Three People for Every Sermon

For any of my preacher friends––or those of you interested in preaching––Seedbed just published a new article of mine, “Three People for Every Sermon.” When you prepare a sermon, who are you preparing for? These three people are my constant guide.

This is part of their new Preaching Collective. Lots of good material on preaching will be posting there soon.

See the article here.

 

On identity, purpose, and our current confusion

I don’t usually publish my sermon manuscripts, but a few people have asked me about sharing this one. Enjoy!

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[The podcast is now also available here to stream or download.]

“In Christ” – a sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14

I don’t know about you, but when I hear this passage, I’m pretty overwhelmed. At least the version we just heard has a few sentence breaks—even a paragraph break. That makes it a bit easier to take than the original Greek version, which is one long sentence. It’s 202 words. In this one sentence, there are thirty-two prepositional phrases, like “in the heavenly realms” and “through Jesus Christ,” and “with all wisdom and understanding.” Thirty-two of those in one sentence. That’s a lot to try to digest.

People commenting about it have had varying opinions. Some talk about it as one of the greatest, soaring passages in all the Bible. One person called it the greatest monstrosity in all of the Greek language. However you feel about it, I thought this might be a time when we could use the Message Bible. The Message isn’t an attempt at a direct translation, it’s an attempt to give us a nice paraphrase. Perhaps something a bit easier to take in. So listen to how the Message presents these verses:

How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.

Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, everything on planet earth.

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

It’s in Christ that you, once you heard the truth and believed it (this Message of your salvation), found yourselves home free—signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit. This signet from God is the first installment on what’s coming, a reminder that we’ll get everything God has planned for us, a praising and glorious life.

We’re going to spend the next six weeks as a community in this book of Ephesians. This is a perfect time for us to hear this word. We’re less than a month away from moving to a new location, and this book is just the right word for a group preparing for a move. I’ll explain that in long form…

Have any of you ever moved—to a new place, into a new job, some new setting where almost no one knew you? I’ve heard several people make the same comment when they go into a setting like that: “I can be whoever I want to be.” Have you ever had that? This realization that no one knows you, and it’s a sort of reset. Just who will you be? Maybe you did something simple, like changing your name. You were James, and then you started going by Jim.

danny zuko good
Or the example I’m sure you’re all thinking of—Danny Zuko— goes off on vacation and woos Sandy as a sweet, good boy, but then she shows up at his high school and finds out he’s a smokidanny badng, leather jacket-wearing bad boy.

Identity in society

An observation about our culture… We have a lot of questions about identity. “Who am I really?” “Who is my true self?” And the answers to these can change. We feel empowered like never before to answer these questions as we choose to.

In our modern society, let me suggest that identity is a bigger question than it has ever been. And here’s why: we have more options than ever before. Without many fixed answers.

So for instance, before what we call the “Industrial Revolution”—before a lot of machines were created to do work—your job options were a lot simpler. Do you want to be a farmer, or a blacksmith, or a farmer, or a cobbler, or a farmer, or a carpenter….? Probably a farmer. When you asked a child then what they wanted to be when they grew up…. they pretty much knew their options.

So I looked at helpwantedlexington.com (Long name. Amazing results.) to compare. They have 121 different categories of job listed. Everything from debt collection to environmental engineering to solar energy or welding. So many options! How many of you are working, or have worked in a job that you didn’t even know existed when you were a teenager? Or maybe that job didn’t even exist when you were a teenager.

So many options… and these go far beyond our work. We have a growing conversation in our country about gender identity. There may have always been questions about this, but I don’t think we’ve ever had them like we are now. One good reason for that: now we have medicine and medical procedures that can make the change. Our options are increased, and we don’t have any certain answers about how they should be answered.

Even in things like dating and marriage and celibacy, the options are greater. All the way until the 18th century, arranged marriages were common across the world.

Not only do we have options in a number of different parts of our lives, we can be different people in different areas of our lives. Because another unique aspect about life today is what people call “fragmentation.” We live fragmented lives, where who you are at work and who you are at home, who you are out with friends, and who you are at church, can all be vastly different.

