Above and Below

Years ago in a sermon preached around the time of Ascension Day and Pentecost, I juxtaposed two biblical texts. On the one hand was Acts 1. As the disciples stared up into the clouds where Jesus had just disappeared, suddenly some angels appeared—but not up in the clouds. The angels were on earth, standing behind the gobsmacked disciples. Tapping them on the shoulders, the angels basically said, “Why are you looking up there? You’ve got work to do here. Go and wait for the Spirit to come.” On the other hand was a text from Colossians 3 in which Paul instructs Christians to set their minds above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand, and do not have as your focus the things of earth.

“So which is it?” I asked in my sermon. “Focus on heavenly matters or on earthly ones? Stare up into the skies where Christ is seated somewhere in the heavenly realm, or put your nose to the grindstone of ministry work here below?” The answer, of course, is that it’s both.

No, we are not called to be constantly searching the horizon, scanning for any signs that Christ is about to come back from the place to which he long ago ascended. Being starry-eyed and distracted disciples who do no more than calculate times and dates for Christ’s return is definitely not what Jesus told the disciples to do after he was gone. Then again, if our minds are not locked on Christ and the things that are above—and what those “above things” mean—then we have no idea how to behave, minister, serve, or preach on this earthly plane.

The Christian life is a balancing act, a tightrope walk. Since we have been thinking about the spiritual disciplines in recent issues of Reformed Worship, we can say that maintaining our balance between heaven and earth requires its own kind of discipline. We need to learn how to pray with “eyes wide shut.” When we pray, we must petition God to continue to fill us with divine wisdom and insight. But we never ask for those gifts from above in the abstract. We do not close our eyes when praying in order to shut out or ignore the wider world and its myriad needs. Instead we ask for divine gifts from Christ’s throne above precisely to enable us to meet the challenges that are right in front of us here below.

This is what makes Christian prayer so different from at least some forms of Eastern religious meditative practices. As I understand it, transcendental meditation is just what it sounds like: you seek to transcend the earthly reality around you so as to slip—even if just temporarily—into a different and very disconnected realm of the spirit. It reminds me of a John Lennon song from his Beatles years: “Across the Universe.” The song features as a kind of refrain an Eastern meditative chant: “Jai guru deva, om.” But its other repeated refrain is “Nothing’s going to change my world.” By meditating our way out of this broken world, we enter a changeless realm of the spirit that lets us escape to better realities.

Perhaps experts in Eastern mysticism will say I am not getting this exactly right, but the gist of it is accurate and does juxtapose with, say, the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with an appeal to our Father “in heaven” and references “on earth as it is in heaven” and “our daily bread” and the need to forgive those who have hurt us. We pray to God in heaven, but the goal is all about the things of earth. To riff on C. S. Lewis, if you focus only on earth, you will never attain heaven. But if you focus on heaven, you get the earth thrown into the mix too and so you end up well connected to both.

Preaching most assuredly contributes to helping people keep this dual focus, a version of the old adage attributed to Karl Barth about preaching with the Bible in one hand and the daily newspaper in the other. Sermons that are perfectly biblical but disconnected from what is going on in the world and in people’s lives are “timeless” in the worst sense of the word. Then again, sermons that come off as no more than disquisitions on current events and treat the Bible as an older but only somewhat reliable background resource fail on a much deeper level. The well-exegeted biblical text in a sermon must lead to a contemporary “So what?” that gets answered with real-world traction.

In “The Four Pages” sermon template we teach at Calvin Theological Seminary, the fourth “page” or movement of the sermon is “Grace in the World.” It’s the toughest part of preaching. This is where we draw attention to where and how we can see God in action in the world and in the church right now, today. Under the writing and preaching rubric of “show, don’t tell,” Page Four is the “show” part. I can tell you that God is still fighting battles for his people today, but if I cannot show you a single example of what that might look like on a Wednesday afternoon, then the sermon stays somewhat abstract.

But that is the difficult part in preaching, so it is no wonder that we hear so many sermons that stop just short of a solid Page Four. But it’s not as though Page Four vignettes of God on the move in our daily lives need to be all up in the spiritual stratosphere of amazing or miraculous stories. In fact, we tell our students that the more mundane and ordinary their Page Four stories are, the better. I may never have the experience of seeing someone walk on water, but I very well may see an instance of God’s amazing grace when I see a moving act of kindness from one person to another in the produce aisle of my local supermarket. That is a Grace in the World I can both relate to and keep an eye out to see (and to celebrate) on any given day.

Sermons that only do the equivalent of making people stare up into the sky or that do the equivalent of just commenting on the news of the day are not going to model the balance we are called to have. But even more important than what any one sermon might accomplish in terms of theme and content is the overall posture of a preacher and the habits of mind that preaching builds up in people week after week. Yes, we want any given sermon to be as fine, fresh, and vibrant as we can pull off in a given week, but what builds up in people’s hearts like a holy residue over time are the motifs and the modeling of good spiritual practices emerging from the pulpit over and over. That is what really sinks in for people across a preaching ministry. It is what helps people set their minds on things above so they can be a fruitful presence for the gospel here below.

Rev. Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching (cepreaching.org) at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Reformed Worship 143 © March 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.