Category Archives: Preaching
The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer edited and introduced by Isabel Best (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 210 pages.
There are so many ways to introduce this review…
I have spent many years as a pulpit minister. I have preached hundreds, perhaps thousands, of sermons. I have three degrees in ministry/theology and am working on a fourth. Suffice it to say I love the church, theology, preaching and ministry. And when I come across books on preaching like this one I realize just how much of a failure I have been in serving in these various ministries. I have often said that I am just an apprentice in the field of ministry, but there are times I do not even feel qualified to say I am an apprentice. Sitting at the feet of Bonhoeffer is just one of those times.
I have 15 out of the 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (to the best of my knowledge, vol. 14 is still forthcoming at this date). I have both Eberhard Bethge’s and Eric Metaxas’ biographies of Bonhoeffer. I have numerous other volumes about Bonhoeffer. Needless to say I know his story, if not well, then at least better than most. I was genuinely excited to get word that this volume had been printed, and I bought it at the first chance that I had.
My review in a nutshell – if you love preaching, or if you are interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or both, then you need to buy this book!
Many writings by Bonhoeffer are difficult for the modern reader to understand. For one reason, Bonhoeffer was writing in a different historical, theological and philosophical realm than what we are living in today. Classic liberalism (which Bonhoeffer was writing to largely reject) was in the flower of its youth. Even though the world had just experienced World War I, there was still the idea lurking that it was the “war to end all wars.” The evils of Adolf Hitler were still to be unleashed as Bonhoeffer penned and delivered most of these sermons. Technologically the world was still a toddler compared to our current day. The atom had not yet been split (although physicists on both sides of the Atlantic were getting closer by the day) and so many things that we take for granted were not even on the drawing boards.
Two, unless you know how to read German (and theological German at that), you are forced to read Bonhoeffer in translation. That is where I am. That limits your understanding to the quality of the translator and the overall translation. Any literary work suffers in translation. Bonhoeffer’s complex and very intricate arguments are no exception.
However, (and getting back to the point of this review), Bonhoeffer’s sermons are very different. Whereas Bonhoeffer’s early theological writings can almost be opaque, his sermons shine with a clarity that is remarkable. You can see Bonhoeffer’s theology through and through his sermons, but he wrote and delivered them with the common person in mind. He wrote them to be challenging, to be sure. But he wrote and delivered them to be effective, and the spoken word cannot be effective if it is not understood. Bonhoeffer’s sermons in his collection are brilliant examples of how to make the complex understandable. Take the following as an example:
One cannot understand and preach the gospel concretely enough. A real evangelical sermon must be like holding a pretty red apple in front of a child or a glass of cool water in front of a thirsty person and then asking: do you want it? We should be able to talk about matters of our faith in such a way that the hands reach out for it faster than we can fill them. (p. 34).
It is impossible for me to identify my “favorite” among these sermons, but if I absolutely had to pick one, it would be the sermon on Gideon, delivered on Feb. 26, 1933 (p. 67-74). Quite honestly, I do not think that I have read or heard a finer sermon in my whole life.
One word about style. Many people are so used to the “three points and a poem” type of preaching that nothing else fits the bill. That person would be terribly disappointed in this collection. Bonhoeffer did not preach topically, and he hated reducing the gospel to mere moralization. In these sermons Bonhoeffer simply took a single text (often based on the church calendar that the Lutheran church followed) and preached it – he made the text come alive. When you understand the political events that were taking place as Bonhoeffer delivered these sermons you realize just how courageous he was. As Isabel Best notes in her introduction, Bonhoeffer did not preach overtly political sermons, and yet he spoke to the political situation of his day in virtually every sermon that he preached. But he let the text do the convicting – he simply “explicated” the text so that the message of the text could come through. His technique was brilliant, and yet if you heard one of these sermons delivered in their original setting I doubt you would have notice “technique” at all. You simply would have heard the word of God.
Someone who knows me and my theology well might be surprised that I am able to write such glowing reviews about Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor educated in the thick of German Classical Liberalism. My response is this: the gospel is not denominational. When Bonhoeffer preached the text there is simply no finer explication and application of God’s word. I am not so naive as to suggest that every word in these sermons is absolute truth. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, and when he gets closer to Luther than he does Jesus it is obvious. He preached salvation by faith only – something that neither Jesus nor Paul preached, but something that Luther did. So be it – I am smart enough to sift the wheat from the chaff. It is just that (in my most humble and otherwise brilliant opinion) there is very, very little chaff in these sermons.
