Why preachers must think for themselves
Last weekend I had to produce an emergency sermon – a sermon in a hurry, you might say. We wanted a service that was responding to what had happened in Paris and planned a change to our programme. Out went 1 Kings 9 (to be resuscitated at a later date) and in came Luke 13. There’s no typical sermon prep time for me, but it’s rare that a sermon takes less than 8 hours work. And here I was, at 10am on a Saturday morning (a day off), sitting in my office with a blank sheet of paper.
At such times, I confess that I resort to the help of a commentary more than I would normally do so – more extensively and more quickly. I’m not ashamed of that – it’s the nature of ministry that such times sometimes come and I don’t think God is going to hold that against me!
So, here’s the thing. An otherwise excellent little commentary on Luke got things a little wrong. It was Leon Morris in the Tyndale series who points out that the two verb forms of metanoeo = “repent” in Luke 13 are different. One is a present imperative (in v3) and one is an aorist (in v5). I thought I would check. I only know a little Greek [insert standard kebab shop joke here, if you must]. But when I checked, I found that this wasn’t the case – at least, not in NA27 that I was using.
They are both the same – present, active subjunctives. Am I missing something here? Quite possible, and no doubt the emails will come flooding in like a small trickle. But in the circumstances, I believed it wrong to take Leon Morris’ application too far – that both one off and continuous repentance are in view in Jesus’ mind.
Commentaries are a great, great help. Don’t know where I would be without them, in fact. But every preacher still has to think for himself.
Picking up a little on Richard Pratt’s lines to NT application, I really like this idea of three ‘eras’ – the inaugural, the present and the future. Here’s a little expansion, particularly as it relates to the warfare of Joshua:
In terms of the inaugural work of Christ and his Apostles:
– there is an initial defeat for evil spirits
– there are initial warnings for humans
– there is initial salvation for humans
But Christ also has a present work which is reflected in Joshua:
– there is an ongoing defeat of evil spirits (Eph 6.11-12)[most people in our congregations don’t even believe in the presence of evil spirits]
– there are ongoing warnings for humans (2 Corinthians 10.1-6)
– there is ongoing salvation for humans (2 Corinthians 5.20)
There is also a future work which Joshua foreshadows:
– a final defeat for evil spirits (Revelation 19.13-15, 20.10)
– there is final judgement for humans
– there is a final salvation for humans
And of course, the final answer to the holy war question is if that you struggle with that, you ain’t seen nothing yet compared to what Jesus is one day going to do.
What do we do with holy war?
One of the hardest things for OT preachers is to work through what is going on when it comes to holy war – what does it really mean to totally devote things to destruction? It’s a tricky question, and a key objection to the battle scenes we find in Numbers, Judges, Joshua and on into the monarchy.
We had an excellent hour with Richard Pratt on just this topic. We’ll post the video soon, but here are some headlines. First, the word used to denote this holy destruction is a law word (Lev 27.28) where it is actually an act of piety. Various things given to God could be redeemed, but not those things that were ‘haram’ – they belonged totally to God and could not be bought back.
The culture of the time, of course, was to take things for yourselves, and this was as true in war as the rest of life. The culture was for the victors to take the plunder, including human plunder. To the victor the spoils. Thus, in the context of war, to devote something to destruction was actually an act of self-denial: it was to give to God wholly something that was normally reserved for yourself: it is, in that sense, an act of piety. This is why Achan’s sin (Joshua 7) is so terrible.
Second, we need to set the battles in the context of the larger battle that exists between God and Satan – a battle which begins in Genesis 3 and finally comes to an end in Revelation 21. This is the Lord’s battle – a vivid reminder of which is found in the Commander of the Lord’s Army (Joshua 5-6) who is neither for Joshua nor his enemies, but for the Lord. In other words, the battles are not ethno-centric (committed to the propagation of one particular race) but deistic – God-centric, in other words.
Third, it is easy for us to think that just because we breathe air, we deserve to die (Pratt’s caricature, not mine!). Whilst true at one level, it is also true that there are particular kinds of wickedness that come up before God which deserve immediate judgement. To put it another way, not every city in the Bible is destroyed. Many are not. But there are some whose sins are so significant that they deserve judgement – Sodom and Gomorrah are a case in point.
