Through Christmas, I'll be preaching a series of sermons focusing on Jesus' birth narrative in Luke. On Sunday (Nov. 28), I'll be preaching from Luke 1:26-55. My theme is "Yield to God." Below are some slides I'll be using in the sermon. Please use them to start reflecting on this text and theme. You might also consider reading Isaiah 2:1-5 as a supplemental text.
[Note: This is the second of a three-part series on church leadership. Over the next three weeks we'll be studying godly church leadership through the categories of stewardship, shepherding, and serving. The leading idea I'll be pursuing is that of the "downward slope" of leadership. This contrasts with a more worldly view of leadership whereby the leader becomes more prestigious and has people looking up to--and even serving--him or her. In the church, leadership slopes downward because godly leaders lose more of themselves for the sake of others.]
Update (9/20/2010): Sermon MP3 -- Good Shepherding (Luke 15)
Godly shepherds are relationally focused on the spiritual growth of their sheep.
In the gospels, Jesus spends a lot of time with the Pharisees. The Pharisees are the religious denomination within Judaism that spends the most amount of time, energy, and effort seeking to understand and apply the law. For the most part, despite how the Pharisees are presented in the gospels, their intent was good. They recognized the law as given by God for their own good and that the highest goal of one's life was to conform to the law. In doing so, one would conform to God's vision for them and their people.
But sadly, as good intentions sometimes go, their desire to see others conform to the law led them to methods of control where they would exhibit a lack of compassion for others. This is why Jesus was often in conflict with the Pharisees. He preached and focused on God's grace and went to those most in need of God's grace. These were the very people the Pharisees likely would have ignored in favor of "fine-tuning" those who were already "close" to the ideal.
The Pharisees, then, as well as the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders--those whose responsibility was teaching and leading the people to knowledge of God--failed as shepherds. The main reason for their failure, at least according to how Jesus presents it in Luke, is due to their failure to work with those most needing their help. Instead, they often served themselves by keeping to their groups where they could tightly control behavior (Luke 14:12-14).
Therefore, in a context of discipleship (Luke 14:25-34), where Jesus spells out the criteria of discipleship--carrying a cross, counting the cost, and preserving faith through action--he teaches three parables that describe what true shepherding is (Luke 15).
The three parables in Luke 15 are against the Pharisees. The problem is highlighted at the beginning of the chapter when, in response to those who were gathering to hear Jesus teach (tax collectors and sinners), the Pharisees grumbled that Jesus "welcomes sinners and eats with them" (15:2). The problem, as they perceived it, was that Jesus associated with the wrong people. So Jesus tries to correct their view--and teach them that they need to shepherd those who most need shepherding--by telling three parables that revolve around the idea that it is a bigger deal in heaven when one sinner repents than when ninety-nine self-righteous people sit around and compare notes (15:7, 10, 32).
The first parable teaches that good shepherds take risks to shepherd those most in need. The shepherd who lost one sheep left the other ninety-nine by themselves and went off in search of the one. He took a financial risk in doing so, but the one was precious enough for him to do so. Here, the Pharisees are indicted--they would leave the one who wandered away for the sake of "protecting" the ninety-nine left behind. After all, they can't be responsible for every person who won't accept their teaching.
This attitude has been a long-standing problem in the Judeo-Christian heritage. Because we tend to be more comfortable around people who are most like us, we can unintentionally neglect others who need help. In worse cases, we look down on people who are not like us, those who need real, spiritual help. We blame them for their condition instead of looking to serve them.
For example, suppose a church member struggles with some aspect of the church, or some person within the church, and decides to quit the church. Many people, tragically, would write that person off, perhaps even criticizing them. A good shepherd will risk all to go visit that person, serve them, and try to bring them back even though he may be criticized himself for reaching out to someone who is looked down upon.
In the second parable, Jesus teaches that good shepherds care enough about people to spend energy focusing on just one person. His parable is about a woman who has ten silver coins but loses one. Rather than viewing herself as still being ahead with nine, she lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds it--then throws a party over finding one coin! Again, the Pharisees are indicted--they would rather focus on the nine remaining and the let the one go.
But good shepherds go after one missing person. They know what they have in the first place so they know when one goes missing. And they do not write off the one that goes missing; they spend their time, energy, and effort to find that lost one.
