Weekly Preaching: July 5, 2020

July 1st, 2020

The challenge of preaching ramps up even more. As if coronavirus, racial tension, a mess of a denomination, and now statues and flags (which I blogged about in Jesus on Statues, Flags and Monuments, hopefully from a sound theological perspective) aren’t enough, add on the edge July 4 brings in people's hearts. If you are doing ministry these days, thank you. Know that at least I know how grindingly hard this is! 

The Sunday the day after July 4. I’m sorry, but I will grouse openly about the fact that, on the day people chatter about soldiers giving their lives for our religious freedom, people exercise that freedom by attending church in absurdly low numbers; I'd anticipate this will hold true during the coronavirus online services. I blogged a few years back about "Jesus and July 4"(one of my best and most popular blogs ever!) and I’ll stick by its premises all day, every year. God sets us free — to have parades and drink beer and shoot off fireworks? Or to be holy, charitable, compassionate? 

I do suspect that it’s wise, as we build that invaluable personal capital with our people, on the Sunday near July 4 to say cheerful, appreciative things about the day, things that are theologically hopeful. The late-in-life correspondence and reconciliation between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson is especially alluring — and then they both died on July 4, precisely 50 years after the signing of the Declaration. Feels almost miraculous – without you having to say so. 

Our texts this week: Genesis 24:34-67 dramatizes a stunning matchmaking moment, in which God evidently is the matchmaker. Rebekah with a jar of water on her head, Isaac impressing her by pushing a large stone aside? I love verse 47: “So I put the ring on her nose and bracelets on her arms.” Troubled by your kids’ facial jewelry? Does God matchmake? Easy to say yes, but tell that to those whose marriages have been painful or downright crushing.

Romans 7:15-25a is a psychologically astute text any attentive person can identify with: “I do not understand my own actions.” Who is the “I”? Is Paul speaking autobiographically? Representatively? Is this the Jewish experience outside of Christ? Or Paul’s sense of life once we are in Christ? I think it’s fair in preaching to ask the questions without the answers. This text, like so many, invites engagement from diverse people from diverse perspectives. 

Scholars gravitate toward the idea that Paul is speaking of the person under the power of sin. The assumption is liberation from sin but not slavery to it (Michael Gorman’s conclusion), unredeemed humanity, those living under the law. N.T. Wright often says Romans 8 is the “answer” to the struggle of Romans 7. Genesis 3 is clearly in the background. Sin as liar, Sin as usurper. So hard to speak of these things to modern churchgoers for whom sin is somebody else’s problem…

Clearly though, Paul raises intense question marks on the way Americans blithely conceive of their cherished “freedom.” We are not free. We are bound. We are like the prisoner in his cell, free to go to this side of the cell or that, to stand or sit; but the prisoner is still a prisoner. Culture shackles us all. Self-destructiveness strangles everybody. It’s only in Paul’s realization that the good I try to do, I can’t, and the evil I am determined to avoid, I can't, that we can throw ourselves in hopeful despair on the healing mercy of God. 

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. What a fascinating text! Verse 25: the “time” is kairos, not chronos, time as weighty, a decisive turning point moment, not just the passing of seconds, minutes, hours and days. God is Abba, so intimate our Father, our Daddy, so much love and tenderness. What has been “hidden” is now “revealed.” But only to the nepios — the simple, the childlike — very ones who in v. 16 didn’t respond well! No wonder this text has been dubbed “the Johannine thunderbolt,” as Jesus sounds like this in the Fourth Gospel. There are also threads of Paul (1 Cor. 1) on the foolishness and wisdom and who gets Jesus and who doesn’t. 

The whole business of mystery, and what is hidden: preaching needs to leave way more as vague, tantalizing. St. Augustine said that If you understand it, it is not God. If you know a little about God, it’s maybe half of 1% of God, and your understanding of that tiny fraction is a bit foggy. Not that we despair. It’s a quest, and knowing this makes you humble, and curious. The solution to relational troubles, to what fractures groups, is simply to be humbler, and more curious. In seminary, Dean Tom Langford would lecture on Systematic Theology. He’d start with complete, rational sentences, and then it would break down into some fumbling, he’d take off his glasses, rub his eyes, and flat out struggle to say what he was trying to say about the Trinity (for instance). Pitch perfect. Preachers should do the same.

Jesus is “meek,” praus being the very word Jesus uses in the Beatitudes to speak of the blessedness of the meek — so preachers too can be quite meek, and properly so. Ours is to be “kind,” admittedly and frankly rare in 2020! The Greek chrestos, is absurdly close to Christ! — the kind one, the ultimately kind Lord of all. Not the powerful fixer of all things, but the gentle one says “Come to me” (echoes of Isaiah 55!) for “rest.” St. Augustine said Christ is our true Sabbath. This rest isn’t a vacation or being idle, but being close, in sync, joyfully and fully in Christ’s presence.

His “yoke” is easy. But there’s still a yoke. It’s still hard. There’s heavy lifting involved. But our labor is for him, fulfilling our purpose and truest selves. Maybe we serve like Jacob did for the hand of Rachel: “Jacob served Laban for 7 years, but it seemed to him like just a few days, so great was his love for Leah” (Gen. 29:20). What is this yoke? Delighting in Scripture, hanging out with the people nobody else will hang out with, prayer, Sabbath, holy habits, all those practices. July 4 will have been just yesterday. What is freedom? It’s not Hey, I can do as I wish! But a diligent adherence to our Lord in all we do, say, think, eat, walk and sleep. God freed Israel and took them directly to Mt. Sinai so they would know how to stay free.

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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