Wineskins Archive

January 13, 2014

Saturday Preaching (Jan – Jun 1995)

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by Mike Cope
January – June, 1995

Everyone needs a place where they can set their watch. In my home town, Pet Milk was the ultimate authority. People in Neosho, Missouri could set their watches by the noon whistle. It was an authority that wasn’t to be questioned — although there always lingered the uncertainty of where the whistle-blower at Pet Milk set his watch!

I like the tradition of a Baptist Church in Abilene. Every April when it’s time to set clocks forward an hour—so that non-church-attenders don’t notice it while church-attenders are punished (since they have to finish their sleep in hard pews)—this church waits until they meet the next morning. They get their full night’s sleep. Then together they roll their watches forward from 10:00 to 11:00. I love this picture: a church gathered on Sunday to make sure everyone knows what time it is.

So much of preaching is helping Christians figure out what time it is. Week after week preachers announce what time it is. We are the ones who help others recalibrate their time frame.

Our two central reference points are the ones communion underscores each week: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”(1 Corinthians 11:26). Our first reference point is the death and resurrection of Jesus; the second is the future return of Jesus. The first is the pivotal event of all history. The second is the inevitable culmination of that event.

The Apostle Paul was quite familiar with the apocalyptic time frame: this evil age and the age of God to come. But while his language is similar, it also has a unique twist. To Paul, the end has already begun. In other words, there is an overlap of the two ages, and it’s in this overlap that God’s people live.

The old age is one marked by sin. It is the world of death, of pride, of lust, of disregard for God. It is the place of despair and hopelessness. It’s a time when old prejudices are savored and hurt feelings are cherished.

The new age is the one marked by grace and by freedom from sin. It is where life is oriented around God and his rule. It is the realm where humans are freed from the evil forces that previously kept a gun to their heads with bullets like fear, anxiety, and meaninglessness.

God’s people already are a part of this new age. We already have eternal life; we already have forgiveness; we have already been delivered from our sins and passions. But we have not yet fully experienced the new age. For while we have been saved from sins, we still sin. While we have already been forgiven, we still need forgiveness. While we have been raised to walk in new life, we still face death.

It is the job of the preacher to keep reminding the church what time it is. We, like communion, proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

We announce the good news that we aren’t stuck in Friday—when there is nothing but darkness covering the earth, when doom and gloom prevail. A funeral dirge shouldn’t be our theme song!

But we also announce that it isn’t quite Sunday—when darkness is completely past, when we fully experience the resurrection, when all tears are wiped away from our eyes. And so the New Song of Revelation also doesn’t quite fit as a theme song either.

We live in Saturday—between the old age of Friday and the new age of Sunday. In our congregations are those who live in the despair of Friday and others who’ve leaped over Saturday into the fullness of Sunday. To both groups we announce week after week that it is Saturday. We have already but not yet fully been saved. We have already but not yet fully received eternal life.

We are now a people who hope (Romans 8:24), wait (Philippians 3:20f), long (Romans 8:19), and groan (Romans 8:22f, 26). We don’t fall into the pit of despair or try to leap to the peak of final triumph. As George Steiner has written, “Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday. Between suffering, aloneness, unutterable waste on the one hand and the dream of liberation, of rebirth on the other” (Real Presences).

Every aspect of Christian living must be kept in this framework. If our time frame is skewed, our lives will be as well. So those of us who preach continue pointing to the kingdom that has been inaugurated but not consummated. We prod the stubborn of faith to believe what God has already done through Christ. And we warn the naïve of faith that the final victory remains. In other words, we continue proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes.Wineskins Magazine

Mike Cope

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