This is the video message we posted for our Central church family last night.
The church building might be empty on Sunday, but so is the tomb!
This is the video message we posted for our Central church family last night.
The church building might be empty on Sunday, but so is the tomb!
“God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” ~1 Corinthians 1:21-25
Preaching is an act of faith because on the surface it doesn’t make sense. What’s preached is foolishness. It takes faith.
Think about it. We take ordinary everyday water and we speak God’s Word. We tell the story of how God has used the water at creation, at the Red Sea, in the womb of a virgin, at the crossing of the Jordan, in the rescue of Noah’s family — and we get baptism, a sacrament for how God saves us.
We take ordinary table bread — just a loaf of bread — and we speak God’s Word. We tell the stories about God feeding his children in the wilderness and Jesus breaking bread with sinners and feeding multitudes on the mountain and God preparing a meal to share with all the saved on that day of glory — and we get the Lord’s Supper, a sacrament for how God takes care of us.
We’ve heard the Word of God preached so much it’s easy for us to forget the power, the wonder, the holiness of that moment when the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit, opens his Bible, clears his throat, takes a deep breath, and dares to speak for God. It’s not a cat video or an epic fail or an advertisement for another new and improved, faster-acting, better-smelling, lifetime-guaranteed product you’ve just gotta have. Preaching is the Word of God, proclaimed to the people of God, as an act of faith in God. It’s a miracle.
I believe it works like the sacraments. Not exactly, but kinda. You know, during the communion meal, the bread is still a plain cracker and the grape juice is still Welch’s grape juice. Or Great Value, I really don’t know. Even after the prayers, it remains crackers and juice. But by faith, God uses the meal to convey to us the reality of our unity and acceptance and fellowship with him and each other.
In the same way, I think that human words spoken by human, sinful, fallen preachers are still human words, even after all the prayer and study and meditation. But by faith, God uses the words to communicate the realities of his eternal love and grace for us. It’s divine speech. It’s an act of faith.
Preaching is not a lecture, it’s not a book report, it’s not somebody telling you what to do, and it’s not new information — after two-thousand years of preaching, what’s new? No, it’s an exercise in faith.
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my Word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” ~Isaiah 55:10-11
I’ve been preaching full time for almost thirteen years. When I first started, my sermons were not very good. My preaching was not great. Those poor people in Marble Falls and the mid-cities of northeast Tarrant County burned off years of purgatory listening to those sermons. Those folks are going to be escorted straight to heaven!
But, let me tell you, even today, the sermons are hardly ever as good as I want them to be. I’m almost always disappointed. Almost always. I take comfort in the words of Augustine. He’s one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church. And he wrote this over 1,600 years ago:
“My own way of expressing myself almost always disappoints me. I am anxious for the best possible, as I feel it in me before I start bringing it into the open in plain words; and when I see that it is less impressive than I had felt it to be, I am saddened that my tongue cannot live up to my heart.”
I don’t think I’m committing homiletical homicide every week. I’m just not as good as I want to be at finding the right words and putting them in the right order to communicate the powerful things the Lord puts in my heart. It’s disappointing. But I believe with all my soul God is using every single word I say — the best ones and the ones I’d like to have back — to do exactly what he wants done.
I know what you want. You want inspiring sermons, sermons that soar, sermons that rise to the lofty heights of our God and his eternal love and his matchless grace; you want sermons that challenge and convict and compel you to action. I do, too. I really, really do. And sometimes it happens. Sometimes it works. The preaching sometimes gives you something you need to hear, it comforts you or encourages you at exactly the right moment, it opens your eyes to an everlasting truth that changes everything for you. We go to church wanting that, expecting that. And when it happens, we know it’s the Lord. That’s our God at work.
Our Father is in charge of our sermons, not our preachers. He alone inspires, he alone speaks, he alone puts his Word exactly where it needs to go, when it needs to go there, and he alone causes it to grow and bear Kingdom fruit to his eternal glory and praise.
I have no idea what’s happening in our preaching. And no control. I don’t know where the words are going, but they are going somewhere. I trust that. I know that. Our God will never allow his words to return to him empty. If I didn’t trust that God was in charge of the preaching, I wouldn’t do it. And you wouldn’t sit through it. Preaching is an act of faith for all of us.
Most preachers are neurotic. And deeply flawed. And most of the Church knows it. Of course, we preachers know it, too. And we’re capable of making fun of ourselves. I was at a preacher’s convention in Dallas last year and they were giving out door prizes and the most popular one was this T-shirt: Help! I’m preaching and I can’t shut up!” I wanted it so badly.
This series of posts is not about preachers. It’s about preaching.
