Sermon Ideas for The Secret Message of Jesus
By Brian McLaren
As an author and former pastor, I’m thrilled when pastors and teachers find that my books can help them in preaching and teaching. I’ve been hearing encouraging reports lately on ways that The Secret Message of Jesus (Nelson, 2006) is being used to create sermon series about Jesus and the message of the Kingdom of God.
Here are some sermon ideas linked to chapters of the book.
Chapter 1: The Trouble with Jesus
"What if Jesus of Nazareth was right--more right in different ways than we ever realized? What if Jesus had a message that could truly save the world, but we're prone to miss the point of it?"
Scripture: Luke 4. Trace Jesus’ first recorded sermon, and the dramatic response it evoked – first praise, then violent antagonism. Present Jesus as someone who refuses to be domesticated by our human frameworks or categories or “schools of thought” or ideologies. This sermon could stir curiosity and intrigue, leading into the following sermons.
Chapter 2: Jesus on CNN
"The Political Message of Jesus". Place Jesus in relation to the 4 major "political parties" of his time (Pharisees, Saducees, Zealots, Essenes), and make connections with today’s world.
Scripture: Luke 20:9-30. Notice Jesus’ dynamic interactions with the religious leaders, Caesar’s political and economic system, and the Sadducees in this passage. He deals with their addiction to power (9-19), money (20-26), and sex (27-38).
Chapter 3: Jesus Was Not A Christian
"The Jewish Message of Jesus." Explore how important it is to place Jesus in his Jewish context and understand his work and message in their original context.
Scripture: You could trace the three uses of “Christian” in the NT (Acts 11:26, Acts 26:28, 1 Peter 4:16) and contrast their infrequency with the term disciple (used about 261 times in the New Testament). You could also contrast the view of Jesus we get by seeing him in light of his ancestors (Abraham, Moses, David, the Prophets) … as opposed to understanding him in terms of his descendents, those who have “used” him for various purposes. In other words, you could show how Jesus should be primarily understood in relation to the story he was a part of, as the chapter suggests – and not primarily in relation to how we Christians have “used” him for better and for worse since.
Chapter 4: Jesus the Revolutionary
"The Revolutionary Message of Jesus." Show Jesus not as an escapist – showing how to get away from earth and into heaven, but the reverse – someone diving into the issues of our world.
Scritpure: John 1 would celebrate this – that God’s movement was downward, to “become flesh and dwell among us.” This movement could be linked with the “downward mobility” of Philippians 2:1-11 and Revelation 21 (the New Jerusalem comes down – we do not go up).
Chapter 5: Jesus the Teacher
"The Hidden Message of Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t just tell you what to think … he teaches you how to think by engaging you in conversation, asking you questions, breaking down your preconceptions. "What could possibly be the benefit of Jesus's hiddenness, intrigue, lack of clarity, metaphor, and answering questions with questions? Why risk being misunderstood--or not understood at all? If the message is so important, why hide it in evocative rather than technical language?"
Scripture: Any of Jesus’ personal interactions - John 3, John 4, Luke 18-19 – would work beautifully here.
Chapter 6: Jesus as Artist
“The Medium of the Message.” Present Jesus as an artist who creates works of short fiction – parables – to engage the imagination.
Scripture: Matthew 13 would be a natural text to work from, as would Luke 15:1 – 16:15 (this whole section, I believe, flows together).
Chapter 7: Jesus the Miracle-Worker
“The Demonstration of the Message.” Jesus communicates the Good News of the Kingdom of God in word and deed. Introduce the idea of prophetic action, and miracles as “signs and wonders” – prophetic actions that embody his message dramatically, a kind of performance art.
Scripture: Take any of the miracle stories – feeding the 5000, healing a paralyzed man, healing a woman with a hemorrage – and consider their “prophetic” meaning.
Chapter 8: Jesus and Evil
"The Scandal of the Message." Explore the idea of “principalities and powers,” and see Jesus’ confrontation with them as further “prophetic actions” which convey dramatically the message of the Kingdom of God: it is a kingdom that expels evil, liberates from domination and oppression, restores sanity, and so on.
