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Monday, December 13, 2010

Theology Matters

Theology is impractical, irrelevant, and inaccessible to real people with real problems who live in the real world. Studying the doctrine of the incarnation is not going to help me pay my bills and overcome my addictions. An exploration of the relationships within the Trinity can’t possible help me with marriage and parenting.

I have both heard and, admittedly, said statements like the ones above. Preachers often boast about how we avoid theology in order to proclaim “relevant messages that really connect.” The arrogant assumption is that theological doctrines, such as the Incarnation and Trinity, are less relevant and, therefore, less important than the concerns that surface in “our world.”

The reflective preacher realizes, however, that theology, “words about God,” will always be relevant. The doctrine of Christ’s Incarnation is God’s way of reminding the human race that we are relevant, at least to Him. Trinitarian theology highlights that God’s fundamental essence is loving relationality between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and, therefore, that the way we humans get to know and experience God is through, you guessed it, loving relationality. Could there be anything more relevant to our lives?

My recently adopted conviction is that the sermon, while it must certainly be directed toward the needs and struggles of the human race, should reveal something about the nature and will of God. If it does not, then the preacher simply becomes a therapist or self-help guru instead of a pastoral theologian who proclaims the Triune God and the Incarnate Christ to a hope-needy human race.

There are two habits that can help the preacher develop and deliver sermons that proclaim the eternally relevant God. These habits involve the asking of theological questions and the reading of theological works. Here are six theological questions that impact preaching, followed by six recommended theological books.

Six Theological Questions for Preacher:
• What does the overall story, or meta-narrative, of the Bible reveal about the nature of God?
• How can the sermon be faithful to what the biblical story reveals about God?
• What does God seem to be doing in and through the biblical text?
• How can the preacher align the sermon with the purposes of God through the text?
• Does the sermon say anything about the Father, the Son, and/or the Holy Spirit?
• Does the sermon present the Gospel by presenting both the problem of sin and the grace in Christ?

Six Theological Books for Preachers:
• On the Incarnation by Athanasius (4th Century): This work will compel the preacher to reflect upon the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, without ignoring either. Who is Jesus, is the primary question with which the preacher will wrestle while reading this work.
• On Christian Doctrine by Augustine of Hippo (late 4th/early 5th Century): Book IV of this important work deals specifically with “The Christian Orator.” As you read this section of the book you may be surprised by its contemporary import.
• Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas (13th Century): You probably won’t be able to read entirely this massive work, but there are several sections in this Summa (“summary”) that are well worth the preachers time including “Treatise on Gratuitous Graces.”
• Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin (16th Century): Like the Summa, this is an exhaustive theological work. The preacher will want to jump around but be sure to read Book Four: Chapter 3 which is focused on “teachers and ministers.”
• A Plain Account of Christian Perfection by John Wesley (18th Century): Don’t let the title scare you away from this important read. Wesley emphasizes the two loves, love for God and love for people. The preacher who embodies these two loves will proclaim the Gospel with greater impact.
• Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth (20th Century): Barth is not the easiest theologian to read, but Chapter IV “The Proclamation of the Church” is a gem worth reading and rereading. This chapter will, at the very least, guide preachers in formulating theological thoughts concerning what they believe happens in the preaching of God’s Word.

Most of these theological resources can be accessed for free on the internet. As you read these works, be sure to reflect on them in light of the ministry of preaching. Additionally, recognize that all of the theologians above worked out their “words about God” in the context of pastoral ministry.

Theological wisdom can and should shape the mind and heart of the pastor for substantial preaching. When we read theologians who come from outside of our tradition we deepen our thoughts about God and appreciate our own particular theological tradition even more. Asking theological questions and reading theological classics does not only cultivate better preaching but, more importantly, better preachers.

 As you prepare your next sermon, reflect on the six theological questions above and respond to each question with no more than two sentences.
 Read one of the theologians above each week in chronological order until you have read them all. As you read, look for preaching wisdom from these classic works.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Some good preaching tips from my friend Arlen.

