Noticing the form as well as the content
Perhaps it’s an old cracked record, but it’s a good tune. So often the key to a good sermon is in understanding the content of the text and the way it’s put together. Take Judges 17-18 that I’m working on at the moment (and, BTW, Barry Webb’s NICOT is crackingly good). It’s a pretty bleak story, car crash TV, really, as one disastrous detail of the story builds on another. Key to the whole story is the mysterious Levite who becomes Micah’s priest but is nabbed by the Danites during the transfer window (Judges 17:7). I guess a key detail is that this Levite is not a priest – that’s a clear inference from the way the passage works. But right at the end you get a detail which proves the case, when you are shocked to discover that he is “Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses.” So, not a priest (descendant of Aaron), but a direct descendant of Moses!
Now, in your sermon, you could use that end of story detail to show how wrong it is for him to serve as priest in the previous chapter. After all, naming him perhaps makes the story more engaging. But it ignores the form of the passage as well as the content. His name is deliberately held in reserve to make the point: “Here is the crowning scandal of the Danite’s disastrous shrine: it brought dishonour even on the revered name of Moses” (Webb).
My sermon has got to retain that tension or I’m doing the text an injustice in form, if not in detail. Hard work this narrative preaching!
Familiarity breeds…. well, something
It’s been interesting in our preaching classes this term watching students grapple with Isaiah passages. As you would expect, there have been a variety of standards, but always good discussion about the reality of preaching these texts and (this is the really hard part) preaching them Christologically to largely saved people (try Isaiah 1 on for size).
But what interests me particularly is the way that most of us struggle with familiar texts. It’s not that familiarity breeds contempt. We’re not contemptuous about the text. We hold it in high regard; but nevertheless, we’re unable to get beyond certain things. Take Isaiah 7. I once foolishly took this as a Christmas passage. It is incarnational – but there are some hard things going on. “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” is picked up verbatim by Matthew.
But the context matters. And in the context, Immanuel is not just the Lord coming to bring relief. It is the Lord coming to bring disaster too. The sign is judgement and salvation. The old way is ending and is burned up as the Saviour’s appearing functions as a sign to show Ahaz and all who follow him that the earthly kingdom line is no more – it has been replaced with something far superior.
This is all highly nuanced of course. But to ignore the context and how it shapes the text in Isaiah is to ignore the sharpness and shock of application that both encourages us to yield to Christ and rebukes those who do not. There is, of course, no substitute for getting to grips with the words in the way we would do with any other passage. Familiarity does not let us off that hook: in fact it demands we think and pray even more.
Preparing under pressure
This morning I’m trying to prepare a sermon (to a deadline, as most sermons are). I’m doing so in the context of just hearing about a devastating pastoral situation of some close friends. I’m gutted and find it really hard to apply myself. That’s not uncommon. Thankfully, these kinds of situations are relatively rare. There are joys as well as sorrows. Nevertheless, we often find ourselves having to prepare a message for the godly congregation whilst being burdened by the ungodliness of others.
This is not the same thing as a Messiah complex. Thinking we can fix the world is a bad path for a pastor to take. But there is something about pastoring that keeps us from professionalising. We feel the pains and sins of those we minister to – just as the Apostle Paul did. And so it should be. Pity the congregation whose pastor is so compartmentalized that he is able to switch off from them completely. Some shepherd!
What to do? The sermon has to get done. The people have to be ministered to. I need to be in prayer for the particular situation, and possibly even spend some time trying to help. The answer is always the same – to throw ourselves on the mercy of God. I’ll probably do that over a long walk, praying and reflecting and asking God to remind me that I pastor not just two errant sheep, but a few others too who need to hear the word of God this Sunday.
I spent some of yesterday with a dear pastor who has really been through it the last few years: trouble like you wouldn’t believe. His testimony stirred me up. “The Lord has kept me from bitterness.” Looking in from the outside, this seems humanly impossible, such has been the situation. But we preachers find that the Lord sustains and equips for the ministry the Lord gives. Which means that I prepare my sermon casing myself wholly on him.
Which, by the way, is the means of preparing every sermon.
EMA Seminars part 2
Picking up on yesterday’s post, here are the other seminars. All are open for booking for now.
Seminar 4: Teaching Genesis. 3 one hour sessions helping preachers and teachers get to grips with the book of Genesis. Delegates should leave both enthused and equipped to teach this book effectively. With Andrew Reid (Lead pastor, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Doncaster, Victoria).
Seminar 5: Preaching refresher. 3 one hour sessions going over some preaching basics – ideal for those starting out in ministry or needing a refresher (e.g. mission partners on a break). With Jonathan Griffiths (Lecturer, PT Cornhill).
Seminar 6: The preacher and his family. Bruce Ware (Professor of Christian Theology, Southern Baptist Seminary and author of Big Truths for Young Hearts) helps us think practically about how the pastor leads his family at home. This would also be appropriate for wives attending the EMA.
Seminar 7: Preaching masterclass. A small (20 people) round table group for experienced preachers helping to hone preaching skills and work on the book of Judges, with special focus on how to apply the book faithfully. This group will require some pre-work. With Mike Raiter (Mike leads the Centre for Biblical Preaching in Melbourne, Australia).
