The Sermon I Should Have Preached: About those Pesky Shepherds

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For various reasons I chose to preach through the Psalms for Advent.  This meant not being able to talk about the traditional aspects of the season, namely shepherds, wise men, a star, the virgin Mary and the like.  Yet over the last year I have read a lot about the Jewish heritage of the Christian faith and come to appreciate more fully how Jewish Jesus’ story is from start to finish.  Therefore the following is a short sermon, or even devotional thought, I have put together in my head and wanted to preach this season but did not have time too:

Tell me if you have heard this sermon before around this time of year:  “Jesus was God, in very nature God, completely God and Jesus came to save the world and reassert God’s reign over it.  He was a King!  But Jesus didn’t do it like any other King would do it.  Instead he chose to be born of a lowly virgin Mary who came from the wrong side of the wrong town.  He wasn’t born in a palace but a barn (or a cave) and God announced it not to elites but to lowly shepherds.  After all shepherds were the laughing stock of the 1st century Middle East.  They were lowly nobodies.  They were worthless to society and to make it worse these shepherds seemed to be working the night shift.  Yet God thought them so important that angels sang to them of the newly arrived Baby King.”

I like that sermon.  I have preached it myself a time or two and for the most part it holds up.  But some time in the last year I began actually reading and studying about shepherds and not just the cultural context of shepherding in the 1st century middle east, but about shepherds in the entire Bible.

To be sure, shepherds in the 1st century were not popular or revered.  However, in the Jewish society being a Shepherd was actually a high honor because King David was a shepherd and King David taught us that God is a shepherd (read all the Psalms).  For those of you unfamiliar with David’s biography, David didn’t convert from shepherd to King.  He wasn’t a shepherd who suddenly decided being a shepherd was bad and then chose to be a King.  Instead David took his shepherding role with him to the monarchy.  He was always a shepherd, a shepherd King.  This reality profoundly impacted how Israel viewed God’s kingship over us.  God is our shepherd King.

So during this time of year when we read and sing about angels going to shepherds, the point may not be that God could have sent angels to kings but went to lowly shepherds instead.  To the Jewish ear, trained in the Hebrew scriptures, God did send the angels to kings, the true kings, the shepherds.  The angels and shepherds are not God doing a new thing.  It is God doing that same old thing God did throughout the entire Old Testament, going to the true salt of the earth, the meek who work hard with their own hands and live quiet but profound lives.

One of the most influential essays I have read in the last few years was written by George Orwell about coal miners in the industrial revolution.   Back then, coal mining was a miserable chore.  They worked long hours for very little pay and mining was hazardous in the extreme.  This was before labor laws so even children and women were forced to work in the mines.  Most of the miners died prematurely.  In addition coal miners had the same reputation that 1st century shepherds supposedly had.  It was a reputation we might give to warehouse workers today.  They were uncivilized.  They didn’t dress well.  They weren’t educated.  They were immoral.  For that reason, the elite of society propagated a fantastic lie that the coal miners could change their lot by changing their behavior, that if those lousy coal miners would just become moral and civilized they too could matriculate from the mines to a high society position.  George Orwell pointed out that if that did indeed happen, if revival did break out upon the coal miners and they all managed to gain upper class banking jobs, the entire economy would shut down and the homes of the wealthy, moral, civilized bankers, wouldn’t even be able to have heat.

More than that, before writing the essay, Orwell lived among the coal miners for a few years and discovered that they had a deeper morality than any other elite.  Far from being immoral, the coal miners were a courageous bunch, a generous bunch, a loving bunch and they were the most valuable group to England because they braved the conditions and extracted the fuel that kept Industrial Society running. (You can read the full essay here)

As much as I love Orwell’s essay, it was hardly original.  Orwell seems to have plagiarized the entire Bible.  God wrote that essay 2500 years ago when God sent the prophet Samuel to a shepherd and chose David to be King in Israel.  God revised and updated it again when God sent angels to shepherds to proclaim Jesus’ birth.

Here is a God who is not the God who condones the rich and powerful.  Here is a King who values and adores those who work hard with their own hands.  Here is a King who understands that shepherds and coal miners and truck drivers and manual laborers of all stripes are far closer to the character of God than any other group.  And here is a Savior who taught us “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.”  Here is a God who commands us to be meek and lowly like the shepherds because God established what Orwell discovered, that coal miners and shepherds actually run the world.

