Preaching and Perspectives

When we preach, we present a perspective.  When we preach, we provoke a perspective.  Here are five perspective prompts to help us consider the perspective we give in our preaching:

1. God spoke vs God speaks

We need both perspectives.  We need to know that God has definitively revealed and communicated his very being through the incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit in revelation that we can access with confidence in our Bibles.  That canonized revelation is priceless and people need to be confident that we can stake our life and eternity on what it says in The Book.  At the same time we do not have a God who is far away and unengaged.  As we engage with the Bible we are engaging with God in the present.  Some preachers speak only as if God spoke long ago and far away.  Others preach as if God’s voice is heard predominantly today apart from the Bible.  Both extremes are problematic.  God spoke and through that, God still speaks.  Our mission is to offer both to our listeners.

2. My World vs The World

Ever since the Fall we have all fallen inward like human-shaped black holes. We naturally think our world is the whole world, when actually there is a whole lot going on beyond me.  As a preacher you address both.  You speak God’s Word into a personal sphere that God does, in fact, care deeply about.  God’s personal love and concern for each of us is nothing short of astonishing.  At the same time we all need to have our horizon expanded beyond the sphere of self to see there is so much more beyond my life, my issues, my concerns, my comfort. The preacher speaks a message that is intensely personal, yet also expansively global in scope.

3. Past vs Future

People live in the bubble of their present concerns.  Preachers point outside of that bubble.  We point back to the world of the Bible and God’s definitive invasion in the person of His Son.  The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection and the ascension are all definitive points in past history.  At the same time we point through preaching into the future to the historical moment when Christ will again enter into our world.  Past events, future events, all shaping our present lives.  Preachers point backwards and forwards and listeners need us to do both.
 
4. Under The Sun vs Under The Throne

We live our lives in light of what we can see, but there is more.  The preacher points to both.  As well as offering divine commentary and insight into the visible world around us, the preacher also pulls back the veil and shows the reality above.  Stephen lived, preached and died in a terrifying whir of political tensions and angry voices, but above the sky there was a reality that he got to glimpse before his death – the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the throne on high. Daniel 7 is such an important passage – while we live in the raging foment of kingdoms rising and falling, terrifying the saints and waging war against them, all the while there is a higher throne, God is on it, and judgment is given into the hands of a human who is there at the side of the throne.  We can live our lives and die our deaths in light of that reality … but preachers need to help people to see what is unseen.

5. Me vs Him

This may be the ultimate perspective issue in preaching.  People naturally focus on themselves and yet do not see clearly.  The preacher shines a light on the true self, and yet aims to draw the gaze of listeners away from self and to Christ.

In all of these ways preachers influence perspective through preaching.  Does your preaching lean one way and not the other in any of these categories?  Is there some perspective shift needed in you so that your preaching can bring about that good in others?

Life Now

Life2We can easily make the Martha mistake.  I don’t mean the Martha in the kitchen mistake though.  At the end of Luke 10 we see Martha graciously rebuked by Jesus for desperately trying to love her neighbor as her first priority, when she should have first loved the Lord and allowed Him to minister to her before she tried to minister to others.  We easily and maybe regularly make that Martha mistake, but I am not referring to that.

We can easily make the Martha in the street mistake.  In John 11 we see Jesus at a key point in his ministry coming to Bethany where Lazarus was ill and then died.  Martha runs to Jesus and expresses her grief, that if Jesus had been there, then Lazarus would not have died.  Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. But now Lazarus was dead and buried, Jesus was too late, and Martha understandably made a mistake.  What was it?

Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again. What do you say to a grieving sister?  Maybe this was just one of those platitudes that we hear at Christian funerals.  Comfort, but distant.  Martha took it that way.  She assumed that Jesus comes to us and points off into the distant future – comfort for the by and by.  She was mistaken.

When Jesus told Martha that “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was not just referring to the far off future.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was about to reinforce the Jerusalem leadership’s decision to kill him.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was soon to enter into death deliberately and with dignity.  And what she didn’t know was that in a few weeks this person stood before her would stand up and walk out of his own tomb as the conqueror of death.

