When Exemplars and Christ-Centered Combine: Preaching Ruth (part 3)

I know some pit Christ-centered preaching versus exemplar preaching (“go and do likewise” in the case of good examples or “go and do otherwise” in the case of bad examples). But it’s hard to deny that Ruth contains some narratives that provide good examples for Christians to follow (think, Boaz). But Ruth also functions for the Church by placing us in a narrative trajectory that leads to our Savior, the Source of God’s favor. It’s both/and, not either/or.

Boaz was the source of favor for Ruth and Naomi. Chapter 2 opens by drawing attention to him: “a worthy man…” He’s the kind of man God creates and is there for us to emulate. The narrative does more than provide an exemplar, but not less than.

Campbell suggests, “the Ruth story is basically about extraordinary caring and concern, kindness that is above and beyond the call of duty.” In the overall message of Ruth (discovering God as “the restorer of life”), what happens to Ruth and Naomi provide a picture of how God restores life by extending kindness.

The theme of the narrative is located in Ruth’s statement about her spiritual instincts: that she would “find favor” in someone’s field (cf. 2:2, 10). Often the statement of a main character contains the seeds of the big idea for a narrative scene or series of scenes.

To make sense of the chapter, focus on the concept of “favor.” You could outline it this way:

The source of favor (vv. 1, 4-5, 8-9, 14-16, 19-20) is Boaz and the laws God put in place to care for those in need.

The need for favor (vv. 2-3, 6-7, 13, 17-18, 21-23; these two main points could switch places, even though the source of favor occurs in v. 1) is a picture of every one of us spiritual unfortunates.

The reason for receiving favor (vv. 10-12; if you like theological challenges, you’ll love the reason provided in v. 12, “The Lord repay you for what you have done…”) is the faith Ruth had in the “system” God put in place.

As I said above, Ruth’s Gospel does more than provide Boaz as an example to follow. Naomi describes him in v. 20, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.” It’s a great opportunity to remind everyone how God extended favor to us in the person of His Son, to restore life.

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

Randal

Preaching Through the Gospel According to Ruth

After preaching through Judges, more than one parishioner asked if I would consider preaching through Ruth. Judges was so depressing, despite my best efforts to practice a form of Christ-centered interpretation each weekend. They needed a narrative that focused more on good news.

Even if you choose not to preach Judges/Ruth back-to-back, preaching through the gospel according to Ruth is an excellent short series. It does present its challenges.

First, select a theme for the series. Select a theme:

  • from the wording of Ruth.
  • that captures the good news of Ruth.

I’m extremely picky when it comes to selecting a theme and image that will be my first slide every Sunday. I’m usually not satisfied with my commentator friends’ choice of theme/title for the book. I greatly appreciate their work and benefit from it each week. But the choice of theme/title is very personal, pastoral.

I found my theme, of all places, on the lips of the townswomen who said to Naomi about Ruth’s son: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age…”

You could just as easily word something from their statement in the previous verse 14, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer…”

I love the way the book ends as a contrast to how it began: loss of food and even more tragic loss of life. Upon returning to Bethlehem Ruth said, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty…” (cf. 1:21). So, the Lord really did restore her life through the birth of a special son. Cross-eyed readers will quickly see parallels to the Son born way down Ruth and Boaz’s line.

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

Randal

Preaching Christ While Preaching Through an Old Testament Book of the Bible

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I am a huge fan of consistently preaching Christ from the Old Testament. If you are planning to preach through an OT book of the Bible this year, you might be interested in what my former professor, Pete Enns, says about the task:

“…pastors have the privilege and challenge, in a variety of creative and engaging ways, to teach their people what the OT is about. It may take time to earn the further privilege of bringing these Christians to appreciate more fully how Israel’s story is transformed in Christ. And this is not a quick fix, but a process of reunderstanding God’s Word, modeled after the NT writers, that may well take considerable time to implement.” (p. 216 in, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Berding and Lunde; emphasis added; I found Enn’s and Bock’s views very helpful)
Let me add to that italicized phrase: bringing these Christians to also appreciate more fully how Israel’s story is transformed in Christ to become our story. That last part is critical for a truly Christ-centered hermeneutic/homiletic.
If you do devote that kind of time, your parishioners will rise up and call you blessed. You, of course, will have to navigate the OT carefully, avoiding the minefields of endless historical data–even minutia–that doesn’t preach well (I’m convinced God never intended it to preach). This keeps the sermon running on theological tracks (how it’s functioning for the Church, what you probably think of best as principlizing). Most importantly, you will have to employ the skill of moving from the OT to Christ-crucified, preferably from the vocabulary and images of your preaching portion.
If you want some help and enjoy listening to sermons, listen to as many Tim Keller sermons on the Old Testament. If you like reading, you will profit from a book I just completed last week, Heralds of the King.

