The Parable of the Prodigal God

THE FOLLOWING IS A SERMON THAT I DID AT NORTHMINSTER CHURCH ON JANUARY 14, 2018. YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE FULL SERMON HERE. I am indebted to Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler, and Kenneth Bailey for helping me rethink this parable every time I study it and preach it again.

To understand this parable, you have to understand two things

The first is- Who is hearing the parable? The beginning of Luke 15 tells us: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

Tax Collectors and Sinners were a group of people. Tax collector not a cheat trying to get rich. Not like a bad used car salesman. They were sell outs who made money by supporting the occupying armies. They were traitors. They were hated by the community. Sinners are a class of people who, because of illness or livelihood, could never enter the Temple. This included deformities and diseases such as the blind, lame, bleeding, or lepers, and jobs such as prostitution, working as a mercenary for the Romans, and the tax collectors.

These people are drawing near to hear him. They were taught that they were outcast and cursed by God. They can never be made right with God. But they are attracted to the teachings of Jesus, and welcomed by him.

The Scribes and Pharisees are the other side of spectrum. They are super religious and upright. They believe they have gained favor with God and have a special relationship with God. And they are questioning why Jesus would associate with these Tax Collectors and Scribes.

Jesus gives this parable to these two specific groups, and you can’t understand the parable if you don’t understand those groups. Continue reading

Render Unto Caesar: The Politics of Jesus

This sermon is the third of a 4-week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics. You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

I have been shocked in my own work to prepare for this sermon series at how political the Bible is and, particularly, how political the life of Jesus is. Maybe I have just never looked at the text from this perspective before, but as I have been thinking and reading this month, I can see political realities and political implications on every page of the scriptures. Today, for this sermon, I want to explore how faith and politics mingle and move in the Bible and especially in the life of Jesus. Continue reading

Render Unto Caesar: Some Trust in Chariots

This sermon is the second of a 4 week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics.You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

Today is September 11. Fifteen years ago today, a terrorist plot was executed to use planes to attack important American symbols and take American lives. Planes were flown into the Twin Towers—a symbol of American business, the Pentagon—a symbol of American defense, and perhaps the White House was the target of the fourth plane that never reached its destination—the symbol of America’s leadership. Many lives were lost and devastated by this attack—2,996 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured, but the damage of that day continues. Continue reading

LAND THE PLANE- My best advice for preachers

I was once at a denominational meeting where the speaker preached for what seemed like forever. I don’t think it was as long as it felt. The problem was that the preacher kept preaching what everyone thought was the ending to the sermon. And just as we all thought it was ending he would launch into another point. There was a certain amount of anxiety every time this happened and, in the end, the sermon lost its power.

A friend of mine came up to me afterwards and simply said, “Land the plane, man. Just land the plane.”

plane landingI thought that was a great metaphor and it has been pivotal in how I approach preaching. It felt like that preacher kept coming in for a landing and then, just as he was about to touch the tires down on the runway, he accelerated for another lap around the airport. He would come in for another landing only to take off once again.

The end of a move can make or break the movie. The end of a book leaves you with the last impression and often tints the way you see the whole book. How you end your sermon is crucial for the lasting impact of that sermon.

I am convinced that many pastors don’t know how to end a sermon. They can take off and fly the plane, but you sour the whole sermon if you don’t land the plane.

Here’s how you land the plane. To begin you have to know very clearly what your last point is. You should write it out and practice your ending. Often the end of the sermon is the only part I have manuscripted because I want to be very clear on how I am going to end.

Another way to be sure you land the plane is to be careful when you end certain points or sections of your sermon. You don’t want to preach a point onto the runway unless it is the end of the sermon. It is helpful to give clues like telling people how many points or observations you have. Sometimes if you find that you have an observation that feels like a landing maybe that point ought to be the last one in the sermon.

Here is another simply device—just say something like “Amen.” Give a recognizable end to the sermons. I often like to pray at the end of my sermons. I think it is helpful to ask God to open our eyes and hearts and to help the message sink into our lives. Praying also a clear ending to the sermon and also gives time for people to get ready for the next part of the service.

Whatever you do, for God’s sake and for the sake of your people, land the plane.


10 Tips for More Creative Preaching PART 2


This is part 2 of a 2 part blog.

6. Ask- what image do I need to drive home? Is there an image that is the crux of the text? Is there a metaphor that captures the essence of your message? Learn to find that, build your sermon around that, and leave that as the last thought I the sermon. For example, I think the Prodigal Son is carried by the two images of a father running to a lost son and of a father begging his elder son to come into the party. Those images were my conclusion to that sermon.

7. Find a way to physically act in a way that will make this come alive. I one time preached about how God is not limited by our expectations and demands on him. The phrase I kept using in writing the sermon was that God would not stay in our box. I finally thought of actually preaching the sermon while standing in a box. At one point I kicked my way out of the box in very dramatic fashion. This was a way of physically embodying the point of the sermon.

8. Ask- how can people respond to this sermon? Sometimes a message demands a response by people. If we can give them the opportunity to do that then we can make the sermon more impactful. I was preaching about Paul’s metaphors of bearing each other’s burdens and that each should carry their own loads. When people entered the sanctuary they were given a brick (or part of a brick) to hold. After the sermon, as people came up for communion, they laid their bricks down to signify their own struggle to do what Paul is talking about. The response carried the sermon.

9. Don’t build the sermon around points. The modern way of preaching was to be logical and build your sermon around 3 points. You got a bonus if all the points started with the same letter or spelled some kind of word. I suggest that for more creativity you should build your sermon around metaphors. Paul and James do this quite a lot, as does John though he is more subtle with them.

10. Don’t read the text in worship before the sermon. Ask where in the sermon you can read the text to have the most impact. I sometimes read my sermon in the middle of the sermon, sometimes I read it slowly throughout the sermon. I have even read the sermon at the end. I know of churches that do the scripture reading at the beginning of the service so that the entire worship service is seen through the text. Experiment.

Bonus: Change where the sermon is in your service. I think that some sermons should be earlier in the service. Some should be later. I have even done sermons in two or three parts throughout the service and let them build on one another.

