This is a blog I wrote for the Center for Pastoral Leadership at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Here is a preview of the work: “Preaching from a posture of Wisdom requires dying, which relinquishes the need for acclamation, control, power, violence, and conformity. Wisdom is the way of Jesus.”

You can find the rest of the article at the Center for Pastoral Leadership’s blog: https://cpl.nts.edu/index.php/component/k2/item/430-preaching-when-words-have-lost-their-power

Suggested Reading:

They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching by Frank A. Thomas

Suggested Reading:
Celebration and Experience in Preaching by Henry H. Mitchell
They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching by Frank A. Thomas
Suggested Reading: The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching by Paul Scott Wilson
Suggested Reading: The Certain Sound of the Trumpet: Crafting a Sermon of Authority by Samuel D. Proctor

Video  —  Posted: February 25, 2017 in Preaching
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You’re blessed when you stay on course,
walking steadily on the road revealed by God.
You’re blessed when you follow [God’s] directions,
doing your best to find [God].
That’s right—you don’t go off on your own;
you walk straight along the road [God] set.
You, God, prescribed the right way to live;
now you expect us to live it.
Oh, that my steps might be steady,
keeping to the course you set;
Then I’d never have any regrets
in comparing my life with your counsel.
I thank you for speaking straight from your heart;
I learn the pattern of your righteous ways.
I’m going to do what you tell me to do;
don’t ever walk off and leave me. (Psalm 119:1-8, MSG)

 

Obedience isn’t typically associated with poetry.  We think of obedience in terms of laws, rules, and strict observance of a moral code.  We think about punishment and reward.  It tends to be a very rigid concept, sometimes based in fear of consequences.  Much of this way of thinking about obedience has deep roots in the Middle Ages in the Church.  God was viewed as the Great Judge, Jesus a defense attorney, and Satan the prosecution.  This is also the soil from which we get much of the penal substitution theory of atonement – which says, God had to punish sin and chose to inflict that punishment, death, upon Jesus.  It is a very violent view of God that incites fear in us to “toe the line.”

This framework tends to keep obedience as a response to our fear of God’s retribution.  Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” have tingled our imaginations of a God waiting in the rafters for us to break the rules and jump down to confront and destroy us – unless we somehow quickly repent and make ourselves better.  For many Christians, this may be an oversimplification of Jesus’ work and our responsibility.  And, it is!  But, this reflects the traditions that I was often surrounded by and understood Christianity to be about!  Somehow I knew God loved me, but the fear of God’s punishment hung like a dark cloud over my head.  And, it became more complicated as I witnessed many doing what was “wrong” and yet their lives seemed to continue unimpeded by God’s wrath.  It was confusing and eventually unsustainable.  I stopped seeing any need for the Church or my participation in it.  Ultimately, that has been to my loss.

I had reduced obedience to a mathematical equation.  Do good = get good.  Do bad = get bad.  It was this algebraic formula that ruled my relationship with God.  If I performed X, I would receive Y.  “Y” could be anything from God’s love or presence to God acting in a precise way in my life because of my prayers.  The irony and sad reality of this moral formula of faith is that the equation never balanced in my favor – I was always too sinful, not committed enough, undeserving, lacking knowledge, etc.  The scales of morality always suggested that there was no possibility in gaining God’s favor, becoming faithful enough, or being obedient to the necessary degree.  In other words, the mathematical equation was useless and so was the Church that had offered me that kind of faith.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story.  I found those in the Church that imagined obedience was more like poetry than prose.  Poetry is expansive, imaginative, playful, honest, and a work of love.  Prose makes everything seem settled, rigid, matter-of-fact.  But, poetry teases the imagination by plunging into the mystery without the need to control it.  That was the hardest thing to learn (and remains the hardest thing to change) – obedience is not about control.  Poetry invites wonder, awe, praise, thanksgiving, and lament.  Prose, on the other hand, often reduces life to principles, formulas, and equations.

Psalm 119 invites us into the poetry of obedience.  It is an acrostic poem, meaning that each stanza begins with a consecutive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  It is the longest poem within the Psalms and it is all about obedience to Torah, to being instructed in God’s way of living in the world.  It is comprehensive (from “A to Z”) and yet it is not reductive.  It imagines God’s instruction to be a way of life, not simply a list of rules to follow.  It is an invitation to bask in the wonder of God’s commands that bless and sustain life – not as a formula, but as hope-filled promise.

