Nothing deep or profound today (if there ever is…). I just wanted to mention something that I felt today.
I don’t get the opportunity to preach very often anymore. That is kind of bittersweet for me, because what my new position allows me to do is teach much more frequently, and in a university setting. So, I lost something I love very much and I gained an opportunity to do something I love very much. My glass is totally full – not half empty – its just full of different things now.
So anyway, where was I… oh, yeah. Today I had the opportunity to preach again and I realized just how much I enjoy it. I did not give one of those Dietrich Bonhoeffer type sermons, just an “oldie but a goodie” that I like to preach when I am speaking to an audience that I am not familiar with. The sermon was pretty simple and allowed me to say some things that I feel deeply, but in a way that (hopefully) was not too intimidating.
Preaching is a special art, and I am in no way saying I have mastered the art. Preaching is one public event that should not be measured by any type of “normal” speaking metrics. The most efficient preachers can come from diametrically opposed styles of preaching. But to be effective, preaching must be genuine. Preaching should be measured, not by theatrics or voice modulation or histrionics or any other such scale. Preaching should be measured by faithfulness to the Word of God and by the willingness of the preacher to sound a clear trumpet (see Ezekiel and Jeremiah, for example).
So, today I spoke about why I am a member of the church of Christ. I hope I helped someone along the way. But most of all I hope I was faithful to the text. And I hope somewhere down the line to have more opportunities to preach the word.
I am in the midst of working through a text-book that I (hopefully) will be using in a class this fall on the subject of interpreting Scripture. The book is entitled, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the Book and I really hope that I have enough students to teach the class. Perhaps in the future I will write a more in-depth review, but I came across a very helpful distinction the other day and I wanted to share it, and if by sharing it more people are interested in reading the book then so much the better.
To begin, let me use a situation from real life. In my work as a minister I have come across many people who are honestly, but hopelessly, lost when it comes to the concept of interpreting Scripture. They have heard so many sermons and so many classes in which the preacher or teacher says something like, “we do not interpret Scripture, we just read Scripture,” or “we interpret Scripture literally, other religions invent methods of interpretation to support their man-made ideas.” So, many church members blithely go about their business thinking either that they do not ever join in the process of interpreting the Bible, or they assume, because they have been told repeatedly that they do so, that they interpret the Bible in a “pure” and literal sense.
One poor soul is so convinced of this that every time he reads the book of Revelation after an election he has to completely re-establish his interpretation because the identity of his anti-Christ has changed. In a small way if it were not so sad it would be comical. But it is not comical at all – it is very, very sad.
To be perfectly blunt: it is impossible to interpret the Bible in a “pure” literal sense. To use just one simple illustration, if everyone was to do so, after the first sin involving the use of sight a person would have to pluck out their right eye, and after the second sin involving sight they would have to pluck out their left eye. After the first sin involving a hand or a finger the person would have to chop off their right hand, and after the second sin they would have to chop off their left hand (Matthew 5:27-30). Now, how many church members do you see who have plucked out one eye, let alone both? How many have cut off one hand, let alone both? And yet are they going to suggest they have NEVER sinned with their eyes or their hands? What about gossips? Would it not be a “literal” application that a gossip would have to cut their tongue out? Hmmm.
Or take Jesus’ description of himself. Taken literally, we should look for a great big huge gate to descend from the clouds when Jesus returns. Oops, make that a grape-vine. Oops, make that a loaf of bread. Oops, make that a valiant warrior riding a white horse. Rats. I just cannot keep all those literal descriptions straight.
The point is when we attempt to interpret the Bible literally we get into all kinds of silly messes. And I have not even touched the hem of the garment that is called the Apocalypse. While I will not for a moment deny that the Bible is true and faithful in its message, I will argue that the writers of the books of the Bible used a wide variety of writing styles and techniques and we must be aware of those styles and techniques or we will distort and even negate the ultimate truth of the Bible.