If Martha could have seen the next few weeks, then she might have anticipated more in the next few minutes.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and Lazarus was about to be miraculously resuscitated after four days of stone cold death.

We can easily make the Martha mistake.  We can assume that Jesus comes to us in the tough times of life and ministry in order to point our hearts into the future – that far off time when we will be with him and all the tears will be wiped and the presence of sin dusted away and we will forever enjoy what we were made for, fellowship with the Trinity.  This is all true.  But this is not all.

Jesus comes to us in the midst of hurt, and sorrow, and challenge, and struggle, and betrayal, and fatigue, and tears . . . and he comes to give us life now.

Too many gospel presentations offer only a ticket to heaven when you die. And too many Christians are walking around with hope of comfort tied exclusively to that end of life anticipation.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who comes to us, by his Spirit, in the midst of the mess we experience.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who gives us life now.

Martha misunderstood the physical implications of Jesus meeting her that day.  We can misunderstand the spiritual implication of Jesus meeting us today.

As conqueror of death and Lord of life, what is it that Jesus offers us today as his beloved friends and family?  He offers us hope for the future and a new standing with God, of course.  But never let the good news diminish into a merely status-based future hope.  Jesus offers us the loving intimacy of the Trinity by the Spirit poured out into our hearts reassuring us of God’s love, urging us to call God our Abba.  Jesus offers us eternal life now, which is to enjoy fellowship with God our Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.  Jesus offers us transformed hearts, filled hearts, tenderly loved hearts.  Jesus offers us his presence, his comfort, his concern and his companionship.  Jesus offers us life, now.

I thank God for Martha.  Her mistake in the kitchen in Luke 10 is a mistake I make all the time.  Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha resonates deeply as a loving rebuke for me.  And her mistake in the street at Bethany in John 11 is a mistake I make all the time.  I too tend to live my life as if Jesus’ presence is nice today, but the difference Jesus offers lies off in the distant future.  Jesus lovingly corrected Martha’s grieving error by giving her the embrace of her brother that day.  Jesus lovingly wants to correct our similar error by giving us his embrace, today.  That is life, eternal life.  It is not only life forever then.  It is, in the midst of all the mess I experience, life now.

Preaching Christ Reveals the Father

crucifix2Too much preaching presents a false division between Father and Son.  That is, the Father can sound like an angry and distant despot who is grudgingly appeased by the Son’s sacrifice on behalf of sinners.  That is exactly wrong.

Jesus came not only to fulfil the mission of sacrifice, but also to fulfil the mission of revelation. If you have seen Jesus then you have seen the Father.  What does that mean? It means that Jesus died on the cross in our place in total humiliation because that is the heart of the Father for us. It means that in Christ we come to the Father as loved as the Son, not tolerated because of the Son. It means that the Father Himself loves us and hears our prayers.

Let’s not fall into the confusion of negative Father and friendly Son. Jesus reveals the Father to us, His humility, His love, His selflessness.

Star Wars, The Force of Nostalgia Awakens (and Preaching)

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens**There are no spoilers here**

The Force of Nostalgia Awakens. I jumped at the chance to go to the cinema and see the new Star Wars. I won’t spoil the storyline in this post, but I do want to ponder the key ingredient of this film’s success.  Nostalgia.

It is a very good film. Decent story. Good acting. Well made. But what is making this movie probably one of the most profitable of all time is its effective use of nostalgia. There is something profoundly satisfying about seeing familiar characters, familiar scenery, familiar scenes,  and familiar storylines.  (If you haven’t seen Star Wars yet, think about Rocky revisiting the ice rink in Rocky Balboa, the first glimpse of The Shire in The Hobbit, etc.  Nostalgia seems to be a growing currency in Hollywood!)

Now I could suggest that if the many very satisfying moments of nostalgia were removed from Star Wars, then it might not be lauded so highly, but that would be both unwise and unfair. Unwise because I would probably face a host of fans wanting to fight me to the death with their light sabers. Unfair because this Star Wars never asked to be judged minus the nostalgia.  (Unlike the previous 3 episodes that tried to build the franchise with poor stories and disappointing characters, this one has good story, good characters, etc., and deliberate use of the force of nostalgia.)

