. Every person–again, every. single. person.–did amazingly well. There were many surprises. People delivered messages that we could not have anticipated, in both skill and content.
Imagine listening to 14 full-on sermons in the course of a few days. It’s emotionally draining; it’s intense; it’s life-giving. It’s trying to drink from a fire hose of God’s Word and Spirit.
One benefit of this is that I got to get a glimpse into the future of the Church’s preaching ministry, and I am happy to say that I am really encouraged.
For my preaching class, we’ve been trying to get at what this weird thing called “preaching” really is. It’s not a lecture, it’s a not a conversation, it’s not a debate. So what is it? Here are some of my random thinking on this. But I’d love to hear yours.
As much as I want something far more profound and original, I have not been able to find anything simpler and clearer than Alan of Lille‘s definition: “Preaching is an open and public instruction in faith and behavior, whose purpose is the forming of men [sic].”
First: Our worship is a participation, mediated by the Spirit, in Christ’s Communion with the Father.
In this Trinitarian picture of worship, where does preaching fit in? Well, there is an eternal “conversation” happening among all the members of the Trinity. The divine words of Creation are presented as an “overflow” of this divine conversation. So to me, preaching is a Spirit-“infused” (and humanly articulated) mediation of the words between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Because the Spirit enables our union with Jesus, and because Jesus is joined to the Father, we find ourselves mystically and intimately in union with the whole Trinitarian God Himself. And so, preaching is–in a sense and at its best–an articulation and “listening in” on this eternal “trialogue” within the Godhead.
The world having been created through and for the Son means that the Father’s words to the Son are now his words to and for us. And this Word that is spoken to the Son by the Father is the Gospel. When it is offered to humans, this eternal, mysterious articulation of the Gospel in the Godhead is always mediated and contextualized in order to be received and perceived by the hearer. This is why the Bible is the way it is.
Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.
—1 Corinthians 4.2-5
What does this mean? At least right now, my instinct is to take it like this: outside of clear sin issues, we should not divide and judge other Church leaders (nor effusively favor them). If you can’t find clear sin issues in their lives, churches, or teaching, then don’t demean their doctrine, style, gifting, or missional emphases. In the same way, though, even if there are no clear sin issues going on, don’t exalt them because of their doctrine, style, gifting, or Missional emphasis.
If a church doesn’t fit for you, fine. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. But don’t bad-mouth, criticize, gossip, complain, or be overly-sensitive and judgmental at them. To both conservatives and liberals, neither of us should criticize other members of the family, no matter how kooky they are–not even for what we feel is “bad” teaching. “Sinful” teaching, however is another issue. Clear historical heresy, teaching that abuses and harms the dignity of humanity, and things like prosperity preaching are examples of things that should be judged harshly and criticized.
This seminary semester, I’m taking classes on both Preaching and the Emotional/Spiritual/Psychological Identity of Pastors. So yeah, get used to seeing more posts like this on the blog. This week, in my “Pastor class” we did readings and had a lecture on “vocational hazards” and discerning one’s “call” to ministry. We were asked about what challenges and encourages us most about this possibility of being “called” to serve the Church in pastoring. Here were my thoughts.
The biggest fear going into this course–and reinforced in the lecture–is the whole question of whether it is my “False Self” that is called, rather than my True Self. I have spent much of my life following Spurgeon’s (I think) advice that if you feel called to ministry at all, try to do everything else in your life you possibly could do. If you still end up in ministry, then congratulations, you were called.
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons— not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”
—1 Corinthians 5.9–13
Oh what a loving and common sense principal for how to engage the sexual immorality of others. Paul sounds like such a liberal (or the Pope, haha) here when he says that it is not his place to judge or condemn those outside the church. He in essence says that they are acting exactly as they should act. There should be no shock, surprise, or offence at “the culture” acting like “the culture”. No railing against the immorality of society. Instead, work to foster purity among the people of God. We are to be more eager to spend time with the “immoral” outside the church then the immoral inside the church.