Another positive note about this collection in particular. There is a brief introduction to the entire collection, and each individual sermon receives a brief historical note. Isabel Best is highly qualified to be the one to introduce and edit this collection, and if you are unfamiliar, or just barely familiar, with Bonhoeffer’s life and work her historical notes will be invaluable in helping you “hear” these sermons.
And now the one huge burr under my saddle about this book. It received the title, “The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” and yet even in the introduction it is admitted that there are 71 extant sermons or homilies recorded in the collected works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. This book only includes 31. Therefore, it should not have been labeled “The Collected Sermons” but something like “A Collection of Sermons” or even “The Collected Sermons, Vol. 1.” That is a small quibble, I grant you. But you cannot call something “The Collection” if you are only including less than 50% of the total of whatever it is you are collecting.
There is so much more I would like to say – but I am already over 1,300 words. But this book is a gem, and I love reading beautiful books.
This book is not just for preachers, but it is for serious Bible students. If you use books that include short devotional readings for your personal prayer time this would be a wonderful guide for your devotions. These sermons are not long – there are no 45 minute harangues in this collection. If you are a preacher and you want to be fed by one of the best, I highly recommend you obtain this book. It will push you in your interpretation and in your delivery of your sermons. I really, really, really wish I had the opportunity to read this book back when I was 22 and just getting out of college. It would have changed the course of my career significantly. As it is, I am thankful I had the opportunity to read it, and it will help me for as long as I have left to preach the gospel.
Preachers – you are going to make mistakes, misinterpret a verse, get the exegesis wrong. Preach anyway. You are human. Quit trying to labor under the pretense that you are perfect and infallible. Preach your best, and let God handle your imperfections.
Congregations – are you expecting perfection? Good for you! When you can deliver perfection, you can expect perfection. More realistically – demand diligence, expect effort, and practice grace.
For preachers – no one ever conquered without rising to a challenge. Challenge your listeners, man, challenge!
For congregations – if your minister is telling you exactly what you want to hear and exactly what you have always heard, it is time to find another preacher. If you are not being challenged, you are not hearing the Word of God!
Dear “Personal Evangelist” “Door Knocker” ”Soul Winner” “Missionary” or whatever title you personally prefer,
I have a question for you, but before I ask my question I would like to compliment you on a few things.
First, I want to thank you for not asking how I was, or how my day was going before you decided that my soul needed saving. It would have slowed you down to have inquired about my health. It certainly would have taken much too long for you to have discovered that I am remembering the anniversary of my husband’s death. My daughter is suffering what might be a life shortening illness in another state, so I am glad you did not ask about my family. Living by myself I get very lonely, and so inviting you in to my home was meant to be a day brightener for me, so luckily you kept everything focused on your Bible and your notebook, so that I was not distracted by the struggles in my life.
As far as your Bible study goes, I must admit you were very well-trained by your supervisors. You stayed strictly on task, never swerving from your carefully constructed questions that only allowed me to answer one way. Of course you would have learned that I was a high school debate teacher if you had bothered to ask, but since you didn’t you never learned that I was able to see though your logic like a nicely cleaned window. But I did appreciate you taking the time to read me those passages of Scripture. The Bible has always been a great comfort to me.
I also want to commend you on the fact that you never once allowed the conversation to drift to what I might have been interested in. I actually do have some questions about the Bible, and you even touched on a couple of them, but as soon as I asked a question we always returned straightway back to the “program” that you have so obviously well memorized. Since you never answered any of my questions while you were here, I wanted to know how it was that you have your specific interpretation of a Scripture, but you are totally unable to explain or understand what your religious neighbors believe. I can tell you exactly what the other “personal evangelists” and door knockers believe, because they regularly visit me as well. But don’t be afraid, they cannot tell me anything about why their neighbors believe what they believe either. It seems like as much time as you all spend knocking on my door you might be able to spend an hour or two knocking on each other’s doors.
So, anyway, I just wanted to write this little letter of thank-you. Your visit was a diversion, although when you got to the point where I was supposed to give you a life-long commitment after you had only spent about 45 minutes with me I was a little put off. I may not be as well-trained as you, but it seems to me I remember that after Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus that Saul was given three days to think things over. I know it hurts your statistics, but it just seems like I could be given a little bit of time to think over what you were telling me. I am not a trained Bible student, and, to be perfectly honest, you are not Jesus, either.