Arlen has been a worship leader for so long that he remembers Kumbayah being controversial. Arlen and his wife (Elsa) are the founders of Break Forth Ministries. Together with an exceptional team, they host Break Forth Canada with an attendance of around 15,000 people. Arlen has sold a lot of albums, co-authored a couple books, served as the worship columnist for 'Strategies For Today's Leader, earned a Doctorate in leadership, had a few radio hits, helped to put on 7,000 events, mentored hundreds of musicians, trained over 5,000 worship team members in worship workshops and received many 'secular' and 'christian' awards. Arlen and Elsa are blessed to work with a great team at Break Forth Finland each year (the reindeer tastes wonderful). But, at the end of all these so called "accomplishments" Arlen states that his greatest ones are being married to a wonderful woman who loves him in spite of his weaknesses and seeing three children who love the Lord and serve Christ with gratitude. Arlen states that without Christ's intervention in his life he would be both physically and spiritually dead. It's all grace!

Click on the link below to acces some of Arlen's insightful thoughts on communication.

Monday, December 6, 2010

21 Days of Love: John 21

We come to the end of John's Gospel and one of my favorite scenes. Peter has been out fishing after his three time denial of Christ. As usual, he doesn't catch any fish. Peter has to be one of the world's worst professional fisherman since he hardly ever seems to catch fish. The resurrected Jesus, whom they don't yet recognize, tells them to cast their net to the other side of the boat. Well, they catch a boat-load of fish and realize that the guy on the beach is the risen Jesus.

Verse 8 tells us that while they were about 100 yards away, slowly dragging that large catch of fish in a little boat, Peter jumps out of the boat and begins to swim the 100 yards to Jesus. Peter is so broken by his denial of Jesus and the intense days of depression he has just endured. So, he runs to Jesus with abandon. He abandons his boat, he abandons the lucrative large catch of fish, he abandons his pride, he abandons his comfort, he abandons his fears, he abandons his guilt, he abandons his depression and swims, kicks and reaches, for Jesus.

Lord, when I face those moments of guilt or depression, my temptation is to stay in the boat and feel bad for myself, eat a large pizza, and isolate myself from you and others. Instead, when I'm having Peter moments because of the hideous ways I may deny you, I will swim to you instead of distancing myself from you.

Jesus, I love you and want you more than anything else. In this Advent season, I scream out with all creation, come Lord Jesus come!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

21 Days of Love: John 20

Why is it that no one seems to recognize Jesus right away after he rises from the dead? He is right in front of their face and they don't see him. The saem happens with Mary in John 20. She is weeping because someone has taken the body of Jesus and she has no idea where he is. She was already weepy and now even more so because the body of Jesus is gone. Some guy is standing behind her. The guy is Jesus but she doesn't even seem to notice. The man asks, "why are you crying?" Mary quickly answers this man she assumes is a gardener as if to say, "mind your business and don't interupt my cry unless you can help me find Jesus." Mary still doesn't recognize the man as Jesus even after he speaks. Finally, when Jesus says "Mary" she recognizes the man standing behind her as the one she came to see.

"I call my sheep by name and they recognize my voice" Jesus said back in John 10. There is something about the way Jesus calls us each by name; it's like he knows something about us nwe don't know about ourselves. We sense in his voice a better awareness of who we are than we have of who he is. I am praying for the grace to recognize when his voice is calling my name and to respond appropriately. Lord, give me the ears to hear you calling my name so that I do what you're calling me to do and go where you're calling me to go and become who you're calling me to be.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

21 Days of Love: John 19

Jesus is flogged and mocked with a crown of thorns pressed into his skull and a purple robe of royalty put over his bloody body. He looks as helpless as any person has ever looked. Pilate takes Jesus before the people and says "here is the man!" (v.6). Pilate seems to be saying, if we venture to read between the lines, "look at what you forced me to do to him...Is beaten badly enough...Can't we stop the abuse toward this man with whom I find no fault???"

