Exceeding Our Expectations!
2010-12-09 by David Howell

Tom Steagald's Preaching Journal! (click here) is exceeding our expectations!

Tom's journal details each week's work to "discover" the sermon to be preached.

Tom is the Pastor at Lafayette Street United Methodist Church in Shelby, NC, and adjunct professor at Hood Theological Seminary (AME, Zion) in Salisbury, NC. Tom has just published Shadows, Darkness and Dawn: A Lenten Journey with Jesus (Upper Room). Previous titles include Praying for Dear Life and Every Disciple's Journey, both from NavPress. He is a frequent contributor to Feasting on the Word, The Abingdon Preaching Annual, and other preaching resources.


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Preaching Luke 1:46b-55
2010-12-08 by David Howell

What song is in the air as you approach this third week in Advent? Is it a song from the Christmas cantata that the choir has been practicing or perhaps one of those Christmas commercial jingles infiltrating the airwaves around you? Music is a primary medium through which the ethos of this season is conveyed. An expansive territory of sound bites was claimed months ago for the very purpose of monopolizing our hearing. The problem arises when we actually listen. Even though each song may be identified as "Christmas music," not all of those songs are saying the same thing. The delineation between secular and sacred may help us sort out some of the divergent messages. Yet, what are the criteria for a song to qualify for the elementary school’s Holiday Music Concert? Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s famous duet of Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy is one example of the blending of these categories in such a way as to proclaim the Gospel inadvertently, while announcing the urgent need for this good news to be made real among us. Even the legend of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer bears a resemblance to "the last will be first and the first will be last." (Mt 20:16)

St. Augustine of Hippo is credited with saying, "He who sings prays twice." The Latin is more accurately quoted as "He who sings well prays twice" and does not appear in any of St. Augustine’s known writings. He did however write, "Singing belongs to one who loves" (s. 336, 1-PL 38, 1472). Further investigation of Augustine’s writing on the matter reveals a deeper understanding of the power of music. He writes, "There is a praise-filled public proclamation (praedicatio) in the praise of someone who is confessing/acknowledging (God), in the song of the lover (there is) love."1

From the milieu of Christmas songs, Mary’s song rises to be showcased on this particular Sunday. It is all that Augustine writes about, joyful praise confessing a public proclamation of faith and love. I have always been amazed that the song exudes strength, trust, and confidence in all God has promised to do. The verb usage is in the past tense (2:48, 49, 51). Mary sings of God’s promise as if God has already done these things. Note, she does not sing about being scared, nauseous, bloated, or anxious and there is not even a hint that she is overwhelmed. Nor does she sing about the plight of her people and how it is about time that God stepped in. Her song exudes a kind of enthusiastic eschatological belief in the final reign of God on earth. It is a reign that will establish God’s justice. Listen to her declaration: the proud and puffed up are brought to terms with the effects of their pride and self-righteousness (1:51); the powerful are brought down off their high horses and the lowly are brought to a place of respect and dignity (1:52); the hungry are (finally) filled with good things—no more table scraps and demeaning handouts (1:53); and the rich are sent to deal with the consequences of their wealth and the emptiness that is left when tangible gain is lost (1:53).

At the beginning and again at the end of the song Mary proclaims God’s mercy, yet the lyrics are clear that God’s stepping in directly affects the human systems of power that have not represented God’s best desire for creation. The power of her song is not in the sweet innocence of Mary the singer, but rather in the bold claim, she (of all people) makes. After all, who is she to speak for what God is doing or has done? She declares that God’s good news has been and will be made real among us. Her baby is not one who will lie quietly in a manger surrounded by well-behaved barnyard animals only to be sketched in a tableau for Christmas cards. The birth of this child will place the being of God squarely in the skin of humanity and will occur in the chaotic mess of human need. This child will have as custodians a barely married couple trying to obey the census laws while not having made appropriate plans for a place to stay. Good folks, no doubt, are this Mary and Joseph. At first glance, it just does not make sense when you connect the dots between who they are (not wealthy, not of any power or influence in the current economic and sociological systems) and what Mary says God is going to do through this child. The boldness of her declaration points us to the realization that it is not about them. It is about whom God is and God’s way of bringing light from dark, joy from mourning, and life from death.

Who will sing Mary’s song? In your context, how will you represent her? Will your listeners put her on a pedestal or identify with her? Will worship this Sunday inadvertently proclaim the Gospel while announcing Christmas is almost here or will the bold proclamation of Mary’s song be center stage? Will you offer a joyful praise confessing a public proclamation of faith and love? What song will your sermon sing?