What happens when we have all of these options and possibilities in front of us? When we were in Spain, a friend there shared about her experience walking into a US supermarket for the first time. In all of the groceries we saw in Spain the cereal aisle had about 4-6 options. (A few are more like our superstores, but they’re rare.) And then she walked into something like this in the States…

USA --- Cereal Aisle in Supermarket --- Image by © Chuck Savage/Corbis

USA — Cereal Aisle in Supermarket — Image by © Chuck Savage/Corbis

She described two emotions—perhaps ones you’re familiar with. The first was exhilaration. “Look at all these options!” And the second was anxiety. “How in the world do I choose?” Have you ever felt that way?

This is what’s happening with questions about our identities today. They’re as flexible as ever. So many options about just who you can be. And that’s exhilarating—there’s this feeling that we can construct our true selves. Choose who you want to be. But then it also leaves us vulnerable to a lot of confusion and anxiety. We don’t know who we are at our deepest level.

That kind of confusion and anxiety can produce things like a midlife crisis, or an existential crisis (“does my life have any purpose?”), or a quarter life crisis for John Mayer (“Am I living it right?”), or just some good teenage angst—which has helped sell a lot of albums for everyone from The Who to Nirvana to Taylor Swift.

Look at what a brilliant man named Os Guinness says about all of this:

“Out of more than a score of great civilizations in human history, modern Western civilization is the very first to have no agreed-on answer to the question of the purpose of life. Thus more ignorance, confusion—and longing—surround this topic now than at almost any time in history.

“The trouble is that, as modern people, we have too much to live with and too little to live for.”

– Os Guinness in The Call

Biblical identity

I sat with someone earlier this week who was talking about a men’s group he was a part of. He said, “The most important thing about my group is that we have a place each week to remind each other who we are.” He said, “I get to sit with these men and say, ‘You are a child of God!’ There are a lot of times I need that reminder. And a lot of times they need it.”

This whole passage in Ephesians is doing the same. It’s praising God for what he’s done, and at the same time telling this church who they are.

Look at verses 11 and 12 again, I’m going to stick with the Message paraphrase here…

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for! In fact, in our passage for today, that one big run-on sentence, it says “in Christ” (or sometimes “in him”) eleven times. If there’s anything we take from this whole book, it’s this: who we are is all based on being in Christ. God blessed us with every blessing in Christ. He chose us in Christ. He gave us grace in Christ. He adopted us to sonship in Christ. We have redemption in Christ. God brings unity to all things in heaven and on earth in Christ.

The answer to the question, “Who am I?” or “Who is my true self?” or “What is my purpose?” all begins with “in Christ.”

I wonder if any of you have seen this little book.sit walk stand It’s called Sit, Walk, Stand, by a Chinese church leader named Watchman Nee. He goes through the book of Ephesians and says it seems to be divided into three stances. The first is to sit. Because the first thing we do is to sit with Christ. This is where we find our identity. The first 3 chapters of this book of Ephesians are all about telling us who we are in Christ. And then they move to how we walk, how we live as people who are in Christ. And then finally, how we stand against the devil as people who are in Christ. It’s an excellent little book—seriously, it’s a little book, 77 pages. You could read it this afternoon. That wouldn’t be a bad idea.

So he says that this book of Ephesians is showing us that before we walk in this world, or before we take any stand against the devil, we must sit with Christ. That’s how we know who we are, because of what he has done and how we’re connected to him. Your true identity isn’t just whatever you choose. You are a child of God. That identity comes first.

Answering Questions that aren’t being asked

So back to that first observation about our culture, and then an observation about the church right now…

I said we have a lot of questions about identity. “Who am I really?” “Who is my true self?”

You may have seen this tweet—or at least a lot of other news coverage related to it. caitlyn-jenner-twitter-hed-2015For those of you who don’t have television or Internet or conversations with people… This is the Olympic track star who was known as Bruce Jenner and just had a quite public gender transition earlier this year. Jenner writes, “I’m so happy after such a long struggle to be living my true self. Welcome to the world Caitlyn. Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” There’s that language about a long struggle and true self. And it has prompted another huge discussion across our culture about what someone’s “true self” is.

Now another observation, this one about questions that our culture doesn’t seem to be asking.

