This is a rather lengthy blog post because it includes notes that I used for a sermon this morning at this church. Before today I knew next to nothing about the church, its building or its people. I’d been asked to take the service by my current placement supervisor. He was in attendance, too, and tomorrow morning there will be a post mortem.
It was good fun. As far as I know (pre-post mortem) there were no disasters. Everyone greeted me with encouragements at the end, and some folks even picked up on some of the things I tried to say. Apparently, my heartbeat was picked up by the radio mic, which was resting on my sternum. Everyone could hear feedback that sounded like that noise you get at the end of an LP record. I’m told the signs of life are good; I was remarkably calm and cool given my role as guest preacher man.
It’s interesting leading services and preaching in new, unknown, churches. Looking at my notes from such occasions, including the notes below, I tend to prepare ‘utility sermons’. Sermons that are neither expository nor narrative sermons. Sermons that don’t really say anything, don’t really teach as such… what, in fact, do these sermons do? Are they the Word of God, or even gospel sermons, in any sense?
One person commented that I was provocative. And, I guess that’s all I try to do in these situations. I try to provoke thought, while offering some encouragement for people to think that they’re not wasting their time listening to me. After all, I am the guest of these people, and they are people who belong to, and attend, a church of Jesus Christ. Who am I to burst in with all sorts of weird, wonderful, and innovative preaching?
I’ve got hopes and dreams for how I would preach and teach in a settled situation. I’d aim for a mix of short, sharp, and snappy devotional sermons along side longer ‘teaching’ sermons, classic ‘expository preaching’ sermons, evangelistic talks, and thematic/topical thoughts for the day. People need a mixed and varied diet to remain healthy – in preaching and teaching terms, perhaps this requires more than one preacher/teacher.
All the same, I often think about how my style of preaching changes from situation to situation. Is such preaching really preaching at all? Can you find the gospel in any of the thoughts and words below?
(The notes are rough – and, in publishing them, I’m opening myself to all sorts of possible inquiry and misconception. But, for all that, what you read below are the words I had in front of me. Those bits in italics were missed out completely in my flow of thought during the delivery – other parts were paraphrased as I spoke – bold sections were read out to get the point across. I was told that I spoke for 19 minutes (thanks, DM!) The bible readings in the service were Ps10 and Luke 13:1-17 – my choice.)
(Read the final verse of the Luke 13 reading)
It’s an interesting time to be a Christian minister or a student minister, or to be someone who has to preach, teach or give talks in all sorts of Christian or church settings.
Have you noticed the increasing fascination with spiritual and religious matters? You see it in all sorts of ways, and all sorts of places. And, most of it is pretty vague.
Some of you will watch Deal or No Deal. Don’t you just love that show – it’s compulsive... (describe?)
My head tells me that the game is really a game of chance – it all comes down to luck whether or not you get rid of the low boxes first – but it’s incredibly clever how Noel Edmunds manages to hype up the contestants so that they have a positive attitude all the time.
He was on Parkinson a few months ago – and he explained his philosophy of life, a philosophy which says – there are good things waiting for you, just have right attitude and they will happen. The universe is stored with positive energy, you just need to have the right frame of mind to plug into it. Edmunds has had his ups and downs, he’s incredible successful, a very wealthy man. And yet, he puts his recent success down to a spiritual way of life, an almost supernatural approach.
But, it’s not just new spirituality – people are being exposed to more and more stuff about the traditional religions, including Christianity, and more and more about Jesus Christ in particular.
Look at Hollywood – more and more big budget films refer to Christian things – some are blatant – like The Passion of the Christ. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was praised and panned in like measure by different critics because it was so strongly based on the Christian view of life.
Others are more subtle – I’m told that in the new Superman film, Superman isn’t just a superhero – he’s a messiah, a saviour, sent by his Father into the world to save the world from itself, and from the evil Lex Luther. I don’t need to explain the Da Vinci Code – if you haven’t read the book itself, or seen the film, you must have read one of the dozens of books about it.
Think about the political world – on the one hand, it seems that you need to be a Christian to become a leading politician. The British government is full of Christians – the leader of the free world, Bush, is a Christian – before Bush, Clinton was a Christian.
On the other hand, these leaders are getting involved in all sorts of complicated issues that mean asking big questions about what we believe about the world – how can Christians, Jews, Muslims, live together in peace? How can governments recognise and protect the religious beliefs of all people, while protecting citizens from so-called extremists? How long before people are not allowed to express their opinions unless those opinions are politically correct?
Big questions in a world with a growing awareness of spirituality, a growing awareness of the different traditional religions – whether that’s Christianity or Islam, or some other brand. I’m only going to attempt one question this morning.
What was Jesus like? What did Jesus think? What message did Jesus speak into his world? Some of my friends have little wristbands - WWJD – What would Jesus do?
