The obedience of the Lord Jesus
Robin Weekes and I had the same 'Eureka moment' during our Cornhill practice classes last Tuesday afternoon. At least we like to think it was a 'Eureka moment'.
Students were expounding Matthew's account of Gethsemane. Some majored on the wonderful truth that the Lord Jesus is here doing for us something we will not, and cannot, do for ourselves – hence the contrast of Jesus' watchful prayerfulness and the disciples' sleep. One of the students in my group perceptively took Romans 5:19 as a theological control: by the obedience of the one man, the many will be made righteous.
Other students majored on Jesus' command to 'watch and pray, so that you do not enter into temptation' and applied it to our own watchfulness in prayer to resist temptations.
In both our groups, as we discussed these, Robin and I had a sense of déjà vu, remembering pretty much identical discussions when students were expounding Matthew's account of the temptations of Jesus. In both passages, we agreed that the primary and gospel truth is that Jesus is doing for us something we cannot do for ourselves; his perfect obedience under the temptations in chapter 4 and the temptations in Gethsemane in chapter 26 is a wonderful and perfect obedience, and it is only by this obedience that we can be made righteous through the cross to which his obedience took him. While it is true that we may learn from Jesus how to resist temptation, and that we ought indeed to be watchful in prayer against temptation, this is not the primary application of the passages.
But what thrilled both me and Robin was the thought that the obedience of Jesus is signalled so strikingly as he enters into his ministry (in chapter 4) and as his earthly ministry draws to its close (in chapter 26). It is as if these vivid obediences bracket the total obedience of his life and ministry.
The real skill of preparation
Assuming you are the kind of preacher who spends some significant prep time studying the text (and if not, what are you doing?), then I think I've worked out one of the hardest parts of the exegetical work. It's not
- Hebrew or Greek
- working out the structure
- determining the big idea
- thinking through sharp and relevant application
- writing headings
- etc, etc
It's knowing what to leave out. I wonder if this is the real skill of preparation. I'm preparing a sermon on Gen 3.14-24 at the moment. It's for our evening congregation which means it has to be about 25 minutes and straightforward. Daily Express rather than The Times. And the text is full of stuff. Really full. And I can see, even at this early stage, that one of the hardest things I will have to struggle with is what to put in and what to leave out. I think that may even be harder than working out whether Rom 16.20 has any bearing on the curse….!
It's a preparation step that will ensure the sermon hangs together and works for those who are listening, so I dare not cut it out. But here's the thing. Neither can I short cut the rest of the preparation thinking that these kinds of issues will not make it into the final cut. How can I know what to put it and what to omit unless I've done the study work first of all to see how it all fits together.
Tsk. And my Dad thinks preachers just work one hour a week.
A preacher’s encouragement
I had the joy this last Sunday of preaching at a local church as a stand in when someone had pulled out relatively last minute. It was a small, but happy church. It got me thinking about where preachers find their encouragement. The world would find their encouragement in numbers, and many preachers think the same. There is a buzz preaching to a few thousand (something I've only done very occasionally). It is harder with a few dozen. We may have good and godly reasons for wanting churches to be bigger – after all, if my church sits 200, say, and there are only 50 in the pews, I might be calling out to God to save 150! That's no bad desire!
But the truth is most preachers are more affected by worldliness than that. There is a kick we get from a full church which massages our egos and makes us feel worthy. I spent almost 10 years ministering in a small (<100) church. I know how it feels and I know (oh, how I know!) the worldly temptations a preacher faces. Very early on I confessed to my Gamaliel that I struggled when the church was almost empty. I found it harder to preach.
'Ah,' he said. 'You're finding your encouragement in the wrong place. Your encouragement comes not from the numbers you have in front of you, nor even the response, but from the task you've been called to do.'
That's a pretty radical idea. After all, imagine you are preaching and there's a great response. Wouldn't you be encouraged? Wouldn't you whoop for joy if, say, there were many conversions? Of course. But if you do so independently of the God who is at work, then the logical conclusion would be that you should be full of discouragement if no one was moved. That's preposterous. No, a preacher's encouragement comes first and foremost from the doing the task he is called to do and knowing that God will do what he will do.
This is Ezekiel in action. 'And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear' (Ezekiel 2.7). Ezekiel had a tough gig. In fact, right from the start, God tells him that his preaching is going to have little or no effect. That would decimate most modern preachers. But no. For Ezekiel the task from Yahweh is what drives him on. So it must be with us.
It's also why, of course, Ezekiel starts with a glorious vision of God on his throne (looking like a man – I take this to be Christ). This, ultimately, is Ezekiel's encouragement. This is the God he is serving.
Preacher, you need to find your encouragement in the right place. Which means, like Ezekiel, you need a big vision of the triune God.
Some people missing from the EMA…
We're beginning to hear about some brothers who are being denied visas to attend this year's EMA. Last year we had one delegate who was refused entry and put on the next plane home. This feels a little unfair and certainly unfortunate for those who would love to come, but find themselves unable to do so. The EMA can be a lifeline for such people, especially if they feel lonely in ministry. Often they have paid out on airfares. Please do join us in praying.
Short thought on preaching
Does anyone else do their best sermon preparation in the middle of the night? I woke up last night and finally worked out my sermon outline. We need to tell up and coming young preachers that this high calling is all consuming. Day and night.