2 Great Prayers for Preachers

I collect prayers and quotes for use before I preach and lead worship. Here are two great ones I found recently:Spurgeon

May the great and gracious Spirit, who is the only illumination of darkness, light up my mind whilst I attempt, in a brief and hurried manner, to speak from this text. —Charles Spurgeon

Dear God, through Your beloved Son You have said that those who hear Your Word are blessed.  How much more fitting it would be for us to bless You, praise, thank and laud You unceasingly, O eternal and merciful Father, with glad hearts, that You show Yourself so friendly—indeed, so like a father—to us poor little worms, that You speak to us about the greatest and highest of subjects—eternal life.  Nevertheless, You don’t stop there, enticing and wooing us to hear Your Word through Your Son.   He says: “Blessed are martin lutherthey who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  As if You couldn’t get by without our ears—we, who are dust and ashes!  Many thousand times more do we need Your Word.  O, how unspeakably great is Your goodness and patience!   On the other hand, woe!  Woe! over the ingratitude and colorblindness of those who not only don’t want to hear Your Word, but even stubbornly despise, persecute, and blaspheme it.  Amen. —Martin Luther

The Heart of Charles Spurgeon’s Preaching

This quote from one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons in 1894 shares what I think was the heart of his preaching—being and living in Christ:Lifeofcharleshad00rayciala_0494

“Often, when I come in at the door and my eyes fall on this vast congregation, I feel a tremor go through me to think that I should have to speak to you all and be, in some measure, accountable for your future state. Unless I preach the Gospel faithfully and with all my heart, your blood will be required at my hands. Do not wonder, therefore, that when I am weak and sick, I feel my head swim when I stand up to speak to you, and my heart is often faint within me. But I do have this joy at the back of it all—God does set many sinners free in this place! Some people reported that I was mourning that there were no conversions. Brothers and Sisters, if you were all to be converted tonight, I should mourn for the myriads outside! That is true, but I praise the Lord for the many who are converted here. When I came last Tuesday to see converts, I had 21 whom I was able to propose to the Church—and it will be the same next Tuesday, I do not doubt. God is saving souls! I am not preaching in vain. I am not despondent about that matter—liberty is given to the captives and there will be liberty for some of them, tonight! I wonder who it will be? Some of you young women over yonder, I trust. Some who have dropped in here, tonight, for the first time. Oh, may this first opportunity of your hearing the Word in this place be the time of beginning a new life which shall never end—a life of holiness, a life of peace with God!”

Charles Spurgeon Quotes about Preaching

Here are some great quotes from Charles Spurgeon about preaching that I found thought provoking::

  • All originality and no plagiarism makes for dull preaching.spurgeon
  • Whatever subject I preach, I do not stop until I reach the Savior, the Lord Jesus, for in Him are all things.
  • The man who cannot weep cannot preach. At least, if he never feels tears within, even if they do not show themselves without, he can scarcely be the man to handle such themes as those which God has committed to his people’s charge.
  • A sermon often does a man most good when it makes him most angry. Those people who walk down the aisles and say, “I will never hear that man again,” very often have an arrow rankling in their breast.
  • You cannot preach conviction of sin unless you have suffered it. You cannot preach repentance unless you have practiced it. You cannot preach faith unless you have exercised it. True preaching is artesian; it wells up from the great depths of the soul. If Christ has not made a well within us, there will be no outflow from us.
  • He that can toy with his ministry and count it to be like a trade, or like any other profession, was never called of God. But he that has a charge pressing on his heart, and a woe ringing in his ear, and preaches as though he heard the cried of hell behind him, and saw his God looking down on him–oh, how that man entreats the Lord that his hearers may not hear in vain
  • If I only had one more sermon to preach before I died, it would be about my Lord Jesus Christ. And I think that when we get to the end of our ministry, one of our regrets will be that we did not preach more of Him. I am sure no minister will ever repent of having preached Him too much.

12 Questions Preachers Should Ask about their Sermons

Here are 12 questions for pastors to ask about their preaching. They relate to both particular sermons and the overall whitfield preahcing

  1. Are you preaching both the Old Testament and the New Testament? Both need to be preached if you are going to give your people the full testimony of preaching.
  2. Are you helping people know AND do? Sermons need to be about both practical living and theological insight. Some sermons might be more one or the other, but your people need both on a regular basis.
  3. Are you only preaching what people want to hear? If everybody loved every one of your sermons then there is probably a problem. If they hate all your sermons there is probably a problem too. People need to be both convicted and encouraged.
  4. Are you using the right number of stories and examples? There is a problem when you tell too many or too few examples and stories. Too many and people can actually lose the point. Too few and people won’t remember the point. Some points require more or less examples.
  5. Are you too point driven? People don’t remember points. They don’t think in points. They think in stories. They remember images. Gone are the days when your sermon should be jammed into a 3 or 4 points system.
  6. Do you have too much or too little energy? If you are monotone and never get excited then your people will sleep. If you are too bubbly and wild then your people will be scared. You need variety and to avoid extremes.
  7. Do you have too much or too little tradition? I like tradition. I like history. I like the creeds. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. People live today, not 500 years ago.
  8. Are you too focused on Biblical themes or particular passages? There are times when certain large biblical themes that need to come up in sermons. There are other times when a particular passage needs mined for all of the precious nuggets in it. Both are important.
  9. Are you preaching the same message every week? So many pastors have their hobby horse like evangelism or social justice. You are not just preaching what you like. Not every sermon and topic can come back to the same idea that you like.
  10. Are you preaching to your congregation? This sounds dumb, but many pastors preach with little or no regard for where their congregation is. Is your preaching simple enough? Does is speak to real issues in your congregation?
  11. Are your conclusion too open ended or too specific? The best sermons have guidance on what to think about and how to apply them but also leave room for the message to haunt people throughout the week.
  12. Who is the hero in your sermons? It should be Jesus. Our faith is not about self-help. It is about God-help and how we turn around and help others.


Daybreak, Henri Nouwen, and Me Pt 7

This is part 7 of 7 of a sermon given 4/11/15 at Westminster Church in New Brighton, PA. In it, I share about my recent trip to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada to research author Henri Nouwen. The sermon can be heard on itunes or at

The only way through is to really trust God. You are loved so much that Jesus gave his life for you. You are the beloved. This is the truth that Henri Nouwen seemed to come back to again and again in his life and his writing.

Henri had a wonderful way of talking about trusting God. One year while on Sabbatical in Germany Henri went to the circus. There, he was captivated by the Flying Rodleighs on the trapeze bars. He saw them several times and eventually got to meet them. At one point later on Henri even tried the trapeze bars himself, with safety equipment, of course.

Henri asked the Flying Roleighs about the trapeze act. They told him about the discipline it takes to work together like that. But he also learned that while everybody thinks that the important person is the flyer, in reality the most important person is the catcher. The flyer has to fly and then put their arms out and trust that the catcher is going to catch them. If the flyer does not trust the catcher than the flyer will try to grab the catcher and will end up falling. The flyer has to keep their arms straight and really trust the catcher.

Henri used to say that God is the catcher in our lives. That we can trust God. We can fly in our lives and know that God will keep us from falling. One of the hardest areas to trust God is in being ourselves around other people. It takes so much weakness and vulnerability. It can be so messy. It requires courage to trust God like that. And there is no harder place to trust God as the catcher than in being comfortable with ourselves and giving ourselves to others in relationship. But life is so much sweeter when we fly. Trust God and try to find God in the places where God has the most room to work—in our weaknesses and in our relationships with each other.