In the third parable, Jesus teaches that good shepherds care more for the needs of those who need help than the selfish whims of those seeking to be served. The parable of the "lost son" (or the "older brother" or the "loving father") is perhaps the hardest-hitting parable of the three. This parable indicts the Pharisees in a way the other two didn't. In this parable, a son who once was a "good son" leaves home and squanders his inheritance, only to return home empty-handed. The older brother must have been pleased to see his brother slinking back onto the family estate. But his joy turned to anger when he saw his father run out to greet the lost son! Later, his father rebukes him for not celebrating the return of his brother, who had wandered off.
Good shepherds are not concerned with the selfish whims of people who are in the game for themselves. Sometimes, churches can become made up of selfish members who organize the church around their needs and desires. When someone creates a program to reach out to a different (i.e., "wrong") people-group, especially if that means changes for them, these people become angry and complain. The Pharisees did not like how Jesus associated with the "wrong" type of people when he should have been supporting them.
These three ideas about shepherding coalesce around one main point: good shepherds are relationally focused on the spiritual growth of others. This plays out in two different ways in Luke 15. First, Jesus teaches that it is always proper and appropriate to shepherd those most in need of shepherding. For him, that was the "tax collectors and sinners," those members of the community that most needed to hear the message of the kingdom of God. At other times, it was sick and lame people who needed attention from Jesus, more "undesirables" that were overlooked by society. In our situation, it might be poor people that we reach out to, without judging them for "not being wise with their money." It could prisoners that are reached out to, without regard for what they did in the past.
Second, Jesus teaches that it is always wrong and inappropriate to ignore and write off people who don't act the way we think they should. This was his message to the Pharisees, seen most clearly in his comments about the "older brother." Let's be clear--we do not shepherd anyone if we have no contact with them, if we leave them to fend for themselves and continue to wander away. Instead, we need to overcome our differences, our own sense of the rules and what's right, and perhaps even our own prejudices, and reach out to those in need. This is what good shepherding is.
Again, we can look around us and see this type of shepherding in action. It may not be prominent, but it's there. As you look for spiritual leaders, look for those who meet these criteria for shepherding. You'll know a good shepherd when you see one.
[Note:This is the first of a three-part series on church leadership. Over the next three weeks we'll be studying godly church leadership through the categories of stewardship, shepherding, and serving. The leading idea I'll be pursuing is that of the "downward slope" of leadership. This contrasts with a more worldly view of leadership whereby the leader becomes more prestigious and has people looking up to--and even serving--him or her. In the church, leadership slopes downward because godly leaders lose more of themselves for the sake of others.]
Update (9/13/2010): Sermon MP3 -- Godly Leaders are Good Stewards
Godly leaders are faithful with what God has entrusted to them.
Jesus enjoyed teaching in parables. His parables packed quite a punch. Jesus' habit in teaching was to deliver a short parable and then leave it--the hearers were left to puzzle among themselves what it all meant.
But Jesus did not tell parables simply to be interesting or mysterious. He told parables as a way of inviting those who were ready to follow him more closely to do so; parables weeded out those who were just along for the ride.
As such, Jesus' parables need to be probed beyond the surface level. They often appear to be speaking simply about something common--a tiny seed; a large plant; some lost coins; or a banquet--but they represent much more than common idea. For Jesus, parables became a way of speaking about the risk of the kingdom of God so that insiders "got it" and outsiders didn't.
And some of the parables are difficult! Some parables are pretty straightforward, especially when Jesus says, "The kingdom of God is like...." There, the referent is clear and the puzzle is simply to work out how, for example, the growth of a mustard seed is like the kingdom of God (Luke 13:18-19). Other times, Jesus actually explains what his parable meant (Luke 8:1-15).
But other times, we are simply left with a difficult parable to probe for meaning about the kingdom of God and our relationship to it. One such example is found in Luke 16:1-12. Here, Jesus tells a strange parable about a manager who is called to give an account of his management; he has been accused of wasting (or perhaps misappropriating?) his master's funds. Once the manager realizes he's going to be fired, he creates a scheme whereby he cuts the bills of people who owe his master, hoping that they will offer him a job, or at least some hospitality, for his generosity on his behalf. When his master realizes what happened, he commends the manager and his shrewdness and explains that this is how people get ahead in the world!
[Note: It's not entirely clear whether the manager acted in good or bad faith. We're not told in the parable whether the manager was guilty of what he was accused of, and we have the curious situation where, although he cost his master money, he is commended by the master (8). According to N.T. Wright [Luke for Everyone], it's likely that the manager cut some kind of "tax" or "interest payment" that the master was imposing on what he had lent to his debtors. If this is the case, such action would have been against Israelite laws. The master therefore commends the manager for his shrewdness. He cannot criticize the manager unless he wants his illegal (or at least unethical) business practices to come to light. And the manager goes down as a "friend" of those he helped.]
