Preaching the Real Jesus in a Messy World
Your sermon should help people meet with Jesus in a profound way.
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"Life is messy. And Jesus is real. Life will always be messy. And Jesus will always be real. Let's simply respond to Jesus in the midst of the mess." You can't spend more than a few moments at Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, WA, where I have the pleasure of pastoring, without hearing these types of quotations. And not just from one of the pastors either. We believe that Jesus is really real. We like to say that Jesus is at street level for everyone. But we also believe that life is messy; exceedingly, frustratingly, yet beautifully messy. We simultaneously embrace Jesus and expect that on this side of eternity, life happens. Just as Jesus is at street level for us, we want to preach the real Jesus in a very real and messy world.
We need to follow the Jesus we preach.
Of course, for preachers, this goes without saying. But as you well know, it needs to be said anyway. Our lives are messy. The work of ministry is full of mess. Plus we have our own personal messes. Our families are messy. Our health, finances, futures, everything. All of it is subjected to futility … but God! Our own lives of following Jesus are very much the laboratory for seeing the real Jesus at work. As you and I walk with Jesus, day in and day out, we see the rhythms of grace in our own hearts and situations. These are the seeds by which Biblically rigorous and authentically heart-centered preaching grow.
We have to be careful not to allow the ministry to be our substitute for really following Jesus. We have to be careful not to allow our studying to preach to be our substitute for reading God's Word devotionally. We have to be careful not to be so good at helping others learn how to follow Jesus that we neglect following him ourselves. But honestly, we all know that it can happen and does happen. As we walk with Jesus, we will see the hand of the Lord in the land of the living. As we do, we will be able to comfort others through our preaching of Jesus, who is very much real to us, with the comfort that we have received.
We need to do exegesis in our study and application in a coffee shop.
I believe that a key to preaching the real Jesus in a very messy world has a lot to do with how we prepare our messages. As a young preacher, I did all my preparation in my study. Surrounded by the writings of such a great cloud of witnesses, as well as some pretty powerful Bible software, I would dive down deep into the Word of God. I would break apart the themes, the sentences, even the individual words of a given passage. I found myself thinking through and processing some pretty heady arguments for various interpretations. I would seek to pull the meaning right out of the text. But by the time I reached the pulpit, there was a problem. I was speaking in a language and about concepts that very few people understood. I had spent all week preparing while in "theology nerd land," as I like to call it. There is nothing wrong with that, except the fact that only a few scholars and some of us pastors live there. The average person, at the average church, doesn't even know that "theology nerd land" exists.
So I have learned to do my Bible work in my study. Don't abandon "theology nerd land"! Just don't live there. God's Word is truth, and there is a meaning that is there. We should never neglect finding that truth. But while we should do our exegesis in our study, we need to vary our context and work on our application to that truth in the coffee shop. It doesn't have to be a coffee shop either. But it does have to be a place where a cross-section of people visit. When you are "in public" thinking about the message, you will notice teenagers, homeless people, someone with an oxygen tank, single parents, or whomever. Then you start to ask yourself what the text means for them, right where they are. You wonder how the real Jesus wants to meet them at their street-level. This helps bring the Biblical concepts back down to real life for real people, like the people in your congregation. For a single mom struggling to make ends meet, she is not, nor should be, interested in the historical arguments for this or that. There are other more pressing needs, both practically and spiritually. And God's Word wants to speak comfort and edify her right where she is.
Please don't mistake what I am saying; don't abandon your studying. Only make sure that your studying takes into account the real life worries and struggles of the people you minister to. Do your exegesis in your study, but don't neglect the coffee shop for application.
We need to listen as much as we preach.
If there is one thing that preachers can do well, it is talk. We are talkers and often have the gift of gab. We realize that we are mouths in the body of Christ. We have been called to it, equipped for it, and effective in the proclamation of the Word. So we have the preaching thing down. But we must make sure that we listen as much as we preach. Listening is essential to preaching the real Jesus in a messy world.
First, as preachers, we need to really hear the Lord and his Word. We need to be led by the Spirit and discern God's voice for direction, not only on what to preach, but also on what to accentuate in our preaching. We need to not only get God's Word right but also his heart in his Word. And for that, we need ears that hear from the Lord.
Second, as preachers, we need to hear from our congregation what is happening. Our congregation will be telling us, often not overtly, what we need to preach on. I am not advocating preaching to "felt needs" either. But as pastors, we need to constantly be taking the pulse of the congregation. What needs to be strengthened? What needs to be addressed? How are they growing? Where is extra attention needed? Preachers who are listening to the body that they care for will constantly be able to translate the eternal truths of God to the very real and messy lives of the congregation.
Finally, as preachers, we need to listen to the unspoken cries of the lost world that we live in. Whatever your context, outside of Jesus, there is dissatisfaction and a lack of fulfillment. It is written everywhere in our culture. The answer is, and has always been, and always will be, Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. God has called us to reach the lost in our generation with the good news of Jesus. But we need to also listen to our culture to hear what they are working through. We need to understand what the heart cries are and how they are seeking to satisfy those longings without Christ. We need to preach into these longings the life-giving message of Jesus. We don't listen to the culture to change the gospel; we know that the gospel is unchangeable. But we listen because God loves those outside of Christ and wants us to preach so that they will hear and know that Jesus is Lord. So don't forget to listen as much as you preach.
We need to answer questions that people are actually asking.
Have you ever preached a sermon that you were passionate about, only to find that no one had any response to it? I sure have. I have alluded to this in various ways already, but oftentimes we are answering questions that no one is really asking. We are invalidating the message preached by talking about things that have little or no relevance to real life in a messy world. So preachers, we need to answer the questions in our preaching that people are actually asking. God's Word is all about the really big things that everyone wonders about. How do I forgive? Should I forgive? What is real love? How do I find peace? How can I be transformed? What about my past? Where can I find hope for the future? Who is God? What does God require of me? How shall I now live? What does the future hold? Who is Jesus?
These are the big questions of life and these are the questions that people are really asking themselves. All of these questions are discussed at length in God's Word. Depending on the text that you are preaching, these realities find their way to the surface. As preachers, we can often find ourselves on adventures in missing the point. We get all worked up about the mistakes in our (or another) tradition, or a hobbyhorse theological position, or being a learned scholar, or whatever. None of these things are necessarily wrong. But for most people, this is not relevant in the midst of their busy and messy lives. But the big questions, the real meat of the Word, are there for us to focus on.
When you allow the Lord to put our pet projects on the side and focus our preaching on the real Jesus in a messy world, people will meet with Jesus in profound ways through our preaching of God's Word. Preachers, let us never forget that life is messy and Jesus is real. Let us put the real Jesus on display in the midst of the mess!
Daniel Fusco is the Lead Pastor of Crossroads Community Church in Vancouver, WA.