Learning to lament
Lamentation is “one of the chief duties of the Christian in declining times. Christians are to weep over the sins of the church, the transgressions of the nation, and the fearfulness of the judgment to come.” I read these words by Philip Graham Ryken in his Preaching the Word commentary on Jeremiah, commenting on the words, “Teach one another a lament” (Jer.9:20).
I was struck and humbled by this challenge. It makes me think again about why we preach the Psalms. So many of the Psalms are laments, not only for individuals but also for the dire state of the people of God and the misery of a world under God’s curse. I do not by nature know how to lament in a godly way, and I take it that these Psalms are one of the main ways in which God can teach me to do so. In our preaching of the Psalms of lament, let us deliberately and explicitly tell our congregations that our purpose is that we may be equipped to know how to lament the way God wants us to lament.
Setting up the sermon
It is always refreshing and interesting to visit other churches, and we have had that privilege during the summer break. In a church we visited recently, I was particularly struck (and encouraged) by the way that the person leading the service and the preacher himself prepared us for the sermon. Before the preacher got up, the service leader took a moment to say something about the nature of a sermon and what we should expect to happen during the sermon. He told us that the living God would soon address us through the preaching of his word. So often we hear from the sermon leader that the preacher is going to ‘explain the passage to us’, as though the sermon were merely a reading comprehension exercise. But to be reminded that we were about to hear the living God speak to us – that prepared us for something much more significant to take place. The effect was not simply to capture our attention, but somehow to change the atmosphere in the room. This may overstate it, but it seemed that there was an atmosphere of reverential expectancy in the congregation once we had been reminded what was about to take place. Personally speaking, I found that I was not only engaged on a new level, but sobered as well as I considered the reality of hearing from the living God.
We were further helped when the preacher stood up and prayed, asking God through the sermon to do the kinds of things he has committed himself to doing through his word in 2 Timothy 3:16 (‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…’ ESV). After such an introduction and such a prayer, we as a congregation were well prepared to meet with the living God through his word.
It struck me that it would be good for all of us who lead services and who preach to give careful thought to how we introduce the preaching of God’s word – both in our comments and in our prayers – so that the people before us might understand the nature of what they are about to hear and might hold right expectations for it. This, of course, will be shaped by our own theology of preaching. But assuming that we hold high expectations for what God will do as his word is proclaimed, let’s consider how we can best prepare the people in our congregation to hear God’s word preached.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #16 and last
Chapter 16. ‘Demonstration of the Spirit and of Power’
This is the most controversial chapter of the book, in which MLJ’s wider theology of the Spirit (which we won’t get into!) is applied to preaching. Here’s a summary:
Unction/anointing from the Spirit is the most important thing in preaching, in which the Spirit comes on the preacher ‘in a special manner’, allowing his work to be a channel of the Spirit’s work. He stresses that it is an anointing of what the preacher has prepared, not an excuse to be lazy in preparation.
He seeks to substantiate it from the NT:
- those places in Acts which speak of the Spirit’s presence in those who are proclaiming Christ
- those places where Paul speaks of the Spirit and power accompanying his preaching (especially 1 Cor 2 and 1 Thess 1).
He states: if it were all ‘left to us’ as preachers, we would be hopelessly miserable.
Then come historical examples, especially from times of revival when certain preachers were used powerfully, often for limited periods. This, says MLJ, is what the preacher should seek all the time.
The preacher knows it’s happening when he feels like a joyful onlooker of his own powerful sermon.
The people know it’s happening and want more of it.
First, some critique. The biblical texts he quotes are really not illustrating the same thing as the stories of revival he gives. Those texts talk about what was commonly expected and experienced, whereas time of revival, as he acknowledges, aren’t meant to be permanent. The chapter makes me suspect that MLJ’s love of stories of revival shaped his understanding of the NT rather too much.