I am continuing to process my trip to Daybreak, but I am already noticing a few practical changes. I am trying to live a little more in the moment. I am trying to feel less busy. I am trying to be myself and be comfortable with who I am—weaknesses and all. And I am trying to develop deeper community and intimacy in my family and my relationships. What might God be calling you to do?

Daybreak, Henri Nouwen, and Me Pt 6

This is part 6 of 7 of a sermon given 4/11/15 at Westminster Church in New Brighton, PA. In it, I share about my recent trip to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada to research author Henri Nouwen. The sermon can be heard on itunes or at

Even though my visit was only a few days, it has hung onto me and not let me go. I have been thinking a lot about Matthew 18:20 which says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” I think that God is always with us, so why does Jesus say that He is there when two or three are gathered? I learned in a new way during my time at Daybreak that God is with us in a special way when we are in deep community with others.

When we are in relationship with one another, there is a space between us. It is a place that is not there when we are alone. And in this place God has special room to work. As we interact and brush against one another we have all of these points of contact that God can use to shape, change, and teach both you and I. It is sacred space between you and I and in our midst. But there are 3 problems that we face in seeking this kind of sacred space between us.            First, this kind of deep community takes a lot of personal vulnerability. It is not easy to be yourself and open yourself up to another in relationship. The vulnerability and the caring go together. The same vulnerability unlocks the depth of caring that makes it possible for us to live with our own disabilities and weaknesses. But you have to risk being open in order to find the very support you need to be open.

Second, this kind of deep community can be messy. It might lead us to see things about ourselves we did not want to see. We may be sadder when we lose someone because we are closer to them. We may have to slow down to invest time in one another. We might have to have some rules like the no flatulence rule. Community is not easy and is sometimes dirty, slow, and downright frustrating.

Third, people who are weak or different play a critical role in this kind of community. The weaker ones have much to teach. So it is often easier for us to pretend- to put on masks. To avoid people different than we are. To be around people like us. To seek opinions of others that we know will line up with our views. The outcast, the broken, the less important- these people stand in our lives as a critique of what is normal. They show us where we are also weak and they call us to become the best and most compassionate versions of ourselves.

I do not mean do downplay or romanticize the challenge of living with and loving people who have disabilities or are emotionally or spiritually broken. At Daybreak I got to see how challenging it was to be in that world all the time. But at Daybreak they wade right into the messiness of community.

I also do not mean to imply that I am great at this. So often I hide behind my position and my education. I would like my ministry to come out of my strengths—my creativity and my energy. But I am reminded that Paul writes, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)

This is scary for me, too. To stop fronting is to really trust in God. To admit my own handicaps and disabilities, even when mine are much less visible and more easily hidden. So I stay busy, feel important, keep myself hidden from others. But when I think that when we hide from others we also end up hiding from who we really are. And not only do we limit the space that God can work in between us, but I think it is in our weaknesses that God has the most room to work. Our disabilities are also sacred space in the Father’s hands.

Daybreak, Henri Nouwen, and Me Pt 5

This is part 5 of 7 of a sermon given 4/11/15 at Westminster Church in New Brighton, PA. In it, I share about my recent trip to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada to research author Henri Nouwen. The sermon can be heard on itunes or at

After dinner in each house, a candle was lit and everyone held hands. One person would start and then everyone around the table prayed for whoever they wanted to. Nothing was hurried. Everyone was important.

I wondered how Henri Nouwen must have lived in the tension of pace and priorities. While he lived at Daybreak he wrote, taught, and travelled globally and then returned to the pace of Daybreak. It must have been so jarring.

On Friday I got to spend some time at The Woodery. This wood shop is actually a business that makes wooden ground stakes for construction companies and small wooden wheels for craft sets. It may sound dangerous for disabled people to work in a wood shop, but, I assure you, it was well supervised and very safe. I worked with a man named Robin to cut boards throughout the day. For the saw to cut the boards, we both had to press a button with each hand several feet away from the saw.

I was happy after a couple of days of rest and study to get some manual labor done. I thought I was taking my time, but I was told right away that I needed to slow down even more. In fact, in the afternoon I was told that I was not allowed to finish the job I was working on. If I finished cutting the stakes that I had then they were going to have to take stakes away from the man who was sharpening the stakes. It always bothered him when his stacks were taken away, so I had to be sure that did not happen. This has to be the only time I was told not to finish a job.

Fridays at The Woodery are a special day. On Fridays that staff all go to a local restaurant called Joe’s Burgers. When they walk in they do not even have to order food because the restaurant knows what everyone gets. Before we went to Joe’s Burgers, the staff went through their rules for Joe’s Burgers with the core members. Each seemed to have experience behind them—no fighting, no yelling, no talking to people we do not know, no eating other people’s food… One rule, however was emphasized above all other. The rule, and I quote, “No Farting.” Apparently The Woodery had been cleared out on more than one Friday afternoon from the effects of a trip to Joe’s Burgers. I must say that I personally felt the need for this rule that afternoon, but I say proudly that I did not break the rule.

That Friday night the Daybreak community gathered for worship. A number of other people from the local area joined as well. Some just liked to worship there. Others had children with special needs who had trouble going to other churches because of the noises they made or their appearance. I read the Psalm for the night as we sang and prayed. The sermon was given by the head of worship and by John who now had my business card in his collection.

After worship, I got in my car and drove late at night to Erie to be with my family and to head the rest of the way home the next day. I brought back with me a few crosses that I bought at the craft studio. Several of them had been made by people I had met during my visit.

Daybreak, Henri Nouwen, and Me Pt 4

This is part 4 of 7 of a sermon given 4/11/15 at Westminster Church in New Brighton, PA. In it, I share about my recent trip to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada to research author Henri Nouwen. The sermon can be heard on itunes or at

I got to see the strength of this kind of intimate community on Wednesday. There had been a death in the community. One of the assistants had died suddenly of a heart attack. Wednesday morning the community gathered to tell stories and share memories of her life. People got up and share humorous jokes, moving poems, and emotional good byes to this person who had been an important part of the community for a long time. Even several of the core members spoke. Not all of them could be very well understood and some of their sharing ended up getting a little off topic. Still, their input was not only valued but it was critically important. They were the core members and were the center of the community.

The Woodery got a coffin and coated it in a special paint. Throughout the week I was there, everyone who wanted to in the community came and painted the coffin. It was covered in pictures and words that represented not only the one who passed but also the community that would miss her.

The people from Daybreak apologized for the change in my schedule. They did not give me the full tour around the facility that they wanted to do. I felt that I actually got a much deeper view of the community during that service.

I tried to imagine doing a service like this at my own church. Could we speak of one another with this kind of raw honesty? Do we even know one another well enough to tell those kind of stories? As I shared dinner in another house that night, I could not help but long for that kind of closeness in my own family and church.