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The Sermon I Should Have Preached: On Holiness and Romans 12-15

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This post is part of an ongoing series where after completing a sermon series I go through the main points I wish I would have had time for.

In mid August I faced a difficult dilemma.  Word had seemingly gotten out to several friends, strangers, congregants and family members that the Church of the Nazarene stands in the holiness tradition.  I want to be very clear that we are not more holy than any other group but we do feel a particular calling to think, talk and preach about holiness.  With that said, our calling has come with a very interesting piece of baggage that we call “The Doctrine of Christian Perfection.”  We believe grace comes with the gift of making us perfect.  And we have now spent 108+ years trying to explain to outsiders and each other just what we mean by that.

Over the summer I was asked by several people about the doctrine.  And I was in a unique place to both defend and describe just what we mean by “perfection.”  I found myself saying, that perfection does not mean faultless but it does mean blameless.  It does not mean inerrant but it does mean mature.  It does not mean perfect at golf but it does perfect at loving.  And, if you will allow me one more, it does not mean perfect at showing our love but it does mean perfect at trying to show our love.

If you are confused, I totally understand.  It was the inadequacy of those descriptions that caused me to launch into a 12 week series about holiness last fall.  As I went to put those 12 sermons together, I realized that underlying the confusion was a misunderstanding of the gospel.  So I decided to split the 12 weeks up into 6 weeks on the gospel and 6 weeks on holiness.

So in mid-October we transitioned from gospel to holiness.  At that time a limitation presented itself.  I have chosen to be faithful to Scripture.  Therefore, I don’t just preach what God “lays on my heart.”  I begin every week in one particular passage of Scripture and then let God speak to me through it.  The passage I chose for the holiness sermons was Romans 12-16, which I thought was a very concise, clear picture of what holiness looks like.  And it is.  There is some wonderful stuff in there and I put together some good sermons.

However, Romans 12-16 doesn’t address the unique difficulties of the Nazarene Doctrine of Christian Perfection.  So with that brief background in mind, here are some things I wish I would have had time to go over in more detail but which the constraints of time and Scripture prevented:

1. Individual Holiness vs. Corporate Holiness:  The first thing I realized when I dug deep into Romans 12-15 is that Paul in that passage offers very little help in understanding how individuals are holy.  After much study I realized that Paul is talking about how a community of people are made holy, not one individual.  It got worse when I consulted a myriad of other passages from both Testaments and realized that almost always when God says, “Be holy” or “Be Perfect” God is talking to a community, not to an individual.  Now there are a couple exceptions but not many.  This is problematic because the Church of the Nazarene is almost entirely obsessed with individual holiness and perfection to the neglect of the church.  I will be honest and admit I am not sure how individual perfection and community perfection fit together in every situation.  There are some things we can say, like “holy individuals don’t steal things and murder people” but if you move beyond that to attitudes and hearts, it becomes a bit more difficult.  This is perhaps why I only alluded to the problem in my sermons and then moved on to the bulk of Romans 12-15, which was about the community.  But just to not lose my ordination let me state very clearly I do believe God calls individuals to a life of holiness, it just isn’t emphasized as much in Scripture as God’s call to communities to organize themselves in holy ways.

2. The Process of Holiness:  Once again, the process by which individual people become holy has been a Nazarene infatuation for the last century, if not more so.  And once again Romans 12-16 kind of let me down.  The only real process verse you get is right at the top in Romans 12:1-2 and I did spend an entire sermon on those two verses.  However, Romans 12:1-2 is more about the process by which a church becomes holy.  For those of you who do not know Romans 12:1-2 has some crazy singulars and plurals going on in the Greek text.  Paul writes that we should present our plural bodies as one singular living sacrifice.  This is your (plural) act (singular) of worship.  Then at the beginning of verse 2 Paul does it again.  You (plural) do not conform to the patterns of this world but you (plural) be transformed by the renewing of your mind (singular).  This verse is not about how individuals become holy.  It is about how the church community becomes holy.  That is a great sermon but as a Nazarene pastor it left me up a creek without a paddle concerning how individuals become holy and I was unable to address the doctrine of Christian perfection issues.

