Reader Request: Resources for Preaching a Series

A reader wrote to ask, “Have you discovered any resources to help design message series since that post [Rebuilding Your Message: Big Idea #1 The Series]?”

Ideas for Preaching a Series

  1. Read Rebuilding Your MessageIt’s an easy read, full of practical tips.
  2. Watch the Rebuilding Your Message webinar produced by Ave Maria Press with co-author Tom Corcoran.
  3. Watch or listen to series preached at Catholic parishes, for example:
  4. Adam Hamilton (Methodist pastor)’s book Leading Beyond the Walls has a section on series, read more here…
  5. Try it. Just do it. 🙂 But, before you start the series, recruit a group to provide feedback–folks in your parish with experience in communication, sharing the faith, offering critique, etc.–and during your “experiment,” meet with them weekly. This will help you gauge what’s working and what’s not and make week-by-week improvements. At the end of the series, solicit feedback from your parish using an anonymous web form or a printed card.

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Seek a Future of Hope (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

“When you look for me, you will find me.” –Jer 29:13

Through the prophet Jeremiah, God says to His people, “I know well the plans I have in mind for you.”

Now if you’re like most of us, and have ever been anxious or curious about your future, this is great news! God has a plan for you. Your life isn’t left to random cosmic events. There is a God of the universe who loves us as individuals, and we matter to Him. He has a plan to give you a “future of hope,” no matter how desperate or unfortunate your current life situation may seem.

But then things get a bit disappointing. Jeremiah doesn’t have the details of God’s plan for us.

Instead God gives these promises:

1. When we pray to God, He will listen

2. When we seek God with all our heart, we will find Him

3. If we’re in an exile of sorts—cut off from God or those around us—He will bring us back and “change our lot.”

While God is our loving creator, He doesn’t force any of us into a relationship with Him. Each of us must seek God with all our heart to find the future of hope He has for each of us. Seeking God requires our whole heart and personal prayer—moral behavior, church attendance, or being “religious” are all good, but none of these is a substitute for seeking God.

Seek the Lord, and begin to know more deeply and confidently the plans God has for you today.

hope
Image: “Hope” Melanie Tata (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

The Journey Matters (Psalm 37:5)

“Commit your way to the Lord” –Ps 37:5

Commitment is hard.

From taking the first step in a new resolution, to sticking it out when distractions arise, to continuing your commitment when it becomes boring or repetitive—commitment can test our heart, mind, and body. This verse offers us a promise—that if we trust in the Lord, he will act. But this comes after we take the first step, and commit.  

Commitment
Image: Memphis CVB (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

Now, committing anything to the Lord may sound intimidating, but God never asks the impossible of us. The Lord doesn’t ask us to promise success or commit our glowing achievements to Him. No, to “commit your way” means to commit your life’s journey. To give the long, winding, and possibly confusing road of your life to God. To “commit your way” is to give your whole self, your way of being—whatever unique personality traits, way of going about life, and human gifts you have. God cares about the process, not just the results. He promises that if we trust Him with that process—the way of our lives—He will act.

What’s the one area of your life that’s hardest to let God in on?

It could be money, school or work, relationships, your family, or even your doubt in God’s existence—whatever it is, “commit your way” to God, even if you don’t know the outcome, and trust that God will lovingly accompany you wherever your road takes you.  

Use Words (Psalm 91:2)

“Say to the Lord…” –Psalm 91:2

Inside the Old Fort
Image: Ken and Nyetta (Flickr) CC BY 2.0

Seems simple, right? “Say to the LORD, “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.”

Of course many of us often think of God as a protector—a “refuge and fortress.”

Yet, living this out isn’t so simple. Here’s why: in order for God to really be my refuge and fortress, I must humble myself enough to allow God to take on this role in my life. God can’t be my refuge unless I cooperate with Him, and seek Him for cover and guidance. God can’t be my “fortress” building, unless I’m humble enough to enter through the door for protection. It takes action to turn to God as a refuge or fortress. Trust goes beyond the occasional passing thought.

The Psalmist writes, “Say to the Lord.”

Did you catch that? We’re supposed to talk to God directly in prayer and tell God that we trust in Him, that we want Him to be our refuge and fortress against the storms life brings upon us.

Take up the challenge of this verse today.

Say to the Lord, “you are my refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.” Then pour out your heart to the Lord about all of the things you need refuge and protection from, all the things that are hard for you to trust in Him for.

