Context is key. This is a fundamental rule for interpreting the Bible. It is also a fundamental rule in interpreting people. Preachers must be good at both, of course. If we are to speak a Word which brings these two together, we must understand both the Scriptures and our hearers. Fred Craddock names the stakes: “Taking the congregation out of context is as much a violation of the Word of God as taking the scripture out of context... The one who preaches the same regardless of who comes to hear would probably preach the same regardless of whether anyone came to hear, and the preacher may very well soon have that opportunity.”[1]

The context of your hearers is a matter of both recognition and creation. It involves, first, recognition of the cares and concerns your hearers bring with them to church. This requires we carefully study their assumptions and expectations. It leads us to examine the ways in which their believing and living are consistent with the Scriptures, and where they fall short. We do not have much control here. Our role is mostly investigative. But there is another way of thinking about the context of the hearers of our sermons. This gets to your work of creation. Preachers create a context for the sermon, not only by the hymns they choose or the liturgies they put together. More immediately, we do this in the introduction, those few, introductory paragraphs of our sermon. The first lines determine the context in which your hearers will (hopefully) continue listening. Here you have a great deal of control, and with it, responsibility.

I begin this reflection with some thoughts on the topic of context because both types will have a major impact on this sermon. Regarding recognition, a sermon on this text will sound one way if preached to those who are tempted to abandon their families and personal well-being to pursue a monastic life. It will sound quite different to those who, like the people following Jesus in the text, are tempted to put their family or their own well-being in front of following Jesus. Because your hearers are probably more like the latter, you should highlight the high cost of discipleship which is unmistakable in this text. Do not worry too much about sending them into the desert after Saint Anthony. Instead, go ahead and call out the twin idols of family and self-preservation, both of which remain as prominent today as it sounds like they were in the first century.

Instead, go ahead and call out the twin idols of family and self-preservation, both of which remain as prominent today as it sounds like they were in the first century.

But to make sure the sermon proclaims and highlights the good news of the Gospel (rather than obscuring it), the context for the sermon you create in the introduction will be equally important. For that, I suggest starting with death. You could bring up death in general. You could recall the death of a member of your congregation, or you could highlight the death of someone well-known in society.

Bring up death because we normally do a pretty good job putting it out of sight and mind. However, we can only avoid death for so long. It always comes at some point to shake us up and remind us of our frailty. Perhaps death is on my mind because my family has just recently mourned the death of my uncle. I listened to the sermon for his memorial service with this text on my mind. The context of death made the text less condemning and more encouraging. It struck me how Jesus’ words in this text are so important because of what He does for those who follow Him. Jesus is not explicit about it in these verses, but the seeds are there. All who follow Him by bearing their cross will not only follow Him INTO death but will also follow Him OUT OF death into life. Romans 6:5 fits well here. All who are united with Jesus in death (such as my uncle) will also be united with Him on the great day of resurrection. This gave my family hope, and it relativized everything else.

That is what Jesus promise of resurrection does. It relativizes everything, which is what Jesus is doing in this text. He puts every other would-be idol in our lives in their proper place, including the good gifts of family and the life God has given us. The reason nothing can come before Jesus is because nothing endures beyond the grave except for Jesus. This promise enables us to lay down our lives in little and, at times, big ways. It encourages us to remain faithful to the One who is our life.


Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Luke Luke 14:25-35

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 14:25-35.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 14:25-35.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. David Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 14:25-35.