A sociologist named Christian Smith led a research team that conducted in-depth interviews with 230 young adults across America, asking questions about morals. Some of what they found:

  • 2/3 of the young adults they asked to describe a moral dilemma couldn’t do it. Or they described a problem that wasn’t a moral problem—like if they could afford to rent a certain apartment.
  • When those young adults were asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong.  But aside from those extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when they considered things like drunk driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. One response that seemed to sum up the majority best was a person who said, “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often.” Or a pretty typical response to questions about right and wrong—“It’s personal,” or “It’s up the the individual. Who am I to say?”

It’s no surprise that moral questions are all being relegated to personal decision. How can we decide what’s right if we don’t know who we are? And how can we say what’s right for others if we don’t know who they are?

So an observation about the church––about our biggest, most prominent public voice right now. I think we’re answering an extremely important question… that our culture isn’t asking. Our loudest voice right now is answering the question, “What is right and what is wrong?” and a question that goes with it, “How can you be forgiven for doing what’s wrong?” Those are crucial questions. We need to ask them and answer them together. And God has given us great news as answers to those questions!

But we’re missing a golden opportunity. Because the questions our culture is asking loudly right now—“Who am I?” “Who is my true self?” “What’s my purpose?” “What’s my calling?”—God answers these questions in a profound, beautiful, gracious way. “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.” That’s a word that I can assure you a lot of our culture has not heard: “It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before you first heard of Christ and got your hopes up, he had his eye on you, had designs on you for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.”

A lot of our world isn’t hearing those answers because all they hear us answering are questions about what’s right and what’s wrong.

Same-sex marriage

Unless you have no Internet or TV or conversations with other people, you’ve probably heard that there was a significant Supreme Court ruling about same-sex unions recently—legalizing them in all of the U.S. That has generated no end of discussion and Internet debates. Because we all hate it when someone on the Internet is wrong…

You may also know that the United Methodist Church is having some serious debates about same-sex marriage. In all of the debate, can I remind you of one major point of agreement that’s often overlooked? “We believe that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.” There’s common ground right at the heart of this. Whatever is being debated, it’s not the sacred worth of any individual or any group of people. Whatever is being debated, it’s not about God’s love for any individual or group of people.

The Church has positions that have to do with “right and wrong” on so many of these issues. But those positions about “right and wrong” don’t negate that big first claim about your identity. Actually, those positions about “right and wrong” come directly out of your identity. You cannot walk in the world as the person that you are until you know who you are.

In all of the debate recently about these big news items I shared, a lot of pastors have struggled and debated with what to say to their congregations. Some have provided their Church’s position, or their personal position, about right and wrong on these issues. Some have chosen to remain silent. To this point, I haven’t said anything to you about it as I’ve tried to consider how to discuss this best.

Have you ever had a small injury that got inflamed? Maybe a fingertip or a toe, or you bit your cheek? And as long as it was inflamed, that tiny little part of your body just couldn’t stand to be touched. Every time it grazed anything, it hurt. You just needed it to rest and let the inflammation go down before you could treat it normally again. In some of the big debates in our church and culture right now, we seem at that point. So inflamed that if we keep poking at it, we may just agitate and prolong the pain rather than help.

So my position as your pastor right now is this: “All people are people of sacred worth, created in God’s image.” That’s our big, public starting point. For people truly struggling with these questions personally, there are a lot more important conversations full of grace and truth that must be happening. Right now, as your pastor, I think the best place for those conversations is in smaller, private conversations. Those allow us to touch these inflamed issues gently and carefully, so that we don’t just inflame them more.

If these questions aren’t just about issues for you, if they’re about personal questions, I’d love to spend more time talking with you. In this inflamed moment, I think that will be much more helpful and important than any public declarations about the issues.

Handiwork

We’re calling this series “God’s handiwork.”Offerings Banner Let me show you why. Here’s the verse that I would call the summary of this whole book of Ephesians:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8)

In a world asking so many questions about identity and purpose and calling, here’s where we start. You are God’s handiwork. All of those other questions we ask––they’re important questions. And difficult questions. But they’re secondary questions about identity. We can’t answer them well until we have that primary answer first––It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. 

