Life Jim, but not as we know it
I love working in the PT office. It's a happy, friendly, gospel place where people look out for one another and there is fun and laughter as we support one another in work and in the Christian life.
But it's not real.
I have to keep telling myself this as I minister to others. You may not have the equivalent of a PT office – there's only one! But even if you're a sole practitioner pastor-teacher your working environment is not real. It's not what the majority of your members struggle through Monday to Friday. You need to keep reminding yourself about that as you preach every Sunday.
I worked for 10 years in business rising to the heady heights of middle management in a global pharmaceutical company. I was sworn at regularly, sometimes violently. I was bullied for being a Christian. I was pressured to work long hours without charging clients, sometimes 16 hours a day. I was in a culture where there were few other Christians and sex, sport and drink were the only topics of conversation. I even had to work for Mohamed Al Fayed.
No pastor faces that. And even if we spend time with non Christians (which I hope you do), you must not kid yourself that those relationships are the same as work relationships. They simply are not. They are more gentle, forgiving and so on.
Of course, the argument goes that even if you work with Christians, you are still working with sinners and so you can identify with people in the pews. That's only true up to a point. Christians are sinners, but they are saved sinners, transformed sinners and sinners being transformed. You wouldn't expect anything from my list above, even if there are tensions.
I mention all of this because I am acutely aware how easy it is to be distant from our people and fail to understand the world they live in. I think it's no bad thing if a few more gospel workers lived in the real world for a time. But whether we have done that or not, our preaching needs to connect with people who have vastly different life experiences from us during the midweek – and we, as faithful preachers, need to bear that in mind.
Commentaries on Ezra
I'm posting today from South Asia, considerably warmer than the UK. I'm here with a small team of students because it's our mission week when we send out teams to go and work with churches. I've brought a team over here to sample Christianity in a different culture and also work with 9 students on a year long preaching course modelled very loosely on the Cornhill Training Course. We're going to be studying Ezra which has been my study project for the last 6 months. It's not hugely well served by good commentaries, which is a shame because this is a super book full of exciting stories – a book for our time and one that preachers should definately have on their radar to preach. Here's my pick of the commentaries.
For devotional commentaries (those arising out of sermons or the like), there's nothing to beat Bob Fyall's latest contribution to the written word. He's written the BST guide on Ezra and Haggai and it's simply superb. We've brought out a dozen copies to give away.
For technical commentaries, the best two (in my less than expert opinion) are Charles Breneman in the New American Commentary series and HGM Williamson in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Fensham (NICOT) also deserves a mention. Williamson has also written the entries in IVP's one volume New Bible Commentary. Worthy of note is Old Testament stalwart Gordon McConville who has written both the Daily Study Bible volume and the ESV Study Bible notes.
You’ve got to pick a pocket or two
Our youngest has been learning the musical Oliver as part of a school project. It's good stuff. She's learning and having fun. The music is catchy and clever – a step up from what goes as a musical today. She's particularly fond of Fagin's first number – You've got to pick a pocket or two. The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the song:
In this life, one thing counts
In the bank, large amounts
This words take on added poignancy when you know the story of the musical. A desperate Lionel Bart sold all the stage, television and film rights for £300,000 in the early seventies (they would later turn out to be worth millions and millions). Bart (you can read some of his story here) is a tragic figure. His cocaine and cash fuelled parties became notorious, living off the earnings from Cliff Richard's Living Doll. It's not a nice story, though. Here is a man who once had large amounts in the bank and discovered that it didn't count, it didn't count at all.
I mention this because this is the culture we are preaching to. Most of our members have some kind of delusion that if only they had more cash, things would be altogether better. Many will do the lottery. And those who don't, dream of doing it. It's only their conscience that prevents them. Our preaching has to tackle the prevailing culture and this is it.
But there's a deeper issue at stake for preachers which is that many of us suffer from the same kind of delusion. If only we had the extra cash for a youth worker. If only we could reorder (that seems to be the in-word) our main building. If only we could buy an extra property to house staff. It's tempting to think that large amounts in the bank would solve any number of our church crises. But Lionel Bart proves that to a false hope which we must not only fight against in our people but in our own hearts.
To paraphrase the words of Fagin later on in the musical, "I think you'd better think it out again."
Peter Jensen on marriage
In all the furore over marriage here in the UK, here is an old episode of Q&A from Australia (the equivalent of Question Time) where Archbishop Peter Jensen contributes wisely, graciously and carefully. He doesn't get riled by ridiculous accusations and even takes quite outrageous insults on the chin. I'm sure this as measured and gracious a presentation as I've seen. We've lot to learn from his approach and content. Worth your time.
