Who sings Lamentations?
My autumn study project is Lamentations. Hardly common preaching ground. But if we believe our own doctrine of Scripture, it ought to be as appropriate to preach Lamentations as others portions of the Bible. Anyway, between you and me, I quite like these unknown territories. It means my little knowledge can go a long way!
Anyways, here’s my main struggle with the text: how is it to be interpreted Christologically? In other words, how is Lamentations Christian scripture. As far as I can see, the commentators take two approaches. First, some see it in its historical context alone. As such, it’s the book that laments the destruction of Jerusalem yet sees a glimmer of hope in the promise of the covenant. That makes it Christian because it reflects the failure of the Old Covenant from a human perspective, but anticipates the new in Christ.
I don’t want to disagree with that at some level. Indeed, this historical take is surely the foundation of any Christian understanding. But it seems somewhat flat: what I mean is that there is really only one thing you can say about Lamentations: isn’t it great that Jesus has come! Well, yes. But there’s surely more colour, detail and significance about the text than that.
The second approach is to jump straight to Christians or (per Calvin) the church. The church sometimes feels bowed low and almost destroyed, but there is hope because God is the covenant keeping God! Or, as individuals, we sometimes feel right up against it, full of grief, but we must not despair. Both of these are worthy Christian sentiments, I guess, but I’m not persuaded….
I think someone else sings Lamentations. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out who.
Marriage and ministry
Well, I said, preaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum and for many of us, though not all, the context in which we serve is as both husbands and ministers. You don’t need me to tell you that brings with it its own set of challenges. That’s why three couples here – first David & Heather Jackman, now Wallace and Lindsay Benn and Mrs R and I – have started running short 24 hour stopovers for married couples in ministry.
We’ve already held one in Yorkshire and this half term we have two – one in Leicestershire and one in Wiltshire, the latter at the oldest hotel in the UK! They’re deliberately short and will not answer every question, but we want to use them to get you thinking, praying and doing. Mrs R and I are in our 25th year this year, and even now we hardly feel qualified to take such a day. But we’re driven by the importance of the subject and the desperate wish to see both marriages and ministries flourish. We see too many couples whose marriages have become a sham and where ministries have suffered (or, indeed, vice versa).
After some market research we planned them for half term holidays. You may think that’s a bit obtuse – but people told us that it was easier to arrange child care out of term time than in it. Plans are already in place for baby sitters and grandparents and it’s easy to sort that when the kids don’t have to be fitted into a daily regime.
So, we’d love to see you in October. Wallace and Lindsay have just a few spaces left in the Midlands. We’ve got a few more at Malmsbury. Either way, here’s an investment well worth making.
Job opportunity at PT
I am searching for a new PA. I know, it’s your dream job, but you’re busy preaching. But it may be someone else’s in your congregation if you’re near or in London? It’s actually a maternity cover for a year for the job of my PA and Office Administrator. Do you know anyone who may be suitable? Why not share this post with them: I’d be very grateful. In the first instance, you could ask them to send a CV to firstname.lastname@example.org. Mrs R thanks you greatly (I’m happier at home if more sane at work).
One of the ways we can persevere is by getting continual help. Personally I find this one of the hardest things to do. To get help in any area of life seems to be some kind of admission that I’m not the man (or pastor, or preacher) that I ought to be. But such a desire to grow is central to the Christian faith and central to ministry. And that’s why we persevere with our preaching conferences. If anyone ever says to me, “Oh, I’m past that” or “I don’t need that anymore” then I worry. Not that somehow PT’s ministry might suffer, I’m not that introspective. We’re one amongst a number.
But if that is the attitude of a pastor, then heaven help his congregation. Especially, may I say, when it comes to preaching and prayer. I can’t really help you with the latter, but we can certainly help one another with the former. The best preachers I know are not lazy nor content. They are the ones that keep striving and working. They are the ones that lay themselves open to challenge and growth in the right context.
And our preaching conferences are a good context. All of which leads me to say, why not make it along to our Autumn preaching conference. It’s not just about preaching, by the way. Preaching happens in a context – both in church life and in the personal life of the preacher, and we address both of these.
But preaching is a discipline too. We’ve managed to persuade Richard Pratt to come and he will be teaching on Joshua. Indeed, our whole focus will be on OT narrative and I will do some teaching on that using Ezra as a springboard. These are really important topics, and Richard is fine preacher and expert. Make use of him! We’ll be asking him – as part of what he does – to especially address how the preacher deals with that vexed question of divine warfare and destruction. Increasingly that’s becoming an apologetic question we need to have careful answers to.