Why sharp exegesis matters
We have been reading a family devotion book recently that has, up to now, been pretty good. The format is well tried. Each day there is a verse or short passage followed by 200 words or so of the author (in this case a well-known retired preacher) expounding on the verse. So far. So good. But yesterday's reading was dreadful. I don't mean that the words the author had written were wrong – they were a careful description of a Biblical truth (that our God is with us in all circumstances, even those which frighten and alarm us). But the thought did not relate to the verse. It might have done, taken out of context (the verse spoke about fear), but in its context the verse was about something different. It was sloppy exegesis.
Does it matter? Some of my friends who think I am a bit right wing tell me not. What does it matter? The truth is a truth, after all. It encourages and makes a point. As a truth it will strengthen, confirm and encourage God's people.
I beg to differ. The truths need to be rooted in The Truth. This, for one thing, is how people are taught to read their Bibles. As we preach and teach we show them how glorious truths are derived and seen in the word of truth. If we build in a disconnect, how are they ever to see whether our truth is true? Moreover, how are they ever to read the Bible for themselves and see what truths it contains without resorting to sloppy platitudes. No, sharp exegesis really does matter.
I think one of the thrills of the last thirty years is seeing preachers from all backgrounds sharpen up on their exegesis. I'm not saying they all need to preach the same (perish the thought!) nor that we want a particular kind of sermon only (though I do have strong views on the kind of preaching that is best). But just sometimes we are tempted to fall back into the style of old where we hang all kinds of (worthy) truths on a text that cannot take the weight, nor was ever intended to. Enough already.
And enough from me. I need to do some work on Genesis 4 (my next preach) to make sure my exegesis is not sloppy. It matters, you see.
The small print of the gospel
This week, cycling to work, I was confronted with a huge e.on advert proudly telling me that for 2012 it would not put prices up. Brilliant. Only I've just got a letter through the post from e.on saying my prices are going up by 10-11%. Not so brilliant. As always, the devil is in the detail. Cycling a bit closer to the poster I saw that it said at the bottom "does not apply to contracts ending in 2012". Yep, that's us. So, we'll have to go through the rigmarole of switching provider again because e.on won't give existing customers whose contracts are ending the same promise. Small print, huh?
There's small print in the gospel too. Or at least, there is in the way we often present it. Last week, in an evangelistic preaching group, one brave soul chose to preach from Mark 8.34-38. When it comes to Jesus teaching (and Paul and Peter) you can hardly say that he made suffering into the small print. No, there it is writ large. TAKE UP YOUR CROSS DAILY. But we've made it so. Like the caveats and conditions that pepper the end of radio ads and spoken at one hundred miles an hour, we don't think that suffering will attract anyone to the gospel.
But suffering is part of the gospel. It's part of the way that salvation was achieved and it is part of the life where salvation is appropriated. "Anyone who wants to live a godly life will be persecuted." Clear enough? And because we relegate this to, at best, something of secondary importance, we struggle to pastor people effectively. Think about your pastoral ministry. How many situations and difficulties would be avoided, or at least changed for the better somewhat, if people knew and believed that to follow Christ is to choose his path.
We tut at the prosperity gospel but the truth is many of us, and our people, believe a version of it. And our pastoral ministries are almost certainly littered with the remnants of such a faith-lite. Preaching the whole counsel of God must surely mean that we must preach Mark 8 too. No small print, please. We're not insurance salesmen.
Why do evangelicals never get fairly represented?
David Aaronovitch wrote a very pejorative article in yesterday's Times about women bishops. Sadly (or perhaps, fortunately) it's behind a paywall. But he managed to dismiss proper biblical arguments with one clean sweep of the pen:
Objection in the Anglican church usually boils down to these essential propositions: first, we are part of a bigger Christendom and can’t just alter stuff like this on our own. In any case, second, we don’t want to because Jesus was a bloke in the image of God (also a bloke) and his word was passed on to the Apostles who were all blokes. This was no accident — it was deliberate on the part of God. He could have chosen women and didn’t. Third, even if you want to argue about that, we’ve done it this way for 2,000 years and the very fact that we’ve done it this way for so long suggests that this what God wants. If he hadn’t, he would have moved us to change it. [So far, evangelicals will not recognise any of these arguments as having weight]
And that, plus a few quotations from St Paul about how women shouldn’t talk in church, is what the argument amounts to. There’ll be letters after this column suggesting other abstruse doctrinal reasons. Ignore them. Jesus was a chap. Since him we haven’t had women bishops. Therefore God doesn’t want women bishops.
It's amazing how he's managed to reduce important biblical arguments down to nothingness. If this is our case, then I'm all for women pastors/bishops. How could I not be? But it's not and I'm not. It gets worse. Commenting on a petition organised by some brave women we know arguing against women bishops, he concludes:
There is a word for this. It is “backward”. It belongs in the realm of beating children at school, imprisoning homosexuals, arguing that “blacks” are like infants or that masturbation makes you blind.
Just like being against gay marriage is homophobic? This article got Mrs R raving (and she a lifelong Baptist). She even penned a letter to said venerable institution, but decided, in the end, against sending it.
I'm not particularly surprised. For some while now, evangelicals have not been fairly represented. Perhaps, in a sound bite world, our biblical arguments are too hard for people? There may be something in that. And perhaps we do need to try to present more simply what we believe without watering down the content. But you do get the feeling that whatever our arguments, they would receive similar short shrift. I suppose, listening to Jesus, we shouldn't be surprised. But, as Carson has pointed out in his latest cracker – it's all symptomatic of the amazing intolerance of a society which prides itself on being supremely tolerant.
Chance to win Christopher’s book
In a shameless attempt to fill half term blog space, here is a competition (and, by the way, a link to a very good blog) to win a copy of Christopher Ash's bible-overview-with-a-difference book….. Only valid until 7pm tonight.