Why I avoid publishing sermon titles
Some churches love to publish sermon titles. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this practice. It can be a great way to give order and structure to a preaching series. But I have to admit that I dislike them. Here's why:
- they are restrictive in terms of passage. It sometimes happens that you have to break into a series. Perhaps a young guy dies in the church. Perhaps a game-changing vote happens in Parliament. Both occurred this week as it happens. Or what happens when, after careful study, you realise that your unit of Scripture must be two preaching units to do justice to it. What do you do with your series then? Now, I realise that this depends on the nature of the church you are in. If you are sharing a preaching ministry with a team and you are preaching occasionally, it's harder to be flexible about this – but most of us are not in that kind of rarified ministry. Publish your titles and you're in danger of publishing a straightjacket.
- more importantly perhaps, unless you've really studied the book hard, there is a real danger you'll get the titles unhelpfully wrong. I'm preaching Matthew 21.12-17 in 10 days time and my title is a given, "A house of prayer" – only, after studying, I've come to realise that this is not what the passage is about. My theme sentence, for what it is worth, is "Jesus as Messiah, exercises kingly authority in his temple house." Prayer is incidental here (please don't take that the wrong way!). No doubt the title was given in good faith. But I will have to do some backtracking when I come to preach it.
That's why I avoid publishing sermon titles.
Five things not to say this Sunday
Many of us and people in our churches will have been praying about Tuesday’s vote on so-called gay marriage in the House of Commons. The Government’s success in the vote, and the sometimes empty arguments advanced, will have left many of us feeling a little cold, low and disappointed – not just physically, but spiritually too. As preachers, we will have the pulpit on Sunday, so what must we say? Plenty. But I would like specifically to suggest five things we must not say, despite the temptation.
1. Our God is not sovereign
None of us would say this, of course, but might some of our people think it? How can the God we worship and adore possibly be sovereign and allow this vote to have gone through? If ever there were a time for a Mount Carmel type intervention, wasn’t this it? Surely the only reasonable deduction (and one that opponents might well make) is that God is not sovereign? The answer to this regular struggle is always the same. Look to the cross. For at the cross, God wonderfully and sovereignly shows that he is in control of the most wicked and evil events (Acts 2.23). Pastorally, the answer to those struggling with the sovereignty of God is always to take them to Calvary.
2. Our prayers have not worked
“Worked?” What do you mean by that? No doubt some people will be feeling that their prayers (and efforts) have been in vain. We prayed a lot. But our prayers did not work. The idea of prayers “working” is not unbiblical (see James 5.16). But neither it is the whole Bible picture on prayer, nor even the main focus. Prayer is not about getting things primarily. Prayer is an expression of dependence on a sovereign God and humbly submitting to his will. I would suggest that the sentiment, “our prayers have not worked” probably means we and our churches have the wrong view of prayer.
3. Our nation will be judged
So, the rubicon has been crossed. Our nation is now ripe for judgement and surely judgement will come. This is easy to express, but harder to justify biblically. First of all, I don’t think we – as New Covenant Ministers – have the same authority as the Old Testament prophets to call down judgement. Second, everything God does is judgement. He is the Judge and all his sovereign acts are judgements. He is already judging. Third, our nation (if that is the right category) has been ripe for judgement for many centuries. But God, in his good grace, has held back. Despite Tuesday’s vote, that may still continue. Fourth, it depends upon your view of kingdom, but there is certainly a compelling argument to say that this side of the cross, there are only two nations – “my people” and “not my people”. Nations, as we understand them, may be less significant than we think (I realise not everyone will have this view, but you must admit that the whole situation is rather nuanced). So, announcements of national judgement from the pulpit are definitely out. Rather, we should announce judgement in the apostolic way: judgement is coming and everyone should be prepared – Heb 9.27.
4. Our teaching on marriage is rendered impotent
Now marriage looks like being redefined in unbiblical terms, it will be impossible for the church to say anything about it. Nonsense. Proper marriage is and always will be a continued picture of Christ and the church. At its best, biblically understood, it is and always will be a foundational building block of church life and, in God’s grace, non-Christian society. True, it’s going to be harder to make those points now we have to caveat what we say. But I still think marriage is a remarkably positive thing for the church to be speaking about, not least to our own people.
