Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Pastors, Pay Attention to Details in Your Sermon!

I would be the last person to suggest that I am the model of what a preaching pastor should be--when I hear myself from time to time, I honestly wonder why anyone keeps coming back to hear me. It is an amazing privilege to preach God's Word, and I do not take it lightly--may I never do so! But I continue to work at it, and I trust that you do, too.

When I listen to a sermon, I sometimes find that little mistakes stick out and distract me. This is more of a problem for those of us who are more familiar with the text, and it's certainly not like sharing wrong theology. But, we ought to do all we can to minimize confusion and distractions.

So, can I just encourage all of us preachers, teachers, and those who aspire to do the same to be attentive to the small (and perhaps not so small) things that can cause a mind seeking to follow us not to be distracted or misled through carelessness in the details. Here are three examples I would encourage you to consider.

1. Know your Bible names and books as your people should know them. Jesus lived in Nazareth growing up, and he raised Lazarus from the dead, not "Lazareth." Every time I hear a preacher say the latter, I cringe. It happens in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, as well! The final book of the Bible is not "Revelations" but "Revelation." The Old Testament book is Psalms, but when we look up one we say "Psalm" as in "Psalm 23" never "Psalms 23."

2.  Practice Bible names and places if you are going to read or use them out loud. But be careful about trying to give a common Bible name or place the "right"original pronunciation, though. Yes, the Hebrews would have called him "Shaul," but he is Saul in English. Jesus is our Savior, and while "Y'shua" is the Hebrew/Aramaic name, we sound pretentious when we do that. At the same time, there is genuine room for variety with an "Epaphras" (is it EPaphras, ePAPHras, or epaPHRAS--the Greek would favor the last, but I hear the first two more often) so choose and stick to it! Generally, it's best to use whatever has become the commonly accepted pronunciation, if there is one.

3. Keep your Bible characters and stories straight. Recently I heard a great speaker refer to Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (he got that right!) as having anointed Jesus' feet with her tears and then drying them with her hair. It's a wonderful story, but it's not Mary! Mary anointed Jesus with valuable ointment and dried his feet with her hair just before his burial, in her home in Bethany (Matt 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:2-11), not in Galilee where the other woman, a notorious sinner, entered a Pharisee's house to do this earlier (Luke 7:37 ff). Oh, and this wasn't Mary Magdalene either--many suggest it was. While she might have had a sinful background (after all she had seven demons cast out of her) she isn't named here. And one more thing, the woman taken in adultery in John 7:53-8:11 was not Mary Magdalene either--although that is an error that goes back over 1500 years, it isn't true, as that woman (a resident of Jerusalem, not Galilee) is not named. Mary Magdalene loved the Lord, but no anointing by her is ever recorded.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Day Christ Died: Right On Time

There are a number of times in the New Testament narratives of Jesus' earthly ministry when his enemies were ready to kill him. Whether it was the hometown crowd in Nazareth trying to throw him over a cliff, the Pharisees who were angered at his devastating critiques of their pseudo-holiness, or the religious and political leaders of the Jewish people who actively sought to capture and execute him, his life was regularly in danger. At various times, it is recorded that their anger and their attempts to kill him were stymied because it wasn't his "time" or his "hour." Jesus knew this, and his sense of timing was always present.

It was after Peter's confession of him as Messiah that Matthew 16 records that "at that time" Jesus began to tell them over and over of his going to Jerusalem to be betrayed, executed, and to rise from the dead. They didn't really understand, and even fought against this knowledge, but perhaps they didn't worry too much because it wasn't his time yet.

And then, it was his time. His message on Thursday as preparations for Passover began was, "My time is at hand" (Matthew 26:18). In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Judas approached and his friends slept, he said "See, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand" (Matthew 26:45-46). Arrested, bound, led from one trial to another before Jewish leaders, the darkness before morning most likely found Jesus held prisoner in the dungeon under the palace of the High Priest. As they waited for the earliest moment they could take him to Pilate, Jesus languished in the pit that served to hold prisoners, and may have rehearsed the psalm that foreshadowed this moment, its pain, and its purposes--Psalm 88, written a millennium before.
Reading Psalm 88 in the pit used to hold prisoners under
the house of the High Priest in Jerusalem
    O Lord, God of my salvation;
I cry out day and night before you.
    Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
    For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
    I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength,
    like one set loose among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more, 
The hole through which prisoners would have been
lowered by a rope into the dungeon. The cross was
added later when this site became a church

for they are cut off from your hand.
    You have put me in the depths of the pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
    Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
    You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
    my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call upon you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10     Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah
11     Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12     Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
13     But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14     O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15     Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.
16     Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
17     They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
18     You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; 

my companions have become darkness. 
(Psalm 88, ESV)
The Place of the Skull
Outside, the crowds were assembling in Jerusalem and would soon awake to make their way to the Temple where their Passover lambs were being slain at such a high rate that the Kidron Brook's waters ran deep red as it drained away from the city--it was as if the city was bleeding. Israel's Passover was being celebrated, and in just a few hours the greater Passover lamb would be slain at exactly the same hour.

This was the moment--the time that had been determined in the counsels of eternity, and announced only yesterday. This was how Jesus' "Good Friday" began according to his own orchestrated timing--in a pit, alone, in pain, abandoned. We (and he) know what is coming: the trial before Pilate, the scourging, the grisly procession to Golgotha, the cross, the darkness, and the death.

This was the time.

This was the price to be paid if his sheep were to be rescued.

And in this moment of his choosing, he continued to choose to suffer, to to go forward, and to bear this all... for you and for me.