Scripture: Take the story of the Gerasene demoniac and see it as a “lived parable” for God’s expulsion of the occupying Romans. Or follow the story in Luke 11:14-28.
Chapters 9: Jesus’ Contagious Message
"You Can't Keep a Secret". Explore how Jesus deploys his disciples to extend his mission. Use the metaphor of a musician – who takes lessons so he or she can play (as a disciple) and then goes out to play and teach others (the idea of an apostle).
Scripture: Matthew 28:18-20
Chapter 10: Jesus 007
"Secret Agents of the Kingdom." Explore the idea of Jesus’ disciples being agents, part of a secret movement plotting goodness. "Too often, when the story of the movement of Jesus is told, most of the focus is on the religious professionals. But what if their role is at best minor? What if the real difference is made in the world not by us preachers, but by those who endure our preaching, those who quietly live out the secret message of the kingdom of God in their daily, workaday likes in the laboratory, classroom, office, cockpit, parliament, kitchen, market, factory, and neighborhood?"
Scripture: Explore the images of salt and light in Matthew 5:1-16, and perhaps relate them to the qualities celebrated in the beatitudes.
Chapter 11: Jesus and Paul 1
"The Open Secret." Show continuity between Jesus’ message and Paul’s message. Interpret Paul in light of Jesus, not the reverse.
Scripture: Do a survey of the kingdom in the book of Acts (1:3-6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23-31), or explore kingdom language in Colossians 1, as suggested in this chapter.
Chapter 12: Jesus and Paul 2
"Hiding the Message in New Places." Continue showing the continuity between Jesus and Paul.
Scripture: Use the story of Philemon and Onesimus, or the way of life described in Colossians 2-4, and show connections to the kingdom teachings of Jesus, as the chapter suggests.
Chapter 13: Jesus the Crossroads
"Getting It, Getting In.” Explore Jesus as one who calls people to decision, choice, commitment, and specify the kinds of commitments Jesus called people to. This sermon would go well with baptism.
Scripture: Follow the two choices presented again and again in the Sermon on the Mount, for example two treasures (6:19 ff), two ways of seeing (6:22 ff), two masters (6:24 ff), two priorities (6:25 ff), two ways of treating others (7:1-12), two gates and roads (7:7 ff), two kinds of prophets and disciples (7:15 ff), two ways of responding to his message (7:24 ff).
Chapter 14: "Kingdom Manifesto"
Get to the heart of Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount. "I should acknowledge that many people assume the sermon intends to answer one question--namely, 'How does an individual go to heaven after death?' This was my assumption as well for many years, but as I have reflection the life and message of Jesus, I have become convinced that Jesus is exploring a very different set of questions--namely, 'What kind of life does God want people to live? What does life in the kingdom of God look like? What is a truly good (or righteous) life? How does this message differ from conventional messages?' Rather than directing our attention to life after death in heaven, away from this life and beyond history, these questions return our focus to the here and now--and in so doing, they provide an essential window into Jesus' secret message."
Scripture: Give an overview of Matthew 5-7, or take a few (or many) weeks to examine the sermon in detail.
Chapter 15: "Kingdom Ethics"
Focus on spiritual practices and the development of character and integrity. Target the "unholy trinity of money, sex and power.”
Scripture: Explore this chapter’s themes from Matthew 6:1-18, and from the whole sermon on the mount.
Chapter 16: "The Language of the Kingdom"
Explore ways that we can and must translate Jesus’ metaphor of the kingdom into more fitting metaphors today. (The proposed metaphors could actually become a sermon series of their own – a week each on “the dream of God,” “the revolution of God,” and so on.)
Scripture: You could begin with John’s “translation” of the kingdom metaphor into metaphors of life (eternal or “of the ages,” abundant or “to the full”), light, and family. Or you could go to Paul’s phrase life “in Christ” or walking “in the Spirit” as a translation of life “in the kingdom of God.” This would open the way for exploring yet more translations in contemporary terms.
Chapter 17: Jesus as Prince of Peace
"The Peaceable Kingdom.” This is a needed – but difficult – message during war-time. It could be tied in heavily with quotes from Dr. King, Desmond Tutu, and others.