How are we to understand this? For sure, there are no easy correlations where "the master" is "God" and so forth. Instead, there are modes of understanding, where different characters and people can see themselves first in one way and then in another.
One way of understanding it is to look at whom the parable is spoken to. Jesus is teaching his disciples, but within earshot of the Pharisees, who "heard all this and were sneering at Jesus" (16:14). One thing the Pharisees were guilty of was placing high burdens upon people in relation to the law. In this sense, they are like the master, seeking to exact more from people than what the law actually requires.
But as leaders, they are called to a higher, more generous, and more compassionate level. Through this parable, Jesus calls them to identify less with the master and more with the manager. They are the stewards (managers) of God's kingdom, not the masters of it. Consequently, they should loosen up and share God's generosity with others by leading them to greater knowledge of God. They should avoid hard and exacting management for patient and faithful stewardship. If they do this, they will be commended by their master (God) for good stewardship of God's people.
We can draw some lessons from this about spiritual leadership. The parable was spoken to the disciples and the Pharisees, two groups of leaders that Jesus was working with. Jesus was teaching and training the disciples to be good, godly leaders, and he was hoping the Pharisees would catch this vision as well. But we can discern several helpful points about godly leadership.
First, godly leaders are generous towards others just like God is (8). If anything is clear from the parable, it's that the intent of lowering the debtors' bills was to curry good favor from them; it was a positive move to lighten their load. This is the business God is in. Elsewhere, Jesus speaks of the "yoke" that the Pharisees place on people and the difficulty in observing the law. This corresponds to leaders' tendency to manage people strictly, to focus on external ways of "measuring" people's spiritual growth. Such approaches look at worship and bible class attendance, how often one states they read the bible and pray, and whether people are submissive to the leaders' view of things.
But godly leaders recognize that people grow differently. They recognize that enforcing moral behavior does not help people grow and they "reduce the bill" in this regard by practicing good stewardship that is focused on shepherding and serving.
Second, godly leaders use their God-given resources to serve people (9). In this difficult sentence, the master's commendation seems to be based on the manager's use of money to secure friends for himself that will have an eternal impact. Some have wrongly suggested that money can be used to buy a way into heaven through creating the right connections. But if we remember that this is a parable--and we probe it deeper--we can understand this as a metaphor. Godly leaders use their God-given resources to serve people; this is what it means to "gain friends" and it has eternal significance both for the leader and for the ones he serves. These resources can be time, money, possessions, or simply your own brain power as you serve as a resource person for someone. Godly leaders recognize that what they have, including the gifts by which they serve, are from God, and they practice good stewardship of them.
Third, godly leaders are accountable with the "little things" (10-12). Here, Jesus teaches a principle whereby people who are accountable with a little can be trusted with much. In the context of this parable, Jesus uses money and property as his examples but we can extend this (metaphorically) to stewardship of people. No one should be appointed to a position of leadership if they are not accountable with the "little things." This includes the ability to work with people one on one, to visit with families in their homes, and to be friendly and welcoming at the church building. These are base commitments each godly leader should share and one's inability to be responsible with these "little things" should disqualify them from more responsibility. No one who wants to serve only over larger, more (self-perceived) "important" things is cut out to be a leader in God's kingdom.
So look around you, at your church. Who are the godly leaders who practice good stewardship? Are there any? They may or may not be those who are appointed or titled as leaders. But every church has some. Look to those you see as good stewards because it is they who will be called Jesus' "good and faithful servants" in the end and you will not go wrong to follow their leadership.
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Sermon text: Luke 14:1-14
Update (8/23/2010): Sermon MP3 -- The Rule of Compassion
This is a reflective essay I wrote ahead of Sunday's sermon, from Luke 13:10-17. I hope you enjoy it. What are your thoughts and comments on this discussion?
Below is the audio version of this essay, the essay itself, and the slides for Sunday.
When a church cares more for its own members than for the evangelical message of God for others it has completely lost its way.
I often wonder how we would have responded to Jesus if we had lived during the same time he did. Remember—it was the religious folks who had a problem with Jesus. They were the ones who saw Jesus in conflict with their understanding of the bible and their view of God. Would we have been any different?
On one occasion, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue when he noticed a woman who was crippled. This woman, who could not stand up straight, had been like this for eighteen years. Luke tells us that this woman had been crippled this way by a demonic spirit (Luke 13:10-17). Jesus took the initiative, called this woman forward, and healed her.
