Sunday

The Four Pages: The Sermon

This is the text of a sermon I wrote according to the method of the 'four pages' which I have been trying to explicate in the past little while. I preached the sermon on Sunday, December 5 (the second Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent), and my chosen text was Matthew 3.1-12, which is the gospel reading for the day according to the lectionary.

I will include a checklist which is added as an appendix to Wilson's The Four Pages of the Sermon, as well as links to the rest of the posts in this series. The checklist is an aid to help evaluate the sermon (it is found in the book on pp. 261-2). Indeed, any sermon, whether it uses Wilson's method or not, can be evaluated by these criteria, because every sermon may contain material from each of Wilson's figurative pages. It is a matter of identifying whether what is heard or read belongs to one or another page. Should you wish to comment on the sermon, don't worry about trying to answer all of the questions raised in the checklist; if you like you needn't refer to it at all. However, it may be useful in evaluating the sermon according to the criteria Wilson has in mind.

First, to bring them to the forefront, the theme sentences I composed for each page for the purpose of writing an unified sermon.

Page One: The people of Israel needed to repent to be God's people.
Page Two: We need to repent to be God's people.
Page Three: God chose the people of Israel to be his people. [This is also the theme statement for the sermon as a whole.]
Page Four: Jesus chooses us to be his people.

Here are the items of the checklist from the appendix in the book (I am not citing it distinctly from the rest of the post, but it is taken verbatim from pp. 261-2 of The Four Pages of the Sermon):
  1. Page One: Trouble in the text. Is this page clearly about one idea? Is it exegetically sound? Does it seem fresh? Does the trouble here relate to the grace on Page Three?
  2. Page One: Is the introduction interesting? Does this page state or signal the sermon's theme (Page Three)? Is it focused on one text? Is this page mainly a movie?
  3. Page Two: Trouble in our world. Is it about one idea? Is one doctrine evident? Is there a sense of deepening theological thought as the page progresses? Does this page clearly link with Page One?
  4. Page Two: Is one need identified? Does it lead listeners to own possible struggle/s? Does it reflect their worlds? Are people the focus? Are the stories inclusive? Do they reflect a range of experience? Is this page mainly a movie? Is mission identified?
  5. Page Three: God's action of grace in/behind the text. Is this page about one idea (i.e., the theme statement or the major concern of the text)? Does it focus on God? On grace? Is it memorable? Is it repeated?
  6. Page Three: Is God's action or God's nature the subject of the whole page? Is the material presented here exegetically sound? Does it sufficiently differ from Page One? Is grace the focus? Is it a movie?
  7. Page Four: God's action of grace in our world. Is this page about one idea (i.e., the major concern of the sermon)? Does it remain focused on grace? Is the doctrine clear? Do we see people in action?
  8. Page Four: Is the one need of the hearers met? Is the doctrine clear? Is the mission clear? Is it grace? Are listeners encouraged to think globally and act locally? Is the connection with the larger Christian story clear? Is it a movie? Is the conclusion fitting?
  9. Ethos: Does the preacher display pastoral sensitivity? vulnerability? faith? leadership? Does the preacher use humour? Is it natural? Does the preacher appeal to both logic (logos) and experience (pathos or emotion)? Is the preacher's use of language/stories appropriate?
  10. Overall impression. Does the sermon have unity? Is the theme clear? Is the doctrine clear? If there is one dominant image, is it appropriately developed? By the end are the dominant image and the theme wedded? Are thoughts clearly expressed?
Following are the links to the previous posts in this series, and at last the sermon itself.
The Four Pages: Making Movies.
The Four Pages: Ensuring Sermon Unity.
The Four Pages: Trouble in the Bible.
The Four Pages: Trouble in the World.
The Four Pages: Grace in the Bible.
The Four Pages: Grace in the World.

Page One
Imagine a great crowd of people, such as you might see at Parliament Hill on Canada Day, gathering upon the banks of a narrow river in a barren land.

They had gathered at the river Jordan in order to walk deep into its waters so that a bearded hermit could pour that water over their heads. This hermit, John the Baptist, with his weather-beaten face and hands browned by the desert sun, was baptising people in the river ‘with water for repentance’.

As the people – ordinary men, women and children much like us – stepped into the river to be baptised by John, they confessed their sins to him. The people were baptised by John for repentance because in order to be God’s people, they had to repent.

Some, like the Pharisees and Sadducees whom John harangues, would have felt differently. ‘Do we have to go through with this?’ they might have asked. ‘Isn’t Abraham our father; aren’t we God’s people by virtue of that?’ But John had other news for them.

‘Don’t say that you’re right with God because you’re children of Abraham,’ John told them. ‘God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.’ And he also told them, ‘bear fruit worthy of repentance.’ It’s as if he were saying: ‘Just because Abraham is your forefather, it doesn’t make you one of God’s people. If you want to belong to the people of God, you must repent.’

So to be God’s people, the people of Israel had to repent. John said as much, and that is what the evangelist Matthew means by quoting the prophet Isaiah: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. That so many people came to be baptised in that little river means that they knew very well that the paths in their hearts needed straightening.

Page Two
Just as the Jewish people of Jesus’ day knew that they had to repent – to do what was right by God – in order to be counted among God’s people, so we know that we have to repent – to do what is right by God – in order to be counted among God’s people. We have to repent to be God’s people.