Carol Cookmore


1. John Zuhlsdorf, What does the Prayer Really Say? 17/June/2010 htt;://wdtprs.com/blog/2006/02/st-augustine-he-who-sings-prays-twice/

Why, That's Impossible!
2010-12-03 by Kim Justice

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”, or so says famed author Lewis Carroll, who had enough imagination to write Alice in Wonderland. That, of course, is wonderful for him...but doesn’t seem to be very true for most of us. We’ve steeled ourselves against belief in the impossible, because frankly, we’ve been let down too many times. 

And yet, everything that Advent offers to us is impossible.  Impossible that a virgin should conceive, impossible that God might save all of humanity through a little bitty baby--who didn’t even have a place to lay his head.  

Certainly,  Isaiah’s vision seems impossible.  Things that hate each other do not sit down for a snack together.  People do, in fact, destroy... in God’s holy places, and everywhere else too. 

But after a rather scroogey morning of watching people get ill with store clerks, and having folks cut me off in the middle of mall traffic, I realized just how badly I, and lots of other people too, need to believe that there might just be something better out there.  After watching news people banter back and forth about what to do with a politician who hasn’t paid his taxes in 17 years, I realized how much I need to be reminded of a world that’s coming that won’t be like this one. 

Of course, the things in Isaiah’s vision sound impossible, but sometimes, I think, we are willing to take off our “logical” hats because we so desperately want to believe. I’ve been wondering how to preach “the impossible” this week, but I realized that we pray for the impossible all the time.  The dying church prays that it will be flooded with children and young families.  The loved ones of a dying person desperately pray for a miracle cure. Anybody that watches the news prays that the world will suddenly turn into a safe and clean place in which to live. The only difference between what we already do and what Isaiah offers to us is that we don’t expect the impossible to happen whereas Isaiah reminds us that days of miracle and wonder are already at hand--that divine transformation is a certainty.  

Now...how to take that back to a congregation for whom much seems impossible. 


Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Isaiah 11:1-10: The Peaceable Kingdom and Lying down with Rush Limbaugh
2010-12-03 by David von Schlichten

Thank you to Kim Justice, our guest blogger, for her evocative reflections. Stephen Schuette has also contributed. Scroll down and jump into the tub.

Kim writes about envisioning people getting along who have a history of enmity. Borrowing from the imagery of, not only Isaiah, but also the fiction of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (Ward), I picture a neighborhood in the new Jerusalem. Houses line the streets. Next door to my house is Rush Limbaugh, and part of the joy in heaven is that he and I actually get along, despite the fact that, in this life, he makes me want to barf. Now THAT would be the lion lying down with the lamb. Who is which depends on whom you ask.

Stumped (Isaiah 11:1-10)
2010-12-01 by Kim Justice

Today, as I’ve been sitting with Isaiah, I’ve really been grabbed by the images in the chapter 11 passage.  

As I was working away this morning, my husband called and mentioned that he and the property guy from the church had cut down my sweet little fig tree, which I know wasn’t producing anything, but it still made me quite sad.  The tree, I suppose, was useless, but I guess year after year I hope that the little bit of life in it will be enough to bring something out of it.  When I came home this afternoon, sure enough there was a stump.  And of course, that made me think of Isaiah’s words about new life coming from a stump.  Everything Judah thought it had going for it had been cut down and laid to waste.  The royal family tree that everyone was so excited about wasn’t going to do anything spectacular ever again. 

Yet, God was not done with the stump.  What seemed to be dead in fact became God’s sign of life.

As I work with folks who are certainly not in the prime of their life anymore and who are looking toward their last earthly years, I’m wondering what this image of a stump says to them. Have their been “stumps” in their lives that have turned out to be life-filled?  As I work with a congregation whose numbers indicate that we are a dying church, what does the possibility of new life from that which seems to be dying offer to us? 

So the stump will be an important image for me as I flesh out this sermon.  But there are so many rich images in this passage that it seems like it’s going to be hard figuring out where to take them without bombarding the congregation. Besides that, many of these beautiful images have become rather threadbare with so much use.  Of course, it’s beautifully poetic to think of the beast lying down with the gentle having tea, but that’s not an image that will provoke much of anything besides the audience thinking they’ve stumbled into a fairy tale.  But what would it look like to push the image a little bit? What groups can we barely imagine ever being on speaking terms, much less living peaceably together? In our church-- it’s the “Red Door” folks and the “Anti Red Door” folks, who have been at odds over the color of the church doors since long before I became pastor.   What hope of reconciliation does Isaiah’s vision offer to these groups who can’t seem to see eye to eye? What hope is there in this passage for those who have been the vulnerable ones? And is the good news only for them...or is it also good news for those that have been the powerful?  These are some of the questions I’m wrestling with. 

And what challenge does Isaiah have for us this week? What, if anything, is our role in this new uptopia in which all created things dwell together peaceably.  Do we have any responsibility for or in it? 

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