Preaching The Sensitive Gender Issue

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Have you ever wondered how churches and pastors who believe in the authority of the Bible land the way they do on the same-sex issue? How can we read the same Bible and interpret it so differently?
I just finished reading Christopher R. Seitz’s heavy book, The Character of Christian Scripture: The Significance of a Two-Testament Bible. One unexpected benefit of reading the book was Seitz’s choice of the same-sex crisis in the American Episcopal Church (TEC) as his concrete example of what happens when people move away from the rule of faith (or fails to recognize that the OT functions theologically for the Church).
Seitz reports that both sides of the same-sex issue acknowledge that this boils down to “disagreement…over the interpretation of Scripture and the question of whether the Bible has something like a plain sense, in the case of same-sex behavior and in other areas” (p. 176). Seitz has followed the discussion over the exegesis of Scripture and homosexuality for over two decades and lists three phases that have occurred in that timeframe:
Phase One. It was believed that the Bible could be reevaluated and understood to be saying something that no one had thought it said up to that point. “Sodom was about inhospitality, not homosexuality; chapter 1 of Romans was about specific, exotic kinds of homosexual misconduct [as opposed to two people of the same gender entering into a loving commitment to each other]” (p. 176).
Phase Two. It was admitted that the Bible really did say what it was always understood to say [that homosexual activity was a sin]. But what the Bible was giving us “was a kind of rough guide on how to make decisions. Biblical people had to exercise judgment, and they went about this with certain flexible systems that allowed them to negotiate religious principles with changing times” (pp. 176-177). An example would be Acts 15 the decisions of the Jerusalem Council. Therefore, we have the opportunity with changing times to change our minds about what is biblical or the kind of morality God expects of His citizens.
Phase Three. The Bible does not speak to the issue of our modern-day same-sex attitudes and actions because our version of this was unknown in the times when the Bible was written. If we don’t have a word from God on the issue, then we’re left with listening to how the Spirit of God would have us respond today.
Ultimately, then, “there is sufficient confusion about what any text means, [therefore]…the only thing we can be sure of is what people report to be true in their present experience….The Bible looks like us. That is our interpretive conclusion” (p. 178).
So, I step back, take a look at that three-phase development, and ask: What keeps me from that position? I am reminded of what Barth described as “the strange new world of the Bible.” Without becoming too simplistic, go back to the very first part of the first phase. The reevaluation of the Bible was due to a clash between Scripture and cultural experience. I should expect the two views to clash. And I should preach God’s view with confidence and invite His people to inhabit His strange new world. I should not allow the presence of confusion about the meaning of God’s Word to move me to rely on present human experience to determine reality.

Preach well, including finding the balance of being careful and courageous about moving from the Bible to theology for the Church and all so God can receive glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

How To Get Excited About Every Sermon

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Spoiler alert: I wish I knew the secret of getting excited about every sermon.

I felt the need to say that because the title of this post borders on click bait (a new phrase I learned earlier today).

I completed Richard Cox’s book, Rewiring your Preaching: How the Brain Processes Sermons.

Some highlights of the book might follow later, but for now here’s a question he asks at the end in: Checklist for Sermon Preparation.

Does this sermon excite me…?

An interesting place to start.

For years I’ve said that great expository sermons require great Texts, but not all pastors and parishioners consider every Text a great Text. It’s one of the tough realities of preaching through books of the Bible.

So, what can we do to “get excited” about our Preaching Portion for Sunday, especially if it doesn’t grab us right from the first read? Here are some thoughts:

  • Remember that the corporate nature of our Sunday gatherings means that virtually every sermon sounds more exciting to some than all. I can get excited about the fact that someone will be excited about this Text. Or, you might prefer it worded this way: I can get excited about the fact that God will speak to someone from this Text.
  • Give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to excite you from this Text. Ask God to speak to you in the study before you speak to them in the service. We should be doing this every week anyway, right?
  • Place the sermon in the larger context of the worship service. Worshiping God should excite us (exclamation point). I’m guilty of forgetting that all kinds of worship is taking place before I get up to teach the Word. Sunday morning is an exciting time for our faith-family.

Before Sunday, ask if the sermon you are developing excites you so that God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching the Ugly Pictures of Human Nature in Judges

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The picture of God’s people in the book of Judges is not pretty. For instance, in Judges 8:1, 4-6, and 8 there are three examples of insubordination. One commentator, Block, says “Even in victory Israel remains her own worst enemy.”