Repentance isn’t easy or fun. Imagine repentance as doing what the people who went to the river in the gospel story did. It’s a long way to travel. The harsh sun withers and blinds us. Then, when we have reached the river, we drag ourselves into the water, and our clothes soak and become waterlogged. We struggle to push ourselves through the river to the spot where John the Baptist awaits. And he’s not waiting with words of comfort. He’s waiting to give us an earful and expects us to admit to not doing right by God or others. That’s what the work of repentance is like.

And if that isn’t enough, repenting pretty much always means admitting we’ve done something wrong. We can hardly be blamed for wanting to linger, as it were, on the muddy riverbank, holding off stepping into the waters of repentance. But through Matthew’s gospel John’s words are directed at us: ‘bear fruit worthy of repentance’.

Perhaps we want to excuse ourselves, like some in the gospel wanted to do, too. After all, we’re members of the church, the people of God’s new covenant. But John would say, if he were standing on the steps right here, that God could make himself a church from the bricks on the walls.

So to be God’s people we have to repent. This means that on a certain level, if we don’t repent, we aren’t part of God’s people.

I remember paying a visit as a student intern to a parishioner of one parish in which I was serving. She told me of relatives who had stopped going to church, because, she said, they were upset that the minister had told them they shouldn’t dip the bread in the wine. Another time I visited an elderly couple who were associated with the church and had not been for some time, in part due to infirmity and in part because they felt the church had done them some wrong, which they vaguely attributed to financial reasons.

The reasons given in both cases were trivial, but masked something deeper, which I did not have the opportunity to explore. But in the act of hiding their real hurts, if those even had anything to do with the church at all, those who had stopped going to church had chosen not to be part of God’s people. Whatever it was that had happened, they could not bring themselves to forgive or be forgiven – in other words, they were unrepentant.

Page Three
On the surface, then, it seems clear: to be God’s people, God’s people had to repent. Hiding in the hard words of John the Baptist, however, is a message of hope so exciting it can scarcely be put into words.

Hear again his words: ‘Don’t say to yourselves, ‘Abraham’s our forefather’, because I say to you, God can form children for Abraham from these very stones.’

While what John said meant that the Jewish people couldn’t rest on Abraham’s laurels, what he said also meant something far better. For John might as well have said to them: ‘It’s in God’s hands to choose who his people are, who his children will be. And God has chosen you.’

John said that God had the power to make a people for himself from the stones lying by the river; if he had the power to do that, he had the power to choose who his people would be. No one was denied baptism for the forgiveness of sins, not even the Pharisees or Sadducees, for whom John had little good to say. The choice was God’s; not John’s; not anybody else’s; and God said, ‘You are the children for Abraham whom I have raised up from the very stones.’

Now, though the sun shone bright overhead and the day was warm, those wading into the water to be baptised were refreshed and cooled as they reached John, who poured the life-giving water of repentance over their heads. For John was not there, in the end, to demand something of them, but to remind them of something.

He was reminding them that God had chosen them to be his people. He had not given them up. God had chosen them to be his people, and would never repent of his decision; they were his, and he loved them and cherished them.

Page Four
We may often feel that the church is like the kind of place sung about in the song ‘Signs’: ‘Sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside’. In our case, the card reads: ‘I have repented.’ Yet in the song, it is the church, of all places, in which the protagonist feels like he belongs: ‘And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray... I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I'm alive and doing fine.’

The lyrics of the song get, however inexpertly, perhaps, what John was getting at in our passage. God could make children for Abraham from stones; our Lord Jesus could make for himself a church from the bricks on the walls – but it was the people Israel whom God the Father chose for himself, and it is we whom Jesus makes his people. Everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray.

Jesus makes us his people. When the priest dribbled some of that refreshing water on our foreheads at our baptism, just like we saw Fr. Bill do when he baptised Cole two weeks ago, it was a ratification, if you will, of Jesus’ decision to make us his people. We are the stones whom he has made sons and daughters for Abraham.

And what about repentance? Well, we still need to do that. God’s people Israel couldn’t rest on Abraham’s laurels; we can’t rest on Jesus’ laurels – but we can hold fast to his arms which are wrapped around us in a steady embrace. When we tear up our membership card, Jesus is by our side pressing another one into our hands. We’re so used to being affirmed by others only to the extent that we can serve their needs, that we find it hard to believe there is anyone who would say to us, as Jesus does, ‘I love you, no matter what you do, and I am coming with the Holy Spirit and with fire to seal the deal.’

Jesus has already chosen to make us his people. Sometimes – perhaps often – we need to be reminded of this. One way in which we can serve our Lord who has chosen us is to pray for someone we know who feels as though he or she doesn’t belong to God’s people. We can pray that those who think so will become aware of the loving choice of Jesus. We can pray that they will feel the refreshing waters of the Spirit pour upon them.

We will still need to repent of some things we do or say, if we’re going to get along with others, or be right with ourselves, with others, and with God. Because Jesus has chosen us to be his people, we are empowered to repent. We need never fear that God will abandon us; if God can make children for Abraham from the very stones, he can make even us his people. Jesus has elected to love us, and, thanks be to God, nothing we can say or do, whatever we need to repent of, will change his mind.

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