"Here is the man" sticks out to me for some reason. I think it's because this statement spoken by a pagan Pilate is a summary of the Gospel's power. The pre-existent, eternal Son of God (remember John 1???) became "the man" and as a man was humiliated and beaten badly. "Here is the man" bloody, beaten, and belittled who did not consider "equality with God [as God] something to be held onto but he made himself nothing" (Phil 2) for our sakes.

"Here is the man" is a statement that compels me to, like Christ, go low and jump onto the turf of others, making myself nothing, in order to raise them up to a whole new level of living. That's what Christ has done for me. Today, I will partner with him to do the same for others.

Friday, December 3, 2010

21 Days of Love: John 18

Jesus is rejected by both the crowd and Peter, I believe for similar reasons. Peter, like the crowd, expected Jesus to kick Roman butt. Peter himself picked up a sword to cut off the ear of one of the Temple soldiers, a Jew in cohoots with Rome. Peter, it seems, was expecting a warrior Messiah and that is not what he got. So, he denies three times that he even knew Jesus, not primarily because of fear but due to disappointment. As far as I can tell Peter wasn't afraid of anyone- even an armed soldier let alone a girl. The crowd asked for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. Barabbas, it seems, was someone who violently rebelled against Rome, which would have made him a hero to the Jewish crowd. Simply put, Jesus did not meet the expectations of Peter and the crowd, so they rejected him.

Sometimes, no often, Jesus does not meet my expectations. I'm wanting and assuming he is going to show his glory in a certain way, but he has other plans. He never consults me and often does not align with my will. When he disappoints me I am tempted to forsake him through my various forms of denial. However, I have learned that if I can wait out my disappointment, frequently for a very long time, Jesus will excede my expectations. Thank God he doesn't always meet but often excedes our narrow expectations. I know this sounds paradoxical, but in those moments when I have been most disappointed by my unmet expectations of God I have experienced his presence most profoundly.

So, today, I'm letting go of my expectations for a warrior kick-butt Messiah and grabbing hold of the helpless baby born to peasant parents in Podunkville. I have discovered this odd sort of God, thankfuly, goes well beyond my expectations if I let him.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

21 Days of Love: John 17

According to Jesus' prayer in John 17, and his opinion matters most, the most effective way to make him known is not tracts, or camp meetings, or Christian concerts, or yelling at people on the street corners of a major city. There is nothing inherently wrong with these evangelistic methods, the exception might be yelling at people...I haven't heard that has incarnated Christ lately. In 17:11, 20-23 Jesus' prays for the unity of his followers, that we would be "one" just as he and the Father are "one." Wow, this method of making Christ known is less expensive than producing a concert or camp meeting; it's also less awkward than handing out tracts and yelling at strangers. Loving and being united with sisters and brothers in Christ- piece of cake!

Not so fast...any of us who have been in the church for years recognizes how challenging love and unity in the church can be. Sometimes it is no where to be found. Yet, our loving unity within the church is, according to Jesus, one of the premier ways to make him known to the world. The most effective evangelistic "method" in the first century church was Jews and Gentiles coming to Christ and loving each other for the first time in the history of the world. That's the difference Christ makes- he makes the two one! And the world sits up and takes notice.

Lord, today I will love you by being united in love with your people. Help me to love especially those people in the church I don't like. I will love them because I love you and want to make you known to the watching world.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

21 Days of Love: John 16

Throughout John 16 Jesus is comforting his disciples by sharing with them his access to both the Holy Spirit and the Father. Jesus is clearly chomping at the bits to share the two most significant relationships and resources he knows with his followers/friends. The eagerly extravagant generosity of Jesus has become both a gift of grace to me and an example wanting to work its way through me.

Lord, cultivate in me the generosity of the Christ who was willing to share the Father, the Spirit, and himself with me and for me. I'm convinced Jesus also intends these same gifts to flow not just to us but through us to others. Help me to share my relationship with You, the Triune God, in a compelling and authentic way with those around me. There are other resources you have given me to share (time, money, influence); help me to share those too because of my loving obedience to you.