The preacher and his side-swipes
I've just started reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem: The Biography. It's mostly excellent (so far) – very readable and insightful. SSM himself admits that for much of Jerusalem's early history the only historical source is the Bible. He then gives a (sometimes erroneous) summary of the Bible's account of Jerusalem. So far, what you would you expect. What irritates me, though, is that throughout this account, SSM constantly sideswipes at the historicity or authenticity of the Bible – even when the points he makes have nothing to do with his analysis. This is typical:
"There are so many contradictions in the stories of these co-called Patriarchs that they are impossible to date historically"
And, making the point that the account of David bears hallmarks of authenticity, he says,
"The earlier books of the Bible are a mixture of ancient texts and backdated stories written much later."
Or, on the extent of the kingdom, admitting that its size was possible,
"David's kingdom…is plausible too, however exaggerated by the Bible."
Where history provide proof of Bible accounts, it seems that SSM only admits this grudgingly:
"Fortunately, however, the Dark Age [where only the Bible gives an account] was over: the inscriptions of the empires of Egypt and Iraq now illuminate and often confirm the furiously righteous pontifications of the Bible."
Because, of course, the inscriptions of Egypt and Iraq are all together better accounts! One last one, explaining that it was Isaiah who first introduced the idea of a heavenly Jerusalem:
"There were at least two authors of Isaiah, one of them wrote over 200 years later, but this first Isaiah was not just a prophet but a visionary poet….."
And so it goes. I suppose it is not surprising, though it does rather get me cross. The point is that most of SSM's interjections and asides are unnecessary. They are just side swipes. They don't add anything to his description or argument.
But this isn't a rant against what is otherwise an excellent book (so far). It's a blog for preachers. So, here's a question for you. How many times does your preaching contain side swipes. They don't add anything, but any chance to get your little bit in on the topic you feel strongly about (or that you know someone else in the congregation feels strongly about)…..
Brother, it's an abuse of your position as herald of the Word of God. Stick to the text. I realise that I do it more often than I care to admit to myself. It can be especially true on hot topics. For example, I've just preached a four week series on Genesis 1 – trying to focus on the God who reveals himself there. The temptation to have a pop at positions different from mine on creation is astounding! Yet it's not going to add anything. It's just going to detract from the message and leave people feeling angry or misled, certainly not edified.
So, preacher: stop your side swipes!
The vernacular Bible for you
Last week, Mrs R and I went to see the National Theatre's Hamlet with its excellent £10 ticket scheme. It was an incredible evening. I don't mind watching Shakespeare, but it is frankly hard work. Rewarding ultimately, of course, but hard work. I find (and perhaps I'm just a thicky) that you need to interpret as you go along – seeing it helps as you can work out what some of the more obscure or inverted dialogue means.
Whatever else the King James version may have been in its life, it is not now a vernacular Bible. It is not written in a language most of us can speak. It contains occasional words that we would find offensive and not read out in church (e.g. 2 Kings 18.27). It has some passages (especially OT prophecy) which were apparently inpenetrable when they were written, let alone now. A case in point is Micah 1.11:
Pass ye away, thou inhabitant of Saphir, having thy shame naked: The inhabitant of Zaanan came not forth in the mourning of Beth-ezel; He shall receive of you his standing.
Pass on in nakedness and shame, you who live in Shaphir. Those who live in Zaanan will not come out. Beth Ezel is in mourning; its protection is taken from you.]
The King James Bible (1)
Part of an occasional series about how the King James Bible came to be (there are plenty of other people writing about the legacy of the King James Bible – for example, see Glen Scrivener's dedicated blog here).
If you want to know anything at all about the Bible in English the place to go is to one of my favourite books. It is David Daniell's enormous "The Bible in English" – a enormously thorough look at English translation. It's surprisingly readable and not at all "academic" (I mean that as a compliment rather than a slur). Published by Yale University Press, it runs to almost a thousand pages so it is not for the faint hearted nor those on a limited budget. (Although since writing that line I see that there is a paperback version on amazon for £13 which is remarkable value!)
