Preaching the Theology of Simeon and Anna’s Example

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For several reasons, I am happy to be done with Luke’s birth narratives! Christmas preaching continues to be one of my toughest assignments. When I began our current series through Luke’s Gospel (February 2013), the plan was to skip the early narratives and save them for Advent. This morning I struggled through Luke 2:22-38, my final Christmas Text.

These verses contain five, law-abiding citizens: Joseph, Mary, Jesus (although Jesus has no choice in the matter; His parents make sure He gets off to the right start), Simeon, and Anna. There is little doubt in my mind these characters present the best Israel has to offer. They are examples for us to follow. The verses contain a mixture of righteous actions and descriptions. Simeon, for instance, is “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (cf. Luke 2:25). Anna never leaves the church, “worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (cf. Luke 2:37).

So, we certainly must follow their example. Otherwise we’re lumped in with those who oppose Jesus, the Sign (cf. Luke 2:34). But we also must link their character with their faith. They are those who will rise because of their faith in God’s promised Messiah. Simeon says, “…this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel…so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (cf. Luke 2:34, 35). The four characters in this section, minus Jesus, have responded to God’s revelation. Their hearts revealed love for God and a desire to serve Him. And now, with Jesus in sight and on hand, they enter a new chapter of their lives.

Apparently, Simeon, Anna, and Joseph will not have the privilege of following Jesus in life (scholars believe Joseph died early). We have the privilege of following Him and, in so doing, we’re elevated by Jesus (I.e., “rising of many…”). Jesus’ message reveals humble hearts that acknowledge His rule and accept His grace. Our lives are transformed accordingly. We grow to emulate these fine, righteous characters. This is Luke’s way of helping us be sure our faith is not only well-placed, but also well-executed.

Enjoy a blessed Christmas.

Preaching Theology From Jesus’ Hyper-Humiliating Birth

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This past Sunday I reached the zenith of my creativity. Some of you know that’s not too high. But anyway, I outlined Luke 2:1-20 using Christmas hymns:

1. O little town of Bethlehem (vv. 1-7)

2. While shepherds watched their flocks (vv. 8-9)

3. What Child is this? (vv. 10-12)

4. Angels we have heard on high (vv. 13-14)

5. Go, tell it on the mountain (vv. 15-20)

I know some of you creative folks are laughing, but this was a huge accomplishment. But, that’s not important right now…

Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life–the incarnation–highlights Mary’s statement in 1:52 “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” For instance, in Luke 2:1-2 we read of mighty rulers who will soon lose their thrones. In v. 4 we read again of Nazareth, the town with a nasty reputation according to John’s gospel. In that same verse we read of Bethlehem, which, according to Micah 5:2, was too little to be the birthplace of a ruler. Both Nazareth and Bethlehem are examples of the exaltation of those of humble estate. And, then, of course, we have Jesus being laid “in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7).

In his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Yancey writes, “it seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstance possible for His entrance.” Rarely, if ever, does one celebrate humiliation. But we do these weeks! Jesus laid in a feed box, possibly a depression in the cold ground in a cave or stable. You can’t get any more humble estate than that! The highest level of mercy took the highest level of humility.

And, then, there’s the presence of shepherds. I don’t know of any other class of people more despised in Jesus’ day, but more adored in our day during Christmas time. It’s not unusual that they were working the graveyard shift that night; it is highly unusual that God saw fit to send the Angel of the Lord to them. Another example of God doing what Mary said in Luke 1:52, exalting those of humble estate. And besides making sure we all believe the message of the angel of the Lord and the Christmas angels, the shepherds provide an example for Christians to follow. They heard God’s message, believed it, and shared it. Who else could God have told who would have responded like the shepherds? Imagine God sending His messenger to royalty, announcing that a Savior, a Lord was born? Imagine august Augustus’ response. No, it’s best for us to take our place with “those of humble estate.”

Preaching the Theology of Gabriel’s, Annunciation, and Mary’s, Magnificat

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One of the things that makes preaching at Christmas time difficult for me is that the early sections of Luke’s Gospel contain a mixture of narrative and poetry. Whenever genres converge, hermeneutics gets a bit messy. In this case, while the narrative highlights the birth of our Lord, Gabriel’s speech and Mary’s song contain the theology. So much of our salvation is unpacked in these narratives: all the magnificent titles (“Son of the Most High” in Luke 1:32) and all the descriptions of what Jesus came to do (“he will reign…” Luke 1:33). Mary’s Magnificat contains eight “he has” sayings which tell what God has done in bringing Jesus to Mary and our world (Luke 1:46-55).

One of the key applications is to follow Mary’s faith. She says in Luke 1:38 “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And in the Magnificat? Believers say the same things that Mary said. Of course, in order to say the same things Mary said, we have to experience the same thing Mary experienced. Not the giving birth to Jesus part, of course. But the dying with Jesus part (“I am crucified with Christ…”). Certainly “the humble estate” part (cf. Luke 1:48, 52) and “those who fear him” part (cf. Luke 1:50). Like Mary, Christians magnify the Lord. We praise Him because of His greatness and for all the reasons given in her famous song. So, instead of asking professing Believers, Do you have a Magnificat?, it might be more accurate to ask them if they are experiencing the grace and mercy of God that causes one to sing such a song.

Luke’s careful research into the life of Jesus is designed to help us be sure our faith is well-placed and well-executed. Anyone that has placed genuine trust in Jesus has experienced what Mary said. Their well-executed faith includes the consistent desire and capacity to “magnify the Lord” (cf. Luke 1:46).

