“Let’s be honest. That’s bizarre!”

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Some things just don’t look right in the Bible. Period. And when we come across those things, we do our listeners a favor–especially our relatively un-churched attendees–by pointing it out.

One of my friends at church, Craig, gave me a great example of this a few weeks ago. He was talking about how weird it is for Jesus to be called the good Shepherd, but then for Him to send His sheep out among wolves. What kind of good Shepherd would do that!?!

That’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t look right when you think about it.

Over the years I’ve benefited from James Emery White’s blog, Church & Culture. In Volume 12, No. 53 he imagined what the unchurched would tell us if we listened to them. Number 7 was, “Can we agree that there’s a lot of weird stuff attached to Christianity and the Bible? Okay, it may be true, or real, or whatever, but can we just agree that some of it is a bit…bizarre? For some strange reason, it would make me feel better to hear you acknowledge how it all looks and sounds to someone from the outside.”

Well, one reason it would make them feel better to hear us acknowledge some weirdness in holy Writ is because it’s TRUE. God has recorded some strange stuff in His Word.¬†Another good example is the Judges’ narrative I’ll write about in weeks to come, often labeled, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow. Jephthah promises that if God gives him a strategic victory in battle, he would dedicate the first thing that comes out of his house to greet him. That first thing was only daughter! And what’s totally bizarre is that God allowed Jephthah to carry through with his promise (according to my un-inspired reading of the narrative).

There are a whole lot of well-churched folks who appreciate any time we point out such weirdness. Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion has some bizarre aspects to it. If you bring it out, your listeners will appreciate the honesty and, depending on how you proceed, the mystery that is our God. That assumes you will fight the temptation to explain everything in God’s Word, especially the things that are impossible to explain.

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

P.S. I usually don’t ask for feedback because I know pastors are busy. However, I am curious to hear your thoughts on why the generation of preachers before us were very hesitant to bring out the bizarre aspects of God’s revelation. Are there any dangers to this approach to interpretation and preaching? Thanks for chiming in.

Let Huge Theological Statements Carry Your Sermon, Especially in OT Narratives

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If you saw Michael Phelps swim the second leg of the team’s gold medal relay the other night, you saw yet another example of how he can carry a team. Some theological statements in OT narratives function like that.

Judges 6 provides an example of how such theological statements can carry a sermon. Verse 12 reads, “… ‘The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.'” Verse 16 reads, “And the Lord said to him, ‘But I will be with you…'”

When Gideon asks in v. 15, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest…and I am the least in my father’s house'”, the answer is: Gideon will function as a deliverer because the Lord will be with Him.

Here’s how the story develops:

  1. things become horrible for the once-faithful (vv. 1-6)
  2. we’re reminded of why things get so bad (vv. 7-10)
  3. we learn the key for our deliverance (vv. 11-16) Gideon is the unlikely deliverer because God will be with him.
  4. we receive some gracious confirmation (vv. 17-24) Here, God honors Gideon’s weak faith.

Point three is key. The theological statement is found within the longest and most detailed narrative in Judges: Gideon. God’s presence explains any spiritual victories we enjoy.

There are times in the OT when you’ll have to read for a long time before you hit such loaded statements that can carry a sermon. Avoid the temptation of getting mired in historical details. Some are necessary to explain the theology of the passage.

And, if you’re thinking about highlighting a Christo-centric reading of Judges 6, you can focus on vv. 23-24. After seeing the angel of the Lord and expecting instant death, we read:

“But the Lord said to him, ‘Peace be to you. Do not fear; you shall not die.’ Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and called it, The Lord is Peace.” God extends peace to us only because He made war on His Son on the cross.

Before Sunday, if you’re preaching an OT narrative, look for a theological statement that could carry the sermon.

All for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching for Emotional and Physical Health

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I am always looking for potential sermon series for the future. Maybe you are too.

Lord willing, I will complete a summer teaching series called, The Emotional and Physical Health of the Christian. It has been an enjoyable experience for me because I was able to team up with two men. One is a counseling professor at Lancaster Bible College who leads a counseling practice in our town. The other is an MD who practices family medicine locally. Both men are a part of our faith-family, love the Lord and His Church.

Our plan was for one of the professionals to take 15-20 minutes to talk to the church about one of the top three issues that they regularly encounter. Then I would spend the final 15-20 minutes teaching the theology of a passage related to that topic.

(There, I admit it. I preached a few topical sermons)

If you are tucking away some sermon series ideas for the future, you might consider the following topics. You may not have the option of having professionals join you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t address these topics from Scripture.

Top three emotional health issues routinely encountered in the counseling office are…

  1. The connection between what we think and how we feel
  2. Our self-worth and self-image
  3. Taking responsibility for our actions

Top three physical health issues routinely encountered in the doctor’s office are…

  1. Proper eating
  2. Proper rest
  3. Proper exercise

These issues are rarely confronted in the Church on Sunday’s. Our experience was extremely positive as we watched parishioners respond each weekend.