Daniell writes fairly and helpfully about English translation. He is not unduly exuberant about the KJV, praising it rightly where it is due and pointing out its shortcomings (chief of which, in his eye, is that it is too 'high' – it robs the Hebrew text, in particular, of pace and 'roughness' which colour stories; rather ironic seeing as the non-Christian world exhorts the KJV as a piece of high literature – this it its greatest failing, says Daniell).
He also bemoans the fact that since early on its life, the KJV has been published with the dedication to King James bound in (a rather over-the-top piece of royalist propaganda) rather than 'Miles Smith's fine eleven page preface' entitled 'The Translators to the Reader.' It is an important document in the whole story of the KJV and, wonder of wonders, in the world of the Interweb, you can read it online here.
Interestingly, it sets out some of the translators principles which are not all in vogue today (though many are). One of these is that the translators did not pedantically insist on verbal consistency. If a word was translated in one way in one place, the translators did not feel bound to translate it in the same way in another. This is still a point of disagreement. Preachers are sometimes thankful for translations that show consistency in the way words are translated.
Perhaps most interestingly for us, though, as preachers, is the manner in which the translators went about things. In small groups (one at Westminster, one at Cambridge and one at Oxford) a linguistic expert would read his translation out while the members of the groups sat around and followed along in the translations available at the time – both English (Tyndale, Bishops Bible, Geneva Bible) and Latin and other languages (Spanish, French, German). The co-readers would interrupt the translator where they thought the translation they had in front of them differed and a discussion on various merits would follow. So, the KJV often became an amalgamation rather than a translation. Here for example is 2 Corinthians 1.11, reported by Daniell:
You also helping (Bishops Bible) together (Geneva 1560) by (Bishops) prayer for us (Tyndale) that for the (Tyndale words, Geneva 1557 syntax) benefits (Bishops) bestowed upon us (Geneva 1557) by the means of many (Tyndale) persons (Great Bible) thanks may be given of many on our behalf (Tyndale).
Preachers can still learn today from this technique. Reading a passage in multiple translations is still a really good tool for thinking about a passage and what it means. It can supplement (of if you don't have original languages) replace [I say that cautiously] Hebrew and Greek analysis. Try it! Open up Sunday's passage in Bible Gateway with three or four translations you don't normally use and see what light is shed. It can be remarkably rewarding.
Balanced preaching and my quads
As a failed rugby forward I'm always struggling to keep fit. Mostly I do this by cycling everywhere and going on the rowing machine at home. I've begun to notice that I have quads to die for. But sadly this is about the only muscle group that is anything to write home about. Cycling is great for fitness and developing certain muscles, but not all. No wonder track cyclists look so abnormal as they walk along with their over-developed leg muscles.
There is a danger, of course, that we can be great preachers and develop to Olympic standards certain muscle groups of our congregations. We can preach our favourite books, easier books (if I can say that), personally meaningful texts, hot topics. And, let's be honest, preparing such sermons, is relatively easier. There's not the same hard graft in the text nor wrestling in prayer required.
But as preachers we know we must preach the whole counsel of God and perhaps the best way to do that is to preach through books of the Bible. That is the strategy that is most likely to make your preaching balanced. Of course, there's still then the question of how to choose books. Here are some ideas:
- we should be aiming for a mix of genres and parts of the Bible so our people can understand the whole of the Bible's story. If our preaching is dominated by one genre, e.g. epistles (probably 'easiest' to preach?) we will scarcely be helping our people as we might
- we should be aiming to cover a range within a certain period of time. Peter Lewis at Cornerstone Nottingham once said (I think it was he) that he aimed to preach through the whole Bible in 10 years. That may or may not be realistic chez vous. In fact, the turnover of your congregation may demand something else. Tim Keller says (I paraphrase) that when he was in a settled church in Pennsylvania he could afford to preach slowly through books MLJ style. Now he's in NY everything is different. So much for you will depend on your context.