So with a good thumbs up to the movie, let’s ponder what we can learn in respect to our preaching and “nostalgia.”  In reality nostalgia is only a small part of what I am describing here – it is really the force of relational connections, our identification with characters. For the sake of simplicity, I will go with the term “nostalgia” because that was the overriding emotion generated in Star Wars.

1. Nostalgia is powerful.  There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of literature. Even non-narrative literature is part of the big narrative of the Bible. If we can tell the stories well, then nostalgia can become part of the force in preaching. This is not automatic, however. We need to think about preaching biblical material in such a way that people are engaged emotionally and not just cerebrally. Too much preaching rehearses old truths, but does not ignite the imagination of the listeners. Most people, in most of the world, for most of history, have had far more engaged imaginations than we do today. This means we need to pay attention to how we help listeners imagine and engage with the biblical story.

2. Nostalgia is never generated by facts alone. If Star Wars simply referenced facts from episodes 4-6, then we would not be discussing the force of nostalgia in this post. There is some traction in familiar scenery, scenes, score, and plotlines, but the force really awakens when characters are enfleshed. To see Han Solo and Chewbacca walk onto the screen is where viewers find themselves deeply stirred.  Why? Because we feel like we know them – old friends who we never thought we would see again, but they’re back!  The human heart engages with other persons in a unique and powerful way. When we preach, we too easily reduce characters to fact-lists. Nicodemus was a curious and maybe sympathetic Pharisee. Zaccheus was a diminutive rogue. Zechariah was a faithful priest. And even, God is a holy deity.  All very factual, but the person is not evident when the description is too flat. People’s hearts will respond to real people, but sadly many churchgoers encounter more “real person” in a brief encounter with a waiter at a restaurant than they did at church during the preaching of a biblical narrative.

3. Nostalgia is not universally forceful. While we would do well to ponder the potential impact of “nostalgia” in our preaching, this is no magic pill.  Nostalgia alone would not make Star Wars successful. In fact, for a first time viewer who doesn’t have a host of emotional ties to scenes from over three decades ago, this Star Wars would have to engage on a completely different level. In the same way, we can’t rely on “familiarity” or assumed character development from previous exposure when we preach. Let’s learn to preach so that listeners engage with characters and experience the stories so that there is opportunity to tap into the force of nostalgia, but good preaching has to be targeted at first-time hearers too. Be sure to preach in such a way that first-time hearers will encounter the Key Character in the Bible,  be drawn to Him and become candidates for nostalgic responses in future biblical preaching!

Christmas Preaching and the Nitty Gritty of Life

day 15Too easily our Christmas preaching can slide toward quaint and familiar yore. The Christmas story can feel like a very familiar old fable with all its beautiful and eclectic characters. Yet the first Christmas was a time of great confusion.

Let’s not rush to a post-Christmas presentation of the Gospel, or a present-day application of the Gospel. Let’s consider how entering into their world could give us profoundly relevant insights into the good news of Jesus’ birth.

The shepherds needed guidance from the angel to know that they could even go and meet this child born to be king. If it weren’t for the information about the manger they would have remained in the fields impressed by the vision they’d seen.

The journey of the Magi might have been longer than a lifetime of our journey’s put together. All because of a star and some prophecies in potentially foreign documents – that was quite the complex situation.

For Mary and Joseph there was the information from Gabriel, which answered the big and obvious question, but it left a lot unsaid. What would they say to others? Would they ever be able to live life in the town they knew? How would things go with their families, and those who Joseph relied on for work? So many questions in the nitty gritty side of life.

And yet the Christmas story gave them what they needed. They knew about God’s kindness, God’s faithfulness, God’s with-us-ness, God’s plan to deliver people from their sins, etc.

As we preach Christmas this Christmas, lets think about tapping into the reality of that first Christmas to stand shoulder to shoulder with Mary, with Joseph, etc., and to look toward Jesus and all that he means. Let’s feel the complexity of their lives and discover that in the numerous unanswered questions in our lives we can also share their soul posture and trust God.