See you there. You can book here.
Welcome back. Different this time?
I hope you’ve had a good break. Even if you didn’t get away, church in the summer is always different. Not less busy, of course, because there are often camps and holiday clubs to fill the time. But different. And, they say, a change is as good as a rest. I find summer working allows me to do some catching up with things that don’t always get the attention they need – for me that means book editing and writing. And – to be honest – it’s the summer when I make all my resolutions. Next year I am going to be more organised for…. (fill in the blanks).
But it’s also good to take stock spiritually and I’m really grateful to have had some breathing space to have been able to do that. The busy-ness of pastoral work often means that this is low on the agenda. We tend to think that our daily work of prayer and the ministry of the word will somehow keep us fresh and alive without any need for deeper heart work. As long as we can keep ticking over and keep the motor running, then we’ll be able to establish a base line which will sustain us for another 12 months of ministry.
But that way of thinking is dangerous. It’s dangerous for our own souls, and dangerous for those to whom we minister (1 Tim 4.16). For the most part ministry is not a four lane highway with no bends or curves or uphills – the kind of road you can drive on autopilot. No, unless your church experience is very different from mine (really?), then ministry is a windy country lane which needs constant vigilance for both yourself and your hearer.
Look back over the last twelve months. Did you just scrape by? Be honest with yourself. How come you made it through? Was it that you really were alive and kicking? Or was it that you were simply not discovered? Were you truly radiating the gospel or did you just manage to keep the mask on? These are sobering questions, and now – as things ramp up again – is the time to read, pray, commit and do what the Apostle commands. “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Time for a break..
We all need a break every now and then; and now is the time for that. We shouldn’t be writing blogs on our holiday and you shouldn’t be reading them on yours! So on that note, see you in September.
Put the light on!
Preaching Christ well from the Old Testament is one of the hardest things preachers have to do. However often we do it, we always feel we could be doing better. Either we struggle to do it at all (not so much of an issue these days), or we struggle to do it well in a way that is honest with the text and doesn’t flatten OT preaching into a kind of “one sermon fits all” mould.
That’s why we’ve made it the focus of our Autumn Ministers Conference (9-12 November 2015). We’re really pleased that this year we’re joined by Richard Pratt who is an expert in this field. Many of us have benefitted from his superb Chronicles and Exodus work and this time around we’ve asked him to address Joshua. Who doesn’t want to hear that!
With other sessions focused on the vexed question of getting from the Old Testament to Christ, it should be a remarkable time away together in every way. We look forward to seeing you there. If you’ve not been for a few years, it would be great to see you. If you have, make it a date again. And why not bring a friend….? Booking is open here.
The big idea and aim of the Big Idea and Aim
Anyone who encounters what we do at Cornhill quickly discovers that we’re rigorous in training students to come up with two sentences for any Bible passage that they’re teaching or preaching: a Big Idea (a.k.a. BI, or Theme Sentence) and Aim Sentence.
This practice sometimes raises some good questions, and here are a couple of them.
Isn’t it more formulaic than Scripture itself?
Of course any set of disciplines can be turned into a lifeless formula by the petty-minded, but I’m pretty insistent that our insistence on BI and Aim does not drain the life from Scripture, but actually leads the preacher to be listening out for it.
- The BI boils down to this: what is the passage actually talking about?
- The Aim boils down to this: why are these things written here in this way in Scripture?
‘What?’ and ‘why?’. These are the two key questions that precisely help the preacher not to impose his favourite framework on a text, but to discipline himself to listen for what God is actually saying there.
That’s why, for myself, I fight a little shy of asking early on in my preparation questions which presuppose looking for a certain kind of content. Some books recommend this: e.g. one good contemporary writer suggests looking for what he calls the ‘Fallen Condition Focus’ of each text. It’s far from a terrible question, but I’d always rather start with, and persist with, ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ - questions which steer me, if I follow them faithfully, to listen to this text in its own right.
What’s the basis of ‘BI and Aim’?
Well, you can find theological answers to that question. But here’s a good general answer, from God’s common grace in human life:
Every time a person uses language, that language has two inseparable features: propositional content and inter-personal action. More simply: every time we open our mouths or tap on our keyboards, there’s content (what I’m saying) and intention (why I’m saying it). These two can be analysed separately, but they never actually exist separately; they’re two ways of describing what we’re doing when we communicate. (In a previous life I researched this a bit, and should anyone be interested it’s grounded in a solid philosophy of language.)