Oh, by the way, I almost forgot. I had a question for you. You were in such a hurry to get to your next soul-winning appointment that after I politely refused to go with you to your church you left in such a huff that I never got to ask you this one. Please take as much time as you need to answer me, I will be here if and when you come up with an answer.
My last question to you is this, “Why should I be in a hurry to believe in a God who is so interested in saving souls that he is not interested in loving people?”
I’ll be waiting, but somehow I don’t think I will see you anytime soon.
Your last Bible study victim.
Dr. Glen Stassen, in his article on the fourteen triads of the Sermon on the Mount, says that, ‘The structure of the next triad is straightforward.” That is helpful because some of the triads have not been exactly “straightforward,” at least to a Western, linear thinker like me. So, having something be a little more obvious is always appreciated.
The “traditional teaching” is found in verse 1, and is very similar to the “You have heard it was said…” statements in chapter 5. Jesus simply repeats a proverbial statement that must have had some currency during his ministry: Do not judge, and you won’t be judged. Dr. Stassen views verse 2 as a continuation of the traditional teaching. However, I note that verse 2 could also be the beginning of the “vicious cycle” that virtually always accompanies some self-righteous judgement. If we apply some rigid form of judging, others will apply that same form against us, but usually they will add a little bit to it. We very rarely ever give back exactly what we have been given, we always all a little vinegar along with it. The vicious cycle is then discussed more completely in verses 3 and 4. Invariably what occurs is that we begin to examine others with a microscope when our own sins are so blatant they can be identified a mile away. A mile away, that is, by everyone but us. The illustration Jesus used is meant to be ironic and I believe meant to generate some uncomfortable laughter – at least until the reality of the irony sets it. We are always far more willing to remove specks when the log is protruding from our eye.
What, then, is the “transforming initiative?” It is really quite simple. It is called “repentance.” It is removing the very large and blatant sin in our own life so that we can see clearly to analyze the problem in the lives of others. I think something else is taking place here. Jesus is not giving us a blank check to start solving other people’s problems just as long as we superficially whitewash over our own. What Jesus is saying is, “If you are going to condemn someone, start with yourself. Examine your relationship with God. How pure are you? What is your attitude? How have you acted? What is your motive? And how have your actions been in line with the thoughts, intentions and motives of God?” When we really and truly place ourselves under the same microscope under which we love to place others something transforming should happen. One, we should see just how far we have fallen from the standard we would like to think we have exceeded, and two, we begin to notice that the “speck” in our brother’s eye is not so serious at all. It may need to be removed, yes. But instead of trying to remove it with a rusty pair of vice-grips we use sterilized tweezers and an appropriate amount of anesthesia. True biblical repentance should have a profound and lasting effect upon our willingness to condemn other people.
It has often been noted that the best teacher in any subject is the person who, as a student, had to struggle intensely to overcome any misunderstandings and setbacks. I can relate perfectly. As a flight student I had a bear of a time trying to master flying with reference only to my instruments. I had a mental block, and a pretty sizable physical problem as well. Things just did not seem to want to work for me. With patience and enough time I did earn my instrument rating, went on and earned my Commercial Certificate and both Flight Instructor and Flight Instructor/Instrument ratings. Then the day came for me to start teaching students how to earn their Instrument rating. Because I had made virtually every mistake known to flight students in my own instrument training, I picked up on most of my student’s mistakes very quickly. Not only that, but I was able to sympathize with them and give them encouragement. At my first instructor job I was given several of the “problem” students because either (a) I was good enough to get them graduated or (b) I was too sympathetic to turn them down or a mixture of both. But my success rate was pretty good – something that I look back on with a certain amount of pride.
But, the person who is only able to see the faults of others makes for a lousy teacher. That person makes for even a more lousy judge. That person makes for even a more lousy Christian. The life of discipleship is a life that demands first of all that a person is willing and capable of examining him or herself and making the necessary changes before there can be any confrontation of others.
I wonder how the national debate on homosexuality and same-sex marriage would change if the church would simply focus its attention on the sexual dysfunction of its own heterosexual members before it started to “fix” the homosexual population who has no intention of ever being a part of that church to begin with. That is just one example, but the general principle should be clear. The church has a huge blind spot regarding sexual sin, greed, covetousness, racism, compromise with political powers (idolatry) and the environment. How can we justify much of our own myopic rhetoric when we are so complacent toward and complicit with so many behaviors that God specifically condemns in His eternal revelation?