I want to post this week about preaching as one of the many things that’s right with Church. Not the preachers — the preachers are one of the things that’s wrong with church. I’ll do that series someday: “What’s Wrong with Church.” Budget sermons, cold casseroles, Friends Day, and preachers.
“I became a servant of this Gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~Ephesians 3:7-11
Grace here is not about Paul’s salvation or anybody’s forgiveness. This is about Paul’s preaching. It’s a gift of God and this gift obligates Paul to use it.
You know when you give someone a gift you expect him or her to use it. If you give somebody a new shirt for Christmas, you can’t wait to see him again and you’re hoping he’s wearing that shirt. If you give someone a book, you hope she reads it and enjoys it and the next time you see each other you want to talk to her about the book. If somebody gives you something to put up in your house and it’s really awful — some ugly vase or some hideous painting — you can’t throw it away! You have to keep it! You keep it in the back of a closet somewhere and when those people come over you hold your nose and pull that thing out of the closet and hang it on the wall until they leave!
Preaching is a gift of God’s grace to Paul and Paul is obligated to exercise it. He knew he had this great gift from the Lord, but he also had a good handle on it. He calls himself less than the least of all God’s people. And he really believed it. He put no stock in his own abilities, he didn’t feel like he outranked anybody or was important in any way. It’s all a gift from God. Deep down, Paul felt like he should have been rejected by God, but he was chosen instead.
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service… I was shown mercy… The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus… I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” ~1 Timothy 1:12-17
Preaching is a gift of God’s grace and it obligates the preacher. God puts that inside of a preacher and he can’t shake it. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul says, “I can’t boast when I preach the Gospel because I’m compelled to preach. I’m forced by God. Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel!”
Somebody asked Mick Jagger one time what it takes to make good rock and roll. He said, “Three chords and a fire.” I think what makes good preaching is like that. Maybe three points and a fire. Something God himself puts inside the preacher.
I don’t always preach what our people want to hear. I preach what’s burning inside my bones, the stuff I can’t shake, what I feel like God is almost forcing me to say. And I’m always terrified. I’m always scared when I’m preaching. I don’t feel worthy. I don’t feel qualified. I know myself too well. I know myself and my sins. Who am I to stand up here in front of all these faithful men and women, these giants, and speak for God? That song right before the sermon? I’m praying the whole time. My heart’s racing, my hands get super cold, and I’m praying.
God help me. Thank you for this blessing, for this great privilege and honor, but you’ve got to help me. Holy Spirit, help me. Help me to remember everything you and I have worked on together this week. Help me say it exactly the way you want me to.
And then when Kevin starts that last verse?
It’s you and me, Jesus. Let’s get up there and see what happens. And I hope my sermon is better received than yours was.
Preaching is a gift of grace, to proclaim Christ, to explain and make plain the good news of the Gospel. And as a result of that preaching, the church participates in God’s plan. Sometimes I might say despite the preaching. And that’s the grace, right? Somehow the preaching causes what God is doing to be revealed through the church to all the powers and authorities throughout the whole universe. Preaching leads to unity and love and sacrifice and service and worship in the church and, by God’s grace, that reveals God’s power and wisdom and proves what he’s already accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It’s grace. Only by the grace of God does preaching accomplish anything.
In 1 Corinthians 10, the apostle Paul tells the old story of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness and they way they complained and rebelled and how God faithfully provided. Paul says they were all baptized when they passed through the waters, just like us (10:2). They ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink from Christ Jesus, just like us (10:3). These things are examples for us, Paul writes (10:6). He says these things were written down for us as warnings (10:11). What happened to them, he writes, is common to all people, it happens to all of us (10:13). And, he says, God is faithful in all of it (10:13).
You see what Paul’s doing. He’s telling our story. The Bible is our story.
Story doesn’t just tell us something and leave it there, it invites us to participate. A good story drags us in. We feel the emotions, we get caught up in the drama, we identify with the characters, doors and windows get flung open, and we the nooks and crannies of our lives and our world we had missed.
The Bible as our story brings us into the vast wonderful world God creates and saves and blesses and offers us a place in that world. It shows us where we are. Good stories show more than they tell. And the Bible is the greatest story of all time.
“From infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the child of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” ~2 Timothy 3:15-17.
The Bible is a story. If we read it and interpret it like a book of rules and regulations or like some kind of constitution, we won’t get it. We’ll respond to it in the wrong way. If you mistake a recipe for chicken enchiladas for a manual on putting a vacuum cleaner together, you’re going to wind up hungry in a very dirty house. If you misread a highway sign that says “Speed Limit 65” for a randomly posted bit of information and not the stern law of the land it is, a police officer is going to pull you over and give you a brief, but expensive, lesson in hermeneutics.
