Preaching through distraction
Most preachers from time to time (and some all of the time) have to preach through distractions. My old church used to be in the Heathrow flightpath and at 11.15 every morning (just as the sermon was getting underway) Concorde would take off. Boy, was I glad when they scrapped that thing. I just stopped for a minute each week and we all chuckled together. There was no way I could compete.
In some ways those kinds of distractions are easier to deal with. They’re regular and the congregation all know what is going on. It’s the one off things that hit harder: someone wanders around; someone falls ill; the PA stops working; someone dies (it does happen!).
The preacher can’t really prepare for these kinds of things. They can’t all be legislated away. Sometimes a wrong reaction from the preacher actually destroys the work of the sermon: I remember one very gentle preacher raising his voice and telling his congregation that they should be less interested in what was going on at the back and more interested in him and what he was saying. True – but the way he said it made sure that everyone turned round!
On the whole, I think being up front about what is going on is fine. People understand that. We need to react to particular situations in different ways. I have – before now – said to people we’re going to pause and pray whilst the situation gets sorted out, then got someone to come and give me an update, because I know that’s what everyone is thinking about anyway.
One of the hardest things though is that we, as preachers, can lose our stride. There is something about the preaching monologue that means, once it is interrupted, makes us lose our train of thought or expression. It’s where a good set of notes helps. But there’s more to it than that.
I wonder if what we really need is to expect interruption. At one spiritual level, Satan longs to disrupt the preaching of the word. We should expect as preachers to face all kinds of spiritual attack and should be praying against them, but also unsurprised when they happen. For there is nothing worse than a startled preacher: his people are going to be startled too.
A good judge of character, part 2
How are we supposed to assess the behaviour of characters in OT narratives? It’s not always easy, but the preacher needs to made a judgment. Here’s the second of two test cases which I’ve come across recently in teaching the Joseph narrative to Cornhill students.
Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. This is a tough chapter, seemingly sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the story of Joseph. Let’s look at each of the two main characters.
The narrative is very clear about Judah. He has done wrong by withholding his son Shelah from Tamar (v.14). At the climax he acknowledges that he has not acted righteously in this (v.26).
What about Tamar, though? Judah says that she is more righteous than him (v.26). But wait a minute (as some Cornhill students said to me on this), surely we shouldn’t take the immoral Judah’s judgment on this. And other people says she’s immoral (v.24). Why shouldn’t we accept their judgment as the true one?
As always, the text alone must guide our judgments:
• It seems that in Hebrew narrative when a judgment is uttered at a key point in the narrative and then left hanging without further comment, it’s wise to presume that it’s likely to be the correct one, even if the person speaking isn’t entirely squeaky clean themselves. Therefore Judah in v.26 is getting it right. (For something similar, see Gen. 34:31.)
• The people’s judgment is v.24 is wrong because they don’t know how Tamar got pregnant; they’re making the wrong assumptions.
• The whole chapter is dominated by the theme of offspring being secured for Judah through his sons. We know from the covenant promises that that is a good thing. Judah doesn’t care about it, but Tamar does.
• The birth of her twin boys (vs.27-30) is presented as almost a re-run of Jacob and Esau. It was only by Tamar’s action that Judah was given such a blessing.
• Tamar’s name-check in Matthew 1:3 confirms this positive reading of her.
As one Cornhill student put it in the recent lecture on this, this wouldn’t the last time that God acted to fulfil his covenant promises and bless his people through actions which appeared to others to be scandalous (the cross), and which at the time risked accusations of sexual immorality (the virgin conception).
How we grapple with the details of the text, and the judgments that we make on these things, determine hugely the kind of applications that we will unfold to ourselves and our people. And the judgments that count are not those of our gut, but of God’s Word.
A good judge of character, part 1
How are we supposed to assess the behaviour of characters in OT narratives? It’s not always easy, but the preacher needs to made a judgment. Here’s the first of two test cases which I’ve come across recently in teaching the Joseph narrative to Cornhill students.