And often, even Israel’s best leaders, like Gideon, paint an ugly picture of our spiritual condition. Friction abounds in these stories and Gideon often flies of the handle, as they say (whoever “they” are?).

So, if and when you preach on Judges, be prepared to show your flock how difficult it is for God’s people to experience peace among themselves. Both leaders and laity have to work hard at being Spirit-controlled so the work of God can flourish among them.

In the case of the latter part of chapter 7 and into chapter 8 self-centeredness and rage are on display. It’s not a pretty sight. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, Gideon pulls the stunt recorded in 8:27 “And Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his city….And all Israel whored after it there, and it became a snare…”

Well, you’d think God would fiercely judge them all for this. But instead, we read of His grace in 8:28 “…And the land had rest forty years in the days of Gideon.”

I don’t understand this, but I’m sure glad God is patient with us. I am so thankful He gives us victories in the midst of our spiritual ineptness.

Anyway, be prepared to get some pretty nasty-looking looks of our condition in the Judges, but also of God’s grace. And preach it all so He receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Utilize This Resource To Add Practical Theology To Your Sermons

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Two things have come together to create this post: reading Joel Green’s, Practicing Theological Interpretation and Trueman’s, Luther on the Christian Life.

Well, actually, three things. The third one is my discussion last week with a young pastor who will begin his first pastoral post in about a month.

Let me start with the third factor. In talking about how to gain depth for preaching, I mentioned how important it is to read theology. The temptation for pastors is to read only for church growth, leadership, or commentaries for sermon helps. Over the years I’ve discovered how important it is to find in-depth theological works. These aids are tremendously helpful as a supplement to what would be considered normal exegetical work.

One place you may want to turn is to ancient catechisms. Green writes, “a theological hermeneutic might be well advised to ask, ‘What do we see as we read Scripture through the prism of the creeds that we would not otherwise see?'” (p. 80). Just as the creeds help flesh out interpretation and application of Scripture, so do catechisms.

Take, for instance, Luther’s catechism. Our Theology Readers’ Breakfast just completed a study of Trueman’s book, Luther on the Christian Life. The entries contain an intriguing combination of theology and practical application–practical theology.

Luther’s catechism is especially helpful because as Trueman states, “Luther was the first author of a catechism in the history of the church who came to the task as a father.” (p. 111) He writes for his children. But listen for the combination of theology and practical application.

“You shall have no other gods.”

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

Or…

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

What does this mean?

Answer: We should fear and love God, and so we should not use his name to curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive, but in every time of need call upon him, pray to him, praise him, and give him thanks.” (p. 111).

In both cases, notice that Luther begins with fearing and loving God. I would normally begin discussion of the first commandment with some minutes devoted to worshiping God. In the second case, notice the list of positive applicational actions.

So, as you study for Sunday’s sermon(s), ask yourself if anything in your preaching portion might necessitate some help from a good theology book or from an ancient catechism like Luther’s. And may our preaching contribute to God receiving glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching Gideon Vs. Midian As A Paradigm For Salvation

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If and when you preach through Judges, you will discover that God spent a lot of biblical real estate on the Gideon narrative. God gives tons of detail on Gideon versus Midian, probably because that contest functions as a paradigm for our salvation. Gideon is a highly unlikely military leader; his victory over the Midianites was a highly unlikely victory. That’s the point.

You’re familiar with how unsure Gideon was about God’s plan and how he asked God more than once to confirm the plan with a miracle (“the fleece”). Where’s his faith anyway?! It’s comforting to see how God did not chastise Gideon for his doubts. No lecturing; just confirming. Of course, Gideon’s example is not instruction for us to “go and do likewise.”

But the key to the narrative and its theology is God’s instruction to Gideon to whittle down his army, “lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.'” (cf. Judges 7:2). This is one of those examples of how the narrative provides a huge clue to meaning.

And be careful how you explain the Lord’s way of decreasing the size of Gideon’s army. God doesn’t tell us why the “lappers” are chosen, but not the “kneelers.” Whatever God’s reason, His intention was to take away any cause for Israel to boast in their strength. So contrary to many preachers’ explanations, the 300 who are selected are a sign of weakness, not strength. Plus, note that they take “trumpets” (v. 8, 22), not spears or bows. The soldiers were turned into fierce instrumentalists!

But God gives His people the victory over the Midianites. And it’s a great reminder of the fact that our salvation is all of God and none of us. We have a strong Savior who continually delivers us from overpowering forces that threaten to undue us. He graciously saves and sanctifies us. He does it all by Himself so we can only boast in the cross of Christ.

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

Randal

“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