sermon

Meditation on Sermon Writing

God’s Word is amazing. Have you ever just sat back and absorbed it? Just opened it up and read? Just a sentence. Just two. And just… just reveled?

Has the weight of the Law ever just pressed down on you? It’s so simple. It seems so easy. And then you look at that Law, and that single statement begins a pushing down on your chest, because you see how very, very heavy it is. You see how far you have fallen from what God demands. You see how good, how very good his command is, and how good this world would be if we just did it, but I can’t do it, no I can’t, I have failed, and so it is my fault, so much my fault.

And the Law, oh, it is so good, and I am not. And as that sentence grows in my heart, I see it in so many ways. It blossoms there, this flower of such beauty that I weep that I cannot even touch its petals, I cannot even pretend to care for a bloom of such excellence, that my black thumb slays not the Law but myself. (more…)

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To Celebrate Pentecost

 

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Do you know what it is to have to lie to your son… because you’re afraid to let him see who you really are?

We went to Jerusalem for Passover. You should have seen it. Sarah kept telling me to calm down. But I couldn’t help it. It was the first time going since she gave birth to Levi. Our son. He was only a few months old. I know, I know, we didn’t have to take him yet. She kept telling me he was too little. “Benjamin, calm down!” But I didn’t listen. This was my son, and I got to show him Passover! I insisted on carrying him most of the way. My arms would carry my son to Jerusalem! We got to Jerusalem and visited my uncle’s home, where we’d be staying. Uncle David.

I took little Levi out to pick out the lamb. The one we’d sacrifice and remember the first Passover. So we’d remember the lamb that was sacrificed so that our ancestors could live. The lamb that died instead of them. And little Levi… you should have seen his smiles. He loved all those lambs. The priests frowned that I brought a son so young, but I was so excited. I held Levi and took his little hand and placed it on the lamb’s head.

And Passover night – the first Passover, you know, those of us from the country celebrated a few days before everyone in the city just so there was room for everyone! – we ate the meal, just like my father did, and his father. And now I got to teach my son. Sarah told me he wouldn’t understand, but I didn’t care. And just like always, we opened the door to see if Elijah was there. We opened the door to find out if this year, if maybe this year, the one God promised was here, if the Christ was here to free us from slavery again. And that Passover night… it was golden.

But the next day. The next day… there was some sort of uproar in the city. I left Levi with Sarah and went with David to find out what was going on. My arms felt empty without him. I found myself outside the Roman governor’s palace. He presented a man – a man already badly beaten – and shouted. I couldn’t hear over the roar of the crowd. But a man next to me – a priest – he told me what was going on. This beaten man was Jesus from Nazareth. I’d heard of him, of course – who hadn’t? They said he did miracles, like Elijah did long ago. But then my neighbor said: “He says he’s equal with God.” (more…)

What Gospel Predominance?

Only the Gospel converts. Only the good news that Jesus loves sinners, of whom I am the worst – only that good news creates faith and strengthens faith. And on a night like Christmas Eve when we have more visitors and occasional members, that message must right forth. That doesn’t mean the Law shouldn’t be preached – we need to hear why the Gospel is so amazing, after all – but the Gospel must take center stage.

And really, isn’t that the center of Christmas? That baby is God! Here he is, stepped into his own creation, to this dirty, broken place, to be broken in our place. This Child will be stricken, smitten and afflicted. We will esteem him not. And yet, by his wounds are we healed!

So tell me this: For a preacher who revels in the Gospel, who marvels at the love of God for a broken sinner like me, why is it that my drafts for sermons on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are so law-heavy?

I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. (more…)

Stupid Other Preacher

“Thank you for holding good prepared services and not just reading off of a paper”

That was the text waiting for me after I wrapped up Bible study this morning. It came from a teen who was visiting family several hours from here. She had visited a local church.

And what a compliment she paid! I’m very thankful for it. It shows that what I strive for gets accomplished, at least some weeks: A service that centers on a theme, as shown in the Bible lessons for that day. I make a point of announcing (in a one-sentence introduction) how each lesson and hymn fits that theme. She understands how a service is meant to communicate a particular truth from God’s Word each week in a very pointed way.

