My only comfort
We saw last week that it was important to remember that the Old Covenant is not the New. This is especially true, I suggested, with some of the Old Covenant promises which only find their fulfillment in the New Creation, where they are gloriously and abundantly shown to be true and real. But we live in the 'not yet', not just the 'now.' Take the whole question of protection and the Lord's promise to save.
For example, take Psalm 55.16: "But I call to God and the Lord will save me." That might seem like a great comfort when we're struggling in life – perhaps someone doesn't like our preaching? Perhaps there is a church leader against us? Perhaps a close friend (like the situation in Psalm 55) has turned against us? Perhaps the persecution is not just words, but actions too. I know church leaders who face such things, even in the UK.
What then? Can we simply pray in Psalm 55.16 into our situation? I really believe we can cry out, "Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy" (verse 1). But the promise to save now is not, I would suggest, one for ours to claim as it was for David. Not in this life. And yet, many people assume that is precisely what God has promised. However, the facts do not bear out that interpretation; God universally saves now? Try telling that to the widow of Graham Staines and his two sons (d. 1999). Try telling that to the family of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (d.1945). Etc. Etc.
So, is there no comfort?
- Yes, there is eternal comfort: God's promise is fulfilled ultimately and supremely and finally in our resurrection into Christ.
- But there is immediate comfort too. Though God does miraculously preserve us, oftentimes when we don't even call to him, that is not our promise. Our immediate comfort is in the sovereignty of God. The comfort is that he is the Almighty. The comfort is that whatever happens to us is for our good.
Joshua Harris and the Simeon Trust
An interesting testimony here from Joshua Harris about preaching workshops that they run with the Simeon Trust. Like us, the Simeon Trust try to work on expository preaching with those attending; they work in the US, we work in the UK. Our preachers conferences are thus very similar, and you can still book onto our Senior Ministers conference in May here or there are one or two places left at the Younger Ministers conference which you can book onto here.
Why preachers give up on expository preaching
Just looking through some books for the EMA and I've just started reading this one: a collection of contributions edited by Carson and Keller entitled The Gospel at Center. In the opening chapter, there is a discussion about why people are rejecting evangelical Christianity and our response. I'm particular interested with their comment on expository preaching:
Over the last few years there has been a major push to abandon expository preaching for what is loosely called "narrative" preaching. The diagnosis goes something like this:
These are postmodern times, marked by the collapse of confidence in the Enlightenment project and a rational certainty about "truth". So now hearers are more intuitive than logical; they are reached more through images and stories than through propositions and principles. They are also allergic to authoritarian declarations. We must adapt to the less rational, non-authoritarian, narrative hungry sensibilities of our time.
In our understanding, it is a great mistake to jettison expository preaching in this way. But in some quarters, the response goes something like this: "Because postmodern people don't like our kind of preaching, we are going to give them more of it than ever." They are unwilling to admit that much conventional use of the expository method has tended to be pretty abstract, quite wooden and not related to life. It is also true that many traditional expository preachers like the "neatness" of preaching through the Epistles instead of the vivid visions and narratives of the Old Testament. But most importantly, expository preaching fails if it does not tie in every text, even the most discursive, into the great story of the gospel and mission of Jesus Christ.
A brief book review for a brief book: Godly ambition
Godly ambition is Alister Chapman's new assessment of the ministry of John Stott: 'critical yet sympathetic' so the dust jacket goes. It was written in Stott's lifetime, with access to his private papers, and promises insights into something of the man. There is a sense in which it doesn't disappoint. Although much of the material is very familiar to anyone who has read any of Dudley-Smith or the other biographical volumes, there is more here than a simple biography. We get into a little more of the motives and passions. The insights I found particularly helpful were:
- why the ministry at All Souls was initially so fruitful but slowed up considerably in the 1960s
- the failure of Stott to reach much outside his class
- the struggle to make NEAC successful
- the Lausanne showdown with Billy Graham over inclusion of what Chapman calls 'the social gospel'
- Stott's changing views on, say, women's ordination (becoming less conservative, p123) and abortion (becoming more so, p124)
These are assessed in a gentle, loving but critical way. You don't feel at any point that Chapman is having a go at the man at all. He should be praised for that.
However, to be perfectly honest, I found it all a bit brief. The issue of women's ordination for example, and why Stott changed his position, warrants more than 3 paragraphs even though it is set in a broader canvas. The Lausanne issue gets a whole chapter and is, to be fair, dealt with much more thoroughly. I suppose I am saying, I wanted more. Much of the history, of course, is well rehearsed. But it is the additional insights that we need to hear….and I closed the book thanking God for a man who reintroduced some academic vigour into evangelicalism (Chapman says this is one of his major achievements), but still wanting to know a little more about what drove this remarkable servant, not least to ensure we hold onto what is good with objective, thankful and discerning minds. I felt more was also needed on his preaching.
This is a 160 page book, brief I would suggest. And at £35, you can't help forgetting that each page turn costs you 42p. So, I enjoyed it, found it illiuminating and stirring…..but I just wanted and needed more. More pages. More analysis. More of everything, really.
Saturday was a good day. I really enjoyed the interaction with occasional preachers. Good for me, at least. Hope it was good for them too. If you live in the Colchester area, your moment is coming! Our next preachers day is up the A12 on Saturday 21 April. Robin Weekes will be leading a day on preaching wisdom literature, and who doesn't need help with that? You can find out more details and book online here. And if you live in the Midlands we're working on coming up with an autumn date to kick off there. Watch this space.
