Literary critics usually agree that one of the dimensions which great works of literature have in common is that they manage somehow to touch the strata of story and symbol that lie buried deeply beneath them, in the accumulating stories and symbols of the ages. Thus Ernest Hemingway’s greatest achievement among all his notable writings was undoubtedly The Old Man and the Sea, in which the old fisherman Santiago draws on the power of stories and myths before him, such as the Fisher King and Odysseus, and the large fish Santiago catches is somehow related to Moby Dick, Jonah’s great fish, and other significant fish stories of the ages.
Readers may not realize that they are more deeply impressed by Santiago’s story because of its resonance with other classical tales, but they are. The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and For Whom the Bell Tolls are great novels too. But in none of them does Hemingway so powerfully border on the mythological as he does in The Old Man and the Sea, and it is this transparency to other great stories of history that lends the last novel its classical depth and poignancy.
Correspondingly, one of the tricks thoughtful preachers learn about their craft is that certain sermons derive enormous power from the potency of the original images reincarnated in them. Take the story of the prodigal son, for example, which has proved so mighty a tool in the hands of talented evangelists. How deftly it describes the rebelliousness of the young against their parents and traditions, and then the painfulness of discovering that the parents were not so blind and stupid after all, and that the world is an exceedingly hard place in which to live alone, without the support of friends and family.
Who among us has not at some time been caught by such a story and made to remember feelings directed at our own parents? Who has not suffered the humiliation of defeat and the torture of loneliness, and wished to have things back the way they used to be? Who has not wanted to sit again at father’s or mother’s table and be part of a family that has since drifted or fallen apart? The sermon based on the story of the prodigal son thus begins with a hidden power to succeed and compel, for it draws on the mythological structures that lie beneath the human story itself.
This is why, in considering how to deal in sermons with the approach of the new millennium, it is wise to begin with the great paradigms in scripture, to see how they lend themselves as motifs and patterns for facing a new time. Think, for instance, of the very first construct in the Bible, the story of Creation in Genesis.
Creation and Creativity
Genesis. “In the beginning.” Imagine the newness, the freshness!
Think about attending the theater or the opera. There are discordant sounds at first from the orchestra pit as the various musicians tune their instruments. Then there are discernible arrangements to some of the notes. Finally the entire orchestra begins to play together, the curtains part, and a new world is born on the stage.
Could this be a picture of the way the world began? Nothing at first. Darkness and void. Then something starting. A noise, a flash, something coming into existence. Again. The world is beginning to be. And then it is there, the trees still dripping from the bringing together of desert and sea, field and river, and debris lying about before the Creator has had a chance to sweep up. Lights up! Full orchestra! Curtains back! Behold the earth!
The creativity motif runs throughout the scriptures:
First, the world, the sun, and the moon. The animals and birds and creatures of the sea.
Then man and woman, and the family.
Then the Sabbath.
Then ethics — rules for behavior.
Noah makes an ark, according to specifications provided by God.
God makes the rainbow.
God makes a covenant with Abraham. Abraham, in turn, makes a covenant with Abimelech. Abraham’s grandson Jacob makes a covenant with Laban.
Making becomes a way of life. People make alliances, altars, arks, tabernacles, and songs. Eventually cities and temples and celebrations.
Jeremiah, who is as sensitive to history as he is to the future, describes God as a potter who is fashioning a vessel on the wheel. Israel, he says, is a spoiled pot. Does it want to be removed from the wheel and dashed on the ground? If not, it had better shape up for Yahweh, become more flexible and malleable in the divine hands, give up its idolatrous ways.
God is still in a making mood, says Jeremiah, and will create a new covenant, etched in the hearts of the people.
More than that, says Jesus, God is making a new Israel, a kingdom of derelicts, a congregation of true believers and followers. This calls for new signs — a prophet baptizing in Jordan, a teacher on the mountain (in Matthew) and in the valleys (in Luke), a man with healing in his touch and forgiveness in his heart, death on a cross, the Resurrection, a Pentecostal gathering, earthen vessels bearing a great treasure, visions of eschatological wonder, a new city not made with hands.
It is no wonder that all this making has become the fount for the greatest outpouring of art and drama and music and devotion and fiction and scholarship in the history of the world. Making generates making. Art begets art. Life keeps reconstituting itself.