Big mistake! Because this healing occurred on a Sabbath, the synagogue leader became indignant. He needed to correct this error that Jesus made before it became out of hand. Instead of addressing Jesus privately, he addressed the people instead and blamed the woman by suggesting that there are six days each week when they can be healed, so they should come those days for healing, not on the Sabbath.
Perhaps because of this ridiculous response, Luke reminds us that when Jesus speaks, it is truly “the Lord” who is speaking. Jesus called the synagogue representatives “hypocrites” for overlooking human needs and the ability of compassion to serve those needs for the sake of their rules. After all, he says, you will take care of the needs of your own animals on the Sabbath. Is it not better to care for the needs of humans?
One application we can draw from this story is the way rules create and form communities so that insiders are separated from outsiders. If we consider the ways people who are different from us—whether through disabilities, different ethnicities, different social-economic backgrounds, etc.—are often left on the outside we can sympathize with the woman who functioned as an “outsider” because of the spirit that was crippling her.
Sure, she was represented in Judaism. She had her place. She was allowed to participate in the Jewish religious system. But she was constrained by the rules that created a system of “insiders” and “outsiders.” The insiders were pure and knew better than to seek help on the Sabbath (though she herself did not seek help). The outsiders, those who needed help, could get the help they needed—but only if they followed the rules (no healing on the Sabbath).
It is a simple observation that this Sabbath rule kept this woman on the outside by forcing her to meet a particular standard before she could enjoy full fellowship with the insiders—she needed to be healed and she needed to do it in the right way.
Perhaps you are indignant at the suggestion that we overlook people who are different from us. May I suggest that attitude is more like the synagogue leader than Jesus. This may be a sign that you like rules more than you like people. Rules are useful and helpful, but only as guidelines. Jesus' lesson is that people—and compassion, mercy, and justice shown to them—must always be more important than our rules.
In its worst form, we allow the rules of our Christian culture to overshadow our interactions with people. Outsiders truly are outsiders—people from outside our community—and they have no idea how to navigate the unwritten rules we create. Jesus' example in this story was an example of outreach—he reached out to a person in need and met their need in the hope of teaching something about God in the process. He calls us to do the same, to serve those in need and to share the love, compassion, mercy, and justice of God through our actions. In what ways have religious rituals compromised compassion, mercy, and justice?
We care more for those who are “in” when we create rules that benefit those we like the best, those who give the most money, or those who have “earned it” by being around the longest. This is wrong. Rules should never serve to subdivide the “worthy” from the “unworthy” or to keep people from God. It is the difference between being inward-focused (like the synagogue) or outward-focused (like Jesus). I want to be part of a church that is like Jesus.
Perhaps we can ask the question like this: Are we a church who overlooks the pain of outsiders for the comfort of insiders, or are we a church that calls the outsider forward over the objection of those bound by rules?
Update: Sermon MP3 -- Interpreting the Times (Luke 12:49-59)
In lieu of a detailed outline and slides, this week I'm offering a reflective essay I wrote on Luke 12:49-59. I wrestled with this text this week and don't completely feel that I've probed it far enough. I found it very challenging, and I hope as you read through this reflection that you also will be challenged to give up your illusions for the real security that comes with following Christ.
Amidst our illusions of comfort and control, Jesus' suffering and rejection calls us to be watchful over our own spiritual lives.
There are two challenges in spiritual life: becoming comfortable with how we perceive things; and attempting to control our experience.
Becoming comfortable is one of the worst things we can do in our spiritual lives because it weakens our ability to maintain our attention and focus on Jesus and his mission. Earlier, in Luke 12:13-21, Jesus replied to a man who wanted Jesus to act as a referee in a dispute over his inheritance by telling a story about a certain rich man. The nameless rich man is a cipher for those who leave no room in their life for God by spending too much time and energy focusing on their desires and comfort.
Just like the man who wanted Jesus to arbitrate and tell his brother to divide the inheritance, the rich man wanted to make sure he kept what was his. He had a bumper crop during this particular harvest, more than enough to care for his needs. But instead of thinking missionally, instead of being a steward and watchful regarding how he could use this harvest, he decided to spend the time, energy, and capital to tear down his old barns and build newer, bigger ones so that he could put his feet up, take it easy, and be provided for. That very night God demanded his life from him and his excess went nowhere.
The parable teaches us that when we seek comfort above everything else, especially in our spiritual lives, we deaden our senses to God's leading.
This is why Jesus reminds us in his extended teaching in Luke 12:49-59 that his mission is one of judgment and suffering and rejection. To those who want peace, he will instead bring division.