This post is all ready entirely way too long and heady.  However, the entire theme of my blog is about grace and about how God works in my life.  So what I hope I have illustrated is that it is hard for a pastor to preach under the authority of the Scriptures.  It is hard to go into a sermon series thinking I am going to talk about one thing and then get sidelined when I realize the Bible passage for the day is not about that at all.  Yet therein lies the grace.  I could preach whatever I want to preach on Sundays mornings and I might get away with it.  However, I have chosen to be a man under authority.  Therefore I must faithfully interpret what God has provided in the living words of the Bible.  Most times that means sidelining my agenda, or even my denomination’s agenda and opening up new pathways into the life and mission of God.

The Sermon I Should Have Preacher: The Gospels

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This is an ongoing blog series where upon completing a sermon series, I mention a few things I myself learned that may or may not have made it into the final draft of the series.

Last year when I was planning my sermon series for the 2016 calendar year, I decided to spend the Fall talking about practical holiness.  As I began putting together those sermons, I hit a wall very early on.  The problem was that I could not talk about practical holiness without first helping my congregation develop a fuller understanding of the mystery that is the gospel.  Therefore, a 12 week sermon series on holiness as described in Romans 12-16 became a six week series on “What is the Gospel?” followed by another six weeks in Romans 12-16.

I finished my first six weeks in the gospel last Sunday.  I very roughly structured the series on the five (or six) major atonement theories.  I tried to pick one passage per theory that I thought defended that particular theory well.  So very roughly the six sermons went like this:

2 Cor. 5: The Gospel and Ministry of Reconciliation

Romans 1: The Satisfaction Theory

Ephesians 2: Ransom Theory

Colossians 2: “Christus Victor” And the overthrow of the Rulers and Authorities of our World. (This is the only one online currently and you can listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJbo9DCG4WY)

Romans 8: Recapitulation Theory

1 John 4: Moral Influence Theory

With those in mind, after spending the last couple months doing some deeper thinking about the core of our Christian faith and revisiting both the the events of Jesus’s life and how the epistles interpret them, here are some things I learned.  These are not things I knew all ready but things I genuinely realized.

  1. Yes the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition has major qualms about the “wrath of God” and maybe rightly so.  But unfortunately for us God’s wrath is all over the epistles.  Even Jesus in the gospels does his fair share talking about it.  With that said, I still don’t believe God was so angry that God needed to watch a Quentin Tarantino (or even, *cough* a “Mel Gibson”) movie to suddenly be okay with it all.  But God is angry at the sinfulness of the world and Jesus came as a solution to it.  There is no way to be biblical and not to address the wrath of God.
  2. The epistles don’t concentrate on the cross nearly as much as we do today.  In fact, in most of the epistle passages listed above almost all the events of Jesus’ life are mentioned or alluded to in some way.  The incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, Pentecost and Jesus’ second coming all appear together almost all of the time.  In the epistles the gospel is not about the cross but about the entire “Christ event.”  If we want to talk about salvation in a biblical way we must talk and give equal emphasis to all of them.
  3. With that said, I was surprised at how often Pentecost and the Holy Spirit itself comes up in talking about the gospel.  The good news according to the epistles is not just about forgiveness on the cross but about the release of the Holy Spirit into the world to equip and enable us to live holy lives.
  4. The ransom theory is extremely difficult to defend in any biblical way.  Going in I knew that the Old Testament provided very little evidence that Satan somehow controlled the entire cosmos.  But I was sure the New Testament at the very least alluded to it.  I was wrong.  The New Testament does not in any way teach it.  Ephesians 2 comes the closest but it doesn’t even mention Satan by name.  It talks about the “ruler of the prince of the air” which was actually a title for Caesar.

So those are some thoughts about the gospel.  They are things I genuinely learned in the last couple months.  I hope to do this from here on out with all my sermon series.  I also hope to back date one to the minor prophets which I spent the summer preaching through.

In completely unrelated news this here blog post is apparently my 200th!!!  Here is a picture of an anniversary cake to celebrate.

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