The Bible is not a moral code that says, “Live up to this.” It’s not a system of doctrines that says, “Think like this.” The Bible tells a story and invites us in. “Live into this.” This is what it looks like to be a human being in righteous relationship with God and others. This is what God wants. This is what God is doing. And here’s where you are. Now live into it.
“You accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is at work in you who believe.” ~1 Thessalonians 2:13
Sometimes I am blind Bartimaeus on the side of the road near Jericho. Calling out to Jesus in my pain. Surrendering my life to the Lord. Yielding to his will. And he mercifully heals me.
Sometimes I am Naaman, covered with sores, dying of disease, and wanting to be saved, but on my terms. I try to dictate just how God needs to deal with me. He needs to do it my way. So arrogant. And he heals me anyway.
Always, I am Peter. Always shooting my mouth off, always wanting to be up front, always wanting to be the leader. One minute I pledge my allegiance to the Lord — Even if I have to die with you, I will never leave you! — and the next minute I’m a shrinking coward, warming myself at the world’s fire and denying that I even know who Jesus is. And then Jesus comes to me and asks, “Do you still love me? Then, come on, let’s keep going.”
Is that you? Where are you right now in the Bible’s beautiful story?
Are you Martha? So busy. Way too busy. Running around like a chicken with your head cut off, taking care of all the urgent stuff that needs to be done. Family. House. Chores. Neglecting your most important relationships. Maybe avoiding your relationship with Christ. And Jesus knows it. He’s sitting right there in the next room, waiting for you to slow down and pay attention to him. Even though you haven’t talked to him in months or even years, he keeps coming over. Have you noticed that about Jesus? He keeps coming over.
Are you Zacchaeus? You’ve got a great job, lots of money, wonderful benefits, more than enough security. But you’re alone. You’re not close to anybody. You’re just watching all the church people do all their church things and you don’t understand it at all. But here he comes. Here comes Jesus, walking right up to you. He pulls you down out of your tree and says, “I’m coming over. I’m coming to your house right now.”
Maybe you’re being torn apart by a terrible storm. The flood waters are rising, the things you love and the people you know are being destroyed. It’s dark and people are dying. It’s scary, this flood. And you know that God uses these times to cleanse and renew and recreate and make things right. But you don’t know if you’re in the ark with Noah or out in the water drowning. Listen as God’s Church reminds you, “You’re with us. You’re safe. You’re saved.”
Are you David? The King of Israel, the man after God’s own heart. What did God see when he looked at David that day and chose him and blessed him? David was just a kid, kind of an afterthought, just a boy hanging out with the sheep. Remember the story? What did God see in him that day? Did he see David’s fierce violence or his fierce loyalty? Did he see David as the great psalmist or as the notorious outlaw? Did he see David’s prayers and humility or the adultery and lying and murder and all the sin? God saw all of it. Every bit of it. And God still picked David. He chose David. And he chose you in Jesus Christ before the foundations of the earth.
The Bible is our story. It’s got our God on every page. It reveals our God who loves us intensely and saves us faithfully and who will not be stopped or even slowed down in his determination to live with us eternally. The story’s got all that.
You’re in there, too. It’s got you, too.
“A truth, a doctrine, or a religion needs no space for itself. They are disembodied entities. They are heard and learned and apprehended and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears and hearts but living people who will follow him. That is why he called his disciples into a literal, bodily following and thus made his fellowship with them a visible reality.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Ours is an incarnational faith, not a disembodied abstraction. That’s how our God works in us and through us for the sake of the world. People don’t get agitated over what they can’t see. People don’t risk their lives for invisible concepts. Only a visible flesh-and-blood people church works, because salvation is not a one-time, single event. Salvation is not just having your name moved from the “unsaved” column to the Book of Life when you’re baptized. Salvation is restoration, reconciliation, transformation, and healing. Yes, it starts by being united to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But it continues — in fits and starts, off and on, usually slowly, but surely — in the Church. By looking at each other across the table during the communion meal and discerning the body. By learning how to worship and serve together. By practicing love and mercy together. By forgiving others and receiving that forgiveness. By experiencing acceptance and belonging.
You can’t get that from an ideal concept or an abstract theology. You can only feel that and experience that together in a broken and messy church-people church.
So when we stand together and recite the two-thousand-year-old words of the Apostles’ Creed, we can say we believe in the holy, universal Church. We believe that in this place, in this assembly, God is at work. We don’t believe in the Church; the Church is not the object of our faith. But we do believe that in this congregation, whenever we come together, the Holy Spirit’s saving, sanctifying, transforming work is taking place.
