Sharing mythical sermons

Have you ever sat down for coffee or a meal with someone with the intent not simply to eat or drink, but to discuss matters pertaining to work or responsibilities or some such matter? It’s hard to judge what both parties feel is peripheral and what should be in focus. The food? The person before me? The task at hand? Remember the times when that other person launched into the discussion (though it felt more lecture-like in the moment) fully dismissive of the location or peripherals, like the food or drink? Sometimes they might even seem dismissive of you, almost as if your presence at the meeting was inconsequential. It feels terrible and changes how we learn and work, doesn’t it?

I’ve been guilty of this approach and then wondered why I didn’t see results from those kinds of meetings. I had neglected, to the meeting’s detriment, to see the other before me and invite them into a hospitable environment. I didn’t use every advantage. No “How are you today?”, no “I’ve been meaning to tell you about this moment that reminded me of you.”, no “have I got a good story for you!”, no “Let me buy you this muffin.” Ever wondered if your sermons can feel like that?

I bet C.S. Lewis would have hated that kind of meeting. In speaking of the Gospel’s factual reality, and mythical, transcendent nature as it relates to “welcome”, he wrote this:cs-lewis

“To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact thought it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other. A man who disbelieved the Christian story as fact but continually fed on it as a myth would, perhaps, be more spiritually alive than one who did not think much about it… We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about “parallels” and “pagan Christs”: they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher.” (Lewis, Myth Became Fact)

Over the years I’ve increased the number of stories I tell in sermons. Early in ministry I tended to spent much more time on historical and cultural context, explication of doctrine and a great deal of other boring matters to the average listener. Do not misunderstand me. I am not asserting these matters are trivial, just that they might seem trivial or uninteresting to some listeners. But I persisted in those first few years, misunderstanding, even inwardly belittling, the point of stories and illustrative tools within sermons. In my defence, I had good reason to.

I had witnessed many a sermon go the way of a comedy routine, or heard illustrations that simply didn’t fly, and worried I’d end up trivializing the Gospel. Over preparation is also a problem for young preachers as we’re so worried we’ll miss something important we end up cramming a sermon full of study and detail, many things the listener need not be concerned with and does little to achieve the purposes of preaching. I was also taught, though I’m not sure how or by whom, that a story or illustrative tool was an add on, an explanatory device attached to unpack the lesson for the simple folk amongst us. Obviously the truly thoughtful Christian had already understood and applied the sermon before I finished up with a dumbed down version of the main lesson via “my little story”. Even worse, I was taught that a story or illustration at the beginning of the sermon was a “hook” – something to grab the audience and keep them somewhat interested in the tedious Gospel – as if the Gospel itself needed “livening up”.

A story or illustrative tool should never be a hook or tag on. The best use of such devices (and I’m apprehensive to even use that word) is with complete awareness that the story or tool must totally embody and explain the passage or point with heart and clarity. As Lewis encourages, we should look to such moments in effort to appeal to the “savage, the child, and the poet in each of us” as much as we appeal to the other manners of thought. We can’t get carried away, of course. No one has ever questioned if Lewis worshiped Jesus or Aslan, but he certainly felt it appropriate to expound on both in appropriate literary settings for the benefit of his various readers.

As pastors, when we embrace imagination we recognize and release our God-given longing to create, connect and welcome fellow humans to sit at tables and enter gardens full of truth and life. Tell good stories that lead to The Greatest One.

A Holy Week thought – Appearances can be deceiving

I harbor a growing concern regarding the chief of all sins which, undoubtedly, resides in my heart – pride. Every preacher should. I believe this week and Resurrection Sunday unveil a figure that guides us away from this folly and towards truth and life.

We’ve just entered Holy Week. Jesus enters Jerusalem to the acclaims of the people and ends up dead on a cross outside of the city at the end of it. These two images might seem juxtaposed, but they aren’t. The gospel writers (and in particular Mark) want us to notice the figure at the center of the story – and what his actions tell us.stom_matthias_-_christ_crowned_with_thorns_-_c-_1633-1639

On the first day of the week Jesus is popular, victorious even, riding into the city to the “hosannas!” of the people, literally, the “save us!” songs. Yet he rides in not on a chariot with sword in hand, or even a horse with a spear at his side. He sits atop a humble donkey. A couple of days later Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians to “Render to Caesar what is Caesars….”, a disappointing message for many. Maybe Jesus isn’t here to start a rebellion.

Later Jesus allows himself to be arrested, tortured to the point of disfigurement and hung on a cross to die. The earliest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel tell us this and then end with a rather abrupt resurrection story. Jesus rose, some women saw him, and they didn’t tell anyone, because they were afraid. As Rowan Williams points out in his Meeting God in Mark, this leaves the reader “in mid air”. He also notes that all along people have been spreading word about Jesus (because of his miracles and teaching) and Jesus usually asks them not to. Rather ironically, no one wants to talk about post-resurrection Jesus at the end of Mark, because, “they were afraid”.