And then listen. By doing this you’re building a relationship with God—a sure sign of your trust in Him!

Jesus, How Long Are You Going to Keep Us In Suspense?!? (John 10:22-30)

Imagine you’re sitting on an outer porch of the Jerusalem Temple during the time of Jesus. You’re at one end of a massive stone structure, as large as six football fields. And, you’re on a height, nearly ten stories up in the air. Just sitting and watching as the religious come to mark the eight-day feast of the Dedication of this very temple.

You’re sitting at the edge of a particular porch named for Solomon, famous for his wisdom–a place where people would come to teach and discuss the Torah. Jesus, the teacher and miracle-worker so many have been talking about over the past year walks in. Immediately people gather around him to ask him a question, now that he’s putting himself out there to teach in such a place.

You overhear them ask Jesus, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?”…”tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

And you think, yes, I want to know too. Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense…guessing, wondering, and having doubts about….”

  • what you’re doing in my life?
  • why it (whatever “it” is) is so hard?
  • why are there people who suffer so much? and what I’m supposed to do to help? or why I can’t seem to do anything to help?
  • why I’m hurting?
IMG_4798
Image: Dannielle Blumenthal (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0

Many, if not most, of us have questions that we feel like we’re waiting on God to answer. And, if you’re anything like me, you just wish that God would make it plain, and quickly!  at that. Make it clear. Give me the sign that explains everything, so that I can be at peace, knowing how it all works out.

To my fill-in-the-blank question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me waiting on ____________?” Jesus’ answer is nothing and everything, all at the same time.

Speaking of those who believe, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-30)

There are three promises here for those who believe Jesus is the Savior:

  1. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

    Notice that this isn’t a statement of causality, but of apparent fact. And “hear” is a continuing present tense. Even when we feel like we’re in suspense, stuck wondering. In the same ten minutes of prayer, I can start off venting, in sadness or frustration, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?!?” and still hear God, sense God guiding me in other aspects of my life. In this promise, I don’t receive an answer to the question “how long will you keep me waiting?” but I receive a promise that I’m still going to be one of God’s “sheep,” while I’m in suspense. I’ll not be abandoned, forgotten, ignored, put in a corner, or left-behind. God will be speaking to me, guiding me–even as I wait.

  2. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

    Blessed John Henry Newman explained that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Be honest with God. If you need to come to the Lord in prayer ten times a day to say, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense about ________?” it’s okay. Those questions of prayer aren’t going to take you out of Jesus’ hand. Maybe Jesus gives us eternal life because in earthly time it indeed would take an eternity to answer all of our questions of longing, suffering, and frustration. Know that no matter how long–weeks, months, years, decades–you say to Jesus in honesty, “how long are you going to keep me in suspense?”–Jesus will not let you, his precious and beloved “sheep” perish. Waiting is not the same as perishing.

  3. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.”

    A final reiteration of the three promises that are truly one. God the Father, the Creator of the universe is “greater than all,” over all things. Even outside of time. What we are in suspense about, God our Loving Father is not only aware of, but preparing us for. He’s speaking to us, guiding us through other people, through the words of Scripture, through the counsel of others…so that when the answer to our question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?” comes–we’ll be ready.

As we listen to these promises, they are clear. Jesus has told us the biggest, most cosmic truths, plainly. But the details? Well, those are another story. As long as we’re human, I think the aspects of suspense, of wondering and guessing, are always going to captivate us. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Share it with Jesus. Be honest about what’s keeping you in suspense. Yet never lose sight of the big picture–of the promises made good through the Cross–these promises will last through eternity, where we’ll never be waiting again!

He Knows You! (Ps 139:1-16)

“you understand my thoughts from afar” –Psalm 139:2

The idea that God is omniscient (aka all-knowing) has existed throughout human history, across all different types of religious belief systems. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the real sticking question is this—what does an all-knowing God know about me?

God doesn’t simply know that we exist and then take off, only to be concerned about us again when our earthly life ends. Not at all. God knows us in the deepest, most profound sense. Better than we know ourselves at times! God is with us in every moment—from when we were unformed in the womb to this very day. God doesn’t just know our words and thoughts in a literal sense, but truly understands them. God understands the complexities and contradictions that each of us carries. God knows each of us at our best, and at our worst—and stays with us, regardless.