5. Our vote cannot go to anyone who voted for gay marriage
Tempting though this response is, I think it is also wrong. Not only is it legally dubious for ministers to tell church members how to vote, politics is a whole lot more complicated than one issue, however important the issue is. The chances are Christians may well be faced at the next election with candidates from all parties who would have voted the same way. Do we just abstain? I don’t think so. I don’t have a candidate who agrees with everything I do, so voting is a judgement about prioritising and choosing which issues are the most important. Significant though the vote was, nothing that happened on Tuesday changes that.
More positively, as plenty of online Christians have expressed, the whole debate has shown how needy the country is when it comes to the gospel. The ground may be hard, but those who are called to sow must sow. We must pray. We must cast ourselves on God for gospel work and gospel success because truly, if you did not see it before, you must see now that transformed and redeemed lives are the only hope for our nation and our communities.
So, brother, preach the gospel – in season and out of season.
I'm just involved at the moment in a preaching series on Romans at church. This Sunday I've got Romans 2.17-29 as a passage. It's not been easy preparing. Understanding the passage, this time around, was a fairly straightforward part of preparation. Getting to a message was much, much harder. That's partly because of the nature of Paul's argument – and partly because our church isn't filled with Jewish people. That's where the prayerful skill of the preacher comes in -turning this passage into a Christian message. Preaching is not simply explaining the passage and then (at best) giving one or two application pointers. I am proclaiming Christ to unbelievers and believers alike in a way that is faithful to the passage and runs with the thrust and direction of the text.
That is where our Teaching series come in. There are plenty of commentaries I could be reading on Romans. And have. There are plenty of books of sermons I could be reading. And haven't (I find reading other people's sermons not very helpful for preparation). But our teaching series takes the Bible preacher or teacher between the two. And that's what I do need. Christopher's volumes on Romans are immensely helpful.
John Chapman’s memorial service
There's a UK based memorial service for John Chapman (Chappo) coming up soon. It's St Helen's Bishopsgate on Friday 1 March at 3pm and is a good opportunity for those who have been grateful to God for this man of God to acknowledge that together.
The truth, but not the whole truth
As a local church pastor, I was constantly asked why our church was not in Churches Together (which in our large village consisted of a middle-of-the-road Anglican church and a large Catholic church). The answer is simple – because we do not share the essential truths of the gospel. That's not to say there is not orthodoxy in those other places. There is truth, but there is not the whole truth. The same issue came up recently with Sister Wendy explaining some piece of artwork: 'isn't it wonderful how she tells the gospel?' Er, no.
Here's the principle explained mathematically:
some orthodoxy plus some orthodoxy does not equal orthodoxy
In other words, you can say some true things about God (and Sister Wendy did) but that is not the gospel. It is not the full truth. We need to rejoice when any truth is affirmed, but we need to be cautious about acclaiming it as full truth. We are so desperate to hear Christian truth that we tend to get carried away, whether it is a Christian reference in a political speech, or a bishop's sermon at a royal wedding, or even a Monarch's Christmas speech.
And it's important because when we endorse anything less than the full gospel as if it were the full gospel we dilute the truth and lead people astray. It's that serious. I don't just teach the flock by my active instruction, I do so by my indirect (and sometimes silent) endorsement.
A Cornhiller remembered
Today is the thanksgiving service for Phil Nicolls, a Cornhiller from 2007 to 2009. This young father and husband was taken home to glory by our Sovereign Lord just recently, after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. He had been serving at Banstead Baptist Church and was due to take up a position with CWR shortly. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife Josie and their daughters, Sophie, Faith & Isabel. We praise God for a loving church which will support them and care for them in this terribly difficult time. Paul Adams, the senior pastor at Banstead, writes "His ministry, supported and shared by Josia, has touched so many lives and we thank God for the life and service of our dear brother."
But it's also a reminder that we are mortal. Pastors often have a tendency to a Messiah-complex and part of that is to see this great trajectory of ministry laid out before us where countless people are saved under our ministry and many others built up. In fact we are no more or less than God makes us and that includes, soberingly, for how long we may minister in this life. Who knows for how long the Lord will graciously spare us? But it does bring Paul's pastoral words into focus. He knows his time is nearing an end (2 Tim 4.6). Yet he links this clear sense of demise to his charge to Timothy to 'Preach the word.' Verse 6 begins with a 'for….'
And who knows the effect that even a short faithful ministry might have had? What if, even in those few short years, the word that was sown through Phil's work and life reaped a harvest 30, 60 or even 100 times that which was sown? What a harvest that would be!
So brothers, give yourself to this exacting and God-glorifying task. We long to help you to do this well and keep going – that is our raison d'etre. And surely the untimely death of a brother servant is a reminder that we must make the most of the opportunities that God graciously gives us.