The variety of preachers who contributed sermons in the book resulted in a variety of ways to move from the Scriptures to the Savior.
Preach Christ well from the OT for God’s glory in the church… (Ephesians 3:21).
Randal

Preaching Both a Bad Example and Christ from the Wicked City of Gibeah in Judges 19

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In these posts I am working my way through the book of Judges to provide a strategy for preaching difficult narratives.

Whenever you preach through the book of Judges–a very brave thing to do, by the way–you will discover that there are no judges. But there are lots of people doing what was right in their own eyes. The theological reason is provided in 19:1 “In those days, when there was no king in Israel…” What could a king do?

Well, a certain kind of king could teach and enforce the ways of God among the people of God. That would put a stop to the terrible wickedness that we read about in the city of Gibeah. And, of all things, Gibeah was home of God’s people, not a “city of foreigners” (cf. 19:12). They were “Benjaminites” (v. 16). None of us readers are prepared for how wicked God’s people have become.

The story revolves around a Levite and his concubine. Davis says that “he was heading for Sodom-in-the-land-of-Israel.” The parallels between Judges 19:22-28 and Genesis 19’s famous story are numerous. What starts off with no hospitality (Judges 19:15) ends up in what might be the worst scene in all the Bible (spoiler alert: except for the Cross, of course!).

The Levite gives his concubine to “the men of the city, worthless fellows” and she is raped and killed (v. 22, 25). His insensitivity is unbelievable (v. 28). And then, the Levite follows that up with the unthinkable: “he took a knife…divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel” (v. 29).

The chapter closes with the people’s reaction: “consider it, take counsel, and speak” (v. 30).

If you ever preached this chapter, one challenge is to help a church realize that it could get this bad. This is how bad things can get when God is not worshiped, when American individualism fills the hearts of people in the pews. Bad example? Yes.

A bigger challenge is to see the grace of God-in Christ in this narrative. That happens when we point out that the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ was a worst crime than anything Sodom or Gibeah experienced. And, of course, it is Christ’s broken body that makes it possible for Believers to experience the kingship of God in the power of His Spirit. Preach Christ? Yes.

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

Randal

P.S. I read the post and wanted to draw attention to the preaching strategy, how the narrative conveys theology for the Church.

First, the theological statement that drives the entire book is found in v. 1 (“no king”).

Second, the whole story revolves around God’s people, not pagans.

Third, the varied sins of God’s people are on display, including the most heinous ones.

Fourth, there is a clear reference to redemption in v. 30 (“the people of Israel that came up out of the land of Egypt”).

Finally, if you are inclined as I am to show how such a ghastly narrative points to Christ, look to the parallel between the concubine and the Cross.

Hope that helps.

 

Preaching the Unique Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Samson

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the preaching the unique circumstances of Samson’s birth. This week I’m focusing on the end of his life. The Samson narrative in Judges is very important to the theology of the book. When I preached through the book of Judges I chose to devote two messages to his life.

If you read the first Samson narrative post, you saw the parallels between Samson’s birth and Jesus’ birth (both involving prenatal instructions about the unique children). When you come to the end of Samson’s life, more parallels exist and this is a critical observation for the Christ-centered expositor.

For instance, Webb writes,

“rejected by his own people, arrested and handed over to their enemies, tortured and made a spectacle…until at last his calling is consummated in his death. But in dying he destroys Dagon, the god of Israel’s enemies.”

Amazing isn’t it.

What I like about that quote is not just the listing of all the parallels, but the fact that everything focuses on the plot of Judges: how God rescues His people from their enemies.

Several weeks ago while teaching for a day in Lancaster Bible College/Capital Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, I selected a narrative from Judges (the infamous, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow). I asked the class to identify the subject of the narrative. Then, I pointed out the tendency to overlook the primary action of the book and individual judge narratives.

What do we learn about our salvation from the death of Samson? That’s the focus of theological interpretation. And the answer? Our salvation was secured through the death of our Judge Jesus. Judges 13:7 states, “for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb to the day of his death.” And it was Samson’s and Jesus’ death that won the victory for the people of God.

Next time, I’ll list some of the ways Samson shows us our spiritual struggles. He does function as an exemplar at times, but most importantly, Samson shows us a picture of our Savior’s victory-through-death.

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

Randal

Preaching the Unique Circumstances Surrounding Samson’s Birth

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One of the highlights of preaching through the book of Judges is reaching the Samson narrative.

[If you haven’t seen Sight & Sound’s production of Samson, you would enjoy it thoroughly. Their imaginative exposition is always insightful.]

