Bringing the Text to Life

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Design Thinking Psalm 148

Design Thinking

What God did on a vast scale, God can do on a smaller scale in our lives.

Design thinking. It's a hot topic right now. Two Stanford professors have written a helpful book called Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. We love stuff with good design. We appreciate people who have the end user in mind when designing a product. We are irritated with products with inherent design flaws. We wonder if anyone at company XYZ ever actually tested the product before using it. It is with this irritation that we begin, before moving on to discuss the Great Designer.

Editors' Pick

For material based on today's gospel text, see "Jesus of the Gaps," December 28, 2014, at

You're at a 2-star hotel. You know, the kind that still has a boxy TV set, Internet via an Ethernet cable, and the faint smell of cigarette smoke.

You're tired. You feel dirty. You need a shower. You're about to wash your hair, and you realize you didn't bring shampoo. Fortunately, the hotel has provided not only soap in a vial so small it looks like it belongs in your child's toy house, but also some shampoo.

The shampoo is in a little plastic packet. Not a bottle. A packet, or bladder. You can see the gel which is the color of Quaker State motor oil. The package is neatly sealed. All you have to do now is open this hermetically sealed pouch with your soapy fingers to produce a hole or cut, and then squeeze the shampoo onto your head or into the palm of your hand.

How's it working for you?

Not good. The wet, plastic pouch slips around in your hands and fingers. You can't get purchase. You can't hold onto it tight enough. You try putting it in your teeth, but you still have to tug at it with your soapy fingers.

This is when you ask the question: WHO DESIGNED THIS THING? Did ANYONE actually try to use this product in real-life circumstances? You want to find the designers, and especially the CEO of the company, barge into a board meeting with a bowl of soapy water, plunge their hands into the bowl and then say, "Here, show me how to open this product of yours! Try using your own product!"

This is one example of a failure to use design thinking. 

Design thinking

Design thinking is something of a buzz phrase right now. The conversation began in earnest a few years ago. It arose in the ethos of the kind of backlash we've just described. Engineers build products, but often do so without considering design. To engineer a working product is one thing; to design a functional product for the consumer is another.

Design thinking begins with a problem and then, using a set of design tools, seeks resolution.

One writer put it this way: "Designers get juiced by what they call wicked problems. They're called wicked not because they're evil or fundamentally bad, but because they are resistant to resolution."

This is something Steve Jobs was really good at. The wicked problem? Produce a machine that computes, takes hi-res photos, interfaces with the Internet, can be used as a phone, provides video communication and much more -- AND, make it small enough to slip into a shirt pocket, light enough not to even notice and esthetically pleasing to the eye. Voila, the iPhone.

God the Designer

Excellence of design is what the psalm reading for today is all about. The writer is not praising the Creator as much as he is praising the Designer. Although this psalm merely calls for praise and does not list the amazingly and stupendously great design of the created world, the writer is calling on every animate and inanimate entity in the universe to praise the Designer.

First, he calls on celestial beings like the angels to praise the Designer (vv. 1-2).

Then, he calls on things in the heavens -- sun, moon and stars, for example -- to praise the Designer (vv. 3-6).

Third, he calls on everything on the Earth -- sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy winds, mountains, hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, to name a few -- to praise the Designer (vv. 7-10).

Finally, he calls on all mortals to praise the Designer. No one should keep quiet. Kings, princes and all rulers, young men and women alike and the old and young together -- they all should "praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven" (v. 13).

This didn't just happen. The created world didn't just come together in some sort of random fashion. The Bible and philosophers throughout the ages have argued that what theologians call "natural revelation" points to the existence of God. Where there is design, there must be a designer. As the preacher of the material, feel free to expand on this if you like.

God took a wicked problem and resolved it. The problem: Create a place where animate life can flourish. Create an animate creature capable of reason and one made in the divine image. Create this mortal with the capacity to choose. Give these creatures a world in which to live and a world which will sustain them, that is, provide food, shelter and social connections. Give these humans control of their own destiny. Offer them a relationship with the Divine.

