Daniel and the power of prayer
I have just been re-reading the book of Daniel in preparation for teaching it at Cornhill, and I was struck afresh by the response Daniel is given to his prayer of national confession in chapter 9. While he was still praying, Gabriel came to him and said, ‘O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision’ (Dan. 9:22-23 ESV). Gabriel then proceeds to tell Daniel of God’s plans to answer his prayer and restore Jerusalem.
The term ‘apocalypse’ means an ‘unveiling’, and as an apocalyptic work, the book of Daniel gives us insight into presently unseen spiritual realities that stand behind human history. Very often these insights relate to wider geopolitical matters, but here in Daniel 9:22-23 we are given insight into what happens in heaven when Daniel prays. At the beginning of Daniel’s pleas – before Daniel has even had a chance to say all that he had to say – the Lord takes swift action and sends his response. And we’re told why the Lord responds swiftly: because Daniel is greatly loved.
All this must have come as a huge encouragement to Daniel, living in dark days in a foreign land. He may well have wondered if the Lord still heard his prayers and was still powerful to act. What an encouragement for Daniel to be given this insight into the very workings of the heavenly throne room – and to have this assurance that his prayers are heard and answered by the all-powerful God who loves him greatly. And what an encouragement for us too.
Introductory thoughts on…introductions
At the Cornhill Training Course we often find ourselves chewing over the question of what makes a good sermon introduction. There is no absolute right or wrong on this, but the following are a few reflections:
1) We should not begin with the assumption that the Bible is fundamentally uninteresting. I know we never quite think that or say that. But all too easily we assume that our sermon introductions should serve as some sort of apology for the fact that the following 25 minutes will be spent in the Bible. We then strive to entertain and to loosen up the crowd with the introduction, hoping that they might then be willing to sit through the rather less interesting material to follow. People may not arrive at church feeling inclined to listen to what God’s word has to say, but we must never fall into the trap of thinking that the word is itself uninteresting. The liberating truth is that the Bible is invariably more interesting that the story or joke I have up my sleeve. So we must have confidence in the power of God’s ever-living word to captivate the attention and stir the hearts of those who have ears to hear.
2) Good sermon introductions serve the exegesis of the passage. They are not simply a rhetorical tool designed to soften the blow that the Bible will soon be opened – rather, they should serve to begin to open up the passage in some way (more on that below).
3) All that having been said, sermon introductions do serve the important rhetorical purpose of helping the congregation to make the transition from whatever else has just been going on (singing, praying, notices, etc.) and from listening to voices other than yours. Launching straight into the exegesis of a passage when people have not yet caught their breath simply will not be effective. Very few preachers have the rhetorical flair or personal gravitas to delve straight into exegesis and to carry the congregation with them.
4) How can an introduction aid that rhetorical purpose, while also beginning to open up the Bible passage? Very often, a good sermon introduction will identify the central (or at least, a central) issue of the Bible passage and help the congregation to see its significance and urgency. A good introduction will make the congregation feel that it would be to their spiritual and intellectual detriment to miss out on what is coming. It will make them feel that they must listen, even if up until this point they had not felt inclined to do so. This approach recognises two realities: (1) that people often come to church distracted, discouraged and uninterested in hearing from God’s word; and (2) that each part of God’s living word is relevant and urgent and life-transforming.
5) Illustrative stories and current events can be very useful in introductions, as long as they help to open up what is at the heart of the Bible passage and help the congregation to see why it matters. Too often a news item or a favourite story is chosen on for its own merit, and the sermon is forced to fit around it.
Reflections on Hebrews 2 and the Incarnation, Part 2
Following on from yesterday’s post, here are, in summary eight reasons from Hebrews 2 why the incarnation was necessary:
1) Jesus needed to become human that he might lead us to glory (2:10). (see yesterday’s post)
2) Jesus needed to become human that he might call us brothers and sisters (2:11).
3) Jesus needed to become human so that he could die (2:9, 14). The pre-incarnate Son could not die.
4) Jesus needed to become human so that he could destroy the devil, who has the power of death (2:14).
5) Jesus needed to become human so that he could conquer death and deliver us from lifelong slavery to the fear of death (2:15)
6) Jesus needed to become human (like us in every respect) so that he could be our high priest – that is, our true representative before God and our effective mediator with God as the God-Man (2:18)
7) Jesus needed to become human in order to make propitiation for us (2:17). To make propitiation he needed to die, and so needed to be human. But, more than that, the substitutionary sacrifice for human sin needed to be of an appropriate kind, like-for-like. It was necessary that a human should die for the sins of humanity.
8) Because Jesus has been tested as a human, he is able to help with true empathy those who are being tested (2:17).
Praise God that God the Son became the Son of Man to help the sons of men.
