It had been a very long Sunday.  After worship, I spent hours at the hospital on a death watch that came late in the evening.  After the funeral home picked up the body, I returned to the church to finish a few things I had left undone.  Just as I was exiting the church (for a well deserved rest) when I realized someone had left the lights on in the sanctuary, and not the lights with the switches around the corner.  I had to walk all the way down the center aisle.  Normally this task would have been simple, but my tired legs were aching for an Epson salt bath.  I hurried down the aisle but on the way back my pace was slowed as I recalled each face that heard my sermon that Sunday.  Each family situation came to mind, along with all my pastoral care questions I had yet an opportunity to ask.  Strong emotions of some particular people took center stage of my attention.  The Junipter’s had just had their first child and now she had colic.  They were not the happy family they dreamed of being.  He had come to worship this morning and slept heaped up in the corner of a pew.  I assumed she was home with the baby, coveting her husband’s pew snoozing.  Mrs. Gerald solemnly observed the first anniversary of her husband’s death.  I’m sure this current death evoked some emotion for her.  Then there was Mr. Tyler.  He was still mad that the trustees did not adopt his plan to maximize the parking spaces in the back lot.  There were many more and I knew them well.

Then I reflected on my sermon.  This Sunday I had to take a teaching moment before the sermon to explain some cultural norms found in the New Testament scripture.  I felt it was the best way to communicate the text.  It sounded like the seminary thing to do.  But had my effort spoken to any of these situations in the pews?  Yes, the exercise had enlightened but did it feed something that had heart (not head)?  Had it addressed what it meant to be human?  Had it given permission to fall short and strive for faith in God’s restorative abilities?

That Sunday night I discovered that I was too much head.  My heart had been ignored.

I sat down in Livy Acker’s pew.  I thought very hard about my sermon.  Surely, there was a redeeming factor.  Ahh, yes, the sermon was about the abiding grace of God.  But I didn’t spend much time defining grace.  Not as much time as I spent on the cultural norm tutorial.  As a matter of fact, I just spoke the word “grace” as if everyone knew what I meant.  Didn’t the concept of grace deserve as much time as the historical context of the text?  I spent far more time in the sanctuary than I had planned that night.  I began to create an understanding of what it meant to give pastoral care from the pulpit.  That’s the kind of preacher I wanted to be.  Not the young buck that shoots off what sounded good in seminary.  But how to get there?

That one thought, that one challenge, that one interaction with those in the pews changed my preaching.  I decided that seminary had taught me how to approach the text from a head perspective but the heart perspective I needed to work on.  I left pulpit ministry and began a yearlong residency as a chaplain to learn about the heart of preaching and the art of pastoral sermons in the midst of giving pastoral care.

Now my sermons are more aimed toward the goal of permission giving that allows emotions and thoughts to be explored by way of unique worship opportunities.  I facilitate this with the faith that God meets us where we are.  As worship leader and preacher, I only create an atmosphere that is God honoring and safe.  By safe I mean that participants feel free to open up any emotion, memory and/or thought and work on it, ponder on it, sit with it, argue with it, love it.  Unless one is very deliberate about this spiritual work, most people ignore this very human basic need.  The Holy Scriptures are fine fodder for this work toward holiness.  They provide the blueprint of our Sunday morning and are central to the building of our faith.

How to do that with Isaiah?

Does this mean she doesn’t exegete the text?

It is a great task to preach a pastoral sermon from the  Isaiah text during Advent.  The chosen texts from Isaiah encompass a prophet’s critique of a nation just before they are exported to a foreign land.  How can those words about military power and political prowess speak to the heart of the person in the pew? Here’s my theory.   The pastoral sermon is about those internal, most private conversations we have with ourselves about ourselves.  We all have an inner King Ahaz, an inner King Hezekiah and a demanding Judah.  The text speaks to those parts of us.  For example, our inner King Ahaz whispers to us that we are not safe….in our relationships….in our job….in our bank accounts.  Our inner King Ahaz can drive us to be manipulative and controlling in our marriages, overwork ourselves in our jobs and horde our incomes.  We need to hear Isaiah speak to our inner Ahaz and offer a counter way – God’s way.

As you can guess by now, I will be taking the characters of Isaiah’s prophecies  and internalizing them.  The political and military actions are motivated by human emotion.  Therefore, I will focus on the emotions.  We must do our homework with the prophet’s time language and culture as well as the era each Advent selection was written.  (ALWAYS exegete).  Finally I will not negate the fact that these prophecies point to hope symbolized, not by military power, but by a baby – Emmanuel; God with us.  Speaking of hope the continue on with a look at hope through Andrew Lester’s Hope in Pastoral Care and Counseling.