EMA: What I’m excited about…
This year’s EMA really excites me. That is, in part, because the subject matter is something that I think I need to learn more about and grasp. After all, God has called me to be a preacher and – for a time and in his goodness – someone who helps train others to preach. Therefore, it is essential that I understand and believe and hold onto the relationship between preaching and the revelation of God’s glory in the church. I’m convinced this is a much misunderstood (or not even considered at all) subject. Put bluntly, I don’t think preachers can afford not to grasp this and how it affects our preaching, our prayerfulness, our leadership – in fact, every area of church life. So, I’m particularly looking forward to Sinclair Ferguson’s two sessions on this important topic. But I’m also eagerly anticipating Vaughan’s pen portrait of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and, in particular, how he understood the ministry of the Spirit in relation to preaching. Vaughan’s pen portraits are a highlight of past years for me: Simeon, Whitefield, Schaeffer. He has the kind of mind which is able to sift large amounts of material and carefully bring out what we need to know but have missed, what we’ve spent too much time overemphasising, and what practical lessons we need to implement. I thought his Whitefield was a masterclass in this. Some may think that tackling MLJ is a poisoned chalice. But I think we will find that this one off session is particularly good. There’s still plenty of space and time to book, so why not free up the three days now (8-10 July) and I’ll look forward to seeing you and us growing together.
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?
We're busy this week getting ready for three conferences, including the EMA. And so it's time to start telling you about some of the things coming up at the EMA. Take music for example: we're singing a mix of well known and new songs (with the bulk coming from the first category), old and new. All chosen for their gospel rich content. Over the next few days I will trail some of the new ones. Why not have a look and then when you come to sing them they will be at least a little familar. Here's the first – it's the Sovereign Grace version of Augustus Toplady's Now why this fear and unbelief? It's a superb hymn and eminently singable. We've sung it on a few conferences and it's also easily to learn. Give it a go. Or, better still, give it a go with us at this year's EMA. See you then. By the way, you don't need to play it or sing it in quite this way to make it meaningful! I'm sure you know that….
Continuing on from yesterday you might like to know we're also singing this new version of My hope is built on nothing less. The video gives you an idea in a broad sense. But you do need to know we're not octaving it (singing one part low and then another part really high) as they do here. I dislike that. A lot. I think it's one of the most manipulative things you can do in music. So we're going for a middle-of-the-road key! We've also added back in one or two more verses from Edward Mote's original. Still, if you know this version here you'll be able to raise the roof with us at the EMA as we sing about our certainty in Christ. Never mind the cheesy video. Learn the tune.
Why the long speeches?
I'm really appreciating Christopher's new book on Job in Crossway's Preaching the Word series. It's available in the UK at the EMA and afterwards. Here's some really helpful thinking about the repeated interventions of the comforters:
Why do we have to go on listening to these dreadful speeches? After all, God is going to tell us at the end of the book that they are wrong (Job 42.7). So what is the point of listening to them?…This is a natural question. One general answer is presumably to warn us not to be like them when our natural pharisaism causes grace to be leeched out of our conversation and we lapse into the religious certainties of grace-free philosophy or religion.
But the question is intensified after we have heard Bildad's spine tingling description of Hell in chapter 18 and when we are about to hear Zophar's equally terrifying description of judgement in chapter 20. What specifically is the benefit to us of having to listen to these detailed and deeply evocative descriptions of hell?
To answer this question, we need to acknowledge that the fault with these sermons is not only in their content but in their misapplication. They describe life under the judgement of God..before drawing the conclusion that Job is under the judgement of God. Their deduction is false. But their descriptions of hell are entirely accurate.
These sermons, like some of the laments in the Psalms, help us feel and experience through poetry just how dreadful it will ultimately be to fall under the wrath of God.
Christopher then suggests three explicit ways that helps us:
- they stand as a warning against the reality of hell. We must repent.
- they help us grasp the depth of the darkness and suffering that Jesus endured for us
- they help describe in some measure our experience in this age as we drink from the same cup from which Christ drank
Seen this way, there is every reason to go on listening to these "dreadful" speeches.
Three weeks to go…
…it's three weeks until the Evangelical Ministry Assembly. We'd love to see you from 8-10 July at the Barbican Centre in London. Don't forget we've some free accommodation still available with local families if you're struggling to find somewhere to stay. Do pass this invitation on to friends in ministry. We've planned the conference to serve those who are themselves serving in local churches and hope you can join us to be encouraged yourself and be an encouragement to others. I may be slightly biased, but I know what we're singing, what we're stocking in the Bookstall and – most importantly – what's being proclaimed from the front, so I want to say, with no hint of self-aggrandisement, make sure you come. Book here. If you're using twitter, use #EMA2014.
