Happy New Year's everyone and welcome back to the blog! I missed you all desperately last week and I'm glad to be back. I took the family (and the new dog) to Arizona for the week to hang with my family. A good time was had by most.
But now we are back and it's the new year. No doubt you have all made unbreakable resolutions and are off to a fantastic start! This blog will not be about resolutions because there have been plenty of those going around and they are plenty helpful. I will only say this about resolutions, you should make them; but only if they are in the form of habits you want to build rather than outcomes you want to see.
This is in part because we have very little control over the outcomes of our lives. God, randomness, and timing play huge roles that we cannot see, predict or control. But we have a lot more control over our actions and when we can consistently do the same things over time, we will likely get the results we want. So, make some resolutions (only 1-3 if you want to accomplish them) and make them oriented towards behavior. OK, enough about resolutions.
This week's blog is about words. I preached this last Sunday at our church and the sermon came out of Philippians 3:1-14. It's one of my favorite passages in the Bible and I wholeheartedly recommend you go read it right now. One of the things that stood out to me this time around was the number of words that need clarification for modern minds. There is always some amount of translation that needs to happen when you are talking to modern people about an ancient document but for whatever reason this week it stood out to me more than usual.
Now, I don't normally tout my own talents - even when I really want to - but I think one of my strengths as a preacher is the way I use normal language to describe the big ideas of the Bible. I can make things clear and plain in a way that anyone can understand without sacrificing the depth of meaning that the text is trying to deliver.
Just because I do this well doesn't mean you can't do it better with just a few tips. First, let me clarify what I mean. The Bible is a translation of Greek and Hebrew (and a little Aramaic) into English. Depending on the translations you use, this could end up sounding like a lot of different things. The KJV sounds very different from The Message, for instance.
Each translation tries to capture the spirit of the original text while communicating it in a way that the intended readers can comprehend. Personally, I use the ESV and have for years, largely because they gave me a sweet new Bible when it first came out. The ESV does a good job of translating the Biblical text into modern language. I am not advocating that we update the translation or start using The Message or some similarly modern translation.
I actually like that the Bible itself has a hint of antiquity about it. It gives the gravity of the words that super modern translations lack (in my humbly correct opinion). My task in the pulpit is then to take that slightly elevated, Bible-y language and connect it to modern ears and lives.
Of course, everyone tries to do this in the pulpit, but it is my opinion that many preachers don't go far enough. I think similarly to how most guys stop listening to new music once they graduate from college and kind of get stuck in that era (this applies to style too, please enough with the cargo shorts), I think our language gets stuck in a certain time.
It could be defined by the authors we read or when we went to seminary or maybe the last time we were cool, it's probably different for all of us. Either way, I think we all have to get even more modern. Take this week's passage for instance.
Paul uses words like "circumcision," "righteousness," "perfect," "mutilators of the flesh" and other fun words and phrases to call the Philippians to a singular focus on Christ. There was probably a day in your town when most people would know enough about those words (with mutilators being the likely exception) to only give them a casual definition. I am convinced that almost no one in your city and far fewer people in your congregation than you'd like to admit, actually understand what Paul was trying to communicate with those words.
Righteousness is an easy and helpful example. Righteousness is a really churchy word. It is almost never used in common conversation unless someone is being described as self-righteous, and even then it is increasingly rare. This is a great example of an opportunity we have to define a word for our listeners in a way that will not only make sense to their minds but connect to their lives.
Here is how I did that. I talked about how every single person is trying to find the Good Life. We are all trying to find love and peace and joy and satisfaction and we run at it in a million different ways, from health fads to relationships to careers and money and even - perhaps especially considering Paul's context - through religious adherence. Then I showed them how both religious and irreligious people try to find the Good Life in any possible way except by going to and through God. Both Religion and Irreligion (thanks Keller!) are attempts to find the good life on our own. But, Paul says, we Christians have no confidence in the flesh - or, we recognize that our attempts at creating the good life constantly fail.
Then I gave a bunch of examples of how I have tried to do this and how my kids do too, throwing them completely under the bus in the process. The key here is that we take a very serious and important topic and make it as normal and everyday as possible so people don't have to transport themselves to first-century Palestine in order to understand a first-century Jew.
A quick caveat. I am not saying that we should water down weighty things or simplify complex things, what I am saying is that every single thing Jesus, Paul, or Moses talks about is still happening today but our people won't make the connection without us helping them. I want my people to understand the Bible in all of its richness and depth, which is why I try to slowly walk them from where they are to where they need to be in order to see it.
I don't know how each of you does this so my main advice is to ask yourself over and over while you prep your sermons, "would I talk this way in real life?" If the answer is no, consider working harder to make your language normal. Righteousness cannot be "right standing with God", not because it's untrue, but because I still don't know what that means.
Some of you won't be comfortable with the idea that we should make the Bible sound normal to people because it feels like it loses some of its gravitas. I get that, I really do. But unless you are using the Message, the Bible itself still reads like an old document. You aren't trying to change the Bible, you are trying to change your people so they can read the Bible.
Consider yourself the second translator, taking the English that some Greek scholar in the 90s wrote and updating it for all the plumbers and millennials in your church. They will thank you for it.