However, once we filter out that particular viewpoint, there is much good here that ought to make preachers fling themselves on the Lord. How will any mind be opened to Christ or any will moved towards him by my words alone? They never can be. Praise God that, whether I experience it or not, and however my temperament leads me to express my experiences in preaching, the Spirit remains true now to the preaching of the word he once breathed out.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #15
Chapter 15. The Pitfalls and the Romance
An odd mixture of topics in this chapter. The ‘pitfalls’ are two:
- Preaching the same sermon in different contexts. MLJ is happy with that as long as it remains fresh to the preacher, and he doesn’t preach the same sermon twice in the same place!
- Using other people’s sermons. Golden rule: acknowledge it, or you’re a thief.
Then comes the ‘romance’. He’s got these things in mind:
- When you’re stepping up to deliver a fresh sermon to your own people, longing to deliver the message to them, there’s no feeling in the world so thrilling and rewarding!
- The excitement on a Saturday night when you know that you have been especially ‘gripped and moved’ yourself in your preparation, and that could be an indication that the people will be too.
- The preacher never knows exactly what will happen. Sometimes the planned first point becomes the whole sermon as you preach it.
- You never know who’s listening. It could be the turning-point of someone’s whole life.
- How often people say afterwards, ‘That sermon could have been written just for me!’, although you knew nothing of their circumstances beforehand.
A caveat to start with. The preacher who regularly prepares too sketchily and hopes that the Spirit will make up the difference in the pulpit will not be helped by hearing about the ‘romance’ of being prompted to change the sermon as you’re preaching. However, of course, those who feel that they might be drummed out of whatever fraternity they are in if they ever admitted to doing such a thing probably need to hear that it is not beyond the scope of the Spirit’s activity.
More positively: those few pages on ‘romance’ have made me feel more excited than I did twenty minutes ago about my next sermon, and for that I am grateful. I would not have used the word ‘romance’ to describe these feelings, but that’s probably just due to differences in temperament and not having myself grown up on any Celtic fringe. Finding MLJ using that word woke me up to some glories that we can become stale towards, and that is more than good.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #14
Chapter 14. Calling for Decisions
MLJ devotes a whole chapter to the question of the ‘altar call’, he says, because it was a controversial one when he was writing (the late 1960s). Although that controversy may have died down, there are some instructive things for us here.
The chapter consists of him setting out his many reasons for being opposed to having a regular major appeals at the end of a sermon or meeting. These seem to me to be the key ones:
- Sinners don’t ‘decide’ for Christ; that’s a poor word to use. Rather, they ‘fly’ to him. The whole process of the ‘altar call’ produces and expresses mostly superficial conviction of sin.
- Genuine regeneration will simply show itself over time. It doesn’t need the added ‘show’ of walking to the front, or whatever.
- The will should not be appealed to directly, but always through the mind and affections, hence the appeal must be in the Truth and in the message, not in some separate ‘event’.
What struck me is that a deep conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through preaching, without the need for human histrionics, gives the pastor a calm patience as he goes about his ministry. Someone may appear to be touched by a particular message. What will prove that to be genuine regeneration rather than superficial emotion is usually the test of time; if someone has been truly converted, says MLJ, they’ll usually want to come and tell you. In fact, his main recommendation to the preacher in this regard is that he assure people that they are welcome to come and speak to him if they wish. Of course a pastor can’t take this as an excuse never to hurry off to see someone who seems to be in a spiritual crisis, but it does free us up from acting as if conversions depend on our immediate follow-up to every soul that seems to have been moved.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #13
Chapter 13. What to avoid
That’s a pretty clear chapter title!
He speaks first of the preacher himself. The central advice is: ‘watch over your natural gifts and tendencies and idiosyncrasies’ - i.e., ‘watch your strengths’, as they will tempt you to pander to yourself in preaching.
Then he applies it to the sermon itself.
