The best sermon
The best sermon your people will hear next week is the one you will preach them. Sure, there may be better delivered sermons on the internet. There may be sharper exegesis. There may be more targeted application. But none will have been prepared out of a love for the particular people to whom you are preaching next week.
That being true, the temptation to preach to please these people (1 Thess 2.3-4) in your preaching is great. Really, really great. After all, you LOVE them. But, in fact, it is precisely this – loving your people – which will make your preaching the kind of preaching which desires to please God rather than men.
Have I just described your Sunday sermon? I hope so.
Woah. I never saw that.
Here’s an example of what I was talking about yesterday. I’ve preached through Numbers three times. I’ve written a book about it. I think I’ve got a reasonably good idea of what’s going on and how it works and even how some of the difficult parts work.
Except I don’t.
Take Numbers 5.11-31 for example. It’s a tricky passage that, at first glance, seems to be a kind of ancient trial by ordeal. I’ve written here before of how and why it is NOT that. I thought I had this sussed. And then another pastor pointed out to me that in the Law, divorce was relatively easy. A suspicious husband could ditch a wife without too much trouble. This device then is a means of saving a marriage. It’s grace in action. It’s not a question of a marriage ruined by jealousy, it’s a case of a marriage redeemed through mercy. I’d not seen that. There are always new depths to rejoice in.
1 Thessalonians. No microwave meal.
I guess 1 Thessalonians is the kind of book many of us think we know well. We think we’ve got the structure sorted, there are not too many difficulties exegetically etc etc. It’s been refreshing therefore to revisit 1 Thessalonians with Nigel Styles at our Autumn Conference. It’s like this with Bible books, isn’t it? There are some Bible passages (not many, I’m ashamed to say) that I know off by heart. Even so, there are always beauties and delights in the text that we don’t always see first, second or even third time around. It’s tempting to think as preachers that we need to get through the whole canon of Scripture before going back over a book we’ve preached before. That may be true if all you are going to do is rehash the old material, like some microwaved ready meal. But if you’re going to come fresh to the text, fresh to the material, fresh to prayer, fresh to application, then nonsense. Of course you can preach it again. And 1 Thessalonians may be no bad place to start.
Last week we were at our Autumn Ministers conference and Vaughan kicked us off with Rev 2.1-7. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a mystery worshipper visit a church in which I’ve been ministering. But Vaughan has. And there are some good stories. “Father Roberts preached for 25 minutes!” I rather enjoyed Vaughan’s comeback. “I’ve never preached for less than 30.”
The trouble with the mystery worshipper is that he has his own agenda. He’ll tell you the things he likes about your church (provided that they tie in with his own likes). He’ll tell you the things he doesn’t like (ditto). His loaded agenda can be hard to take.
The Revelation letters are hard to take not because Jesus has a loaded agenda, but because – unlike the mystery worshipper – they hit where it hurts. Jesus is absolutely able to tell us what we do well and where we need to change. It’s encouraging to see that Jesus sees what we do: he knows. Isn’t that good news? But sobering to think whether we still have that first love. Does our church have it? Do we have it? (Clue: there may be a connection).
The reality is that we encourage a kind of activism (do, do, do) precisely because of the nature of church and ministry. We are constantly fighting that battle. And so we need to cultivate our love for the Lord. How?
Remember: consider how far you have fallen. Not just one day (we can all feel low for one day). But we need to remember the glories of our walk with Christ in the early times.
Repent: age can dampen enthusiasm if we are not careful. But we must not accept a dull blandness in our Christian walk. Pray in truths and identify what needs to be repented of.
Repeat: do the things you did at first. In other words, get going again.
All this brings a wonderful promise – to share with Christ from the tree of life.
How to remember
It’s been encouraging reading my friends’ reports of Remembrance Sunday and how this is fast becoming the major evangelistic guest event in their church – for many, they are more likely to have a full church on Remembrance Sunday than at Easter or Christmas Day. Go for it, brothers.
But it’s also worth remembering that for many, it’s not so simple. We have well over 50 nationalities in our church – active members – and the kind of jingoistic service that this particular Sunday can quickly become (need not, but often does) does not serve the gospel. We have those who lost relatives on losing sides in a world war. We have those who were forced to fight against their will. We have those who – whilst on a winning side – can hardly feel positive about the regime they were propping up (Stalin).
It’s good to remember – but, as with everything in church – we need to do it in a way that is appropriate and sensitive to those who belong and – to a lesser extent, maybe – to those who visit. I have to confess I have never found this easy – particularly because world wars (which, I think, fulfil the criteria for just wars) are markedly different from recent conflicts. Often, in Remembrance Sunday jargon, these are all lumped together.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to be a November 11 humbug. I just contend it needs a little thinking through for careful Christians. Chez nous, we prayed in our mission slot for Germany. And we had a short quote from Prince Philip Kiril the great great grandson on Kaiser Wilhelm II – a Lutheran pastor, referring to 1914:
“The German people had to carry the price and there was much worse coming when the monarchy was gone – you know all of that, there’s no need for a history lesson now. There has been much lost in Germany and throughout the world and it would take too long to go through all of this and ask for forgiveness. But we have a God who can do something with our ruins. And I became a pastor because I have a strong hope that he can do something with the German people; many of them are far from God. Please pray for Germany whenever you think of them or of me. That’s what’s on my heart.” Watch the full interview from this year’s Alpha conference here.