You are people of sacred worth, created in God’s image. We start there.

Don’t tell about a story, tell a story

abstract_concrete

I once heard a missionary give a talk about all of the amazing things happening on his mission field. He said people were experiencing a lot of personal healing. He said there were worship services where the Holy Spirit was clearly present. He told us their leaders were growing incredibly.

It sounded like a lot of great things were happening. But that’s it. He hinted at a lot of great stories, but he didn’t tell any of the stories.

“Amazing things are happening” is nice to report, but what does it mean? If amazing things really are happening, pick out the one or two most amazing stories, and tell them. If leaders really are growing incredibly, choose one of those incredible stories of growth and tell it.

I believe that missionary was telling the truth. And I think he really wanted us to know the truth and be excited. But he had become so accustomed to hearing and giving reports full of generalities and clichés that he missed a great opportunity to invigorate a crowd of supporters. I doubt anyone left that day to tell other people, “You should hear about this amazing mission.” Because they didn’t have any picture in their minds of what it looked like. There was nothing to tell.

For preaching and testimony

Preachers –– want to improve your preaching? Search your sermon manuscript for broad, abstract statements. Then replace them––or at least complement them––with something concrete: nouns that you can touch and verbs that you can see.

I say that as an off-the-charts abstract thinker. The concrete world is often unreal to me. My wife wrapped my Christmas presents in front of me two years in a row without me knowing. So this doesn’t come naturally, nor do I always get it right. But when I make the effort, I see the benefits. People retell my stories. They rarely retell my abstract statements. (For the record, I’m referring to real stories here, not the ones you find in 101 Sermon Illustrations.)

The same applies when you share your testimony. Describe it as if you were narrating a short video. Phrases like, “I was lost and directionless” don’t bring images to people’s minds. Compare that to the testimony of a cop who says, “I told everyone I was okay… and then I flipped my car on an on-ramp, beat a suspect unconscious, got suspended… but I was ‘okay.'”1 The first one hints at a story, the second one tells the story.

For conferencing

For my United Methodist friends, what if a few simple tweaks could change how we think about our conferencing?

What if we never again heard from the conference floor, “Now we’ll hear a report from our camps committee”? And instead we heard, “I want you to hear a great story from one of our camps.” What if we solicited the very best stories from across our conference, chose four to eight of them, and told them with gusto? (My conference is doing some of this. We’re hearing more stories and less reports. We’re already halfway there!)

With not much more than that, we could change our whole approach to Annual Conferences. We could sell tickets.

I know this because I just attended something similar. I paid several hundred dollars and drove to Washington, D.C., for the International Justice Mission (IJM) Prayer Gathering. They work in thirteen different countries with a $47 million budget. During their main sessions, I heard four stories. A drop in the bucket compared to all that they do. But I left inspired and invigorated. I began recruiting others to go to next year’s Prayer Gathering. I began conversations about how our church could give to their work.

This is a classic case of “less is more.” Lots of reports and statistics were available to us––2,668 people freed from forced labor slavery in India, 18,900 people trained in violent crime detection and prevention––but what made it all real to me was the story of four young girls being rescued from an Indian brothel. I didn’t hear about the similar work being done in Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, but I didn’t need to. That single rescue story was much more important for me than hearing generalities about rescues happening across the world.

What if our Annual Conferences took a cue from these? Worship, tell our best stories, and pray together. Sell tickets and turn it into a rally. What if United Methodists from across the conference looked forward to that annual gathering and went home telling others they had to go? What if they left excited about “paying apportionments” (local church funds given to the conference) because they stopped viewing them as “dues” and started viewing them as contributions to mission? (As for the 2-3 hours’ worth of actual business and essential reporting, we could move those into a special delegates-only session.)

 

Our opportunities to share are precious. How are you using yours? Are they inspiring, making believers, giving people something they’ll remember and maybe even retell? Next time you catch yourself saying, “Great things are happening” or talking about “healing” or “transformation” or “forgiveness” or “life change,” ask what the specific stories are behind those general statements.

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  1. a quote adapted from The Thomas Crown Affair, 1999