Here is where the authors of the book Grasping God’s Word have hit on a timely phrase. They correctly point out that we should not attempt to interpret the Bible according to its literal meaning but according to its literary meaning. So, if we are reading poetry we understand that God is not literally a shepherd, but that there are several aspects of a shepherd that can be applied to our God. Jesus is not literally a door or a gate, but that image suggests something about the person and work of Jesus that we need to think seriously about. Jesus can use hyperbole (exaggeration) and irony (sarcasm’s weaker cousin) and we do not need to believe that the Pharisees were literally a bunch of snakes.
The strange thing is, as I see it, that we do this with the most obvious examples (Ps. 23, Matt. 5) but when it comes to more complex issues we want to revert back to “literal only.” Thus, when Paul exclaims, “Don’t you have houses to eat in?” (1 Cor. 11:22) he must mean that eating food at a church assembly is forever condemned. Except, in the first century the overwhelming evidence is that the Christians met together in homes! There simply was no “church building” to ban the use of communal meals. If Paul was banning the use of eating in places of assembly, he was therefore banning the eating of food in houses, the very thing that he appears to command in 1 Cor. 11:22! If we take every statement in the letters of Paul literally we move from the sublime to the absurd in a heartbeat!
I really do not blame many people for the confusion they experience when they come to difficult passages and for the helplessness they feel in trying to make sense of the verses. Many preachers and teachers – who should have known far better – have led these people into a black hole. Those who teach and preach today need to work remedially to untangle the web of deceit that has already been spun, and we need to preach and teach and model healthy, biblical forms of interpretation. That means, unfortunately, that bad theology needs to be exposed and, if needed, forcefully refuted. But all things must be done in love.
And, never forget my Undeniable Truth for Theological Reflection #1. All interpreters must come to the Bible in an attitude of humility. We may have an incorrect grasp on a biblical truth, so let us be careful about surgically removing a splinter from someone’s eye when we have a 2×4 in our own eye.
That’s a figure of speech, folks.
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.
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!
Warning: ill-tempered rant immediately ahead.
Don’t lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him. Just a couple of examples -
In 1 Samuel 15 King Saul is given a specific command to destroy the people of Amalek. We recoil from the command because it sounds so genocidal. However, that was the command, and apparently King Saul understood it quite literally. So he marches off and almost completely and totally obeys the command. Then he lies to God about the “almost” part. “But I did obey the LORD!” Saul answered. (1 Sam. 15:20). Problem was, he did not. He had spared the king and the finest of the animals, ostensibly for sacrifice, but spared them none-the-less. In response Samuel said,
“Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD?”
Then Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him as king, and that meant that Saul’s sons would be rejected as well. There would be no Saul dynasty.
You see, when you lie to God you really cannot fool him, and he takes a pretty dim view of the attempt.
Example #2 – in Acts 5 the author Luke interrupts his litany of events about church growth and all the good things that are happening in and through the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit to relate a very sordid story. A married couple sells a piece of land and brings a portion of the proceeds to the apostles for distribution to the poor. The only problem is that they lied to God about the amount of money they had received. God took a pretty dim view of the deception. First Ananias and then his wife Sapphira fell dead before the church. A harsh end for such a little transgression, we might say. It just goes to highlight the importance God places on our honesty.
Don’t ever lie to God. He takes a pretty dim view of people who lie to Him.
I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but there are a couple of lies that I keep hearing that are really beginning to bother me – bother me deeply and with increasing passion.
Lie #1 – “I want everyone to know that I really, really, really love the church, but…” The sentence can come in many different shades of “really” but though the form may change the content never does. What follows this supposed confession of love for the church is invariably a lengthy screed condemning the church and everyone who would defend the church. The church is hypocritical. The church is corrupt. The church is hopelessly out of date. The church needs to wake up and start doing things the way the author deems critical or it will simply cease to exist.
Pardon me for being blunt, Mr. or Mrs. church critic, but it is obvious that you really do not love the church. Your opening line is designed to get me to lower my defenses. “Oh, I should not judge Mr. or Mrs. Critic so harshly” my inner voice is supposed to lecture me, “see how much he or she loves the church.” Except that it is a bogus love, a false love, a poisonous love served up in a golden goblet.
