Weekly Preaching: March 22, 2020

March 17th, 2020

For my thoughts on preaching during the coronavirus crisis, even to an empty room, check out "Preaching Online, and Covid-19," updated now to show what we did on Sunday, which went as well as I could have imagined. What went well has us raising questions about what we need to do differently once we're back to normal!

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Check out my previous blog, which has extensive stuff on 1 Samuel 16 (assessing Jesse’s feelings, what is this “heart” God sees, St. Francis, Michelangelo and Frodo!  such a rich, preachable text) and Psalm 23 (why it’s not sappy/sentimental at all, John Wesley, T.S. Eliot, and my grandfather).

To that I’d add a few thoughts from Ellen Charry’s always amazing Brazos commentary: that Psalm 23 transforms St. Augustine’s “our hearts are restless until we find rest in God” into “a lush landscape of secure peace, safety and strength”; that Psalm 23 is “the answering word of deliverance to the mournful cry of distress in Psalm 22”; that Theodoret (5th century) saw the “rod and staff” as an image of the cross (which is also assembled from two rods). I don't want to overstate "comfort" (a weird sentence, I know...) during these coronavirus days. Yes, people are anxious, fearful, isolated. Yes, they are delighted by words of comfort. But this could be a long haul, and it's always time for humble holiness and courageous service, which as I show in the Psalm 23 blog are things even in that comforting text.

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Ephesians 5:8-14 is eloquent. And, as I have a new book coming out next month on Birth, I am dwelling on the rarely noticed but obvious once you see it image that the newborn emerging from the womb “once was in darkness, but now in the light.” And so, to ponder being “a child of the light,” reflect on the moments after birth when you were entirely vulnerable, yet encircled in tender love, utterly dependent, and the focus of intense attention and unlimited grace.

A new birth: Is that the ultimate goal for our people during this curious season of limited gathering, public anxiety and economic downturn? Not a return to more and better of the same old same old, but a move to something genuinely fresh?

“Fruit of the light” jars a little, as we are familiar with “fruit of the Spirit.” But fruit requires the light of God’s good sun to grow. Frank Thielman interestingly translates v. 10 as “trying to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Like, try to figure it out. Do some investigating. Study. Ask around! I admire Thielman’s chapter heading for this text: “From Avoidance to Transformation.” Christians aren’t avoiders so much as they are doers, but this is not just "human effort doing." It’s transformed doing, and being.

"Weak Enough to Lead" by James C. Howell. Order here: http://bit.ly/WeakEnoughtoLead

How lovely: If you want to know how noble you are, how fantastic humanity actually is, it is that we are capable of “pleasing” the Lord. It’s God, almighty, ineffable, omniscient, eternal, immovable, omnipresent, infinite... And yet God makes the divine heart vulnerable to be buoyed up into joy by us, or conversely to be crushed in disappointed sorrow. Clearly the Christian life isn’t about rules, doing right or wrong, and it isn’t even entirely about grace, as in God’s embraces you no matter what — both of which are true, but missing this dynamic that we can please that omni-God, and that this is precisely what brings us our own pleasure.

Paul’s talk of what is “secret” could be probed in the sermon. iPhones champion their ‘privacy’ settings; we all wear our masks and hide dark secrets, often even from ourselves. I had a friend years ago, a sociologist, whose specialty was family secrets. Any time she mentioned this, at a party or anywhere, someone would pull her aside and say “You know, our family has this secret," and then go on about who knows, who doesn’t and why. Tell this in a sermon and people squirm a little over what they hide, or suspect they’ve not figured out just yet. Paul wants us to go right to that place.

His overriding image is of waking up from sleep. Rip van Winkle slept through the American revolution. The “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus” hid in a cave from persecution, fell asleep, and woke up decades later to the shock that the empire was now Christian. Sleepwalking might be a thing someone you know does; it’s such an apt image of the way we drift through life, even our church life. Paul sounds the alarm: It’s time to wake up!

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John 9:1-41 is a really long read in worship, but it's such a dramatic story. It was painted on the walls of the catacombs outside Rome, so powerful was the image of the blind receiving sight. Jesus’ answer to the question about sin exhibits his heart more than anything he ever said: Who sinned, this guy or his parents? Right answer: Neither. Boom, blame game squashed. It's odd how religious people had read the book of Job, but still resorted to the tactic of Job’s friends, i.e., It’s gotta be something he did wrong. Be sure to underline this nasty habit in your sermon. A teenager uses drugs, and we suspect the parents were duds. A husband leaves his wife for another, and she firmly believes she was inadequate. A homeless man must be a lazy bum. On and on. Name these. Let people fill in the blanks, both in how they feel unjustly judged, and how they do this to others. Jesus says Neither.

The gross tangibility of Jesus’ healing: spittle “smeared” on his eyes. Jesus gets his hands dirty, and yours, too (reminding us of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s wisdom that Christians too often like to keep their hands clean when doing God’s will actually gets your hands dirty). The setting of this healing? The Pool of Siloam, which has been excavated in recent years. If you look at a city map of ancient Jerusalem, you realize this wasn’t a pool for swimming or beautifying the city. Siloam (like Bethesda, the other pool where Jesus healed) was a gigantic group mikveh, those ritual bath establishments.

People coming to the temple, pilgrims having journeyed for many days, stopped off at the huge Siloam mikveh to repent, to cleanse themselves, to prepare to climb the hill to enter the holy place. Jesus knew this place of grief and expectation was a prime spot to find seekers receptive to his message and his healing.

John 9 titillates the listener with Jesus’ clever, probing irony about who can see and who can’t. The super-pious assume they see all things clearly, but they are the truly blind ones. A homiletical question is, "Do we wish to see clearly?" Or do we prefer to continue to avert our gaze, keeping the corrective lenses of Scripture safely on the coffee table?

What can we say March 22? Lent 4 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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