Our world is bent and broken, to be sure. Of that there is no question. But the church shares that same bentness and brokeness. If we do not seek to repent and remove the log in our own eye we will be incapable of helping the world see its own bentness and brokeness. The church’s great commission does not begin in Matthew 28:16-20. The church’s great commission begins in Psalm 51:1-19 (among many other Psalms of lament). If we do not have a broken heart, no amount of preaching and teaching will ever be acceptable in the Kingdom.
That has to be the longest title to a blog that I have ever written. I hope the post is not correspondingly as long.
I was really not zoned into the “blogosphere” when Pope Benedict XVI was selected, so I really cannot say that I heard or read much about his selection. But I have been following the election of Pope Francis with some interest. I will have more to say about my thoughts about that in a moment.
I have to say I have truly been disheartened by some of my fellow non-Catholics in their response to this event. Honestly, brothers (and maybe a sister or two), if I was a Roman Catholic and I stumbled across some of your invective disguised as teaching I would not even pay you the common courtesy to give you the time of day if you were to ask. Talk about speaking misrepresentations of opinions in a tone of hatred. Some of the articles have even offended me, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I especially despise those brilliant thinkers who imagine themselves to be profound apologists and recommend to any Roman Catholic who happens to be reading (and there are precious few, I guarantee) that they read the Bible. That is so special. And inflammatory. And so grossly stereotyped. And just so patently wrong.
I spent a year serving in a hospice (an organization designed to ease the suffering of those who are dying). I was able to serve many individuals from an amazing number of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds. Being in New Mexico the largest number of patients I served were Roman Catholics. Most, (but certainly not all) were deeply committed, very devoted and had a profound love for the church. Now I realize that I was dealing mostly with the elderly, and that was a generation where members of all religious groups were very committed, devoted, and had a profound love for the church. But what I found among the Catholics that I did not expect was a deep love for and respect for the Bible. I had always been told that Catholics never read the Bible, or only were concerned about what their priest said about the Bible. What I discovered was almost diametrically opposite to that stereotype. When I would approach them and ask what I could do to help them, they always asked for prayer and the majority also asked that I read a passage of Scripture. Some had a favorite text, many just wanted me to read to them – from the Bible and not from a Catholic publication. So, as I hopefully served them, I also received an education, one that I treasure to this day.
The second education I received came in my Doctor of Ministry program. I had the privilege of studying under a Franciscan priest who really opened my eyes concerning the functioning of the Roman Catholic church. As he explained it, the Roman Catholic church is truly a “big tent” concept. There are many communities within the larger framework of the church, each with a special life of its own, and some even eyeing each other with a certain amount of suspicion and envy. That is the ugly side of the church. The good side of that openness is that you do not have some “one size fits all” mentality that afflicts many non-Catholic groups. For example: when I was growing up all I ever heard was that if you were a Christian you had to be an evangelist/preacher/teacher/baptizer. If you did not baptize as many people as you could you might still be allowed to go to heaven, but you would only be allowed in the steerage section – you would never be allowed up to first class. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard that asked me the question, “will there be any stars in your crown” as if a person baptized under your tutelage would entitle you to another star. I will not go into great detail as to how I loathe that theology.
Which brings me to my thoughts on Pope Francis. When I first heard his background and his chosen name I associated “Francis” with Francis Xavier, one of the men who established the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – of which Pope Francis is a member. But later I was to read that he chose the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi. Now, having been raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, I have a special interest in St. Francis of Assisi. (The entire name of Santa Fe in English would be “The city of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.” I’m sure glad I don’t have to print that on all my legal paperwork!) So, to make things short and sweet, the Roman Catholic church has in Pope Francis a Jesuit (deeply committed to the imitation of Jesus, and generally considered to be the scholarly circle within the Roman Catholic church) and a devoted follower of St. Francis who was the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor – an order devoted to preaching and to the care of the poor and dispossessed.
We have, in other words, the blending of two of the most radically different, although not opposed, circles within Roman Catholicism. This I find to be utterly captivating. Such a blending of viewpoints would be virtually unheard of within the church in which I was raised. I love my heritage, but it did not take me long to realize that within the Churches of Christ you either agreed with me or you were going to hell. And that included every possible minuscule detail. If you used too many cups in the administration of the Lord’s Supper or if you raised your hands during a song – I’m sorry, that’s it. You’re done.