On Thursday I took the bus and the subway down to the University of Toronto to visit to the Henri Nouwen Archives. It was so cool to sit in a library and read unpublished and handwritten sermons and lectures by Henri. I read material on how he taught pastors in seminary and taught others at Daybreak to be pastors for their community.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery of my trip to the Archives was the contrast between the pace and priorities of the city and university as compared to Daybreak. In the city, everyone was in a hurry. No one spoke to each other or even looked at one another during my commute. Everyone just read their papers, looked at their phones, and hurried to get somewhere other than where they were.

By contrast, dinner that night in another of the homes at Daybreak seemed so slow and deliberate. Not only did dinner take a long time, but people were so much more aware of one another. Two of the core members kept hugging each other and calling each other their best friends. After one of the hugging core members with Down Syndrome, Mary Anne, finished her meal, she took over from one of the assistants feeding Hsi-Fu, a more severely handicapped housemate. This allowed the assistant who had been feeding His-Fu, to finish his own meal. They were more aware and they cared then my trip into the city.

Daybreak, Henri Nouwen, and Me Pt 3

This is part 3 of 7 of a sermon given 4/11/15 at Westminster Church in New Brighton, PA. In it, I share about my recent trip to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada to research author Henri Nouwen. The sermon can be heard on itunes or at

I got to see that first night and live in those 4 days a deep community. Life was so shared. It was intimate. Everybody was authentic. They were just themselves and shared their life freely with others. They lived life together and not just next to each other. Everyone was vulnerable and raw. There was such a deep level of sharing, caring, and being open to one another.

When Henri Nouwen came to that community, he worked in the same house that I had dinner in that first night. His job was to take care of Adam. Adam was one of the more significantly disabled people in the community. Henri had to take a couple of hours to get Adam ready in the morning. Get him up, showered, dressed, fed, and to his day program.

At first, Henri struggled to relate to Adam. He was not sure what to say or how much would get through to Adam. But as Henri worked with Adam over time he began to call Adam his teacher. Adam taught Henri how to be himself and how to slow down and be really present in the moment. If Henri rushed and was not really focused on Adam, then Adam would often have a seizure. Over time, Henri began to feel honored that he was trusted with the most delicate person in the community.

As Henri got comfortable at Daybreak, it became home for him. Henri was a person who wanted to please others and was very sensitive about what other people said about him. He had some things about himself that he was not always comfortable with. As he relaxed in the Daybreak community and felt comfortable enough to be himself, he became overwhelmed with what he found. He ended up needing to leave the community for a little while to deal with some of the personal wounds that had been exposed during his time there.

We all have disabilities. We have places in our thinking, in our behavior, and in our lives that do not work the way they are supposed to. Some are very visible, others we can keep hidden. Sometimes when we are around people with more obvious weaknesses that are comfortable in their state, it makes us more uneasy about who we are. While being in this deep of a community can be challenging and can expose our weaknesses, it can also life-giving in that we can find in the community the strength to live with our disabilities.

Daybreak, Henri Nouwen, and Me Pt 2

This is part 2 of 7 of a sermon given 4/11/15 at Westminster Church in New Brighton, PA. In it, I share about my recent trip to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada to research author Henri Nouwen. The sermon can be heard on itunes or at

When I first arrived I met with Toni from the office who had coordinated my visit. We stopped off at New House. This was the house I would have dinner at the first night. I was greeted by John—an older man with Down Syndrome. John has been a core member at Daybreak for a long time. John said hello and then asked me for a business card. I stood there a little shocked by the request. I did not expect to need to show my credentials to anyone living there. Besides, I had been driving a few hours and did not have a business card. I was informed that John collects business cards. I went back to my room before dinner and looked through my stuff. I was determined to bring John a business card, even if it was not mine.

It was a special dinner that night. It was Saint Patrick’s Day and one of the staff members was actually an Irish priest who was there on sabbatical. We had a party complete with wine and a little Guinness. When I showed up for dinner I gave John my business card. He was so excited. Throughout the evening he showed his business card to every person in the home. Everyone had to look at it but no one was allowed to touch it. I think the staff of that house learned my name better than the other houses because of how many times John made them read it to him.

Stephen, another man with Down Syndrome, was also shown the business card. My business card has a generic picture of a drop of water hitting some water with ripples coming out of it. Stephen looked at it and said, “You’re a plumber.” I explained that I was a pastor not a plumber. I have wondered since if perhaps I am somewhat of a spiritual plumber.

That first night was very special for me. I learned quickly that this was a family. That everyone pitched in, helped out, and did things together. It also became clear that I was welcome at the table. They did not care who I was. They were just happy for me to be present. That I was a pastor or a plumber did not matter to them. That I was a doctor of ministry student or had a G.E.D. did not matter to them. I was welcome.

This is a little challenging for many of us. It was for me. It is challenging because we spend a lot of time fronting. We put on masks to hide our weaknesses. We often have trouble just being ourselves. We hide behind what can impress others. I do this all the time. I can play the pastor’s part. But I could not do that there. But while that was a little scary it was also quite refreshing and freeing. I felt welcoming to just simply be myself and be present.

Daybreak, Henri Nouwen, and Me Pt 1

This is part 1 of 7 of a sermon given 4/11/15 at Westminster Church in New Brighton, PA. In it, I share about my recent trip to L’Arche Daybreak in Canada to research author Henri Nouwen. The sermon can be heard on itunes or at

DaybreakNouwenOn March 17-20 I traveled to Toronto, Canada to have a retreat and do some research. I went there to do research on a man named Henri Nouwen and a community for disabled adults named L’Arche Daybreak. I was surprised by how much I learned about life, ministry, and myself.

I have been reading a number of books recently by Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was Dutch Catholic priest and author of a number of books. He lived from 1932-1996. Over those years, Henri taught at The University of Notre Dame, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School. He was trained as a psychologist and wrote a lot about ministry and about Christian spirituality. He was a big author, speaker, and teacher, but he decided to leave the academy and go live with disabled adults for what would be the last 10 years of his life.

L’Arche is French for “The Ark.” This is the name that founder Jean Vanier gave to this organization when he brought 2 people with disabilities into his home in 1864. Fifty years later there are now 147 communities in 35 countries.

Daybreak in Toronto is the oldest community in North America. It was started in 1969 on what was then farmland. Now it is in the middle of a bustling suburb. It includes 8 homes of 4-5 disabled adults each. These are called core members because they are the core of the community. There were also a large number of assistants and staff from all around the world. Daybreak has several day programs including a wood shop called The Woodery and a craft studio.

I went there and stayed in a retreat center that Henri lived in. In fact, I found out later that I was actually staying in Henri’s room. I was told that the furniture had all been replaced so it was not worth it to steal anything. Each night I would have dinner in a different house at Daybreak. During the day I would be in the community except for Thursday when I would go to the University of Toronto to do research at the Henri Nouwen Archives.

