361. (classroom) sermon on Mark 1:4-11

[PREFACE]

I know I just posted up a “sermon” a few days ago and here I am, putting up another one.

What can I say, it’s just what I’ve been doing in grad school lately.

This sermon was written for my homiletics (preaching) class.

One of the things we’ve been learning in the class is the importance of context. Not so much the biblical or historical context of the text one is preaching on (that’s been covered in other classes), but the context of the congregation. The sermon, if it is to be effective, must take into context the people to whom it is delivered.

The sermons we write for this class are written for our classmates.

I make a point of saying that because it really does shape where I go in the sermon and might help you make sense of some of the places I go in the message. (It also helps make sense of the odd paragraph breaks and the sentence fragments – they’re written in such a way to help me deliver the message. It’s hard to explain. When I write something that’s going to be read, I write one way. When I write something that I’m going to read, I write another way. This is an example of the latter.)

Our teacher tells us that sermons are for a particular people in a particular place at a particular time. Because of this, she frowns on reusing sermons. A part of me wonders what she’d think of me posting up this sermon – something written for grad students, in a classroom, a few days ago; rather than for a somewhat anonymous audience, on the internet, for whenever you happen to click on it – but here’s the thing. I’m posting this up because I want to reference it in another post I’m working on.

…and to be completely transparent with you all, I’m posting it because I really like it.

[END PREFACE]

Mark 1:4-11

(4)John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (5)And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (6)Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. (7)He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. (8)I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

(9) In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. (10)And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. (11)And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Can we get this right out in the open, right at the beginning, and say that this is a strange text? For one thing, in Mark’s Gospel, John just appears out of nowhere. Poof! Preaching repentance and baptizing people out in the wilderness.

What’s going on here? I mean, if he’s out there in the wilderness, how did people find out about him? And why were they drawn to a message of repentance?

And it’d be one thing if there were just a few people out there, checking out this space oddity, but Mark tells us that people were coming from all over – “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem.”

Can you picture the scene? A throng of people, the hot sun, a hot wind stirring up the dusty air? And at the center of it all, a man with an ugly, brown, camel hair tunic – bits of grasshopper and honey still clinging to his beard.

And what’s he saying?

“Repent! Be baptized! Be washed, be cleansed of your sins!”

And that’s striking enough because sins aren’t forgiven out in the desert, they’re forgiven in the temple. But in a way, it’s not so surprising because there have been eccentric teachers like this before preaching other wild and wooly messages.

No, it’s the next thing he says that really catches their attention.

He says, “Don’t look at me, there’s someone else, someone greater. I’m just getting you ready for him.”

Now this is really new. Previous wilderness “messiahs” have always pointed to themselves as the solution. But this guy? He’s pointing them towards something else, someONE else, something coming but not yet here.

Still, I’ll admit, I had a really hard time getting my head around this story, especially when it came to preaching on it – where’s the good news? I mean, Jesus hasn’t even begun his ministry yet, what is there to preach on? What on earth does it have to do with us today?

And then it came to me.

In a way, John was heading up the first Occupy movement – the Occupy Judaism movement.

Because what is the contemporary Occupy movement about? A bunch of people who see systemic injustice being done and want to do something about it. And so they take to the wilderness of the unsheltered urban streets – a wilderness starkly different than that of the Judean desert, but perhaps no less dangerous or uncomfortable.

And John didn’t actually come out of nowhere. Mark tells us that he came preaching, right out of the pages of prophecy – Isaiah 40:3, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” And what does that mean, to make straight paths? I think the larger context of the Isaiah text makes this clear.

“Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”

A level playing field – the very message of the Occupy movement.

Because I wonder if a landscape strewn with valleys (people living lower than others) and mountains (people living high above) is a land that blocks out the light for far too many?

Is it inequality that Isaiah is concerned with here? Is this the message that John was bringing, the message that so many were attracted to?

John is out there in the wilderness, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And he’s calling forth a society where access to the grace of forgiveness is no longer controlled by the powerful few but available to all.

Back then, the only people who could forgive sins were the religious elite, those of the priestly clan. This was a system that was supposed to create community but somehow it had gotten corrupted. It became about power and prestige rather than holiness and blessing. And the people knew it and that’s, I suppose, one reason why they were drawn out in the wilderness to John – for free access to forgiveness.

And not just forgiveness.

Again, the oddity of John was not just his clothes and his diet. No, he was offering something even stranger: a hope – a hope not based in himself and not even in a distant, abstract, holy God, but in another person. And that seems obvious to us now, but imagine their surprise back then. Imagine the strange, hopeful mystery that John was inviting them into – to look and to wait for someone else.