I find that same spirit of demonization and hatred all too common in blog posts regarding the selection of the Roman Pope. And so, as the title of this post argues, it is far better to have people think you are a fool than to write a blog post and to remove all doubt. If you are looking for a few “amens” from the choir section, then go right ahead and spew your venom. If you are looking to invite Roman Catholic readers to consider your thoughts – well, let’s just say they have more constructive blogs to read.
I should be able to leave this disclaimer unsaid, but I will state it just for the record. I am not a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with much of the officially sanctioned dogma of the church. I believe that I am to base my faith on the person of Jesus as revealed in the clear teachings of Scripture, and that the rules and doctrines of men only serve to cloud and pollute those teachings. And so, while I understand where a great many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church arise, I reject them as being man-made and ultimately contrary to the New Testament. I must add – this applies to my own heritage, and so I must be ever vigilant to guard my own thoughts and ideas against man-made traditions, something that is difficult and painful at times to do.
I have said in other posts that I have been deeply touched by Roman Catholic writers and theologians. If I had been a member of the “unchurched” and I came across a book written by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton I might have been convinced to become a member of the Roman Catholic church. I do not hold the gross excesses in the history of the church against modern Roman Catholics, any more that I wish to be blamed for the sins of the early settlers of the United States. I would like to judge a people, or a faith, based on their brightest lights, not their dimmest bulbs.
Which, by the way, is exactly why I do not want Roman Catholic readers to judge me by some of the hate filled, ignorant posts written by some of my non-Catholic counterparts.
(Oops – my first copy of this post identified the OFM as the Order of St. Friars Minor. My bad – that is the Order of the Friars Minor, the “Little Brothers” of St. Francis. I hope my slip is not showing too much.)
I write this on Saturday night, while thinking of the day ahead tomorrow.
Preachers – when you preach there may be someone in the auditorium for whom this is the first time they have heard of Christ. Will they hear the gospel? There may be someone in the auditorium for whom this will be the last sermon they hear. Will they hear the gospel? Preach as if this will be the first and last sermon someone ever hears.
Congregation – if the minister is speaking from the Bible, he is speaking the Words of God. Are you listening? What is God saying to you, to your congregation, to your city, state and to the world. Don’t treat the next few moments frivolously. You are in the presence of God. Be careful how you respond.
For preachers: Serve every day as if you will retire at your present congregation, and plan so that if today is your last day your ministry will flourish without you. Make your predecessor proud of you and your successor love you to death.
For congregations: Hire the best man you can find, and then give him the best financial package you can afford (even if it means “stepping out in faith”) – spoil him and his family, make sure they will never, ever want to leave your service.
Here is the text (more or less verbatim) of the sermon I preached on 12/30/12 at the Third and Kilgore congregation in Portales, NM. I do not have access to a a website that can upload sermon audio, so I had to go with a written text.
The year was 49 BC. The place – Gaul, just north of the country of Italy. The person was Julius “not quite yet” Caesar. The situation – by law if Julius, a general in the Roman army, wanted to enter into Italy he had to relinquish his military position and surrender the power of he “Imperium” he held in Gaul. As he camped at the river Rubicon he debated his options. If he crossed the Rubicon river with his army he would be declaring his rebellion from Pompey – an act of treason. He would be under a death sentence. Every man who followed him armed for battle would be under a death sentence.
After some deliberation Julius “not quite yet Caesar” did cross the Rubicon, and as he did so he is reported to have said, “The die is cast.” There would be no turning back.
Flash forward about 80 years. A wandering rabbi sits on a mountainside and calls his disciples to him. As his disciples and others listen to his teaching, they realize that there is something unique, powerful, about this particular rabbi. They also realize that if they follow this new teaching they will be “crossing the Rubicon” in relation to their world. There will be no turning back.
I want to use the imagery of “crossing the Rubicon” to illustrate two points this morning. If I am right in these two points then the third point will be a call to respond, a call to action as it were.
#1 – The United States has crossed a cultural Rubicon in a very profound way. It is my opinion that there is no way to alter its direction short of a major collapse or a major spiritual uprising. It has been headed in this direction for more than a generation, but has picked up speed tremendously in the past decade. The last election virtually “sealed the deal” in the mindset of the American people. Just notice, for example, the tremendous difference between John F. Kennedy and Barack Hussein Obama. Kennedy spoke those immortal words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Obama has cemented in the American mind the idea that the only reason government exists is to bestow entitlements to its citizens. A majority of Americans are now dependent upon the government in some form or fashion. How will anyone convince them to relinquish any of these “entitlements?”