What Williams picks up on is that Jesus is apparently not about power, brute force, or even popular opinion. The world isn’t going to change by God forcing it to. Jesus hushes his miracles, even, with the hopes that people won’t get the wrong idea. This God isn’t a show-off, he’s not come to convince us of his reality through human constructs of power. His kingdom will transform systems and societies from within. The seed of that change is the death of God. Jesus is the bloodied and bruised poster boy of this new movement, and the story hinges on him. So too must our trust. Quite an image.

Mark’s resurrection narrative leads us away from a glamorous, glorious moment where Jesus “wins” and does a victory lap. In fact, Jesus doesn’t come close to doing a victory lap – he only appears to a few women, non-persons in that day an age. No showing himself off the in temple. No showing himself off in Pilot’s court. Mark’s resurrection is more of a testament to the preceding events – it’s the validation of the cross. This is how God does things. Humility, service, death. The resurrection is, in part, the endorsement of God’s way of bringing about change. This is what makes people feel uneasy. This is why people are “afraid” at the end of Mark. They’re not sure what to do with this.

As we edge closer to Easter I’m struggling with the images God chose to elevate through the gospel narratives. A King riding into his city on a donkey. A King nailed up on a cross. Jesus didn’t say “it is finished” after he rose in victory. He said that just before he died. In Mark, his last words are “God, why have you left me alone?” This changes everything – the work is done through humility and apparent loss. As Williams notes, this is the dismantling of the myth of power – the shocking message that God’s use of power may not look like our our uses of power.

If God chose these images to share with the world regarding his nature, what images of myself am I sharing with the world in an effort to point to him?

In truth, these images contrast many of the images I often hope people see of me. In my heart I sometimes hope to be celebrated, noticed, praised even, for the work God affords me to do. And I am not alone. This is humanity’s problematic condition and this myth of power needs dismantling. It will take daily subjection to and trust in a crucified and resurrected Jesus to slowly grasp this. It will take daily conversion.

Jesus warns his disciples at the end of Mark to beware the religious folk who enjoy nice greetings in the temple, good seats at parties and lovely clothes that empathize status and worth. It’s hard to read these words and not wonder if the images we pastors sometimes share (both in the flesh and digitally) run in opposition to the very image we’re attempting to display.

Christians and non-Christians alike look at pastors to understand who God is. That’s a staggering and somewhat terrifying thought, but it’s true. The early Christian writers emphasize this. “Let not many of you become teachers”, warns James, and for good reason. It’s a lofty calling, and not because teachers are more important, but because they will be judged more severely. People listen to teachers, so make sure your subject matter is in line with God’s curriculum. The challenge is that the subject matter is our very lives. It is through our hearts, compelled and transformed by a humble God, that others will learn his true nature and mission. So what does he look like and how does he act?

“He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1.15) – and what is the image? A willingly bloodied and battered Jesus. This God identifies with the abused and rejected.

When they look, what do people see? Any hint of even veiled self-celebration will point them in the wrong direction. Any use of power to coerce or control will turn us into blind guides, leading people down a path of destruction, not life. Will people see an accurate depiction of God in us – humble and selfless to the point of humiliation? Or will they see a glamorous, glitzy, power-hungry façade, deceiving them concerning God’s true nature?

I wonder if we should be cautious in this day and age, so driven by image and appearance, of who we say God is by the visage we give him through ministry. Every image and word we project must truthfully mirror the one we serve.

We wear God’s face. Let’s be sure not to mask it.

Good Reads (Williams, Wright, Keller, Dickson)

It’s been a while since we reviewed or recommended any books, so here are a few to consider!

Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of LentRowan WilliamsWilliams

The former Archbishop of Canterbury produced this gem of a little book last year. A summation of Lenten teachings from 2010, this  book is a marvellous survey of the Gospel of Mark. Williams concisely brings the reader up to speed on Macran history, debate and scholarly record. He then reveals Mark’s intentionality and brilliance in his depiction of a shockingly humble Jesus wheedling a powerful edict. William’s treatment of the passion and resurrection alone are worth the read. You may come away thinking about the resurrection in a whole different light.

 

The Lord and His PrayerN.T. Wright

WrightWeaving together his typical themes of kingdom, the new Exodus and Jesus’ Jewish roots, Wright presents a masterful summery of his academic work on this topic for the layperson. He combines history, theology, Old Testament background and practical application in a book that never claims to be a “how-to” on prayer, but ends up being better than that. Jesus’ words explained do the drawing and teaching. Wright guides the reader into the prayer’s meaning and then gets out of the way. This book inspires thoughtful, biblical, worldview-shaping prayer. It’s also a helpful guide for anyone teaching on Matthew, Luke or the prayer in general.

 

PrayerTimothy Keller

KellerKeller supplies an almost opposite example of a book on prayer from Wright’s. This work is exhaustive as it begins with asking what prayer is across all faiths and slowly builds toward a definition of Christian prayer. Keller makes no assumptions. When he finally does arrive at Christian prayer he leans heavily on his heroes: Luther, Calvin, Owen, etc. Though anything from Keller will be overtly Protestant, his emphasis on the Reformers makes the last third of the book feel slightly myopic. This is no stern critique, however, as each of his historical mentors based their thinking on the Lord’s Prayer. It does end rather abruptly with suggestions for daily prayer rooted in a liturgical, traditional manner. These are great recommendations but Keller excludes large areas of expression in prayer. The book is also rather dry, a shame considering its subject matter. It’s full of comprehensive research surrounding traditional Reformed perspectives on prayer, and reads like it.

