one thing

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03
Jul

a difficult sermon

This Wednesday, I attended the final worship service of the North American Convention (Not A Campmeeting) of the Church of God in Anderson. It was my first time to be in the sanctu – I mean, auditorium of Madison Park CHOG, by the way, so that was an interesting experience. I’ll say this: it looks bigger on the outside. The feel of the inside is more intimate than I expected.

Note: I did not attend any of the other worship services at this year’s convention, so I cannot compare Wednesday night’s sermon to any other sermon (nor should I). But there were a few things in this sermon itself that got me thinking… a lot. (Disclaimer: This post is not intended to reflect on the speaker either as a person or as a preacher. I’m looking at the sermon, not at the person, and yes, I know how hard it is to distinguish those two.)

First, the speaker said that he had been given one verse as his sermon text —

Now, wait a minute. What kind of church convention gives its speakers one verse from which to preach? I know in previous years, speakers have been asked to preach on successive verses of a single passage, night after night. How in the world do you preach on one verse, without ignoring the literary context of that verse? Oh, right. Let’s carry on.

First, the speaker said that he had been given one verse as his sermon text, but he told us that he chose to expand that verse to include the full story surrounding it. For your reference, the verse in question was Matthew 22:37, “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'” He expanded it to include verses 34 through 40, an appropriate expansion. The story is that the Pharisees heard that Jesus silenced their buddies the Sadducees, so they took a shot at trying to bring him down theologically/rhetorically. A teacher of the law tested him with the question about which commandment was greatest. Jesus’s response, you might recall, was two-fold: Love God (as in verse 37) and love neighbor (as yourself). And he said that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (verse 40). The textual, biblical, theological, practical, and ethical implications of this short passage are, in a word, astounding to me. This is, perhaps, the most significant teaching of our Savior that has been recorded for us. It fundamentally reshapes the religious and moral expectations of those who would follow the God of Israel, not because Jesus came up with something new (because he didn’t), but because Jesus pointed out that these are more important than all the other Jewish laws in existence.

Huge text. I was almost giddy when Wednesday’s preacher expanded his one verse to this passage.

But then … he never referred to it again. His sermon had absolutely nothing to do with Matthew 22:34-40. He read it, he agreed with it, but he talked about something altogether different.

The first third of his message dealt with questions like “What do I think about myself?” and “What does God think about me?” Basically, he said that we need to have an appropriate self-image in order to follow Christ in this world. God loves you and me, and our faulty, negative self-images need to be reconstructed around the much more positive way in which our God sees us. This is as touchy-feely and fuzzy-wuzzy as it sounds. (Idea: to make it less … whatever, maybe we should think about how God sees us through the image of Christ, whose blood washes away our sins.) I was about to give up altogether on this sermon. Matthew 22:34-40 was a distant memory at this point. And I didn’t (and don’t) think that a feel-good message is appropriate for a worship service, let alone the final worship service of a national convention. (It could work for a youth group, perhaps. And yes, of course it’s important for us to have healthy self-images. But preach the Bible, man.)

The second third raised the question “Who’s in charge?” Clearly, God should be in charge of our lives. Self, others, petty gods, idols, etc. should not be in charge. Ok, so this is moving in a helpful direction, but it’s still unrelated to the scripture passage. And it’s more campfire than campmeeting, if you get my drift.

The third third caught me totally by surprise. It changed everything. Suddenly, this man was preaching, not just giving a feel-good message. He was actually preaching. The guiding question here was “What’s next?” What comes next, he said, is, in a word, suffering. He quoted various New Testament verses that illustrate the need for disciples of Jesus to participate in his sufferings. He said that being a Christian is not about living an easy life; it’s not about getting what you want or even need; it’s about being undone through suffering for the sake of Christ. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. This was powerful stuff. And it was strange, but the atmosphere changed in this final move of the sermon. People were “amen”-ing less, clapping less, responding less. I think most weren’t expecting this as the conclusion.

I wonder if the speaker intended to create this sort of one-two punch: feel better about yourself, then experience a call to suffer. It was powerful, in any case.

But it still didn’t have anything to do with the story of Jesus and the two greatest commandments. Where does biblical preaching begin? With a passage of scripture, or with an idea that must be backed up by scripture?

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