Let Christmas Improve Your Preaching

designI just wrote a brief devotional post stirred by the quote from Pleased to Dwell in the image. You can click here to go to that post. This quote stirs a preaching thought:

How can Christmas improve our preaching?

Think about Moses for a moment. Moses was a great prophet. Not because he was eloquent (he was not). Not because he was confident (again, he was often not). If you boil it down, Moses was a great prophet because we read of how he, time and again, met with God face-to-face. Moses could speak of the God he was representing because he knew that God. It wasn’t just a knowledge of Scriptures or theology, it was a personal repeated encounter with God himself.

Most of us have probably never had the experience Moses enjoyed. But that does not mean we should preach as purveyors of facts. We are called into God’s presence in a way that was not possible in Moses’ day. We are called to know God in a way that was not possible back then.

Christmas has changed things. The greater prophet than Moses, one who has spent far more time watching the Father and hearing his words, the ultimate prophet has come into our world. Jesus not only brings us the ultimate revelation, he has also created the ultimate access. Because we can be united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can boldly approach the heavenly throne at any time. Because we are united to Jesus by the Spirit, we can know the heart of God more clearly than ever before.

Christmas is critical to understanding the ministry we now have. We don’t speak facts only about a distant God. We speak of a God we can know personally. We speak of a God we can meet with day by day and speak with as a man speaks with his friend. And when Christmas so saturates our understanding of everything that we dwell closely with the God who wants to dwell with us, then when we preach we will be able to represent him better than ever before.

Let Christmas Preaching Point Deeper

AdventDay2Christmas sermons can feel a little bit superficial. Nostalgic Christmas card scenes described with platitudes about peace on earth, etc. If we are not careful, we can miss a great opportunity to preach the gospel to visitors who may only come to church at this time of year.

The traditional way to get to the Gospel in our Christmas preaching is to paint an arrow from the crib to Calvary. This is certainly an important link to make. By all means let folks know why Jesus chose to come and where it was all headed.

But maybe in our eagerness to move the story forwards, we may be missing something. After all, our listeners may not be as surprised by the cross as we seem to think they will be.  Maybe they anticipate hearing about those old Bible stories and maybe they find Christmas and the Cross to be two of the familiar facts about Jesus. If so, then it can still all feel very “long ago and far away.”

Perhaps people might be surprised to discover that Christianity actually speaks to the heart of their daily struggle.

For instance, ever since the Fall we have all been saturated in the brine of self-solutions. I can get my act together. I should work my way out of this. I need to turn over a new leaf. I am the master of my own destiny. I, I, I.

Add in the Gospel and people may find it slightly foreign and a little irrelevant.  Maybe Jesus can bring peace on earth in some hypothetical future, but how does that help this week? It doesn’t stop wars today and my life is still a struggle.

So this Christmas, instead of simply drawing a line from Jesus’ birth to death, why not pause and ponder if there is a way to reveal an underlying theological issue that people feel. How about this – Christmas points away from “what-must-we-do” to “who-can-we-trust.”  And we need that.

Please take a look at a brief devotional post on this issue, it might help with your Christmas preaching this year.  Click here to go to the site dedicated to Pleased To Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation.

God With Us: A Nazarene?

Pleased-to-Dwellv5Would you carry the label, Nazarene?  For some, it is just one of the more obscure labels for Jesus or His followers.  For many believers in the Middle East today, it means the most extreme persecution and terrifying uncertainty.  For all of us, it should prompt us to consider the One who invested the label with such profound significance.

Matthew’s infancy narrative ends with Joseph taking Mary and Jesus back to Nazareth, “so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23)  Is this a low-key transition to the rest of the Gospel, or is it a fitting climax for the whole birth narrative?

Moving Back To Nazareth

Joseph’s flight to Egypt was short-lived. The tyrant Herod died shortly after the massacre in Bethlehem. So God directed Joseph back to the land, specifically to Nazareth.  Joseph knew of the challenges facing the family in the town that thought it knew Joseph and Mary all too well.