Even the word gospel with its OT overtones (Isaiah 52.7) is a warfare term. We tend to reduce gospel to ‘believe and be saved’ but in fact it is an announcement of a battle victory.
All of this of course is a million miles away from a standard 21st Century perspectives where holy war is thought to be and reduced down to some kind of ethnic cleansing. That puts us on the back foot. But here is holy Scripture, and thinking more carefully about these issues allows us to think positively, as indeed we ought.
Christ in the Old Testament (again)
It’s been really useful to have Richard Pratt with us this last week. His sense of humour is so dry he’s almost an honorary Brit! He gave us three excellent sessions on Joshua for which the video will be available shortly. There were, as you might expect, some insights along the way – not least some of the richness with which he encouraged us to think about how we preach Christ from the Old Testament.
I found his teaching helpful because as I think about Christ in the Old Testament, I tend to think functionally: themes, types, trajectories, texts and so on. That’s a valid approach. But Richard’s reminder was that there are temporal ways to think about Christ in the Old Testament too.
The Old Testament, he argued, anticipates Christ in three ‘eras’ (though that is my terminology not his). It looks forward to his inaugural work; his present work; and his future work.
In other words, Christ is foreshadowed in what he has already done, in what, by his Spirit, he is presently doing and in what he will one day do. These three time periods (done, doing, will do) are constantly in view in the Old Testament. You can’t do all of these lines all the time, but these different lines of development give you rich seams with which to preach Christ and what it means to be in him.
Is WHY the right question?
So, the Archbishop has doubts. I think it’s a brave thing to be honest about and a bit more honesty about struggles, appropriately expressed, would be no bad thing in our circles. But I wonder sometimes, if pastorally we need to change the record?
What do I mean? After the events in Paris, we held a special service and I preached on Luke 13. We thought that was the appropriate response, especially in our multi-cultural setting with quite a few French people and French speakers. During the service we had an extended prayer time. And some people were expressing WHY questions. That’s what you’d expect, and it’s OK to ask God that. After all, it’s a common theme in the psalms.
But there’s a sense in which that question is actually answered in the New Testament. Although we can’t specificise about every situation, we do know that Romns 8.28 AND 29 (note both verses) holds true. There is a sense, then (and I don’t mean to be trite about this) where the answer to the WHY question is always “because he’s conforming us to the image of his Son.”
Now, I fully realise that such an answer might seem glib and insensitive – especially to those in the midst of real struggles. But pastorally, we need to train ourselves and our people to be asking a different question. Perhaps not “instead of”, but at least “as well as.”
That question is not WHY, but HOW?
How is God conforming me to the image of his Son. What is he doing, right at this moment, to make that a reality? I think it is only then that we can fully embrace what James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Like Jesus, in other words.
The Lord’s prayer and me
The Lord’s Prayer is in the news at the moment, I’m sure you’ve noticed. Cinema advertising agencies have apparently reneged on an agreement to show a Church of England video of various people praying the Lord’s Prayer. More of that in a moment.
As a pastor, I confess that at times my relationship with the Lord’s Prayer has been less than straightforward. Like many non-conformists I’ve over-reacted against a kind of repetitive “babbling” (Matthew 6.7) by not using the Lord’s Prayer enough. And I’ve got something to learn here from Anglican brothers who are more committed to its regular use.
Nevertheless, there is still a risk of peddling a kind of superstitious nonsense when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer and that is why, I admit, I’m rather glad the video’s been taken out of cinemas. Of course, there is a big question about the issues that raises in terms of censorship, accessibility, etc etc. I know that – but this post is not about those.
Rather, it’s about the fact that this particular campaign is seriously flawed anyway. For one thing, I’m not sure that the strapline “Prayer is for everyone” is necessarily true, certainly as it might be understood by a watching public. You can’t pray to one to whom you have no access, can you? Prayer is for Christians. Maybe this is too nuanced a point and I’m being too pedantic? OK, I’ll take that.