Series like this give me and our congregants a break from preaching through books of the Bible. They allow us to address issues in the Christian life that might not ever come up, let’s say in a series through the book of Judges.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

A Sentence That Could Find Its Way Into Every Sermon: Part 2 of Preaching the Connection Between Faith and Obedience

LEARNING REPETITION

I will not encourage moralism.

I will not encourage moralism.

I will not encourage moralism.

So, in order to accomplish this, I repeat the following sentence in virtually every sermon:

“When you trust Christ it changes the way you think about _____.”

Fill in the blank with whatever your preaching portion is describing or prescribing about the Christian life.

For instance, in preaching the parable in Luke 16 about the shrewd manager, I said, “When you trust Christ it changes the way you think about money. Faith in Christ creates a person who uses their money to make disciples.”

Jesus clearly teaches that His followers should use their money–God’s money–as shrewdly as the manager used his boss’s money. That’s why, in the parable, the master commends his manager for his shrewdness (v. 8). Then, in v. 9 we read, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”

So, I say to our faith-family, “When you trust Christ it changes the way you think about money. Faith in Christ creates a person who uses their money to make disciples.” I may want to spend a minute or two explaining how that happens. How is it that believing in Christ-crucified changes my view of money?

I want everyone in the house to know we’re Christians and that faith in Christ creates a person who does what Jesus says to do in Luke 16:9.

I will not encourage moralism.

I will not let my congregants forget they claim to be Christian, that it’s our unique faith that creates the desire and capacity to use God’s resources for His glory and for our ultimate good.

Before next Sunday, see if your preaching portion creates the need for you to say, “When you trust Christ it changes the way you______.” You may decide to word it slightly different. Either way, preach well so God receives glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

 

What I Learned from Preaching in El Salvador About the Connection Between Faith and Obedience

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Michele and I enjoyed a profitable trip to San Salvador, El Salvador to visit a church plant we are privileged to be a part of. I had the privilege of conducting preaching workshops to area pastors and preaching in the church plant and the mother church. My translator, Edwin Garcia, was incredible (unlike Michele, my Spanish is horrible!).

But what I learned about the connection between faith and obedience was interesting.

Once during the preaching workshop and once during a sermon, it became very clear that I had to be crystal clear that faith in Christ creates the desire and capacity for Christians to act in ways the Scriptures demanded.

At one point during a workshop the senior pastor asked to comment. He was fearful that his parishioners were hearing a kind of salvation-by-works message. That’s because I was explaining the need to obey Christ’s teaching. He didn’t know that I hadn’t gotten to the part where I would say:

“Obedience to this teaching doesn’t make you a Christian. You do not become a Christian by doing this, you do this because you are a Christians. Faith in Christ creates the desire and capacity to do this.”

The pastor was relieved when I finally got to this point. I don’t blame him. But as I watched the faces of participants and congregants that week, I realized how important it is to show the connection between faith and obedience.

Take a look at your preaching portion for Sunday. If there are instructions which Christians are supposed to put into practice, ask yourself if you are being clear about the connection between faith and Christ and obedience. Every time I make this clear, whether in our faith-family or elsewhere, I see the light come on.

We’re not moralists, we’re Christians. We’re not saved by works, but by a faith that works. The default setting of our hearts is such that we need this reminder over and over again.

Preach well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

The Value of Preaching Back To Back Series Through Books of the Bible

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Thanks to some prompting from parishioners, I decided to preach back to back through Judges and Ruth without a break in between. Usually, I would have preached through Judges, then spend four to six weeks in a mini-series pertaining to church life or some aspect of the Christian life.

But Judges had so many depressing stories and Ruth is such a great story that I listened to their suggestions. I’m glad I did.

Ruth begins by telling us that Elimelech and Naomi are operating during the times when the judges ruled and when there was no king in Israel (cf. 1:1). What a breath of fresh air to watch people not do what was right in their own eyes. A large portion of the rhetorical effect of Ruth occurs through this context with the characters in Judges doing what was right in their eyes.

Or, you might note that Judges ends with Israel having no king and the disastrous results, while Ruth ends with the mention of Israel’s greatest king, David.

This raises some interesting theology. Evidently, having a king in Israel wasn’t necessary for Boaz to function like a godly man (like a law-abiding citizen in Bethlehem). Boaz leads the way for citizens obeying the law of God without the presence of a godly king.

Anyway, you might consider a time when your church would benefit from a lengthy back to back series through more than one book of the Bible. Look for other books that contain strong verbal links and keep on preaching away so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching Deborah’s Song in Judges 5: Celebrating Our Spiritual Victories

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First, the image is not about me.

Second, it fits because our world consistently celebrates victories such as being tobacco, alcohol, porn, or drug free for x amount of time.

That’s sort of what’s happening in Judges 5 and Deborah’s song. Judges is peppered with defeats. Deborah and Barak sing a song that celebrates a tremendous victory. Throughout the study of Judges I’ve had to translate their victory over their physical enemies into our spiritual victories over temptation and sin. That’s especially important if we’re going to preach this chapter in a way that functions for the church.

I think it’s easier for our faith-family to celebrate financial milestones. It’s important for us to develop a culture that can celebrate spiritual milestones too.