Above all, of course, we want to remember Christ – and this needs to be at the heart of every Remembrance Sunday, however it is conducted.
Introductory thoughts on…introductions
At the Cornhill Training Course we often find ourselves chewing over the question of what makes a good sermon introduction. There is no absolute right or wrong on this, but the following are a few reflections:
1) We should not begin with the assumption that the Bible is fundamentally uninteresting. I know we never quite think that or say that. But all too easily we assume that our sermon introductions should serve as some sort of apology for the fact that the following 25 minutes will be spent in the Bible. We then strive to entertain and to loosen up the crowd with the introduction, hoping that they might then be willing to sit through the rather less interesting material to follow. People may not arrive at church feeling inclined to listen to what God’s word has to say, but we must never fall into the trap of thinking that the word is itself uninteresting. The liberating truth is that the Bible is invariably more interesting that the story or joke I have up my sleeve. So we must have confidence in the power of God’s ever-living word to captivate the attention and stir the hearts of those who have ears to hear.
2) Good sermon introductions serve the exegesis of the passage. They are not simply a rhetorical tool designed to soften the blow that the Bible will soon be opened – rather, they should serve to begin to open up the passage in some way (more on that below).
3) All that having been said, sermon introductions do serve the important rhetorical purpose of helping the congregation to make the transition from whatever else has just been going on (singing, praying, notices, etc.) and from listening to voices other than yours. Launching straight into the exegesis of a passage when people have not yet caught their breath simply will not be effective. Very few preachers have the rhetorical flair or personal gravitas to delve straight into exegesis and to carry the congregation with them.
4) How can an introduction aid that rhetorical purpose, while also beginning to open up the Bible passage? Very often, a good sermon introduction will identify the central (or at least, a central) issue of the Bible passage and help the congregation to see its significance and urgency. A good introduction will make the congregation feel that it would be to their spiritual and intellectual detriment to miss out on what is coming. It will make them feel that they must listen, even if up until this point they had not felt inclined to do so. This approach recognises two realities: (1) that people often come to church distracted, discouraged and uninterested in hearing from God’s word; and (2) that each part of God’s living word is relevant and urgent and life-transforming.
5) Illustrative stories and current events can be very useful in introductions, as long as they help to open up what is at the heart of the Bible passage and help the congregation to see why it matters. Too often a news item or a favourite story is chosen on for its own merit, and the sermon is forced to fit around it.
Reflections on Hebrews 2 and the Incarnation, Part 2
Following on from yesterday’s post, here are, in summary eight reasons from Hebrews 2 why the incarnation was necessary:
1) Jesus needed to become human that he might lead us to glory (2:10). (see yesterday’s post)
2) Jesus needed to become human that he might call us brothers and sisters (2:11).
3) Jesus needed to become human so that he could die (2:9, 14). The pre-incarnate Son could not die.
4) Jesus needed to become human so that he could destroy the devil, who has the power of death (2:14).
5) Jesus needed to become human so that he could conquer death and deliver us from lifelong slavery to the fear of death (2:15)
6) Jesus needed to become human (like us in every respect) so that he could be our high priest – that is, our true representative before God and our effective mediator with God as the God-Man (2:18)
7) Jesus needed to become human in order to make propitiation for us (2:17). To make propitiation he needed to die, and so needed to be human. But, more than that, the substitutionary sacrifice for human sin needed to be of an appropriate kind, like-for-like. It was necessary that a human should die for the sins of humanity.
8) Because Jesus has been tested as a human, he is able to help with true empathy those who are being tested (2:17).
Praise God that God the Son became the Son of Man to help the sons of men.
Reflections on Hebrews 2 and the Incarnation, Part 1
We are not always strong on the doctrine of the incarnation in our circles – which is a shame, not least because the Bible is very strong on it. Hebrews 2 gives us rich reflection on the truth of the incarnation. The following are a few observations.
Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers who were tempted to give up trusting and following Jesus. In chapter 1 the writer reminded the believers that Jesus is higher than all other authorities, including the angels (who were involved in the mediation of the Old Covenant at Sinai, 2:2). The point was that they must listen to his word (2:1-4).
Having convinced the congregation that Jesus is indeed highly exalted, the writer now turns in 2:5 and following to explain to them why this exalted Son should come so low in the incarnation, suffering and death. Remember that the cross was ‘a stumbling block to Jews’ (1 Cor. 1:23), who did not expect a crucified King.
As always, the writer grounds his argument in careful exegesis of the Old Testament in light of Christ, and here he turns to Psalm 8: ‘It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”’ (Heb. 2:6-8, quoting Ps. 8:4-6).