The key rule, he says, is to ‘be natural’… ‘Self is the greatest enemy of the preacher … And the only way to deal with self is to be so taken up with, and so enraptured by, the glory of what you are doing, that you forget yourself altogether.’
He applies this to various areas:
- Not too much display of intellect or too little. Most young preachers display too much, and must get over it fast.
- No mere exhortation, but there must be exhortation that moves ‘to tears or to action’.
- Some polemic against false teaching, as in Scripture, but not too much.
- Don’t start with a smile and “Good morning, folks, nice to see you.” You are about a unique activity. The church is not your home and you’re not a host welcoming people into it.
The advice to ‘watch your strengths’ carries the weight of the many years of experience that MLJ had had when he wrote these words. It made me think of those aspects of preaching that I feel come more naturally to me than others, and which seem more often to elicit immediate approval from a few. You will know what yours are (and if you don’t yet, just wait a while). How easy it is to bring those ever more to the fore, freewheeling and showboating (in an understated English way, of course).
Being so taken up by the glory of what you are doing so that you forget yourself… that of course requires a solid conviction that I am not just teaching or explaining or sharing, but that through me Christ is holding himself out to people, urging them to trust and to keep trusting. What we think preaching actually is will have a deep impact on our view of ourselves as we do it. And ironically (I think MLJ is entirely right here), the more theologically exalted our view of preaching, the less likely we are to be sinfully conscious of ourselves as we do it.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #12
Chapter 12. Illustrations, Eloquence, Humour
MLJ is opposed (unsurprisingly) to reading out a manuscript in the pulpit. But (more interestingly) he’s also against memorising the sermon. The reason: if you’ve memorised it, you end up ‘declaiming’ it to people and you’re focused on remembering what comes next. That makes you focus on the mechanics of what you’re doing, which destroys the essence of preaching.
Then the regular theme of ‘freedom’ recurs: put your faith in the Spirit and not in your sermon, he says.
Then follow comments on different aspects:
Illustrations. Use them ‘sparsely and carefully’, so they don’t become an end in themselves. Too many of them lessens the ‘tension’ inherent in the gospel message.
Imagination. MLJ admits that his nationality makes him susceptible to over-imagination in the pulpit(!)
Eloquence. Be like Paul: don’t strive to be eloquent, but let it happen when it comes to you.
Humour. Since the preacher stands between God and man, humour is only proper if it arises very naturally. Using humour to ‘warm the audience up’ in evangelistic preaching is especially abhorrent.
Lines such as ‘put your faith in the Spirit and not in the sermon’ have all the pros and cons of a half-truth, I think. It’s a good corrective to the preacher who sees himself simply as delivering something that’s already finished (‘here’s one I made earlier!’), and fails to be sensitive to the work of the Spirit in the actual act of delivery. But it can lead the preacher astray in not seeing the fruits of all his preparation as equally done (he trusts) under the influence of the Spirit. Thus, the preacher isn’t faced with trusting in either his sermon or the Spirit; he’s faced with trusting in the Spirit’s work both in his preparation and in the act of delivery. I can’t see that MLJ would deny this, but it’s not his natural way of expressing it.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #11
Chapter 11. The Shape of the Sermon
MLJ here considers different elements in the shaping of the sermon.
Introduction. There are two possibilities: show the application being made in the text itself and then its applicability today, or start with the contemporary issue the passage will address.
It’s wise to show the same truth from other parts of Scripture, since many heresies began with an over-emphasis on a single aspect of scriptural truth.
The divisions/heads. They must flow naturally from the text. If they don’t, the preacher is simply parading his cleverness. A ‘golden hammer’ that taps texts so that they fall easily into natural divisions is a great gift, but most of the time this work is a great struggle.
Full text or notes in the pulpit? Both have dangers: being too ornate (full text) or lacking flesh and meat (notes).
Quotations in the sermon. On the whole, don’t. You’ve been called by God as the preacher, and people have come to hear God’s Truth proclaimed through you.