And so God did, and in a superabundant way.

The rest is ... history.

Is it a situation or a problem?

This is the last Sunday of the year.

How did your life as it was designed for last year work out?

Are you interested in designing a new life?

This is the question posed by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans in their book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (Knopf, 2017).

But, even if we do want to change our life, do things different, start out in a new direction, turn over a new leaf, we may encounter resistance.

We may have what Burnett and Evans call "gravity problems."

For example, you may say, "I am tired of the rat race. I am going to quit my job in the corporate world, go to the beach and write poetry."

This is a wonderful idea if you are independently wealthy, or can live off the proceeds of the trust fund that the grandma whom you never actually met left to you.

But poets in our culture don't make squat. People do not pay money for poetry, unless it's the drivel that's written on a Hallmark greeting card. People pay way too much money for that stuff, no question. And poets, let's face it, they're really not respected. When someone asks, "Well, what do you do?" and if you say, "I am a poet," they likely think you're an unemployed, romantic drifter who is still looking for a real job.

The fact that our culture does not buy poetry enough to support poets is not really something you can change. So Burnett and Evans say that the problem you have is not a real problem. "Why? Because in life design, if it's not actionable, it's not a problem. It's a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life. It may be a drag (so to speak), but, like gravity, it's not a problem that can be solved."

So, as you talk to God the Designer about your life and about 2018, all you would like to do and what you'd like to become, remember this difference between "situations" and "problems." If you're looking at something that's not actionable, then you cannot apply design thinking to it. You have to ask for God's grace to help you with it.

This was the apostle Paul's "situation" about which he writes in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul went to the Lord about this matter three times (v. 8). Basically, God said to him, "Paul, this is not an actionable problem. It's not going to change. But my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness" (v. 9).

In other words, Paul did not have a problem. He had a situation.

As we look into 2018, we can ask God, as Paul did, to help us identify the actionable items. These are the things that may need a new design.

And when this design resolution happens, like all living things in our psalm reading for today, we, too, will praise the Lord.

Get started

To begin designing our life for 2018, we need to start where we are.

We might ask ourselves, "How are things going in the major categories?" These categories include health, work, love, play, faith and spirituality. On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate these life components? Take time to do an inventory and write a brief statement about each. Keep in mind that --

God wants you to be healthy.

God knows that you need to work.

God created love and understands the human need to love and be loved.

God also rested from the work of designing and creating. God knows that you too need rest and re-creation.

God wants you to be connected by faith to the Divine.

The point is that as we begin to work on actionable items following this assessment, God will support us in this effort. But we're going to need three things in our toolbox: inspiration, ideas and implementation (see Tim Brown, Change by Design).

We need inspiration. This usually comes when we can identify a problem that needs to be solved. "Necessity is the mother of invention."

+ Noah was looking at an imminent tsunami.

+ Joseph was a foreigner tasked to save his adopted country from starvation.

+ Moses was tapped to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

+ Joshua had to bring down Jericho.

+ Deborah had a war to fight.

+ David had a giant to slay.

+ Daniel had a God to serve in a culture that was hostile to his faith.

+ Esther had her people to save.

+ Nehemiah had walls to build.

+ Jesus had people to feed.

+ Paul had a city to escape.

+ Peter had a sermon to preach.

All of these people in the Bible had problems and each of them saw these problems as opportunities. Each problem invited a solution and the problem itself inspired them to move on to the next tool: ideas.

We need ideas. And not just our own ideas. Many of the characters in the Bible got their ideas from God. God showed them the way. Perhaps we too often discount divine guidance. Perhaps we should ask God for ideas. After all, we're told to "ask" and that if we do so, we will receive.

Beyond this, when we begin "ideation," we begin to brainstorm, generate, develop and test new approaches, new techniques, new ... ideas. Often, when we run possibilities by a few other people, trusted friends, family members, colleagues, amazing new possibilities are generated. And if it is our very lives we're talking about, how exciting is that?!

