We’re voting this year
I’m not for a minute suggesting that you should tell your people how to vote (in fact, I’ve got a pretty strong idea that it’s illegal for a minister of religion to do so). However, in this election year, I do think it’s good for us as help our people think Christianly about politics and voting. Some will not be convinced about the need to vote and that it has anything to do with following Jesus. Others will reduce the election down to a few test issues. Others still will not have any idea how to apply the Bible to really quite important matters like education or foreign affairs.
I’m not saying that you need to plan a sermon series. I’m hoping that if you preach the Bible expositionally and faithfully, people should have some grasp of these things. But it might be no bad thing to do some extra teaching on these issues to cut through the volume and nonsense. We’re going to be doing that at ours one Sunday evening leading up to the General Election. Sometimes, it’s good to do this – to help people apply the Bible to specific situations that don’t always get tackled in Sunday sermons where the application is, necessarily, more general. It’s no less a ministry of the word. And, it goes without saying, it should be backed up by regular prayer.
And if you’re worried about being asked who you are going to vote for, you could always take a leaf out of our senior pastor’s book who always replies “Whig.” Good answer.
It’s not too early to book for our Spring ministers’ conferences. Next year, due to some expansion at Hothorpe, we’ll have a bit of extra space. This year, both conferences are limited to around 90. Our Senior Ministers’ Conference runs from Mon 27 April through to Thursday 30 April. Then after a short break we’re back in Leicestershire for the Younger Ministers’ Conference from Tuesday 5 May through Friday 8 May (incorporating the General Election!). Last time around the General Election took place in the Seniors, and we old guys had trouble hacking the all nighter. The youngsters will be better placed!
This year we’re focusing on preaching gospels. Easy, you think? Hmm. Not so sure, myself. The gospels are about Jesus, which might surprise those who heard some of our preaching. We’ve got Peter Adam to help us out, alongside an experienced team of other preachers. For the Week 1 senior guys we’re also joined by David Robertson from St Peter’s Dundee who will take a track on apologetics. Robertston for a whole week! Just imagine. In Week 2, we’ve asked Paul Mallard along to help us understand how to minister to people who are suffering. This is a key topic. We youngsters need to understand pastorally how we preach to those who find life a real burden. That’s a key topic.
So, here’s what to do. Book the dates in your diary. It always fills up and as the time gets nearer, it’s always harder to carve out the time. Email or message your mates and make sure they’ve done likewise. Then book up online.
We look forward to seeing you this year, even if it’s been a few years since you’ve been with us. You’ll find the programme stretching but with plenty of time to relax with friends. We purposefully make sure there is time for both equipping and encouraging as well as the few days together being restful and recuperative. Unless you’re staying up all night with David Dimbleby.
Happy New Year
So here it is. 2015. I always enjoy reading the January Evangelicals Now for its list of notable anniversaries. We try and plan at least a few events in our church around some of these notable dates: it’s helpful for people to have a sense of Christian history and how we have got to where we are. Here are some to pick out:
Mary Slessor died 13 Jan 1915. We’ve lots of Nigerian connections in our church so this could be a significant anniversary for us – however, I prefer celebrating births rather than deaths, so we’ll have to see…
William Chalmers Burns born 1 April 1815. He was one of the first and most inspirational China missionaries.
Margaret Clarkson, hymnwriter, born 8 June 1915. I love her hymns. Some are well known, many more deserve to be. Look them up.
Jan Hus died 6 July 1415. I know, I know, it’s a death (see above), but martyrdom is slightly different. One of my heroes, and a shining light before the Reformation. Well worth telling people about.
Richard Baxter, pastor, born 12 November 1615. He had a few strange theological beliefs, but was a fine pastor and (trivia alert) is the most prolific Christian author we know from any age.
There are also some notable events celebrating anniversaries, not least the passing of the Five Mile Act (1665) – not one of our Parliament’s most glorious moments, especially sitting on the non-conformist side of the fence as I do.
That’s it for Christmas
We need a rest from posting every day and – frankly – you need a rest from reading every day! So, this is it until after Christmas. It is a joy and privilege to serve you by equipping and encouraging you in the work of expository preaching and we are praying that your ministry will be graciously used by God over this Christmas time. In fact, here is our prayer for ourselves and for you in more detail (from the Valley of Vision, buy the book!).
Let not my ministry be approved only by men,
or merely win the esteem and affections
But do the work of grace in their hearts,
call in thy elect,
seal and edify the regenerate ones,
and command eternal blessings on their souls.
Save me from self-opinion and self-seeking;
Water the hearts of those who hear thy Word,
that seed sown in weakness may be raised
Cause me and those that hear me
to behold thee here in the light of special faith,
and hereafter in the blaze of endless glory;
Make my every sermon a means of grace to myself,
and help me to experience the power
of thy dying love,
for thy blood is balm,
thy presence bliss,
thy smile heaven,
thy cross the place where truth
and mercy meet.
Look upon the doubts and discouragements
of my ministry
and keep me from self-importance;
I beg pardon for my many sins, omissions,
as a man, as a minister;
Command thy blessing on my weak,
and on the message of salvation given;
Stay with thy people,
and may thy presence be their portion
when I preach to others let not my words
be merely elegant and masterly,
my reasoning polished and refined,
my performance powerless and tasteless,
but may I exalt thee and humble sinners.
