Thursday, 23 July 2009

Sermon application 4: what do we want?

In this final post about preaching application, I want to talk about what we want :)
The Bible often talks about what we want - our desires. Our desires can lead us into all kinds of debauched behaviour (1 Pet 1:14; 2:11, 14; 2 Pet 2:10, 18), which bring God's wrath, and ultimately lead to eternal condemnation (Colossians 3:5-6; James 1:14-15). But desire can also be good and Godly. Paul longed for (Greek epipotheo) his heavenly dwelling, the resurrection body (2 Cor 5:2). He longed to see the Romans (Rom 1:11; 15:23) (epipotheo again). It's good to want (Greek orego) to be an overseer - that is, a church leader (1 Tim 3:1) . The writer to the Hebrews says the heroes of the faith longed for (orego again) a heavenly country (Heb 11:16).
We can't limit our attention to word studies. There are plenty of descriptions of people wanting good or bad things. Simon the sorcerer wanted to be able to give people the Holy Spirit, like the Apostles seemed able to (Acts 9:18-19). The Apostles wanted to obey God rather than humans (Acts 5:29). Psalm 119 describes how much the Psalmist loves God's word, wants to obey it, and is upset when he doesn't.
Like a good Calvinist, I assume that we cannot merely argue people into repentance. I assume that the Holy Spirit works in us first, to give us healthy, Godly desires, and orient these desires towards appropriate, Godly objects. I won't take the time to explain all that in this post - ask me later, if you like.
In applying a sermon, I try to think of what people want. Everyone wants security, comfort, love, companionship, honour, pleasure. Then I think:
  • How do the world, the flesh and the devil take these and twist them so they're oriented against God?
  • How do the Bible, Jesus and the Holy Spirit change them so they're oriented towards God?
  • Might we go further than changing the orientation and challenge people to sacrifice that desire altogether, for some greater good?
  • How does all this look specifically for my particular congregation?
Okay, so everyone wants security. A uni-aged congregation might be tempted to seek security in study, good marks, and a good career. A family with young children might seek security in a nice house in a nice suburb with nice neighbours and a nice school for their nice kids. Middle-aged people might seek security in their superannuation.
We need to challenge them all to seek security in Christ. The first step is to show them how insecure all these worldly so-called securities are. You're only as good as your last exam; a nice house also gives you a nice mortgage; superannuation evaporates with the next recession. Compare that with the security of being in Christ: the tomb is empty; Christ is at the Father's right hand, above all earthly and heavenly powers (Eph 1:21), praying for us (Rom 8:34). Now that's security!
Having understood our security in Christ, we can call people to deliberately abandon their quests for earthly security. Forget the studies and career - spend your time in ministry, serving others. Don't live in a nice neighbourhood - live someplace where you can reach out to your neighbours with the gospel. Don't store up your money in superannuation - give it away for ministry.
If the Spirit of God is truly working in people, I expect they will rise to the challenge. It won't be easy - we mustn't make it sound naively easy, we must talk about the cost, the sacrifice - but I expect them to have a go anyway. And I hope that little by little they'll actually get used to wanting, desiring, finding pleasure in Godly things, and Godly behaviours - including sacrificing good things, for the sake of others - rather than ungodly ones.
Thoughts, anyone?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Sermon application 3: seeing ourselves differently