The first stanza of the poem is filled with verbs that beg for obedience to be engaged as ongoing journey.  We seek, we learn, we walk, we observe diligently, we praise, we fix our eyes, we keep God’s decrees.  And for those that enter into this life-giving way, there is blessing.  It is the blessing that is found in walking whole-heartedly before the Lord as those who have been re-created and made new, whose shame has been clothed.  This encounter with God gives way to poetry and praise that imagines obedience as a posture and response of thanksgiving to God’s faithfulness.  Obedience is not rigid, but must be appropriate for each new situation that flows out of our prayerful walk with God.  It is the kind of obedience which leads to humility rather than self-righteous self-promotion.  It is the posture of prayer that seeks to know God more deeply today than yesterday and does fail to glorify God through the entirety of our lives – yes, even our failures.

In the love song of obedience, we find a God that is not waiting to smite us when we fail, like a boy with a magnifying glass over an anthill.  Rather, we find God has already pioneered the pathway of faithfulness, the highway of holiness through Jesus – who is the very poem of God’s life in the world.  God does not ask of us that which God is not willing to also do.  In fact, Jesus’ life of love is one deeply marked by obedience – a love song that is his life-song.  As followers of Jesus, we are called to harmonize with Jesus by allowing our lives to also become a love song, a poem.

Bill Mounce, a noted New Testament language scholar, writes, “Paul tells the Ephesians that ‘we are his workmanship (ποιημα), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’ (ESV).”  We are God’s poiema, workmanship, which is where we get our word “poem.”  We are God’s poem.  Like an artist, God sings a love song to the world through us, through our faithful obedience.  It is a song of beauty.  It is a song of redemption.  It is a song that turns ashes into beauty, mourning into gladness, and despair into hope.

Parents nurturing their children is God’s poetry.  Grandparents caring for their grandchildren is God’s poetry. Handling adversity with grace is God’s poetry being sung to the world steeped in anxiety and despair.  Living in generous and neighborly ways reflects God’s poetry.  Lives that reflect the beauty of God’s love, mercy, and justice are lives of poetic obedience offered back to God and to the world.  Such lives invite awe and wonder at the glory and beauty of such a God living in and through us.

“Let My Life Song Sing to You”

Empty hands held high

Such small sacrifice

If not joined with my life

I sing in vain tonight

May the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:

Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Lord I give my life

A living sacrifice

To reach a world in need

To be Your hands and feet

So may the words I say

And the things I do

Make my lifesong sing

Bring a smile to You

CHORUS:
Let my lifesong sing to You

Let my lifesong sing to You

I want to sign Your name to the end of this day

Knowing that my heart was true

Let my lifesong sing to You

Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Let my lifesong sing to You

 

There is an overwhelming and pervasive sense of anxiety in our society.  Of course, it hasn’t merely trickled into the Church; the waters have rushed through our doors.  There are many reasons for the anxiety.  A great resource for reading about some of those reasons for anxiety in our culture is Walter Brueggemann’s Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  As I have reflected on my cultural context and the intersection with the Church in America, there is a strand woven through the very fabric of our lives which compounds our anxiety: the myth of perpetual progress.  (Incidentally, though not insignificantly, this myth leads to violent practices, like “evangelistic” movements called Crusades which utilize manipulation and coercive techniques).

There are many reasons for the propagation of this myth, especially because it appeared to be true for so many years in our borders.  The proliferation of technology and medical science and so many other useful tools painted a picture of prosperity that would continually rise to new levels.  Economic growth, particularly after WWII, seemed on a constant upward trajectory (setbacks were always believed to be temporary).  The Enlightenment’s ethos promised that everything would evolve to higher degrees of rationality, creativeness, wealth, power, and success.  And, as such, such success could be measured and monitored.  If progress seemed impeded, it wasn’t because perpetual progress was in question.  Rather, it was time to change leadership or fix this or that problem which prohibited further expansion and development.  But, fundamentally, the idea and myth of perpetual progress remains unquestioned and unchallenged.

This ideology of progress has increasingly become one of the dominant ideologies in the American church.  I constantly see it expressed in my denomination’s polity, but I know that isn’t particularly unique to our denomination either.  There is continuous pressure to grow, to expand, like ecclesiastical colonialism reaching toward an obscure Manifest Destiny we call “evangelism” – or, more honestly, cultural assimilation.  If the negative connotation of assimilation seems too strong, consider the methods of most church planting/ church growth models.  The “target audience” is typically monolithic – young, urban professionals with young families, which can support the ministry with their disposable income.  Everything within the worship service is then geared to appeal to this group’s interests and desires.  Progress and consumerism (both dependent upon numbers and percentages) are conjoined twins, particularly because “progress” has been reduced to an individual’s capacity to choose what suits their desires (this plagues most any age group in our culture).

But, the church in America and other Western countries has had to wrestle with diminishing incomes, sliding attendance, fewer volunteers, and a culture that continues to encroach on the times that were previously reserved for churches.  In other words, we are beginning to see the myth of progress, not only in the culture, within the Church be exposed as an untenable promise.  Deny it as strongly as we might, the reality, and its attendant anxiety, is palpable.