But more generally, we risk giving the impression that being a Christian is praying THIS prayer or just asking God for things. That rather dangerous proclamation is endorsed by the justpray.uk website which is linked at the end of the ad. For there, on a protestant site, are prayers to pray including the Hail Mary and a prayer addressed to St Christopher for travelling mercies. I have to say that for this website alone, I’m pretty glad the ad was banned.
And last night, in my Bible reading with little Miss R, we read the Lord’s prayer together, talked about what it meant and then prayed it. It was a precious time.
A very different Christmas
There are an increasing number of Christmas resources which you can use as part of your seasonal evangelism. Some of these are short and sweet; others longer. Some are for kids; some for adults. Some are for everybody; others are for those who are asking genuine questions. Some are for church use; some for personal use. I happen to think we need all of the above. Christmas is still a good time to share the gospel, by which I mean a good opportunity. It’s true that the opportunity may be diminishing: but even Richard Dawkins likes singing carols and you only have to see the wrath that follows councils renaming Christmas as Wintertide or some such stuff to know there is still an emotional attachment to the time of year.
Speaking as a non conformist, I wonder if there are fewer people coming to Christmas services? However, even if that decline is real and not just in my head, having good resources on tap is always important.
And that’s why I’m pleased to see Rico’s latest little book, A very different Christmas: what are you hoping for this year? This is not a short tract, and it’s not for someone who is not really interested. But it is engaging enough and short enough to be accessible to someone who has genuine questions or wants to find out a little more. In other words, perhaps the guy at the door who says “Interesting sermon” to which you, of course, reply “Why interesting?” AND “Let me give you something else to think about.”
Rico’s book, peppered with illustrations as you might imagine, is deep enough to be profound, long enough to cover quite a bit of ground, but short enough to digest at one sitting and still come back to. It’s difficult of course to review such books trying to put myself in the shoes of an unbeliever. But the book is clear about the gospel and its implications without being unnecessarily aggressive or rude.
I like it. A lot.
You ought to have some up your sleeve. So to speak.
Fed up with a false dichotomy
This week I’ve read yet another round of social media posts about Old Testament preaching. The complaint goes something like this: our OT preaching shouldn’t be entirely redemptive-historical. There needs to be moral objectivity too, for this is how the Apostles preached. “These things were written for us.”
I’ve got some sympathy with this if the kind of redemptive-historical preaching is Flat-Stanley one-dimensional, “Hey presto, it’s all about Jesus, don’t y’know!” preaching. There’s certainly too much of that.
But – and this is one of the most important things I believe about OT preaching – most complaints of this sort set up a false dichotomy between the OT being the Book of the Lamb and whether Christian preachers can draw moral lessons or not. The two are not in opposition. They must never be. For being people of the Spirit places us under an obligation to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. An Old Testament sermon devoid of any imperatives would be a strange sermon indeed.
Moreover, Paul does not divorce the two. Yes, “these things were written for us”. But why? For the Israelites who wandered in the desert “all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10.4).
Many years ago, Ed Clowney (writing in 1961) prophetically saw that this non-tension might become an issue and lead to divorcing Christ from the OT in a desire to recover some ground in biblical theology. His comments are prescient:
“The redemptive historical approach necessarily yields ethical application, which is an essential part of preaching of the Word. Whenever we are confronted with the saving work of God culminating in Christ, we are faced with ethical demands. A religious response of faith and obedience is required…. The solution [to the apparent tension] is the organic relationship that exists in God’s great work of redemption and revelation.” (Ed Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, 80-81).
I think if anyone ever asked me to say just one thing about preaching, it might well be this. There is no tension between the proclaiming of Christ and the moral obligations of the covenant. Those who see one and miss one or the other are missing the riches of the Scripture. I’m fed up with this false dichotomy.
EMA 2015: Tim Keller – humanity and preaching (2)
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. This second session from Tim Keller allowed for some interaction and challenge – and a rather bizarre set of Frozen links. Don’t worry – we know who is to blame….
EMA 2015: Tim Keller – humanity and preaching (1)
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. This, the first of Tim Keller’s two sessions, was immensely helpful. Tim at his best, I think.