What a natural theme it all is for the turning of the millennia, for the releasing of creative powers as humankind lurches forward into unplowed fields of time, fresh and eager to make the first marks on an unspoiled landscape! How easily people can identify with the sense of freshness at the beginning of time, with the chance to devise better worlds, create more equity among nations, establish governments that bless and comfort, build relationships of truth and caring, nourish communities capable of redemption, support, and love. “In the beginning.” The very words ring with hope and encouragement, for we too shall have a beginning, a chance to start again and become what we’ve always wished we could be.
Sermon titles leap to mind: “Makers with God,” “The Hovering Spirit,” “Becoming Fruitful in a New Time,” “Receiving the Breath of Life Again,” “Sensitive to the Potter’s Touch,” “Building and Blessing,” “From Creation to Recreation,” “Made in the Image (or Images) of God,” “Looking for a City.”
The preacher could even preach a series of sermons on creation, while the church could celebrate creativity with an arts festival, featuring exhibits of members’ handiwork, special musical programs, important films, readings, book reviews, and discussions of the way God is still at work in the world through the visions of various kinds of makers, including artists, architects, chefs, city planners, decorators, landscapers, musicians, and writers.
One of the dominant themes of the Christian faith, according to the writer of Hebrews, is that of the journey into uncharted territories. It began with Abraham, who left Ur of the Chaldees, one of the most amazing cities of ancient times, and led his family and servants out on a wilderness pilgrimage that lasted for years, all because God told him to go. It was revived in spades by the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites under Moses and Joshua, an episode in Jewish history that would leave its imprint on the national consciousness forever.
Jesus was born while his parents were on a journey, and was soon after taken into Egypt, as if somehow to reverse the direction of the Israelites when they sought the promised land. His whole ministry appears to have involved con-stant travel, and in the Fourth Gospel he is represented as declaring, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” the Way indicating that one comes to Truth and Life not by static commitment but by journeying toward them. Paul’s journeys became epic events in the life of the early church, Odyssean in character but reaching beyond Odysseus in terms of what they bequeathed to the world.
All of these, and countless others, says the author of Hebrews, “wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” (Heb. 11:38). Yet they didn’t receive all that God had to give them because they could not be made perfect without us. “Therefore,” intones that great, ringing peroration at the beginning of Hebrews 12, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
The opening of a new millennium is a time for faith and for journeys. The beckoning new horizons suddenly extend far beyond the old ones. The new era becomes a time for girding ourselves and making commitments for pilgrimage.
It is purely no wonder that John Bunyan, the great seventeenth-century dissenter, cast his epic story of a man’s struggle to follow Christ in the form of a journey and called him Pilgrim. Or that Kurt Vonnegut in his modern novel Slaughterhouse Five called his modest hero Billy Pilgrim, probably in recollection of Bunyan’s protagonist. Life is a journey, and all of us are travelers. And a time like this, when one millennium is sloughed off and another begun, is a time for contemplating journeys and where they lead.
Again the sermon titles are legion: “Journey into Tomorrow,” “New Opportunities and Deeper Commitments,’ “On the Road to God’s Future,” “All the Way Home,” “Mileposts to God,” “The Path to the self That Lies Through God,” “Wayfarers in a Strange Land,” “The End of One Road and the Beginning of Another,” “Where Paths Converge,” “The Way to the City of God,” “Beggars by the Roadway of Life,” “The Trip to Forever,” and “Highway to Heaven.”
There is little evidence that the biblical idea of Jubilee was ever practiced but its roots lie deep in the mingled mercy and discipline of God’s people Theoretically it was the fiftieth year following every seventh seven-year or sabbatical period in Israel’s history It was a special time when the fields were to lie fallow, all land was returned to its original owners, and Israelite slaves were freed from bond-age. As described in Leviticus 25 and 27 and Numbers 36, it was supposed to begin with the blowing of the shofar on the Day of Atonement (the Hebrew yovel, from which the name Jubilee is derived, was the word for the ram’s horn used as a shofar) and end a year later, when a new cycle of seven-year periods began.
The notion of Jubilee, apart from its actual practice, has always been an important one, and has surfaced from time to time in Christian history as a symbol of the generosity with which we are to regard the earth, the holding of property, the use of animals, and the dignity of other human beings. Martin Luther King, Jr., was fond of the term and often cited it as a call to Christian followers in our day.
Because Jubilee was essentially a concept regarding time and time-cycles, it is an extremely appropriate theme to sound as this millennium draws to a close and another is about to commence. Its proclamation can underline the fact that time needs to be sanctified by prayer and recommitment to God, and it can easily become a call to higher living as we approach a new era.