Scripture: The story of Palm Sunday would fit beautifully here (Matthew 21, Mark 11, especially Luke 19:28 ff), along with “Blessed are the peacemakers … turn the other cheek … love your enemies” in Matthew 5-7.
Chapter 18: Jesus and Inclusion (or Exclusion)
"The Borders of the Kingdom." "If the kingdom of God were a symphony, it would welcome anyone who had a desire to learn to play music--from tuba player to piccolo players, from violinists to percussionists. It would accept beginners and master musicians, probably by pairing up the novices with mentors who could help them to learn. But it could not welcome people who hated music or who wanted to shout and scream and disrupt rehearsals and concerts; that would ruin the music for everyone and destroy the symphony. True, it would try to influence music haters to become music lovers, but it couldn't accept them into the symphony until they wanted to be there because of a love of music."
Scripture: Explore the relationship between Luke 9:49 ff and Luke 11:22 ff, as detailed in the chapter. Or contrast Jesuss inclusion of “sinners” with his conflict with the Pharisees (Luke 14, 15).
Chapter 19: Jesus and Hope
"The Future of The Kingdom." This message would confront escapist/hopeless eschatologies, and would focus on God’s hope for creation. It would connect Jesus’ apocalyptic language with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 67-70, and emphasize God’s faithfulness to creation.
Scripture: Explore Acts 1, as discussed in the beginning of the chapter, or demonstrate the dynamic tension between the “already” and “coming” passages detailed in the chapter. The Book of Jonah provides an excellent example of the difference between a prognostication (to predict the future) and a promise (to help create a different future). Or show how Jesus’ words about “not one stone being left on another (Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 19:44; 21:6, and John 4:21 ff) were fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 67-70.
Chapter 20: Jesus and Heaven
"The Harvest of the Kingdom." This sermon would address the subjects of afterlife and resurrection.
Scripture: Luke 20:27 ff would be a natural text to use to contrast Jesus’ view with those of the Pharisees, Sadducees, Hellenists, and Zealots. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:12 ff and 15:58 would be natural texts to work from as well – seeing that the promise of rewards is meant to make us more committed to doing “the work of the Lord” on earth, as would Matthew 25:14-46.
Chapter 21: "Seeing the Kingdom"
Help people learn to expect to see glimpses of the kingdom of God in their daily lives … and to embody glimpses for others.
Scripture: The theme of “seeing the kingdom” comes up in Luke 8:10, 9:27, and John 3:3. The miracles of healing blindness would also work well here. Revelation 11:15 would also be ideal – especially if you can play the “Hallelujah Chorus” at an appropriately high volume.
Appendix 1: "The Prayer of the Kingdom"
Help people understand the Lord’s prayer, so they can say it with more meaning and appreciate its radically and transforming message.
Scripture: Matthew 6:5-15 (and Luke 11:1-13) could be one message, or a whole series.
Appendix 2: "Why Didn't We Get It Sooner?"
Present 8 reasons why we Christians have so often missed the point, and done so in tragic ways.
Scripture: Choose one of the stories of the disciples missing the point – sending away the children, arguing over who is greatest, and so on.
Appendix 3: "Plotting Goodness"
Help people imagine how to put the message of the kingdom into practice – especially through small mission groups.
Scripture: The story of the circle of friends in Matthew 9:1-8, followed by Matthew’s party in 9:9-13, would be a natural introduction to the power of small groups “plotting goodness.” The Mark 2:1-17 version of the story is even more dramatic.
In many of our churches, we have favored preaching from Paul over preaching from Jesus. In other churches, we exegete texts very energetically but we don’t focus primarily on the person and message of Jesus. I hope that this book will help us get talking about Jesus more and more. I believe that Dan Kimball is right: in his book They Like Jesus but not The Church, he says that unchurched people really are curious about Jesus and want to hear more from him and about him. I hope this book will help those of us who preach and teach to do just that.
The sequel to this book – Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope – will provide a lot more sermon material about Jesus and his message and their relevance for our world today.
Do you have other suggestions? Send them to us via the blogs at deepshift.org, and others can benefit from them – including links to sermons you have preached based on this book. Thanks for your interest in getting Jesus’ message of the kingdom out – so it is less and less of a secret!