Two, There has also been a staggering shift in the moral understanding of Americans. This is clearly, but not exclusively, demonstrated in the acceptance and even advancement of homosexual behavior and same sex marriage.
#2 – This first point places those who would follow the rabbi from Nazareth in a very small and shrinking minority.
If it was ever true that the United States was a Christian nation it no longer is true.
If God was truly honored and worshipped, the Constitution could be a living and vibrant document that heralds justice and freedom for all.
But, if you remove God then the Constitution becomes a wicked and humanistic piece of paper, subject to the whims and fancies of those who interpret it.
Worse, it has become an idol. It is something that is visible and on a surface level points to a supreme being, but is simply a human construct full of human depravity.
And so – we return to that mountainside and we strain our ears to hear the words of that Nazarene rabbi, knowing that those words are a call to “cross the Rubicon” and declare our allegiance to God and to reject Satan and the rule of this world.
- Blessed are the poor in spirit.
- Blessed are those who mourn.
- Blessed are the gentle.
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
- Blessed are the merciful.
- Blessed are the pure in heart.
- Blessed are the peacemakers.
- Blessed are those who are persecuted for God’s sake.
- Disciples are salt and light in a bent and broken world.
- Avoid murder by avoiding hate.
- Avoid adultery by avoiding lust.
- Honor marriage.
- Tell the truth, first and always.
- Go the second mile.
- Love your enemies.
- Give without expecting return.
- Pray as a child to a parent.
- Fast fervently.
- Hold to God, not your possessions.
- Do not be anxious.
- Do not judge.
- Seek God’s kingdom, not your own nor that of the rule of Satan.
# 3 – So, we must decide where our loyalty lies – with God or this world.
I was truly shocked, dismayed and heartbroken when, almost within hours of the events of 12/14/12 my Facebook page was full of postings by Christians, some of them even gospel preachers, responding to the murders of 26 innocent people by declaring that the most important thing to them was the ownership of their guns. No reference to being ruled by the Prince of Peace. No thought to the fact that we are to be a people that rejects violence and turns the other cheek. No consideration to the Sermon on the Mount at all – just an endless repetition of quotations defending the Constitution and the 2nd amendment in particular.
Brothers and sisters, we must – it is imperative – we cannot overlook Christ’s demand for us to declare our loyalty. Are we going to be loyal to Christ and His kingdom or this world?
Second, we must commit. We must learn to view baptism as a “crossing of the Rubicon” in a spiritual sense. This is especially true of those who have already made this confession. When we confess that Jesus is the Lord we are saying something profoundly political. That was the most treasonous statement a person could make in the first century AD. The law was you had to confess “Caesar is Lord.” Christians could not do that. They had already confessed “Jesus is Lord.” There could not be two Lords in their life. And so, when they said “Jesus is Lord” and went under the waters of baptism they were crossing a spiritual and a political Rubicon. They were placing themselves under a death sentence. Many did pay with their lives, others paid by losing property or jobs or family connections. We must learn the significance of those three words again. We cannot have two Lords in our life!
For those who have not made that confession, please stop and consider what you will be doing when you make the good confession. You are not just doing something so you can take communion every Sunday. You are not doing something just to make your parents happy. You are not doing something just so you will not be the last one in the youth group to be baptized. You are making a profound statement. You are confessing that Jesus is the Lord of your life. Do not make that decision lightly.
Third, we must live like this world is no longer our home. Two passages in particular come to mind as I think of this truth. Philippians 3:20 states that “our citizenship is in heaven.” There it is – no having to parse out that thought. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God and that is where our allegiance lies. Second, Hebrews 13:14 says that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” That’s right, we do not have a lasting city on this earth, but there is a city that is to come that we are citizens of, and we await its arrival. We have to choose which city we want to be a part of. It will be an eternal decision.
I want to close by giving a quote from one of my favorite authors. This short passage sums up completely what this lesson has been about. If I am correct, and I certainly do believe that I am, the words I have spoken this morning are critical words for us to hear at this time in our history. And so, these words from an earlier generation come down to us with an urgency that I hope we can all learn to feel:
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious and happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship.