But what of the Savior who is the prince of peace? That Jesus still exists. The difference is found in our definition of peace. To those who see the mission of Jesus as a mission of reconciliation and repentance, peace is truly what Jesus offers...along with the division that comes from those who don't like the disruption of their status quo. But to those who see the mission of Jesus as creating for them a peaceful existence whereby they can be comfortable, good members of a local church, and be served—Jesus says to them, “Do [not] think I came to bring peace on earth” (Luke 12:51).
A comfortable, easy, peaceful religious life is a nice feeling—but not a way of life conducive to the gospel.
A second challenge in spiritual living is the desire to control our own experience, to make it manageable to that we can understand it at all times and make sure nothing too “unmanageable” happens. This focus likewise takes our focus away from the mission of Jesus and puts it on current events that we seek to control—the state of the economy, our retirement plans, our job situations.
To these, Jesus reminds us not to worry (Luke 12:22-34). Anxiety is the opposite of the peace Jesus advocates (not the peace we necessarily desire). It wears us down and makes us uncomfortable so we work to minimize anxiety through control. These are like the servant who responds to the anxiety of uncertainty by beating his fellow servants. This failed servant was not prepared for the return of the King and paid dearly for it.
The attitudes of comfort and control are represented in Jesus' teaching when he calls out the hypocrites for seeking a comfortable peace and knowing the weather. They were experts in shallowness but apprentices in seriousness.
I remember being part of a discussion and bible study with a group of Christians around the time a famous model/movie star died. During the bible study, most of these Christians, deemed mature by the consumerist culture of the church, had little to nothing to contribute. However, after the bible study, during the fellowship time, these same Christians perked up and knew all the latest information—and gossip!—about the dead model. They were experts in shallowness but apprentices in seriousness.
Jesus calls us to be serious. He calls us to be watchful and attentive to our own souls and the movement of the Spirit within us. “How can you know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and sky but not this present time?” he asks us?
We interpret first for ourselves and then for others. We interpret because it helps us be watchful, to pay attention. And it's in paying attention to the subtle moves of the Spirit within us that we find the true and lasting peace and comfort that God freely offers to us. It is this grace, found even in suffering and rejection, that moves us forward into the world to give freely of ourselves just as we were freely given to.
[Note: I'm providing this information early! I'll be on vacation next week and won't have internet access to post, so although I'm putting this content up now, it is for the sermon I will preach on July 18.]
When we struggle with who to serve and who we should love, we are not loving our neighbors as Jesus told us to (Luke 10:25-37).
Part of transformation--whether with God or with others--deals with overcoming our prejudices and sacrificing ourselves for others. Jesus taught the hypocritical "expert" that very thing when he taught that a Samaritan, an enemy of the Jews, was a true neighbor to a Jew who was beaten up, surpassing the priest and a Levite who were more concerned with their "ritual purity" than with helping one in need.
Our neighbors are those in need. We love them, and transform our relationships with them, when we serve them by using the time and resources God has given us.
This sermon picks up on the first of four transformational relationships I introduced a couple weeks ago. Everything starts with God and must be traced back to God and flow from God. Relationships with our neighbors are tied to our love of God (Luke 10:27) relationship with God. These relationships are critical if we truly want to be transformed.
Use my "get-started" post, this chart, the outline, and the slides to begin thinking more deeply about how your relationship with other believers needs to be--and can be--transformed.
This MP3 is only a recap, due to technical failure with the recording software. It's a short version of the sermon and is presented more casually than my regular sermons.
Sermon: Transforming Our Relationships with Our Neighbors
To grow spiritually, we need to regularly engage in four different areas of relationship: with God, with believers, with neighbors, and with strangers. This graphic describes these four areas by focusing on a core thought, a key scripture, a leading action, and several examples of each.
My personal view is that we should always be focused in our relationship with God and at least one other significant relationship in one of the other three areas. We can supplement this with ongoing activity in the other two relationship areas.
By taking action and cooperating with God (Philippians 2:12-13), we'll grow spiritually and be transformed (Romans 12:1-2).
The sermon MP3 is located beneath the Sermon Theme graphic.
A divided mind is incapable of completely trusting God. Selfishness is often at the root of a divided mind. In Luke 12:13-21, Jesus teaches us to trust God, not ourselves, and to be rich toward God instead of accumulating riches for ourselves.
Use the sermon outline and slides to help you prepare for Sunday's lesson.
Repentance is an elusive topic many of us struggle to understand. Although we often view repentance as a feeling, Jesus teaches us that repentance is about choosing him and bearing fruit (good deeds) for others. In this sermon, learn 5 different ways of understanding repentance and be drawn closer to God as a result.
Download Reminders to Repent.