One terrific principle runs through this chapter: that people should be able to hear God’s Truth proclaimed through this preacher as directly and forcefully as possible, with absolutely nothing distracting from that, most especially the preacher’s own artfulness or cleverness. If the preacher remembers the very mixed group of people he’ll be preaching to and shapes the sermon accordingly, he won’t go far wrong.
I will try and apply this as harshly as I can to my next few sermons, asking of every bit of text-application, illustration and application: is this here because I enjoy the thought of people hearing me say something I think is impressive? Or is it here because it’s my best shot at proclaiming the Truth in a sharp and hard-hitting way?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #10
Chapter 10. The Preparation of the Sermon
MLJ now gets practical, and addresses a couple of topics:
He doesn’t want hard and fast rules. We should often be preaching consecutively through Scripture, but there are two qualifications:
- Take the opportunities provided by particular occasions to break into whatever series you are in: for example, a natural disaster and New Year are often times when people are reflecting on the frailty of their own lives.
- Don’t publish a series in advance (‘I reprobate that entirely and completely’). By all means plan ahead, but allow for ‘the freedom of the Spirit’ in, for example, taking two Sundays over a passage that you had thought you might do in one.
Whatever the preacher’s text or series or theme, every sermon must be expository, in order to allow Scripture to have its proper place.
The preparation of each sermon.
Be honest with the text: see what’s actually there, in the context, rather than what you want to be there.
Then discern the ‘spiritual meaning’, for which spiritual perception is required (MLJ refers to 1 John 2.20, 27, but I’m not persuaded that they say what he thinks they do).
The chapter ends with a strong appeal that sermon-prep should aim to get to the main thrust of the passage, and that that should be the ‘burden’ of the sermon, with several examples of sermons MLJ had heard that he felt went wrong.
Many of us publish term-cards with the sermons set out in advance. There may be all sorts of practical reasons for that kind of planning, and that has always been my practice. MLJ gives reason to question why we do that, if we do: is it simply convenient? am I doing it so that my ministry appears competent in the eyes of the world? We may decide to stick with our practice, but the questions are good ones.
The exhortation to stick with the main thrust of the passage is always needed. It’s harder than we imagine to leave such a high proportion of our exegesis, theology, illustrations and applications on the cutting-room floor, but it has to be done.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers #9
Chapter 9. The Preparation of the Preacher
This is a remarkably rich chapter. In it he’s talking not about how the preacher should prepare his sermon, but about how he should prepare himself. Here are the key points:
Maintain general discipline. Don’t fritter away time, as you may do with no human boss watching over you. Set aside sermon-prep time, and make yourself unavailable to anything else for it. But don’t be guided by someone else’s hard and fast rules. We all have different constitutions and work better at different times of the day.
Pray. MLJ is honest here about his own difficulties with starting to pray in the mornings. A key piece of advice is: respond to every inner impulse to pray. It’ll never be a distraction.
Read Scripture systematically, including once through each year. Take notes as you do, which can become sermon skeletons.
Read devotionally, choosing what’s needed for your mood, just as Sibbes helped MLJ in a low period.
Read in a balanced way across different areas, including theology and church history. (MLJ’s own practice of spending the mornings of the family holiday reading theology undisturbed might not be popular with all wives and offspring.) Read not to glean information, but to stimulate your own original thinking.
Listen to music, if it enlivens you.
I found his honesty about his own struggles with prayer encouraging in my own struggles, which made his challenges not to slacken in prayer all the more powerful. The advice to yield to every inner stimulus to pray, even in the midst of pressured work-time, is very wise. We don’t pause to pray because we fear it’ll be a distraction or a time-waster; MLJ assures us that it never will.
His view of the aim of reading is helpful, too. He’s got in mind that I should do all I can so that when I sit down to prepare a sermon my mind is fresh and stimulated. (And he got me a step closer to a theological justification for listening to a little Bob Dylan every morning.)