Preach The Word – Resurrection Apologetics

Apologetics in Preaching

Resurrection Apologetics

I have to admit, to my great shame, that I had trouble preaching during the Easter season. Easter Sunday was great. Preaching on Doubting Thomas the next Sunday was always a delight, but the rest of the season was tough for me. What’s left to say? One bit of advice that helped me was: read the hymns of the Easter season; they will inspire you. And they did. Another inspiration came when I got more serious about apologetics. The Sundays of Easter became an opportunity to speak about the facts of the resurrection and how those facts were the foundation for a confident faith in the face of all tragedy, especially death.

A theme of sorts emerged in my Easter season preaching, one taken from 1 Thessalonians: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Th 4:13). I wanted to make sure that my people knew where they were going, where their faithful loved ones who died already were, and the basis for this hope. In short, I wanted them to know the facts, reason, and hope of the resurrection of Christ.

On Easter Sunday, when visitors abound, I also wanted the skeptics to know. I didn’t want them to be ignorant either. But as we have already discussed in this series of articles, the skeptic might balk at a sheer proclamation of these facts. Again, preaching is the means by which the Spirit will grant faith but the apologetic minded preacher is also aware of the task to knock down any barriers. So the skeptic might contest, “How do you know?” and the answer “Because the Bible said so” is incredulous to him. It is a form of circular logic.

The skeptic is aware of the following circular argument: Question: How do you know that the Bible is true? Answer: Because it is God’s Word. Question: How do you know that it is God’s Word? Answer: Because the Bible says it is God’s Word. Question: Why should I trust the Bible? Answer: Because it is God’s Word. While this is true, the unbeliever is right to be skeptical. Insert Koran for Bible, and you see the problem.

So how do we get out of this circular argument? The answer is the resurrection of Christ. Question: How do you know that the Bible is true? Answer: Because Jesus said so. Question: Why should I trust Jesus? Answer: Because he rose from the dead, and I’m going with the guy who claimed to be true God and backed it up with a resurrection.

Facts back up the claims of Christianity.

The advantage of this tactic is that the argument is moved from the arena of blind faith to one of normal reason. Thus the skeptic is not left with only a command, “Believe this because I say that it is true” but is offered evidence for the claim. Why should the skeptic believe you and not the Muslim who says that Jesus did not rise from the dead (or even die on the cross)? In this case the apologist simply levels the playing field while being fully aware that the Spirit, and only the Spirit, will convert the unbelieving heart. The apologist only wants to show that Christianity is not like other religions that only assert claims. Facts back up the claims of Christianity.

It is helpful then to start with the facticity of the resurrection of Christ. Is there good reason for the skeptic to believe that at least the resurrection of Christ is possible? I think so, especially if the skeptic is willing to treat the evidence of the resurrection as they would any historical claim from the same era. Permit me to lay out the evidential argument for the resurrection of Christ in outline form:

I.  There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion.

A.  The Romans knew how to crucify someone to death, and there is no good reason to believe that they did not kill Jesus, especially considering the punishment Roman soldiers faced for not carrying out their duties.

B.  There is no good reason to doubt the eyewitness accounts of the crucifixion.

II.  There are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. There is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses lied about what they experienced.

A.  They gained nothing from such a ruse (money, power, prestige).

B.  They were willing to die for this truth, making them very credible eyewitnesses.

C.  There is no good reason to believe that these eyewitnesses were all mentally insane. How could so many people in one place and in one time all of a sudden be insane when there was no evidence of a preexistent mental illness? And even if this was the case, how credible is it that so many mentally insane people got their stories straight?

III.  Only three groups had access to the body of Christ: the Romans, the Jewish enemies of Christ, and the disciples of Christ. There is no good reason any of these groups would fake the resurrection of Christ.

A.  The Romans would not fake the resurrection. They were the ones who crucified him.

B.  The Jewish enemies of Christ were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. They were even paranoid about a theft of the body and demanded that the Roman authorities secure the grave.

C.  Despite the paranoia of the Jewish leaders, there is no good reason to believe that the disciples of Christ would fake his resurrection. Most of them displayed incredulity to his claims of a death and resurrection. Nor would they have gained anything from such a conspiracy except persecution.

IV.  Jesus claimed to be true God.

A.  There is no evidence or reason that Jesus would lie about this.

1. Jesus did not gain anything from such a lie except death.

2. There is no evidence that Jesus was crazy.

B.  Jesus proved his divinity by rising from the dead and performing miracles for which there were credible eyewitness accounts.

V.  Jesus declared the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God.

A.  Jesus declared the Old Testament to be the Word of God.

B.  Jesus sent the Spirit to inspire the New Testament writers.

VI.  Since Jesus is divine we ought to believe what he says about the inerrancy of the Bible.

Theories of a faked resurrection are outlandish and easily dismissed.

This is only a brief outline. The Christian must contend with textual criticism and questions of the canon, topics the confessional Lutheran pastor is trained to handle. The apologist must also deal with theories of a faked resurrection, but they are outlandish and easily dismissed. But there are also other tidbits that enhance the resurrection argument such as women discovering the empty tomb. If you were to create a believable story about a resurrection in an era when female witnesses were deemed less credible than male witnesses, you would not make women the first eyewitnesses in your story.

Armed with this logical outline, the preacher can move to the deep meaning of the resurrection: We too will rise! Three elements combine to make Easter season preaching robust: the facts of the resurrection, the breaking of the circular logic mentioned above, and a passionate application to frail human life.

The Third Sunday of Easter (Year C, May 5, 2018) connects the resurrection of Jesus Christ to our place in heaven. In the Gospel (Jn 21:1-14), Jesus proves his resurrection by appearing to the disciples on the shores of Galilee. In the First Reading, Christ converts Saul to be the great missionary to the Gentiles so that we might know with certainty that Jesus actually rose from the dead (Ac 9:1-19a). The Second Reading is a picture of heavenly worship from Christ’s Revelation to St. John (Rv 5:11-14). The Lamb is on his throne encircled by the living creatures and the elders. They sing with a multitude of angels “Worthy is the Lamb.” This is our home made secure by the resurrection of Christ. All people will know and all people will fear this awe-inspiring God because of his victory over death, a fact we sing in the Psalm (67). The following is an example of how a preacher might make these connections for his listeners.

You can’t just assert things and expect people to believe them to be true. We are far too jaded to accept the assertions of the late night television salesman. True, we all have our gullible moments. The infomercials still run, don’t they? We sooo want to believe that eggs won’t ever stick on this new kind of skillet. Yet we learn from our mistakes and become less and less naïve as we grow older. That’s probably a good thing.

In the marketplace of spiritual ideas there are a lot of infomercials. This preacher over here claims he can cure diseases. That preacher over there can give you “your best life now.” One religion promises enlightenment, another internal peace. This denomination stresses moral integrity, that one social justice. It even seems that some people chose their spirituality by letting the charisma of the leader trump facts, a dangerous method. So who are we supposed to believe let alone follow with our whole lives? All religions make assertions, but how do we know which one, if any, is true?

Sometimes we investigate claims by trial and error. We buy the skillet and hope it lives up to the salesman’s pitch. As we grow a little wiser we might carry out some research. What are the reviews of the skillet? If the reviews are poor, we don’t waste our money. But we can’t do that with religious claims, can we? We can’t go by trial and error. A religious commitment means exactly that, a commitment. You can’t go half way. And what religion is not going to have glowing reviews from its adherents and bad reviews from its enemies? We aren’t buying kitchenware after all; we are trying to find a way of life, a way of thinking, a path to truth. We need something more.

We can test the claims of Christianity not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error, but by careful investigation of its claims.

But not all is lost. We can test the claims of a religion. In particular we can test the claims of Christianity not by Yelp reviews or by trial and error, but by careful investigation of its claims. Is Jesus who he says he is? This was certainly a question with which the disciples grappled. You don’t think the disciples doubted Christ? Last week we heard about Thomas forever known as “Doubting.” Peter and the rest could not wrap their heads around the death and resurrection of Christ. They heard but did not always confidently believe. We are not alone in our doubts.

It would take a lot for us to accept a bodily resurrection of someone whose funeral we just attended.

Jesus appeared to his disciples in order to prove his resurrection. And notice how he often did it. He ate! It’s so simple. He ate with the Emmaus two and he ate breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee as we heard today. Think about it. Let’s say that you just attended a funeral. Maybe it was your grandmother. Now let’s say you see grandma a week later. Your probably would rub your eyes or pinch yourself. It must be a dream. “I shouldn’t have eaten that frozen pizza at midnight last night.” Or maybe you might think this is a hallucination. “The doctor did change the dosage of my medication last week.” It would take a lot for us to accept a bodily resurrection of someone whose funeral we just attended. I wonder if some of the followers of Christ thought along the same lines. Thomas did for sure. The Emmaus disciples weren’t fully convinced either.

Now let’s say that your dead relative eats with you, physically eats in front of you. There is a piece of fish on a plate and then the piece of fish is gone. Now that’s something. This is exactly what Jesus did for the disciples in Galilee. Peter believed right away and maybe his fellow fishermen-disciples did too. But Jesus goes above and beyond. He provides physical proof. He eats. Ghosts don’t eat. Hallucinations don’t eat. Jesus bodily rose from the dead. Peter wouldn’t wonder a week late, “Did I really see Jesus?” He would remember: the fish was there and then it wasn’t.

Now, you might say, “That’s nice, but I wasn’t there.” True enough. You weren’t there when Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg address either, but you believe it happened. Why? Because there are credible eyewitness accounts. You have no reason not to believe it. In fact, if you denied it, you would be thought of as a weird conspiracy theorist. Granted, the resurrection of Christ happened way before the Civil War. And it is more than a presidential speech; it is a supernatural event. Yet, we have eyewitness accounts and documents to back up the resurrection claim. We have more textual evidence of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection than any other event of that era, and other events aren’t even close. We have more historical evidence that Jesus rose from the dead than any Roman emperor winning any war or legislating any law.

So we are left with conspiracy theories raised against the resurrection claim. Maybe this was faked by the disciples? But let’s think it through. Why would they do that? Generally speaking, people lie for three reasons: money, sex, or power. The disciples gained no prestige, no revenge, no high placement in society. They gained no power. Nor did they become wealthy or more popular with the ladies. In fact, they received only persecution and, for most of them, death. Would the Roman officials fake Christ’s resurrection? Why would they? They wanted to be done with this religious squabble. Would the Jewish leaders? They were the ones who wanted him dead in the first place. We are running out of options. Except one. He actually rose from the dead.

And God wants you to know about it. So Christ sent the Spirit to inspire these eyewitnesses and historical investigators like St. Luke to write about it. These documents have been carefully vetted and preserved for you. In one case, Christ took his own enemy, Saul, kicking and screaming into the faith. We heard about it today. He literally knocked Saul down on the road to Damascus and confronted him. He baptized Saul, known to us as Paul, and converted him to Christianity. He even taught Paul in Arabia everything he needed to know so that he could testify to the leaders in Palestine, to Jews and Gentiles across the Mediterranean world, and finally to us centuries later through his letters. And his message is this: Christ died for sinners like you and me, and he rose from the dead defeating death for us.

These eyewitness documents are to be preached to desperate sinners who face the possibility of death every day.

I know that we are pretty jaded people. It comes with the territory. How many products have you bought that have left you wanting? How many lemons have you driven off the used car lot? And it’s actually worse than just being jaded. We have sinful minds which by nature abhor God and his message of grace. We (our sinful sides) fight against him. So did Thomas, Peter, and Paul. So these eyewitness documents are not just for our careful investigation. They are to be preached. Preached to desperate sinners like you and me who face the possibility of death every day. Preached so that we might believe that Jesus truly is who he says he is, the Lord Almighty and our Savior from sin.

“I don’t want you to be ignorant … or grieve like the rest of mankind” (1 Th 4:13) to quote that same St. Paul. I want you to know that there is a real hope based in real facts. I don’t want you to wonder what happens next. I don’t want you to be alone in the misery of burying a loved one. I don’t want you to be depressed about death or fear what comes next. I want you to be at peace. I want you to know that God did something about this horrible thing called death. I want you to know that Christ loved this world so much so that he gave his life for it, to pay the price for your indiscretions and everybody else’s too. I want you to know that he overcame death with a miracle. I want you to know that he promises you the same miracle of resurrection. I want you to know that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and he did it for you…so that one day you and I could join in heaven’s song we heard today, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rv 5:12). I want you to know, and so did Christ. So he ate with the disciples and told them to tell us. Christ lives, and so shall we.

Written by Michael Berg


Some helpful online resources:

Cross Examined (crossexamined.org)
Gary Habermas (garyhabermas.com)
Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (rzim.org)
Reasonable Faith (reasonablefaith.org)
Stand to Reason (str.org)
The Veritas Forum (veritas.org)
Thinking Fellows (thinkingfellows.com)
Library of Historical Apologetics (historicalapologetics.org)


 

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Preach The Word – A Claim on Reality

Apologetics in Preaching

A Claim on Reality

I teach freshman, a lot of freshman. As I become acquainted with the spiritual lives of these brand-new college students, it is apparent that there is often a separation between their spiritual lives and their lives of reality. These two separate realms don’t often meet. When they do meet, it is not necessary that they correspond. Students might have a truth in their spiritual lives and a truth in their day-to-day lives, and it doesn’t bother them if they do not match…as freshmen anyway.

A student might believe in guardian angels but be incredulous at the idea of demon possession. A student might believe that God has authored a life plan for him but is not the author of mathematical constants. A student might believe that she has a soul but that there is no non-physical entity at play in biology or physics.

It all depends on the historicity of the resurrection.

This should not surprise us since a very clear message has been sent to our society: Christianity is not a claim on reality. St. Peter would differ. “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pt 1:16). Christianity is a claim on reality. Peter saw with his own eyes the real Jesus performing real acts in a real place in real time. St. Paul takes the argument to a further level when he says that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead the whole Christian faith is useless. It all depends on the historicity of the resurrection. If Jesus remained in the grave, Christianity loses its power and you are being duped by such preaching. Spiritual truth needs to match reality.

Here is where some of the “New Atheists” are often the most honest ones in a conversation. It is one thing to tell your children a fairytale which they know (or eventually will figure out) is only a myth. It is quite another thing to indoctrinate your children into a worldview that is based on a falsity, especially one that has been the source of exclusion, violence, and even war. Some “New Atheists” even accuse religious parents of child abuse. Their line of thought is not off the mark. We might say the same thing about a cult leader who has convinced his followers that he is Christ returned. It’s wrong, and there is no neutral ground in the matter.

So there really is no room for a demythologized Christianity which denies the resurrection of Christ. It’s not intellectually viable. Nor is this demythologized Christianity redeemable as a moral code, not considering the scandals of the church. Christianity is not benign. It is either the way to salvation or it is a lie that has led to exclusion and even worse. There is no spiritual truth and real truth, just truth. On this we and the “New Atheists” can agree. It is becoming less and less acceptable in our culture to believe in a moralistic Christianity especially without a salvific resurrection. St. Paul was right all along.

While it is true that faith is believing in what we cannot see, it is not a blind faith based on myth. My faith is only as good as the object of that faith. Yet some have left the impression that faith is separated from fact. Again, a clear message has been sent: Christianity is not a claim on reality. Some of the blame is to be laid at the feet of the academy. The 19th century brought clarity to college campuses on an issue that had been incubating since the Enlightenment: Which discipline is the Queen of the Sciences? It started with a separation between the so-called hard sciences and soft-sciences. Chemistry is a claim on reality; theology is not. Physics deals in reality; philosophy does not. The hard sciences do truth; the humanities do opinion. And if there is a disagreement between the two, the hard sciences will win (and get the funding too).

American preachers have helped to solidify a false division between fact and opinion.

Yet some of the blame belongs at the foot of the pulpit. American preachers have helped to solidify a false division between hard and soft, fact and opinion. Some have left the impression that science is out to get theology, and Christians should be wary of intellectual inquiry. Perhaps too many words have been spoken about topics better left to the psychologist (matters that are, rightly or wrongly, called “soft”), and not enough words have been spoken on Christianity’s claim on truth and the robust worldview it offers (matters based on “hard” facts). Perhaps we have unwittingly accepted the division of hard and soft, admitting our place in the latter. After all, we just do faith.

Remaining in the arena of the soft is problematic because there is no way to prove a soft truth other then, perhaps, a personal experience. And even then we are left with a faith detached from an object. The strength of that subjective faith becomes the ultimate determining factor for Christian conviction instead of the facts of Christianity. A person can believe in anything, but that doesn’t make it true. This is not to dismiss emotional and passionate reactions to God’s saving actions or grief at losing a loved one which is comforted with a promised resurrection. It is just that those emotions and passionate reactions should be grounded in the reality of Christ.

Too many freshman come to college with the mindset that their faith is mere opinion, tradition, or a psychological aid. Faith is, at best, a virtue. It can be valuable. It is good, but it is soft. Real truth, reality itself, is to be discovered in the laboratory. Religion might be useful for psychological well-being but has little, if any, purpose in the real world. But we can’t remain freshmen forever. Eventually we are confronted with this thought: Do I turn my brain off in the spiritual realm and just accept my faith as a soft truth that does not necessarily correspond with hard truth (i.e. reality), or do I simply leave behind such childish things?

She told me that I had given her permission to think.

When serving as a parish pastor I experienced a memorable moment on this topic: a young adult woman told me that I had given her permission to think. She had the impression that thinking was antithetical to her Christian faith—even that it was wrong. In humility she did not want to question what she had been taught, but this only made her doubt more. She was at an existential crossroads. Do I keep turning my brain off in this spiritual realm, or do I finally succumb to reality and reject the whole thing as myth, a useful myth maybe, but just a myth? It was a false dichotomy. She only needed to see that Christianity is a legitimate claim on reality, that it offers an intellectually satisfying worldview. She needed permission to think.

Our faith is a simple faith but not a simpleton faith. So we preachers should ask ourselves some questions: Does my preaching inspire a simpleton faith or a robust worldview emerging from the simple truths of scripture? Have any listeners been intellectually turned off by my preaching? Have I, as a preacher, concentrated on the method of preaching confident that I had the right message, but not plumbing the depths of that message? Have I conflated the simple and unchangeable message of the gospel with a simpleton message? We preachers are in an office that demands asking such humbling and penetrating questions.

Preaching becomes more robust, dismantling the idea that Christianity is an unintellectual crutch for the weak.

Preachers should be careful not to leave the impression that the Christian faith cannot compete with other worldviews. Christianity can and has. One of the tasks of the apologist is to create a level playing field on which he can make the claims of Christianity over against other claims. The apologist wants the skeptic to use the same reason and logic which he or she uses with every other fact in life. From there a presentation of Christ may be made through which the Spirit may do his saving work of faith. A satisfying Christian worldview can then be developed. In turn preaching becomes more robust, dismantling the idea that Christianity is an unintellectual crutch for the weak.

Christianity has a lot to offer. The most important thing is salvation, of course, but it does not end there. Springing from the love of God in Christ comes a worldview that deals with all the big questions in life. It is a complete worldview, the only one on the market. For far too long the secular world has lived off the borrowed capital of the Judeo-Christian worldview. While the preacher is a proclaimer of grace and not a salesman, this does not mean that he should ignore the completeness of the Christian message. This is important when dealing with the skeptic who has yet to believe that salvation is in Christ. All she sees is what Christianity offers in a broad sense. And if all she sees is a shallow ideology, she is less likely to give the gospel a hearing.

Christianity deals with all of the big questions of life. Who are we? Where are we going? What is our purpose? What is the point of suffering? What is the good life? How should we act? Not every worldview offers satisfactory answers to these questions. A materialist has no answer to suffering other than that it is something to be eradicated. Christianity has the theology of the cross. The Buddhist scrambles to find a purpose in day-to-day life other than the Eightfold Path to eliminate Dukkha (suffering or mental dysfunction). Christianity offers a divine purpose in vocation (love of neighbor as God’s coworker or mask).

Christianity has also been significant in its contributions to many endeavors: the university, hospitals, human rights, modern science, just war theory, ethics, law, education, and music. No doubt misguided Christians have fought against the good in some of these, but abuses in the name of the Christian faith do not negate the true message of Christianity. It is to our shame that atrocities have happened in the name of Christ. Yet Christianity has an answer even for that: forgiveness for even the most misguided people.

The task of the apologetically-minded preacher is to promote the robust worldview of Christianity without arrogance, all the while making sure the gospel predominates. The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany offers an opportunity on February 17, 2019. The assigned texts offer a clear distinction between the person who trusts God and the person who trusts man. In the First Reading (Jr 17:5-8), Jeremiah promises blessings to the faithful and predicts doom for the unfaithful. Psalm 1 continues this contrast between the one who walks in the counsel of the wicked and the one who does not.

Then, as usual, Jesus flips everything upside down. Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:17-26) tell us that the poor are blessed and that the hungry will be satisfied. Those who trust in God will have all of these beautiful benefits, but they might have to wait until the Promised Land of heaven much like the faithful in Jeremiah’s day had to wait until after the exile for their Promised Land.

But Christ did rise from the dead, and this fact changes the world.

Then consider the Second Reading from 1 Corinthians 15, part of a lectio continua during the Epiphany season, year C. Here St. Paul lays out for believers a clear apologetic message: If Christ did not rise, then Christianity is a fraud. But Christ did rise from the dead, and this fact changes the world. A sermon on these readings could tackle the issue of Christianity as a claim on reality. Maybe something like this….

Paul is pretty confident in his faith, isn’t he? It is not a false confidence. The distinction between a false confidence and a confidence based in fact is hugely important for us. If we are to judge a person’s religious claims by his or her confidence, then the suicide-bomber wins out. Who is more confident than he? No, Paul is confident that Jesus rose from the dead because Jesus actually rose from the dead and Paul investigated the matter. Not only did Jesus appear to him on the road to Damascus and teach him in Arabia, but Paul also knew of eye-witness accounts of the resurrection. So Paul defended himself before Agrippa and Festus with this statement: “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner” (Ac 26:25-26). These things were not done in a corner but out in the open for all to see. You can investigate these facts.

Armed with both the facts and the Spirit’s gift of faith, Paul is confident enough to say that everything depends on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then the whole thing falls apart and Christianity is a fraud. Paul puts everything on the line. Not with a bomb strapped to his chest but armed with reasonable truth and Spirit-given faith.

So Christianity is not neutral, is it? It’s not a self-help program that is valuable whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead. It’s not a moral code with a nice fable about a man who overcame great evil but indifferent to the claim that he is God Almighty. It’s not an inspiring story that encourages us but is divorced from the facts of Christ’s life. It is a claim on reality. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is a lie and we should not be Christian.

And quite frankly, a lot of other things fall apart too. Do we have the same concept of human rights without the concept that mankind is created in the image of God and loved enough to be redeemed by God? If I am just a pile of molecules like everything else, do I really have value? Do we have the same amount of scientific progress without the concept of an ordered universe that is given to us to for exploration? If the physical world is divine, as many ancients thought, should we even carry out scientific experiments since it would be playing with the divine? Do we have the same sense of morality without an absolute being? What gives anybody the right to say “This is right” or “This is wrong” if it is just my opinion versus yours? I would argue that we wouldn’t have the same world that we live in without God and the resurrection of his Son. We would have something far worse.

Of course none of that really matters unless we have internal peace and eternal hope. And we can’t have peace and hope without a resurrection from the dead. So this is the question that Christianity answers above all else: Where am I going after this life? Well, here is your peace and hope: the resurrection of Christ. And it isn’t a myth; it really happened. This gives you internal peace: You know that you stand righteous before God on account of Christ. This gives you eternal hope: No matter what happens, eternal bliss belongs to you.

But there is more. Along with this peace and hope comes a full life, a life of value, rights, exploration, purpose, and joy. It answers all the questions mentioned above. Christ really is the answer to all of life’s questions. This is the difference between the man who walks is the counsel of the wicked and the man who does not as we sang in the psalm. This is the difference between the person who trusts God and the person who trusts man as Jeremiah contrasted for us today. Trusting in man over God forces us to put a disordered world into order and answer the great questions of life by ourselves. On the other hand, trusting in God means that we have an ordered world given back to us in gospel freedom—a world full of meaning, purpose, and opportunity.

And even better, we have a God who forgives us and will resurrect us despite the fact that we have and will fail in this life. This claim is true. The apostles witnessed his resurrection and have reported it to us. Through their words the Spirit grants us faith and even confidence, a Paul-like confidence. With this we live free, free to explore, think, learn, take chances, all with internal peace and an eternal hope.

Written by Michael Berg


Books for further study:

Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists are Missing the Target by John Lennox
How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin Schmidt
Human Rights and Human Dignity by John Warwick Montgomery
Postmodern Times by Gene Edward Veith
The Spiritual Society: What Lurks Beyond Postmodernism? by Frederic Baue
Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air by Francis Beckwith and Gregory Koukl
Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements by Thomas Oden
Solomon among the Postmoderns by Peter Leithart


 

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Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

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WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

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Preach The Word – Prophecies Fulfilled in Real History

Apologetics in Preaching

Prophecies Fulfilled in Real History

To some apologetics is a dirty word. The obvious objection to apologetics is “What about faith?” This concern is not unique to sola fide Lutherans by the way. This objection is found in all denominations. Of course, we Lutherans have a specific objection to the misuse of reason because of Paul’s clear teaching on the bound will. We also are well aware of theologians who rely on reason and give unsatisfactory answers to the logical problem of the bound will, human responsibility, and undeserved grace. Is reason a whore or God’s greatest gift? Nimble theologians answer “Yes” to both without comprising grace or falling into determinism. Reason should be used in a ministerial manner but not in a magisterial manner. This we know.

When apologetics stays in the correct realm, it is not only permissible but is beneficial.

Apologetics does not have to be a dirty word nor something to be avoided. It is helpful to think of the three aspects of faith notitia, assensus, and fiducia.1 The apologist can point to the verifiable facts of the Christian faith (notitia). By the use of reason he can defend these verifiable events of the New Testament and counter the false claims on reality made by other religions and the secular world. He points to Christ (the true notitia of faith). The apologist can even convince people of this truth, an assent to the facts (assensus). But this is where the apologist’s work ends. He cannot produce fiducia, that is, trust. This is left to the Spirit. After all, even the demons believe that there is one God and shudder (Jm 2:19). Certainly Satan knows Christ (notitia) and agrees (assensus) that he is the Savior of the world (otherwise he wouldn’t work so hard to stop the church) but he does not trust Christ (fiducia). When apologetics stays in the correct realm, it is not only permissible but is beneficial.

Perhaps two more preliminary notes are in order before we move on. First, we are all apologists. In a similar way we are all philosophers. Everybody has a philosophy of life even if that philosophy is “Philosophy is stupid.” We all have a view of the world. We cannot escape it. Nor can we escape reason. Declaring “Reason is always antithetical to faith and therefore bad” is a logically reasonable thing to assert! The proposition simply lacks a true premise. We cannot escape apologetics either. It is only a matter of how we carry out our apologetic task, with thoughtfulness or sloppiness. We are constantly making the case for our claims on truth using reason, anecdotes, and empirical evidence. It is how we operate.

The truth of the matter is that Lutheran preachers frequently carry out the apologetic task. When we point out that Luke did not begin his historical narrative on the nativity of Christ with “Once upon a time” but rather “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree,” we are carrying out apologetics. When we insist that New Testament scholars treat the Gospel manuscripts with the same objectivity they do with any other document of the era, we are doing apologetics. When we state that Islam and Christianity are not the same, if for no other reason than one claims Jesus is God and the other does not and both cannot be right, we are speaking apologetically.

We are also in good company. Not only do we have Peter’s command to carry out apologetics (1 Pt 3:15-16), we also have plenty of apologetic examples in Scripture. Luke’s history. Paul in Athens. Prophecies fulfilled. Miracles performed. All these are examples of biblical apologetics. We can have the same confidence as did Paul when he said to Agrippa “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner” (Ac 26:25-26). The events of the New Testament are verifiable facts of history. This is real. In fact, as Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God” (1 Co 15:13-15a). It is as if Paul said, “Show me the dead body and I’ll stop being a Christian!” This Christian faith is not a blind faith or a faith in faith; it is a faith based on facts.

This Christian faith is not a blind faith or a faith in faith; it is a faith based on facts.

Second, preaching with apologetics in mind has a beneficial ripple effect. First the Christian becomes firmer in the faith.2 Even if she cannot articulate why, for example, the teleological argument (fine-tuning of the universe) is a problem for the atheist, she knows that someone out there has thought about this. She knows that her pastor cares enough to have thought it through. She is not left alone in her doubts. She can find an answer. This, in turn, boosts her confidence to share her faith. It also gives her confidence in her pastor to whom she is willing to send her skeptical friend. She knows that her friend will encounter a patient and caring man willing to work through skeptical doubts instead of simply thumping his bible. Apologetics is a ministry of caring.

While Lutherans desire to uphold the doctrine of the bound will, we are also careful not to fall into fideism. By fideism we mean here a reliance on faith alone as the arbiter of truth, a faith in faith. The apostles did not speak this way. Faith always has an object and is only as good as that object. If Christ is only an idea or myth, then faith in Christ is foolish as St. Paul makes very clear in 1 Corinthians 15. However, if Christ is real, then faith is grounded in that reality. The concern of souls is paramount here. Our assertions may be true, but making a case for them might be necessary for the sake of the skeptical mind. We never describe faith as a prerequisite for forgiveness: first someone dead in sin musters up faith and then God will love him. Rather we preach the gospel and are prepared to make a case for what we believe. It is through this proclamation that the Spirit will do his work.

We are careful not to fall into fideism—faith in faith.

One of the greatest biblical treasures God has bestowed on us in this regard is prophecy, the focus of our present issue. A fulfilled prediction is a powerful thing. Who knows how many have come to faith because of prophecies fulfilled? Yet there are natural objections. Was this prophecy manipulated? Was the prediction so vague that any event could be described as fulfilling the prophecy? Was this so-called prediction actually made after the fact? Was this just by chance? These are legitimate questions Christians might ask about, for example, the Book of Mormon’s so-called prophecies. They are also legitimate questions for the skeptic to ask the Christian. We should not shy away from answering such questions under the guise of “We just believe because the Bible said so!”

A fulfilled prediction is a powerful thing…. Yet there are natural objections.

So let’s ask, in a general way, questions about the many Old Testament prophecies claimed to be fulfilled in the New. Were these manipulated? I suppose, logically, some could have been. It is possible, for example, that Jesus rode a donkey because he was aware of Zechariah (Ze 9:9-10). However, how could he manipulate his birth in Bethlehem? Who chooses where he is born?

Were these predictions so vague that any event could be described as fulfilling the prophecy? I suppose Isaiah’s prophecy that many in Israel would be calloused towards the mission of Christ could be counted as vague (Is 6:9-10). There will always be some who will go against any message, religious or not. But what about the thirty pieces of silver, the unbroken bones of Christ, his pierced side, his burial with the rich? Those are highly specific.

Was this so-called prediction actually made after the fact? This is the default position of many. We are well aware of the mental gymnastics higher critics perform to maintain their a priori bias against prophecy. A two-Isaiah theory comes to mind. Notice the near acquiescence to the fact that the predictions actually came true. Many do not bother disputing the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, died on a cross with a pierced side after being sold for thirty pieces of silver. This is not their primary concern. They attack the texts instead. They must have been written after the fact. Yet textual and archeological evidence counter this claim. Consider the Great Isaiah scroll which is believed to be written around 125 B.C. Of course, some would claim that Isaiah said nothing about Christ, but the prophetic chapters 52 and 53 have convinced many to reconsider the claims of Christianity.

Was this just by chance? Could it be that many of the Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in Christ are simply a result of randomness? In an age of powerful algorithms that market seemingly every known product to our personal devices with disturbing accuracy, in an age where metrics, in my opinion, are ruining the game of baseball, a mathematical argument of prophecy is a powerful one. We live by statistics. So let’s take just a handful of events in the life of Christ prophesied in the Old Testament. Eliminate the ones about his divinity for argument’s sake. We can also dispatch the ones that could have been (logically) manipulated or could be accused of having a Nostradamus-like vagueness. You can pick any you like: the flight to Egypt, gambling for his clothes, receiving wine vinegar at the cross, etc. Let’s say that we find twenty-five prophecies. Let’s place the odds of each of these happening or not happening at one in four (overly generous odds by the way). The chances of these twenty-five occurring in one person is one in a thousand trillion. Could it be by chance? “I suppose,” we might say to the skeptic, “but you don’t live your life taking chances like that.”

By the time we get to the fourth Sunday in Advent, Lutheran preachers will be in full incarnation mode. We are eager to expound on that great mystery and the great grace of God becoming man with a special pastoral emphasis on the for you. He did it all for you! By the fourth Sunday in Advent we are no longer delving into obscure themes that apply both to Jesus first and second comings. As Christmas approaches we are preaching on Micah’s Bethlehem prophecy (Mi 5:2-5). We are pondering with the Hebrew Christians that this incarnate body was prepared for perfect sacrifice unlike our imperfect gifts (Hb 10:5-10). We sing with Mary and are wowed like Elizabeth that the world’s Redeemer resides for a time in Mary’s womb (Lk 1:39-55). We agree with the psalmist that the Lord’s “salvation is near” and beg of him to show us his “unfailing love” (Ps 85).3

So does apologetics have a place in Advent Four? Yes, but it needs to take a secondary seat (as always) to the proclamation of the incarnation for us. This is a special time. Yet we are always mindful of the skeptic and the doubter. A small portion of a sermon could easily touch on the fact that these Christmas events are fulfilled prophecies legitimizing Christ and granting confidence to the listener that God’s promise to him or her will also be kept.

Perhaps something like this.

So the local news reports on a lottery winner. Nothing new here. Someone has to win. A big billion dollar jackpot, that’s a bit rarer. “Good for him,” you might think as you turn off the light and go to sleep to dream about what you might do with all that cash. A year later the news reports that the same person won again. Another billion. Now that’s newsworthy. “Must be nice,” you think as you turn off the light and go to sleep to dream jealous dreams of this unbelievable lucky person. “Why does he keep playing the lottery after he already won a billion dollars, anyway?” A year later: same guy, same result. Now the news story is about a fraud investigation because there is no way anybody is that lucky.

We live by odds. We really do. Something’s fishy about this three-time jackpot winner. It just can’t be. We use the same reasoning in everyday life. When you start your car in the morning to go to work, you are not afraid that it will blow up. Otherwise you wouldn’t turn the ignition. I mean what are the odds, right? What are the odds when you drive over a bridge that it will collapse? What are the odds when you walk in a field that a sink hole will open up as your left foot hits the ground? We live by probability. It could happen. But what are the odds? And if we really insisted on absolute certainty about everything we would never get out of bed in the morning, too afraid to venture out into a world full of bad possibilities.

Well, what are the odds that one man, in one time, in one place fulfilled hundreds of predictions prophesied hundreds of years before? And not just vague prophecies but specific ones: born in Bethlehem, born of a virgin, sold for thirty pieces of silver, buried among the rich, rose three days later, and ascended into heaven, just to mention a few? The odds are astronomical, certainly far greater than a three-time lottery winner.

I suppose someone could still remain skeptical. But honesty must conclude that fulfilled prophecies are solid evidence. So ask yourself the question, “What are the odds of that?” Better yet, ask yourself this, “If I use the same reason and logic I do in everyday life about thousands of things, why would I doubt the prophecies fulfilled in Christ?”

Honesty must conclude that fulfilled prophecies are solid evidence.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is not how faith works, as if it were only a statistical formula. No, faith is a pure gift of God. But if I doubt these claims by use of my reason, should not my doubts also be under the same rule of logic? So, let’s ask ourselves the question, “What are the odds of that?” The words we heard today do both. They both prove the case, and they work to give and strengthen faith. They show us the actual prophecy. We then see the beginning of fulfillment as pregnant Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth. We will, of course, celebrate its fulfillment come Christmas. Then these words of Scripture serve as the means by which the Spirit grants and strengthens faith. It is finally through the Spirit’s work that we are certain.

This is all for you.

The ultimate purpose of both the fulfillment of prophecy and the giving of faith is you. This is all for you. This is not simply a newsworthy event like the three-time lottery winner. “Wow, that Christ is a unique character,” we would say as we shut off the light and go to sleep. No, this was done with a purpose beyond a good story or even beyond showing off God’s power and glory. This was accomplished for you. Micah promises a Savior from Bethlehem so that he can shepherd his flock and they will “live securely” (Mi 5:4). Elizabeth asks, “But why I am so favored” (Lk 1:43) for this upcoming Christmas event was for her too. The writer to the Hebrews points out that this is the body meant for sacrifice, to pay for the sins of the world, yours included (Hb 10:10). Salvation is near you, as we sang in the psalm (Ps 85:9). How near? He became one of us. And he comes to us again in Word and meal to strengthen our faith in him until he fulfills another prophecy, his return.

And why doubt his return? Why doubt any promise he has made to you? He hasn’t let us down yet. He hasn’t missed a prophecy yet. Of course, he will come back for you and me and take us to heaven. Would a God who has been so faithful to us and done so much work for our salvation—becoming man, suffering, dying, rising, and ascending—then, all of a sudden, not bring his gracious work to heavenly conclusion for us? I mean…what are the odds of that?

Written by Michael Berg


1 I use these three terms in a broad sense and not necessarily in the sense that notitia and assensus are parts of saving faith. For a short but more nuanced discussion see Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. 2, pp. 426-430.
2 This is fides quae, not fides qua.
3 The readings are for Advent 4-C in Christian Worship.


Books for further study:

Tractatus Logico-Theologicus by John Warwick Montgomery
Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh & Sean McDowell
Evidence for God: 50 Arguments from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science ed by William Dembski & Michael Licona
Isaiah 52 Explained by Mitch Glaser
The New Testament Documents by FF Bruce
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimonies by Richard Bauckham (2nd ed, 2017)
Christian Apologetics by Douglas Groothuis


 

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Preach The Word – The Cross as Solution to the Problem of Evil

Welcome a new writer: From 2005-2017 Michael Berg was pastor at St. John’s Lutheran in Wood Lake, MN. He graduated from the International Academy of Apologetics, Evangelism, and Human Rights in Strasbourg, France in 2013 and is a fellow of the Academy. He is also a member of the Evangelical Philosophy Society. In 2017 he received a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. His doctoral project was “Masks of God: Vocation as the Proper Setting for Human Flourishing.” He now teaches at Wisconsin Lutheran College where he and Dr. Kerry Kuehn from the physics department offer a summer course on practical apologetics geared towards pastors, teachers, and interested laity (wlc.edu/apologetics).

Apologetics in Preaching

The Cross as Solution to the Problem of Evil

A favorite C.F.W. Walther line: “A preacher must be able to preach a sermon on faith without ever using the term faith.”1

Walther’s warning was against preaching faith as if it were a task the burdened sinner must accomplish on his own, thus confusing law and gospel. It was also a warning against turning the sermon into a theological lecture rather than framing the “address so as to arouse in every poor sinner the desire to lay the burden of his sins at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ.”2

The pastor must define faith in technical terms, but he must also realize that there are devastated people with him every Sunday who need comfort, not a lecture. His sermons cannot always be about the doctrine of faith but a proclamation of the gospel which arouses faith. Can you preach faith without using the word? Walther says you must.

Walther’s comment about faith and preaching applies also to apologetics and preaching. Preaching apologetically is more than a well-placed apologetic argument here or there. It is rather an attitude, an attitude of concern, one worthy of Peter’s admonition: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Pt 3:15-16).

Apologetic debates … are not for pulpits.

JP Moreland called apologetics a “ministry of caring.” He was contrasting the apologetics of people like William Lane Craig with the apologetics in which an average Christian pastor or layman might engage. Craig is famous for debates with popular atheists. He’s good. Really good. You should watch the debates. These are important academic exercises. Nor should we forget that Craig and others in the field have knocked the blinders off many intelligent skeptics who in turn reconsidered the claims of Christ. Yet these apologetic debates are better suited for Oxford and Cambridge then for Springfield and Greenville. They are not for pulpits.

Sinner-saints always harbor doubts.

Preaching apologetically is simply concerning ourselves with the skeptics in our pews—skeptics the faithful in our pews will encounter, and the skeptic the faithful deal with every day, the Old Adam. Think of the man Jesus encountered in Mark 9: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mk 9:24). Sinner-saints always harbor doubts. The preacher does damage if he implies that doubting is a sin to be overcome by the sinner himself. “Stop doubting and believe,” he demands without pointing to evidence, that is, making a case (an apologia) for the faith he espouses. We should never forget that when Jesus encountered Thomas, he accompanied a command with his physical wounds in an act of caring. The goal was faith and if it took a hand shoved into the side of Christ, so be it.

That goal of faith is the same for today’s preacher. The apologetic task is incomplete without the proclamation of law and gospel. There would be no point in apologetics without it. The apologist can only knock down arguments against Christianity or assert positive proofs for a viable claim on truth. The apologist can never give faith; this is the work of the Spirit. It has always stuck me that Jesus commanded of Thomas exactly what Thomas could not do on his own, namely, believe. Certainly Jesus knew this? But as the saying goes: Whatever God demands of us; he gives to us in Christ. Jesus said to Thomas, “Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe” (Jn 20:27b) and then Jesus gave Thomas the faith to do just that, believe. The apologist is to proclaim the truth of the gospel, offer evidence when called to, and then let Christ do the real work through the Spirit.

It may be helpful then for the pastor to keep these thoughts in the back of his mind as he prepares sermons: What might doubting Thomas say about my assertions? What might the skeptic say? What might my people say to challenges from skeptics? What does the Old Adam in my people say? And since I am first preaching to myself, what does my Old Adam say about this claim? The preacher is then in a caring mindset sensitive to his listeners’ doubts.

A pattern emerges. First the preacher asks the above questions when encountering a text. He then searches for answers. Somebody out there has thought about these problems before. He might not find a satisfactory answer, but at least he has thought about the issue for the sake of himself and his listeners. After thinking it through he can then begin to craft a sermon or an evangelistic tactic that brings the academic exercise of apologetics to the apologetic task of caring.

Preaching apologetically will thus include some apologetic facts but not a full blown academic debate. It will include pulling the rug out from under a material-only worldview but without a “gottcha” brashness. It will include “Thus saith the Lord” but also a humble attitude. Above all it will aim to arrive at the cross of Christ as efficiently as possible so that the skeptic (and the believer) will see that this is not about winning an argument but about a real Savior accomplishing a real salvation for real sinners. The Christian faith is a claim on reality. These events really happened, and this is good news for you and me.

In this six-part series we will engage some of the apologetic arguments used throughout the history of Christianity. We will then wed them with Christian preaching careful not to obscure law and gospel. We will conclude each issue with an example of such preaching.

The preacher cannot, of course, fully develop each apologetic argument in a sermon, nor would he want to. Nor can we do so here. We will not even come close to touching on all the major apologetic issues of our day. This is for personal study. We hope only to whet the appetite of the evangelism-minded preacher with a handful of resources to begin or continue his journey. Nor are the topics chosen necessarily the most important. They were chosen because they come up naturally in the lectionary in the month or so following an issue’s publication.

This issue’s topic is the problem of evil and the very Lutheran solution of the theology of the cross. Pentecost 22 in Year B (October 21, 2018) lends itself to such a discussion. Mark records Jesus disgust with James’ and John’s discussion about the seating arrangement in the Kingdom. They were being theologians of glory precisely when Jesus was heading to Jerusalem for his date with the cross. Isaiah continues his suffering servant portrait of the Messiah in chapter 53, and the writer to the Hebrews claims Jesus to be our sympathetic High Priest. The psalm selection fits beautifully: Psalm 22.

Now to the problem of evil. How can we reconcile a God of love with a world of evil? Atheists revel in this conundrum. Many point out not only the inconsistency of the situation as they see it but also the violence done in the name of religion and specifically the Christian God. Even more boldly, some assert that God is a moral monster with a long rap sheet of genocide and misogyny. He has even been accused of child abuse at the cross.

Accusations deserve an answer but not a theodicy.

Accusations deserve an answer but not a theodicy, an attempt to reconcile a God of love with evil by vindicating God. Theodicies try to rescue God from his bad reputation. They do not let God be God. The apologist walks a fine line here. Declaring that God allowed or even sent a tragedy to a specific people because of their sin is bad apologetics and bad theology. But so are the seemingly more benign theodicies we hear all the time. We have all heard, and maybe even said, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Maybe. He may also shut every escape like he did in that locked room the Sunday after Easter so that Thomas had nowhere to go but to him. Trite answers to evil are not helpful to the truly suffering. Our job is not to treat God like a piece of property we are trying to sell with a little curb appeal but rather to declare who he is.

Trite answers to evil are not helpful to the truly suffering.

The theologian of glory speculates; the theologian of the cross calls a spade a spade. There is a careful balance in the theology of the cross between speculation and utter meaningless. There is meaning to life, including and maybe most of all meaning to suffering. While the theologian of the cross is barred from speculating, he is not barred from ministering. Consider four spiritual reasons for suffering: sufferings strengthen Christians (Hb 12:7), sufferings teach compassion for others (Ph 2:1-11), sufferings (specifically crosses) are a mark of the church (Ps 116:10 and AE 27:47), and sufferings drive us to repentance, which by the grace of God, hopefully leads us to the Scriptures and ultimately to faith (Pv 3:5). C.S. Lewis called this last reason “God’s megaphone.”3 Only in suffering do we yearn for salvation.4

While the theologian of the cross is barred from speculating, he is not barred from ministering.

We should also allow God his right to punish the unbeliever and chastise the believer. Our contemporary Western world has a problem with God’s anger. We might think, “What’s his problem? Is it really that bad that he must allow earthquakes and disease?” Those suffering in the third-world often have a different perspective. Their complaint is not that God is too angry but too patient with injustice. “How could the Christian God allow such inequality? Why does he not smite the greedy West?” Not only this, but when we look back at the ancient Near East, we are taken aback by the violence and immorality. When we consider that God knew about it all and saw his creation so defiant and so flippant about the rights of human beings, we might wonder why he didn’t rage against humanity sooner. How would you react if your children were mistreated, raped, even sacrificed to the local god? God witnessed this happen to his children. Perhaps he is more patient then we thought.

There are also some logical arguments that combat the atheist’s accusation. First, the ability to define evil at all assumes the existence of a universal morality and therefore a free, powerful, intelligent being outside of time and space (the moral argument). Second, not liking something (a God who allows evil) does not mean that that something (God) does not exist. If that were so, why not wish away cancer? Third, love supposes freedom. In love God allows us freedom. We have misused this freedom and there are ramifications.

The topic deserves more space then we have here. We have to whittle it down even more for a sermon example, but let’s try.

Doesn’t it seem that the disciples are constantly trying to block Jesus’ road to the cross? They saw success and craved it. Who wouldn’t? But what they saw as good was the opposite. Jesus knew that an earthly kingdom would be nothing without a payment for sin. So what seemed to be evil (the cross) was actually the highest good. And what seemed to be good (not being executed) was actually evil. It’s hard for us to blame the disciples though. It’s backwards to think that evil things (failure, disease, injustice, violence) might actually be the opposite.

Don’t get me wrong, they are bad, even evil. They would not even exist without sin. But we are to call a thing what it is according to Scripture and not according to sight. So the cross, with all its embarrassment and violence, is good and not just the evil it appears to be.

Well, what about the crosses you bear? Let’s not sugarcoat life here. Let’s not argue about who is the greatest like the disciples did in the shadow of the looming cross. Some of you will go bankrupt. Some of you will die of a disease you’ve never heard of. Some of you might bury your own children. It seems a little small to argue about who is the greatest at such moments, doesn’t it?

So how can we reconcile this coming evil with a God who is constantly telling us that he is love? That might be easy for you if life is going well at the moment. But talk to me when you lie in a hospital bed or when you once again try to intervene with your drug-ridden friend or relative. Tough stuff. The conundrum of a loving God and an evil world has led to many doubts and even atheism. So what’s the answer? Let me boil it down to a few options.

  • Option one: God is not powerful enough to stop evil all the time. The devil and God spar and sometimes God wins and sometimes (a lot of times, it seems) he loses.
  • Option two: God does not care enough to stop evil. This is an even worse scenario.
  • Option three: God simply does not exist. Evil is random and has no meaning. If this is the case, then half of life has no meaning, and that’s on a good day.

But may I suggest a fourth option? God is in charge of evil. It sounds dreadful, but it is truly comforting. Think of Job. God gave the devil permission to go after Job. Dreadful. But what was the result? Job’s faith was strengthened. And isn’t that the goal? What seemed evil was actually good. I wonder if God has given Satan permission to attack you? I don’t know, but I do know that it may be for no other reason than for you to come to Christ in a desperate state. And that’s exactly where you need to be to receive his beautiful promise of life in him.

If the goal is faith in him and the opposite of faith in him is faith in anything else (doctors, government, ourselves), then God must first rid us of this false faith to make way for the Holy Spirit. And if it takes suffering, so be it.

A fourth option: God is in charge of evil.

So, we have more than a God who fights evil, we have one who uses evil for our eternal good. We have more than a God who balances out good and evil but a God who became a curse for our sakes. Listen to Isaiah describe Christ, “Yet it was the LORD‘s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (Is 53:10b). Listen to the writer to the Hebrews describe the same Messiah, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hb 4:15). Listen to Jesus say to his disciples, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).

This is finally what Paul meant when he said, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rm 8:28). Even in the most dreadful evil, the cross, he had you in mind. Even in your most dreadful evil, he has you in mind. So enter the darkness of your crosses with this in mind: I have a sympathetic High Priest who not only knows what I go through, but has gone through it already. Even more, he went through a crucifixion to pay for my sins. All this for my good, my eternal good.

And then emerge on the other side of such evil with Paul’s delight, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Rm 5:3-5).

How much more than are you able to love your suffering neighbor, not with trite answers to their pain, but with a real answer, a real Savior, a real comfort?

Written by Michael Berg


1 The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel, C.F.W. Walther, 1986 CPH, p. 260.
2 Ibid., p. 260.
3 The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis, 1962 Macmillan, 93.
4 The Theology of the Cross: Reflections on His Cross and Ours, Daniel Deutschlander, 2008 NPH, 114.


Books for further study:

Heidelberg Disputation by Martin Luther
Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Martin Luther’s Theological Breakthrough by Alister McGrath
The Theology of the Cross: Reflections on His Cross and Ours by Daniel Deutschlander
On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde
Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan
The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis
The Problem of Suffering by Gregory Schulz


Fall planning:

Worship resources for Mission and Ministry Sunday, October 21, or another time, complementing the film To the Ends of the Earth are available at welscongregationalservices.net/totheendsoftheearth: a sermon outline; a new hymn with accompaniment options; and a unison song for children, choir, or soloist (please share the link with musicians).

C18 is a national outreach program with a goal to connect with 1 million unchurched people. Advent planning resources for C18 are available at welscongregationalservices.net/c18. More resources will follow.

 

 

WORSHIP

Learn about how WELS is assisting congregations by encouraging worship that glorifies God and proclaims Christ’s love.

GIVE A GIFT

WELS Commission on Worship provides resources for individuals and families nationwide. Consider supporting these ministries with your prayers and gifts.

Comments

Preach The Word – Luther and the Lectionary

Treasures Old and New

Luther and the Lectionary

“Ah, Luther.” Like an audiophile commenting on Bach, confessional Lutheran pastors utter the name with a sense of awe, respect, and thanksgiving for the life, work, and heritage of Dr. Martin Luther. We revere him, quote him, point to him, apologize with him and, on occasion apologize for him in our teaching and preaching. There is so much that one could offer that it is easier for those in the know to simply look at each and exclaim, “Ah, Luther.”

And yet, no confessional Lutheran preacher would ever leave it at that. For 500 years the Lutheran Reformation has shaped both the religious and secular worlds in which we walk, work, and witness today. It is no wonder that quotes from Luther and the reformers find their way into our sermons. We share sermon highlights, catechetical sections, and snippets from the confessions for the joy and edifying of our people. In doing so, we follow a long line of Lutheran preachers and confessors who would witness to their faith in print and in pulpits throughout the German lands and beyond. Bringing their confession of faith to the biblical storeroom of the lectionary, they found treasures old and new to bring forth.

A Lutheran Lectionary

As the Lutheran Reformation took hold, the reformers sought to develop a worship life that would transition worshipers from medieval self-righteousness to biblical justification by grace through faith. Already by the mid-1520s, the organization of churches in Lutheran principalities had begun. Called the Saxon Visitation, parishes and communities were visited, evaluated, and organized in line with the model set up in Wittenberg. Regional customs and observances were retained or modified, if at all possible, while others were eliminated. Mass-orders were based on the examples of Luther’s German and Latin masses yet they often restored or retained local textual and ceremonial practices. “It is apparent that the various church orders made their own contributions to the evolution of Lutheran liturgy, influenced by but also independent of the contributions of Martin Luther.”1

There grew “a remarkable consensus in the calendrical observances of early Lutheranism.”

As worship life continued to center on the church year, there grew “a remarkable consensus in the calendrical observances of early Lutheranism.”2 Based largely in the historic lectionary, Lutheran churches retained much of the historic church year calendar, especially the festival half, while adjusting for local and regional observances:

  • The Advent and Christmas seasons along with the Festival of the Epiphany remained unchanged
  • The season of Epiphany included the Baptism of our Lord at Luther’s urging, followed by specific emphases each Sunday, and concluding with the Transfiguration (moved from August 6).
  • Lent remained unchanged from Ash Wednesday through Easter Eve, though Good Friday was observed with less somberness and Holy Saturday not at all.
  • Easter Sunday led into the Sundays of the Easter season, each named for specific annual observances.
  • Ascension and Pentecost were celebrated as high festivals, followed by Trinity Sunday.
  • The Sundays after Trinity Sunday were largely marked by lectio continua and semi-lectio continua readings.

Yet as the church year came to an end, the lectionary took a decided Lutheran turn. Luther encouraged special emphases to replace Roman All Saints and All Souls days. The last three Sundays of the church year emphasized:

  • The abomination of desolation (Matthew 25:15-28)
  • The last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46)
  • Remembrance of the faithful departed (Matthew 5:1-12)3

During the annual cycle, feasts of the apostles and evangelists continued to be observed if they fell on a Sunday. Most of the feasts of the virgin Mary were phased out while the Annunciation, the Purification, and the Visitation were kept. A number of church orders included evangelical observances of local, non-biblical saints.

Conspicuous by its absence, though, was an observance of thanksgiving for the Lutheran Reformation. While much of the church year and its appointed texts were nearly universal, Reformation festivals were celebrated in many and varying ways. Johannes Bugenhagen, among the Saxon visitors mentioned above, encouraged territories to celebrate the Reformation on the anniversary of the date the territory joined the Reformation. Others celebrated on the anniversary of Luther’s birth or death. Still others celebrated on the anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. A more unified date for the festival wasn’t established until the aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War:

The Thirty Years’ War obliterated these [Reformation] observances, but in 1667 Elector John George II of Saxony reestablished the festival, appointing it for October 31. This date, or the Sunday preceding or the Sunday following, came to be generally accepted in practically all German-speaking and other Lutheran lands, where the festival itself rapidly gained observance.4

Die Heilige Schrift oder Was sagt Luther?

Since then, Lutheran liturgy, Lutheran lectionary, and Lutheran quotes have been fused with biblical proclamation. Week by week our Lutheran heritage has and continues to make its way into the worship lives of our people. Nowhere was this more unmistakably on display than during last year’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Books, movies, articles, daily quotes, devotionals, exhibits, sermons, and the like all celebrated Luther and the Lutheran Reformation. Again and again we heard about Luther’s theology, Luther’s faith, Luther’s Bible, and Luther’s impact on the world.

Yet while millions rejoiced at what God accomplished through the Lutheran Reformation, some were left asking, “Do Lutherans worship God or Luther?” Questions like this are easily dismissed as simple misunderstanding by the uninformed, non-confessional bias from the purveyors of liberal Lutheranism, or unfounded criticism by historical skeptics. Certainly, these have all influenced our Lutheran efforts to clearly proclaim the solae of the Lutheran Reformation. We react, respond, anticipate, teach, and preach with Lutheran tenacity, less the lessons of the Reformation be lost, and rightly so.

Could the way we incorporate Luther into worship give the unintended impression that Luther is Lord?

At the same, we do well to hear such a question as, “Do Lutherans worship God or Luther?” and ask that most Lutheran of questions of ourselves, “What does this mean?” Could the way we incorporate Luther and the Confessions into worship, especially our preaching, give the unintended impression that Luther is Lord? References to Luther’s theology, Luther’s faith, and Luther’s Bible can be rightly understood. Yet such references can also be easily misunderstood, even by those who want to rightly understand.

To be clear, this is about perception and not about quia vs. quatenus. Indeed, our quia subscriptions to the Book of Concord give us every confidence to include quotes from and references to the confessions of our Christian faith and Lutheran heritage. This is obviously a good thing. But to those who are new to Lutheranism or new to the Christian faith, an abundance of such quotes and references may be too much of a good thing. Without thoughtful explanation or careful clarity, even a single quote or reference could result in unintended consequences, leading to misperception. A sermon progression of “The prophet Jeremiah wrote…The apostle Paul wrote…Luther wrote…” may become, to the uninitiated and uneducated, no longer two proof passages and some faithful exposition. Rather, the progression becomes three proof passages. Was sagt Luther can end up being perceived to be on a par with Scripture, not simply quoted because this particular explanation of his is in agreement with Scripture. Sola Scriptura becomes Scriptura et….

When it comes to preaching Luther and the lectionary, the advice here is not to eliminate Luther. Rather, be mindful of how you include Luther in your preaching. We dare not compromise the Word of God for the sake of perception. Yet we are mindful of how we present it for the sake of those listening. We carefully proclaim the Word of Truth. We deliberately apply law and gospel to our listeners. We purposely strive for understanding and clarity. And so, as the writer to the Hebrews encourages, it is also good and right for us to point to and remember the “great cloud of witnesses” and “leaders” who have gone before us. We carefully teach the place that Luther and the confessions have in our preaching and in the worship lives of God’s people. We clarify their relationship to the Word of God. In thanksgiving we “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”5

500th Anniversary Part II

2018 marks another anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, the 500th anniversary of the Heidelberg Disputation.

The Heidelberg disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 Theses.

Following Luther’s proposal for a disputation on the subject of indulgences, the Augustinian Order, to which Luther belonged, was generally supportive of his views. The head of the order in Germany, Johannes Staupitz, called for a formal disputation to be attended by the leadership of the order, in which Luther would be provided a chance to expand upon his concern. The disputation took place at the meeting of the Augustinian Order, in Heidelberg, in April 1518. Luther’s opponents had been hopeful that Luther would be silenced, but Staupitz wanted to give Luther a fair hearing, since he was generally sympathetic with Luther’s views. At the meeting, Luther put forward a “theology of the cross” as opposed to a “theology of glory.” The disputation is, in many ways, more significant than the 95 theses, for they advanced Luther’s growing realization that the theology of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was fundamentally and essentially at odds with Biblical theology. As a result of the disputation, John Eck proposed a debate between himself and representatives of Luther’s views, which was held in Leipzig from June to July, 1519.6

Here is opportunity to celebrate our Lutheran heritage and rightly use it to point to our Savior. Thank you to Craig Engel for providing the following connections between the 28 Theses of the Heidelberg Disputation and the appointed lessons and themes through the Sundays of Pentecost, Year B. Since Engel’s plan includes dates already passed, I offer two November dates instead. The Heidelberg document is available at the website in endnote 6.

Pentecost 7 – July 8, 2018

Mark 6:1-16, Ezekiel 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Thesis 18 – It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

Pentecost 9 – July 22, 2018

Mark 6:30-34, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Ephesians 2:13-22
Thesis 25 – He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
Thesis 26 – The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Pentecost 14 – August 26, 2018

John 6:60-69, Joshua 24:1,2a,14-18, Ephesians 5:21-23
Thesis 13 – Free will, after the fall, exists in name only, and as long as it does what it is able to do, it commits a mortal sin.
Thesis 14 – Free will, after the fall, has power to do good only in a passive capacity, but it can do evil in an active capacity.
Thesis 16 – Nor could the free will endure in a state of innocence, much less do good, in an active capacity, but only in its passive capacity.
Thesis 17 – Nor does speaking in this manner give cause for despair, but for arousing the desire to humble oneself and seek the grace of Christ.

Pentecost 15 – September 2, 2018

Mark 7:1-8,14,15,21-23, Deuteronomy 4:1,2,6-8, Ephesians 6:10-20
Thesis 1 – The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance man on his way to righteousness, but rather hinders him.
Thesis 3 – Although the works of man always appear attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins.
Thesis 25 – He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
Thesis 26 – The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Pentecost 21 – October 14, 2018

Mark 10:17-27, Amos 5:6,7,10-15, Hebrews 3:1-6
Thesis 5 – The works of men are thus not mortal sins (we speak of works which are apparently good), as though they were crimes.
Thesis 6 – The works of God (we speak of those which he does through man) are thus not merits, as though they were sinless.

End Time 1 – Reformation Sunday – November 4, 2018

Mark 13:5-11, Jeremiah 18:1-11, Revelation 14:6,7
Thesis 25 – He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.
Thesis 26 – The law says, “Do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.

Last Sunday of End Time – Christ the King – November 25, 2018

John 18:33-37, Daniel 7:13,14, Revelation 1:4b-8
Thesis 20 – He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
Thesis 21 – A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch


1 Frank Senn, Christian Liturgy, p. 338
2 Ibid., p. 342
3 Ibid., p. 344
4 Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy, p. 569 (also quoted in Christian Liturgy, p. 345)
5 Hebrews 12:1; 13:7
6 http://bookofconcord.org/heidelberg.php


Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following is an introductory “observation” which speaks to the place and impact of catechetical preaching.

I love a good catechetical sermon.

When I hear my pastor read a proof text from the catechism as his sermon text, I look forward to hearing how he is teaching it to his current catechism students. I appreciate the review of my own catechetical instruction, and the new applications of the text to my current life.

The original Handbook to the Small Catechism was dedicated “to all faithful and upright pastors and preachers.” I gain quite a bit from catechetical review in a good catechetical sermon to help me in my role as a Christian father, since Martin Luther suggested that the truths of his Small Catechism were for me to present to my household.

And I know how this has worked in history. Good catechetical preaching has borne fruit in Lutheran congregations.

Almost 500 years ago, a group of families moved to where a mine had opened in the present-day Czech Republic. They named their new town Joachimsthal. That silver mine produced the metal for the coins in their area, which became known as “Thalers,” from which we get our English word, “dollars.”

The year after they founded their town, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, and the Reformation began.

The mining families all became Lutheran. Their story is told by Christopher Boyd Brown in his book, Singing the Gospel. The townspeople opened and supported two Lutheran elementary schools, one for the boys and one for the girls. They supported a number of pastors in a large congregation that contained, at its peak, 5,000 mining families.

Many of their legal and church records have been preserved, and what is striking is the documented evidence of each family being sure that the children learned Bible accounts, Luther’s Small Catechism, Lutheran worship, and in particular, the words of dozens of good Lutheran catechetical hymns. All of that family catechetical work was supported by good catechetical preaching from the pulpit.

After imperial armies took over the territory and banned Lutheranism, a Roman Catholic priest named Franciscus Albanus was sent to the village. He had his doctoral degree from a college where they trained men to oppose the unconditional gospel. Franciscus Albanus worked hard in Joachimsthal. But the children under his care told him the truths of the Bible as they had learned them in Luther’s Small Catechism. The men and women of the village patiently insisted on forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus as their Savior. And the families sang Lutheran hymns in public and private. Of course, there was strong cultural pressure to compromise the truth. But the people held firm. Even armies could not stop them.

Albanus was forced to begin reading through the Lutheran theological volumes stored in the Joachimsthal library in order to “strike the people with their own sword, and convince them out of their own writings.”

Instead, he himself was convinced by the Holy Spirit. Albanus resigned from the priesthood and became a Lutheran pastor. Do you think he engaged in any good catechetical preaching after that?

God bless your faithful preaching, catechetical and otherwise.

Paul Prange, Volume 16, No. 5

 

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Preach the Word – Lectionary…je ne sais quoi

Treasures Old and New

Lectionary…je ne sais quoi

It is most often heard as a punch line in movies, but the French phrase has its place. Take, for example, its use in in the title of this article. Literally, the phrase means “I don’t know what.” In usage, it is a way to label the inexplicable, especially when one is struggling to articulate an opinion. “The title of this article lacks a certain…je ne sais quoi.”

Last month’s title was “Lectionary Abundance.” This month’s title is the result of the author’s struggle to find a suitable counter to “abundance.” How does one realistically pair “lectionary” with words like paucity or dearth, especially considering the size, depth, artistry, and extravagance of the lectionary’s biblical treasures.

And yet, recent feedback to this series revealed a lectionary challenge not covered in Vol. 21, No. 2. A fellow pastor (for the sake of the article we will call him Don) shared that he struggles on festivals when the lectionary offers the same, or mostly the same, texts through all three years of the lectionary cycle. Is this a lectionary…failure…shortcoming…deficiency? Often these festival texts are so specific to the life of Christ within the Church Year, so rich with imagery and meaning, so beatific in celebration of the day, that they are essential to the worship life of the congregation. Lectionary…weakness? Hardly. Thus, lectionary je ne sais quoi.

Frustrated Perfection-ish

As described earlier in this series, the lectionary, while not perfect in and of itself, is a systematic way to hold forth the perfect Word of God. It may be easy to criticize or question certain selections, or the lack thereof, amongst the lessons of a given lectionary cycle, but it is a fine line between criticizing the lectionary and criticizing the Word. Preaching on Luke 2 for Christmas Eve or John 1 for Christmas Day seems almost obligatory. Yet doing so year after year can leave some preachers feeling like they have said it all before. The Word is perfect, the lectionary has crafted it into a kind of perfection-ish, and yet the frustration remains, at least for some.

One of Don’s specific examples causing him frustration is the three-year set of lessons for Palm Sunday:

Palm Sunday Lectionary Readings

While the Gospel lessons change with each year of the cycle, they are accounts of the same event. The First and Second Lessons along with the psalm remain unchanged. Further, Zechariah 9:9,10 is quoted in Matthew’s account, in essence making one lesson of the two. Year C of the Supplemental Lectionary offers the only alternates to the First and Second Lessons. Add it all up and, at face value, there are only five lessons on which to preach, including the psalm. If a pastor were to preach on each of the five selections, he would be “recycling” in year six of ministry.

By comparison, consider the Second Sunday after Pentecost. There are fifteen lessons from which to choose a sermon text, twenty if the preacher includes the psalm selections:

Pentecost 2 Lectionary Chart

After 15-20 years of different texts, a return to the Gospel Lesson from Matthew in Year A would hardly seem like recycling.

Bored with it all

A certain shut-in enjoyed the visits of her pastors. She was fond of saying to them, “Tell me something good.” By that, she meant, “Tell me about Jesus.” Approaching the age of 100, she could see little more than light and shadow. She could no longer read, but she loved to listen. Her audio Bible and Christian hymn CD’s were her constant companions. But she loved to hear “something good” from her pastors. She had heard about Jesus many times before and in many ways, but she loved to hear about him again and again.

If questioned, there is little doubt that any believer would disagree with her. All believers love to hear about Jesus. But Don shared that his frustration with the lectionary was made all the more pointed by the comments of a parishioner who questioned Don’s ability, and the ability of pastors in general, to bring out new treasures from the Word. I’m sure the commenting parishioner would agree that he wanted to hear about Jesus, yet he complained “I’ve heard the same thing over and over again.”

Comments like these come in many and various ways. This author recently heard the comment, “Dad, your sermon today was different. It was interesting.” (The sermon included a brief Q&A, required a volunteer, and incorporated a multi-sensory visual aid.) Another pastor once heard, “After all of these years, I thought that I had heard it all on Palm Sunday, but you showed me something new.” (The sermon connected Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem with his entry into our worship, homes, and hearts—something new to him, at least.) While both comments were intended as compliments, they were also indicators of the pre-service expectations of the individuals. They were surprised to see and hear something new. To be sure, they were both pleasantly surprised. But how many settle in to hear a sermon expecting a “same-ol’, same-ol’” experience? Or to take it a step further, how many come with a bored-with-it-all attitude?

Pressure, Point

It is no wonder, then, that a preacher may feel both the pressure and the desire to bring out new treasure each time he preaches. A pastor doesn’t want bored parishioners. A preacher likes compliments on “interesting” sermons. He feels a sense of responsibility to present the Word as best as he can. He strives to be a good steward of the gifts and opportunities he is given to preach the Word. But there is a reason he is encouraged to bring out treasures both old and new. There is blessing to be found in new treasures of fresh perspective and poignant application just as there is also blessing to be found in the “same-ol’, same-ol’” preaching of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Rather than give in to pressure, recognize the manifestation of the unholy trio at work in both the parishioner and the pastor. Parishioners bored with a text often mirror their pastor’s boredom with the text. A shepherd chasing after something shiny and new for the sake of “shiny and new” can foster a similar desire in the flock and a consequential discontentment with simplicity. Point out the slippery slope of correlating the perceived “quality” of the message with its perceived “effectiveness.” If we are not watchful, a desire for proclamation can be replaced with a craving for innovation. Gratitude at what God has done can become conditional on the novelty of the message. “Tell me something good” easily corrupts into “Tell me something better than last time.”

God’s people need to hear the simple unvarnished truth, be it the harsh condemnation of the law or the sweet assurance of the gospel. Take them to cross, and they will not be left wanting. Preach the Word that the good work begun in them may be carried on to completion. After all, “…if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8). Point God’s people to Jesus, and they will follow in his steps.

In many ways, festival preaching is the easiest time to do this. It is easy to point to Jesus in the manger, to Jesus revealed in glory, to Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. But in some ways, festival preaching can also be challenging. Repetitive lectionary selections seemingly narrow the possibilities. Schedules around festivals tend to be busier than at other times of the Church Year. Time spent studying a chosen text is abbreviated. Short cuts are taken. A quick glance into the storehouse results in presenting the easiest treasures to grab.

Sadly, such an approach can lead to frustration later on. It doesn’t take too many cycles of the Church Year before “new” becomes “old,” “interesting” becomes “repetitive,” and the storehouse seems bare. Keeping in mind the encouragements above, there are additional ways to continue to bring forth treasures old and new from the lectionary, year after year. What follows are some practical ideas for preaching reinvigoration.

Facet-nating

If a preacher finds himself struggling to bring forth treasure, especially for festival preaching, take a closer look at the individual selections. Fewer selections and previous study can be a solid foundation on which to build. Ask yourself some searching questions: How exhaustive has your text study been in the past? Could you dig deeper? Have you examined every facet of every gem in every selected text? What differing perspectives could be explored? Could a change in preaching style be an interesting challenge? (Consider, for example, an inductive approach to the text, rather than a deductive, propositional approach.) Have you spent time working with the text to determine where it fits with the cycle of the Church Year, how it relates to the chapter and book in which it is found, what connections are to be discovered between the Old Testament and the New, between prophecy and fulfillment, between then and now and forever? What insights could be gained from the Prayer of the Day? And yes, it might be beneficial to see what others have written, crafted, even composed based on the same text.

A seminary junior once asked a retired seminary professor which commentary the professor felt best captured the psalms. His reply? “Do your own work.” Sage advice, to be sure. And yet what blessings can come to the struggling preacher who, after careful study himself, finds additional treasure through the work and experience of others.

Nesper, n’est-ce pas?

Still struggling? Consider some alternate texts. Paul Nesper’s Biblical Texts1 includes more than a dozen lectionaries developed for use during the Church Year. Among them are the Soll, Thomasius, and Swedish lectionaries. Most are one-year cycles but still offer a number of options. For example, consider lectionary selections and alternates for Pentecost Sunday, the Coming of the Holy Spirit2:

Pentecost Lectionary Alternates

In addition to these selections, Nesper provides a number free texts, similar to E.H. Wendland’s Sermon Texts.3 These selections not only provide additional choices for preaching, they can often provide additional perspective on the already appointed texts. All combined, this trove of selections offer a wealth of additional treasure to present on Pentecost Sunday or any other given festival.

Occasional Opportunity

Festival preaching is a special opportunity to preach the Word surrounded by the joy of the season as God’s people celebrate with gratitude all that has been done for them in Christ. As the preacher chooses a text for special consideration on these and any other occasion, his job is not to unearth hidden truths lost to the ages, wow his listeners with clever takes, or try to prove his mettle through innovation. Rather, his job is to clearly sound the saving message of Jesus again and again to the immediate reassurance and the eternal confidence of God’s people. The appointed lessons of the lectionary are but curated suggestions from God’s Word, carefully chosen to proclaim the Father’s love for his people through his Son. Yet it continues to be a storehouse from which the preacher brings forth treasure old and new. Use it, renew in it, and preach it for what it is, the Word of God.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch


1 Biblical Texts Paul W. Nesper, 1961 Augsburg Publishing House.
2 Ibid., p.369.
3 Sermon Texts E. H. Wendland, editor, 1984 Northwestern Publishing House.


Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storehouse of treasure to behold in past issues. The following abbreviated article speaks to the importance of good text study to the exhausted preacher.

The more we study each Word as God gave it, the more we overflow with love for the Lover of our souls.

 

Περισσευω—At least twenty-seven times in twenty-two passages of his thirteen epistles the Lord’s Apostle Paul uses this favorite word. Paul puts περισσευω in faith-born love contexts like the great resurrection chapter which concludes in triumph: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to (περισσευοντες – literally “overflow with”) the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

When the glass of our heart is filled to overflowing with the “the water of life,” the message of Christ’s substitutionary death and glorious resurrection overflows into our work for the Lord. This overflow keeps us from being discouraged by everything the devil throws at us. “For just as the sufferings of Christ περισσευω into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort περισσευω.” (2 Corinthians 1:5). With this word the Holy Spirit pictures the super-abundance of God’s blessings in Christ. Paul wrote to his dear Philippians: “…Your joy in Christ Jesus περισσευω.…. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have περισσευω” (Philippians 1:26;4:12).

What pastor has not at times felt like an old hand-operated water pump? Every person asking him for help seems to drain something out of him until he feels useless and dry. One pastor on a retreat was advised, “If your reservoir runs dry, you’ve got to go deeper.”

In the drought of 1988, Minnesota farmers did something that seemed very strange to metro area residents. They took their heavy equipment into the dried up ponds and lakes around their farms and dredged out the bottom. “Why are you doing that?” neighbors asked. “There’s no water. It’s a drought.” The farmers answered in typical fashion by shaking their heads and going back to work. And when the rain returned they had deeper water on their acreage for the next drought. Few suburbanites realized that their farming neighbors may have contributed enough to the water table to keep their precious lawn sprinklers swishing in the heat.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him. He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:5-8).

In seasons of spiritual drought, gospel preachers especially need to dig deeper wells, not into human sources, but into the one source of “living water,” the Bible. We can περισσευω more abundantly by drinking deeply of the gracious water of life waiting to be tapped in the Holy Spirit’s original languages.

Mark Cordes – Volume 6, No. 5, May / June 2003

 


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Preach the Word – Lectionary Abundance

Treasures Old and New

Lectionary Abundance

Ah, the exquisite agony of a “difficult” decision: taking it all in, evaluating the options, narrowing the choices, flopping back-and-forth, making a choice, taking possession, experiencing some buyer’s remorse, then joyful satisfaction. And that’s just what your average church-goer experiences every Sunday as he decides which home-baked treat(s) to have with his coffee during fellowship hour. But consider the difference if the decision involves a salad bar. The decision-making process is easier. Nearly all of the items are good for you. The only guidelines are your personal likes, the size of your plate, and the number of trips you are allowed to make.

As you enter once again the treasure house of God’s Word through the lectionary you find yourself in a similar situation. A new week has begun. You look at the appointed lessons and their summaries. You take the time to see how they fit together for that day and how they fit into the grand progression of the church year. It is all laid out for you to behold. There is so much to choose from and it is all good for you. There is no agony, just exquisite joy in taking it all in. You could, and will, delight in its glorious nourishment for eternity.

And yet you have been called by a gathering of believers to bring forth from the storehouse treasure which will be nourishing to them. As much as you enter the storehouse to your own blessing, your primary purpose is on behalf of the people you have been called to serve. Yet your intimate relationship with your Lord and your specific training for this work sets you up for a difficult decision—the exquisite agony of deciding what you will proclaim to those same believers through your preaching…and what you will not.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once noted that the number two greatest fear of people is death. The number one greatest fear is public speaking. In other words, he concluded, people would rather be in the coffin at a funeral than giving the eulogy. Because of this fear of public speaking, those new to it invariably begin with a hope for brevity by asking themselves, “How long does this need to be?” I know few preachers who ask themselves that question, and for good reason. The storehouse of God’s Word is an abundance from which to bring forth treasure after treasure. There is no shortage of material. But considering this abundance of the Word and a preacher’s call to representative ministry, perhaps he ought to still ask a similar question from time to time, “How long should this be?”

I resemble that remark

Yes, the focus of this article is indeed on the length of a sermon. (Go ahead and assume a defensive position.) Seriously or semi-seriously, all preachers have been chided for long-winded preaching. Most preachers recognize that this chiding comes with the job. A preacher is out there speaking in public. The public, therefore, has many and varied opinions on both the preacher and the preaching. Up for commentary by the public (parishioners) is everything from content to creativity, from authenticity to energy. But nothing empowers a parishioner to complain to a preacher more than a sermon that is too long.

The preacher, of course, is ready with a host of sanctified (and not-so-sanctified) responses: “People ought to be able to listen to a 30-minute sermon.” “The text required this amount of time.” “The Spirit works as he wills.” “People are always looking for something to complain about.” “This is the way God made me to preach.” Sadly, these comments are often received as more sanctimonious than sanctified, especially by those who are truly struggling against the flesh to stay focused and attentive to the Word of the Lord and the preacher who is proclaiming it.

Would not a faithful preacher take the time to receive these comments as constructive criticism and seek to understand their purposive nature? As blogger Thom Schultz points out, the comments may reflect the lower retention rates of the lecture method, the shrinking of modern-day attention spans, the passivity of parishioners listening in the pews, and the paucity of auditory learners (as opposed to visual and physical).1 Additionally, parishioners may have specific expectations regarding not just the length of the sermon, but also the length of the service. Such expectations are typically neither right nor wrong in and of themselves. Faithfulness to God’s people leads the preacher to lovingly honor them, and when necessary, patiently adjust them. Faithfulness to the Lord leads the preacher to honestly wrestle with the difficult question, “How long should this be?” Ah, the exquisite agony of a difficult decision. “What will I share… and what will I not?”

The exquisite agony of a difficult decision. “What will I share… and what will I not?”

A very good place to start

Let’s face it, the Spirit’s blessing of sanctification and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary homiletical training are to blame for the difficulty of the decision. The Spirit’s blessing instills in preachers a deep love for the Word, a heart for people battling the darkness of sin and unbelief, an aptitude to proclaim healing and hope, and a desire to share what is desperately needed. Homiletical training provides a systematic approach to exploring the storehouse of God’s Word, expositing the treasures within, purposely summarizing and applying those treasures to the lives of listeners, and coherently communicating them. All of this comes together for the preacher as he finds himself readily assenting to the oft-quoted statement: There truly are 100 sermons in every text. The treasure is so abundant!

To illustrate the point, consider The Preacher’s Apprentice. Pastor Mark Cordes has been publishing this dynamic dictionary since 1999. Each reading in the lectionary is exhaustively studied, most texts receiving treatment in 40-60 pages.2 The abundance is overwhelming, and yet the opportunity to delight in the Word of the Lord is spiritually enthralling. Pastor John Koelpin also wrote of this abundant treasure and the challenging joy of Scriptural mining in PTW’s Volume 5 #4.

Text study is hard work, but it is exhilarating. For sinners it is perhaps as close as we can get to gazing at the jewels of heaven that John beheld in his revelation. As the preacher turns his text inside and out—studying it in its immediate context, looking at it in the wider context of the entire Bible, picking it apart word by word and phrase by phrase in the original, and viewing it through the eyes of previous confessors—he finds a bit of gold here and some shining sapphire there, just waiting to be displayed before the hearts of God’s people. Like the prophets of old we “search intently and with the greatest care” (1 Peter 1:10).

A good preacher loves his time in the Word studying the text. Yet the abundance of treasure leaves the preacher with the exquisite agony of a difficult decision: choosing the treasure to summarize and display in a faithful, applicable, and timely way. “Prince of Preachers” Charles Spurgeon said of sermon length, “We are generally longest when we have least to say.”3 As true as that may be for some, this author contends that the primary cause of lengthy sermons in WELS is that there so much to say and preachers want to proclaim it all!

After exhaustive research and careful crafting, a budding Junior seminarian once proudly turned in the manuscript of his first sermon. Eagerly he awaited feedback from his homiletics professor, anticipating that the sheer volume of biblical exposition within its pages would translate into equally abundant accolades for its author. Imagine his disappointment when the professor simply commented, “Good work, but save some for next week.”

Perhaps the most common advice from the pew for long-winded preachers is simply “Don’t preach so long,” as if a preacher could simply set an alarm and stop talking at the “bell.” Yet equally ridiculous is an approach that meanders through the results of a text study, recycles similar thoughts within the sermon ad nauseum, or strings together a series of stories with some vague references to a text. Such ramblings invite critical commentary and rightly serve as a reminder to work at crafting the message.

Telic like it is

To put it simply, the point is the point. Even a ten-minute sermon can seem long if it is struggling to bring out the main thrust of the text. Faced with an abundance of treasure discovered during text study and as interesting as all those treasures may be, keep the message focused on the main point. Save some treasures for a Bible study, a blog, “take home” materials for use during the week4, or three years later when the text and its related readings come up again. The storehouse is filled with treasure, yet the preacher’s goal is to help his hearers to focus on that one pearl, that one gem that the Spirit will use as he wills. As one bishop was fond of telling his vicars, “Provide the nail on which people can hang their hats.”

Goal for it

Setting a goal that is in keeping with both biblical and local expectations will greatly help direct the process of crafting a message for God’s people. The most impactful advice this author has received for sermon length came from a Taste of Ministry experience during high school. The host pastor explained that he knew how long it typically took him to preach so many words. He would set his word-count goal and craft his sermon with the goal in mind.

Certainly this approach could lead to slavish adherence to meeting an arbitrary goal at the expense of faithful exposition of a given text. Yet in nearly 20 years of this author’s preaching, a word-count goal has led to a plethora of blessings. Such an approach has led to critical editing, re-working of outlines, the elimination of interesting yet inessential illustrations, and an overall striving for excellence. Good “stuff” has been left on the cutting room floor. Yet the final result from this is a better-crafted message. Essentially, if the length of the sermon goes beyond the word-count goal, it better be worth it.

Good “stuff” has been left on the cutting room floor.

It’s all in the timing

Give yourself plenty of time for crafting, especially if you tend to leave your “sermonizing” to the last minute. Sadly, many preachers are still working on their sermons into the late hours of Saturday night or even the early hours of Sunday morning. Assuming that there has been faithful text study, a message has now been prepared, but how much time has been dedicated to rework? If you find yourself regularly ad libbing during your presentation, or have used the phrase “and that’s another thing” while you are holding forth (yes, this has happened), consider setting aside more time for honing and crafting your message. Give your sermon the priority that proclamation of the Word deserves. Give yourself the time to craft a message in keeping with the gifts God has given you. Make use of fellow believers who can offer constructively critical feedback both after and before you preach. Many a sermon has been preached that could have been better crafted, more clearly communicated, and more succinctly presented simply because the preacher did not take the time to revise.

We are often our own worst enemies. Most preachers get into a rhythm when they preach. They have developed a style, an approach, and a delivery that works for them. These personal aspects to preaching can have a profound impact on the expectations of a congregation, especially when those expectations are in conflict with the personal aspects of the preacher’s preaching. If local expectation is a 20 minute sermon and a 60 minute service, repeatedly preaching and worshiping beyond those expectations will only irritate the sensitivities of the congregation. Lovingly honoring and, when necessary, patiently adjusting those expectations (as encouraged above), can bring preacher and parishioners into a more mutually beneficial harmony. If the preacher desires more time to preach, be willing to patiently help the congregation to see the blessings of a 70 minute service to allow for it. If the service on a given Sunday will include worship aspects like baptisms, Holy Communion, and confirmations, be willing to preach a shorter sermon, recognizing that the means of grace are still active and working through all aspects of corporate worship. If sermon length is truly an issue, take time with your Elders and other mature Christians in your congregation to find out what will best serve the flock. Forcing parishioners to listen to long sermons again and again does not eventually lead to a love for long sermons.

“More” myth

Reconciling “less is more” with “more is better” can be quite the challenge. Yet these phrases have often become axioms to the listener in the pew. A balanced viewpoint recognizes that “Less is [not necessarily] more” and “More is [not necessarily] better.” Generational bias can stimulate this quantity vs. quality struggle not only within the congregation, but also within the preacher. Challenging personal bias towards long or short preaching is a healthy thing to do. Allow the circumstances, context, and occasion to help you craft a message to the edification of God’s people. After all, Jesus once preached a precipitous sermon that lasted all day, yet he was also mindful of his disciples’ limitations, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:12,13).

Time’s up

Practicing what this article preaches, it was sent to a fellow pastor for feedback. In his response he shared that his congregation had made the move to every-Sunday celebration of the Sacrament. At the time, there was concern about over-all service length.

I didn’t want service length to serve as an obstacle to appreciating the gifts of the Supper. And so I set out to change how I preached. What I found is that in my 22-minute sermons, I wasn’t speaking as clearly and specifically as I could have. I had grown comfortable in saying things in certain ways. That 22-minute mark fit like my well-broken-in slippers. I started spending more time in text study and more time in revision. It wasn’t an easy process. It is harder for me to preach for 16 minutes than 22. But I have appreciated the results. My sermons are more focused now and there has been a renewed interest and appreciation for the whole sermonic process.

Ah, the exquisite agony of difficult decisions and the immeasurable blessings of a well-crafted sermon, all from the abundance of treasure found in the storehouse of God’s Word. The power of our great God is such that he can work just as effectively through an eight-minute sermon as he can a 45-minute sermon. We may not have a biblical formula for the perfect length of a sermon, but we do have a perfect God. He uses imperfect preachers who have been given the grace to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch


1 https://holysoup.com/the-perfect-length-for-a-sermon/.
2 For information on The Preacher’s Apprentice, contact Pastor Mark Cordes – m.cordes@comcast.net. A sample study for Easter 4B Good Shepherd Sunday is provided online at worship.welsrc.net/download- worship/preach-the-word-volume-21.
3 Charles Spurgeon Lectures, p. 135.
4 For example, the preacher need not take the time during the sermon to describe the topography around the Sea of Galilee. He could point his listeners to a supplemental resource like Israel on Drone – Sea of Galilee (youtube.com/watch?v=zlV8HBmL6ek) in pre-service announcements. A preacher mindful of the progression of the liturgy could even provide a link like this the previous week.


Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storehouse of treasure to behold in past issues. The following abbreviated article speaks to one of the many blessings that comes from careful reworking.

Leading the listener right up to the well without giving him a drink is a common pitfall in writing sermons, particularly for young homileticians. The preacher engages the listener with one link added to another in his chain of thought. Then suddenly the chain is broken. The preacher leaves the thought unfinished but in the process also leaves the listener scrambling to find the connection to what is said subsequently.

It is a common mistake. We are so filled with the message of the Word we are delivering, we assume our listeners know what we are talking about and what we are going to say next. We mistakenly think that the final statement in our line of thought is so obvious we don’t need to say it. Often the statement we leave out is a key that links what we have said to what is coming. Those obvious thoughts left unsaid leave the real punch out of the message.

Vilas R. Glaeske – Volume 5, No.3

 


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Preach the Word – Lectionary Teaching

Treasures Old and New

Lectionary Teaching

A common lament among pastors is the phrase, “I wish that I could get more members in Bible Information Class.” Shepherds know first-hand the value of “refresher” classes to keep sharp on language skills, doctrinal insights, and practical approaches. Similar “refresher” classes are of equal value to members looking to do some catechetical review, explore situation-oriented discussions, and finding renewed confidence for faith-based conversations. Not unexpectedly, a common lament among members who take a refresher Bible Information Class (BIC) is the phrase, “I wish we could get more members in Bible Information Class.”

As we continue our look to the lectionary for opportunities to bring out “treasures old and new,” it is important to consider the role of teaching while preaching. Arguments could be made that biblical preaching and teaching share most of the same characteristics. Preaching and teaching then are neither mutually exclusive nor are they merely different without a distinction.

Allow some distinctions: Biblical preaching is summarizing a section of Scripture to its Christocentric message and proclaiming that message to the eternal healing and spiritual edifying of God’s people.1 Biblical teaching is the broadening of knowledge to the growth in understanding of God’s people. The first is meeting our temporal and eternal spiritual needs through God’s Word. The second is carrying out God’s desire for the continued spiritual growth of his people through God’s Word. As new creations in Christ, we want to grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s Word. From this perspective, simply put, preaching meets needs, teaching addresses wants (both God’s wants for us and our Spirit-wrought wants for ourselves).

Preaching meets needs, teaching addresses wants…. Wants tend to be preferred.

Sadly, like many needs and wants, wants tend to be preferred. Years ago, this author preached on Ephesians 5:21-33 under the simple theme: Submit. The PowerPoint presentation slides began with the picture of an elephant rising on the screen as the sentence was stated, “There’s an elephant in the room, and his name is Submit.” This began what amounted to a Bible Information Class lesson on the roles for men and women. It included diagrams, bullet points, and illustrative pictures. While time was spent connecting the biblical roles for men and women to the beautiful picture of Christ and his bride, the Church, the “presentation” was far more teaching than preaching. Afterward, several similar comments were made. “I liked what you did with the sermon today. I learned a lot. You should preach like that all the time.” Perhaps you have experienced similar glowing comments after a sermon that was more of a taught Bible class than a preached sermon.

Just where such comments come from is difficult to identify definitively. Certainly, they are expressions of appreciation from hearts and minds eager to learn. But does didactic preaching as a primary, even exclusive, approach to the sermon offer more of what eager hearts and minds want, rather than what they need? Good preaching confronts and challenges the hardened or apathetic heart. Good preaching seeks to correct the wayward or inattentive heart. Good preaching offers comfort to the aching heart, forgiveness to the guilt-laden heart, and confidence to the questioning heart. All are intimate connections established between God’s Word and God’s people through preaching. They cannot be taught. Teaching is clinical, objective, general in nature. Good preaching is so personal that it leaves the sinner nowhere to run from the law, and it leaves the repentant nothing to doubt in the gospel.

Does didactic preaching … offer more of what eager hearts and minds want, rather than what they need?

Even so, teaching has its place in the pulpit. In contrast to the compliments mentioned above, this author has also received constructive feedback on sermons regarding the need for further explanation. “Pastor, you mention words like justification and atonement in your sermons a lot. But I don’t always know what those words mean.” For us who work with such “big words” on a regular basis, we don’t realize that our average listener doesn’t possess the same working vocabulary. For example, a preacher might quote the Apostle Paul from his letter to the Romans, Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (5:11) These familiar and reassuring words mean everything to us, but many listeners may never get past the word justified. Consider teaching while preaching:

Brothers and Sisters, Jesus Christ went to war and died as a real substitute, paying for the sins of the world, for your sins, for mine, so that because of his shed blood every person on earth can be justified—declared not guilty, forgiven—in other words, you have peace.

Taking a moment to teach, explain, and broaden the individual listener’s understanding, deepens the reassurance of peace through Jesus.

Another role that teaching has in the pulpit is to broaden understanding of biblical settings, cultural differences, and regional observations. An example is the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat from Matthew chapter 13. It is difficult to fully grasp the impact of the weeds sown by the enemy. Consider teaching while preaching:

The weeds most likely sown were a plant called darnel, a Eurasian ryegrass. It looks like wheat until it is more matured and the developing fruit finally identifies it as a noxious weed. What a vivid picture of how we often see little difference between the children of light and the children of darkness. There is both warning here and assurance from Jesus: By their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:20).

Taking the time to broaden the listener’s understanding of a regional weed deepens the connection between God’s Word and God’s people.

The danger comes when teaching is included to the exclusion of good preaching.

For many, this inclusion of teaching while preaching may seem obvious, second-nature even.

It is not just a necessity. Teaching while preaching is a true blessing from God to his people. The danger comes when teaching is included to the exclusion of good preaching. Gone would be the personal connections between God’s Word and God’s people. Sermons would spend more time addressing what people want to learn, and less time addressing what people need to hear. Preaching must be primary and teaching must be secondary. Yet teaching resonates with listeners, instructs the uneducated, and explains mysteries. Teaching broadens knowledge. It has its place.

Early church fathers were known to include liturgical and catechetical instruction in their preaching. One genre of preaching was known as “mystagogical catchesis.” These were delivered by bishops during the week after Easter to instruct the newly baptized about the meaning of the sacramental rites in which they had just participated.”2 These were not Sunday morning, general gathering sermons, however. They were sermons designed specifically for a targeted gathering of catechumens. And yet, they offer further examples of how teaching can be both integral to and prominent in preaching.

Consider once again the lament mentioned above, “I wish that more members were in Bible Information Class.” Is there opportunity to bring BIC elements into our preaching? Look no further than the lectionary to find opportunity for such treasures old and new. A BIC is a systematic approach to broaden understanding of biblical doctrine. But stepping into the pulpit on Maundy Thursday to teach a BIC lesson on Holy Communion as a Means of Grace would not only miss the point of the service, it would also fail to connect the loving example of Jesus to the people who need to hear it. There needs to be a blend of teaching and preaching to broaden the mind and touch the heart.

Working within the liturgical context of the lectionary, there are myriad opportunities to review biblical doctrine within the framework of the Church Year and the appointed lessons. Not only does this provide the “refresher” and broadened doctrinal understanding that many need, it also deepens the connection between God’s Word and his people.

Working within the liturgical context of the lectionary, there are myriad opportunities to review biblical doctrine.

Consider the Gospel Reading appointed for Epiphany 5B, Mark 1:29-39 (February 4, 2018). Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and then is inundated by crowds of people. He slips off by himself in the early hours of the morning leaving the disciples to search for him. When they find him, they exclaim, “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus’ response is an opportunity to talk about how God responds to prayer, especially when it seems as if he’s wandered off and not listening.

There is no trick, no secret, to reach the live person of Jesus Christ. We are assured In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. So, bring your every request to the Lord. Be generic. Be specific. Be bold and confident, knowing that the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer (1 Peter 3:12). But don’t get discouraged if you don’t get your way in your time and according to your plan. Rather ask…and then…wait for it…wait for him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. He will come with exactly that—immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine—according to his power that is at work within us (Ephesians 3:20).

While not a didactic approach to prayer, the paragraph connects the gospel account to the prayer lives of God’s people through the sedes doctrinae found in any BIC lesson on the subject.

The Season of Epiphany provides many more opportunities for lectionary “teaching” as Jesus is “revealed” throughout the Sundays. The following are some ideas for teaching Christological doctrine while preaching on the gospel readings from St. Mark.

Epiphany 1
Mark 1:4-11
The Baptism of Our Lord – Jesus is anointed and identified as the Son of God.

Epiphany 2
John 1:43-51
Jesus calls the first disciples – Jesus is identified as the Son of Man.

Epiphany 3
Mark 1:14-20
Jesus calls Peter and Andrew – Jesus is identified as the fulfillment of prophecy.

Epiphany 4
Mark 1:21-28
Jesus teaches with authority – Jesus is identified by his teaching.

Epiphany 5
Mark 1:29-39
Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law – Jesus is identified by his healing.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
Mark 9:2-9
The transfiguration of our Lord – Jesus is identified by his mission.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch


1 Consider early apostolic sermons in Acts 2, 4, and 13. The common pattern is connecting the fulfillment of messianic prophecy in Christ to the lives of listeners.
2 Senn, Frank. Christian Liturgy, p. 112


Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following abbreviated article speaks to the broadening of the listener’s understanding of context.

Location, Location, Location

The impromptu homiletics lesson was memorable. “What is the key to giving your sermons a certain sense of depth?” a vicar once asked a veteran pastor who was well-known as a “good preacher.” The pastor hesitated briefly, then replied with a smile: “Location, location, location.” He knew that the vicar was not expecting his answer, nor did the vicar immediately understand what he meant. What did a real estate adage have to do with sermonizing? “I’m trying to emphasize the value of context,” explained the pastor. “Real estate agents know that where a property is situated is often more important than the amenities a home might offer. The setting is more significant than some of the specific details. I’ve found that exploring the context of a text—the immediate setting, the wider issues of ‘to whom’ and ‘for what,’ even considering what a text has meant to the church—supplies me with lots of ideas that give the sermon some dimension.”

The veteran pastor went on to explain that from his perspective one of the weaknesses of novice preachers was that they often equated text study with word study. The resulting sermon tended to expound on key words and phrases and attempted to apply the concepts to today’s world. The sermons were rather “generic” in terms of explanation and application. “They’re thin,” he asserted. “Too many trees. Not enough forest. The meaning is not developed with enough sense of connection to time and place and usage. I mean, I once heard a sermon on ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ that was all about the temptations of wealth. The whole sermon took its structure from the word ‘rich.’ It wasn’t false doctrine, but the sermon didn’t really preach the text. I’ve heard preachers do that with words like ‘mercy’ or ‘grace’ or ‘peace.’ They explain the meaning of the word, then attempt to apply it. Those kinds of sermons turn out to be a bit vague and general.”

He continued to discourse. Note authorship, when possible, for Psalm texts. If it is David, or Moses, you have the accounts of “life history” to give the prayers or pleading or praise a real-life setting. Many Old Testament texts are so rich with context that the specific law and gospel are almost always indicated by the setting. He said that he had preached recently on Psalm 118. The text study produced connections that supplied structure and depth. The central verse—“The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation”—is a direct quotation from the Song of Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15. The psalm was also used after the return from exile as part of the Passover liturgy—and it may have been the “hymn” Jesus sang with his disciples before they left for Gethsemane on Thursday of Holy Week. Psalm 118 was also a favorite of Martin Luther and supplied what some call his motto verse: “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.” The three levels of “context” provided compelling elements of application. The psalm begins and ends with “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever,” but “this text was about much more than a table prayer.” “The epistle letters were written for specific reasons,” he added, changing the focus a bit. “I know that seems too obvious, but it’s a reminder not to remove the instruction too far from its intended meaning.”

Don’t some preachers spend too much time on historical setting and background? “Fair enough—there needs to be some balance. But don’t forget the verse from Ecclesiastes: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’ Ancient texts—and ancient contexts—are always relevant.”

Professor Paul Koelpin – Volume 17, No.5


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Preach the Word – Challenges to Lectionary Preaching

Treasures Old and New

Challenges to Lectionary Preaching

Rich characters, rich locations, and great writing. That’s what makes for a great book series. At least that’s what author Anthony Horowitz claims is the reason for the continued popularity of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. (Horowitz has written a new book for the series nearly 100 years since the last installment was written by Doyle.) The idea behind his comments is that the author of a series creates stories within a story, bringing the reader along through the more immediate and long-term conflicts and resolutions of the storyline. With each new book, a little more of the greater story is told.

Not surprisingly, such approaches to writing are but a secular and faded reflection of the greatest book ever written. After all, biblical characters and locations are indescribably rich and the writing is, well, divine as the divine story is told. That is why early Christians, as they gathered for worship, imitated the synagogue tradition of reading selections from Scripture in public worship. As previously mentioned (PTW 21.1), early church father Justin Martyr, describes near the middle of the second century:

And on the day called Sunday there is a meeting in one place…and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits. When the reader [lector] has finished, the president [pastor] in a discourse urges and invites [us] to the imitation of these noble things.

Since then, the lectionary has been developed, revised, updated, and expanded. Each and every Sunday, selections from the biblical “series” are shared with God’s people that we may “so hear them, read, learn them, and take them to heart.” This rich treasure is God’s power for the “joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people” as his story is told Sunday by Sunday within the story of his life through the progression of the Church Year.

Not all that glitters is gold

While the selected portions of the lectionary are the inspired Word of God, the choosing, pairing, and placing—the crafting—of the selected Word for a given service or Sunday is not inspired. Much of the Church Year is influenced by the annual telling of the life of Christ. The readings for the festival half of the Church Year, in particular the gospel readings, almost select themselves. Many gospel readings have obvious connections to Old Testament selections. But selections for the non-festival half of the Church Year and the selections for the Second Reading throughout the year, have presented many challenges.

One of the more challenging aspects of lectionary preaching, based in the historic practice quoted above, is the presence of lectio continua selections in the ILCW-based lectionary of Christian Worship. Experienced preachers know the challenge of finding common threads between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as recorded in Matthew chapter 5 and the opening chapters to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians during the season of Epiphany Year A. Of equal challenge is tying together the practical applications of God’s relationship with his people in Ephesians chapters 4-6 with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and subsequent discourse on the Bread of Life in John chapter 6 (Sundays after Pentecost Year B).

Others have expressed the challenge of reading lectionary selections from the Scriptures which are difficult to understand or are unclear, especially without lengthy explanation. When such selections also serve as the sermon text, the preacher is able to take the time to explain, illustrate, and summarize the truths to be found in the selection. But if the reading is presented with little or no explanation, hearers are left questioning rather than assured and comforted.1

At the same time, the absence of certain passages or selections makes it difficult to bring in certain aspects of the whole counsel of God. A lack of emphasis on Bible History prompted the creation of the Supplemental Lectionary. (See Treasures from the Archive below). Others have cited a lack of selections focusing on the family unit. Certainly, anyone could question why a certain selection was chosen over another selection for almost any given Sunday.

But perhaps most challenging of all is seeing the flow and progression of the lectionary from one Sunday into the next. As an example, consider the seasons of End Time and Advent. This author has often been asked by fellow preachers to differentiate between the two seasons in a meaningful way. Indeed, it is easy to take a broad approach to the two seasons and summarize all eight weeks with the words “Jesus Is Coming” only to find the wealth of the seasonal selections already spent by Christ the King Sunday. Many a pastor has intimated that the Sundays “all say the same thing!” Sadly, such a broad approach to these seasons usually finds its impetus in a busy schedule, a cursory text study, a predilection for the obvious, or all of the above.

Most challenging of all is seeing the flow and progression of the lectionary from one Sunday into the next.

It would be easy, at this point, to simply encourage a more thorough search of the biblical storeroom for the sake of discovering the richness to be found in the lectionary selections.

(And that is good advice!) A former professor told us to let the Sundays of End Time and Advent speak for themselves without borrowing from the Sundays before or after. (Also good advice!) But consider taking a step back from the individual Sundays, the individual seasons, indeed from the individual years in the three-year cycle, and look at them as a whole.

The following example of progression builds on the resources found in the 2008 revision of Planning Christian Worship.2 All selections from the lectionary for these two seasons point us to the coming again of our Lord Jesus. Yet each year we are reminded that we live in the End Times by God’s grace as the end of the Church Year approaches. Then with the turn of the new Church Year, we are invited to receive God’s grace with ready hearts.

End Time – Reformation: Lord, Keep Us Faithful to the Word!
Year A: In the face of persecution
Year B: With unwavering commitment
Year C: Standing in the truth

End Time 2 – Last Judgment: Lord, Keep Us Mindful of the Judgment!
Year A: Longing for redemption
Year B: Rejoicing in the resurrection
Year C: Confident in innocence

End Time 3 – Saints Triumphant: Lord, Keep Us Watchful for Our Triumph!
Year A: Through these latter days
Year B: In full knowledge and eager expectation
Year C: Confident in our relationship

End Time 4 – Christ the King: Lord, Keep Us Joyful in Our King!
Year A: At the fulfillment of God’s Plan
Year B: Awaiting his triumphant return
Year C: Sure in the Promise

Advent 1: Keep Watch, for the Lord will come again
Year A: Unexpectedly
Year B: At an unknown time
Year C: Forewarned by signs

Advent 2: The Forerunner Prepares: Christ is coming
Year A: He is near—repent!
Year B: He is powerful—be baptized!
Year C: He is coming—prepare!

Advent 3: The Forerunner Explains: The Christ is here!
Year A: To his disciples
Year B: To the religious leaders
Year C: To the people

Advent 4: The Promised Virgin Birth of Christ
Year A: To Joseph
Year B: To Mary
Year C: The Magnificat

Seeing all eight weeks of the three-year cycle in a concise format helps the preacher to see the progression from one Sunday to the next and from one season to the next, setting in motion yet again the annual celebration of God’s grace to us in Christ.

This, of course, is only one example. Other seasons and emphases may also challenge the preacher (and worship planners) to find a clear progression of thought. Professor Emeritus Dan Deutschlander, author of the revised Planning Christian Worship Year B, offers this explanation for the Sundays after Pentecost. It serves well for anyone struggling to find the progression of thought in the lectionary selections at other times in the Church Year:

Each season begins with a general theme that more or less unites the readings for that season. Then each succeeding Sunday tries to develop that theme. During the Pentecost season, one will generally find that there is a major break in the train of thought after about seven or eight weeks, and a new theme will emerge; the new theme will still be built on what preceded and anticipate what is yet to come. It should be expected that some themes and some Sundays will work out better than others; what follows is just one man’s attempt to help unify the service in the context of the liturgical year and of the pericope series, as the inventors of pericope series intended. The themes presented are by no means the only ones possible; if the reader comes up with other and better ones, he should by all means use them.

Fixed value

It may, at first, seem counterproductive to this PTW series to mention the aforementioned challenges to lectionary preaching. They may cause a preacher to ignore, set aside, or devalue the lectionary itself. In recent feedback to the first issue of this volume of PTW, a brother in ministry stated that he doesn’t “trust the lectionary.” Others have stated that they feel almost handcuffed by their conscience to use the appointed readings.

This series is intended to encourage the preacher to fix a value on the selection and curation of biblical readings that has taken place over decades and centuries.

Certainly, this series is not intended to obligate the preacher to a slavish adherence to some other human’s selections of God’s Word for a given Sunday. Rather, this series is intended to encourage the preacher to fix a value on the selection and curation of biblical readings that has taken place over decades and centuries, the development of a series of biblical readings that proclaim what God has done for his people within the liturgical cycle of the life of Christ.

Planning Christian Worship can help the struggling:

If the preacher feels overwhelmed by the majesty of the text and all that it has to offer, if he is perplexed about where to begin, at sea over which of the number of points he wants to try to make from God’s Word, he may find what follows of some use. If the preacher worries that he is saying the same thing every Sunday, what follows may be helpful as he tries to make each Sunday God’s unique visit with us that it should be. If the preacher is anxious that he not miss presenting a particular doctrine or that he not overwork another doctrine at the expense of the rest of the corpus doctrinae, then too what follows may serve a purpose; for every effort has been made, as aforesaid, to present all of the body doctrine in its proper sequence during the course of the year.

“If the preacher worries that he is saying the same thing every Sunday…”

Even then, a preacher may feel that the lectionary is not serving the specific needs of his congregation. But before moving away from the lectionary to serve the preacher’s ideas, consider recrafting what has already been developed. Take the time to see how the Sunday themes progress rather than assuming they do not. Set aside the lectio continua readings for a season or a series of weeks and choose a reading for each Sunday which supports, enhances, or more closely fits the theme and Gospel of the day.3 Replace an unclear or challenging reading with a selection that more clearly conveys an identical or similar point. These are easy fixes to some of the aforementioned challenges and will greatly enrich the value of the lectionary selections for the preacher and his listeners.

Other approaches will require more crafting. For example, if an emphasis seems to be missing, select a fitting key passage. More often than not, that passage will be part of or in the same book as a lectio continua selection during one of the lectionary cycles. Then craft a series which includes the key passage and the desired emphasis within the lectio continua.4 In this way, specific emphases can be covered without stepping outside the lectionary.

Another approach to include a missing emphasis would be to select readings for a specific Sunday with a Proper frame of mind. In other words, be sure to craft the aspects of the Sunday in terms of the whole service, not just a single reading. Select a set of readings, a Prayer of the Day, and a Psalm of the Day that cohesively proclaim the emphasis. Carefully choose a Sunday that makes fitting connections to the season of the Church Year or to the Sundays before and after the special emphasis Sunday. Such efforts guard against a flavor-of-the-day approach chosen by the whimsy of the pastor while valuing the treasure of the Word found in the careful crafting of the lectionary.

There are many challenges to preaching the lectionary. It is but a tool used to pull treasured and crafted gold from the storehouse of the Holy Word. The lectionary may have its detractors, but in various forms has served God’s people for nearly two thousand years. In some ways, the lectionary is like a painting of a biblical subject by Michelangelo or Rembrandt. I may not agree with the artist’s perspective, theology, or representation, but his artistry and craftsmanship engender a deeper appreciation for the subject matter. More than rich characters and rich locations, this is the treasure of the divine Word displayed and enjoyed through the emphases of the liturgical Church Year.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch


Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following excerpt was published as a review of the 2008 Christian Worship Supplement lectionary.

We believe, teach, and confess that God’s Word is central to everything we do, including our worship. That has led us to critically evaluate how well we are proclaiming God’s Word in our worship. This led to most churches moving from the one year historic lectionary to the three year ILCW series. It led the committee that prepared Christian Worship to clarify and “clean up” the End Times portion of ILCW. With the publishing of a hymnal supplement, a critical evaluation of our proclamation of the Word was made once again. (For detailed information on the process used by the Rites Committee, see the May/June 2004 issue of Preach the Word.)

Their two main goals:

  • Emphasize a single theme with all three lessons, including the second lesson. Many of the ILCW second lessons were chosen to give an overview of certain Epistles over a period of weeks.
  • Replace some of the many lessons from the Old Testament prophets with familiar Bible stories. The prophet Isaiah is used over 50 times in the three year cycle. By comparison, there are less than 20 lessons from Genesis.

Some general observations about the new choices:

  • Some of the changes are minor. Epiphany 2, Isaiah 49:1-6, has been changed to Isaiah 49:1-7; Pentecost 8, Isaiah 55:10-11 has been changed to Isaiah 55:10-13. These generally provide a little more context or a little fuller reading to carry out the theme of the day.
  • Other changes are more significant. Advent 1, Isaiah 2:1-5 has been changed to Ge 6:9-22, 7:11-23; Epiphany 4, Micah 6:1-8, has been changed to Daniel 3:13-27.
  • Overall some very good work and good thought has been put into the supplemental lessons. They do a much better job of emphasizing a single theme for the Sunday. No matter which lesson is the basis for preaching, the emphasis for that Sunday will remain the same.

There are some concerns of which pastors should be aware:

  • Most of the new lessons are longer, sometimes considerably, than those they replace. Congregations with multiple services need to consider this in planning the overall time of their worship hour.
  • When preaching on these texts, many will be challenged because of the amount of study necessary. The time-taxed preacher may want to pick out the few most significant verses of the longer texts, exegize just those few verses, and use the rest as context.

I would encourage anyone to make use of these supplemental lessons. There may be a given Sunday when the Christian Worship lessons are preferable. I know that we will be using the supplemental lessons extensively to give our people a larger taste of the whole counsel of God. I am thrilled to see young children relate well to familiar stories. As a congregation with many people new to Scripture, I appreciate the added opportunity to make use of some of the familiar stories many of us learned in Sunday School.

Pastor David Clark – Volume 12, No.1


1 Of a similar, if not an ironically and mildly humorous, note are the occasions when a Gospel Reading ends with stern law. An extreme example would be the Gospel Reading for Last Judgment Year C – Luke 19:11-27. Verse 27 concludes, “…and kill them in front of me.” It is quickly followed with the acclamation, “This is the Gospel of our Lord.”

2 Available at: https://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/planning- christian-worship-revision/. Two additional citations from PCW are from this same source.

3 Or if you regularly use the hymnal’s lectionary, substitute just for a season the options in Christian Worship Supplement.

4 An example is available at https://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/ preach-the-word-volume-21/


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Preach the Word – The Blessings of Lectionary Preaching

Treasures Old and New

The Blessings of Lectionary Preaching

Where it all comes from, no one really knows for sure. Every time you think that there couldn’t possibly be more, more is revealed from the depths of the mythical storeroom. It really is the stuff of legend. All of it saved, stored, treasured, and later brought forth in thankful celebration and joyful affirmation.

I’m writing, of course, about my father-in-law’s collection of Greyhound Lines paraphernalia. (Okay, maybe you didn’t see that coming. But his family certainly has known this for many years.) His connection with Greyhound began in 1965 when he first started driving the Chicago to Milwaukee route by night and teaching in an elementary school classroom by day. He eventually drove full-time, rising within the company to become Director of Safety, training other drivers and setting a standard of safety excellence within the industry. One particularly fond memory is of meeting John Madden after training the drivers for his “Madden Cruiser.”

One can easily imagine the awards, recognitions, mementos, and corporate gear he accumulated over more than 30 years of service. Actually, one really can’t imagine it all. From that mythical storeroom have come watches, bus route posters, bus banks, belt buckles, note pads, hats, pens, photos, and so much more. Each item is connected to a memory, an experience, an accomplishment, or an insight. It doesn’t matter how many questions you ask, there are always new stories to be heard and treasured items to share.

As this article is being written, Pentecost 10A is quickly approaching. The Gospel appointed for the Sunday is from Matthew 13. Matthew recounts how Jesus not only instructed about the kingdom of God with parables and explained their meanings but also explained how this approach was fulfillment of prophecy, part of the Father’s divine plan. He then makes this statement, “Therefore, every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old” (Matthew 13:52).

To the disciples, who grew up in a generation of contradicting and confusing spiritual teachers, these words must have been a revelation. Indeed they were a divine revelation as Jesus himself taught “with authority” about the kingdom, revealing the heart and will of the Father. Through bold proclamation and ready parables Jesus made the connections from the Old Testament to the New, from Moses and the Prophets to fulfillment in the very presence of the people, from the kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Each and every Sunday, each and every preacher has the very same opportunity to bring forth “new treasures as well as old” from the immeasurable depths of the biblical storeroom. Each treasured item brought forth is connected to remembrance of what God has done for his people, the human experience of divine plans, the accomplishment of salvation, and insight into the work of the Spirit empowering the Body of Christ. This and more is all there to behold as His Story is told afresh and treasured items are brought forth in thankful celebration and joyful affirmation.

Frank Senn writes of this relationship between celebration and affirmation as previously proposed by philosopher Josef Pieper (Christian Liturgy, p.20). In essence, he proposes that by proclaiming the gospel, our new creation in Christ is affirmed. As our new creation is affirmed, the result is thankful celebration. In other words, as we bring forth “new treasures as well as old” from the storeroom of God’s Word, the result is Spirit-wrought affirmation and celebration. Peter brought forth treasure in Acts 2. Paul brought forth treasure in Acts 13. Jesus brought forth treasure in Matthew 13. (There are many more examples.) But Jesus also brought forth treasure beyond just the hillsides of Galilee and his journeys in Judea. He brought forth treasure (along with the apostles) within the framework of the synagogue worship rite (Luke 4).

In Volume 4, No. 4 of Preach the Word, James Tiefel makes the connection between Jesus’ preaching within the framework of the synagogue worship rite and the Lutheran preacher’s opportunity to preach within the framework of the Lutheran liturgy. (See Treasures from the Archive in this issue or the aforementioned volume for the entire article: worship.welsrc.net/archived-resources.) Luther Reed further explains the blessings of preaching which is closely connected to the appointed readings, themes, and seasons of the Church Year:

By building upon the thought of the lessons, the Sermon becomes the climax of the Office (Service) of the Word. By relating the Sermon and the Service of any one day to the cycle of the church’s year, completeness and strength are gained…. The liturgy with its varied and harmonious structure supports and strengthens the Sermon (The Lutheran Liturgy p.306-7).

The reason for this strength of relationship is found in the clear proclamation of the gospel in both Word and Sacrament within the liturgical context. The Ordinary summarizes and proclaims the life of Christ. The sacraments assure and celebrate the life of Christ “for you” and in you. The Propers bring out the details and give special focus to the life of Christ each Sunday throughout the Church Year. The development of this focus was no accident. It is intentionally by design.

As believers have gathered for worship, they have developed and adopted forms which mostly clearly proclaim the gospel. Consider the development of the lectionary. Acts tells us that first century believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). By the second century, Justin Martyr describes “Lord’s Day” (Sunday) readings from “the memoirs of the apostles or the prophets as long as time permits” (First Apology chapter 67). Soon, specific readings were selected for annual festival services like Christmas and Easter. Then, “octaves” (eight Sundays) were added to the festivals before, after, or on either side of the festival resulting in festival seasons. Last to develop were the readings assigned to the “time of the church” half of the Church Year. By the time of Gregory the Great (late sixth century), the Roman Ordo had been established. With only minor adjustments along the way, the Ordo became the basis for the “Historic Lectionary” which served the Western Church for centuries. It was amended by the Reformers and continues to find use in some churches today. In addition, a number of more recent lectionaries were developed including the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship’s three-year series. (This series has been adopted and enhanced by Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal and Christian Worship Supplement.) Luther Reed describes the value of the selected readings of the lectionary:

The mature judgement of the church has retained them because their use is a guarantee of sound and complete teaching of fundamental Christian truth. Altogether they constitute a solid block of fundamental material…[and] are a most important part of the common liturgical inheritance of the universal church, with a continuous history of nearly fifteen hundred years” (The Lutheran Liturgy p. 291).

The preacher, of course, is free to preach on whatever text he deems appropriate for God’s flock. He is not required to preach on John 1 for Christmas Day, First Corinthians during Epiphany, or the Gospel of Matthew on the Sundays of the year of our Lord 2017. Specific circumstances, needs, and emphases may bring the preacher to the treasure storeroom for the good of the local gathering without turning to the appointed texts for the following Sunday. But the difference between lectionary preaching and non-lectionary preaching would be like the difference between bringing raw gold from the treasure storeroom and bringing out sculpted works of art. Both have immeasurable value but the former requires shaping and honing to achieve beauty similar to the latter which has already been crafted into specific beauty for the occasion.

Certainly, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Preaching will certainly include all of these “uses” for God’s Word as the preacher summarizes, expounds, and applies the text. But “throughout history the Church has indicated that the primary objective of its primary gathering is to put the Gospel to use in Word and Sacrament as a natural outgrowth of Christian faith and life” (WELS School of Worship Enrichment). As the lectionary presents the gospel within the liturgical context, the preacher does well to use it on a regular basis as a way to bring forth the treasure of God’s Word in keeping with this primary worship objective.

With this volume of Preach the Word, we begin a look at preaching with the expressed purpose of bringing forth Treasures Old and New through lectionary preaching. Research leading up to this focus indicates that there was a desire to strengthen preaching from the lectionary within the liturgical context. Comments included references to how the Sunday’s fit together, how to better preach the Church Year, finding doctrinal connections in the lectionary, and developing thematic series for worship based on the lectionary readings. There is much to explore in the months ahead.

The lectionary presents the gospel within the liturgical context.

For now, consider that lectionary preaching is closely aligned with worship planning. In fact, the best place to start are the revised Planning Christian Worship resources available through the Commission on Worship’s website (worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/planning-christian-worship-revision). Read through the selected scriptures, especially the Gospel, and the summary paragraphs while keeping in mind the identified Theme of the Day. Often, the Prayer of the Day and the Hymn of the Day can also help tie the readings together.

But don’t pick a text yet.

Next, consider the readings and Theme of the Day in consideration of the season in the Church Year. How do these readings prepare, support, or enhance the overall message of the season? How do these readings build on the readings from the previous Sundays? How do they anticipate the readings for the Sundays to come? If the readings are part of a lectio continua, what obvious threads run through each selection? Is there opportunity for a series on this particular book? If the readings are from the gospel, how does this account fit into the synoptic gospels? What is the prophetic and fulfillment connection between the First Reading and the Gospel? Where is Jesus in his ministry? What opportunity is there to bring the listeners into the account? (Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah is of particular help with this.)

But don’t pick a text yet.

Next, consider the service itself. What ready connections are to be found between the readings and the Ordinary, between the readings and the prayers, between the readings and the hymn suggestions? (I admit that many times I have chosen a hymn on the “wrong” Sunday simply because I didn’t look ahead.)

But don’t pick a text yet.

Finally, consider factors beyond the liturgical resources in view of the liturgical resources. This is where local needs and challenges, special emphases and themes are taken into consideration. We have all been tempted at times to start here when an issue needs to be addressed. But as a preacher with now 20 years of preaching experience, I can’t tell you how many times the lectionary provided the exact Word of the Lord for the Lord’s people exactly when they needed to hear it. As you look first to the lectionary to provide what is needed, you will likely not need to look beyond it.

Now, pick a text and begin your text study process.

Within the process suggested above for choosing a text, there is plenty of room for more questions to be asked, more considerations to be made, and more resources to explore. These aspects and others will be covered, Lord willing, over the next year. As we do so, we will explore some creative ways to preach the lectionary while connecting to the “varied and harmonious” emphases of the liturgical year. In addition, supporting articles from past issues of Preach the Word will be summarized in a feature called Treasures from the Archive. It is my prayer that these efforts will enrich your lectionary preaching to the joyful affirmation and thankful celebration of God’s holy people. Preach the Word as you bring forth from its storeroom treasures old and new.

Written by Joel J. Gawrisch

Pastor Gawrisch served for 14 years at Christ Lutheran, North Saint Paul, MN before taking a call to New Life in Shoreview, MN. He serves on the Minnesota District Worship Committee, the Schools of Worship Enrichment team, the Rites Committee for the WELS Hymnal Project, and with the Commission on Congregational Counseling’s Self-Assessment and Adjustment Program.


Treasures from the Archive

With twenty years of archives to hand, there is a storeroom of treasure to behold in past issues. The following is a summary of a past article which supports the main article in this issue.

Jesus preached on mountainsides and from fishing boats more often than he did in public worship. But at times both he and his apostles preached in synagogues, and synagogue worship was carried out with a standard ritual. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus certainly wasn’t bound to observe the synagogue’s ritual. Nevertheless:

  • He respected the synagogue’s order.
  • He respected the synagogue’s ceremony.
  • He respected the synagogue’s customs.

There are no rules here, no New Testament ceremonial laws. There is an example here, however, of how the greatest preacher preached in the context of ritual.

The Ritual of Lutheranism

The order of service we use in public worship is not that of the Old Testament synagogue, but a version of the rite used in the Christian church since the second century. The early Church formed its worship rite to highlight what it knew Christians needed the most, Word and Sacrament.

The western rite, the order of worship we usually call the liturgy, consists of the Ordinary and the Proper, both of which serve the Word and the Sacrament. The Ordinary is a set of five song texts (one of the texts, the Creed, is spoken in our version of the liturgy) that repeat the central themes of salvation Sunday by Sunday. The Proper is a set of lessons, songs, and prayers that retell Jesus’ life and work on a year by year basis.

Preaching that Respects the Liturgy

How might 21st century Lutheran preachers imitate the respect Jesus had for the ritual of public worship in his day?

  • Preach on the basis of a text that respects the liturgy’s Proper. The lessons, prayers, and hymns chosen for the various Sundays of the church year intend to carry a theme. The preacher respects that theme by allowing it to come through in his sermon.
  • Allow the ceremony of the liturgy to remain intact. The liturgy anticipates that all three lessons will be read consecutively and that they will be adorned and highlighted by the Psalm, Verse, and Hymn of the Day.
  • The liturgy has two central foci, the Word and the Sacrament. Both the Ordinary and the Proper focus on those two means of grace. The architecture of Christian churches since the time of Constantine takes these same two highlights into consideration.*

Most WELS preachers…preach within the context of the Liturgy. What are the implications for this kind of preaching? How does the liturgical context affect the sermon’s style and form? How can we preach the Word and respect the liturgy at the same time? Jesus gives us some examples, and we are wise to apply his practice to our own.

James Tiefel, Volume 4, No. 4

*Since Reformation times baptisms are usually administered in church, giving public worship a third central focus.


 

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Preach the Word – Receiving the Preaching of Others…

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Receiving the Preaching of Others as Preaching for Me

“Those shoes don’t look right under an alb. Come on, man. Show a little care about your appearance.”

“You just read the Gospel before the hymn. Why are you reading it again? Hmm. I wonder how the guest preacher at my place is doing. And let me check my watch to see how long this guy is going to go.”

“Ooh, man, you missed an opportunity there. You should have said….”

“Really? That’s the illustration you used? That sounds like one of those canned ones from sermonillustrations.com.”

“You’re circling buddy. Bring it home. Just say ‘Amen.’”

Okay, preachers, how many of those thoughts have swirled through your mind as you were listening to one of your brothers preach? Whether it’s listening to a conference sermon or your associate, would you agree that it’s difficult to really listen to a sermon? Or more accurately, it’s difficult to pay attention to a sermon. Have you found it all too easy for those thoughts to take up way too much cranial time? And what is the upshot of any of those thoughts?

Throughout this series we’ve been talking about correctly handling the word of truth, preaching specific law and specific gospel, letting them see Jesus, and trumpeting the clarity of Scripture. In this article we’ll deal with something that needs to come first. First, we must be fed. Part of being ready to correctly handle the word of truth is first receiving the preaching of others as preaching for me. In other words, I need to get past professional observing and get to listening.1 Failing to listen means failing to be fed.

That’s the warning and encouragement Paul gave Timothy. He told him to start with himself: “Watch your life and your doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”2

As for himself, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.… I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”3 So yes, this is important. I need to be fed. But how?

Satan is active. It reminds me of the advice Screwtape gave to his demon nephew Wormwood in C.S. Lewis’ classic.

Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.

When he gets to his pew and looks round him, he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains … provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes….4

Of course, Screwtape was talking about new believers instead of preachers. I’m astounded at how effective the same tactics are on me. I’m also condemned by that. How could I fall for that?

I know the answer to that question. It’s pride. We think we know better. To the younger preacher, the older guys seem so out of touch. To the older preacher, the young guys just don’t seem to learn the craft as well. And if Wormwood can get us thinking about either, we’re missing the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. More precisely, I’m missing the power of God for the salvation of ME!

Let’s learn from Paul here. If anyone had reason to get full of himself, it was Paul. The effects of his preaching were unprecedented: demons driven out, illnesses healed, churches planted, missionaries sent, Gentiles turning to Jesus! But Paul knew the reality. He knew what he needed to hear. He wrote to young Timothy:

“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy.”5 Paul remembered he didn’t deserve his privilege to preach. And he knew he needed to remind himself of that often. He went on: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.”6

So, how do I listen to preaching and take it to heart…for me? It starts with repentance. “Lord Jesus, remove my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. Forgive my pride and overwhelm me by your grace that I may hear the proclamation of the preacher as your good news to my heart. No matter how it is presented, or what distractions around me present themselves, let me hear your Word.”7

Forgive my pride and overwhelm me by your grace.

There! Pride squelched. Sins forgiven. Ears open. That should send Wormwood packing, right?

Well, not so fast. That devil has more weapons in his arsenal than pride. Preachers, any of these sound familiar?

“Man, this preacher is talented. Where does he come up with these fantastic illustrations?”

“I wish I would have as much time as he obviously has to perfect my sermons.”

“If only my mind would memorize as well as his.”

“Man, look at these people in his congregation. They all seem so normal. If only my people were more…”

You see what’s happening here too, don’t you? He’s just moved on to the second of the Seven Deadly Sins—Envy. He’ll keep going through the list if we let him. Of course, the answer to this is the same: repentance.

So now, as repentant, redeemed children of God who know how important it is to listen to the Word, how can we grow in this? How can we drown that old Adam so that next time Wormwood’s attacks fall on deaf ears? How can we build up the new man to run in such a way as to get the prize?

How can we drown that old Adam so that next time Wormwood’s attacks fall on deaf ears?

The answer is the other side of the same coin. It is seeing the forgiveness that Jesus has won. It is seeing the grace of God that forgives and gives. Paul called it grace that was given to him to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.8 It’s realizing how true that is. My privilege to preach is nothing but grace. God is doing the work. Jesus sent his disciples out in Matthew 10 telling them not to worry, because “It will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”9 Paul wrote, “This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit.”10

Brothers, remember this truth. Then, make it a point, the next time you have an opportunity to listen to a sermon, to pray. Pray that God curb your pride and envy. Pray that he bless the preacher. Pray that he let you…listen.

Thanks guys, for the opportunity to write this past volume of Preach the Word. I hope you got out of it at least a fraction of what I gained from doing it. May God continue to bless your handling the Word of Truth.

In Christ,
Jon

Written by Jonathan Scharf


I asked my circuit brothers their best advice on how to get from a professional to personal listening to other preachers. Here’s what they said:

“It’s like the Nike ad. Just do it.”

“Listen a lot to one preacher. You get over it.”

“Sure we listen to sermons at conferences, but why not a more regular habit of it? Listen to a preacher for a burst of time and then move on to another preacher; it’s amazing the stuff I can learn.”

“Close your eyes.”11

“Listen to seminary chapel every day.”

“Take notes. Write down the law and Gospel that you are hearing.”

“Practice ahead of time. Listen and read a bunch of them online. Make that part of your habit.”

“Pray.”

“It’s probably the same advice I give to those who would say our service is boring: Get into the Word daily. The more you are in the Word, the more you will know the Word, the more you get out of the Word, the more you’ll get out of the service. That same thing applies to hearing the sermon.”


Walther’s Law and Gospel

Throughout this series, I’ve included quotations from CFW Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel to highlight the thoughts of the article. This issue, I’m quoting part of the last paragraph of the book. The professor speaks to the hearts of his students as they prepare to go and be pastors. Notice where he starts, in the heart of the preacher.

“Whoever, now, receives Him and believes in Him, that is, whoever takes comfort in the fact that for the sake of His Son, God will be merciful to him, will forgive his sins, and grant him eternal salvation, etc., – whoever is engaged in this preaching of the pure Gospel and thus directs men to Christ, the only Mediator between God and men, he, as a preacher, is doing the will of God. That is the genuine fruit by which no one is deceived or duped.”


Preach the Clear Word—an example:

With each issue I am including a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that I hope demonstrates some of what we’re talking about. Since this issue is all about you receiving preaching as preaching for you, I’m giving you a challenge. Just read this and take it to heart. Don’t analyze or tear apart or think of how you might use it. Let yourself come back and do that later if you want to. But right now, pray for strength and then…listen.

This is a section from a sermon on 1 Kings 3:5-12 for Christian Education Sunday, which fell on Pentecost 10A. The theme of the sermon is “What do you want?” We pick up after going down a list of things God expects of us. The full text of the sermon is available at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20/.

If we’re honest, we’re right there with Solomon, “I’m not fit for the task”. Verse 7, “I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties.” “I don’t know how to do what you’re asking me, Lord. I need your help.”

Actually, more accurately, he answered, “Lord, I need you.” Do you see how that changes it? Instead of focusing on what we want, the question is changed to who we want.

I mean, everyone knows Solomon asked for wisdom, right? Well, kind of. But really, the Hebrew word for wisdom isn’t there. What he asked for was, real literally, a heart that hears. As he was speaking with God he asked for a heart that hears God. Now, he wanted a heart that hears in order to govern God’s people with wisdom and distinguish between right and wrong—that’s why he wanted it—but what he asked for was a heart that hears God.

Think of how powerful that is. Instead of a what, he asked for a whom. Instead of riches he asked for relationship. Now, before, I said that Solomon asked for the equivalent of more wishes. Do you see what I mean? He asked that he’d be able to hear God—that he would keep listening, and in so doing, he’d have God’s power and God’s presence. And God was pleased with that request. So he told Solomon what that would result in. With God, he would have all the other things that could be considered good—riches, fame, wisdom, power, money, money, and more money. That’s if you consider an annual income of more than 25 tons of gold riches. Solomon didn’t ask for a what, he asked for a whom. He asked to be able to hear God.

So—now back to you and me. What does that mean?

What are we asking for? God has given us the open offer of prayer. What do we ask for? Tell me, do you fall into the same trap I too often do? Is your answer to what you want so self-serving that it ignores the giver for the gift? “I want happiness Lord, I want health.” Maybe even, “I want you to bless someone else.” Yes, those are great things, but if we’re looking at God as a vending machine, we’re missing the real blessing. And then, if we don’t get what we ask for—it seems like God failed. It seems pointless to ask, and faith is shaken, and our prayer did more harm to us than good. Instead of asking God to hear us with our list of demands, let’s ask for a heart that hears God. Let’s ask Him for a relationship with Him.

And then, before we hear anything else, we’ll hear his love. Instead of living like all the other voices matter more, we’ll hear his forgiveness and realize what he means to us. Because he is pleased to give that gift—a hearing heart, a heart that pays attention to God’s Word, trained by God’s voice, governed by God’s will—so that we can carry out our duties. Let’s ask for God with us.

And let’s live that answer. Let’s let our hearts hear. Is it starting to make sense why this is the text for Christian Education Sunday?


1 President Wendland made a good point in his essay, Speaking and Listening in Love: “We pastors are talkers. We are preachers, proclaimers, heralds of the good news of Jesus Christ. Through careful training and by long experience we have learned how to analyze and communicate” (Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 112.4, page 245). He went on to make the point that we don’t always do the best at listening.

2 1 Timothy 4

3 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

4 Screwtape Letters. C.S. Lewis, pages 3-4 – a collection of fictional letters from an experienced demon to his younger nephew, Wormwood. The “patient” is the person on whom the demon is working.

5 1 Timothy 1:13

6 1 Timothy 1:15-17

7 I’m reminded of the prayer before the sermon at the national conference worship in Uruk Uso, Nigeria. The preacher came out and led the people in prayer in which they were instructed to yell out, “Go away sleepiness!” and several other encouragements for watchfulness and attention. It was a great reminder for everyone of the importance of what was about to happen (the sermon).

8 Ephesians 3:18

9 Matthew 10:20

10 1 Corinthians 2:13

11 Although some might argue this is testing God after hearing the prayer of the Nigerian preacher.

 

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Preach the Word – Preach the Clear Word

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Preach the Clear Word

I was in the largest ballroom I had ever seen. It was in the hotel where a few years earlier, my kids and I had snuck in just to ride the glass elevator to the top floor and look down on that huge inner atrium. But this time the place was full. Literally thousands of scholars packed the ballroom.

Then the keynote speaker began. The man spoke as if he were putting his life on the line. At the very least he was risking his scholarly reputation. He was speaking as the big opening presentation for the plenary session of the AAR/SBL1 annual meeting held in Atlanta a little over a year ago. It was the IBR2 Annual Lecture. He was addressing thousands of people who made their livelihood studying and teaching and writing about the Bible, thousands of people who bought his books.

Here is what was so dangerous. I know I’m over-simplifying it, but it seemed to me that he was proposing that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to consider the possibility that perhaps the LORD had something to do with the origin of the Old Testament. Now, he didn’t go so far as to say anything about verbal inspiration, but he said it’s time to think about at least some influence. Maybe there is some semblance of unity. His point was that with all of the methods of criticism postmodernism had suggested, perhaps Historical Criticism had gone too far in reaction. As he put it, “the postmodern tsunami has so destabilized biblical studies that Historical Criticism has hung around as the accepted standard,” to the end that YHWH had become one unknown to us.3 He walked through Psalm 93 and showed that, at the very least, the writer or writers of the Psalm thought that God had something to do with it.

I was sitting in the audience thinking: “I can’t believe he thinks that needs to be proven. Isn’t that what it says? How on earth could you think anything else when reading it?” During most of his presentation I was saying in my head, “Duh!” And he wasn’t going nearly far enough. But then came the questions from the floor, accusing him of basically denying the research that has already been so clearly proven. And I wondered, what’s the point of studying Scripture if you really think it has no authority except for the parts to which you choose to give authority?4 The confusion and angst caused by such raping of the text leaves victims. What confidence can someone have of God’s promises if you could never be sure which ones he really spoke, if any?

So, as we continue our effort “to correctly handle the word of truth,” this issue we’ll want to avoid causing that damage. We’ll want to be clear about what that Word of Truth is. In other words, we’ll look at the clarity of Scripture. And I may just get up on my soapbox about the word “interpretation.”

As you might guess, this was a key theme discovered in my interview with the seekers you’ve heard from in previous issues. These believers who found Lutheran teaching as an answer to prayer were asked what they saw as different. The first answer summed it up pretty well: “It’s wonderful to finally just be coming at it from the basis that the Bible is true.” They spoke about things they had heard and accepted previously just because their pastors had spoken them. Some, they admit, should have been obvious, like: “Just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean it is true.” But then there were others that didn’t seem quite as brash until you see what was done with them:

  • “For the sake of time, let me tell you what I believe this says.”
  • “Let me tell you what this says. You might not see it.”
  • And then sometimes it was just the little things, like getting used to hearing “The Church of God teaches…” vs. “The Bible teaches…”.

“It’s wonderful to finally just be coming at it from the basis that the Bible is true.”

They all agreed about the refreshing shock they received in Bible Information Class. At the start of our first lesson, we go through the goals and expectations of the class. The primary goal is to learn in each class what the Bible teaches about each topic. While different people have different views about Scripture, I tell them that we believe the Bible is God’s Word completely, and so our goal is to see what the Bible teaches. Whether you believe it is true or not, that’s between you and the Holy Spirit working in your heart.

Then for the rest of the classes, I keep trying to answer questions with “This is what the Bible says,” and they get used to that. I’m not saying that that’s the only way to present something, but if I could encourage one thing when it comes to how we speak and teach, it would be that. Don’t hide behind WELS. I know it is meant well, but when I hear someone describe the WELS teaching on something, I cringe. I hear over and over in my head the conversation with my seekers about how dangerous that is. Why not just call it the “biblical teaching”? Yes, WELS teaches close communion, but it is because of what God’s Word says, not because President Schroeder said so.

I keep trying to answer questions with “This is what the Bible says.”

Yes, I appreciate all the wonderful blessings God has given our synod in preachers and teachers committed to mining the depths of Scripture and formulating truths built firmly on its truth. I’m not ashamed of WELS. Yet, I have learned how people hear that and have seen the confusion when someone takes confidence in a teaching because it comes from WELS instead of from the Bible. At that point it makes it easy to just brush differing teachings off as a matter of interpretation.5

Just to drive home the point that the Word is clear, I do the same thing each time in that first lesson of Bible Information Class. I make sure to go fishing until someone bites and asks a question questioning Scripture. It usually happens when we are learning who God is and I have them read Exodus 34:6-7.6 “Wait a second. Is that right? Does that mean he punishes the kids who did nothing wrong?” Or, “But that doesn’t sound fair, punishing children for sins of fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

Then we get a lesson in “interpreting” Scripture. We let God answer the question and turn to Deuteronomy 5 where God restates it and adds “of those who hate me” on the end.7 Then I tell them the people of Israel had that same question, and we turn to Ezekiel 18. There they hear God so clearly explain that each individual is responsible in their own personal relationship with God—“the soul that sins is the one that will die.” Sure we get a chance to talk about the responsibility of parents to pass on good things (truth of God’s Word). We talk about the dangers of what our bad examples do to our kids. But the biggest lesson they are taught is that God’s Word is clear even if we don’t see it at first blush.

God’s Word is clear even if we don’t see it at first blush.

We don’t have to argue about how different denominations interpret things or resolve to “agree to disagree.” We can go instead ad fontes—to the source, to Scripture—and look for the answers there. I love how Martin Luther presents it so clearly in his comments on Psalm 37.

We can go instead ad fontes and look for the answers there.

“There is not a plainer book on earth than the Holy Scriptures. It is, in comparison with all other books, what the sun is compared with all other luminaries. The papists are giving us their twaddle about the Scriptures for the sole purpose of leading us away from the Scriptures and raising up themselves as masters over us in order to force us to believe their preaching of dreams. It is an abomination, a disgraceful defamation of Holy Writ and the entire Christian Church, to say that the Holy Scriptures are obscure, that they are not clear enough to be understood by everybody and to enable everybody to teach and prove what he believes.”8

So simple. And to think the church had almost forgotten. The Word is clear. Preach it! As we celebrate Reformation 500 this year, praise God that he gave us Martin Luther and all the rest. Praise God that he reminded us to correctly handle the word of truth by preaching the clear Word.

Until next time,
Jon

Written by Jonathan Scharf


Walther’s Law and Gospel

In his classic Law and Gospel, CFW Walther brings home the importance of the confidence we can have in Scripture. This is how he opens his eighth evening lecture:

“If the Holy Scriptures were really so obscure a book that the meaning of all those passages which form the basis of articles of the Christian Creed could not be definitely ascertained, and if, as a result of this, we should have to acknowledge that without some other authority it would be impossible to decide which of two or several interpretations of Scripture-passages is the only correct one, if these conditions, I say, were true, the Scriptures could not be the Word of God. How could a book that leaves us groping in darkness and uncertainty regarding its essential contents serve as a revelation?”


Preach the Clear Word—an example:

With each issue I am including a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that I hope demonstrates some of what we’re talking about. As we look forward to the commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession on June 25th, we have opportunity to celebrate the clarity of God’s Word. This is from a sermon on Isaiah 55:10-11, a portion of the First Lesson appointed for that occasion. The theme—if you want to call it that—is, “What Good Are Words?” Part I is “Consider the Source.” Here is the first part of Part II: “Consider the Substance.” The full text of the sermon can be found at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20/.

Consider the Source. And Consider the Substance. Think about what he says. In our text he says his Word accomplishes his desires (and you know that his desire is that all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth) and achieves his purposes. And what is the purpose of his Word? What is this Word all about? John gives the answer in his first letter – 1 John 5:12-13 12He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

What is the substance? Eternal life. Everything in here—from the account of Adam and Eve to John’s Revelation—from the history of Israel to the letters to the churches. Every last syllable of this Word is written that you may know that you have eternal life. This is here to give you confidence, which is important because our enemies want anything but that. The devil, the world and our sinful flesh repeat their lies again and again hoping that you’ll forget the source and listen to them. But God’s Word keeps going out—and it comes back bearing fruit.

When you can’t put out of your mind the hurtful words you spoke in anger, the LORD says that he has long ago put them out of his. When you look at yourself and see the filth and failure, the LORD tells you that he sees you as a beautiful bride, free from spot and blame. When your guilt follows close by your side wherever you go, the LORD has put it in black and white that he has removed that sin as far as the east is from the west.

When you realize the debt your failures owe—you open up His Word and hear him declare it paid. “It is finished.” “The blood of Jesus his Son purifies us from all sin.” Sins paid for. That’s what God’s Word says. So when you consider the source and you come here with all your baggage, you hear God’s voice—“I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the baggage is gone.

And then you step forward and your Savior says, “Take and eat… Take and drink. This is my blood of the new covenant, given to you for the forgiveness of sins.” And as powerfully as God’s Word brought light into being, he brings light and love and hope and confidence into your heart.

What good are words? When they are God’s, when you realize the source and hear the substance—they do not return to him empty but accomplish what he desires and achieve the purpose for which he sent it.


1 American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature – The AAR is the world’s largest association of scholars in the field of religious studies, with over 10,000 members. The SBL boasts 8500 from 80 countries. Each year they host an annual meeting with over 400 meetings/events/presentations for over 10,000 participants. In November of 2015, it was hosted in Atlanta and a member gave me admission to it as my birthday present, knowing I was, as he put it, “a language nerd.”

2 Institute for Biblical Research

3 This was his closing slide: “In too much OT study YHWH comes to us as one unknown. Epistemologically, if I am right, this is the wrong way round. We come to him as ones unknown, crawling back from the far country, where we had wasted our substance on riotous but ruinous historicism. But the swinehusks—the ‘assured results of modern criticism’—reminded us of that knowledge which arrogance had all but obliterated, and we began the journey home. But when we approach, as we propose to do in this paper, we will find him running to us as one clothed in the garments of the ANE and yet as one well known, whom we had spurned in the name of scholarship or even of faith, but who was still patiently waiting to be sought and found once more. And the ring on our finger and the shoes on our feet assure us that, in celebrating his kingdom and feasting at his table, we shall discover again and again not only who he is but [also] who we ourselves are: as unknown and yet well known, as dying and behold we live.” https://prezi.com/j0xj8iw_i4n2/old-testament-origins-and-the-question-of-god

4 To be fair, there were also Bible-believing scholars in the room. I appreciated one gentlemen on a panel discussing CS Lewis in one of the workshops answering another panelist who wanted to distinguish that the Bible wasn’t the Word of God but tells us about the Word, who is Jesus. Very succinctly he said, “Jesus said it is the Word of God. If that’s wrong, he is either a lunatic or a liar. And he’s not, so you are wrong.”

5 That’s when I get on my soapbox talking about how often that word gets used to excuse people saying whatever they want to say regardless of what God’s Word says. You’re lucky I have a limited word count.

6 Exodus 34:6-7 – “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation” (NIV 1984).

7 Deuteronomy 5:10 – “I the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” (NIV 1984).

8 Page 59, CFW Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, CPH, 1986.

 

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Preach the Word – Preach text-specific and hearer-specific gospel

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Preach Text-Specific and Hearer-Specific
Specific Gospel

“He is properly prepared who believes these words: ‘Given’ and ‘Poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But whoever does not believe these words or doubts them is not prepared, because the words ‘for you’ require nothing but hearts that believe.”1 I’m sure you recognize this excerpt. In describing the miraculous gift of Holy Communion, Luther zeroes in on the heart of what is so spectacular in the Sacrament: “For you.” For me.

“God so loved the world…” is only valuable to me because I am included in that “world.” “Christ is risen!” is only a celebration for me because that same Christ promised me, “Because I live, you also will live.”2 Jesus being seated at the Father’s right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age, but also in the one to come, with all things under his feet, is only wonderful because this all happened “for the church,” of which I am a part.3

To correctly handle the word of truth, we must preach text-specific AND hearer-specific specific gospel. In other words, we strive to mine from the text the clear good news of salvation and present it to our people where they’re at after hearing specific law preaching.4 It’s more than the “Jesus drop”5 shortcut that is so tempting after you’ve stung your hearers with specific law. It’s the comfort this text and this context gives. It’s the gospel. It’s God’s love in this situation. When the preacher of that gospel knows his people, his goal is to get them to understand that this grace is “for you.” He wants to drive them to want to hear it again and read their Bible more.

But how? I love how one of my brother pastors described his definition of a good preacher: “He’s been eating it up so his breath smells like the Bible.” So to preach text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel, you first have to know both—the text and your hearers. The text includes not just the pericope at hand, but the whole of Scripture. You’ve heard it before for your personal walk with God—but the side effects of it are powerful in your preaching as well. Eat up Scripture so that your breath smells like the Bible.

“He’s been eating it up so his breath smells like the Bible.”

Consider Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. This section of Scripture is coming up as the first reading in Year A for Easter 2 and 3, so let’s take a walk through it. Let’s learn from a powerful preacher, preaching an effective sermon. I don’t call it effective because 3000 were baptized that day as a result of it. Peter’s sermon is effective because it clearly proclaims law and gospel. What numerical effect God chooses is up to him, thank God!

So, set the stage: Fifty days after the resurrection, ten days after the Ascension. The disciples have been on that roller coaster between fear and faith. Peter has mourned his failure and been so personally and preciously restored with Jesus’ “Feed my lambs.”6 Then their world and their city were rocked by the sound of the wind. Fire marked those who were speaking. The crowd was in turmoil, confused and trying to make sense of what was going on. That’s where the appointed lesson begins.

“Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd.”7 (Pause for a moment and consider the power of the gospel for Peter that he was even able to do this. If you haven’t read footnote 6 yet, do that now.) Peter’s next words aren’t included in the assigned pericope (although they do show up on Pentecost Sunday a few weeks later). Basically, Peter debunks the drunk disciples hypothesis and explains that the amazing thing they are seeing is actually a fulfillment of prophecy. Joel had said the Holy Spirit would be active like this until the end, the Day of the Lord’s Judgment. Peter then concludes his quotation of Joel: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Basically, we’ve now heard Peter’s introduction (catching the attention of the hearers and dispelling reasons not to listen) and his text. So what does he say now to these hearers whose attention he has?

22“Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” Peter draws in his hearers. They couldn’t help but agree that, yes, God did some special things through Jesus. Time and again in the Gospels that was made clear as “news about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.”8 As for Jerusalem, “The whole city was stirred”9 when they saw what he did. Peter’s preaching, inspired by the Spirit, is hearer-specific.

He goes on: 23“This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Not only did Peter put the hearers at the scene, he preached specific law. Even though you couldn’t help but admit that Jesus was something special from God, you put him to death. Peter pulls no punches in specific law for that particular group—the one in Jerusalem that had just committed this atrocity.

As the law is specific, it serves as foil to the good news. You killed him, but he didn’t stay dead: 24“God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” Since Jesus was who he was, death could not hold the Holy One. But notice, Peter doesn’t just let this float out there. He now starts working to get the hearers to understand the ramifications of this information and apply those ramifications to their lives. He starts by quoting their own source of authority, God’s Word. In fact, he uses David’s prophecy about the Holy One who would not see decay or be abandoned to the grave.10 Then he goes on.

29“Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.” So he shows them proof of this good news from the Word. Now he will start to show them how they are brought into the celebration of it.

32“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” There is no disputing this. If he wasn’t alive, they all know the body would have been produced. The Word had spread. You can imagine Peter making that sweeping gesture, “We are all witnesses of the fact.” He goes on celebrating the ascension in verses 33-35 and then concludes:

36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The text from Joel that Peter started with ended: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Now Peter ends by proving who this Lord is. And the people got it. It was Jesus who walked and worked among them. But they killed him. The law and gospel had both very specifically been preached. So they react:

37When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”

41Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

For three thousand people, the Holy Spirit worked through Peter’s words that struck home in their hearts, and there was faith. Of course, we aren’t speaking by inspiration of the Holy Spirit like Peter was. But we can certainly learn from how God used Peter and we can study and prepare to follow his lead in preaching text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel.

We can do that by asking ourselves and asking our texts some questions about what is specific to our texts. Your hearers know that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. Yet in his Word he finds thousands of ways to describe how astounding that love is, and how astounding it is “for me.” Try these on for size:

  • What is unique about the good news in this text? What words or phrases or pictures set it apart from other ways I’ve heard the gospel explained?
  • What is surprising about God’s reaction or action here? What factors make it surprising?
  • How have hymn-writers handled this text?11
  • If the message of the cross is foolishness to the world, what would the world hate about this aspect of Jesus and what he has done for me?
  • How is the gospel offensive in this text? In other words, in talking about this at a Christmas party with my wife’s co-worker, what might I be tempted to soften and “make sense of” so that they don’t think we’re weird?12

“In his Word he finds thousands of ways to describe how astounding that love is, and how astounding it is “for me.”

Christ has died! Christ is Risen! Christ will come again!13 For you. May God bless your preparation and your preaching of text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel.

Written by Jonathan Scharf


Walther’s Thesis IX

I’ve found for my hearers in the Bible Belt that Walther’s Thesis IX with comments have helped me preach hearer-specific specific gospel for those whose religious upbringing has been obedience driven and who have been taught that the power of their prayers is in the power of their praying.

Thesis IX—“In the fifth place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when sinners who have been struck down and terrified by the Law are directed, not to the Word and the Sacraments, but to their own prayers and wrestlings with God in order that they may win their way into a state of grace; in other words, when they are told to keep on praying and struggling until they feel that God has received them into grace.” Pg. 127

“In the first place, the sects neither believe nor teach a real and complete reconciliation of man with God because they regard our heavenly Father as being a God very hard to deal with, whose heart must be softened by passionate cries and bitter tears. That amounts to a denial of Jesus Christ, who has long ago turned the heart of God to men by reconciling the entire world with Him. God does nothing by halves. In Christ He loves all sinners without exception. The sins of every sinner are canceled. Every debt has been liquidated. There is no longer anything that a poor sinner has to fear when he approaches his heavenly Father, with whom he has been reconciled by Christ.” Pg. 135


Text-specific and hearer-specific specific gospel—an example:

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look ahead to Easter 3A and a sermon on Peter’s Pentecost sermon. The theme of this sermon on Acts 2:14a, 32-41 is “Cut to the Heart!”14

In this Acts lesson, Peter does the same thing. He calls his hearers murderers—but then he answers the questions their hearts can’t help but ask: “What can we do?” And his answer isn’t something to do but what is done for them, to them. “Repent!” He says. “Change your heart.”

Isn’t that what God just did with the power of His word, changing them from those who thought they had it all going on to those begging for God’s answer? And then Peter says, “Be baptized”—again something that only has power because of what God has put into it. Look at how he describes what happens:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. That’s not something their work could get. That’s only a gift from the one who died to pay for that forgiveness and prayed that they might receive it. Did you ever think about that? Your baptism is God answering Jesus’ prayer from the cross—“Father, forgive them.” And Peter goes on:

And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. You receive the gift of faith—something that only comes through the Holy Spirit. So when they asked what they had to do—Peter just shows them what has been done. In fact, he calls it a promise. Look at verse 39: The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

As much as only God’s law can cut to our hearts through all of our defenses and excuses, notice how Peter makes clear that only the gospel, the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection can cut to the heart and heal.

Just like in a surgery, the surgeon has to cut in order to fix what is wrong, removing what is blocking or broken before they can replace what is needed. Praise God that he has given his Word and has given us the opportunity to hear his Word and take it to heart, that it might cut out all of our foolishness. He then replaces what has been cut out with the power and love of God, the forgiveness he won and paid for fully and freely, the position as his child he earned and gave to you in your baptism, the sweet, sweet healing balm of the gospel. Like the hymnwriter put it:

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

May God’s law always cut to the heart, so that we may always cherish the healing Gospel truth that Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Alleluia. Amen.


1Luther’s Small Catechism. I was reminded of the importance of this by a comment from my panel of former “seekers” who found great joy in properly divided law and gospel. Cindy spoke of the difference, saying, “Now, for me, it’s not always trying to figure it out, ‘What’s he doing with me?’ anymore. It’s just being confident that he is for me.”
2John 14:19
3Ephesians 4:20-23
4See PTW Vol. 20, No. 3.
5That generic mention of Jesus’ work without doing the work of wrestling with the text and finding the unique way that God’s love for sinners is evident.
6John 21 – Talk about specific gospel for me as a preacher when I consider all the times I haven’t perfectly preached specific gospel! Peter, in his self-focus and desire for power, had preached some bad sermons. In the High Priest’s courtyard his sermon was self-preservation. In the upper room, it was fear instead of victory. I have preached some bad sermons, so have you—in our preparation for them, in our attitude about them, in our failure to apply them to ourselves and live them. So what does Jesus do? He makes Peter a meal and then shows him how unconditional, how certain, how promising the gospel is. Making sure Peter knows how personally it is for him (“Do you love me?”) he preaches love and forgiveness and promise and purpose and power in giving him the command: “Preach!” Peter you are so forgiven that you will now be my washed and cleansed perfect representative. “Feed my lambs.” Sound familiar, shepherds? Restored by Jesus, and fed by Word and sacrament: “Preach the Word.” That’s how much he loves you.
7The appointed readings are: Acts 2:14a, 22-32 for Easter 2A and Acts 2:14a, 32-41 for Easter 3A.
8Mark 1:28
9Mathew 21:10
10Psalm 16:8-11 quoted in Acts 2:25-28.
11I’ve found so often that our hymn-writers have ways of phrasing things that so succinctly get to the heart of the good news in a text. I’ve been rewarded during my text studies, even just for my personal growth, by checking Mike Schultz’s index to scripture references in hymns, Christian Worship Manual, pages 939-971.
12Not that we ever would soften it, but when is it that the little voice in your head is shouting “Danger!”?
13An acclamation quoted in “This is the Threefold Truth” by Fred Pratt Green, CW 406.
14The full text of the sermon can be found at http://worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20/.

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Preach the Word – Preach specific law as law

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Preach Specific Law as Law

You are preachers. So let me ask you: What’s the worst reaction to a sermon you’ve experienced? Is it the councilman standing in the back where you can see the steam rising off his bald head as you approach afterward? Or maybe it was when he just left the building altogether? Or was it worse when you saw the woman breaking down in tears over on the side? Or when the prospect was offended by what you said? While I get it, none of those are fun—I’d throw another option into the mix…the yawn.

Jesus himself called the members of the church at Laodicea on the carpet for that one: “These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So because you are luke-warm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”1

I wish you were either one or the other. Can you relate? God’s Word produces a reaction. We know that. We can hum some choir piece that will instantly put the words of Isaiah 55 swirling in our heads. “As the snow falls from heaven…this is my Word.”2  We know his Word produces a reaction, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”3 So when you see the yawn, when you sense apathy, aaarrrrghhh.4 What did I do to prevent the Word from being heard? Why aren’t you people listening to me?!

That’s a good question. In our most recent circuit meeting, we had a roundtable discussion on a couple of the topics I’ll be tackling in this volume of PTW. I asked the men gathered around the table what sermons have been most powerful for them as listeners, the most impactful. Then I asked them why. What made them connect to you?

Across the board, the first thing they all mentioned was what I had come up with as my own answer for the question: Specific law. I’ll let their words speak:

  • “The more stinging the law, the more specific, the more my attention is focused. In fact, if the law isn’t specific, sadly, you probably don’t have my attention.”
  • “When the preacher finds the way to cut through the idea that ‘that’s for those people, not me.’”
  • “When there is a clear malady I can relate to.”
  • “If I don’t hear that specific law that pushes me into the corner and tells me this is what you’ve done—I feel that they haven’t put the time in …to preach my soul into the depths of hell so you could bring me up again. You didn’t put the time in to let Jesus shine in this sermon. That’s why I came to be fed.”

The more stinging the law, the more specific, the more my attention is focused.

And then they came right back around to talking about how we have to hold ourselves to that same standard too. The old question was revisited: “What’s the difference between a good sermon and a great sermon?” The answer: “About 5 hours.”

I think we can all agree with the goal we talked about in the last issue of this newsletter. Our goal in every sermon is “That they would see Jesus.”5  And as Lutherans, I think we can also agree with the truth that this happens when we first realize our need for him. Helping people see Jesus happens when we come to grips with our own need to see him. As God so often demonstrates in his Word, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”6 “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.”7 We’re talking about the God who, as Mary said, “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”8

Walther hit that with his sixth thesis: “In the second place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the Law is not preached in its full sternness and the Gospel not in its full sweetness.”9 Your goal is to let them see Jesus, and that happens when the law does its work first, not a general statement that “sin is bad,” but the reality of what it does.

The law is not gospel. It is not a solution, something that makes your life better if you just do it right. The damage of that kind of preaching came to life for me in my discussion with my panel of former seekers that I introduced in the last issue. I’ll let them make this point:

  • “I now understand why we are to be ‘convicted of our sins,’ not as reason to get me to do something like come to the altar call, where I’d find no relief.”
  • “I was afraid of hell. I was afraid of God, so I would do what they told me to do. Even communion was used as a weapon, ‘You’d better be good so you don’t eat and drink damnation.’”
  • “I have never felt pressured to perform here, but most of my life I had felt pressured. Looking back, it felt a little like a time-share presentation, like they were trying to pressure me into doing something. I remember one sermon on the cost benefit analysis of tithing. And I listened to that and thanked the preacher for it! But here the emphasis isn’t on what you need to do today as much as just teaching how to apply the Word and live it daily.”
  • “I don’t look at the law anymore and wait for God to pat me on the back or the preacher to point out what good I did, or someone else did. That’s not what it is for.”

The job we have is not to brush over the law with soft broad strokes but to pierce the heart.

No, the law is preparatory. And that doesn’t soften it. You know that. By God’s grace you’ve experienced that. The gospel is the sweetest and predominates when I’ve first been stung by the law, stung deeply and specifically. The job we have is not to brush over the law with soft broad strokes but to pierce the heart. Sometimes I find that hard to do. It’s not that there’s a text that doesn’t point out my failures or my inherent weakness and ineptitude. I haven’t found that yet. It’s hard to do when I start to fear that my hearers may take it too personally, when I fear some of the reactions I mentioned in the first paragraph.

I remember early on in my ministry writing and re-writing a specific law paragraph in a sermon because it hit too close to home. It was one of those texts that so directly addressed something going on in the congregation. And I didn’t want to make people mad. I didn’t want them to think I had gone and found that text just because I wanted to yell at them about this. But then I realized: this is God’s Word, and his law is specific. I just had to realize that God’s Word would work like he promised. That kind of specific law either produces anger or tears or both.

Permit a few more insights from my panel of seekers discussing the joy of hearing law and gospel properly divided (or at least hearing someone trying for it). You’ll notice they started talking about the liturgy as well as the preaching, another place they had come to appreciate the clear proclamation of law and its gospel answer so consistently:

  • “I’m so grateful that I can sit in church and admit that I am a sinner. It’s so different from what I used to do, pretending holiness—constantly afraid that someone would see through the front I was putting on.”
  • “A good service is not works, but worship.”
  • “Even without raising hands (this is from a former Pentecostal) God is there, in the emphasis of the service, in his Word. God is there.”
  • And then my favorite: “Like you always say, it’s ‘because he loves us’. God’s not waiting to smack you upside the head. He stings us with his law because he loves us.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? But how do we get there? I can’t pretend that I’ve got all the answers for that. The comments my panel made about the preaching here probably make it sound better than it is. Please understand, it just makes clear how bad their previous experiences were that my attempts at properly dividing law and gospel were so astounding in comparison. But in an effort to help us all together strive for clear law preaching to prepare hearts for the gospel, consider a checklist. This is based on one that Pastor Daron Lindemann shared with me that he uses as he prepares his sermons.10 The goal is to ensure that our sermons preach law messages that are specific, not generic, explicit, not vague. This was developed due to the realization that it is too easy to slip to the latter, even for us WELS preachers.

  • Explicit law and gospel are first and foremost textual. They are not clichés and platitudes. They seek to proclaim the beautiful, scriptural, true commands or promises that are first and foremost found in the text and supported grammatically.
  • Explicit law and gospel reflect not just the grammar, but the color, flavor, and tone of the text. Inspirational? Hard-hitting? Narrative? Meditational? Go there.
  • Explicit law doesn’t make generalizations (“we all do this”) or ask questions like “Have you cheated on your taxes?” which statistically allow some people to say that they have not sinned in this way and thus promotes Pharisaism. Explicit law is not afraid to use the second person instead of the first person when preaching the law.
  • Explicit law does not let anyone escape because it funnels to the first commandment and the heart.
  • Explicit law uses the third use of the law in its applications and is careful, again, to remain faithful to the text.
  • Explicit law doesn’t feel the need to preach the entire story of the fall and all its consequences in every sermon. It dives deep and enters the narrow rather than wading in the familiar, safe shallows. We have an entire church year and lectionary. Let’s use each Sunday for what it’s worth.
  • Explicit law is not merely saying “you’re going to hell for doing that.” Hell is not the primary punishment for sin. The punishment for sin is a broken relationship with God, which is manifested eternally in hell.
  • Explicit law and gospel often, but not always, cause a listener to say, “I felt like you were talking to me.”
  • Explicit law and gospel often, but not always, develop a sermon theme or at least main points where a listener can look at the theme or main points and say, “Based on that, I think _______ is the sermon text.” And they’d be right.
  • Explicit law and gospel are specific and focused, rather than general and broad. They would find it difficult to be used in another sermon.
  • Explicit law is not afraid to use the third use of the law and doesn’t overreact to the Evangelicals. It gives the Christian a hook from the text for living the gospel.

Using this checklist may not guarantee you that you never see the yawn. But it is my prayer that they encourage you to preach the stinging law that God’s Word presents, that you might see yourselves as “wretched, poor, blind and naked,” so that you may buy from him “gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.” Then, to him who overcomes he gives the right to sit with him on his throne just as he overcame and sat down with the Father on his throne.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”11

Written by Jonathan Scharf


Walther’s Law & Gospel

“However, let the Law once force its way into a person’s heart, and that heart will strain with all its force against God. The person will become furious at God for asking such impossible things of him” (14).

Four Branches

As you constantly hone your preaching craft, take advantage of the new resource put out by the Seminary’s “Grow in Grace.” Beginning September, 2016, the “Four Branches” monthly newsletter has been emailed to all pastors in our ministerium. Each issue features articles on Biblical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical Theology. You can access the previous issues and articles at wls.wels.net/grow-in-grace/the-four-branches-review.

Law as law—an example:

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look ahead to Ash Wednesday, a day when specific and explicit law should not be hard to preach. This is a sermon on Genesis 3:1912 with the theme: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. In this section of the sermon, the law focuses more on the condition and result of sin than the activity of it.

God had said to the serpent, “You will crawl on your belly and eat dust all the days of your life,” and then he tells Adam— “You, man, are dust” and humanity has been running from him who holds the power of death ever since, as he slithers along ready to consume us. And we just are not fast enough.

Adam knew this death, the death of his perfect trust in God, comfort with God, the death of his perfect relationship with his wife. He would hold death in his arms as his son died at the hand of his brother. Driven from the garden, he would no longer be able to eat from the tree of life and live forever.

And we are right there too, aren’t we? We recall what sin has done to our lives, where the thorns and thistles bring sweat to our brows, where chaos and confusion reign in our world, where our bodies slowly die through sickness and disease, aging and pain. Sin has driven us from relationships and good habits, driven us to drink or to lie or to look for value or pleasure in the wrong places. Sin has driven us from loving, trusting connections, and not just with others, but with our eternal God. Sin has driven us from the tree of life in the middle of that Garden. Driven from the Garden, but like Adam, not driven to despair.

How do I know? Look at the very next verse of Genesis 3. Right after God told Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you will return,” Moses records what happened next. Verse 20: “Adam named his wife Eve.” Life. That’s what her name means. Life. God had just told Adam—Remember death. And he names her “Life.”

The full sermon is at worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20.


1 Revelation 3:14-16
2 “This is My Word,” Pepper Choplin
3 1 Corinthians 1:23
4 I think that’s how you spell frustration, right?
5 Thesis XXV, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel. “In the twenty-first place, the Word of God is not rightly divided when the person teaching it does not allow the Gospel to have a general predominance in his teaching.”
6 Luke 5:4
7 Matthew 9:12
8 Luke 1:52
9 The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel.
10 Give Pastor Lindemann credit for anything useful here. I’ll take the blame for the rest as I modified it a bit.
11 From Jesus’ letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea, Revelation 3:14-22.
12 Many thanks to Pastor Michael Kober for his conference sermon on this text that gave food for thought as I prepared this sermon.


June 2017 Worship Conferences

Here’s a sampling of the 60 presentations available in Kenosha, WI and Irvine, CA. The first two are directly related to preaching.

  • 21st Century Preaching to Millennials and Other Generations Too
    James Hein
  • Communicating Christ in the 21st Century
    Mark Paustian
  • Different Styles of Psalmody for the New Hymnal
    Dan Witte and Grace Hennig
  • Strategic Planning and Worship Enrichment
    Joel Gawrisch
  • Striving for Balance in Worship
    Jon Micheel
  • Worship and Outreach at Mount Horeb, WI
    Jonathan Bauer
  • Worship and Outreach at Sharpsburg, GA
    Jonathan Schroeder

Details are at wels.net/national-worship-conference.

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Preach the Word – That they would see him

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

That They Would See Him

Mitch thought it was a nervous habit. He had noticed it ever since this woman he was dating started bringing him to her Lutheran church. The preacher would rub the top of the pulpit with his hand as he preached. He certainly never started a sermon without his hand feeling the grain of the wood. And it didn’t change as Mitch went through Bible Information Class and got to know the pastor a bit more and then became a member. It got to the point where it seemed natural for the preacher to be rubbing the pulpit as he preached. It wasn’t until Mitch became an elder with the responsibility of helping to set some things up for worship that he noticed it. There in the wood, where the faithful pastor so often rubbed, were words scratched into the surface. “That they would see him.”

The only other thing I know about Mitch’s former LCMS pastor was that he steered Mitch to find a WELS church when he moved to Georgia because he was confident of what would be taught there. But even with so little to go on, I think I like the guy. “That they would see him.” That they would see Jesus. What a motto! What a great reminder for us preachers!

“That they would see him.”

It calls to my mind another great preacher. The apostle Paul once summed up his message: “But we preach Christ crucified.”1 And while that’s a great verse to emphasize in this article, it hits home even more when you consider its context. It carves in wood the motto, “that they would see him,” as the job of the preacher.

You know the section. Paul appeals to us in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that we agree with one another and that there be no divisions, that we be perfectly united in mind and thought. He reports hearing of divisions, people liking one preacher over another, battling between traditions and ceremonies and rituals, finding all sorts of ways to exalt themselves by exalting their pastor.

“But we preach Christ crucified.”

And as hard as it would have been for me to do, Paul refuses to play into it. He refuses to let them compare speaking styles or even personal history with the leaders. He says those outside of the church look for things like that (“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom”). But not us. “We preach Christ crucified.” Our preaching is all “that they would see Jesus.”

I wish. As easy as it is to say and agree to, wrestling with this topic has made me realize even more how difficult it is for me to do. I’ve failed too often. True story: just yesterday I went along with my vicar to watch him doing his first shut-in calls. On one of them, I listened to one of our more outspoken shut-ins tell him how much she loved reading his first sermon when it came to her email. She then went on and on about how she always loves reading my associate’s sermons. Sounds great, right? Try telling that to my ugly pride that wanted to shout out, “What about mine? They asked me to write for Preach the Word. You should like mine too!” Thankfully, I knew that wasn’t the kind of thing you should say out loud, so I didn’t. But that didn’t stop it from going through my mind.

Then today I sat down with my notes to write and felt the edge of that double-edged sword. Does my pride actually want people to like my preaching more than my brother’s in the ministry? Am I trying to get some to follow Paul and others Cephas? “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”2

In the July/August 2016 Preach the Word, Pastor Patterson encouraged telling stories to tell The Story, but warned about stories that don’t “let them see Jesus.” Thanks, Don. I always need that reminder. As simple as it sounds, correctly handling the word of truth demands that I preach “that they would see him.” Maybe I should carve that into our ambo. At least, let me keep it before me as I write. Let them see him.

When we write and preach our sermons with the goal that they are well-crafted and beautiful, moving and memorable, we miss it. When we struggle and sweat to write and preach well-crafted and beautiful, moving and memorable sermons so that the hearers see Jesus, that’s what we’re talking about.

Do you see the difference? It’s in the heart. It’s the difference between using the tools of communication to show how good I am at communicating and using all the tools in our possession to show the simplicity of Jesus’ love. That’s why Paul goes on and on about the wisdom of the world and foolishness of God. That’s why he has us consider3 what we were by human standards (not much) so that we can praise God for what he has made us: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

So Paul goes on explaining that he didn’t come with eloquence or human wisdom. He did that on purpose: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”4 Again, his goal was “that they would see Jesus,” not him, “that they would see Jesus,” not be impressed by the followers he’s won, “that they would see Jesus,” not his amazing skills. May that be our goal as well.

Do they see him?

Last issue, I promised that I’d share with you some of my interview with six “seekers” who have found Lutheran preaching after listening to seemingly everything else. In one of the questions, I asked them to contrast what they’ve heard from WELS preachers5 with whatever else they’ve heard.

Tom said, for him, listening to preaching now was “No longer about searching, but now about growing.” You see, years ago, he came to Bible Information Class (BIC) because we showed up at his door at the right time. He had been growing in the frustration of not feeling like he was being taught the truth where he was worshiping, and so he was going less often. Before we had even completed the BIC materials, he had purchased his own copy of the Confessions. In fact, he so appreciated the stability and certainty of teaching and preaching he was now hearing that, on the Sunday of his confirmation, he rolled up his sleeve and showed me his new tattoo of Luther’s seal.

After Tom explained that key difference in what he was receiving, one of the other gentlemen at the table explained why that was. He had been trained to preach in his former church (same denomination as Tom’s had been). He summed up the training to prepare sermons with a three-step method.

  • First, empathize with what people are going through.
  • Second, discuss current events that relate.
  • Third, find a Bible passage that says something similar.

Another former preacher (very different denomination) agreed and said his seminary training was much the same. They both discussed how rare it was to hear expository preaching that starts with a text and lets that speak. But they also said it is the only way that lets God’s Word speak instead of trying to make it say what you want it to say.

Here’s where Donna jumped in, having been what she describes as “all in” in several different denominations previously in her searching. She described looking back at what she had been taught in the past and now asking herself, “How did you fall for that?” She related that even with decades of searching, she had no idea that something like Lutheran law/gospel preaching and teaching existed. She believed what her pastors had said because she didn’t know any better. She described how natural it sounded then, but how horrendous to her now, when her preacher would say things like: “For the sake of time, let me tell you what I believe” or “Let me tell you what this says,” instead of letting the Word say what it says so simply. Donna kept coming back to that question: “How did I fall for that?” I’ll say this. It was an understatement when she said, “It’s not like I’m dumb.”

Consistently in our discussion, the entire panel was nodding in agreement with various comments, even though the six of them represented at least five different denominations. There seemed to be much in common with “what else” is out there. Their experiences were eerily similar. They echoed Donna’s thought: “How did I fall for that?”

And the answer they came up with? It was a difference in philosophy of preaching to which they had become accustomed. They weren’t aware there was anything better out there. In chapter 2 of 1 Corinthians, right after resolving to know nothing but Jesus, Paul says this, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” My panel described their faith that had too often rested on “what the preacher said” instead of “what God’s Word said.” What a great reminder for me to make sure I stayed in that second category. What a great reminder to make sure that every time I preach, my goal be to “let them see Jesus.” That happens in expository preaching, because, after all, as Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me.”6

In Walther’s Law and Gospel, he addressed this same discussion my panel had 130 years earlier. Here’s how he spoke to their conversation: “When you hear some sectarian preach, you may say, ‘what he said was the truth,’ and yet you do not feel satisfied. Here is the key for unlocking this mystery: the preacher did not rightly divide Law and Gospel, and hence everything went wrong” (32).

In this issue we’ve focused more on the gospel side, letting the gospel predominate. I pray that you might have that vision of the preacher with his hand on the etched wood in your mind as I do when I consider my sermons. “Let them see him.”

Next issue, we’ll wrestle some more with this correct handling of the Word of Truth and highlight especially our use of the law. Until then, let’s celebrate the privilege and pleasure we have in the simplicity of our job. We just tell them about Jesus. Here’s how Luther describes it. (A portion this quote can be found on the base of the Luther statue at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary.)

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word: otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing: the Word did everything.7

That Word lets them see him.

“Woe to me if I don’t preach the Gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16)

Written by Jonathan Scharf


1 1 Corinthians 1:23
2 1 Corinthians 2:20
3 1 Corinthians 1:26-31
4 1 Corinthians 2:2
5 Permit a disclaimer explaining the way the question was worded. Of course, it is not only WELS preaching that proclaims Christ, and there are plenty of WELS pastors that from time to time get in the way of “letting them see Jesus.” It is not the WELSness of it, but the Christ-centered nature of preaching we’re discussing. For the sake of the question though—I asked them to contrast the nature of preaching they heard from our pastors and vicars with “everything else,” which in their experience, was not so Christ-centered.
6 John 5:39
7 Luther’s Works vol. 51, pg. 77


Walther’s Law & Gospel, pg. 135

In the first place, the sects neither believe nor teach a real and complete reconciliation of man with God because they regard our heavenly Father as being a God very hard to deal with, whose heart must be softened by passionate cries and bitter tears. That amounts to a denial of Jesus Christ, who has long ago turned the heart of God to men by reconciling the entire world with Him. God does nothing by halves. In Christ He loves all sinners without exception. The sins of every sinner are canceled. Every debt has been liquidated. There is no longer anything that a poor sinner has to fear when he approaches his heavenly Father, with whom he has been reconciled by Christ.

Four Branches

As you constantly hone your preaching craft, take advantage of the new resource put out by the Seminary’s “Grow in Grace.” Beginning September, 2016, the “Four Branches” monthly newsletter has been emailed to all pastors in our ministerium. Each issue features articles on Biblical, Historical, Systematic, and Practical Theology. You can access the previous issues and articles at www.wls.wels.net/grow-in-grace/the-four-branches-review.

That they would see him—an example:

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet from a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look forward to Christmas Eve. This is from a sermon on Luke 2 with the theme: “Mary did you know?” Earlier the sermon explored the reality behind the front we put up at Christmas and in our lives. The full sermon is at: worship.welsrc.net/download-worship/preach-the-word-volume-20.

The sign that your Savior is here…the sign that God has come to keep his promises and save you, is that you will find him wrapped in cloths and lying in an animals’ feed trough.

Why? Because he came here to know trouble. He came here to know our trouble. All that junk we described in our lives—the broken relationships, the guilty feelings, our coping mechanisms and the problems they cause—all of them—we brought on ourselves. God promised that the wages of sin is death, and we sinned—as a race and as individuals. We fall short of perfect love and generosity. We fall short of clean living and holy speech. We fall short of pure intentions and clean motives. We sin. So we have death and all its symptoms coming—we earned the guilty feelings and the shame, the sickness, and loss.

But not him. That child in the manger was pure—not because he was a cute little kid, but because he was and is God’s eternal Son—the Great I AM. So he was born without the failure we entered with. He just had to endure its frustration because he came to be our substitute, to be what the angel called him, our Savior.

That’s why the angels in the fields could not help but trumpet the truth, breaking out in song—glory to God in the highest—peace on earth. That’s why the shepherds could not help but share it. God sent his Son to be our Savior.

Lectionary on Google Calendars

Three new calendars for upcoming years A, B, and C are available at worship.welsrc.net. More info at welstechwiki.gapps.wels.net/planning-policy/lectionary-gcal. For each Sunday and Major Festival the calendar entry includes:

  • Lessons and Psalm, including Supplemental Readings
  • Prayer of the Day
  • Verse of the Day
  • Hymn of the Day
  • Church year color

Print out the latest edition of this newsletter to share with your congregation.

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Preach the Word – Proclaim the Truth as Truth

A new volume welcomes a new writer. Pastor Jonathan Scharf is husband to Janette, father to Andrew, Abi, Hannah, and Malachi, and pastor for the saints at Abiding Grace in Covington, GA. He serves as Circuit Pastor of the Peachtree Circuit, Chairman of the Cottonbelt Conference’s Program Committee, Chairman of the South Atlantic District’s Commission on Evangelism, a member of the Scripture Committee (lectionary) for the new hymnal project, and an advisor for the Synod’s Commission on Congregational Counseling. He has been privileged to preach for the last 13 years for many new Christians at a growing mission congregation in an area where Lutheran preaching is rare.

To Correctly Handle the Word of Truth

Proclaim the Truth as Truth

It made me physically sick. Now, I like to think I have an exceptionally strong stomach. I’m the kind of guy who is a big believer in the “5-second rule” no matter the setting. I have little regard for expiration dates on food. But this physically turned my stomach. Thinking of the thousands, maybe even millions of people who were being fed rancid “meat,” it made me sick. It gave me a new appreciation for the preaching your listeners get to hear but saddened me to think how rare that is. It also motivated me to do whatever I could so that we don’t lose the gift of the meat of gospel preaching.

The context? I was attending the annual Institute for Liturgical Studies at Valparaiso University1 as a representative of the Scripture Committee of our new hymnal project. The Institute is “an ecumenical conference on liturgical renewal for the church today,” but a majority of the preachers and presenters were from the ELCA. The whole purpose of the Institute that year was to explore the lectionary and its formation. Scholars from around the world were sharing and learning. I picked up quite a bit on the history of the lectionary. The campus was beautiful, the chapel stunning, the people friendly, the music powerful and the liturgy so familiar, but the preaching…made me sick. And there was much preaching at a conference designed to demonstrate what they were teaching about liturgy and lectionary.

The liturgy clearly proclaimed law and gospel, sin and grace, as it does no matter no matter who is handling it. The problem came when preachers expounded texts. I heard a sermon that seemed to be on the importance of recycling. Another seemed to be on the importance of reading. But the one that brought tears to my eyes as I recalled it later and prayed for the people who are being fed that was one whose text was the latter part of John 20. The sermon even quoted the Gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion. I certainly expected to hear the gospel expounded; I figured there was no way to preach on this without telling me that Jesus died to pay for my sins and rose to guarantee me heaven.

Sadly, I was wrong. The message preached on Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection was that we have this story so that we can make sense of the suffering in our lives and the senseless things that happen, so that we can handle the junk and grief of this world, knowing that it will somehow be okay. The message was not that there is divine sense in that “senseless” death, that Jesus is God’s Son who took our place on the cross. The message was that you can always say, “at least I don’t have it that bad” when we think of Christ’s suffering.

The message was not that there is divine sense in that “senseless” death, that Jesus is God’s Son who took our place on the cross.

And what made it worse was the refrain “as the story goes” any time historical fact of scripture was mentioned. It was as if the preacher wanted to leave open the possibility that this is all nothing more than a story. He called it a powerful story, but he saw the power in how it can help us cope rather than in what was accomplished. His exact words were “the death and weakness of Christ are more for us to relate to rather than to redeem.”2

Had I not heard it, I would assume that this description is exaggeration. But, sad to say, I did hear it. I was there. It was that bad. And the rest of the conference verified it as respected leaders spoke of the veracity of Scripture as something up for debate. One presenter pondered which parts of the Bible people should know and what they should believe: “Should we study Deuteronomic theology where God punishes bad guys and blesses good guys? Should we talk about the contradictions? Or the things we don’t agree with anymore?”3

In my notes I wrote: “I can’t believe she’s saying this out loud.” She seemed to mock the thought that you’ll be saved if you accept this story as a historically accurate description of our sin’s payment, implying, “We’re so past that.”

But I’m not. I pray we never get past that. That’s why, when I was asked to write this volume of Preach the Word, I chose this topic. It’s not that I think I can offer anything new or exciting to the conversation. But if as is often said, “We are always, ever, only one generation away from losing the gospel” from a “famine of hearing the Word of the Lord,”4 then I want to do what is in my power to help encourage you in the other direction.

“Ever only one generation away from losing the gospel.”

I pray that this series will do what Paul encouraged his fellow preacher in 2 Timothy 2:14-15: “Keep reminding them of these things…. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” The things he wanted them reminded of include “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead….this is my gospel.”5

I pray that this series will do what Paul encouraged his fellow preacher in 2 Timothy 2:14-15: “Keep reminding them of these things….”

Since I’m not going for anything new here, I decided to re-read a classic: Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. I also checked the seminary essay file.6 When I re-read Walther, I was struck by the regular repetition of the simple truths of God’s plan, even in the preface and introduction by the translator. Here’s an example:

The sinner’s rescue from his wretched condition by God’s gospel plan consists in this, that the sinner is told not only that God loves him spite of his sin, but that He so loves the sinner, who is by nature a child of wrath, as to sacrifice His own Son for him and to send the Holy Spirit into his heart to produce in him repentance over his sins and faith in the divine forgiveness of his sins.7

At the end of the preface something bowled me over. It was signed “W.H.T. Dau. Valparaiso University, Thanksgiving Day, 1928.”

“Ever only one generation away from losing the gospel.” The man who preserved for us one of the seminal pieces of literature for our gospel preaching did so while president at Valparaiso University. That same campus, 85 short years later, offered advice to preachers not to mention Mother’s Day on Mother’s Day for fear of alienating all the lesbians in the room who may not think that the only thing to do in life is to be a mother.8

There’s just something different there. Paul’s words in Galatians9 ring in my ears: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.”

How did it happen? I am convinced that it sprang from a desire to reach people for Christ. But then method was placed above message. Instead of trusting the faithful message, the focus was placed on the people they were trying to reach. One session at the Valparaiso conference described new lectionaries, including things like the so very green “Season of Creation” so that we can try to connect with environmental crises.10 While we are free to choose which sections of Scripture to read in worship, the discussion of new lectionaries seemed to neglect key truths that must be proclaimed and to focus instead on what groups of people might want to hear.

In an essay for a 2002 Minnesota District Pastor’s Conference, Thomas Trapp took up this topic, reminding us that content is key to preaching.

“Unless spiritual knowledge and the Spirit himself speak through the preachers… the final result will be that everyone preaches his own whims, and instead of the gospel and its exposition, we shall again have sermons on blue ducks” [Martin Luther]. More and more people in our culture are sick of “blue duck” sermons. Many are looking for solid, absolute truth. By God’s grace, we have it and are called to preach it. We do not preach it, of course, because it may be popular; we preach it because it is God’s Word, popular or not.”11

That was driven home to me again at the opening worship for our 2016 WELS International Youth Rally.12 Even though he was speaking to 2,500 youth and their leaders, the preacher didn’t feel a need to talk about the fact that children are the future. He didn’t need to tout the power of positive thinking or squeeze in our responsibility to the earth. In clear and simple language, the preacher never hesitated to restate the simple truths of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Those young people received a solid meal of soul-nourishing meat.

The previous volume of Preach the Word studied the topic of reaching Millennials with our preaching. We were constantly encouraged to proclaim law and gospel, sin and grace. In our efforts to reach people who may think differently, praise God that we need not wonder about the message that will reach them.

“Never once were we encouraged to do anything but proclaim law and gospel, sin and grace.”

Volume 20 of Preach the Word will remind us again of the only effective tool—God’s powerful Word with its two teachings, law and gospel. We’ll hear from some interviews of Christians who have been searching for preaching of the truth and hear their stories of how rare it is, encouraging us to keep up this law and gospel stuff. And we’ll have some examples of preaching the simple truth in timely ways. I pray that God bless us through our journey together this year.

Written by Jonathan Scharf


1 April 28-30, 2014
2 From notes on the opening sermon
3 From notes on the presentation “Mystery Manifest; Christ in the Lectionary”
4 Amos 8:11-12
5 2 Timothy 2:8
6 wls.wels.net/essay. Both of these are time well spent and great ways to reinforce commitment to correctly handle the word of truth.
7 Preface and Introduction, p. XX
8 From notes on the presentation “Preaching the Imagery of Liturgical Time”: “Preachers use stories and images not to stuff their hearer’s heads with facts, slogans, and memorized verses, but to surround the assembly with mysteries that give faith—all to be dissected and put back together in new forms to fit with our lives.”
9 Galatians 1:6-7a
10 “Josiah, the Lectionary, and the Dangers of Forgetting Our Story”
11 Preaching God’s Word to the 21st Century Worshiper, p. 9; WLS essay file.
12 June 28-July 1, 2016 in Fort Collins, CO. The preacher was John Boggs.


Looking forward to an upcoming meal

With each issue I’ll try to include a snippet of a sermon on an upcoming text that clearly, simply, and textually declares law and gospel. In this issue let’s look forward to Reformation. This is from a sermon on Romans 3:19-28 with the theme: Keeping it Real.

So God’s law says—“shut your mouth for a second—realize you sin and what that means. You owe God—that’s it—nothing short of hell. As much as you protest what you deserve, you do deserve it.”

I know our society doesn’t help us there, telling us we all deserve great things, everybody deserves a trophy. Whether it’s the people receiving the handouts thinking they deserve to be taken care of by the government or those who aren’t receiving handouts that are upset because those who are have such an “easy life” while “I work so hard.” Paul says just be quiet. Look at the mirror of the law—you are not righteous—you deserve nothing. Period.

“But wait a second pastor. I do this and that. I work hard. I deserve…” NO—God says: “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law.” Be real and realize what God’s Word says about our lives—it’s SIN. Look at any human in the spotlight of the law and you see SIN—disgusting SIN. In the rapist…SIN. In the mass murderer…SIN. In the adulterer…SIN. In the boss …SIN. In the hard working employee…SIN. In the overburdened mom…SIN. In the philanthropist…SIN. In the theater shooter and in the volunteer worker…SIN. In this preacher…SIN. And in every person sitting in the congregation…SIN.

So tell your pride to stop it. Tell your hurt and offended ego to just be quiet. That’s what the law does. It tells you to stop making excuses. It shows you all your righteousness is worthless. So be real. Realize you’re sunk. Are you listening, or did you tune me out a few minutes ago because you didn’t like what you were hearing? Either way—listen now—you need to hear what comes next. You need to “Keep it real!”

This is verse 21. “But…” Ahh what a glorious word! BUT. Paul just beat us up and shut us down. He just put us in our place of fear and wrath and condemnation. But then he says “BUT.” For us who had no solution—because no one can be righteous, no matter how many laws they keep—for us condemned because we’ve messed up and we know it—if we’re real with ourselves—to us he says “BUT”.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law (not based on our keeping the law, a righteousness that doesn’t depend on how good we’ve been, that righteousness…) has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. (This righteousness is what God’s Word always has been and always will be about. It’s not a bunch of rules for us to keep to get right with God; it’s the story of how God has made us right with God.) Verse 22: This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (All of us are sinners. And hear what he just said: all of us are justified—declared not guilty). 25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.

Do you see who Jesus is? He is not the one sent to show us how to live a good life. He is not the one who came to expand our minds. God presented him as a sacrifice—nothing less—the actual sacrifice that actually pays for our failures of the law. His perfect life and his innocent death atone us. They make us “at one” with God. Really!


Flashback to Volume 5.1 from 2001, by John Koelpin

The Scriptures offer the preacher an alternative to the influential style. In his Word, God describes preaching as “proclamation.” The word is κηρύσσω in the New Testament. Thayer, in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, defines κηρύσσω in this way, “to proclaim after the manner of a herald; always with a suggestion of formality, gravity, and an authority which must be listened to and obeyed.” The herald wasn’t in the business of making a pitch to his audience. He didn’t offer up his message for argument or persuasion….

Proclamation is the style God has handed to us. Preachers, then, are not salesmen for the latest “get to heaven quick” scheme, but heralds of the truths which God has laid down in his Word. These truths, whether law or gospel, take hold in the heart of the hearer by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the power of the presentation.

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Storytelling in Our Preaching

We all want to be better preachers, so we all want to be better story tellers. Storytelling, whether in personal testimonies or in parabolic tales, is a powerful way to garner the involuntary attention of your people. We’ve all drifted when listening to a sermon and then felt ourselves drawn back when we could tell the preacher was beginning a story. We just can’t help but listen. Stories are memorable too.

The Jesus Metanarrative

God is the greatest story teller of all. His book is one giant metanarrative about Christ and his salvation. It’s communicated through hundreds of smaller stories all chained together from beginning to end. It’s the greatest story ever told. His metanarrative isn’t even rivaled by Tolkien’s trilogy. As evangelical preachers we will want to keep telling God’s metanarrative in some fashion every time we preach. If we aren’t constantly telling the story of Christ and his salvation as the source from which all true spirituality flows, we are just orators, entertainers, philosophers, gurus, or pundits.

One giant metanarrative about Christ and his salvation.

It’s easier to forget than we think. It still seems like yesterday, but it happened several years ago. I had worked with a vicar all week on his sermon, and when the day came for him to preach, I sat in the pew embarrassed. Jesus Christ was nowhere in the entire sermon. It was an Old Testament story with a powerful example of certain aspects of faith. But even after our two Lutheran heads spent all week on it, neither of us had linked it to Christ in any way. Wow! I was flabbergasted. Christ has to be included in every evangelical sermon. By “included” I don’t mean forced in. I mean that Christ and his work are the metanarrative from which every sermon text is taken. We simply must find a way to include that for our people.

Want an example? Let’s say you are preaching from 1 Samuel 17 about David’s battle with Goliath. What a great story! Insights about living the bold Christian life are oozing out of it. But Jesus isn’t mentioned. However, Jesus is David’s strength. His grace made David bold. Here’s one way to include God’s metanarrative when preaching this story:

David had Goliath, the giant, fuming threats and sarcasm at him from his gargantuan frame. But David knew that the God who had already saved him from the bear and the lion would save him from Goliath too. And if God didn’t save him from death in that moment, David still knew he was saved for heaven, because he lived in God’s grace. He even wrote psalms about it. So, David stepped into Goliath’s shadow. His confidence in God dwarfed his fears. We can step into the shadow of our giant problems too with confidence in Christ that dwarfs our fears. We can all think of times that God has delivered us from our “lions” and “bears”. His past deliverance assures us of his saving presence today. Also, we live in God’s grace just as David did. We live in the shadow of the cross, and that shadow is bigger than the shadow of the giant problems threatening us.

Do you see? The Jesus found in the whole Bible (metanarrative) made David brave by his grace, and that same Jesus by his grace makes us brave too. When we preach the great stories of faith, Jesus is always behind the hero and us. Don’t forget to include the Jesus metanarrative.

Your Own Stories

But also, don’t be afraid to tell your own stories to drive the main points in God’s Word home. Stories make God’s Word sticky in the heart. To make sure that our storytelling really does make God’s Word sticky, we must have more than a logical connection between the story and the Word of God. We need to get at the pathos of the text with our story. Here is an example:

Stories make God’s Word sticky in the heart.

Imagine preaching from Acts 20:24. Paul says to the Ephesian elders, “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” In your introduction, you tell the story of how William B. Travis drew the line in the sand at the Alamo in 1836 and asked his men if they were willing to defend the Alamo to their deaths. If they were willing, he urged them to step across the line. And then you say, “Folks, in this passage from Acts 20:24, Paul is saying that he crossed over the line.”

We need to get at the pathos of the text with our story.

If that is how you told the story and connected it to Paul, do you see how it is only a logical connection? The logic is: Travis crossed the line and so did Paul. But the pathos of the story is still down there in the sand. It never made it to the heart. Here is the same illustration told in order to touch the heart.

It has been said that if you don’t have anything you would die for, then you don’t really have anything to live for either. This became clear in February of 1836 when William B. Travis, a 26-year-old lawyer, had a ragtag group of 189 volunteers holed up in the Alamo while Santa Anna, the Mexican general, surrounded the little mission with 2000 men and demanded surrender. Travis knew his own men might surrender at any moment, so he showed them how to really live by taking out his sword and drawing a line in the sand. He stepped over it and passionately told his men why he was willing to fight to the death for Texas independence. “We are going to die,” he began. “Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death. If we surrender, they will execute us. If we rush out and fight them, we will be slaughtered. But if we stay in this fort and defend it, we will take many Mexicans with us and help free our country. Who will stay and defend this mission with me?” One by one the men found something in their hearts large enough to live for by being willing to die for it too. 187 of them stepped over the line. Jim Bowie had to be carried over on a cot. And only one man, a French mercenary who was a hired gun, refused. He snuck out in the dark of that night and lived to tell the story. All 188 men that stayed died, but they died having something to live for too. They took down 600 Mexican men with them. More importantly, their valor made many more Texans join the fight for independence which they won two months later.

(Pause) Did you hear what Travis said? He said, “We are all going to die. Our business is not to make a fruitless effort to save our lives, but to choose the manner of our death.” Doesn’t that sound like something Paul would say? Paul knew his life on earth was short. He embraced death as an inevitable end. But by faith he was choosing to die by serving Christ with his whole being instead of sporadically and partially serving himself. Jesus is a whole lot larger than Texas independence, isn’t he? He is not just something to live for. He is the big someone to live for, because he lived and died for us! When we keep that in mind every day, we will have a reason to live boldly, and we will have a reason to die proudly at any moment. Jesus once said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Right here folks, we have found the reason to live! Here’s the line. Will you step over it!

Maybe you can see how the pathos of the illustration is in harmony with the pathos of the text. They meet in the heart and not just the head of the listener. That’s when the sermon point becomes much stickier.

Personal stories … make you real to people.

Let’s talk about a preacher using personal stories in sermons. We ought to bring some personal stories into our preaching for several reasons. First of all, they make you real to people. They know you are real, but they aren’t so sure that you are comfortable being real. If they believe you are real, then your message is real to them too. Secondly, stories show that you live in the same house you build for them. It makes your preaching easier to believe if you believe it with all your heart and show it in your life. We are talking about removing obstacles here. Thirdly, stories make it almost completely impossible for them to tune you out. That way you can really drive a point home with a personal story. I once heard a saying about preachers and stories that I cannot get out of my head. It goes like this, “A sermon prepared in the head reaches a head. A sermon prepared in the heart reaches a heart. And a sermon prepared in the life reaches a life.” If in your own life God has taught you the truth found in your sermon text, then find a way to tell how he did that. It’s powerful. Stories about what God taught someone you know or what he taught you through those people are helpful too. Here is an example:

This story is an introduction to 1 John 2:15-17.

Recently I attended a visitation at a funeral home, and I arrived a little early, even before the family got there. The lady that worked the front door was a 75-year-old woman who had moved to town to live in a small, modestly furnished house behind her son’s home. She had been a woman of means before. She and her deceased husband had accumulated a lot of possessions from their travels. They once owned a large spacious home in Abilene, Texas on a hill overlooking their acreage. She said to me, “You know, it hit me one day that I didn’t really get anything from all this stuff all around me. Without my husband there it meant very little to me. So, I just sold it all. Everything! I sold the land, the house, and everything in it. Then I told my son,” ‘I just want a little house with one of everything.’”

Then she got real serious and looked at me and said, “Do you know what the funny thing is? As each possession sold, I felt a little bit closer to God. It turns out that all those things were between him and me and I never knew it.” As she said those words it hit me, “That’s why the stuff in my garage and everywhere else in my house is getting me down. It is getting between God and me.” But right now it hits me again. That woman was learning what John is telling us here, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17). I want the same cleansing that woman received. Don’t you want it too?

The story this woman told me drove home the didactic truth John is teaching in his letter. Her story made it stickier. It seems like the letters in the New Testament lend themselves more readily to stories that will stick them to our hearts.

Story Telling Mistakes

Of course there are ways you could really blow telling a personal story. If you have a tendency to tell stories where you are the hero and not just a deeply flawed but deeply loved child of God, then you are misusing personal story telling. Your people may have a hard time tuning you out when you tell your story, but they won’t tune in to your point from God’s Word if they are thinking you are an insecure braggart.

Another mistake is telling a story that really doesn’t illustrate the truth of the text but you tell it anyway. So, like Cinderella’s stepsisters who crammed their foot into the glass slipper, you force the story into your sermon. I’d save yourself and your hearers and not tell it.

They won’t tune in to your point from God’s Word if they are thinking you are an insecure braggart.

Here’s another mistake: sometimes the climax of the story is not really about the point the preacher wants to make with the story. Some other part of the story illustrates the point but not the climax. So, the climax and the sermon point are in dissonance with one another. That spells disaster for the audience’s retention of your point. Even with a properly told story the people are going to remember the story and its climax more than they will ever remember the point you make with it. So, you want the climax and the point to be inseparable. That way you are attaching emotions to your point in order to make it stick in the heart. You want to be able to say the sermon point right after the climax. The listener will be pleased that you helped them remember the point and its great value. They might even thank you later for going to the trouble.

You want the climax and the point to be inseparable.

Perhaps the worst way to blow telling a personal story is to tell it about someone you know without permission to do so, or to tell a story that is embarrassing for the person in the story as well as those listening to it. Telling stories is like playing with electricity. It is very powerful, and when handled poorly, it does terrible damage.

We also, need to know when not to tell a story. I would suggest that when preaching narratives and parables we should be very reluctant to tell many, if any, stories. God’s stories are far better, far more important, and far more powerful than any of our own stories.

You can tell too many stories in a sermon. It’s best to have only one or two. One really big story at the beginning that is revisited a couple times as you expound the text does wonders to make the message stick. Using the example from the sermon introduction above that introduced 1 John 2:14-15, you could repeat a key thought multiple times in your sermon: “If it’s getting between you and God, then take it out to the garage sale and declutter your soul!” That way you will tap into the opening story with that one phrase and reawaken their emotional connection to the text.

There is so much more to say about storytelling in our preaching, but we’ve run out of room and time. Just remember, Jesus told common stories to common folks in order to save and grow their souls. You and I can tell stories too, as long as we do it well. God bless your preaching and your storytelling.

“A sermon prepared in the head reaches a head. A sermon prepared in the heart reaches a heart. And a sermon prepared in the life reaches a life.”

Written by Don Patterson

Don Patterson is a 1992 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He is one of three pastors at Holy Word Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. He has helped 18 vicars hone their preaching skills. He is passionate about preaching to the heart and not just the head. While this article is part of a series on preaching to Millennials, the insights apply to all preaching.

 

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Preaching with the millennials

I am not part of the millennial generation. All four of my children are. I don’t presently serve as a parish pastor. So I more frequently “exegize” a community or congregation as opposed to the sacred text. Likely I wouldn’t be described as even an average homiletician these days. Nearly a decade away from a parish has negative implications for sermon preparation and delivery. Yet I was asked to contribute to this series with its focus on Millennials. Perhaps that’s owing to numerous interviews with Millennials during analysis of roughly 50 congregations from 2008-12. There’s also the nine year back story of working closely with mission-based pastors and congregational leaders, many of whom are Millennials.

Let Grace Predominate

So how does the pastor reach out to a generation whose cardinal virtue is rebelling against the status quo and cardinal sin is inactivity? Perhaps we could rephrase the question: How do we share a world-changing message with a generation that wants to change the world? The gospel, too, is a cause, but a far greater one compared to any earthly cause the world has to offer. The practice of the Colorado Conference’s northern pastor circuit during the early 90’s was to size up one another’s preaching at the monthly study club. The routine closely paralleled that of seminary homiletics classes. Some brothers opted to show a video of the previous Sunday’s sermon. Others chose to preach “live” to our audience of ten or eleven. A reactor led discussion that might include compliments, encouragement, questions, and even gentle criticism. My turn in the rotation came around. The text was the very familiar section of Ephesians 2. I opted for more emphasis of verse 10 than what might normally be expected. In the ensuing discussion brothers wondered why a man in a mission setting would pass on an opportunity to expound grace repeatedly and extensively. Appropriate criticism. Lesson learned and still fresh in my memory.

Dr. Siegert Becker perhaps had this type of questionable homiletical practice in mind:

Preaching which does not keep Christ and his atoning work in the center of the message is not the prophetic work that God has given his church.… Only when Christ is held before the audience as Savior and Redeemer are the hearers being invited to the wedding dinner of the Lamb. Only then are they offered the fine linen, bright and clean, that will serve as their wedding garment and qualify them to remain at that celebration.1

This issue’s focus is “the sermon after the sermon,” a topic very much on the minds of millennial believers both in terms of congregational corporate practice as well as the individual Christian’s apparent sanctification between Sundays. In the account above, from roughly twenty-five years ago, I was preaching to “boomers”, Gen Xer’s, and young Millennials. I did them a disservice by choosing to emphasize human reaction at the expense of divinely initiated saving activity. You, brothers, are now addressing those same generations at later stages of their respective pilgrimages on earth. A reminder is appropriate, no matter the season or the Sunday. Accord grace its rightful position as predominant.

Guidance Sought

The aforementioned interviews from 2008-12 were standard approach in analyzing congregations before feeling competent to offer counsel regarding ministry plans and initiatives. In making the transition from parish pastor to mission counselor, I’d begun to read multiple sources in the areas of outreach, congregational polity, and cultural trends. But the Rainers’ The Millennials and J.E. White’s The Rise of the Nones weren’t yet part of a book list that I’d read and could feel comfortable in recommending to others. Now they are. My research and experience in counseling congregations isn’t nearly as extensive as that of those well-known authors. But what they found to be true about younger generations’ attitudes, both inside and outside the visible Christian church, I also heard from WELS members in the same general age grouping. Some were entirely new to Lutheranism. Others had allowed Lutheran membership to lapse for years before returning to a better spiritual path. Scribbled notes from those interviews often featured themes such as:

  • little use for rigid structure, polity, and some of our traditional activities
  • very turned off by the internal bickering that’s gone on here
  • wondered aloud if she was out of line in voting for a Democratic candidate
  • would like to find more discussion and guidance in Christian living apart from Sunday
  • left church due to what he perceived as hypocrisy and still struggles with that
  • grateful for the way she was welcomed and asked to help even before joining
  • here because a friend or co-worker’s behavior made a huge impression

Set aside any initial concerns you may have that I found commonality with two Baptist authors. Our discussion isn’t concerned with matters of conversion, sacraments, or eschatology. The issue is living as knowledgeable recipients of grace. You’ll also want to ignore bullet points that portray “typical” millennial disdain for strict polity, bickering, judgmental attitudes, and hypocrisy; views that are readily apparent in the age 16 to 36 WELS demographic. Focus instead on the positive aspects of some bullet points above. Many in this much-discussed generation are grateful for the positive influence of a spiritual mentor. They desire to be used by the Lord in bringing spirituality to the forefront in their relationships outside the church. They are looking for guidance and encouragement toward that end. Millennial believers might well agree with Bonhoeffer in describing as “cheap” any grace that justifies sin along with the sinner; grace that preaches forgiveness without requiring repentance; and grace that comes with no expectations of discipleship or cross.

Many in this much-discussed generation are grateful for the positive influence of a spiritual mentor.

Here’s the heartfelt confession of a Boomer who was too young to attend Woodstock but not young enough to avoid being exposed to much of what the Woodstock mindset “freed us from and freed us for.” I’m often embarrassed to recall that in my 20’s and early 30’s (where most Millennials find themselves now) I wasn’t seeking the guidance in appropriate decision-making that these younger brothers and sisters are seeking. For much of that stage of life I was a professional missionary, but not nearly as in tune with portraying a visual sermon as are many of the believers in my children’s generation. When I do have opportunity to preach I count it as a privilege to serve as the Lord’s mouthpiece in providing some answers to the questions that Millennials typically pose. If part of your typical Sunday audience includes those born between 1980 and 2000, think of them as perhaps pleading as did the Psalmist, “Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground” (Psalm 143:8b, 10).

I wasn’t … nearly as in tune with portraying a visual sermon as are many of the believers in my children’s generation.

Authenticity Cherished

You’re reading the May/June edition of Preach the Word. The February flare up between Pope Francis and Donald Trump is a distant memory. In a sense their brief but very public spat was inane and had no lasting ramifications. The pope depicted Trump’s plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border as un-Christian. Specifically he stated, “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.” Trump retaliated by suggesting that during the pope’s recent trip to Mexico, government officials there had been able to influence his thinking for political purposes. “They obviously got to the pope,” Trump said. “He doesn’t know me. The pope only heard one side of the story. I am a Christian and am proud of it.”

I’d heard of the minor quarrel and gave it little thought…until the daily stop at our neighborhood Starbucks where the baristas (mostly Millennials) not only know my name but also my profession. Business for this store was unusually slow. Longer than normal conversation ensued. Two employees were curious as to what I thought of the “religious” argument between the pope and Trump. My initial answer, hastily composed because I was caught off guard but didn’t want to come across as culturally aloof, isn’t worth summarizing here. What I do recall is that both baristas (one an actively professing Christian, the other an occasional Catholic) were curious as to how either Francis or Trump could claim to be Christian. The one proposing construction of a wall seemed to be hypocritical in also claiming that he wanted to generate jobs for people who needed them. The one opposing wall construction came across as hypocritical after an aerial photo of Vatican City’s protective wall had gone viral. In their own way two “20 something” coffee shop employees were looking for two “Christian celebrities” to back up their verbal profession of faith with appropriately moral action. They weren’t asking WWJD with regard to building or not building a wall to deal with a perceived political problem. They were simply asking for two men who claimed moral high ground to provide evidence of a much-cherished characteristic in the millennial world-view: authenticity.

White is on record, repeatedly, as opposing the over-analyzation and over-generalization of a demographic group.

J.E. White is on record, repeatedly, as opposing the over-analyzation and over-generalization of a demographic group whose oldest members are in their mid-30’s. I lean in that same direction. Millennials are often characterized as not much interested in the answers offered by others, preferring instead self-discovery or even no discovery at all. In the spiritual realm, that indifferent attitude appears when a portion of Millennials, along with members of other age groups, are perfectly content to be known as “The Nones.” Estimates vary. This percentage of the U.S. population who claim no interest in affiliating with any religious group has been pegged as low as 10% and as high as 18%. I’m not indifferent about the spiritual indifference of others. I am suggesting that a large portion of the population, including roughly 50-60 million Millennials, has not found what they consider to be an authentic spiritual voice or at the very least would be willing to listen in hopes of finding one. I’m reminded of the people who’d gathered around Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue. One would have to suppose that many in the region had given up after four centuries without the presence of an authoritative prophetic voice. First century Nones? Others apparently held out hope. And that hope was rewarded. “The people were amazed at his teachings, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22).

A large portion of the population, including roughly 50-60 million Millennials, have not found what they consider to be an authentic spiritual voice.

I can’t say with certainty what lies at the heart of the supposed collective yearning among Millennials for authenticity. Perhaps 21st century life is more complex and full of deception than what my generation experienced. It’s certainly fair to say that the pace of change in daily life has accelerated. There has been a backing away from the generally accepted Judeo/Christian ethic which supposedly peaked in the mid 1950’s. Expectations of the two genders are more varied. The list goes on. The only certainties I can offer are these: Isaiah 55:11 rings as true as ever; you who read this publication are privileged to provide an authentic voice; Millennials in almost every congregation I work with are grateful for authenticity amid a world they perceive to be otherwise hypocritical.

Preaching and Walking Together

Somewhere back in the early 90’s I latched on to a variation of the “dialogical preaching” approach. Book? Magazine article? Workshop? I don’t recall the source. I don’t even recall the author’s basic premise or guidelines. I know only that those who attended our midweek Bible study liked the dialogical principle of “doing life together by doing sermons together.” Initially that took the form of our first ten minutes on Wednesdays being dedicated to reflection on last Sunday’s sermon, followed by ten minutes of offering questions about or reactions to the text for the upcoming Sunday. This arrangement eventually morphed into an entirely separate Monday gathering of one hour in which a handful of trusted members with diverse backgrounds offered the same reflection on the past sermon and the perceived key truths that needed to be expounded clearly in next Sunday’s text. As with many good initiatives and congregational practices, our Monday study sessions eventually fell apart due to changing schedules. But for a season, I thought, we achieved the desired outcome: better focus and application in “our” sermons.

If and when the Lord leads in the direction of returning to a parish setting, I might very well seek willing lay partners—especially members who are Millennials, possibly even prospects—who would participate in similar roundtable discussions. The goal would again be piecing together sermons that serve all of us well. The possibilities within the framework of such an intergenerational dialogue seem fascinating. It’s my opportunity to ascertain if generalizations about millennial preferences have any legitimacy. It’s their opportunity to ascertain if a guy from the original “Me Generation” actually has the capacity to listen as opposed to just talking.

Suppose the focus for an upcoming Sunday was the parable of the lost son from Luke 15. I’m part of a generation that was encouraged to look inward when seeking truth—because the world didn’t need to be fixed; I did. In our sermon “research group” I interacted with sharp minds who’d discerned hypocrisy in that approach to life and preferred to look outward, emphasizing relationship and restored community. Together we discovered that we’d all overlooked the primary need to look upward. There we find authentic answers to how existence came about in the first place. There we discover that our Creator’s expectations are both right and fair. The father in the parable had no obligation, culturally, to take back a defiant son. But he welcomed his son with open arms. The Father in the real world was obligated to justly condemn but exercised unfathomable mercy. Amid so much cultural discussion of expectations, fairness, justice, and hypocrisy, we’re all forced to set aside our divergent opinions on societal “fixes” and simply ponder the Father’s grace-filled pardon.

In the lost son we are to see each of us. It was good for me as a pastor simply to listen to participants describe life that excluded God from discussion of life’s meaning, life lived apart from the support system of the visible church because it reeked of bickering and hypocrisy. In turn, it was good for millennial participants to hear the truth about the supposed hypocrites whose names made up the church roster. No names mentioned, unless one of the group’s Boomers or Lucky Few openly recounted how far one can wander from his Father in making choices during a Vietnam fire fight or as a troubled couple mulling the outcome of an unexpected pregnancy. Tim Keller is right in sizing up most of those perceived church hypocrites as “the people whose lives have been harder and who are lower on the character scale; who are more likely to recognize their need for God. We should expect that many Christians’ lives would not compare well to those of the nonreligious (just as the health of people in the hospital is comparatively worse than people visiting museums).”2

Finally, in the older son we see Jesus vividly portraying the mindset of the audience with whom this parable was originally shared. With good reason the term “Pharisee” is interchangeable with “hypocrite.” Jesus made that initial connection in expounding Isaiah’s words concerning “people who honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6). Though we don’t hear from the parable’s older brother words similar to those of the younger brother, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you,” we’d be wise collectively and individually to ponder where pharisaical judgment has crept into our own lives.

We’d be wise collectively and individually to ponder where pharisaical judgment has crept into our own lives.

In summary, if we’re willing to point out the flaws of an entire generation’s world view, we should also be willing listeners when they espouse noble goals such as authenticity, truth, and mercy. Those aren’t simply cultural values; they find their origin and clearest fulfillment in the texts preachers expound weekly. Through listening to Millennials while together grappling with Divine Truth, we’ll better serve not just one age group but the entire flock of lambs and sheep that the Spirit gathers before us weekly.

By Mark Birkholz

Mark Birkholz is a 1983 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He served an exploratory outreach setting in Thornton, Colorado for 23 years before accepting a call to Grace in Grenada. Since 2007 he has served under WELS Board for Home Missions as a mission counselor. A majority of the pastors and congregational leaders he works with are part of the millennial generation. Often as not, he learns more from them than what he imparts to them.


1    Siegbert Becker, Revelation: The Distant Triumph Song. NPH, 1985, p. 287.
2    Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Dutton, 2008, p. 54.

 

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Rebel With a Cause

The Virtue of Being a Rebel

If we take a quick scan through the 2013 TEDx Youth San Diego program, we notice some similarities between the guest speakers. Matthew Emerzian, among other things, is author of Every Monday Matters – 52 Ways to Make a Difference. Shaka Senghor recently published Live in Peace: A Youth Guide to Turning Hurt into Hope. Brittany Wenger is a biology and computer science freshman at Duke who won several awards for Breast Cancer awareness and fundraising projects. Martina Gray offers yoga instruction to bring peace and alignment into the lives of her students. David Joseph, a UCLA junior, co-founded Northern Uganda Medical Mission. And so what do we get when we bridge TED talks (the world’s most popular platform for brilliant people sharing ideas on technology, entertainment, and design) with Millennials?1 We get a full slate of brilliant people interested in causes, interested in being parts of little revolutions for social and global change. It’s not enough to simply be brilliant. You need to be both brilliant and changing the world, both a renaissance man and a rebel.2

Rebellion against the status quo or against being another cog in the machine is important to Millennials.

Which ought to tell us that causes3 are highly valued and play a major role in how Millennials identify themselves. Somehow rebellion against the status quo or against being another cog in the machine or against being another brick in the wall is important. Simply take a look at any book, web article, or newspaper column concerning business tactics for a millennial demographic. For one example:

“90 percent of millennials are likely to switch from one brand to another—even when price and quality are equal—if the second supports a cause…. Millennials are prepared to reward socially responsible companies; they are more likely to trust these companies, seek their employment and buy or recommend their products to others. According to a Cone study, after learning that a company is socially and/or environmentally responsible:

  • 83 percent are likely to trust the company more
  • 79 percent are likely to purchase that company’s products
  • 44 percent are likely to actively pursue working at that company
  • 74 percent are more likely to pay attention to that company’s message because it has a deep commitment to a cause.”4

In an age of mass conformism and consumerism and information, one major millennial cardinal virtue is being a rebel, someone willing to stand for just causes and stand against negative practices. And this affects even acts as simple as choosing one brand over another. The major vice, then, is inactivity in the face of information that demands a clear response.

Come, Follow Me. Be a Rebel.

So how does the pastor reach out to a generation whose cardinal virtue is rebelling against the status quo and cardinal sin is inactivity? Perhaps we could rephrase the question: How do we share a world-changing message with a generation that wants to change the world? The gospel, too, is a cause, but a far greater one compared to any earthly cause the world has to offer. Consider the following ways Scripture pictures the gospel:

How do we share a world-changing message with a generation that wants to change the world?

Gospel as mystery. Paul writes in Colossians 1:25-27 that to be an evangelist is to present “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations … Christ in you, the hope of glory.” When you’re sharing the gospel, you’re busting free a mystery that’s been largely hidden from the world. You’re in the know of a life-changing message, the world’s only hope for glory. If you’ve ever talked to a Millennial passionate about this or that particular cause, she acts as if she’s letting you in on a secret, maybe a secret the government or the corporations don’t want you to hear (and in some cases she may be right!). And she’s so excited to subvert the powers-that-be who don’t want you to know. Feel the energy millennial rebels have, and remind yourself that you can bring the same energy to the pulpit when you bust free your Mystery and subvert the powers of Satan that don’t want your audience to know the Mystery.

Millennials want to love something bigger than themselves and their possessions. They’re striving for a transcendent purpose.

Gospel as radical shift. John writes in his first letter (2:15-17) “Do not love the world or anything in the world…. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Part of the desire to be wrapped up in a cause is the desire to escape North American complacency, consumerism, and economic self-centeredness. Millennials want to love something bigger than themselves and their possessions. They’re striving for a transcendent purpose. And that’s exactly what God tells us we have. As children of God, we serve purposes far greater than what common experiences would lead us to believe. Doing God’s will, especially his will to bust out the mystery of the gospel, takes priority over everything, and so John urges us to not let love for earthly things trump our love to carry out our transcendent purpose as evangelists. God asks us to radically shift our priorities, and this shift is something the Millennial is attracted to, a shift the Millennial is very ready to make in her life for lesser causes.

Gospel as invasion. The actual state of affairs in this world is far different than what it appears to be. As his English audience is dealing with World War II and its aftermath, C.S. Lewis writes concerning how Christians view the world,

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what the world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends.”5

In a very real sense, Christianity is about rebellion: it’s about the Holy Spirit creating faith in our hearts that cling to the promise that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and the devil on the cross, and now creates in us the ability to take part in the final invasion of the enemy’s territory. When we pray, “Your kingdom come,” we are praying that we share the revolutionary gospel message that will defeat the strongholds of Satan in the hearts of our friends and family (2 Corinthians 10:4) and will set free one more soul from bondage (Luke 4:18). If Millennials are looking for a cause to make real change in this world, a cause that ends slavery, cruelty, and suppression, tell them to look no further, and invite them to be part of the invasion. It will look different than any other invasion, since his Kingdom is not of this world. But it’s an invasion of far greater scope than any the world has ever seen.

The Gospel ministry as the ultimate cause. Here we state the obvious: If a Millennial wants to be part of a cause that matters, nothing comes close to the cause of the gospel. It’s a mystery to much of the world (and to many of our friends and families) about how God through the incarnation is reclaiming the world from sin, death, and the devil, and to be part of this cause requires a radical life shift that only the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to begin. And so how do we share a world-changing message with a generation that wants to change the world? Simply tell it to them, in all its epic glory as Scripture presents it.

Come, Follow Me. Be a Rebel Without a Cause.

Far more than simply being one of many causes a person could champion in their life, it turns out that the gospel is the mother (literally) of all righteous causes. The real reason a person ought to care for our planet is that it was created by God for us to steward. The real reason a person ought to care for outcasts, the poor, and those who cannot defend themselves is that God not only created them, but he loves them and died for them. And so, for the Christian, each human has the infinite value of the blood that Christ desires to clothe them with. This makes the Christian gospel cause the mother and logical source for tons of lesser causes. Consider the impact Genesis 1 has on environmentalism, or Psalms 51 and 139 on the pro-life movement, Deuteronomy 15:11 and Acts 20:35 on the needy and poor, Jesus’ ministry of compassion on the sick (e.g. Mark 5:25-29) on support for medical research and care for the sick, passages like James 1:27 on orphanages and foster care, and the list will go on until Christ comes back. Scripture is an endless source of imperatives for earthly change.6

The gospel is the mother of all righteous causes.

But if it were only an endless source of imperatives, then it would be an endless source of crushing guilt. The truly unique aspect of our faith is not that it gives justification to so many causes, but rather that, when we fail over and over again to stand up for the things we ought to, Scripture turns out to also be an endless source of gospel, reminding us constantly that we’re forgiven for our inability to be the justice and righteousness and change this world needs. We’re forgiven for not taking the time that we should have for the person in need, or to be educated about this or that issue, or to change aspects of our lifestyle to improve the lives of others. Regardless of whether or not we know how much we’re really called to do in a given situation (do I really need to sew my own clothes rather than take the chances the clothes I buy in stores come from sweat shops?), God’s law makes it clear we rarely do enough, but that Christ has done it all perfectly. And he gives us that life of perfect love, service, and action. Jesus was the perfect rebel so that we wouldn’t need to be. And he now calls us to stand with him against those that would harm his children.

Opportunities for the Church

God calls us to be (theological) rebels and stand with him against sin and the devil. Scripture provides many pictures to help us describe the gospel this way. This gospel message (along with God’s law) gives not only justification for all righteous causes, but also forgives us and renews us when we fall short ourselves in standing up for the poor, the outcast, and the defenseless. If, then, the gospel has everything the rebel Millennial is looking for, why do we have so much trouble connecting with her? Besides the fact that the enemy works hard in the hearts of unbelievers, and besides the fact that the gospel will always remain foolishness to the sin-bound heart, here are two areas we might be able to work on.

God calls us to be (theological) rebels and stand with him against sin and the devil.

Is your church full of slactivists? Just about everyone wants to call him or herself an engaged, caring individual. Very few people want to be that person who doesn’t care about the world or his community or who doesn’t make informed decisions. And so from football players wearing pink ribbons to the over fifteen-thousand 5K runs each year in the U.S. alone, our culture and economy give us plenty of opportunities to look like and feel like we’re making a difference, no matter how small. But the rebel Millennial often distinguishes between people who legitimately make changes in their lives to better their community and the world, and those who do enough to simply feel good about themselves, cleverly termed slactivists. Obviously, there is no exact science in knowing how much is enough, and making this distinction is dangerous, at times cruel, and often unfounded. But the fact remains that for many Millennials, among the chief places slactivists gather are churches. After all the church is full of hypocrites. Although it’s that way by design (he came for the sick, not the healthy), the charge against the church as a home for slactivists is something we ought to be aware of. Let it renew our vigor to put on the new self, to seek out visitors because we love them and really want to help them, and especially to help us and our congregations be honest about our own sins and the need to take them to the cross. Homiletic application abounds as we confess our own sins of slactivism at times (which is really just falling short of the second table of the law). Use the challenge of slactivism as an opportunity to grow in our mindful preaching and guest awareness.

For many Millennials, among the chief places slactivists gather are churches.

Issues, not organizations. It’s almost stereotypical, but it’s clearly taught that “millennials care about issues, not organizations.”7  In other words, millennials don’t want to be part of a club for the sake of being part of a club. They don’t want to just be. They want to be about something. If a congregation appears too self-centered and not focused externally on the community and world around it, and particularly on the issues around it, the rebel Millennial will not consider being an active member of the congregation.

Addressing this concern from the pulpit naturally flows from a good understanding of the nature of the church and the nature of the pastor. After all, the church is really not about creating an organization (although the body of Christ is a necessary and wonderful byproduct of the gospel); it’s about dealing with an issue: sin. And if that’s the case, then nothing is more important than clear communication about where church offerings go. We are here to bind the broken-hearted (Isaiah 61:1), welcome the poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), and bring a peace to this earth (Luke 2:14) that only the gospel can bring. If a Millennial sees your church as simply funding an organization, they won’t find that attractive. If they see your church as getting things done and making progress on an issue, even if that issue is spiritual rather than social, political, or environmental, they just might want to know how they can join forces with your group of rebels and make a difference.

Written by Luke Thompson

Luke Thompson received an MA in philosophy from Marquette University, was an adjunct professor of philosophy at Wisconsin Lutheran College, and worked with several WELS campus ministries before graduating in 2013 from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He now serves as pastor at St. Paul Lutheran in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, and its campus ministry, illuminé.


Preaching in the context of worship

Following are comments from a study released in September 2015.8  The first of five themes is related to worship. The study is pertinent to the entire PTW millennial series. BG

  • Millennials don’t need worship to be entertained. Many are attracted to ritual and high forms of worship. “Contemporary worship was a Boomer response to their parents. Millennials are attracted to the ancient modern9.”
  • Millennials are drawn to more traditional and ancient forms of worship, which symbolize a connection to something bigger than themselves.
  • Are you trying too hard? How much emphasis are you putting on “contemporary” worship styles that may be turning off Millennials?
  • Engagement does not, however, necessarily mean a high-tech worship service. Authenticity means more than form, and many Millennials are attracted to more traditional forms of worship as important symbols of belonging to a community.

Many studies refer to Millennials as persons born from 1980 to 2000, marked particularly by growing up in the information and technology age. We will use this definition. William Strauss and Neil Howe are credited with introducing and first defining the term in Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation, (New York, NY: Vintage Original, 2000).

We do not define the term rebel as our two-kingdom theology understands the term and strongly rejects, a political dissident, but rather how the term is understood more broadly by Millennials and in common popular media, someone who marches to the beat of their own drum, is no part of the status quo, or refuses to be objectified or commercialized.

We define cause as any issue or subject that groups of people try to influence other people to either support or reject. Causes include social causes (organized care for the poor or homeless, pro-life and pro-choice advocacy, etc.), environmentalism, medical research awareness and support, and virtually anything else groups have organized fundraisers for or advocated change in behavior to address.

Christie Barakat, “Cause-Related Marketing and the Millennial Mindset,”Social Times, http://www.adweek.com/socialtimes/cause-related-marketing-millennial-mindset/142701, accessed January 20, 2016. Citing research from “The 2006 Cone Millennial Cause Study,” Cone Inc. in collaboration with AMP Agency, http://www.centerforgiving.org/Portals/0/2006%20Cone%20Millennial%20Cause%20Study.pdf, accessed January 8, 2016.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (NY: HarperOne, 2002), p. 46.

Our desire to be part of causes, then, is a reflection of the natural knowledge of God, the law within driving us to care for others. This makes causes an apt place to begin preaching law to the unbeliever. For example, “(a) You say you care for cause X. (b) If that’s truly a cause worth caring for despite whether people care for it, then it’s because it follows from a transcendent law: love your neighbors as yourself. (c) You know this law, because it was written in your heart by the law giver. (d) And you know as well as anyone that you can’t keep that law perfectly.”

Randy Hawthorne, “Understanding What Motivates Millennials to Give to Your NPO,” Nonprofit Hub, http://www.nonprofithub.org/fundraising/understanding-motivates-millennials-give-npo/, accessed January 8, 2016.

The report, Engaging Millennials in Ministry, is available at www.siebertfoundation.org/engagingmillennials. The Siebert Foundation is perhaps best known in WELS circles for being a sponsor of the annual Change or Die Conference.

Robert Webber’s term. But, as he says, not the traditionalism of the 50s. And not “hymnal and organ autopilot.”

 

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Preaching to the biblically ignorant…

…without seeming biblically arrogant

For many generations, preachers could assume a decent amount of biblical understanding from their hearers. Pastors could mention a name like Abraham or Zacchaeus without having to explain who they were or what they did. People generally knew their Bibles better than some do today.

A change was first apparent in confirmation classes. Year after year, a growing percentage of kids did not know anything about Abraham, Moses, Daniel, or Paul. They had no concept of Old Testament and New Testament. Trying to find Exodus was a chore. Initially we blamed poor parenting as the culprit.

Then we discovered it was not just a handful of isolated incidents. Biblical ignorance became a defining characteristic of an entire generation. Perhaps it was the parenting. Perhaps it was the local church. Perhaps it was a combination. Rather than dwelling on what brought us here, it is better to figure out a plan for going forward. The question to address first is this:

Should our style of preaching change to accommodate a generation that is biblically ignorant?

Let’s work through some common myths that might shape the way we answer that question.

Myth #1: I don’t have any biblically ignorant people in my church.

If you believe this, you will eventually be correct. Let me illustrate with a hypothetical example.

Over the course of 30 years church leaders believed that the only people who came to their church were well-versed, biblically-founded Christians. It never crossed their minds that someone biblically illiterate might wander through the doors. At every service and in every sermon, the pastors communicated in such a way that would engage and challenge the spiritually informed people who gathered there. They didn’t explain things in a way that a biblically ignorant person could understand. Now after 30 years, what kind of a church would you have?

I believe that this church would be one of the most biblically-literate churches around. Granting that this church is Bible-based and the pastors taught the Bible well, another significant factor might be at play. This church would have attracted people who already knew the Bible and were loyal to the church’s doctrinal stance before they even met the pastor. Guests who were biblically ignorant and doctrinally ungrounded would have difficulties connecting to such a church.

So if you believe there are no biblically ignorant people in your church, you will eventually be correct. Rather than ask if there are such people in your church, ask if you want them to be there. With that desire, we can overcome a few myths fairly easily.

If you believe there are no biblically ignorant people in your church, you will eventually be correct.

Myth #2: If I preach down to the level of the ignorant, they will remain ignorant.

Preaching to their level does not mean you minimize the gospel or water down the law. It means you communicate the word clearly and show them how it applies to their lives. We will talk about practical ways to do that in a moment, but for now consider the importance of doing it.

These are souls who have not been reached. They are ignorant not because they woke up one day and decided the Bible was not important to them. Most of them are ignorant because the Bible doesn’t make sense to them. It’s a foreign language to them. They do not miss what they do not know. Any given Sunday might be the first time someone is hearing the message.

When you preach at their level, you show them what they have been missing. You connect them to the means of grace by which the Holy Spirit will sow and grow their faith. The Spirit will nurture a new man who thirsts for God’s Word, which in turn will overpower the old man’s contented ignorance.

Myth #3: If I adopt a style that engages the ignorant, I will bore the literate.

I can confidently tell you on the basis of plenty of anecdotal evidence that mature Christians enjoy a preaching style that engages the biblically ignorant. Here is why I think they enjoy it. The language of the shepherd becomes the language of his sheep. The words you regularly use will become their vocabulary. The way you explain things will shape the way they look at things.

Mature Christians enjoy a preaching style that engages the biblically ignorant.

The point is that even if you have a consistent audience of informed Christians, they will consistently interact with biblically ignorant people five or six days per week. Teach them how to converse with such people by demonstrating it from the pulpit. Then the language used on Sunday can be put to use on Monday.

Myth #4: I don’t have enough time to explain everything.

It will absolutely require more time. It will require you to think like an uninformed person—even like an unbeliever. It will force you to find words and phrases that communicate God’s timeless truths to people with no biblical background. This requires a great deal of mental effort. You will question if you can afford the time to do this. But in light of myth #1, there is a better question. Can you afford to not do this?

It is not your job to preach the entire Bible every week. It is not your burden to defend the supremacy, inerrancy, and efficacy of Scripture on a weekly basis. It is  your job to be a clear window to the gospel of Jesus.

Some practical tips follow on how to speak to the level of the biblically ignorant without coming across as biblically arrogant.

Tip #1: Rethink the atmosphere you create.

I wish that engaging those with little Bible knowledge was as easy as switching a few words in our vocabulary—which does help, as we will see. But we have to start deeper than that. The biblically ignorant who are determining if your church is for them pay attention first not to the words you say, but to how you say them.

Most pastors are wired completely opposite. When you visit a church, you evaluate it based on doctrine. If the church is a solid Lutheran church, there is not much evaluation to do. But if you have ever gone to a wedding or funeral at a different church, how did you feel? No matter what that church did to make you feel comfortable, you probably felt out of place and awkward. That’s because we pastors evaluate churches on the basis of doctrine.

Those who are biblically ignorant cannot do this. The first thing they pay attention to isn’t what  you say, but how  you say it. While the implications of this could warrant an entire article, here’s just one connection that is pertinent to the title of this one. What does your atmosphere communicate to those who are biblically ignorant? Does it communicate a loving desire to reach them on their level, or does it suggest an arrogance that requires them to reach yours? The remaining tips narrow in on specific parts of the sermon that are worthy of attention.

Tip #2: Rethink your introduction.

The purpose of the introduction is to find a point of connection with the listeners. We preachers often leverage our introductions to connect with people on a biblical level. Here’s what I mean.

Let’s say I am preaching about Samson’s final feat. I introduce the sermon by talking about a character from The Avengers  that will surely get the attention of the younger crowd: Iron Man. I show a picture of Iron Man as a visual aid. After highlighting Iron Man’s unique strength and how he used it, I immediately transition to talk about Samson’s unique strength and how he used it. Then I announce my theme and parts: God makes you strong. Strong to live. Strong to die.

Illustration: Iron Man is strong → Connection: Samson was strong → Theme: God makes you strong

In this model, the illustration which is widely recognized is immediately  connected to a detail in the text. This is not inherently bad or wrong. It immediately connects people to the text, which is great for those people who are familiar with the Bible and eager to hear it.

But what about people who are not familiar with the Bible and perhaps a bit skeptical about it?

In the introduction above, the illustration doesn’t apply to them unless they own a fully-functioning Iron Man suit. The connection is difficult for them to make because they have no context yet for Samson. The result is that they might contemplate scenes from The Avengers  more than your message.

The traditional way to use the introduction is to gather people around the text. An alternative way to use the introduction is to gather people around an issue resolved by the text.

For example, a sermon on Samson’s last feat could start with a dialogue about the mercy rule—the rule that ends or shortens the game when a team is completely outmatched and everybody knows it. What if you could apply the mercy rule to life when your career, health, or relationships seem to be beyond repair? Perhaps you recently went through something where it seemed like God was working against you—like you were down and out, and there was no way you could possibly win. In a moment I will show you why a guy named Samson had every right to feel that way. But when you see what God did through him, you will discover that even when you are down, you are never out.

Illustration: Mercy rule → Connection: Common tension → Theme: You are never out

The illustration is something biblically ignorant people can relate to, and the connection is something they have all experienced.

Gather people around an issue resolved by the text. This draws everyone in, regardless of biblical knowledge, and it creates a sense of urgency in which everyone leans into the text to discover the solution.

Gather people around an issue resolved by the text. This draws everyone in, regardless of biblical knowledge.

Tip #3: Rethink your vocabulary.

If you are not careful with your vocabulary—especially overused insider words and phrases—it’s easy to cause disconnect and bring ambiguity to your message. Here are a few examples.

“The text before us this Sunday…”

Use of this phrase could be a homiletical shortcut that undermines the authenticity that Millennials are searching for. If what you are preaching on is just a “text,” you don’t need to explain where it came from or what it is. It’s just there. Somebody put it in front of you, and now you have to deal with it.

Tell them what “the text” really is. It is God’s living, powerful word. It is from God’s library of books and letters of which he himself is the Alpha and Omega. What you have is the best news that anyone could hear.

Try banning this phrase altogether and see what it forces you to do. You will likely be more specific about the way you refer to the Bible, and that’s always a good thing.

“This part of the Bible reminds us that…”

What are you communicating with the word remind ? On a theological level, the Bible does not repeat something we already know. It is earth-shattering news that deserves urgent attention no matter how often we hear it. The word remind  can deflect hearers away from that sense of urgency.

On an interpersonal level, you are implying that the hearers should  know what you are reminding them of. But what if they don’t know? What are you implying about them?

“We”

Pay attention to pronoun usage. When preachers use “we,” they often mean everyone in the room. Be careful, though. By default, Millennials and most guests interpret “we” as a reference to the pastor and the members of his church. Big difference.

There are appropriate times to talk about yourself and the members of your church, such as when you are welcoming guests or sharing a congregational vision.

There are also times when “we” could make a good statement sound arrogant. For example: “We know that we are forgiven because of what Jesus did for us.” This might be heard as an attitude of arrogance to those who don’t feel like part of the “we.”

“We read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.”

Textual introductions like this create confusion for the scripturally uniformed by opening up a lot of questions. “Who is Paul? Why did he write a letter? Why is it my business to read his letter? What is a Corinthian?”

“What is a Corinthian?”

Take the time to tell people what they are hearing. Set it in its historical context. “This was a message written by the most influential first century Christian missionary to a group of struggling Christians in a bustling city called Corinth.” This shows your authentic interest in what you are about to read.

“…”

That was you completely ignoring a detail in the text that you did not want to take time to explain. You decided to skip it, hoping that nobody would notice.

Better to highlight such details. It should be expected that God’s story contains details that are odd or difficult. Rather than skipping over them, acknowledge them. Offer at least a brief explanation so that people can learn from the challenging detail.

If we ignore the oddities or imply that people just need to believe everything in the Bible without mentally processing it, we risk creating an atmosphere of biblical arrogance which could reinforce biblical ignorance.

“Here are a few other passages that support this.”

With some Millennials you don’t need to prove yourself. If you feel that a truth is unusual enough that it needs reinforcement, just share that you have been convinced by studying the many places where the Bible speaks about it. If you feel compelled, list the references you studied. Tell them where to look it up for themselves.

If it aids in the joy of their discovery, walk through one auxiliary passage that provides exceptional clarity on the issue. Digging into one passage with context is better than sprinting through several with none.

Jesus created an atmosphere of grace where everyone was welcome.

Conclusion

Right now you might feel that these tips overemphasize some very minor points. I acknowledge these are little things, but a bunch of little things contribute to an atmosphere.

That is what the Pharisees hated about Jesus. Their accusation that he welcomed sinners was telling. He did lots of little things to create an atmosphere where sinners felt welcome. Don’t think that Jesus had it easier than we do. He encountered guilty people who should have known better  and people who should not have been so ignorant  of the truth.

For these kinds of people, Jesus created an atmosphere of grace where everyone was welcome. He gathered people around issues that he alone could resolve. He ran towards messes that he alone could fix. Many of these were temporal in nature rather than spiritual. But by engaging them Jesus drew people toward the problem of sin for which he was the remedy by his life, death, and resurrection.

By Matt Ewart

Matt Ewart is a 2006 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He is one of two pastors who serve at Bethlehem Lutheran in Lakeville, MN. He is passionate about communication techniques that engage people of all backgrounds.


Next steps
  1. As you read through the Gospels, pay attention to the atmosphere Jesus created for ignorant “sinners.” How did he communicate to help them make sense of the message?
  2. Answer the question: “Do I want my church to attract the biblically ignorant?” Is there anything about the answer that scares you or makes you hesitate? Why?
  3. Use the tips in this article to build a framework for personal evaluation. Include people of all ages in the evaluation process. Nothing apart from the Word is too sacred to evaluate, but use wisdom when making changes.

Banish everything alien?

The examples in this article are not from a list of things to banish from preaching so that messages have no trace of anything alien. Millennials, like seekers of all time, will have much to learn as they explore the message and culture of Christianity and confessional Lutheranism. But the examples in this article do illustrate points on which greater awareness might increase a listener’s interest in receiving a message. BG.

 

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Preaching the Law without being judgmental

The Unique Challenge Millennials Present to Preaching Law

Millennials are Extra Sensitive to Judgment

Cable television entrepreneur Bob Buford discussed the uniqueness of Millennials in a fascinating interview conducted with researcher David Kinnaman for his book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. Noting the shift in the self-assessment of various generations, he said that, in his surveying, when the Elder generation was asked to describe themselves, the most commonly used words/phrases were: “World War II and Depression, smarter, honest, work ethic, and values and morals.” Boomers described their generation using terms like “work ethic, respectful, values and morals, and smarter.” Busters (or Gen X) used terms like “technology use, work ethic, conservative or traditional, smarter, and respectful.” And then he noted Millennials. The phrases they most commonly used? “Technology use, music and pop culture, liberal or tolerant, smarter, and clothes.” He concluded, “Where has respectful gone? Where is work ethic? To me, this shows that the next generation is not just sort of different; they are DISCONTINUOUSLY different.” 1

“The next generation is not just sort of different; they are DISCONTINUOUSLY different.”

It might be interesting to pursue the reasons why each generation automatically assumes itself “smarter” than the previous or why something as superficial as “clothes” is a prominent self-identification for Millennials. But for our preaching purposes, let’s take note of the Millennial self-assessment of “tolerant.”

Theologically conservative, traditionally oriented Christians tend to cringe at the very sound of the word “tolerance.”

But let’s not be too quick here.

Tolerance itself is a fully godly trait. The Apostle Paul, writing to some (hypocritically) self-righteous and judgmental Jews, said, “Do you show contempt for the riches of (God’s) kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4)

Within the premise of the gospel is the idea that God doesn’t merely send lightning bolts down upon me when I’m behaving badly. He’s patient with me. He stays with me. And he seeks to win my heart over to the truth. He doesn’t just shut me down and cut me off. Instead, for a time, God tolerates me, guiding me to repent of my untruth, see the beauty of his mercy, and voluntarily conform to his will.

Furthermore, some tolerance is necessary for differing peoples to exist peaceably in the same space. This is the basis for civilization.

The point is this: a younger generation’s preference for inclusiveness is certainly not inherently wrong nor should it ever be scolded as such. This tolerant disposition is, however, a little misguided. This is where you, the preacher, help them navigate a better path for life by shining the light of God’s Word.

The Tension in Preaching the Law

Millennials have grown up with a society devoid of moral universals. Again, if they have a cultural North Star for behavior, it’s tolerance. I’m not suggesting they don’t all have an innate knowledge of morality from God (Romans 2:14-15). I’m suggesting the culture they’ve grown up in hasn’t reinforced that natural moral code the way it had in previous generations.

Additionally, their open-minded disposition is the natural reaction of a generation that has grown up with peers who are significantly more diverse—ethnically, religiously, relationally, and sexually—than their parents and grandparents. They have zero patience for mistreatment of those who are different. Inclusiveness, diversity, and political correctness are ideals that have shaped Millennials.

Before we tackle the challenge of how to preach the law, it’s worth reminding ourselves that statements of inclusion are important to communicating the gospel clearly. Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). John says, “This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God” (1 John 4:2). Jesus himself says, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). These are clear statements of gospel inclusion. The gospel is so overwhelmingly inclusive that it works for EVERYONE. It’s intrinsically inclusive. Let’s not be too quick to stomp out a good, but often misguided trait of Millennials.

Finally, perhaps the most influential factor in the differences between the Millennial mindset and that of previous generations is the widespread dissolution of the family unit. Kids today are eight times more likely to come into the world without married parents than were Boomers. Without that natural, God-given parental unit in place as an authority in their lives, Millennials take longer to grow up, are highly skeptical of authorities, and will generally only trust you after personal, relational investment.

Since they understandably distrust traditional authority structures, Millennials rely heavily upon what feels right. What seems fair is more powerful to them than what someone tells them is objectively right.

For example, it’s difficult to convince Millennials that illegally downloading copyrighted music online is objectively wrong. The rationale could go somewhere along these lines: many musicians are disgustingly wealthy anyways; music is just the collection of sounds and ideas which should be free; why should wealthier people have more access to such things? Whatever the objective reality, it doesn’t seem fair to them.

As an illustration of the rapidly increasing influence of Millennials, keep in mind that they’ve gotten their way on this issue. Starting with Napster back in 2000, the music industry could not stop Millennials from getting music for free. This is the basis for today’s popular, free ad-sponsored music services like Pandora and Spotify.

Millennials possess a liberal-mindedness that is constantly pushing for fair. They will outright reject any authority structure that carries an insider/outsider type of mentality, and many of them are convinced that Christian churches embody such a temperament.

Millennials grew up hating the relational dissolution they experienced with their parents. They often feel that many truth claims are unquantifiable. So rather than bicker, Millennials prefer to constantly push for unity. Boomers were often skeptical of others but caustic in their attitudes. Millennials want to get along. They are forgiving and relational and have great difficulty understanding why other generations don’t feel the same way. They love family. They long for togetherness. They hate constant negative speech about other political parties, have no time for comments that suggest racial bias, and will opt out of any Christian church that is obsessed with pointing out the flaws in other Christian churches.

Rather than bicker, Millennials prefer to constantly push for unity.

With these factors in mind, the obvious challenge to preaching the law then is that every pronouncement of the law is saying that something in us isn’t right. The listener recognizes that he/she is further from ideal than previously thought and it feels like rejection—an unsubstantiated, uncaring push to the outside.

Overcoming the Challenge

Attitude – You’re No Better

It sometimes seems like “don’t judge” (Matthew 7:1) has now surpassed John 3:16 as the most frequently echoed scriptural sentiment in a morally relativistic generation.

While it’s true that this section of the Bible (as others) does not prohibit moral judgment, the point remains: we aren’t the final judges of God’s law. We are merely witnesses to God’s grace. Consequently, if the gospel is true, then I never have the right to look down on another person as inferior to me because we are both sinners saved exclusively by the grace of God in the work of Christ Jesus. Showing an aura of condescension while sharing the law with someone harms your ability to rightly preach the gospel, because it seems you don’t understand the gospel yourself. Sinners are saved by grace alone. It works the same way for every single one of us.

This means that all human beings are fundamentally more alike than we are different. Guess who loves the sound of that? Inclusive Millennials.

All human beings are fundamentally more alike than we are different.

Technique – Affirm the Good, Correct the Bad

Okay. Okay. Yes, we all know Millennials have work to do on their problem with moral relativism. But before immediately correcting their inconsistent and illogical attempts at morality, let’s start with a positive: these young adults are eager to find a point of commonality rather than a point of contention. This is drastically different from previous generations. Many Christians and Christian churches in the twentieth century largely defined their faith and denominational affiliation on the basis of what they were not, e.g. a Lutheran was not a Catholic because…. A Baptist was not a Lutheran because…. Certainly such doctrinal differences are serious and at some point need to be worked through, but Millennials don’t want to start there. Many older WELS members often do appear to want to start there.

Doctrinal differences are serious … but Millennials don’t want to start there.

When confronting a misguided common belief in culture, consider the methodology that Timothy Keller proposes:

Our premises must be drawn wholly from the Bible, yet we will always find some things in a culture’s beliefs that are roughly true, things on which we can build our critique. We will communicate something like this: “You see this ‘A’ belief you have? The Bible says the same thing – so we agree. However if ‘A’ is true, then why do you not believe ‘B’? The Bible teaches ‘B,’ and if ‘A’ is true, then it is not right, fair, or consistent for you to reject ‘B.’ If you believe this – how can you not believe that?” We reveal inconsistencies in the cultural beliefs and assumptions about reality. With the authority of the Bible we allow one part of the culture – along with the Bible – to critique another part. The persuasive force comes from basing our critique on something we can affirm within our culture. 2

Let me offer some examples of what Keller is talking about.

Example 1 – Tolerance. What if someone says, “I think you’re being intolerant—and therefore, unloving—of other beliefs and other Christians by not (e.g.) allowing them to commune with us.” At that point you can agree that the gospel does promote radical, almost otherworldly, inclusiveness. However, tolerance of beliefs really has nothing to do with it. In fact, by saying that I’m being “narrow-minded” or “intolerant,” you’re being just as intolerant of my beliefs as you claim I’m being of yours. Neither of us is more or less tolerant than the other. Both of us are claiming authoritative spiritual insight. At that point, you’ve both affirmed their desire for a good, gospel-flavored attitude of inclusion, but corrected their misguided application of what is or is not unfair judgment.

To someone who possesses any of the humility necessary for learning, this then affords you the opportunity to walk through 1 Corinthians 10-11, at which point they might well see how loving, compassionate, and beautiful the idea of close Communion really is. If your approach is “That’s just wrong,” you’ll run into a Nietzschean Millennial distrust of authority and institutional power plays.

Example 2 – Evolution. I regularly use this teaching technique on the issue of macroevolution. Most young adults operate with “macroevolutionary beliefs” since that’s what they learned in their science textbooks. However, most young adults also often have compassion for the oppression of human rights around the world. So I establish that such human sensitivity (an ‘A’ belief for them) is a wonderful attribute, but gently point out how this is inconsistent with their ‘B’ belief of evolution. Evolution is predicated on the idea of “survival of the fittest” and “the strong eat the weak.” So if you believe in macroevolution, you cannot logically say that it is wrong for a stronger country in the Middle East to devour a weaker country. That’s merely the advancement of the species, natural selection. At that point, their ‘A’ belief trumps their ‘B’ belief, and they feel compelled to correct the cognitive dissonance. I don’t know that I’ve ever explained macroevolution to a young adult that way and not had them say, “Hmm. That’s interesting.”

Example 3 – Identity. We live in a time and place where students grow up hearing in their biology classes that their lives are accidental—as Bertrand Russell said, “accidental collocations of atoms.” And then these same students hear in their psychology classes, “You just need to have more self-esteem.” As a preacher, it’s important and not that difficult to point out the internal consistency of such beliefs. “No wonder you feel so worthless! You’re not an accident! The King of the Cosmos knitted you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). Not only that, God’s only Son sacrificed his life in order to save your life. That is what you’re worth to God! Don’t you dare let a bitter philosopher or arrogant biologist who doesn’t know for certain what happened a hundred years ago, let alone thousands or millions of years ago, tell you you’re an accident.” The ‘A’ belief here is the idea that human life is valuable. The ‘B’ belief is that mankind sprung about through a chemical happenstance. Further illustrate that anything without design is purposeless. Then ask them if they feel like their life has or should have purpose? If so, then they must necessarily be designed.

Affirm the good. Gently walk them through what is incorrect.

Notice that in each of those examples there is no condemning “You’re wrong!” speech. Millennials will put up a defense mechanism against that. You can’t just tell them that they’re wrong. You have to show them the inconsistency of their beliefs. You have to show them a better, truer way.

Jesus is THE Way

So you come to the average person in the twenty-first century and you tell them that they need Jesus. They ask why. You start talking to them about the Ten Commandments—how sex outside of marriage is wrong, how greediness is wrong, how lying and disrespect are wrong. The Millennial is much more inclined than people of a previous generation to say, “What are you talking about? Who are you to judge? This is just who I am.” All you end up doing is arguing about moral relativism.

On the other hand, try saying, “Everyone in the world is serving a master. We sacrifice to this master—our time, our energy, our wealth—at the expense of many other good things in life. But many of those masters (e.g. career, romance, social approval, etc.) will enslave you and curse you and disappoint you. But Jesus is the only master who can fully satisfy you and put into perspective all competitors—also those who tempt Christians. And when we fail him and yet turn to him for rescue, he’ll forgive us and demonstrate even greater love” (Romans 5:20-21).

Preaching the law has subtly transformed from harping on how certain behaviors are wrong (though they are), to showing how following Jesus is better.

This could be followed by an explanation of how God’s laws, far from being oppressive, are really given in love to lead toward human flourishing.

Example 1 – The Necessity of Restriction. An old preaching illustration of this is the fish in the fishbowl. A fish needs restrictions to live. Since it can only live in water, it needs walls that hold the water together. If you decide you’re going to liberate a fish by freeing it from its fishbowl and tossing it out onto the ground, it will flop about until its life is squeezed out. The fish needed those restrictions to live. True freedom then is not the absence of restrictions, but rather includes the presence of restrictions that lead to our health and well-being.

Example 2 – The Law of Design. Something which is designed only works when used in accordance with its intended purpose. For instance, I’m not particularly handy. I keep my tools in a zippered pouch, if that tells you anything. I once tried to remove a stripped screw from my wall with the backside of the hammer, i.e. the claw. I ended up ripping the dry wall apart. When you use something in a way other than how it was designed, it’s not productive. It’s destructive. You’ll destroy your life if you don’t use it the way God designed it to be used. God’s laws help explain our design.

In summary, 1) tolerance is not all bad, 2) don’t just tell but show Millennials, and 3) explain how we all will have a master, but Jesus is the only worthy master of our lives. His commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3) but beautiful. After all, Jesus is the one person who perfectly followed his Father’s will, and just look at the beauty he brought to mankind by doing so.

Written by James Hein

James Hein is a 2008 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He serves at Resurrection and Life Lutheran, a multisite congregation in Rochester, MN. He thoroughly enjoys the challenges and blessings of ministering to Millennials.


1    Kinnaman, You Lost Me, pgs. 37-38.
2    Timothy Keller, Center Church, pg. 125.


Read more from Pastor Hein

To read more of Pastor Hein’s thoughts on ministering to Millenials, visit pastorjameshein.wordpress.com and search “Millenials.”

 

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Exegizing your audience

By Mike Geiger

This issue of Preach the Word begins a new series: preaching to Millennials while maintaining connection with other generations. This series, planned in cooperation with the Commission on Evangelism, departs from previous custom with a different writer for each issue. 

Mike Geiger is a 1997 graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. He served an exploratory outreach setting in Cary, North Carolina for 12 years before accepting his current call to serve as pastor of adult discipleship and outreach at Good Shepherd in Burnsville, MN. He serves on the WELS Commission on Evangelism. He writes not as the expert but to encourage and spark a discussion of how we can better communicate the saving Gospel of Jesus to the millennial generation.

Exegesis. It’s what every preacher does every time (I pray) before he preaches. He spends significant time in the original languages of the text to draw out the meaning and clear interpretation of the text. How can a preacher expound on a specific text, proclaim clearly specific law and specific gospel, appropriate and apply the truth of Scripture, unless he first invests time to do a careful exegesis of the text? In fact our seminary training has focused us on mastering the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. We’ve invested hours of learning to understand sentence structures, verb forms, and hundreds of vocables. Even though some of these skills may have slipped and we have relegated some of our exegetical work to the help of software such as Logos, we still take great care every week to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). Exegizing the text allows us to carefully mine the Scriptures in order to clearly communicate the truth of God’s Word from that particular text to the particular people God has gathered before us that week.

But…even if we have done a thorough textual exegesis, could we perhaps have shortchanged our exegizing so that unclear communication of God’s Word takes place when we stand before God’s people?

I’m not talking about getting out A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Robertson) or the Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Brown, Driver, Briggs) and rememorizing verb forms and vocables (although it might not be a bad idea). I am suggesting that communicating the Word of God involves a speaker and a hearer. I am suggesting that just as we shortchange the Word of God by doing a superficial exegesis of the text, we perhaps also miss clearly communicating God’s timeless truth if we fail to exegize our audience…the people to whom we speak.

he Word of God is changeless and timeless. The people to whom we preach changes from week to week or year to year, from community to community, from culture to culture, from generation to generation. How God’s Word applies to one, perhaps, is not an application to which another relates. The terminology we choose for one audience, may go over the head of another. The application and appropriation of God’s Word for one generation may not be the same application and appropriation another generation understands.

In this volume of Preach the Word, the Commission on Evangelism in partnership with the Commission on Worship and various writers will tackle an audience that is found in our churches but which, sadly to some degree, may be drifting from our churches. And yet we eagerly desire for this audience to gather regularly around the Means of Grace.

Who are these people? They are the Millennials.

First of all, these are souls who matter to Jesus and therefore matter to us. They are worth understanding so that we can be instruments of God’s Spirit to communicate saving truth to them and equip others to do the same. These are individuals who need the message of God’s grace as much as the next person, but don’t always think the way we think, value what we value, or understand what we understand. Nonetheless, they are worth listening to…so that they will listen to what God wants them to know and believe. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Understand, what follows are generalizations. In your ministry context you may well find exceptions. A thorough “audience exegesis” must happen in your community and with the individuals to whom God has called you to bring the Word of Truth. However, generalizations are a place to start in our exegizing of our audience. Consider each of these descriptions as food for thought as you craft a message to connect in a relevant way to this demographic of souls.

So, who are these individuals, the Millennials?

This demographic of individuals born from 1980 to 2000 (approximately) is having an increasing influence and impact on the culture around us. Their thought processes, their values, and their interests are overshadowing what previous generations have thought, valued, and found of interest. So if our clergy culture and learning as well as our main audience for preaching are dominantly Baby Boomers and Generation X’rs, it’s time to broaden our awareness and exegize the audience of the Millennials.

To give you a start, here is a Top 10 List of Millennial generation generalities:

  1. They grew up in a post-Christian era (Gen X’rs left the church but were raised in the church. Many Millennials have had no connection to the church.)
  2. They are biblically illiterate. Key stories and biblical terminology are not in their awareness.
  3. They do not have a biblical worldview. Secular humanism has molded their worldview.
  4. They often see Christianity as judgmental and hypocritical (Secularization. White, p. 48).
  5. They see spirituality as “anything an individual desires it to be—a private affair to be developed as one sees fit” (Privatization. White, p. 49).
  6. They are “confronted with a staggering number of ideologies and faith options competing for their attention” (Pluralization. White, p. 50).
  7. They are interested in truth but want to experience the truth more than being told what truth is. They want to know if the truth you present works for you and for others.
  8. They are more interested in rallying around a cause than perpetuating a program. They want to make a difference, a positive impact, not just be busy in a church program.
  9. They aren’t necessarily committed to a congregation, but desire to have community. The institution is not important…social connections are.
  10. They are interested in what you have to say, but more interested in who you are. Are you being authentic, sharing your questions and struggles?

My personal awareness of the work I need to do to better exegize this audience came on New Year’s Eve this past year. As we were enjoying the evening waiting for midnight we were playing iHeart Radio top songs for 2014. My 10 year old daughter was singing along to some. I was completely clueless. Just looking at the Billboard Top 100 leads me to realize people like Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry, John Legend, and Iggy Azalea are people who are somewhat foreign to my mind, but readily influencing the minds of Millennials and others. I too have some work to do to exegize my audience.

You, preacher, wouldn’t be the first one to understand the importance of knowing your audience to reach them with the Gospel. Inspired speakers and writers throughout the Scripture took the changeless truth to changing audiences. Not every audience receives information the same way as another. Consider the Apostle Paul. To the Jews in Thessalonica (Acts 17:20) he reasoned with them to show that Jesus was the Messiah. To the Greeks in Athens (Acts 17:16ff) he started his “sermon” with the natural knowledge of God. To the Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) he rightly divided the Word of Truth to divide law and gospel so the gospel was free from attachments of the law. You might say all of them had the purpose of proclaiming God’s grace…but it was done differently because of different audiences.

As a preacher, see this as a challenge to be embraced rather than an issue we hope will go away. It might be easier if we could just preach to Lutherans who have grown up in WELS and have our shared tenets of faith ready at a moment’s recall. It might perhaps be easier…but that is not what God has called us to do. The Lord Jesus knew that every people of every generation was important, so he commissioned all his followers, including preachers: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This commission includes different cultures and different generations.

For a textual exegesis you have resources on your book shelf or Logos on your computer. Wouldn’t it be great to have resources for understanding Millennials and others in your audience easily available on your book shelf or at the click of a mouse?

Some beginning work can be done with a click of your mouse or purchasing a few books. Simply typing “Understanding Millennials” into a Google search will give you many websites that parse the information for different applications. Try “Preaching to Millennials” and you will connect with another set of articles. From our WELS fellowship, check out Pastor James Hein’s blog series on Millennials (https://pastorjameshein.wordpress.com/tag/millennials/). To add to your library, you might pick up a few books such as The Rise of the Nones by James Emery White. (The Commission on Evangelism focused on this book for a year to study this demographic and our need to connect with it.) James White offers a blog that is worth subscribing to called “Church and Culture.” See also You Lost Me by David Kinnaman or The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation by Thom Rainer. These books will give you the results of interviews and research to glean insights into this generation.

But let’s not neglect the reality that the best exegesis of your audience comes when we follow Christ’s directive to “go.” God has sent you to a context and community of ministry. This is where the generalities of blog posts and books become the reality of the people to whom God has called you to preach the gospel.

Start with the Millennials who are in your congregation or have drifted from attending regularly—perhaps a good “excuse” to make an elder visit. Take time to ask questions and to listen to their responses. Spend some time in your community. Sit in a Starbucks or Caribou; observe and interact. Talk to your high school teens about what they listen to, watch, or pay attention to. Or perhaps hang out at the Genius Bar at the Apple Store if your community has one. The goal? Exegize the audience in your community.

If you are a preacher from the Boomer or Gen X generation, you don’t need to embrace all the millennial mindset, but it would be wise to understand it and adapt your preaching to connect with it. Certainly in our desire to connect with any generation we will ask what is permissible, but perhaps not beneficial. But we will always carry the heart of the Apostle Paul who was willing to become a Jew to the Jew to win the Jew and a Greek to the Greek to win the Greek. Can I become a Millennial to win the Millennial?

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings
(1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

So for the sake of the Gospel, the power it has for salvation, and the soul of the Millennial, let’s embark on this preaching adventure together.

Written by Mike Geiger


Upcoming Topics
  1. TOPIC: Preaching to the Biblically Ignorant without Being Biblically Arrogant
    Purpose: Assist the preacher in communicating biblical persons, language and terms to an audience that may have little or no awareness of the same.
  2. TOPIC: Preaching the Law without Being Judgmental
    Purpose: To help the preacher hone a skill to be clear about God’s law, but present it in a non-judgmental way.
  3. TOPIC: Preaching with a Cause
    Purpose: To help the preacher communicate in sermons the vital “cause” of Christianity and its personal benefit for people (especially in eternity).
  4. TOPIC: The “Sermon” after the Sermon
    Purpose: As a preacher expounds the Word of God, God’s Spirit gives people something to believe AND live. How does your preaching encourage individuals throughout their week to live a sermon of the Christian life so others may see and “praise their Father in heaven.”
  5. TOPIC: Including the Story in your Preaching
    Purpose: Give the preacher ideas that while the greatest story ever told is Jesus Christ, the second best stories are the impact Jesus Christ has on lives. Give examples of how we might use testimony in preaching.
Upcoming Topics

We invite interaction on the new Worship blog site: blogs.wels.net. Can we have some constructive dialogue around the articles and the issues? The authors don’t profess to have all the answers. They don’t claim their insights are more powerful than the gospel or make it more powerful. We just want to communicate the power of the gospel to the millennial generation as best we can.

Exegizing your audience

Three tasks of a Good Missionary (Rise of the Nones, p. 114)

  1. Learn the language: educate yourself on how to talk in a way that people can understand and to which they can relate and eventually respond.
  2. Study the culture: become so sensitized to that culture that you can operate effectively within it.
  3. Translate the gospel: translate it into its own cultural context so that it can be heard, understood, and appropriated.
Books

Kinnaman, David, and Aly Hawkins. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church—and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011.

Rainer, Thom S., and Jess W. Rainer. The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation. Nashville: B&H Pub. Group, 2011.

White, James Emery. The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014.

Websites/Blogs

Forasteros, JR. “Preaching to Unchurched Millennials.” Preaching to Unchurched Millennials. Norville Rogers, 19 May 2015, www.norvillerogers.com/preaching-tounchurched-millennials.

“Generational Differences.” Springer Reference (2011): n. pag. Generational Differences Chart. West Midland Family Center, www.wmfc.org/uploads/GenerationalDifferencesChart.pdf.

Hein, James. “Ministering to Millennials.” Bread for Beggars. James Hein, 29 April 2015, www.breadforbeggars.com/2015/03/18/ministering-tomillennials-part-i-do-we-have-a-problem.

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