Of course, this does not mean that the myth of perpetual progress has died.  Too many are in denial for it to have died so easily.  Instead, we merely redouble our efforts at marketability, business acuity, and technological reproduction.  In other words, we seek any methodology, technology, or technique that will give us an edge to once again regain our ascendancy within the culture and our particular community.  This effort is undergirded by a particularly acidic theology of chosenness and exceptionalism (both within the culture and the Church, which tend to horribly mix into civil religion).  By the way, this same mentality leads to Israel’s Exile and Jerusalem’s destruction, yet the Church follows suit as if it is immune to such judgment.  The idea of exceptionalism and chosenness is not that we are simply set apart by God but, furthermore, that we are ordained by God and can thus never fail – perpetual progress.  It is the belief that God is always interested in our expansionistic success and has blessed the whole affair (i.e., imperialism).  We revel in resurrection, but neglect crucifixion as a distinct possibility when following Jesus – even as an institution.  Resurrection without crucifixion is merely the prosperity gospel, which lacks any family resemblance to Jesus.

The most insidious aspect to the myth of perpetual progress within the Church is the fallout experienced by pastors and local churches.  In fact, they feel this acutely and it often causes distress and tension within the pastoral-congregational relationship.  It is easy for the church or the pastor to become a taskmaster pushing for limitless progress or a return to the glory days of cultural ascendancy.  Despair characterizes our gatherings when we don’t measure up to the ideal of progress.  So, we make excuses or dismiss our “failure,” putting a positive spin on it (not unlike media spin-doctors).  To use contemporary language, we employ “alternative facts” in our reporting to paint an overall picture of health, no matter how much we may have to twist the truth of reality.  Denial concerning the myth of progress gives way to despair when we don’t “measure up” and we are left disillusioned about faithfully fulfilling our calling.  Likewise, significant theological issues, such as salvation or sanctification or discipleship, are reduced to a  paltry reality which can be numerically captured on paper.  Thus, because we sought to measure it in one moment, salvation became a singular moment, rather than an unfolding reality into which we are continuously invited to participate.  It is an anemic Christianity which has replaced discipleship with “showing up” (see Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship).

But, if we allow the myth of progress to be broken open and give ourselves permission to move past our denials which struggle (even with good intentions) to recapture an imagined glorious bygone day, we may find ourselves engaging a future of God’s new possibilities.  But, again, this is no guarantee of success, no imagined exceptionalism that insulates us from failure.  But, it is possible that the spectacular failures in which we endeavor may yet find God miraculously and surprisingly working through them, and us, in ways we yet to imagine.  In fact, we would be given permission to “fail” and to fail gloriously, to risk much and trust God for the “results.”

It is the kind of failure which is present in a dying church in a dying town, and yet proclaims hope.  To preach Good News in communities  that will never make national headlines and yet to see this as the most important work in which we might engage.  To imagine that the smallest acts of kindness and compassion unleash seismic shifts in the lives of those for whom we care.  To imagine that greatness is in serving.  To believe that death may be a new beginning.  To pray that even small mustard seeds of faith can uproot the grandest mountains in our path.  To imagine that the greatest metrics can never be measured and that the smallest, weakest, seemingly insignificant people, places and practices are quite possibly those upon which God smiles and blesses.  Maybe… just maybe… the vital work of the Church can be re-energized for the mission of God, not by playing the myth of progress game, by painting a compelling vision of God’s Kingdom unleashed in our midst, a costly discipleship, inspiring us to greater acts of love – regardless of the outcome.  I see many pastors, ministers, and laity, often in obscure corners of the world, leading unafraid from underneath. They take the slow & tedious road of faithful discipleship that lacks the star power of conferences or the glory of large crowds.  But, their work is every bit as vital and beautiful and important as the “success stories” of those fast growing, cutting edge churches.  And, perhaps, we can confess that “growth” does not translate into success, especially if it looks more like corporate takeover than actual evangelism.

To put a point on my argument, I am reminded of the story of Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14.  A massive Philistine horde stands ready to descend on Saul’s men, save for a ravine between the two encampments.  Jonathan and his armor bearer sneak off and move toward the enemy.  Jonathan suggests showing themselves to the enemy and awaiting their response, either come up or stay where they are.  If told to come up, this will be a sign that God has given Jonathan and the armor bearer the victory.  Two men outmatched and yet willing to risk greatly despite an uncertain future and outcome.  Jonathan affirms as much: “Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf.”  Jonathan does not presume success in his endeavor, the future is obscure from his sight, yet he acts in hope-filled expectation that God is at work.  Jonathan does not display certainty of “God will act,” but the trusting confidence that exclaims the not-so-presumptuous “perhaps.”  The myth of perpetual progress cannot imagine the “perhaps,” but ever only the idolatrous certitude of progress, prosperity, and power.