How could Joseph rebuild his business when everyone doubted his word on the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception? How would Mary face the comments as she returned, ‘the virgin’ with her baby boy?

Perhaps Joseph planned a fresh start in Bethlehem, but Herod’s replacement made that difficult.  Maybe Galilee made sense after all. Still, it took divine direction for Joseph to go back to Nazareth.

Joseph was directed to Israel, the land of the Jews. Then he was directed to Galilee. Still Jewish territory, but Galilee had a high number of Gentiles and was scorned by the ‘better Jews’ of Judea. This Messiah was not just for the Jews, but for the Gentiles too. In fact, by growing up in Nazareth, we will see that He was for all of us.

The Place of No Good Thing: Nazareth

Matthew mentions Nazareth three more times. After a passing reference in 4:13-16, then comes 21:11. Jesus’ triumphal entry so stirred Jerusalem that the locals asked the crowds who He was. The visiting Galilean crowds replied that this was the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth. Probably not what the locals wanted to hear!

Finally, in 26:71, Peter was in the courtyard of Annas’ house when he was identified as an accomplice of Jesus of Nazareth. Was there venom in that label? Probably, since Peter was again confronted due to his Galilean accent. To be from Nazareth was not a positive thing in Judea. In fact, it was not a good thing, even in Galilee!

Nazareth was five miles from Sepphoris, the strongest military centre in Galilee. It was on a branch of the great caravan route to Damascus. For traders, soldiers and travellers, Nazareth was just a rest stop on the way to somewhere better.

Essentially, Jesus grew up in Nowhere, Galilee. Was this the next best thing since God’s plan A (Bethlehem) had been thwarted by troublesome Herodian rulers? Not at all. God directed Joseph so that Jesus was brought up in Nazareth. This meant that the Messiah born in Bethlehem would always be called the Nazarene.

The Prophets Fulfilled

Where does the Old Testament say the Messiah will be raised in Nazareth, or be called a Nazarene? Nowhere. Interestingly, Matthew refers to the prophets, plural, when he writes of prophetic fulfillment (2:23). Perhaps several options should be combined to get a composite sense of Matthew’s subtlety here:

Jesus was, perhaps, to be considered a Nazirite (Nazir)—a chosen holy one set apart for God’s service from His mother’s womb.

Furthermore, Jesus was the Messianic ‘branch’ (Neser)—the Davidic branch of Jeremiah 23:5/33:15, who would reign in righteousness; the branch who would be a priest and a king, rebuilding the temple, as in Zechariah 6:12; the branch from Jesse’s stump anticipated in Isaiah 11:1 (part of the great royal Immanuel section).

Maybe we don’t have to choose, perhaps Matthew is making two great themes converge: the deliverer is both priest and king.  Perhaps we have come full circle back to the Immanuel prophecy of 1:22-23.

Joseph called His name Jesus in chapter 1, and by the end of chapter 2 Joseph brings Him to Nazareth so that all would call Him a Nazarene. This child, the son of

Abraham, son of David, son of God, is to be known by all people, forever, as the Nazarene!

Actually, was Matthew pointing to a location, rather than a subtlety in the name? After all, every Old Testament citation in Matthew 2 pointed to a location: Bethlehem, an allusion to ‘the nations’, Egypt, Ramah, and now, Nazareth.

Whether it is a reference to his person, or his hometown, the label is stunningly unimpressive.  This priest-king is exceedingly lowly.

A Reputation Worth Carrying?

Jesus knew what it was to be poor. He was not sheltered in an ivory tower, protected from the ‘dross of society’. He lived in the midst of it all, and He carried it as His label.

Jesus was a very common name at that time, so He needed an identifier. Who was His Dad? That was complicated. What was His job? Again, not easy. So where was He from? Nazareth became the label typically appended to His name.

We see Nazareth mentioned in Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:51); as He called His disciples (John 1:45-46) – remember Nathanael’s sarcastic question: ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’; as the location of choice for launching his preaching ministry (Luke 4:16).