O Lord of power and grace,
all hearts are in thy hands,
all events at thy disposal,
Set the seal of thy almighty will
upon my ministry.
A Christmas Carol. A Christian Carol?
I’ve just finished reading through Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (pretty short, just 66 pages in my Best Ghost Stories). It’s classic Dickens – and even if you don’t go in for his long and flowery sentences, it’s an easy read, funny too. I was reminded that one of the closest TV adaptation to the original is actually (and I say this without a hint of irony), The MuppetsChristmas Carol where much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the text and names are only slightly changed: Mr Fozziwigg (Fozzi Bear) is actually Fezziwigg in the text.
Muppets aside, it’s a great redemption story. Or is it? It certainly seems to be a remarkable change of heart. But this time around I read it more critically. Is it really a Christian story, a true Christmas Carol, as it purports to be? There is certainly a change. Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a tight-fisted miser (Bah! Humbug!) to a generous philanthropist. But what has changed him? It’s clear from the story that he’s changed by the frightening insight into what has happened to his dead partner, Jacob Marley. His chains and padlocks represent his failings (especially, though not only in generosity) which will be heaped sevenfold on Scrooge because he is nothing like as kind as Marley. A frightening thought indeed.
Frightening enough, indeed to spur Scrooge on to change. As do the future visions of his death and what people will say about him. He lives in dread of not being remembered, or only for the wrong reasons. His change is thus entirely self-motivated. He wants, in essence, to work his way out of hell. The book paints a picture of a man who is completely successful in this endeavour. As such, I think this ripping yarn is actually anti-gospel. Change is good, of course. True change includes conviction and a desire to live differently. But where this change comes from selfish motives rather than an encounter with the God of Christmas come down, it is ultimately doomed. “I desire to change these shadows you have shown me by an altered life” is Scrooge’s new mantra.
There is grace however: first in Scrooge’s assistant Bob Cratchitt who insists on a Christmas Day toast “To Scrooge, the founder of the feast” (in Scrooge’s vision) and in Scrooge’s nephew Fred who insists on offering friendship and warmth to his uncle despite the lack of any return.
However, ultimately, despite Scrooge’s Christ-less promise to “honour Christmas in my heart”, we need to know that there is One, like the Spirit of Christmas present, who invites us to “come in and know me better, man” and himself provides the means to do so. Therein is the change and the Christmas Carol we all need to hear.
The measure of the man
I’ve enjoyed reading recently some of Calvin’s letters (£58 rather than the RRP of £90). It’s always instructive to read someone’s correspondence and, in Calvin, you find much to surprise you, especially if you think of him (as many do) as some cold, hard theologian. He is, it becomes clear, first and foremost a pastor. Here’s a snippet, written to Anne Seymour, daughter of the Lord Protector (her mother was Edward VI’s aunt). She had a clear faith and Calvin wanted to encourage her on:
It remains for me to exhort you to pursue your so happy course, even although, as I hear, you are willing enough of yourself; and I trust that the Lord himself will give you this disposition, and will grant you steadfastness to persevere to the end. Certainly, among so many excellent gifts with which God has endowed and adorned you, this stands unquestionably first – that he stretched out his hand to you in tender childhood, to lead you to his own Son, who is the author of eternal salvation and the fountain of all good. It becomes you to strive, with all the more zeal, to follow eagerly at his call.
I wonder what I’d see in your letters? And you in mine.
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!
Keeping it simple in Galatians
I’ve got the privilege of preaching through the first part of Galatians right now. Last Sunday was 2.11-21. It’s glorious, but not straightforward: with vs.11-14 a decision is required on just what the men from James were saying and why, and there are quite a few knotty exegetical questions in vs.15-21 that need to be untangled. If I short-circuit those things, I’m likely to miss the cutting edge of this particular passage. I tried to do that work while also keeping things simple, but am not sure I succeeded.
So it’s a relief this morning to turn to preparing 3.1-6, which seems much easier. One simple point runs right through it: the way Christians should seek to go on securely in the Christian life is exactly the same way they started – by believing what they heard, with no falling back on ‘works of the law’.
There is, however, a however. Paul moves from Christ crucified in v.1 to God giving his Spirit and the Galatians receiving the Spirit in vs.2-5. I think my sermon will likely be too trite if I don’t work on the link between cross and Spirit that Paul makes here. He seems to think that if we’re misunderstanding how to stay secure in our on-going lives in the Spirit, then the root is that we’ve forgotten the effect of the cross. That’s probably why he began the letter in 1.4 by ascribing a strikingly wide effect to the cross (‘to rescue us from the present evil age’). I want my sermon to be as simple and direct as the passage is. But I don’t want a cheap simplicity that misses the crucial theological links that Paul draws.
To work, then.
Autumn Ministers – final media
The final two talks from the recent Autumn Ministers conference were by Garry Williams. Garry is director of the John Owen Centre, part of the London Theological Seminary. His first talk was on the love of God, and particularly preaching the love of God in today’s love-obsessed world. His second highlighted four ways in which the world might enter the church, considering the particular characteristics of our society and how they may negatively influence the church.
Garry’s talks can be found here.