50 Sermon Ideas for Lent and Easter

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find it difficult to preach year after year on the same topics. I need some ideas to prime the pump and help me think of images and questions that can turn into sermons. Last year for Lent and Easter I came up with 35 sermon ideas and questions. This year I expanded that list to 50. I hope as pastors are planning their sermons that this can be a helpful list. They are not organized in any order. Just a random list of random thoughts. May something spark a sermon for you.ashes

  1. Mary Magdalene’s back story is not well spelled out in the Gospels but we know enough to know why she loved Jesus so much.  See Ellsworth Kalas’ book below for a sermon on Mary’s experience at Easter.
  2. One of the Gospels says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb “early in the morning” and “while it was still dark.”  Why say the same thing twice?  Might the darkness have more to do with a dead savior than the time of day?
  3. John and Peter race to the tomb.  The gospel of John makes a big deal out of the race.  John gets there first but doesn’t go in.  Peter does go in but it is John that believed.  Why all that detail?
  4. Jesus burial cloth was folded.  Why was it folded?  There is some evidence that when you left the table at a meal you would fold your napkin as a sign that you are going to return.
  5. The earthly life of Jesus has a cloth at both end–a burial cloth and swaddling cloth.  What is the connection between those 2 clothes?
  6. The story of redemption start in the Garden of Eden and ends in a garden Easter morning. It would be interesting to compare these gardens.  It might be interesting to tie in the idea of an old Adam and a new Adam.
  7. Look at Old Testament predictions and foreshadowings of resurrection.
  8. Look at Jesus’ own predictions of His resurrection.
  9. Thomas gets a bad rap.  We call him Doubting Thomas.  We would probably doubt too.  Worst of all, the text says it was a whole week before he got to see Jesus. What would that week have been like?  What do we do with our doubts?
  10. A lot of people today doubt the Resurrection as a historical event.  I think every few years I am going to give a historical defense of the Resurrection on Easter morning.
  11. Along the lines of #10, I think that the biggest evidence of the Resurrection is the change in the disciples and what they do next.  The live as an Easter People and are the best witnesses to the Resurrection.  What does it mean that we are Easter People too?
  12. Why does Jesus pop up every once in a while to a bunch of people for 40 Days?  What is the significance of 40 days?  There are a lot of references to 40 days and 40 years in the Bible.
  13. I am fascinated by the emotional roller-coaster of Holy Week.  There is the joy of Palm Sunday.  There is the sadness and disappointment of Maundy Thursday.  There is the anger and violence of Good Friday.  Might some of those same voices that cried “Hosanna” on Sunday have cried “Crucify Him” on Friday?  There is the silence of Saturday.  We know almost nothing about that Saturday.  Then there is the shock of Sunday.  Tracking this roller coaster might make the joy of Easter more special.
  14. The Bible makes a big deal about the reality that we have died with Christ and have been risen with Christ.  What does that mean?
  15. Paul describes the Resurrection of Jesus as “first fruits.”  We will be resurrected as well someday.  What does the resurrection of Jesus say about our own Resurrection?
  16. The Gospel makes a big deal that Jesus is physically resurrected. He is not just a Spirit.  People can recognize Jesus, touch Him, eresurrectionat with him, and walk with him.  At the same time, they cannot always recognize with him, he can appear in locked rooms, and disappear.  Why is it important that his resurrection was physical? Why is it that his resurrected body was different?
  17. Paul said that if there is no resurrection then our faith and preaching are meaningless.  Why is the resurrection so critical to belief?  What if there are people in your congregation trying to be a Christian but do not believe in the resurrection?
  18. What is the effect of the resurrection?  In other words, we make a big deal about why Jesus had to die, but why did he have to resurrect?  Why was his death not enough?
  19. We have journeyed through Lent to this point and it began with Ash Wednesday.  What does Easter have to do with the ashes and dust of Ash Wednesday?
  20. Paul talked about so many witnesses that he had talked to 1 Corinthians 15.  Imagine talking to one of them and hearing the story first hand.  How might the discussion go?  Do we witness with that kind of emotion?
  21. When someone dies we say that they are with us “in spirit.”  We mean that they are with us in our thoughts and our actions as we think about them and live out their influence.  The disciples claimed to have Jesus’ Spirit with them.  He even breathes it on them right after the Resurrection, but it is not until Pentecost that Spirit moves in such a mighty way.
  22. Revelation 21 talk about a new heaven and a new earth and makes a big deal that death will be no more.  Easter morning has been called “The Death of Death.”  How does Easter change death?  Why do we still die?
  23. I like to preach images and metaphors. One of the interesting images in the story is the Stone.  What is the significance of the stone?  I once heard Timothy Keller say in a sermon that the stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let us in.  What do you think he meant by that?
  24. In the Gospel of John the Resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed in the raising of Lazarus.  Compare and contrast these stories.  What is the same?  What is different?
  25. The angels are often skipped in Easter preaching.  We don’t like to deal with issues of angels and demons from the pulpit.  Yet there they are in the story.  What is their role?  What do they say and do?
  26. The Bible makes a big deal about Jesus being raised on the Third Day.  In our understanding of time it is not really 3 days.  It is only Friday night through Sunday morning making it not even 48 hours.  Jews in those days counted time differently, but there are also a number of other references to “the 3rd day” in the Old Testament.  Jesus even talks about tearing down the temple and rebuilding it in 3 days. There is plenty there to play with in a sermon.
  27. One of the big themes in the resurrection accounts is Recognize.  Sometimes the disciples recognize Jesus.  Other times Jesus has to open their minds.
  28. One of the ways that Jesus gets the people to recognize him is by breaking bread.  There is definitely a connection between Communion the Resurrection stories.  This also makes Easter Sunday a great communion Sunday though most churches I have been around do not do it then.
  29. Mark has a short ending and a long ending.  What are the strengths of both endings in connection with Easter morning?
  30. There is an interesting story in the Gospels about the guards at the tomb.  The run away, report to the authorities, and then take a bribe to say that the body was stolen.  Not a really uplifting story. Why does the Bible include this?
  31. The story of the road to Emmaus is rich with preaching ideas.  Who are these people?  Why are they walking?  What Old Testament passages does Jesus show them?  I have also read a description of this story as the model for a traditional (particularly reformed) worship service.  Have you ever thought of it that way?
  32. Emmaus also shows the importance of hospitality.  Had they never invited this stranger on the road to a meal they may never have known it was Jesus.  How often do we miss Jesus opportunities in our lives because we have lost hospitality?
  33. Why are the first witnesses to the Resurrection women.  In those days, women were not well respected.  They could not be witnesses in court.  Surely this was not made up this way.  It helps prove the accuracy of the Gospel accounts.  But might it also say something about equality of the genders and the reality that Jesus’ resurrection is for everybody?
  34. Another homiletically pregnant passage is Peter being reinstated.  He dives off the boat to see Jesus after apparently putting clothes on.  Jesus challenges Peter’s love and asks him to care for his sheep.  In the Greek there is some interesting something going on here.  I have always wondered if Peter had told everybody about his denials or if he had been silently and grumpily carrying that failure.  What do we do with our own failures to follow Jesus?  Do we really love Jesus?  How are we doing with the lambs in our world?
  35. Jesus has a strange encounter with Peter and John.  The sum of it is that Peter will die for his faith but John will not.  Why is that in the passage?  Is there some kind of rivalry between the two?  Perhaps the race to the tomb also shows this.  What does it mean that John was the disciple that Jesus loved?  What does it mean that we are loved?
  36. What about several “accounts” instead of sermon. Tell the story from the viewpoint of several characters. Maybe even have different members of your church plan to be Peter, John, Mary Magdalen, Mary the Mother of Jesus… Don’t preach, just let the testimonies do the preaching.
  37. We often do not tie Lenten themes into Easter morning. Lent is a time of fasting, penitence, and sorrow leading up to Easter. How does the Resurrection answer many of the feelings and longings of Lent.
  38. Preach the book of Ruth for Lent. It may seem strange, but the book of Ruth contains many things to say about the theme of Redemption. Both Ruth and Boaz save others.
  39. I love the story of the Prodigal Son. This story is so rich that it can make for a whole Lenten series. Take a look at the work of Timothy Keller and Kenneth E. Bailey.
  40. The Great Commission is the closing of the story for both Matthew and the longer ending of Mark. What does the Great Commission have to do with Easter?
  41. There is a line from the song Because He Lives that says, “…an empty grave is there to prove my savior lives.” Talk about the symbol of an empty grave. Perhaps you can even tie it to our own empty graves in the future.
  42. How funny would it be to be called “the other Mary?”  (Matt 28:1) You are the other Mary after a prostitute who gets to be the first Mary. What does Easter mean for us when we feel like an “other?”
  43. One of the emotions of that original Easter morning was FEAR. Do we feel fear on Easter? Should we? Jesus says not to fear (Matt 28:10) but we also read in the Bible that we should fear the Lord.
  44. The Bible makes a big deal about the resurrection happening after the Sabbath and on the first day of the week.  This means in our day that our faith is not a Sunday faith, but a Monday morning faith. Why is that significant?George_Whitefield_preaching
  45. The Gospel of John is organized around “I am” sayings and signs. These make a great outline for a sermon series leading up to Easter.
  46. Mary Magdalene knows Jesus in the Gospel of John because He calls her by name. He does not pronounce who He is or what has happened. He calls her by her name and suddenly she sees clearly. How does Jesus call us by name? What does it mean that Jesus is so personal in calling us?
  47. Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to Him because He had not yet ascended to the Father. This makes no sense. Why can’t she cling to Jesus? How is she going to cling to Him after He ascends to the Father?
  48. I have heard people talk about how Jesus can enter a locked room after His Resurrection. I have never heard a sermon on why the door is locked.  The disciples are rightfully afraid that they might be crucified next. Yet in the book of Acts many of them will be arrested and killed. How do these scared men and women turn around after Pentecost and get so bold?
  49. Ron Cantor has pointed out that Jesus actually rose from the dead on a Jewish holiday called the Feast of Firstfruits.  How does this shape the Resurrection story? Check it out HERE.
  50. One of the images of death and resurrection that the church has used over the centuries has been baptism. We die and are resurrected with Christ. This image is not so vivid when you sprinkle water on a baby, but it is still a great image. What does it mean on Easter Sunday that we are risen with Christ?