His subsequent visit to a synagogue in Capernaum sees Him identified as Jesus of Nazareth by an unclean spirit, who also acknowledges that He is the Holy One of God. Jesus accepts the label, but silences the spirit once His heavenly identity is declared (Mark 1:24-25; Luke 4:34-35).

As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem, blind Bartimaeus recognizes the Nazareth label (Mark 10:47; Luke 18:37-38); then it is used in His arrest, (John 18:5); during Jesus’ trial it is used disparagingly of Peter (see also Mark 14:67); and even in His death, Pilate’s inscription reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”

After His resurrection the two disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus refer to Jesus as being ‘of Nazareth’ (Luke 24:19). Fair enough, their hopes had been dashed.

But even the angel in the tomb used the label! Surely an angel sent from God could come up with something better!? (Mark 16:6)

Even after His ascension Jesus continues to bear the lowly label ‘of Nazareth.’ Peter’s Pentecost sermon climaxes with Jesus as Lord and Christ, but it launches with Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22).

The lame man is healed, not in the name of the risen and ascended Christ, but in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:6; 4:10). Stephen’s accusers use the label (Acts 6:14). Peter tells Gentiles that God anointed and was with the Nazarene (Acts 10:38).

Then we discover that Jesus used the label of Himself when He appeared to Paul at His conversion (Acts 22:8)! This had been the name opposed by Paul in his days of Christian persecution (Acts 26:9), and indeed even Jesus’ followers bore the disparaging label (Acts 24:5).

Conclusion

God was with this Jesus of Nazareth. And in His willingness to carry this label in ministry up north and down south, in His arrest, His crucifixion, His resurrection and even in His ascension, this Jesus of Nazareth was most assuredly ‘with us.’

Immanuel, God with us. Not just near us, in some nice palace somewhere. But with us, like ‘in Nazareth’ with us. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. He came to be with us, so that He could be for us. And He is forever with us, for He still carries the lowliest of labels. It was all part of God’s plan, that He should be called a Nazarene.

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Adapted from Pleased to Dwell: A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation, by Peter Mead (Christian Focus, September 2014).  For more information on the book, please visit www.trinitytheology.net  [Used with permission from Christian Focus.]

Dan Hames: What is Grace?

Daniel HamesDan Hames is a curate at St Aldates, Oxford, as well as a PhD student at VU Amsterdam.  He also helps look after articles, talks, and a podcast at UnionTheology.org.  If you haven’t spent some time on the Union Theology site, you are missing a treat.  I am thankful to Dan for this guest post on the subject of God’s grace.

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Grace. It’s what your grandma says before dinner. It’s the way a ballet dancer floats across the stage. It’s a polite person reacting coolly to criticism. It’s also one of those theology words that we don’t often explain.

When I was naughty as a boy, I used to think that God could show me mercy, which simply meant he wouldn’t strike me with a bolt of lightning. Or he could show me grace, which was that, on top of sparing me, he would actually be nice to me. As I grew as a Christian, I began to see that grace was something more fundamental in God. God loves to give his grace. His undeserved kindness to us is the whole shape and flavour of the gospel. I was encouraged to ‘trust grace’, ‘love grace’, and ‘preach grace’. God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. Unmerited favour. A gift we don’t deserve.

So is that grace? I’ve come to believe it’s even better than that. In John 14:23, Jesus says something quite remarkable, ‘My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ In the gospel, God isn’t kind to us by just giving us forgiveness, a sense of purpose in life, a family in the Church, and the hope of heaven. He gives us himself through Jesus.

Grace isn’t a thing God ladles out like a dinner lady with custard; it’s not even the generous frame of mind he’s in when he hands out blessings to us like a supermarket Santa. God’s grace is that he loves you and has made his home with you by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s not God’s riches, but God. From the moment of your salvation, the living God moved in with you and will stay with you through your whole life, and beyond your death into eternal glory.

Let’s encourage our hearts by thinking less about the word ‘grace’ in the abstract and more about the gracious God who shows mercy, blesses, and loves the undeserving – but who most of all gives them himself.