 

Life of JesusJohn Dickson

DicksonJohn Dickson is a historian, apologist, pastor and writer. His strength in each of these disciplines makes him a formidable author in general, and particularly formidable when it comes to a personality like Jesus. What might be most enjoyable about Dickson’s writing is the balance he finds in each of these areas. Full of illustration, his “Life of Jesus” is a historically rich, apologetically focused read for anyone interested in learning more about Jesus and why he’s so special – a great recommendation for any Christian and an even better recommendation for someone seriously investigating the faith. A quick, stimulating, enlightening read for the trained pastor.

 

We hope those are helpful suggestions! What have you been reading?

 

 

When every sermon sounds the same

10914827_10152577102961301_8258062043892060835_oRyley Heppner is rad, and we don’t use that word lightly. He serves in Florida with Ride Nature – an organization that serves young skaters and surfers with the message of Jesus. Ryley completed a Bachelors in Youth Work and Biblical Studies at Columbia Bible College, and then an M.A. in Christian Studies at ACTS Seminaries (TWU) and is working on an M.A. in Theological Studies with a major in NT studies. You can find more of his writing on his blog here.

When Every Sermon Sounds the Same

I contend that Paul of Tarsus is the quintessential New Testament Preacher (sans Christ himself). Though he was fallible, though he functioned within a specific calling, and though his set of parchments looked different than our own, the latter half of his life sets the standard of what it looks like to preach from the other side of the resurrection.

Simply, Paul’s opinion matters in questions of preaching.

The question has long been asked and wrestled with: Should every sermon eventually reach the center peace of God’s redemptive story; that is, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, should every sermon include the Gospel?

 Lets ask Paul.

Twice in his pastoral letters to Timothy Paul writes “I was appointed a herald.” (1 Tim. 2.7; 2 Tim 1.11) With such language Paul claims to function in the roll of a town crier, not so unlike the men who walked in front of Joseph’s chariot crying, “Bow the knee.” (Gen. 41.43) As a herald, Paul was proclaiming the message of the king.

To the unreached this message included the Gospel of Jesus. Shortly after his conversion Paul is found in the synagogues preaching Jesus. (Acts 9.20) In Acts chapter seventeen Paul is in a synagogue in Thessalonica proclaiming Christ. (Acts 17.3)

To the converted and established churches Paul’s written messages also included the Gospel of Jesus. In Galatians 1.4 Paul writes of Christ as the one “who gave himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from the present evil age…”

Any survey of the Pauline epistles will uncover the same conclusion: when Paul preached and when he wrote he never failed to arrive at and extol the person and work of Jesus. Of course there is only one Paul of Tarsus. No once since the great apostle has walked in the same type of authority. Perhaps his example is not a template.

Consider his instructions to his young protégé Timothy. In 2 Timothy Paul writes, “Preach the word.” (2 Tim 4.2) He commands the young shepherd to be a herald of the word, that is the word that once became flesh, the word of the kingdom that has been scattered like seed, the word that when accepted delivers men from death. In three short words Paul instructs Timothy to walk in his heralding footsteps.

Based on the words and example of Paul it would seem that to preach the word is to point to the redemptive work of Christ. This only makes sense. As individuals redeemed by the Gospel, as a church standing upon the Gospel that gathers each week to celebrate the Gospel, how could it be any other way? His life is our foundation, his blood is our redemption and his resurrection is our hope.

The simple answer must be yes, every sermon should include the gospel. That being said, consider a few further clarifications…

 1. Not a License for Eisegesis

To include the Gospel does not mean to read Jesus into texts where He is clearly not present or referred to. Many OT texts have no forethought of Jesus. They have a particular audience and a particular intention and they deserve a proper exegetical study and presentation. In such cases one also might remember that the Gospel is grander than its core. The story of God becoming King is told through creation, through the patriarchs, through law and the prophets and through every other page of Scripture.

 2. Not a Canon Within a Canon

To include the Gospel does not imply that the NT trumps the OT. It does not imply that NT texts ought to take priority. As a good steward of the Scriptures the preacher ought to maintain its whole authority and to preach the full counsel of God’s wisdom. That being said, it is only natural that as post-resurrection preachers we might interpret and apply every text (including the OT) in light of God’s redemptive story and more specifically in light of Jesus. The Gospel becomes a lens through which all scripture is received.

3. Christocentric Services

To include the Gospel does not mean that the weight of the task rests completely on the sermon. If an OT text does not draw out a clear reference to Christ all hope is not lost. Every service is full of opportunities to unpack the person and work of Jesus. The Gospel can/should be conveyed through times of prayer, songs, communion, announcements, greetings, offerings, dramas, etc. A Christocentric service allows for healthy exegetical preaching.

May we preach the full counsel of God, regularly point to the cross and give all the glory to the King for which we herald.