Because it’s one thing to say, “I am the answer, I am the one to put your hopes in.” It’s another thing entirely to say, “I’m just the messenger telling you to buckle up because someone else is coming who’s going to take this world in an entirely different direction. And repentance? That’s getting you turned in the right direction so you don’t get whiplash when the change does come!”

Anyway, I suppose that’s one way to look at John the Baptist. But how does that speak to us today? What’s the message for us?

When I started working on this message, I complained a lot. I thought it was unfair to be given a text which, really, is prologue. Jesus’ formal ministry doesn’t begin until another four verses after my pericope. How do I preach on that?

And then it hit me. Maybe I have the easiest passage of them all. Because the parallel between then and now, that story and ours?

Divinity students at The Seattle School, most of us envisioning ourselves going into some sort of ministry informed by the Gospel of Jesus – we are John the Baptist.

We point to hope in a world desperate for some hope to cling to. More than that, we point to an embodied hope, a physical hope, a storied hope.

And in this increasingly secularized world, a world where we can hold a computer, disguised as a phone, in our hands. A world that can harness the atom to power (or to destroy) our cities. A world with flight and medicine and the internet which can simultaneously topple regimes and deliver pictures of cats with silly captions to make us laugh.

In a world like this, I wonder if we might look like John the Baptist. No, we might not dress in uncomfortable clothes or eat bugs, but the message we believe, the message we bring? Isn’t that just as odd if not more so?

For those of us in the Theories of Culture class, we are learning that lasting world change never happens in a vacuum. It requires a whole host of disparate elements to come together unpredictably, uncontrollably.

I don’t know, is it too grandiose to say that we’re living in just such a time today – a time when the world is pregnant with new possibilities, a time when change is in the air, a time when more and more people are becoming aware of the injustice of inequality – and, more importantly, are willing to do something about it?

A time when the air all around us is rich with the gospel message of hope and love and freedom.

John tapped into the change that was already in the air in his time – that’s what drew people to him. People were desperate for change, for hope, and for someone powerful who could get them out of the mess they were in. And there was John, getting them ready for and pointing them towards Jesus.

And that’s what we get to do.

But I don’t want to sugar coat our task. Yes, ours is a good, hopeful work in a world and time ripe for change, but we would do well to remember that ours will also be a difficult, messy, maybe even dangerous work. I mean, John got himself jailed and then beheaded.

But we also do well to remember that out on the banks of the Jordan River with John’s voice crying out in the wilderness – Jesus showed up for John.

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356. thoughts on delivering my first sermon

About a week ago, I got to preach my first actual sermon. Prior to this, I had been a part of a house church and I had co-led a small group Bible study for Quest Church, but I had never actually preached in front of an actual congregation, behind an actual pulpit.

Couple thoughts regarding the experience.

  1. Sermon prep is HARD work!
    For one thing the text I had to preach on was pretty difficult:

    Matthew 5:10 (TNIV)
    Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    I mean the plain sense of the text is pretty clear. Jesus is saying that people who get beat down for doing good (no good dead goes unpunished?) are blessed.

    But there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface.

    Read in the context of the Sermon on the Mount (SotM), Jesus is using this verse and the ones that follow (Matthew 5:11-12) to prepare his audience to hear the heart of the sermon – the idea of fulfilling the law (Matthew 5:17-20). What Jesus does in the whole of the SotM is a radical reconceptualization of what it means for Jews to follow the Jewish Law. In a way, this last part of the Beatitudes serves as a transition point between the blessings of the Beatitudes (sort of an appetizer) and the main course of the meal (fulfilling the Law).

    From a preaching standpoint, that’s a lot of material to unpack. But that’s just dealing with how the verse was heard in the time it was preached and that’s only part of what a good sermon does.

    The other part is tying the original message to a contemporary application and that was also difficult. Because while it’s easy to find present day examples of Christian persecution in the world, a lot of that persecution happens far outside of America. I wanted to find a way of talking about persecution much, much closer to home.

    In trying to communicate all of this (the historical context along with contemporary application), I went through a bunch of drafts, trying to cram all this information in. The first drafts were hopelessly academic and abstract – a reflection on all the research I had done. While that might have made for a nice essay for grad school, it did not communicate well to the intended audience.

    Thankfully, I have a mentor who’s helping me prepare for my eventual church plant and after reading one of my later drafts, he gave me some really great advice about how to boil my ideas down to their essence. The sermon you see above would have been a mess without his advice.