This continues my thoughts on sermon application.
The theme passage for this discussion is Ephesians 4:22-24:
22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
In my first post in this series, I said this passage suggests three interlocking lenses for sermon application:
  1. The way we think, our worldview;
  2. Who we are, as individual Christians, and corporately as families, churches and communities; and
  3. What we want, our desires.
My previous post addressed worldview - being "made new in the attitude of our mind". Here, I want to think about self-image.
When we become Christians, we are regenerated, we are "born again". As far as God is concerned, we're new people. Our old self died with Christ, and we are new people, raised with Christ in glory. We are partial, personal, individualised prolepses of how everything will be recreated when when Christ returns (John 3:3; Romans 6; 2 Cor 5:17; 1 Pet 1:23). Our challenge is to live out this new identity in Christ. This is difficult because the world we operate in is still in rebellion against Christ, our old self still drags us back, and the devil is still active to tempt us (Gal 5:16-17; Eph 6:10-13; 1 Pet 5:8-9; 1 John 2:15-17). It's the old trilogy: the world, the flesh and the devil.
So, when thinking about applying the passage, I ask: how does this passage shape our view of ourselves, our self-identity? How do we normally think of ourselves? How does the world want us to see ourselves? How is that different from what the passage demands?
This applies beyond us as individual Christians, it applies to us as:
  • family members – brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers;
  • a church, a community of Christians;
  • members of society generally: our social groups, ethnic groups, local communities.
  • other...?
Eg: what's the generally accepted, taken-for-granted, worldly attitude to church? Well, it could be any of the following:
  • it's an outpost of traditional, oppressive values - we should re-educate and enlighten them, or get rid of them [Richard Dawkins];
  • it's a bunch of old-fashioned eccentrics - we can laugh at them;
  • they can do what they want, as long as they don't stop me from doing what I want [this might be the most common attitude...?];
  • it's a place where I might go to get spiritual, personal healing when I feel like I need it [a "spiritualist", "consumer" attitude to church - maybe many of our regular attenders think like this?];
But what's God's attitude to his church, his people? 1 Pet 2:4-10 talks of the church as God's holy temple, built on the precious foundation of Christ himself. That means God considers his people to be precious and valuable. It also means we have a high, noble calling: to praise this God, who has brought us to himself.
If we think of ourselves, and our church community, in worldly ways, we will be embarrassed, or keep searching for a church where we are "comfortable", or only get involved in church if it's convenient to us - or something like that. But if we take our identity, and our calling, seriously, then we'll:
  • be motivated to praise God for bringing us into his community;
  • not be surprised when people mock and marginalise us - that's what they did to Jesus, so of course that's what they'll do to us;
  • think of church as a place to serve and care for others, not a place to be comfortable and expect everyone else to serve us; and
  • be eager to tell everyone that they're attitude to both Christ and his people are profoundly wrong.
Thoughts, anyone?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Sermon application 2: changing the way we think - "radical" discipleship

This continues my (much delayed!) series on sermon application.
When thinking of application, I first think of how I want to think different. We all have habits, attitudes, and ways of thinking that are ungodly and un-Biblical. This is not because we're all dirty rotten sinners who deliberately suppress the truth (although we once were exactly that: Romans 1:18). It's just 'normal' to think like that. Everybody does it, it's taken for granted.
Of course I have to tell lies for my boss. How else do you expect me to keep my job? What, do you want me to get fired or something? How will I feed my kids, then? And pay the mortgage on the house? And of course I have to buy the latest flatscreen TV. Everyone else has one. And the kids are pestering me for one so they can play their latest games on it. Which I had to get for them coz all their friends have it, and I can't make them miss out, can I? And of course I need new clothes for this season. How else will I keep up with the fashion? What do you want me to do, join the Amish?
Hmmm.
I suspect most of us - I include myself here - know perfectly well what God wants from us. We just think it's unrealistic, because we're used to thinking in worldly ways, not Godly, Biblical ways. So in our heart of hearts we say to God "yes, I know that's how you want me to live. But I know better. The realistic thing to do is..." and then we justify ourselves.
That's what Peter did to Jesus. When Jesus started to explain what it meant for him to be the Christ - that he would suffer, die, and rise - Peter rebuked him. No, no, Jesus, that's not how you become king. Kings kill their enemies, they don't die for their enemies. And that, of course, earned Peter a famous rebuke from Jesus (Matt 16; Mark 8; Luke 9).
For most of us, this self-justification isn't obvious. It's buried deep in our taken-for-granted way of thinking & operating. So it's our job as preachers to identify our the ungodly patterns of thought that our congregation are in danger of, and challenge them. If we worship the one who is truth incarnate (John 14:6), we must be people of truth. It's more important to be honest at work than keep the job. If your boss will fire you for telling the truth, he's not a boss worth working for. Your example of honesty and integrity is more important to your children than the latest toys, even your house. Jesus didn't have a place to lay his head, remember? We say we have faith in Jesus - do we actually believe he'll look after us if we take a stand for truth? Or is it just lip-faith, not life-faith?
I trust you can see that by calling this "changing the way we think", I do not mean intellectualism. I mean the opposite. Calling people to think different is a call to radical discipleship - following Jesus to the root, the radius (Latin) of our whole selves.
Preaching like this is going to be really difficult, for two reasons. First, I expect we'll get criticised for being radical & unrealistic. We'll just have to deal with that, gently. Secondly, and more profoundly, it means we preachers have to live this radical counter-cultural discipleship ourselves first, as an example. Maybe we could start by ditching the fantasy that ministry is a nice, safe career, where everyone will respect us and stroke our egos.
Thoughts, anyone...?