Reflections on Hebrews 2 and the Incarnation, Part 1
We are not always strong on the doctrine of the incarnation in our circles – which is a shame, not least because the Bible is very strong on it. Hebrews 2 gives us rich reflection on the truth of the incarnation. The following are a few observations.
Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish believers who were tempted to give up trusting and following Jesus. In chapter 1 the writer reminded the believers that Jesus is higher than all other authorities, including the angels (who were involved in the mediation of the Old Covenant at Sinai, 2:2). The point was that they must listen to his word (2:1-4).
Having convinced the congregation that Jesus is indeed highly exalted, the writer now turns in 2:5 and following to explain to them why this exalted Son should come so low in the incarnation, suffering and death. Remember that the cross was ‘a stumbling block to Jews’ (1 Cor. 1:23), who did not expect a crucified King.
As always, the writer grounds his argument in careful exegesis of the Old Testament in light of Christ, and here he turns to Psalm 8: ‘It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”’ (Heb. 2:6-8, quoting Ps. 8:4-6).
Psalm 8 looks back somewhat wistfully to the original and glorious mandate that God gave Adam, the man in his own glorious image, to act as his vice-regent (Gen. 1:26-28). And it looks forward prophetically to the restoration of the glory of that mandate and calling in the Second Adam.
Originally, Hebrews notes, God ‘left nothing outside his [the first man’s] control’. But ‘at present’ – that is, since Genesis 3 and the Fall – ‘we do not yet see everything in subjection to him’ [that is, to humanity] (Heb. 2:8b). Here is where Jesus, the Second Adam, comes in: ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.’ (2:9).
For the Psalm 8 pattern to be restored and the hope of that Psalm fulfilled, Jesus had to become a ‘son of man’ in the incarnation, becoming lower than the angels for a little while. He had to suffer and die to bear the penalty for Adam’s failure (and ours with him) to fulfil the mandate he was given. By God’s extraordinary grace, Jesus tasted death in our place, that death might not rob us of our God-given glory once and for all.
Because of what he has done, Jesus has been ‘crowned with glory and honour’. But that is not the end of the story. Through his glorification in the resurrection, ascension and enthronement on high, Jesus leads ‘many sons to glory’. That is why he is called the ‘founder’ or ‘pioneer’ of our salvation. Having plumbed the depths of the mess we have made of our human calling, Jesus now leads us to the heights of the glory of our calling as those made in God’s image to act as his vice-regents. He leads us to heaven itself, that we his people might enjoy his glory, and even participate in his glorious reign.
Why the incarnation? Jesus became a son of man that he might lead many sons and daughters of men to glory – in fulfilment of God’s great purpose for his image-bearers.
The purpose of points
In a recent Cornhill preaching class, we spent a bit of time discussing the purpose and value of giving clear teaching points or headings in a sermon. We tend to encourage students to make a habit of using headings and to work hard at them (although there are occasions when headings are a hindrance rather than a help (apologies for the compulsive alliteration; the subject seemed to invite it…)).
The following are a few practical reasons – some more compelling than others – why it is worth investing in good headings:
1) They give your congregation a sense of progression and momentum through the sermon and fuel their hope that they will indeed make it home for lunch. This, in turn, will help them listen more attentively.
2) They convey a sense that you have digested and got a clear handle on the material you are preaching. This is a subtle point, but it does help your hearers trust you as a competent teacher. It strikes me that John Stott exemplified this in his preaching.
3) Good headings crystalize truths from the Bible passage, and so make them easier to understand. For you as a preacher, the very process of articulating, refining, and simplifying headings often will lead to a clearer understanding of those truths for yourself as you prepare to preach them. This will improve the clarity of your sermon as a whole.
4) Good headings help the congregation to remember what they have heard and so continue to feed on the word in the following hours and days. If you are anything like me, you probably forget much of what you hear. I sometimes ask groups of students mid-way through the week what they remember from Sunday’s sermon at their local church. The results are not uniformly encouraging. Anything we can do to help people retain what they hear from the word must be worthwhile. (As an aside, this is one reason why overly long headings may not be advisable)
5) Good headings provide focal points for discussion when the church family talk about the sermon over coffee or lunch. It is great to develop a culture where the church family do chew over the word together and seek to encourage each other from the word after they have heard it preached. Faithful and clear teaching points can only help.
6) They help those who have drifted into a daydream (or indeed have fallen asleep…!) to re-join the flow of the sermon. We might like to think that this is a consideration not worthy of our congregation, but I suspect it is not.