Dom Gregory Dix wrote a classic scholarly book a few years ago called The Shape of the Liturgy in which he demonstrated that the canonical hours of monastic and clerical life are in reality an attempt to sanctify all time and ought therefore to be viewed as one of the most essential constructs of human existence. In the same way it is easy to view the transition from one century to another and one millennium to another as very important moments in the ongoing life of the race, and therefore of critical significance for reassessment of purpose and rededication of selves and gifts.
In England, the Christian Aid Society is circulating a “Jubilee 2000 Petition,” seeking 22 million signatures worldwide to call on the leaders of wealthy nations to forgive the debts of the world’s poorest countries. “We, the undersigned,” reads the petition, “believe that the start of the new millennium should be a time to give hope to the impoverished people of the world. To make a fresh start, we believe it right to put behind us the mistakes made by both lenders and borrowers and to cancel the backlog of unpayable debts of the most impoverished nations.”
Sermons on the Jubilee theme might emphasize the importance of our pausing at this vital juncture to reconsider what God intended for the earth and humanity and reflect on what we can do in the coming years to restore both the earth and ourselves to divine care. They could stress the ecological note in the original proclamation of Jubilee (letting the fields lie fallow) and challenge the congregation to daily concern for the fate of our globe.
They could raise questions about the greed and avarice that mark our attitudes toward property and remind us that the earth is the Lord’s, not ours, and that we are to live as servants, not masters. And they could emphasize the importance of forgiveness and restitution for those who have wronged us, as well as equality for those who are treated as virtual slaves in our society. They might even raise questions about penal codes and prison reform that are too seldom addressed by Christian communities, even though the New Testament frequently stresses our relationship to prisoners.
Titles for such sermons might include: “The Jubilation of Our Times,” “A Time of Cleansing and Forgiveness,” “Restoring the Earth to Its Rightful Owner,” “Sanctifying the New Millennium,” “Remembering Who We Are at the Turn of the Millennium,” “Dying with Christ to Live for the Future,” and “Letting All the Slaves Go Free.”
Returning to the Tabernacle
The tabernacle (Hebrew mishkan) was a large portable sanctuary described in Exodus 25-30 which was supervised by the Levites and served the Israelites as a sort of pre-temple (some scholars believe the description of an extremely large tent, some 72 feet by 145 feet, was an exaggerated description based on later knowledge of the temple itself). Consisting of great curtains supported on poles, it supposedly contained a Holy of Holies with the ark of the covenant, the altar of incense, the seven-branched lampstand, and a table for the bread of the Presence. Theoretically it was moved wherever the Israelites went in their wilderness wanderings and stood in the center of their camp, with the Levites encamped nearest to it and the other tribes arranged systematically around it.
The tabernacle has always had enormous significance for the Jewish faith, for it symbolizes a place of meeting with God that can be moved with the people wherever they go, as opposed to the temple, which for all its splendor remained stationary in Jerusalem. A temple is fine in an era of peace and stability when people can come and go to Jerusalem as they please. But in times of turmoil and chaos — of which Israel had plenty — the tabernacle remained a valuable reminder of God’s loving-kindness and fidelity which never left them alone.
The preaching of tabernacle faith can be very significant as we are about to embark on an entirely new millennium when traditional institutions are under threat and the future is uncertain. Most Christians are aware today of the serious erosion of denominational structures and a general departure from the cultural prominence enjoyed by the Christian religion in earlier generations. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann pointed out in The Social Construction of Reality, most people’s understandings of God and religious philosophy are determined by what society holds as true and important, not by an individual commitment to the search for truth.
It is not as easy to hold an unqualified belief in the existence of God today, and a sure understanding of what it means to serve God, as it was in a time when the religious communities were unified and in control of our culture. Whereas American Christians once seldom encountered religious beliefs and practices very different from their own, now they pass Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples on their way to work or school, hear the declarations of secularism and agnosticism broadcast daily on radio and TV, and generally live among the nonreligious assumptions of modern science and technology. Some have reacted to this by attempting to draw their congregations into tight-knit circles that insist on the inerrant truth of their traditions and beliefs over against the free circulation of counterclaims in the society. Some have tried to find ways of compromising and blending tradition and other viewpoints. But it is obviously a time of testing for Christian communities, and the testing is likely to grow more severe as we cross the line into a new millennium.
For this reason it is easy to imagine ourselves as living in a time of new wilderness, when the way to the future remains largely uncharted and the promised land has become more elusive than ever. This means that the concept of tabernacle, of God’s traveling with us on an uncertain way, has assumed a new importance in our age. Our temples of denominational experience and theological certainty are crumbling. We find ourselves once again on the Way, trying to make sense of new experiences and to discern what it means to serve God in such an unpredictable environment.