    Granted, this was my first sermon and I learned a lot in the process (both the prep and the preaching) but I gotta say, it was WAY harder and took WAY more time than I thought it would.

    But you know what? I loved it!

    Well, most of it, because…

  2. Perspective – short term

    I’ll be totally transparent and honest here and admit that after preaching my sermon, I was left wondering how much good it did.

    Because here’s the thing. I thought about all the times that I’ve been in church and just let the sermon drift on by me. Take the average Sunday morning service. On the Monday after church, if you asked me what the sermon that Sunday had been about, probably two thirds of the time, I’d have a really hard time recollecting. And that’s assuming I stayed tuned in during that Sunday’s sermon.

    Preaching is an art – a kind of performance art. You do all this prep work beforehand and then you present what you’ve come up with and then it’s out of your hands. Once it’s out there, it belongs to the audience and they’re free to accept, reject, forget, or even completely misunderstand it.

    It’s quite a sobering experience.

  3. Perspective – long term

    Despite those doubts about the actual effectiveness of my sermon, I realized something else.

    While any given congregant might not be impacted by any particular sermon, I was still struck by the awesome responsibility that preaching is.

    A moment ago, I likened preaching to an art, and that metaphor works here as well. The long term impact/influence of a great artist usually isn’t contained in any one piece – it’s recognized in the body of their work. But in order to have that impact, the artist must have a vision that they are trying to communicate – a vision large enough to encompass a lifetime of work.

    The thing that struck me about preaching is how important it is to have some larger vision about what the Bible (more specifically, the Gospel message of Jesus) is about. What is the grand narrative of the Bible into which the Christian life is lived?

    This should be a narrative that’s large enough to make sense of all that goes on in all areas of the universe – from individual tragedies that befall particular congregants, to societal upheavals, to local/national/global political dynamics, to discoveries in the area of science.

    It should make sense of ethical dilemmas both mundane (what to do when your co-worker keeps stealing your red stapler) and profound (how to weigh the benefits of stem-cell research with the need to respect the dignity of human life).

    It should also be accessible to the average congregant. It shouldn’t be some complicated theological construct that only Bible geeks can understand, but at the same time, it should be able to hold up to critique both from within the realm of Christian thought as well as from without (for example, it should be able to offer a compelling response to the New Atheism movement).

    One thing I want to make clear here. I’m not saying that every person who wants to go into full time pastoral ministry should have an understanding of the Gospel that can live up to all these standards (I know I don’t have that!) but tI think it is something to which pastors should aspire (I know I do) because, again, as with the artist, the larger the vision, the better the chances of long term impact.

    All that to say, the act of preaching drove home to me the enormity of the task that I’m taking on as I work towards planting a church after I’m done with grad school. Clearly, I have a lot of work to do.

  4. Audience feedback

    For the bulk of my adult life, I’ve been involved in bands. From my mid-twenties to my late-thirties, I spent more time in bands than out of them. In fact, it was because of a band (Harrison, RIP) that I made the move out to Seattle almost five years ago.

    During all that time with a bunch of different bands, audience reaction was never a big deal for me. From a show where after playing our first song, only three kids remained (of the hundred or so that were there when we started the song) to playing in front of almost a thousand people opening up for My Chemical Romance way back in 2005, as long as I was having a good time on stage, it didn’t matter to me how the audience reacted. Of course it was nice to hear from people who said they enjoyed the show, but even when we got an icy reaction, I didn’t care.

    Preaching was a slightly different experience for me.

    I had to preach the sermon twice on Sunday morning and I’d say that the earlier service reacted better to my sermon than the later one. And I was surprised at how much that affected me. Now for the most part, I feel good about how I did at both services but I have to admit that for one of the first times in my life, I understood what musical artists mean when they say they feed off the energy of the audience.

    By the way they laughed and looked up at me, I got the sense from the earlier service that they were right there with me, and I gotta admit – it was a great feeling. I was able to relax and be a bit more spontaneous in my delivery. And I don’t want to suggest that the latter service was unengaged or hostile – far from it – but they didn’t laugh quite as loud and some of the expressions I saw weren’t as supportive as what I saw earlier. And I have to admit that it got me to question what I was communicating. Had I missed something in my research? Was my application completely off base? Was this the wrong message for this audience?

    I stuck to my outline (I didn’t really have a choice) and made it through the rest of the second service just fine, but I was struck by how much just a small bit off difference in audience reaction subtly changed the way I thought about and delivered the message.