Psalm 8 looks back somewhat wistfully to the original and glorious mandate that God gave Adam, the man in his own glorious image, to act as his vice-regent (Gen. 1:26-28). And it looks forward prophetically to the restoration of the glory of that mandate and calling in the Second Adam.
Originally, Hebrews notes, God ‘left nothing outside his [the first man’s] control’. But ‘at present’ – that is, since Genesis 3 and the Fall – ‘we do not yet see everything in subjection to him’ [that is, to humanity] (Heb. 2:8b). Here is where Jesus, the Second Adam, comes in: ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ (2:9).
For the Psalm 8 pattern to be restored and the hope of that Psalm fulfilled, Jesus had to become a ‘son of man’ in the incarnation, becoming lower than the angels for a little while. He had to suffer and die to bear the penalty for Adam’s failure (and ours with him) to fulfil the mandate he was given. By God’s extraordinary grace, Jesus tasted death in our place, that death might not rob us of our God-given glory once and for all.
Because of what he has done, Jesus has been ‘crowned with glory and honour’. But that is not the end of the story. Through his glorification in the resurrection, ascension and enthronement on high, Jesus leads ‘many sons to glory’. That is why he is called the ‘founder’ or ‘pioneer’ of our salvation. Having plumbed the depths of the mess we have made of our human calling, Jesus now leads us to the heights of the glory of our calling as those made in God’s image to act as his vice-regents. He leads us to heaven itself, that we his people might enjoy his glory, and even participate in his glorious reign.
Why the incarnation? Jesus became a son of man that he might lead many sons and daughters of men to glory – in fulfilment of God’s great purpose for his image-bearers.
The purpose of points
In a recent Cornhill preaching class, we spent a bit of time discussing the purpose and value of giving clear teaching points or headings in a sermon. We tend to encourage students to make a habit of using headings and to work hard at them (although there are occasions when headings are a hindrance rather than a help (apologies for the compulsive alliteration; the subject seemed to invite it…)).
The following are a few practical reasons – some more compelling than others – why it is worth investing in good headings:
1) They give your congregation a sense of progression and momentum through the sermon and fuel their hope that they will indeed make it home for lunch. This, in turn, will help them listen more attentively.
2) They convey a sense that you have digested and got a clear handle on the material you are preaching. This is a subtle point, but it does help your hearers trust you as a competent teacher. It strikes me that John Stott exemplified this in his preaching.
3) Good headings crystalize truths from the Bible passage, and so make them easier to understand. For you as a preacher, the very process of articulating, refining, and simplifying headings often will lead to a clearer understanding of those truths for yourself as you prepare to preach them. This will improve the clarity of your sermon as a whole.
4) Good headings help the congregation to remember what they have heard and so continue to feed on the word in the following hours and days. If you are anything like me, you probably forget much of what you hear. I sometimes ask groups of students mid-way through the week what they remember from Sunday’s sermon at their local church. The results are not uniformly encouraging. Anything we can do to help people retain what they hear from the word must be worthwhile. (As an aside, this is one reason why overly long headings may not be advisable)
5) Good headings provide focal points for discussion when the church family talk about the sermon over coffee or lunch. It is great to develop a culture where the church family do chew over the word together and seek to encourage each other from the word after they have heard it preached. Faithful and clear teaching points can only help.
6) They help those who have drifted into a daydream (or indeed have fallen asleep…!) to re-join the flow of the sermon. We might like to think that this is a consideration not worthy of our congregation, but I suspect it is not.
Are you allowed to preach just on a single verse at Cornhill?
Well, yes, you are. Indeed we actively encourage students to learn how to do so wisely. Of course there were some good reasons why in recent decades many preachers moved away from the frequent single-verse habit of their predecessors:
• it could readily lend itself to preaching verses out of context;
• done as the staple diet, it prevented consecutive exposition through whole books;
• it assumed greater Bible literacy in congregations than is now often the case;
• preachers could rather easily choose to preach on just their favourite topics.
There have been some real gains in this shift, and it’s wise to try to hold on to them. But when students ask (as they occasionally do) ‘how can I preach on a single verse and still do all the things Cornhill trains me to do with the text?’, that’s probably a signal that we need to work at not losing the ability to preach well from a single verse. Choosing a single verse as your text is, after all, doing nothing more radical than just opting to preach on a pretty short text. There are of course still some dangers out there into which the unwary and lazy may fall:
• preaching the context rather than what my text actually says;
• conversely, preaching my text without controls from its context.
However there are some benefits from occasional single-verse preaching, when done well:
• less time is normally spent in the sermon on text-explanation, leaving more time for application – whereas many of our sermons are imbalanced the other way;
• it can summarise the heart of the message of a complex book or chapter in a single verse (debatable examples of whole-book summaries, for my money, are Galatians 5.5; James 4.4; 1 John 5.20);
• in speaking situations where brevity, crystal clarity and directness are essential – funerals, short evangelistic talks, Christmas services, etc. – a single verse may well be the most sensible way to go.