The tabernacle is not a symbol inferior to that of the temple. On the contrary, the pressures and trials we are now experiencing make it more vital, more important, more crucial to us. It suggests that God is still moving, as we are, and still observing a covenant whose roots are millennia old. God is still being faithful to promises made in the earliest times of history.
Some people, of course, have become addicted to their temples. They find it hard to leave behind their idolatries, their shibboleths, their sanctified traditions. They spend their time and energy complaining about the loss of cherished ideals and understandings, about the way God appears to have abandoned them and the formulas for religious life that served them so long and so well. But that is part of the preacher’s challenge, to persuade them that Jesus himself (especially in the Gospel of Mark) was anti-temple and predicted the end of an age of temple-like security, and that if we seriously intend to follow Jesus into the next millennium we shall learn to “go to him outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13), seeking a city and tradition not made by human hands.
The tabernacle has always been a more fit symbol of Christianity than the temple, but never more so than at the beginning and in our own era. As the late Daniel T. Miles of Sri Lanka liked to say, “There ought to be a placard saying ‘Move On’ over the head of every Christian.”
Sermon titles? How about: “The Christ Who Goes Before Us,” “Moving into a New Millennium with God,” “Passport to Eternity,” “Trusting in God, Not Institutions,” “What Can You Believe in a Time When It’s Hard to Believe Anything?” “Carrying the Church into the New Millennium,” “Living with a Presence That Keeps Moving On,” and “People Who Live in Tents Don’t Get Hit by Falling Stones.”
The Cross, the Resurrection, and New Life
When we think about it we realize that Christianity was actually born in a time of cultural chaos not unlike our own. Palestine was occupied by the Romans with their pantheon of gods and goddesses and their continuing attempt to syncretize all religions in order to miss nothing. Tarsus, the city in the province of Cilicia where the apostle Paul grew up, was a microcosm of religious traditions and understandings, for it was home to Jews, Asians, Syrians, Persians, and Phoenicians as well as Greeks and Romans, and prided itself on its openness to all traditions. The fertility cults flourished there alongside ancient philosophies, and Apollonius, a noted philosopher trained in the city, withdrew to a more remote area because he said a miasma of perversion and immorality hung over the place. Among the Jews themselves, religious practice had degenerated into the nitpicking legalism of the scribes and Pharisees, and many of the common people generally ignored the spiritual life altogether.
The hope that focused on Christ drew upon ancient traditions of a vital faith and practice in Israel while at the same time recognizing something excitingly new and unpredicted in his mien and understanding. He did not come as a golden warrior or untouchable high priest but as a humble man, a servant unafraid to touch the sores of the leper or to dine in the homes of the unwashed. His kingdom, while expected to rejuvenate the earthly dominion of Israel, had something definitely unearthly about it. It laid more emphasis on prayer and presence than it did on princely power and might.
In the end, Christ himself did not shrink from the death of a common criminal, and submitted to it with a glory and equanimity that impressed even his executioners. And when the Resurrection came, with its scenes of comic fear and misunderstanding as well as its portrait of regal transcendence, it confirmed a formula that God had apparently intended all along: the way to life is through dying, the route to heavenly coronation lies through willing humiliation. The Cornerstone that the builders had rejected because it looked too weak and bereft of earthly power God had made to become the foundation of everything, the bulwark of an eternal reign.
Thus Resurrection and New Life became the theme and symbol of the early church, itself composed of the broken, the weak, the humble of the world. Those despised by empire and tradition became endowed with the power to rewrite history and change the world. The blood of the martyrs became the seed of a glorious new Way, one that would exist for millennia as a vital, pulsating force in human affairs, leading the poet W. B. Yeats, nearly two thousand years later, to write in “The Second Coming” of the world as a “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
As preachers we would be remiss if we did not at the end of one age and the beginning of another proclaim regularly the power of the Crucified and Raised-Up Christ, as much an enigma to our age as it was to that of the early Christians, yet still the heart and core of the faith we claim to have. Is the new millennium threatening to old ways and habits? Do we fear the newness, the unknown? The securest stance is that of Jesus himself, who though he enjoyed being with God poured out his self-interest and became as we are, in order that God might raise us all to newness of life in him. The Cross and the Resurrection are still the key to meaning and triumph for every believer.