Books I recommend for Easter Sermon preparation: Jesus: A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Easter from the Backside by J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, The Case for Easter by Lee Strobel, The Challenge of Jesus by NT Wright, and The Reason for God by Timothy Keller.



How the Grinch Stole Advent


This is a weird time of year. The days are so short. Even at our house where we eat dinner early we are eating it in the dark these days. The weather is turning to winter but keeps going back on that decision for a few nice days.

This time of year is a time of preparation.

  1. We prepare for winter- We have taken care of the leaves by now. It is time to put the rakes away. Where are the snow shovels? Is my snow brush and scraper in the car? Where is that box of hats and gloves? Is my snow blower working? Do I have enough salt? Enough bird seed?
  2. We prepare to finish a year- Did we hit our numbers at work? Did we accomplish our goals this year? Suddenly those New Year’s resolutions are on our minds again. As we are in school or have kids and grandkids in school we see that we are now into the flow of our studies and building up to the Christmas break. The term or semester is coming to an end.
  3. We prepare to begin a new year- When will I take vacation next year? Where will we go? What are we forecasting to do at work next year?
  4. We prepare for Christmas- What will I buy? Where will I buy it? Where will we spend Christmas and New Year’s? Whose house are we going to first? What about that gift exchange at work? What store can I get the best deal on the latest such and such?

This is a time of year with a lot of planning and anticipation.

When we make our plans, do we pay any attention to God? Do we ask what His will is or what his plans are? Or do we pay little to no attention to God. It is as if we are saying, “God, I’ll see you Christmas Eve.” Oh we go to church. This is the time of year where you are especially supposed to do that. But is our heart in it? Is our mind really present? Or are we just going through the motions? It is easy to check out and just get through. Even let our minds wander while we are in church. “Did I remember to call so and so at work?” “What present should I get so and so for Christmas?”

Our December worship reminds me of the Israelites during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah. When Isaiah comes on the scene, Israel is in trouble. Their nation is actually 2 nations—Israel in the North and Judah in the South. The Assyrians were threatening them and they could not stand up to the superior force. The power of the Assyrians are later usurped by the Babylonians who take all of the people of Israel and Judah that are left off of their land and forcefully move them into exile. They spread them out among the Assyrian and Babylonian territories so that they cannot be a threat. They are later allowed to return.

Most scholars believe that the book of Isaiah is actually three different books potentially written by three different authors. The first part is written before the exile, the second in the middle of the exile, and the third part written after or as Israel returns.

Isaiah’s warning in the first section of the book is that the problems that Israel is facing is of their own doing. Think about the phrases we read in Chapter 1- rebelled, sinful nation, laden with iniquity, evildoers, deal corruptly, have forsaken the Lord, despised the Holy One of Israel… The country lies desolate and still they will not turn to the Lord. It is only by God’s grace than any of Israel is left. And listen to the key issue in verse 11:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?

says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams

and the fat of well-fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls,

or of lambs, or of goats.

The indictment of Isaiah—You are going through the motions of worship. God does not ultimately care about the sacrifices. He cares about you. Because your worship is not heart felt your relationship with God is off. Because of that, you are not treating people rightly, you are not trusting God to lead you, and you are heading for a disaster.

But Isaiah is not only a book of warning and wrath. God’s response to Israel is 2-fold. There is a promise and a judgment. Hear these words from Isaiah 7:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” (Isaiah 7:14-17 ESV)

Yes. You are going to have to leave your land. The judgment is coming, but with it hope. A child is going to be born. His name will be Immanuel which means God with us. He is going to be good and choose good. God has not abandoned you in your pain. God is with you, and will one day be with you in an even more real and special way.