Careful who you call a heretic
Sometimes we have to call out false teachers. It’s the Bible way. We ought to do that soberly, carefully and wisely. There’s no place for a heresy hunter in the pulpit. That’s not just a personal opinion. Read Paul’s letters. See the balance and focus. He does name names. Sometimes. Not often, though. We need to be very careful in extending ourselves beyond his limits. And our naming should always be linked to shepherding the flock. We don’t call out false teachers because they are in the news particularly, or because we’ve read their latest book. We must think about our flock, what is good for them, what protects them.
I say this because I think there is a tendency within our circles to be rather liberal with the word heretic. I’m perhaps a bit sensitive to this at the moment because it’s a label that’s been thrown my way by Ted Williams book on New Calvinism. Or, to be more precise, he doesn’t use the precise word but says that we “change the terms of the gospel.” Serious stuff. I’m happy to let it pass; I don’t think it’s worth commenting on, other than to say it made me search my own heart to make sure I’m not too free with this serious word.
All this was reinforced for me this week when I was reading a Facebook post about someone who wanted some more info on covenant theology. Fair enough. But there was a short post from someone which said (I can’t remember exact words) “As long as you don’t want to know about New Covenant Theology. Heresy.” Here’s the danger of social media where words are cheap and fast. But heresy? Really? Moo – a heretic? Carson, likewise? For both, as far as I can make out, follow a form of NCT, at least.
I spent a happy week a few years ago leading a preaching conference in Cameroon. There were 100 mostly pentecostal pastors who all, almost without exception, believed in a form of prosperity teaching. I was immediately cautious. But on examination I discovered that this is not the maliciously derived prosperity teaching of some so-called churches but a genuine misunderstanding of the nature of the relationships between covenants and how revelation works. They were reading Malachi 3.10 and simply preaching it like it was. Now, you can’t call that heresy, I don’t believe. It’s wrong and they need help and direction, but these guys are not wolves in sheep’s clothing. Interesting then, that even a phenomena like prosperity teaching is not uniform, nor should we treat its exponents uniformly.
All of which is to say, careful who you call a heretic.
Face to face
“And all the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio will fail to wipe it out – a living man in communication with a living audience”
I was moved by those words from the American writer John Steinbeck, in his little book Travels with Charley. Steinbeck gives a touching description of meeting a lone travelling actor in, I think, Wisconsin. This man is not a particularly good actor, but he perseveres doing his shows before modest local audiences in small town America. Steinbeck comments how this very human meeting of “a living man…with a living audience” will always have about it a quality that cannot be rivalled by “the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio”.
I like that. Does this not transfer to preaching? I think it does. Preaching is the week by week living interaction of a living loving praying pastor with a living needy congregation? He may or may not be impressive and successful in the world’s terms. But he is a loving human being face to face with living human beings. Let us learn to value this unimpressive activity very highly and never to think that telecommunication or recordings can ever replace it; set side by side with face to face preaching, these other things are indeed “sterile” for all their technological wonder.
I am preparing to preach John 2:13-22 this Sunday. In some ways it is quite a simple passage. The exegesis is not too difficult. Nor is the central point, that Jesus is the true Temple, the presence of the living God on earth. That his pure zeal for his Father’s house and his bodily resurrection show that this is true. And so on.
But the question I have been grappling with is this: so what for today? I don’t want to leave us simply marveling that if we had been around in the right place at the right time, we could have rubbed shoulders with the presence of God on earth – wonderful though that is. So I have found myself thinking about how the church of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is the Temple of God on earth, at least the Temple under construction. And thinking how we ought to respond to that.
I won’t tell you here what I’ve come up with, not least because it may change between now and Sunday when I preach it at Christ Church Mayfair. I’m not sure I’ve got it right. I know the commentaries don’t help much with this kind of question. But I know it is very important, and can make the difference between a bland or banal sermon and an insightful and incisive one that has real pressure and impact to it. It is this hard thinking that makes sermon preparation such intense work, and inseparable from our involvement as pastors with people.
A children’s talk idea
We’re just beginning something new at our church. Last year, in our Sunday gatherings, we worked through the New City Catechism, one question each week. This year, we’re trying something new. We’re going to have a semi-regular church history slot called 50 Christians. Each time around we’re going to do a VERY brief bio of a notable figure in church history – just highlighting one, or at most two, things about them that Christians should know- then we will use that to springboard into the next part of the service: for example, we might talk about Luther as seeing the Bible clearly teaching justification by faith alone and then sing an appropriate hymn next. Alongside this we’re producing a set of cards – like old fashioned football or baseball cards for the kids (and families!) to collect. If they miss a week, they can ask their Sunday School teacher for one. Here’s an example of a card:
We’ve had these printed as business cards (reasonably cheap) so people have something tangible. Part of our worship then becomes thanking God for our past and rejoicing in the way he has used men and women in the past and how he has preserved his church. We thought this might be more edifying than a rather trite kids talk which – if the kids are going to be taught well in Sunday School – shouldn’t be needed anyway. We don’t teach the adults twice, after all….
Just an idea.