It’s Joseph in Genesis 37. Is he presented to us (as one commentator says, and as it’s tempting for the preacher to present him) as a spiteful tell-tale (v.2), a spoiled brat (v.3) and a braggart (vs.5-11)? It’s easy to take it that way. If we do, then in preaching ch.37 we’ll probably portray Joseph as someone who partly gets what’s coming to him, although without excusing what his brothers do to him.
The principle I want to bring forward here is this: we need to look for and accept the judgments that the text itself gives us on people and their behaviour, rather than imposing our gut-reaction on the text. Most people reading ch.37 have a gut-reaction against Joseph – especially if they had a spoilt younger brother of their own! But where is the evidence in the text itself that God intends us to see Joseph’s actions here negatively? Let’s have a look:
• Verse 2. It’s possible that the Hebrew behind the ‘bad report’ he brings about his brothers indicates that he’d invented a lie about them; the commentators debate this.
• Verse 3. Jacob is certainly unwise in favouring Joseph over the other sons; but we’re not told clearly that Joseph himself was spoilt by that.
• Verses 5-11. Is it clear from the text that Joseph should not have told his brothers and father about his dreams? I don’t think so. In fact v.11 hints that it was good for them to know, and Jacob scores more highly than his other sons in taking seriously that this might be revelation from God.
Conclusion: the evidence isn’t entirely one way. But I reckon that it is not clearly leading us to see Joseph’s behaviour as basically reprehensible.
One further bit of evidence clinches this for me, this time from the context. As soon as we encounter Joseph in ch.39, he is a model of godly self-control and trust in the Lord. This is in striking contrast to the episode when his father was effectively kicked out of town by his own family. Jacob had to (literally) wrestle with God and be humbled in order to be knocked into spiritual shape. Joseph, by contrast, seems to arrive in Egypt as basically the finished article. (We might suppose that Joseph was bad in ch.37 and that the Lord sanctified him in the Midianite caravans, but that would be pure speculation.)
What does difference all this make for the preacher? A very big one. If my take is right, then as a whole Genesis ch.37 presents Joseph as an innocent sufferer sold into slavery by his own jealous brothers. Now that is a pattern that Christ gloriously fulfils for us.
What is expository preaching?
I asked Dick Lucas for some help on back-to-basics Monday (OK I just made that up). What is expository preaching? His answer?
There is a very straightforward answer, which is essentially this—it is preaching which takes the Bible seriously. Expository preaching takes the Bible at face value, and that’s why the preacher will want to work hard to understand what it says. The preacher starts with the premise that God must be the perfect communicator, both in content and method. Since he has chosen to communicate through the Bible, we need to work hard at understanding the Bible, so that we can understand what God is saying, because when the Bible faithfully proclaimed, God’s voice is heard. When a preacher goes off on a frolic of his own, his own voice is heard. When someone explains away the Bible, his explanation is heard. But when the Bible is faithfully expounded, God’s voice is heard, because the Bible is the word of God.
This essential point can be illustrated by an example of a preacher who did not preach the Bible, but instead gave his own interpretation, and the disastrous consequences that followed. I once went to visit a friend of mine who was mortally ill and when I arrived at his house, he was listening to a sermon on BBC radio on the feeding of the 5,000 from John 6, given by a national leader of one of the denominations in the UK. He read the story and then preached on the necessity of feeding the hungry throughout the world, claiming that is what John 6 taught. But in the course of that morning with my friend I pulled out my New Testament from my pocket and read the story, and was struck by verses 47-51, which say:
“I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
This is Jesus’ own interpretation of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus is the bread of life, so that whoever would believe in him may have everlasting life.
After I read that, my friend’s wife came in with coffee and no more was said. In fact, my friend wasn’t in the mood for talking. But his wife rang me up the following week and said what a comfort it had been for me to read those few verses. It was not that my friend was unaware of the meaning of the feeding of the 5,000, but it was just a reassurance that what we heard on the radio was not a proper interpretation of the passage. In fact, it was sheer impertinence of that radio preacher to interpret that story as he did! I wonder how many other people were listening in hospital beds that morning who needed to know that Jesus is the bread of life and that if we feed on him we will live for ever. It is sheer impertinence for us to use the Bible for our ends because it robs people of hearing God’s voice.