- we should be aiming to preach books that address issues for our people. Knowing what we sometimes call the "melodic line" of a book is a great help. Knowing that Hebrews is a book written to people tempted to give up would mean it is ideal if you find yourselves in a situation where everything seems hard.
- we should be aiming to stretch ourselves. If you're anything like me, some of the best preaching comes not from a book I've hugely familiar with and know almost by heart (familiarity often breeds preaching content). It comes from when I'm freshly in a book, studying and praying hard.
Don't let your congregations get huge quads but have flabby stomachs!
Abuja Bible College – or, Cornhill for Nigeria
Those who, like me, have done the Cornhill Training Course will know that they learned almost as much from the students as from the teachers. The students I learned most from were those from Nigeria.
Pastors and workers from NIFES (IFES in Nigeria) have been coming to Cornhill for years. When they have returned to Nigeria, they have put huge effort into passing on their training to others – mostly through conferences. The need for something more permanent and thorough has been obvious for some time. There are so many vibrant churches in Nigeria, and so few opportunities for pastors to train.
Finally a group of Nigerian ex-Cornhillers, along with Lee Furney – who has been involved with Cornhill for several years – have set up Abuja Bible College. It joins Cornhill Scotland, Belfast, and Sydney.
It focuses on Cornhill distinctives – expository preaching, spoken sermons rather than academic written work, and lots and lots of practise with honest feedback, all based on in-depth study of the bible – as well as doctrine, contextualisation, and pastoral issues. That's a model which will work anywhere – it doesn't tie the church to Western models, and isn't suited only to Nigeria, but to producing preachers anywhere who can clearly preach biblical truth.
Like Cornhill, it can be taken part time while serving in a church, or while working – making it possible for people already in ministry, or who couldn't otherwise afford training. Besides preachers, it will train men and women to teach the bible in other settings, like youth and Children's work.
Please pray for this great new initiative, and if you are in Nigeria or West Africa, or know people in West Africa looking for rigorous training in how to preach faithfully, then do put them in touch with Lee in Abuja.
The sound of silence
I worked out a while ago that in the last ten years of ministry I've preached something like 800 sermons, a pretty typical number for a sole-in-charge pastor, I guess. Not surprisingly, amongst that number there have been a fair few duds (more than I care to admit) and messages that could have been preached a whole heap better. But the glory of preaching is that it is not just a carefully crafted speech which must be delivered word perfect, pitch perfect. It is not (ooh, this is topical!) the King's Speech.
Of course, delivery matters. Technique is not to be despised. But on the whole, preaching is more than this. And, to my absolute humility (and grateful relief) I am often able to preach better than I know or deserve. And, as it happens, preaching regularly in a local church means mistakes matter less anyway. The people should love you, warm to you, enjoy your ministry like a family member. Word-perfect is not a pre-requisite.
This was brought home to me this last Sunday. I've been preaching a short series on Genesis 1. Four sermons on the God who reveals himself as the God who creates, the God who relates, the God who participates and the God who anticipates (this last one next week). My sermon last Sunday had a point about common grace and what a great doctrine it is – warmly (I hoped) applied in terms of not being anxious (Matthew 6) and in other ways. But in my last minute prayer and prep I realised that I had made a glaring omission.
Jesus applies common grace in another way in Matthew 5. There, Christians are exhorted to love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them – because God is a God of common grace and we should not just glory in the doctrine, but practise it too. Saying grace at the dinner table should naturally lead to us praying for those against Christ and his people. Just in time I scrawled a couple of words on my notes and had in my head how I would frame it into words.
Except when the moment came I completely forgot the point! I stared at my notes trying to make sense of what I had scribbled. It left me completely. I stopped. I apologised. People smiled. There was a pause – a long pause, I thought. The sound of silence. Then suddenly it all came flooding back and I was fine.
As I say, not the King's Speech. But that's fine I think. The silence was probably shorter than it seemed to me. No one seemed to notice, and it gave me time to gather my thoughts and words. Oh, the wonder of preaching to people who know and love you!
