Every time I teach Esther at Cornhill I am reminded of the dangers of unwarranted moralising, by a series of published bible study notes on Esther. The author of the notes assures us that ‘In the book of Esther we see the lives of several characters played out. There are those people who are selfish and prideful, seeking only personal recognition, and there are those who risk everything for others and choose integrity in the face of great opposition. Esther is a book about developing godly character.'
So, for example, the purpose of the study on Esther chapter 1 is ‘To show that respect between individuals is built through mutual regard and appreciation rather than through demanding respect or controlling another.’ And Esther 3 is about evaluating the advice we receive, the purpose of the study being, 'To discover how to evaluate the counsel we receive from others and to give good advice.’ The problem, as Barry Webb points out in his excellent 'Five Festal Garments, is that such moral conclusions have to be imported from outside the text.
I think our natural tendency away from gospel and towards moralising, is aggravated by bible studies where the unit of narrative is too small. We are faced with a short section of narrative and we feel we have to learn something definite from it – definite and distinct from what we are later going to learn as the narrative develops. And so, in desperation, we import some morality from outside. I learn two lessons. (1) Bible studies on Old Testament narrative are difficult and need careful handling/leading, and (2) make sure the chunks of narrative are sufficiently long to learn what the narrative itself is teaching.
OK, so some quotes are OK
Just been listening to a wonderfully heart warming sermon by Johnny Prime at the FIEC leaders conference. Having said that we should use quotes sparingly last week, Johnny proved me wrong with two apposite and helpful quotes. Here they are: Spurgeon:
“Today there is not very much gospel about; the church has given it up; a great many preachers preach everything but the living truth. This is sad; but it is a strong reason why you and I should teach more gospel than ever. I have often thought to myself – Other men may teach socialism, deliver lectures or collect a band of fiddlers, that they may gather a congregation; but I will preach the gospel. I will preach more gospel than ever, if I can; I will stick more to the one cardinal point. The other brethren can attend to the odds and ends, but I will keep to Christ crucified. To the men of vast ability, who are looking to the events of the day, I would say, “Allow one poor fool to keep to preaching the gospel.” Beloved teachers, be fools for Christ, and keep to the gospel. Don’t you be afraid: it has life in it, and it will grow; only you bring it out, and let it grow.” Charles Spurgeon
When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.
The brick Bible
Here's something we've used from time to time – the Bible in LEGO. Yes! I'm not kidding. The brainchild of Brendan Powell Smith, his site now has loads (and I mean loads) of Bible stories reproduced in LEGO. I've reproduced one picture as an example here with Brendan's permission – though please note you have to pay a small fee to use the illustrations. When our eldest was young we sometimes used an illustrated Bible – it helped get her keen on Bible reading in the tougher times. The text was all AV though, so it could be hard work. This is a similar idea – but in LEGO and it has served a useful purpose with our youngest during her not-so-keen-Bible-reading moments (there's a book version available from Amazon). I'm doing work on Numbers and many of the Numbers stories are available in brick form! Powell-Smith grew up in a church setting but is himself an avowed atheist. However, he is also keen that people read the Scriptures for themselves, and his pictures are true to the text – which also means that if the text gives you graphic violence (or worse!) you get it in the pictures too. To be fair, he does highlight on the website which stories contain material that may be unsuitable for some.
Worth a look. And a smile.
London evenings: video
If you would have liked to make it to the London evenings on Numbers but were unable, here is the entire content in video form. There are six videos – we had three evenings with two sessions per evening. If you missed it all, then we have some more London evenings in the spring with David Cook (on the book of Acts). Booking is now open – just follow the conferences link at the top of the page.
(Edit: The audio is also available here)
As a rule, I think pastors shouldn't use quotes in their sermons. There are a number of reasons for this:
- quotes tend to come from written material rather than spoken material and, generally speaking, there is a difference. What might make sense to you written down in your notes will be much harder to digest when you're just listening to it read through. Sentences tend to be longer and more complex when they're written down
- some people quote as a kind of underhand way of impressing the congregation. "As Augustine said…." If, honestly, that's your motivation, then don't do it!
- to put it bluntly, people have not come to hear what Don Carson thinks of the knotty problem. They want you, Mr Preacher, to explain it to them and apply it to their lives. If they wanted the Don, they could have stayed at home and listened to Radio 4 (see here!)
- quotes can work as illustrations – for example, hearing the account of an early martyr when he is faced with death. Better still, I think, to tell the story yourself
No, quotes are best left at home. But every now and then, I do break my own rules. I did this last Sunday preaching Romans 3 and answering the objection that many people have – "I'm just not a bad person." This is a simple quote, easy to follow with a nice turn of phrase. As such, it answers some of the objections above. It comes from Bishop Moule, the 19th Century Anglican Bishop of Durham and co-founder of Keswick:
[yes] the prostitute, the liar and the murderer are short of [God's glory]; but so are you. Perhaps they stand at the bottom of the mine; and you stand on the crest of the Alps, but you are as little able to touch the stars as they.
What to do when you have not prepared your best sermon
It happens to us all. Last week I was on holiday, then ill, then stepping in for someone at the last minute. A pretty chaotic set of circumstances that meant by preparation was poor, prayerfulness was lacking and every time I tried to sit down and concentrate I found it hard to keep going for more than about 40 minutes before coughing and spluttering through another cup of tea.
What do you do?
I think (and I hope this is not too contentious), you relax.
Let me tell you what I don't mean. I don't mean that sermon preparation is not hard work. I don't mean you can get away with the bare minimum most of the time. I don't mean that you can borrow other people's sermons. I don't mean that prayerfulness doesn't matter. I don't mean that your congregation can get by on a diet of half baked teaching.