The Old Covenant is not the New
Spent a day on Saturday teaching occasional preachers about how to teach from the psalms. It's an interesting topic – most occasional preachers might be asked to preach every now and again when the vicar or minister is away and they think to themselves, what can I preach that is standalone and straightforward. The irony is that many choose the psalms which are neither standalone nor straightforward.
One very common error is to forget that these are, for the most part, Old Covenant psalms, rooted in the language of blessing and obedience. Those blessings and curses in, say, Deuteronomy, help explain the unashamedly prosperous language:
7 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
8 he seats them with princes,
with the princes of their people.
9 He settles the barren woman in her home
as a happy mother of children. (Psalm 113)
But it also explains the so called imprecatory psalms when the psalmist calls down judgement on his enemies. God promises, as part of Old Covenant blessing to afflict his people's enemies with the same curses they will suffer if they do not obey his commands. So, when the psalmist asks for God to bring down judgment he is saying, fundamentally, "Sovereign Lord, be faithful to your covenant promises."
It's simply not possible to preach the psalms faithfully without grasping this (or indeed, much of the Old Testament). The Old Covenant is not the New and though there are links, lines, similarities, shadows, copies and so on (what we might call continuity) there is also discontinuity and we need to be able to answer the differences to be able to preach the psalms faithfully.
If only more preachers (occasional and otherwise) knew that!
One of the things about preaching is that it involves words. You may have noticed. I guess that many of us who are preachers don't use full manuscripts; even those who do probably stray off piste. Which means that we need to train ourselves to be careful with words. You see words can very easily be meaningless. This was brought home to me by the latest Vodafone ad. They have followed the rather tired route of licensing the Star Wars characters (come on, Vodafone, everybody seems to have done that!). Here's one I pass cycling on my way to work.
It says, "We'll fix any mobile device (almost)." Almost? Not much of a Jedi master, this Yoda. The ad is trying to be clever, saying we can't fix light sabres. But not everyone makes that connection – it took me at least a dozen cycle pasts until I realised that Yoda was holding said light sabre instead of a Motorola Razr.
And the words are meaningless. Almost any device? What assurance is that? It's like the sales "up to 50% off" or "most items £2" – these are sales pitches that promise the earth and deliver nothing. Likewise, the preacher – especially the off piste preacher – needs to be careful with words. Words are beautiful, powerful, delicate things. The gospel is full of them, loaded with meaning. Don't let yours be robbed.
Happy World Book Day!
As if there aren't enough celebratory days already…..but here's one that's worth celebrating. Since the times of the printing press, Christians have loved books. That's no surprise, really, because we are people of The Book. So, here's an idea for world book day which is entirely focused on The Book. A few years ago a small team called The Bible Design Group with input from John Kohlenberger (not Andreas, this is the typesetting guru) put together a version of the TNIV without chapter numbers, verse numbers, headings, footnotes and single column – so no heavily hyphenated narrow columns. We used these with some guys in our church who were dyslexic. They found them much easier to read.
Well, the idea is back. This time Biblica, the NIV copyright holder, has produced a NT version of Books of the Bible together with a reading programme called CBE (community Bible experience). Same formatting, NIV (2011) text and, I think, a great idea. We might try reading together in our home group – that is the idea: to get people reading the Bible together as it was originally delivered, not in bitesize pieces. I believe, of course, in careful verse by verse study. But this is not an either/or choice but both/and. The UK volumes are priced at £3.50 making them very attractive. The scheme can deliver the daily reading to your inbox or you can listen to it in audio version if you prefer.
A great world book day idea.
What is the importance of preaching?
Recently a small group of us were listening to this talk by Peter Adam from the 1993 Senior Ministers Conference. The purpose of our gathering was to explore the question "what is the importance of preaching?" – and Peter Adam very helpfully addresses this by asking what it is that preaching does that other forms of Bible teaching don't. Here are some of the answers he came up with:
Silence is not so golden
So, The Artist is the best film of last year. Not so sure myself, but then they didn't ask me (*). This represents the final nail in the coffin for visual over audio, apparently. The twentieth century is the one that marked our transition from audio experiences (the spoken word, especially) to the visual. TV and movies obviously contributed to that change. So it is interesting that we have come full circle to the place where a silent movie has won the Oscar. Picture is king (**).
That's also the end of sermons then, unless we can make them visual – hoorah for PowerPoint?
No. I don't deny the power of visual. But I do deny that words are powerless, or even that words cannot be visual themselves. This was brought home to me last Saturday. I was speaking at an evangelistic event in Essex and so was only able to watch the first half of England-Wales rugby (***). That meant I had to listen to one of the most exciting internationals for years on the car radio. And you know what? I loved it. It was breathtaking, exciting, visual – all this and more. That was due in part to the excellent commentator (Ian Robertson), but the spoken word need not be dead or dull, boring or irrelevant. It was – dare I say it? – more engrossing that the TV version…..
And of course, The Artist is not a silent film. It has a soundtrack; it's just that the soundtrack is not speech. So, ra-ra-ra for audio and hoorah for radio commentary and three cheers for sermons. Don't let anybody tell you their time has gone. The Sony radio awards do not get the same airtime that the Oscars or BAFTAs do. But they should. And sermons must not be despised. Dull sermons are hard to forgive. But sexing up with video/visual is a wrong reaction to incompetence. The word is still king.
* I'm not bitter about this – just a little disappointed. After all, apparently Denzel Washington's wife gets a vote. Well, he does, but he's too busy so he let's her vote on his behalf according to a newspaper article this weekend. I'm up for voting, if they need help.
** Not everyone can handle silent movies apparently. The official trailer on IMDB has overdubbed speech on The Artist print for John Goodman's character and the dog. See here.
*** For American readers, rugby is a game with an oval ball but without helmets. It's good. Like American football but for real men.