Finally, we need implementation. We're on the cusp of 2018. This is a good time for inspiration, ideas and implementation. Let's do it. Let's make the changes we need to make. Let this be a spiritual matter. Let us understand that God is leading us to a new land, into new territory, to terra incognita. This is exciting!

God is the Designer. All of heaven, the things on earth, all living things and all people should praise the Designer for the beauty of the design, the magnificence of creation.

What God did on a vast scale, God can do on a smaller scale in our lives. We can apply the concept of design thinking to situations in our professional life and to interpersonal relationship. We can design the marriage we want; we can design the life we want.

And when we do so, we must be careful to stay within biblically permissible design parameters. Those parameters are at the very least the values and ethics of our faith as revealed in God's Word.

These values and standards are in place to ensure our success in all that we do.

Possible Preaching Themes:

+ Natural revelation and what it tells us about God

+ The value of praise

+ The concept of inanimate objects giving praise to their Creator


Brown, Tim. Change by Design. HarperCollins, 2009. Cited by Miemis.

Burnett, Bill, and Dave Evans. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017.

Miemis, Venessa. "What is design thinking, really?" Emergent by Design Website. January 14, 2010. Retrieved May 24, 2017.

THE OTHER TEXTS: December 31, 2017, Cycle B

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

What Does the Text Say?

Today's text is among those that anticipate a figure identified as the "Anointed One" (61:1-63:6) -- one who will offer salvation to the people, righteousness to God and vengeance to all enemies. The promise of this Anointed One bolsters the hopes of those who, while they have been returned from exile and redeemed, are still God's waiting people -- waiting for the glory of a new creation. In verses 61:10-62:1, the first-person voice that speaks is that of the Anointed One. The "clothes" that now adorn this speaker, the "garments of salvation" and "robe of righteousness" (v. 10), complete a process begun in the first of the songs of the Anointed One. The text's reference to the bridegroom and bride suggests this Anointed One may also have a covenanting function. But the most obvious reason for the bridegroom and bride images here is that they, like the Anointed One, are known to the world by the special adornments they wear. On the wedding day, the bride and groom demonstrate their intentions and commitment through their appearance. Their dress is their address. As this song continues into chapter 62, the tone changes significantly. Now clothed in the garments of salvation, the Anointed One declares that Zion itself shall soon also enjoy salvation and be recognized in her new redeemed state by all the nations. To achieve this end, the Anointed One refuses to "keep silent" -- or perhaps better, to "be still or inactive." This vow to both ceaseless action and ceaseless prayer has a specific objective in mind -- bringing Zion into the midst of the Anointed One's work of salvation.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

What Will You Do in 2018? The title is suggested by the three "I wills" of today's text. The voice of this passage says "I will greatly rejoice ... [and] exult," "I will not keep silent" and "I will not rest" (61:10 and 62:1). The voice gives as the reason for the rejoicing and exulting the fact that "he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness" and that the "Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations." So the speaker vows to rejoice. The speaker is blessed and knows it. But, the voice also vows to not keep silent, and not to rest. He wants to see the vindication of his city and his people. So, although he will rejoice in the blessings God has bestowed on him, he vows to raise his voice and expend his energy in working toward "vindication." So, what will you do in 2018?

*Homiletics has treated this text twice. Go to Select Isaiah in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

Galatians 4:4-7

What Does the Text Say?

Despite its brevity, Galatians 4:4-7 is a profound reflection of Pauline theology. Yet before a formal exploration of the pericope ensues, it is worthwhile to back up and take note of the preceding discussion in verses 1-3. The opening phrase -- "My point is this:" (v. 1) -- is an important marker indicating that verses 1-3 are, at the very least, a summary of the assertions Paul made in 3:23-29. Verses 1-2 compare and contrast the status of minor heirs with that of slaves. The underage heirs -- though "they are owners of all the [father's] property" -- "are no better than slaves." After setting out this heir-slave analogy, Paul then extends the illustration and applies it to himself and the believers in Galatia: "So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world" (v. 3). Now, however, both Paul and the Galatian disciples had experienced a divine transformation. The principal claim in verse 5 is that all believers have been adopted as God's children. His point in this passage is clear: God has adopted all who believe as his children by sending his Son and the Spirit of his Son, and because of that they are no longer slaves, but heirs who own all of the property.