We don’t read Isaiah all that much in the church normally. The one time of year that we do is this time of year. This is the season of Advent. It consists of the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas. The term Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come.” Advent is a season where we celebrate the coming of Jesus.

This does not mean, however, that we only remember the coming of Jesus as a baby. We actually celebrate the coming of Jesus in 3 senses. First, we remember that Jesus came in the past as a baby and a human being in order to die on the cross, rise from the dead, and save us from our sin. Second, we realize that Jesus comes in the present to us in our lives and to the church through the power of the Holy Spirit. Lastly, we look forward to Christ’s return in the future where He will complete His reconciling work in the world.

Advent actually begins the Christian year. Rather than starting with Christmas, there is this time to prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas. It is similar to Lent- the time of preparation, repentance, and fasting before Easter. But the tone of Advent is different than the tone for Lent. Lent is a more solemn time of repentance and recognizing our need for Christ’s death. At Advent, however, we use words like Hope, Joy, Love, and Peace.

Advent is a season of expectation. It is a season of longing. We light another candle of the Advent wreath every Sunday so that we can see the candles slowly fill with light. We remember the coming light of Jesus.

Traditionally the church did not do Christmas hymns until after Christmas. Until then the church would sing Advent songs. These songs are slow and often in minor keys. They sing of coming with words often right out of the prophets like Isaiah. Why? Because we can identify with their longing and their waiting.

Think about what that journey must have been like in the church. You sing all of these songs about expectation, then at Christmas you swing into the fun and beautiful songs of Christmas.

We love anticipation, don’t we? The rest of my family is really into the show Finding Bigfoot. If you have not seen it, it is a show about a group of people trying to find and evaluate evidence of Sasquatch. I always tell my kids that if they ever really find one or even conclusive evidence of one that it will be on the news and not on this show. Still, they watch it. Why? Because of the anticipation that it builds. Will they hear a bigfoot? Are there bigfoots in the area? For 7 seasons these people have been not finding bigfoot, but still my family watches. I even get wrapped up in it.

We love anticipation. This is the entire game of baseball, right? Three hours of watching for 10 minutes of action but you don’t know when that action is coming. This is the whole idea behind scary movies. What is going to happen and when? We do not always like waiting, but we love anticipation.

There is something special about how Advent builds the anticipation of Christmas. The problem we have now is that the hymns are on the radio, on commercials, at Walmart, and in the mall. Those songs have been playing for a few weeks. Those are not played in those places to put you in the “Christmas spirit.” They are there to put you in the “buying spirit.”

Do you remember the book or the movies “How the Grinch stole Christmas”? This story by Dr. Seuss is a classic of Christmas. In the story the Grinch wants to stop Christmas from coming. He steals all of the Christmas items on Christmas Eve so that the Who’s down in Whoville will wake up and mourn that Christmas was stolen. It does not work, and the Grinch is changed forever because of it.

Really the Grinch had another strategy that he could have used. The real way to diminish Christmas is to steal Advent. Without Advent Christmas is not so bright, joyful, or meaningful.

Unfortunately, I wonder if this is exactly what has happened. I mourn the loss of Advent because it lessens the power of Christmas. That is why every year I preach about Advent when it starts, and I do 1 or 2 Advent Sundays before we get into Christmas hymns. Because it is important. If we don’t think this way, then the words of Isaiah are as much for us as it was for them. We cannot just go through the motions of our worship. That only leads to rebellion against God, the abuse of others, and the desolation of our lives.

Advent is our holy rebellion.

Advent is not a season to get through, it is a perspective to be taken.

It is not a build up to Christmas. It is a spiritual posture to strive for.

The perspective and posture is this—do you want Jesus to come? Really? Do you want that more than anything else? Because that is the good news of Advent. Not just that Christ came as a baby, but that He is coming again. Wrongs will be righted. Brokenness will be healed. Poverty obliterated. Lost people found. Hatred removed.

We don’t know when. We don’t really know how. But we live in hope. Not sappy, Pollyanna hope. Not ridiculous over-the-top hope. But steady, real hope. A longing hope. An anticipating hope.

A pastor was preparing his Advent and Christmas services and was very busy. As he worked into the evening, his daughter came in to see him. She had to say “daddy” a few times before he looked up from his work. She said, “Daddy, will you play with me?”

He smiled, but feeling the crunch of his work, said, “Honey, I have a lot of work to do.”

The little girl was not happy with that answer. “If you play with me, I’ll give you a great big hug.   The biggest hug you have ever had!”

The pastor could not turn down such an offer. He told her, “I’ll make you a deal. Let me work hard for one more hour and then I promise we can play together.”

She answered quickly, “Sounds like a deal.” As she walked to the door to leave, she suddenly stopped, whipped around, ran to her dad, and laid on him a great big hug.

He said to her, “Honey, you said you would give me that hug when we played.”

She looked at him, with an innocence that only a child can have, and said to him, “I know, dad. I just wanted you to see what you had to look forward to.”

That is Advent. It is a time when you and I look up from our work and our busyness and see what we have to look forward to. I don’t just mean Christmas. I mean Christmas as a sign of something bigger. That Christ is returning someday and all will be made right in the world.

Immanuel, God with us, is still with us and will be with us again.

Advent is the weird time where we look beyond our current realities and find hope that something bigger is going on. May you find in this season all that you have to look forward to.

40 Advent and Christmas Sermon Ideas

Advent and Christmas come every year. No one knows this better that pastors who have the challenge of preaching the same stories and ideas every year. I am learning that one of the keys to keeping life in these stories is understanding the value of symbol, Biblical context, and cultural background. To get my own creative juices flowing (and hopefully yours too) I have made this list of 40 Advent and Christmas sermon ideas. These are not sermons- they are ideas for sermons- like seeds that could grow into a sermon if you take one and run with it. Some may be a sermon series in the making. Other may just be a point to be made. Whatever the case, I hope that something here gives someone an even better idea. Please let me know how any of these go for you as well as other ideas you might want to add.