That is why our task as preachers is to let the Bible speak. People need to hear expository preaching, so that they can hear the voice of God.
I dare you
Today, I have a dare for you. I want you to read Exodus 20.1-21. And then, on a piece of paper (or in your head) I want you to jot down in a few sentences how you would preach it.
I’ve been preparing a sermon on this passage this week and it’s been a battle. I think it is potentially one of the hardest parts of the Old Testament to preach. And how you preach it will be governed by all manner of things: how you see the context working; how you count the commands; how you see the Law functioning within your biblical theology; how you see Christ fulfilling it (continuing it?); how you view Hebrews 12: and many, many more.
I reckon that you – if you think carefully – will discover that there are issues and ideas that you’ve still got to wrestle with. It’s why every preacher has to go on stretching himself, learning, growing, reading, studying, praying, wrestling. I’ve found it a useful exercise, therefore, to go back to basics here. You may too.
Go on. I dare you.
Increasingly I come across Christians who interpret the Scriptures through the lens of experience. No. Just, no. However, it’s quite possible to over-react, as though experiences counted for nothing. That reduces Christianity down to an intellectual assent or study, and – we must be honest – there’s plenty of that around.
No, experiences are real and must be accounted for – but they must themselves be interpreted through the lens of Scripture. We all do this, in some areas. Take the vexed question of same-sex attraction. No good Bible man or woman says, “this is what I feel, so it must be right” – and therefore we take the experience and we filter it through the lens of solid Biblical faithfulness to understand what exactly is going on.
All well and good. Except in other areas we are remarkably sloppy. Just the other day, a Christian basically argued with me on a point on which we don’t agree that “if God didn’t intend it, he would not have made it like this.” I appreciate that personal issues can be very, well, personal – but that is precisely the same argument that interprets the Bible through experience, rather than the other way around. Wrong lens, friend.
Which all leads me to ask a question of own blind heart: where am I doing exactly the same?
Preaching, apologetics and a quick cycle round the block
It’s soon time for our Spring Senior Ministers’ Conference (27 April – 20 April) at Hothorpe Hall. If you’ve not been to one for a while (or ever) you may be surprised. There seems to be this image going round that it’s all hard, hard work. I don’t know where that has come from, but in essence, the conference aim is to both encourage and equip preachers, so we’re pretty chilled out. We do this in a number of ways:
- We do it with from the front sessions – this time around with Peter Adam
- We do it with input on a particular subject, often where we feel weak. This time around we’re delighted that David Robertson, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and a key apologist, will be coming to help us.
- We do it with small groups where we think and pray and work on preaching together. This is such a key component of our ministries that it needs to be a key component of the conference.
- We do it with networks, trying to connect people in similar situations and stages of ministry
- We do it with careful use of informal as well as formal time. That means plenty of time to relax, unwind, catch up with friends, just read the paper if you want. I think the technical term for this is fellowship. But it does, if you want, include a cycle round the block. A rather large block, it must be said, but we do get back to where we started.
You can book online here.
I’ve been preparing a sermon on Exodus 3 this week and have had to use an unfamiliar Bible translation (to me anyway). It’s raised an interesting point. We often have heated discussions about the translation itself (and are right to think through philosophy of translation and evaluate various options). But we rarely think about how Bible are typeset.
And yet, this week, the typesetting has made an enormous difference to me. I’m working a pretty familiar passage. I don’t know it by heart, sure, but there are not really any “wow” surprises in it that you sometimes get with those unfamiliar passages. And yet….
…and yet I’m struggling to find things in the passage. My particular version of this particular translation (see how cautious I’m being here??) is dense and the typeface not particularly helpful. I know what I’m looking for in the text, but sometimes struggle to find it. There’s plenty of research to show that typeface and layout really count when it comes to reading, and that’s as true for Bibles as any other literature.
In fact, more true. Mainly because Bibles employ some strange layout tools you don’t find anywhere else – little numbers and letters in the text, double columns, hyper-hyphenation and so on. So, when it comes to Bibles I’m determined to think not only of covers and feel (the soft touchy feely part of me) nor only of translation (the thinking mind in me), but layout (the preacher and reader in me). We must.