No matter what your current situation in life is, you can be certain that God knows you, understands you, and loves you enough to remain with you through anything life brings. The question is, what is your response? Do you share your real self with God? Or, do you try and hide the messy, confusing, troubling parts of your life?

Hiding
Image: Sandor Weisz (Flickr) CC BY-NC 2.0

Turn to Him in prayer in today.

God already knows you and is ready to start a new relationship (or re-start an old one) with you, right now.

How Do You Feel About Having Your Sins Forgiven?

As today’s First Reading (1 John 1:8-10) reminds us:

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar,
and his word is not in us.

We can intellectually accept Jesus’ forgiveness of one’s sins as true, a fact, a reality. But, how to you really feel about it, personally. That Jesus forgives your sins. 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus posed this question to Simon, a Pharisee, in the midst of a symposium-style dinner discussion:

“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker graciously canceled both debts. Which of the two men will love the banker more?” (Lk 7:41-42*)

What’s the answer? Obviously the man who owed the larger sum of money.

But in Jesus’ 1st century Palestine and our modern American culture, which man would typically be considered the “good” one?

Most of us would have to admit it’s the man with less debt. The one who merely owed 50 silver pieces. He might be able to pay that off. He’s more responsible. More self-reliant. He’s not too bad.

So why is he the example of being “wrong” in the story?

Jesus’ point must not be about personal finances, but about love and gratitude in our relationship with Him. Let’s enter back into the story of the banker and the two men in debt. Imagine you’re the man who owed 500 silver coins–and had it forgiven. How would you feel?

What’s the immediate human reaction to that kind of free, gracious generosity?

It’s a mix of emotions: “Wow.” “You didn’t have to!” Feeling unworthy of such a gift. Maybe even feeling worse that you could never repay this person. Maybe feeling ashamed that it came to this point.

And it’s the same way with Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness of our own sins. There’s no way we could “earn” our way out of the wrong we do as human beings. We can’t pay it off.

The question is, how do we relate to Jesus who gives us an enormous (worth more than any earthly sum of money!) free gift of forgiveness? Is our response that joyful, grateful love for someone who gives us an incomprehensible, amazing gift?

Or, is our response something else–thinking we owe Jesus back, imagining that Jesus dislikes us for having gotten into debt in the first place, assuming we can do it ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own “bootstraps” of personal piety, wondering if this forgiveness is “for real” and “for keeps,” or if there are hidden strings attached.

We’re not saved by our own good works. We are saved for good works. Those good works flow from the love and gratitude we feel toward Jesus in our relationship with Him. We joyfully desire to extend that love to every person around us. Not because we think we “have” to in order to make up that debt or prevent Jesus from having to be like the banker in the story and forgive our debts to begin with, but because it overflows–we can’t contain that joyful love.

And this is precisely the context in which Jesus gave this example. There was someone who couldn’t contain the love she knew because Jesus had freely forgiven her. This someone was a woman, a poor woman from the city whom everyone knew was a sinner, someone who certainly didn’t have any of the external acts of religious piety. She hadn’t been someone known for “good” behavior.

Yet at some point before this dinner, she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness from her sins (i.e. Lk 5:30-32). She is living in a state of forgiveness that overflows into love and gratitude that simply looks ridiculous to those who haven’t experienced it. Just imagine…a poor woman entering a banquet dinner-panel discussion of men of the religious elite. Instead of staying on the side, like she was supposed to, she starts to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, and even kisses his feet. This is overflowing, joyful love and gratitude! (to say the least!)

As Christians, we’re like that man with a debt of 500 silver coins. We’re like this woman bathing Jesus’ feet. We’ve received a forgiveness we could never earn and are now living in that forgiveness, that salvation that is and continues to bring peace (Lk 7:50).

But what if that’s not you? If you feel a bit awkward about it. Like a man who owed only 50 silver coins and maybe didn’t really need that banker to forgive his debt. Consider what’s holding you back. What’s the barrier?

It’s okay to be honest with Jesus. Open your heart to him. And when we think about this woman who loved so extravagantly, it might have taken some time. Her forgiveness could have come days, weeks, or even months before this dinner. What’s most important is that her open, free, honest love does come, and brings her closer to–not farther away–from Jesus.

 

Wipe our Debt
Image: Flickr “Image Money” CC SA 2.0

 

translation: The Message + my own translation edits

a version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com