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

The Adoption Option. Worth noting as we go into a new year: We are all children of God -- adopted children of God. The "adopted" piece is important. We're not children of God by nature. None of us were conceived by the Holy Spirit. None of us can claim in any way that makes sense that we're God's genetic issue. We're adopted. Thus, we cannot press some sort of privilege over any other child of God on the basis of pedigree. We're adopted. Our brothers and sisters are adopted as well. This means that, likewise, no other person can assert advantage over us on the basis of bloodlines. In fact, Paul suggests that we all used to be "slaves." It's an equalizer that the apostle has mentioned just a few verses before today's text: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (3:28).

*Homiletics has treated this text twice. Go to Select Galatians in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

Luke 2:22-40

What Does the Text Say?

While Joseph and Mary are in the temple, they meet Simeon who "was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel" (v. 25). Simeon takes the infant Jesus into his arms and praises God, giving thanks that he had "seen [the Lord's] salvation, ... and for glory to your people Israel" (vv. 28, 30-32). After Joseph and Mary heard Simeon's words of praise, they "were amazed" (v. 33; cf. 2:19, 51). Simeon blessed Jesus' parents and revealed to Mary that her son would be the catalyst "for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and a sign ... that will be opposed" (v. 34). Perhaps even more disturbing for Mary were Simeon's last words -- "and a sword will pierce your soul too" (v. 35b). Not only will Jesus disrupt Israel's long-standing religious heritage and identity, but he will inadvertently bring sorrow and grief to his mother. Following Simeon's recognition of Jesus' true identity, Luke introduces a virtuous widow, the prophet "Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher" (v. 36). Rather than record any portion of her public speech, Luke merely reports that when she met Joseph, Mary and Jesus, she "began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (v. 38).

What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?

Baby Introductions. This sermon can begin with a review of how we show off the new baby in our culture today. Of course, the baby must have exposure on social media. Photos. Then there's the requisite trip to the parents and in-laws. The aunts and uncles must have their opportunity. Mary and Joseph must have experienced this to some degree when they returned to Nazareth to live. Baby Jesus no doubt got a lot of attention. But this text is about a different introduction, one that fulfills certain obligations to the Torah. It reminds us that Jesus' earthly parents intended to raise him as an observant Jew. Yet, Luke introduces two witnesses who reminded his parents that this child had an unusual destiny. The sermon can move in a direction in which the preacher speculates on how the parents might have bragged about what Jesus would become, and speculate too on what they could not have fully known: that their son would turn the world on its head.

*Homiletics has treated this text three times. Go to Select Luke in the Scripture Search drop-down menu and click GO.

Worship Resources

Music Links


We've a Story to Tell to the Nations

We Three Kings

Arise, Your Light Has Come


Water, River, Spirit, Grace

Living for Jesus

Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow

†For licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to The Praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.

Other titles on these topics
(you must be logged in to view them)


  • The Christian's Walking-Stick
  • Doubtful Design
  • Travel Plans
  • Design Thinking


  • The Necessary Book
  • The Oblivious Obvious
  • Spiritual Focus and Peripheral Vision
  • Can Spam Hold Water?
  • Big Rocks
  • Running On G-Time
  • Virtual Values
  • The Joshua Principle
  • Naked Streets
  • The Isaiah Budget
  • Murphy's Law Inverted
  • What Would You Grab?
  • Image Isn't Everything
  • Falling Stones
  • The Divisive Jesus
  • Big Time
  • Single-tasking the Spiritual Life
  • The "Last Year" Test
  • Scheduling Problems
  • How to Write Your Own Obituary
  • Design Thinking


on Psalm 148

from Dec 31, 2017

The church-word-gone-universal exclamation, "Hallelujah!" comes from the opening words of today's reading, Psalm 148 (and from Psalms 111 and 112, which open the same way; several other psalms include the word "Hallelujah" either at their opening or their closing or, as in this psalm, at both places; cf. Psalms 104, 105, 106, 113, 115, 116, 117, 135, 146, 147, 149, 150). In biblical Hebrew, the pl... Read more (you must be logged in to read the commentary)