To love the church means that you love something that is filled with humans and by that very definition itself means that it is imperfect – tainted with sin, broken and in need of Christ’s healing. Here is some news for you, Mr or Mrs. church critic – the church will never be perfect. It has never been perfect and it will not be perfect even after you get through lecturing it. It will not be perfect even if it followed every one of your perfect solutions. Until Jesus comes to claim his Bride the church will still have its blots and blemishes. That is why Paul prayed daily with tears and great anxiety. He knew that Christ has called his church to be pure, but he also knew that the people who made up each individual congregation were far from pure.
I find it personally repugnant that so many of the people who are ostensibly in love with the church (and yet who make a healthy living out of disciplining the church) have given up on the idea of serving a local congregation. Now that I have “shown my cards” so to speak maybe I should just go ahead and reveal how I really feel. But if Mr. or Mrs. church critic is not covered in the muck and mud of daily congregational ministry I just really do not care about what they have to say about fixing the church (or abandoning the church). And that is especially true of all these 20 somethings who have never been in a position to truly minister to a bent and broken local congregation and who are writing all those books and blogs and producing all the videos that carp and criticize the efforts of those who are spending their days and nights wallowing in the muck and mud of exhausting congregational ministry.
Hey, Mr. or Mrs. church critic – if you don’t smell like sheep then what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd mine? Or, to be more theologically correct, what business do you have to tell me how to shepherd God’s sheep?
And while I’m at it – how about a word to our schools who are preparing and sending these twenty-somethings out into the world to criticize something they have no experience in serving? How dare you claim to be producing servants of the Crucified One when the majority of your graduates have no intention of serving God’s people in a local congregation? How can you defend taking young men and women and filling their heads with the idea that the church is something to be studiously avoided? How can you claim that you study the opening chapters of virtually all of the apostle Paul’s letters (Galatians notably excepted) and at the same time suggest that serving a local congregation is somehow beneath the dignity of your esteemed graduates? Maybe you are trying to get them to go into congregational ministry and they simply refuse. Maybe. But if a majority of your graduates have no plans to enter congregational ministry does that not speak poorly of the emphasis you place upon the local congregation and its value in the Kingdom of God?
Don’t lie to God. Really – just don’t.
Lie #2 – “I really, truly, deeply, love Jesus – I just don’t love the church.” Everything I said about lie #1 applies to lie #2, except that lie #2 is more insidious. Who would ever think of challenging someone who really, really, truly and deeply loves Jesus, especially if they have the audacity to admit they do not love the church? Except, once again, that is an outright lie. You cannot love Jesus and at the same time dislike the church.
Here is a quick test – for whom did Jesus die? If you said “me” or “each person” you get half credit. Jesus did not die for individuals, to create an individual salvation, so that each person could imagine an individual heaven where he/she can individually worship God. Jesus died for the sins of all people collectively, in order to create a new community of those who believe in Him, and for the purpose of establishing a new and eternal kingdom where untold thousands from “every nation, tribe, language and people” are gathered together to live in perfect unity in worship to God. On earth that kingdom is called the church. If you do not love the church, if you dislike the church, if you do not want to have anything to do with the church, then by that very admission you no longer love the one who died to redeem that community for God. We in America have taken “individualism” to such an extreme that we have utterly corrupted the communal view of the Kingdom of God. I cannot think of a single passage of the New Testament that speaks of Jesus dying for an individual separate and apart from the community of other redeemed sinners. Perhaps one exists, but I would hasten to add that if such a passage exists it is written within the immediate context of the community of the saints. The inspired authors of our New Testament simply did not write to bless our American view of individual salvation.
I was going to say I wonder about how God feels about so many people lying about their relationship with Him. But, I really don’t have to wonder at all.
God takes a very dim view of folks who lie about Him. Just ask a deposed king and a couple of suddenly deceased land owners.
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.
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.
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?
Some people have suggested that I have a profound grasp of the obvious. For example: rain is wet, ice is cold. I’m not exactly sure if they mean that as a compliment or a criticism, but since I can choose I will say that their comment is most complimentary. I like reducing things to the most fundamental level possible, and if necessary, building up from there. For me, life just works better that way.
