Resurrected Living
"What are you going to do with your new resurrected life? This is the heroic question." Richard Rohr

Preaching From the Poets

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It is interesting to compare the sermons and speeches that are found within the book of Acts. Throughout the book the apostles and others speak to two different groups of people. Sometimes a sermon will be delivered in front of a Jewish audience, but other times the audience is comprised of Gentiles. The Christians who are speaking have one message to deliver, and that is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, but they go about delivering this message in different ways. When a person like Peter or Paul is speaking to a Jewish audience, the majority of the sermon focuses on the Old Testament. If Paul or someone else is speaking to a Gentile audience, then the Old Testament may not be mentioned at all. Instead the apostle will appeal to other things like pagan alters or poets. The point of the message is the same, but we see in the book of Acts that there is more than one way to get there.

I believe this is relevant to how we present God’s word within our modern culture. Preachers need to ask themselves: Who is in the pew? What are their backgrounds? What do they know? What is important to them? Our message is always the same. We preach Christ crucified! However, the way we go about presenting this message may differ from congregation to congregation. There may be some who have an audience of all believers or unbelievers on Sunday morning, but most of us probably preach to a mixed crowd. We get up on Sunday and we see the face of believers and unbelievers who have come to hear what we have to say. This is difficult. Unbelievers probably don’t want to hear an exegesis of a passage in Leviticus, and believers are going to be bored with a steady dose of watered down lessons.

Instead of choosing one method of preaching and sticking with it, ministers need to be diverse. We need to play with style and presentation. It may be good to change the way we approach a text from time to time. We need to think outside the box. We need to be creative when preaching God‘s word. The heart of our message is still the gospel. We need to make the death, burial, and resurrection central to what we preach. I believe the best way to do this is by using Scripture. The word of God is powerful! It is able to convict believers and unbelievers alike. Preachers need to preach Scripture. At the same time, we do not have to limit ourselves to Scripture only. Many preachers tell stories that people connect with, just as Jesus did. This is great, but maybe we could also take a lesson from Paul. In Acts 17 when Paul addresses the Aeropagus, he does not quote one Scripture. Instead, Paul quotes two of their poets.

Let me suggest that one way we can reach believers and unbelievers alike is by paying attention to our poets. The poets Paul quotes from must have been widely known. The people he was speaking to were aware of these individuals and what they had written, and so Paul uses this to preach the gospel. Who are our poets? If you are going to quote a modern day poet who spends his or her time writing poems for a book poetry, then most people are not going to have a clue who you are talking about. However, if you quote someone who has written a famous song, then most everyone is going to know who that person is and be somewhat familiar with their work. Ministers should pay attention to thoughtful and intelligent songwriters and use this material from time to time.

I have done this before in sermons and classes. The two I quote more than anyone else is Bob Dylan and U2. These artists are widely known and they have written numerous songs that contain religious overtones or directly appeal to Scripture. An unbeliever at church on Sunday morning may have no idea who Moses is, but they may be a big fan of Bono and if that gets them closer to Jesus then that is great. Paul used this approach with Gentiles and I believe we should seek to do the same. Quoting poets is not only helpful with reaching unbelievers, but it also helps people who have been Christians for years. Sometimes poets have a unique way of connecting with people. Their words often stick with us, and if they are words we hear on a regular basis, then we are also going to be reminded of the message of the sermon each time we hear the poem or song.

Where to start?

This is easier than it might seem. There is an abundance of great material that is readily available. I would suggest you use popular artists who people are familiar with, but try and avoid shallow artists who do not have much to say. Do not use poets just to use them. Paul used them to make a valid point and we should do the same. It helps if the artists are familiar with Christianity or writing from a Christian perspective, but this is not necessary. Paul quoted poets who were likely pagans. Truth is truth no matter who says it. Here are a few artists I have used and quoted from over the years.

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one – U2

The city’s aflood
And our love turns to rust
We’re beaten and blown by the wind
Trampled in dust
I’ll show you a place
High on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name – U2

See the world in green and blue
See China right in front of you
See the canyons broken by cloud
See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out
See the bedouin fires at night
See the oil fields at first light
See the bird with a leaf in her mouth
After the flood all the colors came out

It was a beautiful day
Don’t let it get away
A beautiful day – U2

When you’re like a broken bird tell heaven
Battered wings against the dark and day
When your worries won’t let you sleep tell heaven
When the tears won’t ever go away – Roseanne Cash

You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,
yes indeed You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody – Bob Dylan

Suddenly I turned around and she was standin’ there
With silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair
She walked up to me so gracefully and took my crown of thorns
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the  storm”

In a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes
I bargained for salvation an’ they gave me a lethal dose
I offered up my innocence and got repaid with scorn
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm” – Bob Dylan

He’s young and on fire
Full of hope and desire
In a world that’s been raped and defiled
If I fall along the way
And can’t see another day
Lord, protect my child

There’ll be a time I hear tell
When all will be well
When God and man will be reconciled
But until men lose their chains
And righteousness reigns
Lord, protect my child – Bob Dylan

Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back – Bruce Springsteen

The times they are dark, darkness covers the earth
This world’s filled with the beauty of God’s work
Hold tight to your promise, stay righteous, stay strong
For the days of miracles will come along – Bruce Springsteen

Forty days and nights of rain have washed this land
Jesus said the money changers in this temple will not stand
Find your flock, get them to higher ground
Flood waters rising and we’re Caanan bound

We’ve been traveling over rocky ground, rocky ground – Bruce Springsteen

It seems that all my bridges have been burnt
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works.
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with every start – Mumford & Sons

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