I prefer WDJD – what did Jesus do? It strikes me that for all the interest in stuff like this, in all the confusion and information overload, few people seriously look at what we know and believe about Jesus.
So, I want to suggest two things about Jesus and his message – so that we don’t allow ourselves to follow another Jesus, a made up Jesus, a Mel Gibson Jesus, a Da Vinci Code Jesus, or a C.S. Lewis Jesus.
First, the bad news. I’ve been watching the golf the last two days. One of the commentators told a story about a press conference at the US Masters. A guy called Mike Weir had just won, and the conference was packed with journalists trying to get a question in – this one journalist got his chance, and the question he asked Mike Weir, ‘How did you get the nickname, Weirsy?’ Weirsy, how did you get your nickname?
Well, it looks like Jesus probably had to deal with stupid questions – people loved to ask Jesus questions – but so often they asked questions that were either silly or pointless or both.
That’s what happens in the first section of our NT reading this morning – people come to ask Jesus about the lastest headline news, and it was pretty gruesome stuff… and, from they way Jesus responds, it looks like people were speculating – why did this happen?, what does it mean?, what did the people do to deserve such a fate?, where was God in all this?
At first, you would think that Jesus ducks the issue – Unless you repent, you too will all perish – but, Jesus was actually addressing the point – don’t waste your time speculating about how these people have suffered, think about your own life, reconsider your own priorities, are you living in the real world? Do you live before God, and before other men and women, in a way that you can be proud of, in a way that stands up to scrutiny? Are you ready to die, can you look back on your life with any sense of meaning, satisfaction? What are you living for? There will be judgement…
Jesus is even harsher in the next little story – the leader of the synagogue is angry because Jesus has healed on the Sabbath, he is angry that the people are seeking help on the Sabbath –
And Jesus rages against him – You hypocrites! You care for your animals on the Sabbath, how, then, should this woman be left to wait any longer. Away with your rules, away with your misguided understanding of right and wrong…
And in ways that reflect our reading in Psalm 10, Jesus teaches against those who use and abuse power, those who appear to be right but are actually far from right. Just as in Psalm 10, Jesus speaks like someone who believes in justice – there will be reckoning for all that happens in the world.
Through the force of his compassion, the power of his loving personality, and his uncanny knack of pointing to the important issues – Jesus challenges the prevailing attitudes of his time, and he demolishes those attitudes – they are shown to be shallow and empty.
But if some of his words sound harsh, there is another side to the message of Jesus. After warning about the need for repentance, he tells a parable about a patient gardener – the owner of the vineyard is in a hurry, but the gardener pleads for patience – let me spend more time over the vineyard, let’s not be too hasty to destroy and start again. Yes, there will come a time when drastic action might be required, but let’s wait, let’s keep going on with the original plan for a time, we might yet see some fruit.
And this other side of the message is also seen in what Jesus did in healing the crippled woman. Jesus takes the initiative, calls the woman, and heals her in the synagogue, in full view of his critics.
The force of these words and actions is simply that God is not finished with this world. He cares for it. He is working in it, and there is purpose in all the suffering and chaos, in all the injustice and oppression – Jesus says God is working, God cares. He is acting and working in this world – the message of Jesus is a message of hope because it points us to a better world, a new creation that God is working towards – and the message is that we can begin being part of that new world now.
Death comes to all of us, yes, we don’t see perfection here and now, of course we don’t. But the hope of God’s new creation begins when we listen to Jesus and follow his lead, his example, in making this world a better place.
The message of Jesus is double-edged – on the one hand, it warns us not to place too much confidence in our own devices, our own wisdom, our own desires, our own systems of right and wrong. Jesus calls us to reconsider. He forces us to take him seriously, or not at all. The call of Jesus is always a call to repentance.
But it is also a call to hope in God, to hope in a better world, a call to believe Jesus when, in the words of Revelation, he says ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ That takes faith – we don’t see much to help us in that faith – all we have is his word, his promise.
And that’s why Jesus is such a difficult figure – that’s why the real Jesus is so often hidden. Either the harsh Jesus is paraded before us, usually to scare us into some political agenda, or the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, is used to warn us against being too radical.
But, ultimately, you can’t put him in a box, or in a corner (here, I made a premeditated digression to discuss that brilliant section, Luke20:20-26) – either we listen to his warnings while striving to fulfil the hope of God’s kingdom, or we ignore him altogether, and live without him. There is no pick and mix with Jesus – he calls us to follow him fully, or not at all. He calls us to confess our need, trust his ability to meet that need, and join in his work of ministering to a world of need. Let’s renew our commitment to him this morning, let’s strive to see and hear the real Jesus among all the pretenders, and let’s love him and serve him as long as we are able.