“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up one part, but of many… In fact, God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be… Now you are the Body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” ~1 Corinthians 12
Our Father brought the Church into the world the same way he brought our Savior into the world: by a miracle. The miracle of the Church is every bit as miraculous as the birth of Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended on Mary in the Galilean village of Nazareth. Thirty-something years later, that same Holy Spirit of God descended upon 120 men and women praying in an upper room in Jerusalem. Mary was with them. The first Holy Spirit conception gave us Jesus as a person. The second Holy Spirit conception gave us the Church, Jesus as a people.
It was a miracle that didn’t look that grand or important. God was working in and through the powerless, the vulnerable, the weak. Not very different from any random congregation you might look up today. Just like your church. And mine. A group of people who are not wise by human standards, not influential, not of noble birth; just weak and lowly flesh-and-blood people.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen!” ~Ephesians 3:20-21
Church people are one of the Church’s biggest problems. Church people seem to be what’s wrong with Church. Church people can be an obstruction to the Gospel, a hindrance, an obstacle. The 18th century poet Robert Southey famously wrote, “I could believe in Christ if he did not drag behind him his leprous bride.” In William Willimon’s words, “Jesus has many admirers who feel like he married beneath his station.” You and I know folks who say “Yes” to Jesus but “No” to the Church. They claim to be spiritual, but not religious. And Church people appear to be the reason.
Church people are not perfect. We don’t look like saints are supposed to look. We don’t always act redeemed or restored. In fact, Church people are mostly a mess. But the Bible recognizes that. Nobody knows Church people better than Paul. And in 1 Corinthians, he straight up calls it out.
“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not…” ~1 Corinthians 1:26-29
That doesn’t make church easy. Paul spends most of his time dealing with Church problems caused by Church people. He’s putting out fires for the elders at the church in Corinth. He’s rebuking a sectarian element at the church in Galatia. He’s encouraging the discouraged Christians at the church in Philippi. He’s trying to bring together the bickering factions at the church in Ephesus. The greatest challenge in following Jesus is his Body, the Church. So a lot of people want to follow Jesus in the safety of their own living rooms with a choir and a preacher on TV. They’d rather worship from a campsite in the canyon or a cabin the mountains or in the privacy of their own backyard.
Church people are an obstruction. That shouldn’t surprise us because our Lord Jesus is a stumbling block! Jesus himself is a problem!
“Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” ~1 Corinthians 1:22-23
It is a shocking and glorious thing that God Almighty loves us so much that he refused to stay above us or beyond us but came to this earth in our Lord Jesus. He came to be with us in our problems. He jumped right into the middle of our problems. But the way he came is a problem. We’re all ready for God to be the King. We’re ready for Jesus to be Lord of all. Hosanna in the highest! We’re at the front of the parade! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! But the way he comes is a problem.
Kings aren’t born to unmarried peasants in a stable in Bethlehem. Kings aren’t raised as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth. Remember Nathanael? Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Kings don’t eat with sinners. They don’t hang out with tax collectors who work for the occupying enemy forces. The Messiah doesn’t break the Sabbath traditions. The Savior from God doesn’t refuse to raise an army, he doesn’t allow himself to be insulted and beaten without fighting back, and he certainly doesn’t die a criminal’s death on a cross.
That’s a problem. An obstruction. A stumbling block.
Several times over the first 300 years of the Church, different groups of Christians were tempted to fall into what’s called Docetism, the idea that Jesus wasn’t really human. He was 100% divine, he was 100% God, and he was zero-percent human. He only appeared to be human. Docetism is from a Greek word that means “to appear” or “to seem.” They thought they were doing Jesus a great honor by this teaching. By saying that Jesus was not flesh-and-blood, they thought they were making him more holy and divine. But really what they were doing was making Jesus more safe. More sanitary. Sterile. If he’s just a disembodied, ethereal spirit, he’s almost irrelevant. Jesus is not so disturbing or challenging if he’s just a being from outer space.
And if you’re struggling with the Incarnation, how much more are you going to struggle with the Church? You’ll admire Christ and you’ll find him attractive and inspiring, but you’ll really be turned off by his Body. The idea of Christ is fine. But the fleshly reality is repulsive.
And you’ll argue that when Jesus called people to follow him, he had something else in mind other than the Church. Something spiritual and pure. Non-corporate. Non-institutional. Not the Church the way we experience it today. Can anything good come out of 1401 South Monroe? Or wherever your church is located?
The truth is our Lord Jesus is a flesh-and-blood person. And his Church, his Body, is a flesh-and-blood people. That’s the beauty and the glory of our salvation. And I’ll fill that out a little more in this space tomorrow. This is a two-parter.