  1. One key word in Advent hymns is longing. What are you longing for? What were the prophets longing for in the Old Testament? How does Christmas answer those longings?
  2. Why are Advent songs in minor keys? A lot of people have lost connection with the historical understanding of an advent spirituality. What should the tone, disciplines, and thought process be for Christians in Advent? How is that different then December today? (See The Advent Conspiracy by Rick McKinley and Chris Seay)
  3. Advent comes from the Latin meaning “to come.” We celebrate Christ coming in past as a baby, in the present to us personally, and in the future at the Second Coming (or in this scheme the Third Coming). How can we think about Advent more broadly?
  4. Compare the understanding of Advent in #3 with the names for communion- Eucharist (gratitude for the past), Communion (communing with in the present) and Lord’s Supper (looking forward to the heavenly banquet).
  5. Jesus is from the stump or shoot of Jesse (Isaiah 11). What does that image mean and why is it important?
  6. We use the term Immanuel but fail to realize its meaning. In its original context (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23) there was a huge question looming: is God with us in exile? Is God with us still today in what can feel like exile?
  7. Take a look at any one of many verses about the incarnation in the New Testament outside of the gospels. Could even make for a series Here are some key ones- VERSES
  8. The Bible has a rich tradition of the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” Explore those terms. How are they related? How are they different? How is Jesus both of them? Why is He talked about sometimes as one or the other?
  9. Jesus becomes flesh at Christmas but that is not the beginning of his existence. He is even talked about as taking part in creating the world. How does that change your view of the Christmas story?
  10. Bethlehem has an interesting back story. It is small but it is where David was from. What is named Bethlehem? What was the town known for? It raised sheep for the sacrifices. How does that context color the Christmas story.
  11. Bethlehem is a very different place than Nazareth. Compare these two formative cities in Jesus’ life. What do both portray about Jesus?
  12. Talk about the geography of Christmas. Where were things? How far are the distances? What where the roads and the means of travel like? What happened at those places and on those roads historically? Did Jesus visit any of those places later in life?
  13. Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola note in Jesus: a Theography that lambs born around Bethlehem without blemish had to be protected when they were newborn and clumsy. Often they were wrapped I swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. That means that these particular shepherds had seen this scene before. What connections would they have made?
  14. Jesus is wrapped in a swaddling cloth here and wrapped in a burial cloth later. How are those clothes connected? Talk about the journey from one cloth to the other.
  15. Talk about Christmas from the Shepherds perspectives. Tell your sermon the way one of them would have told their grandchildren about that night.
  16. We don’t know that much about Joseph but what we do know paints him as a faithful and honorable man. What would the story have been like told from his point of view?
  17. I am a protestant but I still have a ton of respect for Mary. What did she know about this child in her womb? Would she have thought about that night as she watch Jesus on the cross?
  18. We are not stuck totally guessing Mary’s mindset. We have an amazing song that Mary sang often called the Magnificat. What would our Christmas celebration look like if we used this song as our guide?
  19. Angels show up several times in the story. Spend Advent going through the angelic appearances in the Christmas story. Where else had angels showed up in the Bible? Why was this night so special?
  20. Much of what we think about with the Christmas story is not from the Bible but is actually from early renditions of the story. For instance, there was probably not really an inn in Bethlehem, Jesus was probably born in a house, Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem a while before Jesus is born, the wise men don’t come until later…  If many of our details are wrong, what makes it so special? The work of Kenneth Bailey is a must read for the Christmas story.
  21. Preach with a big light up nativity set like people put in their front yards. Contrast the light up set with real life.
  22. Give the background to weird Christmas stuff- candy canes, mistletoe, trees in our homes, lights, Saint Nicholas… If you are a more exegetical preacher then do your Children’s sermons on these. Check out books by Ace Collins for great info on this stuff.
  23. One of people’s favorite parts of Christmas are the songs. Talk about the stories behind the hymns and songs. Who wrote them, what was the context of their writing? What are their Biblical roots? Ace Collins is great here too!
  24. The genealogies of Jesus are really fascinating.   Why do we have 2 different one? Why are women included? Who are the really important names? Who are some of the nobodies on the list?
  25. How about preaching the Christmas stories by just simply telling the stories. Go back to the stories themselves and tell them without interpretation or meaning. Let them speak for themselves.
  26. What would Jesus’ birth look like today? What kind of town would Bethlehem be today? What would the census be in 2014 that made people travel? What would the manger be in Pittsburgh or Orlando or Seattle?
  27. Martin Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” What might it mean that the Bible is a manger? What about if our heart is the manger? Our lives as a manger?
  28. Take an unusual perspective for a sermon like the animal whose manger that was, the next door neighbor, Jesus’ younger siblings, the people whose home or stable it was… Tell if from their perspective.
  29. Talk about the smells of Christmas and compare today’s smells to the smells of that first Christmas. You might even ask your congregation what smells they think of when they think of Christmas. Think about it: animals, animal poop, hay, sweat, childbirth…
  30. If you don’t like the idea of smells, what about the messiness of Christmas, the soundtrack of Christmas, or the photo album of Christmas.
  31. Preach about the feelings of Christmas. People have lots of different feelings. Some feel the usual happy, joyful, and hopeful. Other feel greedy, angry, or sad. Some churches even have Blue Christmas services for those who have lost someone and feel the sting of an empty seat at Christmas dinner. Is there a right feeling for Christmas? Poll your congregation: What color should Christmas feel like? Perhaps you could come up with the Seven Dwarves of Christmas.
  32. Why wasn’t Jesus born as a king? Why such a lowly birth? Heralded by smelly shepherds and the animals in whose feeding trough he was laid. Why not more?
  33. Christmas was put in December over a secular holiday. Jesus was probably actually born in the spring when Shepherds would watch their flocks by night. Defend why we should even celebrate it. What does that mean for us that those before us tried to redeem a secular holiday?
  34. Christmas is full of pressure to buy the right gifts. Many people buy things they cannot afford. It is really important that pastors sometimes speak into this reality. Jesus was right. Your heart follows your money.
  35. Was Jesus a perfect baby? He was sinless, but do we imagine Jesus scraping his knee, wetting his pants, or eating too much at a family meal? How human was Jesus? Why is it important that He really be human?
  36. The story of Elizabeth and Zachariah gets passed over a lot but is actually a cool story with lots of implications for the Christmas story. Explore that with your people, but make sure to read the story with them. While the rest of the Christmas story is over-familiar, this one is normally only vaguely remembered.
  37. Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem for a Census. This was the way the oppressing rulers (the Romans) could determine how much you owed in taxes. Everyone had to travel so they could be taxed and they would not have been happy about it. This was a time of great upheaval and frustration in Israel. How does that backdrop tint the birth narrative?
  38. Who is this Baby? Tell the story of his life. I would suggest you start at the foundation of the world and go all the way to His eternal rule. (See Sweet and Viola Jesus: a Theography as a model)
  39. Was Jesus really the Son of God? Perhaps the best evidence is the radical lives of the followers of this baby born in a manger and the lasting historical impact of this man. See John Ortberg’s Who is this Man? for some great ideas here. This makes for a great apologetic (defense of the faith) or evangelistic sermon on Christmas Eve.
  40. Use the great Christmas movies and stories to talk about Biblical aspects of Advent and Christmas. Examples: The Grinch, Charlie Brown, A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Polar Express, White Christmas, Elf, A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street…
  41. Bonus sermon idea for after Christmas- When all the Bows are Put Away- What does life look life after Christmas if the stories are true?


Westminster Celebrates 50 Years on Oak Hill



On October 19 Westminster celebrated 50 years at its current location.  Here is material prepared for that celebration.

Read the written history of Westminster: Final History

Listen to the history as told in my sermon: Listen Here.

Watch video of the church being built 50 years ago: Watch Here.