Preaching “Go and do likewise” Sermons

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Both Old and New Testament narratives provide numerous opportunities to preach exemplar sermons. As you know, exemplar sermons are those that urge us all to either “go and do likewise” (follow a character’s good example) or “go and do otherwise” (not follow a character’s bad example). Not everyone agrees on whether this kind of interpretation and application is valid. Sydney Greidanus, for instance, votes, “No!”

Luke 8:1-3 is one of those narratives that is designed to function as an exemplar. In this case, the women who were following Jesus along with the Twelve are examples for us to follow. Luke tells us that many women, including the three listed, “provided for them out of their means” (v. 3). These women used their own resources to keep Jesus and the Twelve operating. Most of you will not struggle with applying this list to your congregations. You will be able to say, “Take your place in Jesus’ entourage.” As we do, we are following the lead of these faithful women.

If you’re wondering how to keep the sermon from only being a moralism, one answer lies in reminding everyone that some of these women “had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities…” (v. 2). These women are not “good” women who just decided to “go and do good.” These women have been changed by the Gospel (v. 1). They now give back to God what they have received from God. Their encounter with Jesus changed them. They now follow Him as an act of worship. Whenever we’re preaching sermons that urge us all to use our spiritual gifts, it’s important to remember that Christ gave His body to create the Body of Christ. That created Body is loaded with gifts. I love the way 1 Peter 4:10-11 divide the gifts into two broad categories: speaking and serving. For those that struggle with locating their spiritual gift, I offer the encouraging thought that they have a 50-50 change of getting it right according to Peter’s two-fold division.

Anyway, I’m sure you can think of other ways to preach exemplar sermons. I’m only attempting to say that some preaching portions must be preached that way or else we run the risk of not saying what Luke is saying to the Church.

What Our Applications Say About Our Interpretations

I just finished reading, Whose Community? Which Interpretation?, a brief discussion of how philosophical hermeneutics affects the church. On page 110 the author writes, “To understand is to apply; to apply differently is to understand differently.”

Probably the best example of this is how sermons on the Prodigal Son are usually applied. The most common application of Luke 15 is to call all prodigals to come home to Christ. We understand the parable to revolve around the prodigal who left his father’s house. To understand is to apply. You probably know that the parable is designed to focus attention on the attitude of the religious leaders (cf. Luke 15:1-2). To understand the parable that way means applying it differently: focusing on the older brother (the only one who does not rejoice when the lost is found). This requires a different kind of altar call.

Whenever you’re preaching on a narrative, check to see if your application (often some form of exemplar: “go and do likewise” or “go and do otherwise”) points to a different understanding than the preaching portion is intended to communicate.

Fighting the Temptation to Copy Cat the Temptation of Jesus in Luke 4

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The picture above from tumblr.com is a fitting reminder of the temptation we face to copy the actions of Jesus in the Gospels. Luke 4:1-13 records the devil tempting Jesus to sin. First, notice the link between Luke 3:38 (“the son of God”) and Luke 4:3, 9. Luke is showing us how the Son of God handled temptation, not primarily how we should handle it. Luke shows us a Savior who defeated Satan in Luke 4 and would ultimately defeat him at the end of the Story on the cross. It is because we have such a Savior that we have any hope of defeating temptation, too. We don’t defeat temptation because we can quote appropriate verses from Deuteronomy (just think how helpless a brand new Christian is until they build up enough Scripture memory to tackle a variety of temptations!). No, first, we defeat temptation when we trust our Savior to do what we cannot do. Then, we can copy Jesus by living out the Scripture we know to be truer than temptations’ lies.

How Not to Moralize John’s Moralistic-sounding Gospel

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One hurdle in preaching the Gospels is the presence of moralistic-sounding messages. Luke 3:10-14 contains John’s message. In response to John’s warning about the need for bearing fruit “in keeping with repentance,” his listeners ask, “What then shall we do?” John answers with three specific things to do. That’s it. No talk of faith in Christ. I suggest that in order to preach Luke 3:1-14, we need to make a clear statement about John’s moralistic-sounding Gospel making sense with the following section on Jesus’ soon-coming baptism with the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 3:15-17). John preaches his moralistic-sounding message knowing that faith in Christ will create the desire and capacity to do those three distinctly Christian acts and more.

Isaiah 57:14-21 Theology through Positive and Negative Exemplars

Despite what some say about exemplar preaching, it’s impossible to avoid it entirely in a preaching portion like Isaiah 57:14-21. Surely, Isaiah addresses the Church by showing us a good example to follow (the “go and do likewise” of Isaiah 57:15). Just as certainly, Isaiah also addresses us by showing us a bad example to avoid (the “go and do otherwise” of Isaiah 57:20-21). Where exemplar preaching breaks down in my opinion is when the exemplars are held up by themselves and God’s people only hear the preacher say at the end of the sermon: “Now, go and do likewise or go and do otherwise.” Better to begin the end of the sermon by point out that our Lord was presented in Isaiah 53:5, 10 as being “crushed” (same Hebrew term translated “contrite” in Isaiah 57:15). When a person receives Christ as their Sovereign Savior, He transforms them into one “who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” He turns the wicked into the righteous. The exemplar works after the Gospel has done its work. Isaiah continues to urge the Church to leave worldliness behind and ready itself for the return of the Servant/King who will completely destroy all who rebel against Him and completely deliver all who trust Him. The catch: all who trust Him must look like Him. In this case, they must share God’s perspective on their sin and need of redemption.