Animating Illustrations

Whether it's called design thinking, lateral thinking, right-brain thinking, systems thinking, integrative thinking, futures thinking or my own term of "metathinking," from my perspective, the concept itself is rooted in a capacity to understand the world and our relationship to it, and within it, in a different way.

--Venessa Miemis, "What is design thinking, really?" Emergent by Design Website. January 14, 2010. Retrieved May 24, 2017.

Your congregation may chuckle when you share this quotation from Tim Brown. He writes in his book, Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, "We are at a critical point where rapid change is forcing us to look not just to new ways of solving problems but to new problems to solve."

You're kidding, right?!

Many people will look at their life on the last Sunday of the year and think, "I don't have any problem finding problems to solve. I don't need to find problems; problems have a way of finding me!"

A small sampling of designs people don't like:

1. Smartphones and other tech gadgets that require special cords in order to charge them. What if every electrical appliance required the purchase of a unique charging or power system?

2. Cup holders in cars that cannot be removed for cleaning. So, after a while, you have crumbs and junk you can't clean and get out of there.

3. Venetian blinds with that string that you use to raise the blinds. All you need to do is hold it to the side and pull. Nothing could go wrong, right?

4. Toilet paper rolls. You'd think someone would design a roll which did not require that you shred half the roll before getting it to unspool properly.

5. Any plastic packaging that requires the use of a pair of Black Rhino 24-inch bolt cutters in order to access the product inside.

--Various Internet sources.

Why do I need a designer shower drain?

Well, the truth is that a designer shower drain is not necessarily a necessity, but it is a very nice amenity for your home. So, the question is still who needs a designer shower drain? Nobody! A person can't need a shower drain like they need food to live. Designer Drains offers individuals who want to upgrade their home a more pleasing choice for their decor. We don't force our products on our customers because we know that if you're a person who is looking to beautify your home, an ordinary drain just won't cut it.

Think about this: If you are a person who has spent tons of money remodeling your home, you know what we mean. Nobody wants to take an out of date bathroom and make it look beautiful only to find that you have missed something. A remodeled bathroom without one of our designer drains is like a canvas without the paint. Retrieved June 14, 2017.

What makes a designer product -- designer jeans, say, or a designer handbag? It's a shifty definition, because every manufactured product was designed by someone. Yet, certain high-end products consistently command higher prices, because they have that adjective "designer" attached to them.

So valued is the designer label that some consumers will cheerfully pay much less for an unofficial knock-off version, as long as it resembles the real thing.

Children's Sermon

Invite the children to take a close look at the space in which you are gathered. Have them tell you what they particularly like about this area. Possible answers might be the stained-glass windows or the way in which the chairs are arranged or the colors used on the walls. Then challenge them to use their imagination and suggest some ideas they have to change their space. Would they add more windows? Cushions for the seats? A new piano? New robes for the choir? (If you have a designer in your congregation, it might be interesting for this person to discuss with the children things that must be considered when making a design: use of color, fabric, placement of objects and price, for example.) Suggest that the beginning of a new year is a good time to think of new designs. What are some things they might do to design their lives differently? Encourage them to think about not only what they do (helping at home, playing on a soccer team) but how they feel and act about what they do. Perhaps a child is responsible for drying the dishes. Instead of complaining, challenge them to redesign how they feel and help out with a glad heart and positive attitude. Encourage them to act kindly toward another team whether their team wins or loses. Close with a prayer: "Dear God, we offer our thanks for the year gone by. Help us in the year ahead to redesign our lives so that no matter what we are doing or where we are, we live like someone who follows Jesus. Amen."