(Note: the Scripture notation was corrected to read Philippians 3:20. Sorry about the earlier slip of the finger.)
My daily Bible reading had me in the book of Lamentations this morning. One of the real blessings of my daily Bible reading is that my schedule calls for me to read a section long enough to be challenging, yet not so long as to be oppressive (or, at least in my mind. YMMV). Just to let you know, I read anywhere from 7-8 chapters a day, not counting Sundays when I have a different schedule. Even though this is a lengthy reading, every so often one or two verses jump out at me as if I have never read them before. That is what I find so interesting about this particular plan. The text speaks to me in its own way, rather than me telling the text that it has to say something to me. Of course, sometimes I am so distracted that I can’t hear any of the verses, but that is okay because I know that tomorrow is a new day, and I will read that passage again in due course and at that time it may speak volumes to me.
So, as I was saying, today I was in Lamentations. Now, I don’t know about you, but I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon taken from Lamentations, and to the best of my recollection, I have only preached one. So, as I was reading along and following the prophet’s anguished cries over the destruction of Jerusalem I came across 4:13, which in my Common English Bible reads this way:
It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities, those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.
Wow. Reading the books of Kings and Chronicles and the prophets you would get the idea that Israel and Judah were punished because of the sins of the kings. The author of Lamentations thinks otherwise. Oh, to be sure, the kings were a sinful bunch (at least all of Israel’s kings were, and a great many of Judah’s). But the author of Lamentations (Jeremiah?) saw through to the real lack of leadership – the spiritual leaders.
Today, especially among conservative pundits, bloggers, and preachers, the entire problem with the United States resides solely in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Why, if we could just sweep out the mean, nasty, ugly heatherns that are making all those mean, nasty heathern laws, well we could fix up the country just like she should be.
I don’t think God is going to give our political leaders a pass when it comes to morality and the way in which they have led our country. But I think there is another group that is going to get a lot more scrutiny than I think they are going to be comfortable with, and that is all those conservative pundits, bloggers and preachers that are calling for the roof to fall in on all the liberal politicians.
Simply put, the people cannot go where they are not led. And if the so called leaders who are complaining the loudest are not forging a way for the people to follow, then they need to shut up. And if they are forging that path, then they need to shepherd those who are following instead of shooting arrows at the other guys.
Real leadership involves more than just identifying where the other guys are wrong. It means that you have to both teach and live the ideas that you believe are right. Leadership does not mean holding up a wind sock and then going in the direction of the prevailing current. It means setting your course and courageously maintaining that course whether the wind is at your back and the sun is shining brightly or if the wind blowing mercilessly against you and the sun is hidden by the clouds. The one who says, “I will take a poll and whatever my people feel is best, that I will do” is not a leader. That person is a charlatan. That person is a fake. That person is a coward.
Real leadership means standing at the point, and quite often standing alone, to take the arrows from the enemy in front and, quite frequently, arrows from the discontented hiding behind. Leadership is not acquiescing to the whims of the majority, but it is confidently proclaiming the way of truth and safety. Real leadership means that the leader makes demands that might at times cause his or her followers to make sacrifices. Fake leadership promises only blessings and success.
As I view the religious scene in the United States I see a lot of men (and women) who are comfortable in their positions who have done their homework well and know exactly where the winds of popularity are blowing. They know how to play the game of politics with brutal, almost demonic efficiency. They know how to play the fearless general when necessary and they also know when to pull out the robe of the martyred hero when the situation calls for it.
Jeremiah provides the perfect illustration of the concept of Godly leadership in a time of personal unpopularity. He tried desperately, with only minimal and fleeting success, to get the people to hear and accept God’s truth when virtually every power – political and religious – was against him. He may have lost the battle, but we have his story as a lasting tribute to the necessity of having spiritual leaders who are willing to go against the current of modern culture in order to speak the word of God.
I am really growing weary of preachers who stand in the pulpit and declare that the real problem with American resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. No. That person is just the result of the real problem with America.
The real problem with America stands behind the pulpit every Sunday morning and preaches a false word – a lying deception. The real problem with America is the spiritual leader who refuses first to hear the Word of God, and so refuses to proclaim it. The real problem with America are the so called “conservative” preachers who preach week in and week out “peace, peace” when there is no peace.
If the preachers in the pulpit would lead the people in the pew, then the president on Pennsylvania Ave. would be of no consequence. If our politicians have so much authority in the realm of morality and ethics, exactly whose fault is that?