Sermon titles? “Jesus Christ, the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” “The Primacy of the Cross in the Life of the Christian,” “A New Era for the Lord of All New Eras,” “Lord of the Waves,” “Fundamentals of the Faith in an Age of Inconsequentials,” “The Hope of the World and the Gift of Tomorrow,” “Dying for Christ in the New Millennium,” “The Unrivaled Power of the Great Christian Ideas,” “The Kingdom That Shall Not Be Shaken.”
Fellowship and Community
The koinonia or fellowship band in the early church was all-important to the survival of individual Christians and of the church as well. In an age of conflicting beliefs and ideologies when people could be punished for their faith in Christ, members of the body of Christ needed one another for support and encouragement; otherwise they were prone to defect from the church and return to beliefs and practices more acceptable to the Roman Empire. Fully 80 percent of the New Testament material appears to have been written with at least one eye on the temptations people felt to desert the faith.
When congregants prayed the model prayer of Jesus with its words “Bring us not to the test,” they knew full well that the test was not some trivial temptation such as greed or immorality but the most awful test of all, to forsake the faith once chosen. This is one reason the apostle Paul felt it so incumbent on him wherever he went to establish fellowship groups for new Christians. It was not enough merely to see them converted and living individually for Christ. Paul knew that without the active urging and support of others they would all die like embers lying apart from the fire.
The same is surely true today. We live in an age when there are more people crowded into most spaces than ever before. Yet there is also today an enormous sense of isolation and loneliness among people. Even those who work in crowded offices and walk the busy streets of our metropolises and drive in rush-hour traffic confess to feeling alone, without anyone except perhaps one or two family members and an odd friend or two who really knows or cares who they are. Most of the funniest sitcoms on television Seinfeld, Frasier, Cybil, Murphy Brown, Drew Carey — are about people who are unbearably fragile and lonely even though they spend their time with other people suffering from the same problems.
The Christian pulpit still has a message of hope for these people. It is about a Christ who showed us the fullness of love and sharing by laying down his life for us, and who commands us to love one another as he loved us. Of course it is an age of cynicism and relativism, and we can’t simply talk about love, we have to demonstrate it, actually involve people in it. But where else in the world can people turn to find such a foundation for fellowship and hope? The civic clubs? The government? Voluntary organizations? To the extent that any of them offer fellowship and community at all, they derived them from Christianity, whose ways and ideas have permeated Western thought. But the possibility of real community, with love and loyalty and total commitment, remains highest in the church, which is the mother of such qualities throughout the world.
“There are many reasons to give up on the church today” says a minister friend of mine, “and I think I’ve rehearsed them a hundred times or more. But as long as a lonely boy or girl finds fellowship in a Sunday school teacher or group leader who cares about them, as long as a pitiful-looking young woman can come to prayer meeting and sit there with a glow on her face because it’s the one place in the town where she thinks someone cares that she’s there, as long as an old couple who’ve recently moved to the neighborhood can come and hold hands through a service and be greeted warmly by other people after wards, I’m not going to give up. For all its faults, the church is still the number-one place for love and fellowship in the world, even ahead of the family, which is often dysfunctional and disheartening. No, I’ll hold on to the church as long as I myself can still go there and sit on a pew and feel that Christ is there, welcoming me to that great host of witnesses and whispering in my ear, ‘Go find someone else and tell him that you love him.’ I’ll hold on because I don’t know of another organization in the world where this is regarded as being of such supreme importance. I won’t give up on the church as long as there is the least bit of love in it.”
The Bible is filled with great precedents, all the way from the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden to the book of Revelation and the picture of the heavenly city, for preaching love and faithfulness and commitment to one another. And of course nowhere does the theme reach loftier heights than in the practice and teaching of Christ and His sacrificial death on the cross.
The twenty-first century may be an age of technology and space travel and unnerving change, but it need not be a time of consuming individuality, distrust, and loneliness. Our preaching has but to rise to meet the challenge of the times, offering people the possibilities of love, support, and fellowship.
Sermon titles for this might include: “Finding Christ’s Presence Through Your Neighbor,” “Putting People First in the Twenty-First,” “Discovering the Power of Three or Four,” “Living Heart-to-Heart Instead of Hand-to-Mouth,” “The Fellowship Where Differences Dissolve,” “What If Christians Discovered How to Love?” “Following Christ from the Garden of Betrayal to the Cross of Forgiveness,” and “Finding Love in the Midst of a Crowd.”
Reprinted by permission from Preaching the New Millennium by John Killinger. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) Copyright (c) 1999 by Abingdon Press.

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