It also gladdens my heart that she appreciates the work I put into my sermons. In my years of ministry, I’ve only used notes for a sermon once – and that once happened to be the day after one of my children was born. I’ll give myself a pass for that day. Otherwise, the sermon is memorized. I have my Bible and use that to read the passages (usually paperclipped) – which means I’m usually making eye contact with the congregation the entire sermon. I’ve been told by other pastors I have talent for preaching God’s Word; I love communicating what Jesus has done for us.

You can see what she thought of that other church. (more…)

I Forgot

Sunday morning. I preach in two hours. People needing my attention arrive in one.

I haven’t memorized the sermon yet. I’m holding the manuscript, but since I printed it out Thursday, I haven’t even glanced at it. Haven’t had the chance.

I get to the sanctuary to memorize. I’ve gotten memorization down to about a half-hour; it’s not ideal, but I should be able to get this thing nailed down.

And then the cell rings. It’s the family of the baby I’m baptizing in two hours as part of the service. Baby’s sick. They’re not sure if they’ll be able to make it. No, not an emergency, no need for a visit, but might not be able to make it to church.

OK. No problem. If they don’t show, I’m going to have to switch the opening hymn. That means organizing with the organist and figuring out how to handle the projector if we switch. But the family doesn’t know, because it’ll depend how the baby’s doing at that moment.

Great. OK, set that aside. I need to memorize the sermon.

My grounds and facilities guy comes in as I’m about a paragraph in. Fairly normal. On an average Sunday, we’ll chat for a few minutes before I review the sermon. Today I don’t have the time.

Today he really wants to talk.

Ten minutes later, and I’ve got the room to myself again. I look at the manuscript. Do I at least have the outline firm in my head?

Wait. What was I thinking when I wrote this? I look at the passage from Scripture it’s based on. Did I totally miss the point, or am I just delusional at the moment from lack of sleep? The kids have not been sleeping well this week, and a number of late-night early-morning emergencies have addled me. Do I have time to even consider a rewrite?

My organist comes in the door early to practice a harder hymn. I’m out of time. “Oh!” she says. “Everything OK, pastor?”

Yeah, why?

“I don’t usually see you in your jeans on a Sunday morning.”

Really? I’m so tired I forgot to dress up? Good thing my house is attached to the church. I fill her in on the possible baptism switch and run home to change. And as I change, I look at the time – church should be starting right now. What happened? She’s playing the opening hymn! I can hear the congregation singing! Robe! I need to get my robe on! And…

…and I still haven’t figured out what’s going on with the sermon!

Heart pounding I throw my robe on over my jeans and step out to greet the congregation. I slip and fall. I’d taken off my shoes to change, never put any others on, and now I’m in my socks. (more…)

A Practical Trinity?

I push myself to demonstrate how God’s Word is practical in my sermons. I want to show how sin really shows up in the lives of the congregation – not just “out there.” I strive to show how God’s forgiveness really shocks us and comforts us. I endeavor to show how the Gospel then changes us to live lives that obey God – not because we have to, but really because, in the Gospel, it’s simply better to obey. We’ve been alerted to sin’s lies and we know that God’s love for us is way better.

Sometimes that’s easy.

I just finished a series on I Peter, which talks all about suffering, why Christians suffer, and how we should suffer. That made practical applications so easy.

“How do you react when you get punished for doing the right thing? When you stand up for truth and lose that promotion, that raise, that friend, that valued family member? Do you get angry? Do you act as if this is the most maddening thing that ever happened to you?

“Well, yeah, it’s more than frustrating… but it’s also normal. Peter warns us all about this. And he shows us how to respond. And what’s better, he shows us why to respond.”

In that series we talked about things like rejection and suffering for the truth. These are subjects that are real and immediate and needed. It hits the people here right where they live; the pain in this congregation is so near the surface. We don’t need to pretend we’re doing ok; we know we’re not.

Like I said, sometimes it’s easy to make that connection between what God says and where the people are living now.

And then we get to a Sunday like today. (more…)

You are accepted.

Hebrews 2:10-18 10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. 12 He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers;

in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”

13 And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again he says,

“Here am I, and the children God has given me.”

14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

(more…)

Live a life worthy of the heart given you.

Luke 3:7-18 7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.

(more…)

How do we get ready for Jesus?

Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the desert,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

make straight paths for him.

5     Every valley shall be filled in,

every mountain and hill made low.

The crooked roads shall become straight,

the rough ways smooth.

6     And all mankind will see God’s salvation.’ ”

(more…)