But, if you ever preach on Judges 5, it’s a great opportunity to highlight how God fights hard for us. In another famous OT song in Exodus 15:3 we read, “The Lord is a man of war…” Maybe not too popular in our day, but I love the fact that our God fights for His own. Judges 5:20 contains this great statement: “From heaven the stars fought, from their courses they fought against Sisera.” (If you’re interested in understanding this statement, take some time to read Parry’s fascinating book, The Biblical Cosmos.)

Our cause for repeated celebration is that our God continually gives us spiritual victories over temptation and sin. This gives our people opportunities to express their thanks and joy for these “wins.” Verses 1, 3-11a, 19-22 contain this thought of God protecting His own.

Then, in vv. 2, 11b-18, 23-27 we learn the vital part that God’s people play in their own victories. God fights for us. True. We also fight for faith and obedience. We read in v. 2 “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly…” Then in v. 18 “Zebulun is a people who risked their lives to the death…” Passivity won’t cut it in the fight against temptation and sin.

The chapter closes with some incentive for us to be on God’s side in this fight (vv. 28-31). Deborah’s song contains a terrible scene of Sisera’s mother waiting for her son to return and wondering why he’s taking so long. Verse 31 states: “So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!”

This chapter–this song–is one of the hardest to preach in Judges. The key is to be genre sensitive. Chapter 5 is a celebration of having achieved a victory. Let that drive the sermon. We could use a little more celebration in our faith-family, a little more acknowledging of how God is carrying us through this world with our faith intact.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation (Ephesians 3:21),

Randal

 

Preaching the Two Kinds of Stubbornness in Judges

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First, let me say that preaching through Judges has been one of the toughest series I’ve attempted. It has also been very rewarding for our faith-family and for me.

As I am preaching through the book of Judges, I am noticing two kinds of stubbornness. This becomes evident when you enter the Book of Deliverers (chapters 3-16). In this section God teaches us through a series of narratives involving His people’s stubborn rebellion into idolatry and His own stubborn refusal to leave them in their rebellion.

I recommend taking the first four stories of God raising up deliverers for His people as one preaching unit (vv. 3:7–4:24). In those narratives, you can:

  1. Highlight our tendency to worship idols. You may be familiar with Keller’s explanation of idolatry: “What, if you lost it, would make life not worth living….What makes us uncontrollably angry, anxious or despondent?” Someone said that our hearts are an idol factory. I prefer to think in terms of our hearts being a worship factory. We have an insatiable desire for false gods. Consider spending time explaining the connection between the sins we consistently struggle with and an idol or idols. Often, a sermon in Judges contains a first move focused on our evil idolatry, followed by God’s anger, followed by, His grace that saves.
  2. Highlight God’s stubborn, repeated rescue attempts. Throughout the Judges, God’s grace is shown through His…
  • tremendous patience with us
  • use of raw power to defeat temptation and sin (He delivers!)
  • ability to honor weak faith (like Barak’s)
  • ability to save us in a morally messy world where there are not always good options (there’s no WWJD approaches in some of these horrible scenes!)
  • provision of spiritual rest when temptation is defeated.

And, God can does all that for Believers because He disciplined His Son and broke Satan’s power. As someone said, unlike the Judges, Jesus has the ability to rip the idols out of our hearts.

Preach well so He receives the glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Interpreting biblical narrative can be like trying to figure out someone who has a dry sense of humor.

Dale Ralph Davis

interpreting OT narratives
Judges: Such A Great Salvation (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Focus, 2013), 220

Focus On Intention, Not Meaning (although they’re connected)

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I’m currently nearing the end of preaching through the Judges. The series is titled, The Salvation of Stubborn Hearts. A constant battle every Monday morning is discovering the intention of these narratives. How do these narratives function for the Church? That’s the question. And it’s more important than asking what a narrative means.

I’m assuming that when you try to identify a narrative’s meaning, you’re thinking about what it meant (past tense). As soon as you ask what a text means (present tense), you inevitably enter the realm of intention.

Earlier today I read an EHS paper written by one of my LBC colleagues, Greg Hollifield (Memphis campus). He was exploring how texts signal their intention. If you ever preach through Judges or any other OT narrative, for that matter, you will find yourself constantly thinking: “I know what’s happening in the story, but I’m not sure how it functions for the Church (you might word it in terms of how it applies).”

As you know, we have to know before Sunday. Preachers live in the realm of intention. Worship during the sermon can be defined as the Believer’s response to the revelation of God. That response coincides with the text’s intention.

So in Judges 2:6–3:6 the narrator supplies his sign of intention: “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord…” (v. 2:10). Everything that happens after that, the people’s idolatry and God’s angry, but gracious response, is a result of His people’s meager theology.

The narrator determines the intention of the sermon which, in turn, determines corporate worship. When it’s all said and done, we can’t suffer from meager theology and live for the glory of God. We urge ourselves to study God and put His ways into practice. That’s the only way to keep a congregation from becoming “Canaanized.”

Way before Sunday, nail down the intention of your preaching portion. That’s more important than knowing what your text means.

For His glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal