Monday, July 11, 2011

More food for thought on preaching...

Following up on my two posts (here and here) concerning feeding the sheep through word and sacrament, I want to present a couple of imperfect analogies to hopefully amplify what I think is lacking in much of the preaching in churches today.

As a thumbnail sketch, most pastors preach from the Bible.  There is usually a text upon which the sermon is based.  The passage is often presented in terms of its historical, doctrinal, and character settings.  As one listens, he may hear that God is loving, gives grace, and that there is much to be thankful for as a believer.  The listener is encouraged to trust in God's faithfulness as lessons are drawn from the verses.  The believer is admonished to go forth with renewed obedience trusting in the ever-present help of the Holy Spirit.  In the same way God was faithful to [list any number of Biblical characters], he is faithful to you, the present day believer.  As the song says, "trust and obey - there's no other way..."  What is missing?

Analogy #1:
Imagine you are plagued with a failing heart, one riddled with disease.  You have an operation scheduled with a skilled surgeon.  You go to the hospital.  You're taken into the operating room and the doctor enters.  From his scholarly medical books he begins laying out before you the procedures that have been developed over many years that have been shown to be successful in curing heart disease.  He explains in detail the countless individuals who have benefited from these amazing techniques.  Step by step and precept upon precept the medical procedure is detailed.  He concludes by explaining how one can go forth and live a normal life as a result of this amazing wonder of medicine.  He smiles, shakes your hand, gives you a bill,  and then leaves having finished what he came to do.

Analogy #2:
Imagine that you and many others have been invited to a dinner party hosted by a highly-trained chef.  You arrive at the restaurant.  Upon entering the reserved dining room you observe an elaborately prepared setting.  The finest linen, expensive china dinnerware, sterling silver utensils, and fine crystal glasses adorn the table.  Everyone sits down.  The chef enters.  Appetites are whetted and hopes run high for a much anticipated and needed satisfying feast.

The chef then opens his cookbook and spends the next forty minutes describing how the meal is prepared.  He shows pictures of each course of the dinner while reciting all the ingredients with their proportions and nutritional values.  Most of all, he stresses how delicious, healthful, and sustaining the food is.  He then thanks everyone for coming, bids them farewell until the next dinner party.  The people leave, duly impressed and yet wondering what the aching, empty feeling in their stomach could mean.  You think to yourself, "if only I can remember these recipes and apply them better to my life..."

Sheep need to hear why they are hungry... they are prone to look for food in all the wrong places.  This the Bible identifies as sin.  "For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13) and "Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal." (John 6: 27).  Yes, even as Christians we all too often trust in our own judgments and seek our own misguided paths of self-righteousness.  Or even more often, we settle into the dull despair of guilt and condemnation, wondering whether there is just something uniquely wrong with us (unlike other Christians!), keeping at a distance the blessings of God.  In this life this will always be the default position for the sinner/saint.  He believes in Christ and yet he is often wandering in the fog of his own failed devices.  He senses something is wrong within him.  Exhortations to "trust and obey" only exacerbate the feelings of failure and spiritual hunger.

* Pastors, identify what is going on in your sheep.  Diagnose it for what it is... our sinful natures that still wage war against the spirit.  Though saved by the grace of God, sheep come to the church service wearied and dirtied with the dust of the week's past sojourn.  And then having thus rightly diagnosed the inward reality of doubt and self-directed ways of the sheep, wash their feet by once again dispensing the heavenly food that is the message of God's righteousness which comes by faith.  Proclaim the cleansing and refreshing Good News of Christ crucified which proclamation renews, sustains, and nourishes the believer's faith.

"Oh people of God, what you have failed to do as directed in this passage; that which, in fact, you are unable to do no matter how much effort you exert... i.e. to trust and obey in thought, word, and deed, to live righteously... Jesus has accomplished for you by his perfect obedience.  And even more!  Jesus, by his shedding of blood in his death on the cross, cleanses you from all the filth of your sin which so stubbornly clings to your conscience."

In a nutshell, Christians need to hear that even after having become believers, the sin with which they are so easily entangled, that which in their minds and according to the Law disqualifies them, is in fact that which qualifies them for one glorious thing - the measureless grace of God displayed in Christ, the food of heaven.  So then their eyes may be turned again away from themselves, from their lack of obedience and faithfulness, unto the crucified Christ's all-sufficient sacrificial love and triumphant resurrection that assures our righteous standing before our holy Father now, tomorrow, and forever.  This message of God's good news, this food of  the Gospel feeds faith and does truly bring forth the fruit of righteousness through faith, though still imperfect in this life (it doesn't need to be!).  This leads to that grateful obedience to Him (not to bolster my standing in my own eyes, God's or others) as taught in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:
                                                      XII. Of Good Works.
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God's judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.

Believers-still-sinners are fed through the Gospel preached which nourishes a true and lively faith.  Good works do necessarily follow as fruit of that faith, not as evidence of our own goodness.  Thus Christians are encouraged to go forth not looking to themselves, but with eyes of faith fixed on Christ Jesus - resting and trusting in God's amazing love and grace.

And I will bring Israel back to his pasture and he will graze on Carmel and Bashan, and his desire will be satisfied in the hill country of Ephraim and Gilead.  In those days and at that time,’ declares the LORD, ‘search will be made for the iniquity of Israel, but there will be none; and for the sins of Judah, but they will not be found; for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant.’ (Jer. 50: 19-20)

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Rom 5: 6-10)

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