Setting up the sermon
It is always refreshing and interesting to visit other churches, and we have had that privilege during the summer break. In a church we visited recently, I was particularly struck (and encouraged) by the way that the person leading the service and the preacher himself prepared us for the sermon. Before the preacher got up, the service leader took a moment to say something about the nature of a sermon and what we should expect to happen during the sermon. He told us that the living God would soon address us through the preaching of his word. So often we hear from the sermon leader that the preacher is going to ‘explain the passage to us’, as though the sermon were merely a reading comprehension exercise. But to be reminded that we were about to hear the living God speak to us – that prepared us for something much more significant to take place. The effect was not simply to capture our attention, but somehow to change the atmosphere in the room. This may overstate it, but it seemed that there was an atmosphere of reverential expectancy in the congregation once we had been reminded what was about to take place. Personally speaking, I found that I was not only engaged on a new level, but sobered as well as I considered the reality of hearing from the living God.
We were further helped when the preacher stood up and prayed, asking God through the sermon to do the kinds of things he has committed himself to doing through his word in 2 Timothy 3:16 (‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…’ ESV). After such an introduction and such a prayer, we as a congregation were well prepared to meet with the living God through his word.
It struck me that it would be good for all of us who lead services and who preach to give careful thought to how we introduce the preaching of God’s word – both in our comments and in our prayers – so that the people before us might understand the nature of what they are about to hear and might hold right expectations for it. This, of course, will be shaped by our own theology of preaching. But assuming that we hold high expectations for what God will do as his word is proclaimed, let’s consider how we can best prepare the people in our congregation to hear God’s word preached.
The importance of how we preach
It is easy to forget that it is not only important to say the right thing when we preach, but also to say it in the right way. By that I mean not so much choosing our words carefully and structuring our sermon well (although those things are important), but rather speaking and behaving in the pulpit in a Christ-like way.
Sinclair Ferguson recently reflected on the sobering fact that, on some level, over time, the members of his congregation would come to identify him with the person of Jesus. That is, because he stood before them week-after-week and year-after-year as a speaker of the word of Jesus and as an under-shepherd of Jesus, their impression of what Jesus is like would inevitably be shaped to some degree by their impression of him, their pastor.
For those in pastoral ministry, that is a sobering thought indeed. And I’m quite sure that Dr Ferguson is right.
There are lots of implications for our preaching that we could draw from that observation, but let me just highlight one for the moment: we need to make sure that in our preaching ministry – and particularly in our demeanour in the pulpit – we reflect the love of Jesus. It is a particular disease, I think, of younger Reformed pastors (and I write as a younger preacher myself) to be so concerned about drumming the truth into the people under our care and so concerned to spur them on in godliness and fruitfulness that we lose sight of the love and patience that the Lord Jesus shows to us, his slow-to-learn and slow-to-grow people. We see that extraordinary patience and grace time and time again in Jesus’ interactions with the disciples throughout the gospels. And we so need to learn the art of pastoring from him, the great Shepherd of the sheep.
As I reflect on one or two preaching ministries that I know and that have been particularly well received and fruitful over time, I am struck by the way in which the preachers in question have made it clear to their people that they love them – that they are for them and not against them.
If you are a preacher, do you reckon that your congregation sense that you are for them and not against them? And what kind of impression of Jesus are they forming as they sit under your preaching ministry?
When I first started preaching I was given a series of videos by the Australian evangelist John Chapman (now in glory) on how to prepare a sermon. Anyone who has heard Chappo will know that he was a great communicator of the gospel and that a central strength of his preaching was his tremendous clarity and simplicity. To the casual observer, this clarity and simplicity appeared simply as a natural gift of Chappo’s. He certainly was gifted, but he had also thought carefully about the nature of effective preaching. This is where his 20% comes in.
In the course of his instruction on the video, Chappo took a fairly randomly selected passage from Romans (some verses from chapter 3, I think) and asked the group of trainees in the video a series of questions….
(I’m working from memory here, but I think this is about right)
‘If I were giving a lecture on these verses at a theological college, what percentage of the content would I cover?’ Chappo’s answer: ‘90%, or more.’
‘If I were leading a home group Bible study on these verses, what percentage of the content would I aim to cover?’ Answer: ‘Maybe 70%, or so.’
‘If I were preaching on these verses, what percentage of the content would I cover?’ Chappo’s answer: ‘20%.’
This final figure might prompt some sharp intakes of breath among trainee preachers, but I think Chappo was on to something. His point is not that a preacher should randomly select his favourite 1/5th of the content of a passage – perhaps his favourite verse – and share a “blessed thought” on that portion or verse; but rather, I think, that a preacher should identify what is central and at the very core of the passage and draw that out with simplicity, clarity and power. Trying to go down every alleyway and explore every nook and cranny of a passage (especially a longer passage) leads to dull, commentary-like sermons. But getting to the heart of the passage and communicating that effectively to the hearts and minds of our hearers – that’s the stuff of good preaching.