EMA seminars part 1
Next year’s EMA is made up of plenary sessions and seminars. The seminars are of two types: those focused on preaching (preaching is the thing that brings us together) and those focused on the topic. We’ve got seven altogether, and here’s a brief taste of what we’ve planned. Please note that Seminars 2 through 7 are only available to three day guests because each builds on the previous day, whereas Seminar 1 (in the main auditorium) is made up of three standalone sessions. The seminars connected to the theme are:
Seminar 1: Humanity and church life. Working through the implications of a robust doctrine of humanity in key areas of church life: Beginning and end of life issues (John Wyatt, Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London); gender issues (Mike Ovey, Principal of Oak Hill College); culture and race issues (Tim Keller, Senior Minister, Redeemer Church, NY).
Seminar 2: Women in ministry. A small seminar working through the implications of the doctrine of humanity for women in ministry. With Carrie Sandom (Women’s worker, St John’s Tunbridge Wells) and Kathleen Nielson (Director of Women’s Ministry, The Gospel Coalition).
Seminar 3: Crossing Boundaries. How does our doctrine of humanity break down some of the key barriers that exist in society today? This interactive seminar will have both theological and practical input as we try to work through some of these issues for the church today: we will look at race, class and age. With Adrian Reynolds (Director of Ministry, PT) and a panel of pastors facing these issues locally.
We’ve long toyed with the idea of tackling some of the presenting issues that evangelicalism is faced with. Our panel of local church men who guide our thinking and planning have encouraged us in this. But we felt an “ethics” EMA or a “sexuality” EMA would be predictable, on the back foot and never really get to the root of the issue.
So, instead, join us next June for an EMA on the doctrine of humanity. So much of what we get wrong in this area is because we get the fundamental doctrines askew (and this applies to lots of other issues too). Get the fundamentals right and we’re prepared to answer all kinds of questions on the front foot. That’s why we’ve planned next year as we have.
Bruce Ware will help us understand not only what the doctrine of humanity is (created in God’s image, marred, redeemed, restored in Christ) but how this affects how and what and why we preach. Other speakers will help us connect the dots in various ways – some more specific than others. We have a strong line up which we’ve chosen because of the topic – that always comes first for us: Tim Keller, Mike Ovey, Mike Raiter, Andrew Reid, John Wyatt, Christopher Ash, Jonathan Griffiths, Efrem Buckle, Kathleen Nielson, Vaughan Roberts and Reuben Hunter. Oh, and me. I’ll say a bit more about the seminar tracks another time.
Why not make time today to come next year. Because of the room we have you can bring (and perhaps should think about bringing) your preaching or leadership team – what a joy it might be to bring (even for a day) that great lay leader who needs to be encouraged with you! This is our third year at the Barbican and the third year of a three year trial. It’s the year where we will work out whether it’s a long term viable location. So please come. And grow. And be encouraged.
EMA unity 2015
We’ve now finalised the EMA line up and seminar streams for 2015. We’re at the Barbican again from 22-24 June, back in our normal slot and hoping to see many of you there. As with other conferences, even if you don’t book now, it’s good to plan to be there. Try freeing up three days in May and it’s an impossible task. Do it now, and it’s manageable.
I love the EMA. You might expect I would say that, but even before I worked at PT Towers, I loved it. Not every session hits the mark every time for every pastor – and I certainly found that from time to time certain sessions resonated more than others. That’s the nature of conferences. But the setting of the EMA made that almost (not quite) an irrelevance.
For the EMA is one of the few gatherings in the UK where evangelicals from different backgrounds and ages and churches come together. It could be even more so – and we’re always thinking about that – but we’ve always said it’s a useful by-product that people from different churches meet in this way.
I’m increasingly convinced that it’s more than a useful by product but an essential element of what goes on. We need our distinctives. My own convictions are of Independency and I rejoice in those and want to find time to meet those who share them. But I contend that if that is our only interaction we will be poorer for it. So a gathering like the EMA serves the cause of Christ by seeking to see preachers built up: but it also serves the cause of Christ quietly, gently, promoting a gospel unity that cannot be manufactured, but is real and tangible.
Make time for conferences
There’s a good article in this month’s EN about why pastors should attend conferences. In broad terms, because pastors and preachers need help, they need to sit under ministry, they need time to relax and they need friends and space to develop and cultivate friendships. We heartily agree. The article speaks volumes.
But here’s the thing. It’s hard for pastors to find time in the diary. And – our experience shows us – that unless you carve out time well in advance, you run the risk of missing out. Nearer the time it’s just too difficult to free up space to invest in ministry in this way.
So, even though it’s a cold, wet November day, can I encourage you to think now about 2015? Not just our conferences, of course, but other ways you can be encouraged. I happen to think that our conferences tick all those boxes. Others do too. But make sure you carve out the time now – and make sure your friends do too.
Our ministers residentials next year are 27 -30 April for Senior Ministers (in post longer than 7 years)(with Peter Adam and David Robertson – an intriguing combination). Then the following week it’s 5-8 May for the young ‘uns with Peter Adam (we’re working him hard) and Paul Mallard (who will help us minister to those who are struggling: a much neglected topic). Then in the autumn (9-12 November) we’re joined by OT expert Richard Pratt together with your truly.
I have the privilege of going to all these conferences and they’re definitely worthwhile. Why not carve out time to plan to join us for one of them next year?
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.