And well done you, to publishers who have thought this through and delivered excellent typesetting.
The minister and sexual purity
If, like me, you use the McCheyne Bible reading plan, you’ll have spent some of the last few days in the early chapters of Proverbs. The chapters on sexual purity are especially challenging for those in ministry. Why? Because the ministry of the word, especially but not only the pastoral element of it, is emotionally instensive. That is why preaching tires us out – there’s nothing particularly physical about it (for most of us!). But we feel drained after preaching because of the emotional investment. It is this emptying that makes ministers so vulnerable to attack. And, of course, a successful spiritual attack in the realm of sexual purity will have devastating consequences.
We’re made to be sexual beings and so this is a risk for us all – however much we may like to think about it. Here are five things the Bible says. I find these useful. No rocket science, but a necessary and regular reminder of how we guard our hearts.
1. Think of the heart. Jesus is clear that adultery starts in the heart. Even a lustful look (Matthew 5.27-30) is the same as the act to the God who sees all. And, of course, it is from within that the actions come. Unchecked lust in the heart soon turns into a porn habit. We need a ruthless approach with our own hearts, crying out to God to show us our black spots and help put sin to death.
2. Think of the Spirit. Each morning I write out the fruit of the Spirit in a little notebook. You may think that is rather quaint, but it helps me pray for his help and the fruit he brings. Including self-control. Key to fighting sexual temptation is to cry out to God to so fill us with the Spirit of Christ himself that his fruit is hanging from every branch.
3. Think of the church. The one flesh command from Gen 2 is more than sex (Eph 5.32) but not less than it (1 Cor 6.16). It therefore, at some level, depicts the joyful union Christ enjoys with the church. As a minister of this good news you need constant reminder of this truth at all kinds of levels. The church is not yours, for example. Union is a deep and meaningful doctrine. Sex,both sexual enjoyment, but also sexual fidelity or abstinence (for those who are single) is a depiction of this union.
4. Think of sex. This is not a helpful command for the unmarried – but it is biblical so I include it. The joy of sex is also preventative (1 Cor 7.1-7). Ministry couples whose marriage bed is unused are in great danger of temptation. It should not be so. It’s a command. You might not think that’s a particularly romantic way to think about sex – but it’s enormously romantic to keep your partner from Satan; it’s the best thing you can do for him/her.
5. Think of the consequences. However much we might like to think that sexual immorality is abhorrent in the cold of the day, we need to recognise that the Scriptures show us again and again that it is attractive. This is the testimony of Proverbs 5-7. Adultery can “captivate” us. The adulterous woman seduces the unwitting man. Interestingly, Solomon’s approach is to warn his son against the consequences of such an alliance (“destruction”, 6:32). How “attractive” the website or moment, we need to keep telling ourselves, “this way destruction lies.”
There’s more in the Bible, of course, but perhaps these will help out.
Old and New
I’ve just finished watching the BBC documentary Inside the Commons, Michael Cockerill’s unparalleled insight to the workings of the UK Parliament. I confess to mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have a vague sense of history and nostalgia and quite like quirks, like the Speaker marching through the Palace every day with someone in front of him singing (yes, singing) “Speak-ker.” But there’s another part of me that thinks “That is completely and utterly bonkers.” Indeed, from the point of view of democracy there are plenty of moments when the whole system seems somewhat dysfunctional. Moreover, holding Old and New together seems, at best, difficult, at worst, impossible.
I do worry about some OT preaching I hear. I do worry about some reactions to my own OT preaching. I find a nostalgia about the Old Covenant which is misplaced and ignores the sweep of Bible history. I find hearers who explicitly say things like “Wouldn’t it have been amazing to live in the Old Covenant?” and I find preachers who seem to imply that to be the case.
Profoundly we do that when we fail to preach Christ. For Christ does not belong in the Old Covenant; rather the Old anticipates him. It is not then, that we cannot preach from the Old Covenant. But we mustn’t preach the Old Covenant itself.
To do so would be completely and utterly bonkers. You may feel that you do not do so. Great. But let me ask you what the people hear?