    Because here the thing…

  5. I delivered a challenging message

    The way this verse is usually preached, the people in the congregation are made to feel that they are among those who are being persecuted for righteousness – maybe they experience workplace ridicule because people know they’re Christians – and so they should take comfort in Jesus’ message that theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    I took a different approach. I tried to say that the kind of righteousness that the world needs today is one that is based on relationship and reconciliation. And that’s a nice message, but I took it one step beyond. I made the case that if one really takes the task of working towards relationship and reconciliation seriously, it means that one WILL encounter persecution.

    The kind of relationship and reconciliation I was challenging Quest with is the kind that works across divides.

    Take a look at Matthew 5:43-44:

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

    There are two ways to pray for someone who’s persecuting you. One is to pray against them, the other is to pray on their behalf, for their benefit. Jesus’ admonition to love one’s enemy and the Greek word behind the word “for” both suggest the latter approach. And I would suggest that the only way to pray on behalf of someone who’s persecuting you is to understand why they’re doing so and that means stepping out of your own shoes and into those of your enemy even as they’re persecuting you. (Gosh, I wish I had used this bit in my sermon!)

    Quest is full of people who work hard against all kinds of injustices and violence on behalf of the victims of that injustice and violence. That’s already extremely challenging, difficult work but I was asking them to do more – to understand the oppressor and to pray FOR them. But how do you pray on behalf of an unjust system that traps people within cycles of homelessness? How do you pray on behalf of a perpetrator of human trafficking?

    I was asking Quest to step into the realm of the impossible for the sake of righteousness.

    Which brings me to my final observation.

  6. The importance of conviction
    I started this post talking about how hard it was to do all the sermon prep, but the thing I now realize is, even though almost all the research I did on this text never made it in to the actual sermon, it did give me the confidence I needed to deliver a challenging message. So even though I knew I was delivering a message that some might not recieve well, I believed in it. I could back it up if challenged. I believed that this was God’s word for God’s people at this church at this point in time. And I couldn’t have gotten there without the time and the research.

All in all, the experience was a tiny glimpse into what I’m ultimately working towards – planting a church back in Hawaii.

It was a sobering look into a part of what I’m getting myself into and on the one hand, I’m beginning to realize all the work I have yet to do to really be ready. At the same time, I’m also realizing that as far as I still need to go, I know it’s something I can do. More importantly, it’s something I want to do. When it comes to preaching, I know I still have weak points in my preparation and my delivery but I want to get better.

In other words, despite all the difficulties, despite all the work, despite the long road ahead of me, I want to continue pressing forward. Although I normally don’t like speaking in such grandiose terms, I do feel like God has been preparing me for this. All the crazy randomness that I’ve lived through, all the seemingly meaningless dead ends and odd experiences, all the years of doubt and frustration – they’ve all led me to this pursuit that I never, ever would have chosen on my own.

God.

God really does work in mysterious ways.

355. something amiss

In my last post, I mentioned a Facebook group I and a few friends started up called Church Exiles 808. Since I’m in Hawaii for vacation, I put out an invite to the group to see if anyone wanted to meet up. So this past Friday, about ten of us got together at Tokkuri Tei (special thanks to Kyle for hooking us up with that place!) and we just sat around eating, drinking, and getting to know one another.

From BlogPhotos

I was really struck by the various stories of church that came up, some directly, some anecdotally.

Some spoke of being silenced – not being able to say what they really thought about a given situation or difficulty. Although the church should be the one safe place where one can bring all of one’s self, often there is an unspoken “limit” to honesty in church. Doubt often falls outside this limit. Legitimate critique of leadership is also outside this invisible circle. Issues of sexuality (straight or otherwise) are also often off limits. Now I understand that there are boundary/safety issues and so not everything is fit for the public, corporate sphere, but still, if someone wants to have an honest conversation about the legalization of pot, or about the issue of homosexuality in the church, I think that should be allowed to happen without the person who brought it up being dismissed or made to feel shame for even trying to have the conversation.

Some spoke of the lack of intellectual engagement in the church. They spoke of how sometimes the phrase, “it’s all a part of the mystery of God” is used to derail discussions that are beyond what the pastor is equipped to talk about. Some of the people who spoke of this frustration said that what disappointed them was the inability for their pastor to just come right out and say, “I don’t know.” The “mystery” answer is a non-answer. It’s dismissive, disingenuous, and, in a way, dishonest. Of course pastors can’t be expected to be experts on every topic under the sun but they should have the honesty and integrity to say they don’t know when they don’t.

Some spoke of poor leadership/management. There are always different kinds of power plays happening in any organization and the church is no different. Unfortunately, whereas management training is an integral part of almost all organizations outside the church, within the church it’s something of an afterthought and that can lead to all kinds of abuse and/or burnout. This problem is particularly dicey in churches where many of the people being managed are volunteers.