Two things are unique about the Samson birth narrative:

(1) God’s people are incapacitated. Judges 13:2 says, “And his wife was barren and had no children.” There was no courageous judge on the horizon. God’s plan for redeeming His world often included couples who could not conceive children. Think of these famous names: Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth. In his excellent little commentary, Davis writes,

“hopelessness…where there is no human energy or ability to serve as a starter.”

Samson is going to be a miracle baby. God would miraculously place him on history’s stage and use him to deliver His people from the Philistines. Our situation is so dire that we can never achieve deliverance in our own strength and ability.

(2) God demanded a special (read, holy) judge. Verses 4-7, 12-14, and 24-25 record instructions delivered to Samson’s mother about what she was to eat and drink during her pregnancy. All because Samson would “be a Nazarite to God from the womb” (v. 5). Those instructions are restated three times in the chapter to signal their importance.

Added to the miracle is a strong dose of holiness. The savior of God’s people would be set apart to God throughout his life, “a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death” (v. 7).

This is the kind of savior God sent for His people; this is the kind of Savior, of course, that He ultimately provided in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s no surprise that when the angel arrives in another nativity scene such as Luke’s gospel, we have similar circumstances.

These prenatal instructions guide our worship. We don’t encourage, “Be like Samson,” or “Don’t be like Samson” in these early scenes. Maybe later in the chapter. For now it’s simply telling God how much we love Him for rescuing us from our tendency to leave Him for other loves.

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

Randal

Preaching the Highly-Offensive Jephthah Narrative

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Our God revealed in Scripture could very easily be credited with this quote. If you’ve read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, then you know there is plenty of God’s Word that is offensive to our modern and post-modern sensibilities. That is especially true in the Judges 10 and 11 narrative often referred to as, Jephthah’s Tragic Vow.

You probably know the gist of the story: Jephthah vows that if the Lord gives him a military victory over the Ammonites, then he would give as a burnt offering whatever (whomever?) comes out of his front door to greet him upon his return from battle (cf. 11:30-31).

Horror of horrors, we discover in v. 34 that Jephthah’s only daughter is the one that comes out to greet him!

In the middle of expressing to her the great trouble that is happening he says, “…and I cannot take back my vow” (v. 35).

I remember screaming at Jeph’: “What do you mean you can’t take back your vow?!?! Of course you can and you should!!!!” And because he didn’t take back his vow, we receive one of the most offensive looks at the extreme cost of our salvation.

And that angle is very important if you are going to preach this narrative beyond the moralizing that goes something like: “Christians are careful about making rash vows to the Lord unless they cause tremendous heartache…”

Along with being careful whenever we make deals with God, this narrative is an opportunity for us all to express our gratitude for the ultimate sacrifice of God’s only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The parallels in the story are telling: Jephthah is a picture of…

  • our despised and rejected Savior (vv. 10:17–11:11)
  • our Savior who wins the victory for us (vv. 11:12-29)
  • the extreme cost of that victory (vv. 11:30-40 and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s only child).

It doesn’t solve all the problems of the offensive narrative, but maybe this angle will help you help your listeners give thanks for God’s costly free gift.

Preach well for the sake of His glory 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

 

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

How Does God Speak To Us About Us From Judges?

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I am currently preaching through Judges and have entered the final section (the last 5 bizarre chapters). I also just completed reading Joel Green’s, Practicing Theological Interpretation (geared more towards the scholar than practitioner, but still helpful).

I was looking for insight into how to read Scripture in a way that it functions for the Church (building faith). What follows adds to our recent discussion about whether you preach to your congregants about the Bible or about them from the Bible.

Green writes, “The question, then, is how to hear in the words of Scripture the word of God speaking in the present tense” (p. 5).

That’s not always easy in OT narrative sections like Judges 1:27–2:5. Seven times we read, “…did not drive out…” as in, “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages…” (1:27).

God speaks to us through what happen to them, in this case, what God’s people repeatedly didn’t do. The key is to figure out how the repeated failure to drive out the inhabitants addresses us.

Green states, “…if this letter is to serve as Scripture for us, then we will allow it to tell us who we are” (p. 18).

This is a helpful angle when thinking about sermon application. So, what does it look like to allow Judges to tell us who we are? In this section of Judges it looks like a “go and do otherwise” lesson. God’s people didn’t drive out the deadly sinful influences. This is who we are apart from faith and obedience.

So, we say to ourselves and our folks: there is a wrong way to deal with temptation (vv. 1:27-36), God is not happy with that way (vv. 2:1-3), and we must change our ways (vv. 2:4-5).

And, if you’re wondering about a Christo-centric angle on this text, one is found in the Lord’s statement: “I will never break my covenant with you, and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land…” (vv. 2:1-2). God’s people broke their end of the deal; God did not. However, He did break His covenant with His Son on the cross. That’s why He never breaks His covenant with us.

So, let Judges tell us who we are and allow Christ-crucified to change us into His faithful people.

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

Randal