My third undeniable truth for theological reflection might seem, on the surface, to be yet another pronouncement of the blatantly obvious. Let us repeat it here:
3. The authors of the Bible expected their message to create its original intended purpose. This purpose might be encouragement, exhortation, obedience, etc.
In reality, however, I’m not at all convinced that this truth is as obvious as it might appear. For some rather inelegant examples, how many of you have ever heard a lesson or a sermon on Psalm 23 that ended with a call for repentance? Or how many of you have heard a sermon on Ephesians 2, in which Paul clearly states that we are saved by grace through faith, only to have the preacher spend 20 minutes talking about how we are not really saved by grace, but that we need x number of “works” in order to really be saved. I have been that preacher or teacher. I am speaking to myself first here – I am the one who made this list and I am fully qualified to plead guilty to violating these principles. Please do not accuse me of being self-righteous.
So let us return to our third undeniable truth for theological reflection. When an inspired author sat down to record the message God intended for him or her to write, he or she wanted that message to achieve its intended purpose, and nothing more. In the Psalms we read great poetry expressing joy, sorrow, repentance, confusion, pain and delight. We do not get a three point sermon on the steps of salvation, a detailed history of the creation of the world, and certainly not a 10 point outline as to have a better marriage. To force those foreign ideas upon the pages of the Psalms would be to violate the very intent of the writers – dare I suggest that would be the equivalent of speaking falsely of the Holy Spirit.
The same is true of any genre of Scripture. This is at it most basic level one of the principles of honest hermeneutics. We must first identify the genre of literature we are dealing with, and then ask ourselves, “what is this passage intended to communicate?” Especially for a group of people who claim to “speak where the Bible speaks and be silent where the Bible is silent” this step cannot be minimized. But, at the same time this is one of the most difficult steps. We have come to expect certain things from a class or a sermon, and so in order to make the text fit that “mold” of sermon or class we bend, twist, and sometimes even break the text. We might end up with a really motivational lecture or class, but it is woefully deficient in terms of being biblical.
The solution to the problem is that we need to jettison our contemporary concept of what makes a “biblical” or “Scriptural” class or sermon. We are just so accustomed to the “three points and a poem” kind of preaching that we have lost sight of the power of the text itself. As just one example, why must every sermon end with a passionate plea for repentance and baptism? If we are preaching from a text that in itself calls for repentance and baptism that is natural and biblical. But what if we are preaching from a text that calls for prayer? Or what if we are preaching from a text that calls for joy? Or what if we are preaching from a text that calls for us to enter into our community and to “wash the feet” of our neighbors? To make every text a pretext for repentance and baptism is to distort the meaning of the text – exactly what we accuse others of doing and exactly what we exempt ourselves from being guilty. It’s time we looked in the mirror before we look down the barrel of our theological cannons.
I am reminded of the story of the country preacher who started his sermon thusly: “Our text this morning is Genesis 1:1-2:3. I have three points this morning – #1, What God Said. #2 What God Did. And #3, a few words about baptism.”
Lest I be misunderstood here – I am not denigrating the teaching of repentance and baptism. No one, especially those who have heard me preach or teach, can get away with suggesting that I minimize the importance of surrendering to the beautiful and deeply significant act of baptism. And when I preach or teach on Matthew 28, Mark 16, Acts 2, 22, 26, Romans 6 or a whole host of other passages I make that emphasis very clear. Or, consider my series of lessons on the meaning and purpose of baptism in which I take the topic of baptism and look at the New Testament teachings systematically. But, that having been said, I just do not see how you can move from Psalm 23 to the baptistery without doing significant damage to one or the other.
Let us live out the motto that we advertise. Let us speak where the Bible speaks, and with the intended purpose of the authors of the Bible. Let us use their words to achieve the purpose that God and the Holy Spirit intended. Let us fall under the text instead of standing over it a position of superiority. And then it can truly be said of us that we are a people of the book.