There were other frustrations shared, but those are the ones that come immediately to mind.

But there was another thing that I found fascinating.

In many of the discussions, people spoke of still wanting, in some way or another, to believe and participate in the fellowship of God’s kingdom. You’d think the logical thing to do with all these awful frustrations would be to just check out completely, not just from church but from the whole Christian endeavor (because the two are intimately linked). But whereas many have left the former, to some degree or another and for various reasons, they have not been able to let go of the latter. But they would like to regain the former as well but they are wary.

And that gives me hope because it suggests that something new is possible. Probably everyone who was there that night could write volumes regarding ways that the church has used, hurt, and failed them. Yet there they were, gathered around a (communion?) table laughing and ranting and sharing their lives with one another. The cumulative discontent at the table should have been a kind of spiritual anti-matter expressing itself in annihilation of the church but that’s not how it was.

Instead, I think what united everyone at the table was some kind of thread of belief. For some, their grasp of this thread is tenacious, for some it’s tenuous, but it’s there.

I think that small gathering of people represents the tiny tip of an immense iceberg. Something is amiss in the Church and it’s doing a lot of damage. Dwindling church attendance is not about a lack of belief (people want to believe!), it’s about something else.

From BlogPhotos

But what exactly is that something?

And more importantly, is the church really ready to address that something if the solution turns out to be something that looks starkly different from the Christianity they are comfortable and familiar with?

353. play in church?

Try this little experiment.

Watch the video below, but make these adjustments:

  • When the speaker says, “Bulgaria,” replace it with the words, “the Church.”
  • When he says, “EU,” replace it with, “America.”
  • And when he says, “business,” replace it with, “cultural impact.”

For example, when he says, “Bulgaria is last in the EU in business,” replace it with, “the Church is last in America in cultural impact.”

And I think it’s worth watching through this lens because I think the solution to the problems in Bulgaria is similar to the solution needed for the Church.

What do you think?

352. a ready defense?

[another cross-post from the Church Plant 2013 blog]

If you’re on Facebook, there’s a group that’s been created called Church Exiles 808. It’s only been up for a few days but there’s already been some lively discussion on a variety of topics affecting the church and Christianity.

One of the discussions I’ve been participating in has been around the intersection of science and religion. It’s been a really difficult but also a very fulfilling one for me. I’ve had to openly wrestle with some very fundamental questions and although the conversation is still going, I found myself at a rather surprising place in one of my responses.

Here’s what I wrote:

You know, I’m willing to concede that I may be comforting passengers on the deck of the Titanic and that the world may be moving into an entirely post-religious, secular society. I might be trying to hold together old technology while you’re an early adopter of the next wave of human civilization.

I don’t see myself that way, but I do admit it’s a possibility.

I do believe in God. I do believe that s/he reveals herself to us in whatever way we can understand her. And I do believe that God is working to fix all that’s broken and unjust in the world. And I do believe that I have a part to play in that scheme.

That’s how I get through the day.

Is it a delusion? Is it a crutch? Is it a coping mechanism that allows me to hide from the idea that this life may be all that there is?

I think it’s much more than that but even if it is all that it is, it makes my life meaningful. It brings me joy and peace. It helps me to get along with my asshole neighbor. It gives me strength and reasons to fight injustice. It comforts me in my sorrows and multiplies my joy. And yeah, sometimes it sucks donkey balls too.

My faith does all this for me and so of course I want to share it and to help others who share that faith.

If it’s all a delusion, if we’re all just worshiping the opiate mass, well so be it. It’s where I stand and what I believe and it’s what brings meaning to my life.

Of course, you’re missing a lot of context. If you want to see the entire thread, head over to the Facebook Church Exiles 808 group and try to find the comment thread that begins, “We need this because there is a definite gap in the body of Christ.”

One of the things that surprises me about my comment is how different it was from anything I might have said in my early years as a Christian. Back then I was taught to rigorously defend the faith – to have a ready defense for what I believed. And that meant arguing in a way that proved yourself right and the other person wrong.

And I really was surprised to find myself writing the words I quoted above – because it’s so far from the Christianity I was raised with, because I freely admitted that I could be wrong.

I guess I don’t care about being right anymore. I care about what brings me meaning and joy and peace. I care about how can I help other followers of Christ to find those same things in the faith.

What do you all think?

Did I go too far in what I said?
Does it betray my faith as weak?
Do you think I honored God by what I said?