That’s why we get Cornhillers going on both BI and Aim from day one of Cornhill. Focus on BI without Aim and you’ll get lectures pretending to be sermons; focus on Aim without BI and you’ll get lots of heat and little light. All language, including the human language that Scripture is written in, always has both. ‘BI and Aim’ is simply our way of expressing a desire to read Scripture in a way that’s faithful to how God has made us and our language.
Exegetical reflections on Luke ch.24, part 3
The final section, vs.36-53:
Three rather odd things happen here, and I think that working away at these, in the way Luke has described them, gets us heading in the right direction:
1) When Jesus appears to the disciples (v.36), they’re all startled and frightened and think he’s a ghost. Yet only moments earlier they had seemed convinced of his resurrection (v.34)! The repeated language of ‘ghost’ (vs.38-39) suggests what’s going on: they are not fully convinced of the complete physical reality of the resurrection. After all, at the meal-table with Emmaus Two it seems that he disappeared before anything was actually eaten (vs.30-31).
2) The climax of Luke’s account of Jesus providing the disciples with evidence of the reality of his resurrection is… he eats a mouthful of fish while they watch (vs.40-43). Rarely has such a mundane act had such theological clout! But see this as Jesus’ response to their thinking he’s a ghost, and Luke’s point begins to emerge: the climax of the evidence of the resurrection is the demonstration that the risen Christ was as fully human as he was before his death.
That’s not often a key point that folks like us have drawn from the resurrection, but it does seem to be Luke’s. In his resurrection, and then at his ascension, Jesus left no part of his humanity behind. We who are in him can be confident of heaven, because (among other reasons, of course) one human being has blazed the trail and gone there ahead of us.
3) In vs.50-53 it is rather clear that the Father took Jesus up into heaven while he was part-way through blessing them. Why didn’t he wait just a few minutes for Jesus to finish his blessing?! Wouldn’t that have been an encouragement for the disciples?
It’s a strange thing. Is Luke’s point that Jesus is continuing to bless his disciples from heaven, even though he is not with us physically - that his unfinished blessing is unfinishing? That fits, I think, with his promise to clothe them with power from on high (v.49). His physical disappearance does not end the blessing of his presence with them; actually it allows for it to continue in a much more powerful way.
I feel I have only scratched the surface of Luke 24. But again I’ve been reminded that working away hard at what Luke has actually said, and trying to stick with the question ‘why has he chosen to say this?’, yields rather more fruit than I see when I first read through such familiar verses.
Exegetical reflections on Luke ch.24, part 2
Now to the famous Emmaus Road, vs.13-35.
Much more than this could be said, but here are a couple of thoughts:
1) Central to this event as Luke tells it is the contrast between what the Emmaus Two expected of the Messiah (vs.19-24), and what Jesus says the Messiah actually had to do (vs.25-27).A careful contrasting of these two portions gets us to the heart of things, I think. They expected that he would do for their nation the very things that they themselves wanted done for their nation: sort out the Romans, and renew the nation’s life and status. In their expectation, God’s plans just happened to include the things that they themselves wanted.
Jesus, though, uses Scripture to describe God’s plan for the Messiah entirely without reference to the redemption of the nation which so concerns them. For Jesus, it is all about the Messiah’s glory, which had to be preceded by the very suffering which the Emmaus Two thought proved his defeat. If we expect God to work in ways that will also just happen to lead to our glory and comfort here and now, most of us will be disappointed in him. But if we expect that he will work to bring the Messiah glory - and that through suffering, as throughout Scripture - then he will never disappoint us.
2) How is it that they came to recognise him at the breaking of the bread (vs.30-31, 35)? Most evangelicals reject any overt reference to the Lord’s Supper, and have sometimes wondered if the disciples noticed the nail-marks in his hands at that point. Luke, though, makes no reference to that, so that can only be guess-work. What Luke does describe is Jesus acting as host at a meal at which is he technically a guest (v.30). That points us in the right direction, I think. Twice before, Luke has used similar words to describe Jesus hosting a meal: the feeding of the five thousand (9.16) and the last supper (22.19). In the first of these, he is the host who provides for the Lord’s people in the wilderness, and in the second he is the provider of the atoning sacrifice for sin.
This suggests that Luke is showing us that the risen Christ was recognised as risen when he was seen to be the Provider who was still among his people. Faith in the resurrection is therefore not just faith in a miracle, but is trust in Jesus as the provider of all that his people need to cover their sins and to sustain them.