This is what I do mean. God is good and gracious. He knows and understands our weaknesses and failings because he has taken on human flesh. Ultimately the effectiveness of our preaching is a spiritual issue not a human one.
So, whilst I will still try to work and pray through a sermon, I will not let Satan tell me that its effectiveness is down to my effort or skill. I believe that even though Paul and Barnabas "spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed" (Acts 14.1), that passage must be seen in the context of "and all who were appointed for eternal life believed" (Acts 13.48).
And my testimony is often the same as other preachers I have met – that the sermons I am most pleased with have had least effect…. and vice versa.
Thank God that it is so.
Don’t be distracted by the famous texts
We're not agin preaching texts. In fact, this last Sunday (Reformation Sunday, in our church at least) I preached Romans 3.22. "Good, good" said the wise sage Dick when I told him. Preaching texts is hard work though in terms of making sure you don't rip them out of context and understand them as they're meant to be understood – a harder task than many preachers think.
But the flip side of this is that when you're preaching a book you will come across famous texts. This Sunday last in the evening I was preaching from 2 Corinthians 5.11-6.2 in our series on "the gospel centred church." It contains at least three famous texts:
“one has died for all, therefore all died.” (v15)
“if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”(v17)
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (v22)
The truth is that anyone of those would (or, better, could) make an excellent sermon in itself. But when preaching the passage, it's easy to be distracted by these great texts. Some of the folk probably had them as memory verses when they were younger or on posters on the wall (if they were particularly keen). The answer is, I think, to keep working at how they function within the passage. Acknowledge they are well known and, without denigrating those who hold onto such texts for comfort and help, warmly show how they fit in the passage.
It's not easy, actually. Someone will always feel you have not done it justice. Someone else will feel you have overdone it. But all Scripture is God-breathed and so securing them in a passage is well worth the effort. For what it's worth (which is probably not very much) my outline was:
Gospel message (2 Cor 5.11-6.2)
- The gospel enables us think rightly about ourselves (11-15)
- The gospel enables us to think rightly about others (16-17)
- The gospel enables us to think rightly about the task (5.18-6.2)
X Marks the Spot: Preaching Chiasms
I have had an exchange of e-mails with a pastor-preacher I greatly respect, about how best to preach a passage where the structure is chiastic. We were not sure, but between us had three suggestions.
- Beware seeing chiasms everywhere. As my friend said, beware chiasm-mania. Reading texts can become a bit like "Where's Wally?" – there just must be a chiasm somewhere, if only I could find it! Well, maybe there isn't. I have to say that this has let me off the chiasm-hook many times; I am just blind to them!
- Even if there is a chiasm, don't call it that when preaching; it will only mystify most of your hearers and send them away thinking how clever the preacher is, rather than how wonderful the word of God is. If it's really clear, why not just call it something like "a sandwich-like structure"? Everybody knows a sandwich.
- If it's really clear, experiment with different ways of preaching it. Although I almost always preach a text in the order it is written (after all, that is the order in which we read it and hear it), I did try preaching Deuteronomy 30:1-10 by taking each layer in from the outside, ending with the turning point, the climax and key point in verse 6 (as David Jackman often says, "the turning point is the teaching point"). Well, actually, I preached verses 1-6 in order, and then went more quickly through verses 7-10 noting that they made more or less the same points as verses 1-5 but in the opposite order for emphasis.
Choosing names matters too….
A more lighthearted observation – at the same ceremony mentioned yesterday, I was wakened from my reverie by one of the names read out.
And the prize goes to…Amber Lin.
Dear Amber looked very pleased, but I couldn't help wondering if any of the other wives of Henry VIII would be there too. Choose your children's names carefully.
Why careful language matters
Christians can sometimes be rather sloppy with theological language. There are many reasons for this: laziness, misunderstanding – and perhaps some of us who stand at the front of churches get too pedantic. But on the other hand, some doctrines (and I'm thinking particularly of the Trinity) are hard to understand anyway without people confusing things even more. So, whilst we ought not to be criticising those who speak from ignorance, we ought at the very least to be helping them get to grips with such matters.
I was struck by this whilst reading a very short and simple book on the Trinity by Stuart Olyott, What the Bible teaches about the Trinity, just reissued by EP. It's a great little book for giving to church members (and, dare I say it, refreshing the understanding of church ministers?). There's a chapter on errors to avoid, where Stuart writes this about Sabellianism (essentially modalism):
Sometimes, Sabellianism is found in a Christian's prayers. Often he begins by praying to God the Father, but shortly afterwards thanks him for dying on the cross. He thus falls into the mistake of saying of the Father what can only be said of the Son. He may then proceed to thank him for his indwelling presence – something which can properly be said only of the Holy Spirit. Fortunately God does not listen to our words, but looks upon our hearts, and the mediation of Christ guarantees that our prayers are presented in heaven without fault. Yet it is always dangerous to have wrong views of God, and if such prayers are public they may sometimes be positively harmful to those who hear them.
This was reinforced for me when visiting a church building yesterday for a school prize-giving. I was sitting at the back next to a stack of leaflets that said "What Christians believe." I took one to read in the duller moments of the assembly. This is what the leaflet said about the Holy Spirit.
We believe the Father is always with us and we call his presence the Holy Spirit
What do you think? Sounds to be like modalism. There is truth within it, but the Spirit is God himself, one of the three persons of the Trinity and not simply the Father's presence. Careful language does matter.