British Gas and the mystery of godliness
We had our boiler serviced a couple of weeks ago and just recently I received this nice letter from Matthew Bateman, the Managing Director for Service and Repair.
Dear Reverend Reynolds [a bit formal, but better, I suppose, than Dear Adrian]. Recently we visited you to service or repair your central heating boiler. We would like to know how we left you feeling?
Feeling? Ha! Surely the issue is whether the boiler works? I'm rather tempted to reply and say "Well, Matt, I was left feeling a little hungry, because I had to delay having my tea because of the appointment time. What is more, my chips were then cold, so I was ever so slightly bitter about it. Yours sincerely….."
I wonder how the folk we preach to are left feeling at the end of a sermon? And, to be honest, is that really the test? Now, feelings matter. Of course they do. But feelings are a consequence of the work we are praying the gospel will do in people's lives and hearts and minds. When Paul prays for the Ephesians in that grand prayer of chapter 3 he prays that they will be "strengthened with power" and that "Christ may dwell in their hearts" and "may know the love of Christ" and be "filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."
If such a prayer were to be answered in our congregations (and we pray it will be, oh, how we pray!) there would be an outflow of feelings. I'm sure of it. But it's not what we seek primarily. We look for the work of the mystery of godliness which leads to changed lives and changed feelings.
We must make sure we're not in the mindset of asking "how did that sermon leave you feeling?" Nor, worse, are we preaching to change feelings. Rather we need to ask, "what did the living and active word of God do to you to make you more like Christ?"
More like this:
Two of my girls have just returned home from school. "Dad, we had a confirmation service today and we said the nicotine creed."
And an interesting credal development.
In praise of John Flavel
Robin's post about John Flavel reminds me to say what a hero he is of mine (Flavel, rather than Robin – though I'm also very fond of Robin!). The book that Robin is recommending (Keeping the heart) is currently out of print, but Christian Focus will reprint it later this year. You can probably grab a second hand copy on Amazon, but you'll be doing well to get a new copy until then. If you are impatient, though, Banner of Truth produce a collected works of Flavel. You'll find Keeping the Heart in there, except it's called Saint indeed etc. If the combined set is too pricey you can read the book online at Google Books. Not ideal, I know, but worth it, as Robin says, for the content.
Many preachers get told they ought to read the Puritans and soon find themselves struggling, because the Puritans are not always the easiest read. Flavel stands out, however, for his readability, even 350 years on. It's also worth reading his volume on Providence. If either of these are still too tricky, then Grace Publications (an imprint of Evangelical Press) publish a simplified version of Providence called God Willing.
Flavel himself was a remarkable man. We visited Dartmouth this summer for our family holiday and it was here that Flavel conducted much of his ministry. He was one of those Church of England clergymen who was ejected in 1662 for refusing to toe the line when a new Act of Uniformity was introduced. Infamously, he preached out on the sands at low tide (this is, I'm told, the reason that Church of England parish boundaries now reach out to the mean low water mark – to stop rebel preachers, though this may be an urban myth).
Flavel, much loved by his congregation, continued this illegal work in Dartmouth until King James' indulgence for non-conformists. Then he founded a non conformist church (still open,now a URC church). We visited the church because there was an art exhibition open – and sure enough, there, just inside the door, was a painting of John boy himself.
His pastoral heart is reflected in much of his writing. It's worth searching out not least because he was renowned a preacher who was in touch with the common man of his time and area; he loved preaching to the farm hands. Perhaps it is this common touch which makes him so easy to read today and a good model for preachers?
More like this:
Ups and downs of Jonah
We've enjoyed hearing Angus MacLeay (author of PT title, Teaching 1 Peter) at our Women in Ministry. He's been teaching very pastorally and helpfully on Jonah – the gospel according to Jonah, in fact. It won't surprise you to know that this is the same as the gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for the gospel is always the same.
Angus explained very helpfully how he looked at and studied the text (not just how he preached it). This is the value of PT conferences where we ask our speakers not just to preach to us (though we ask them to do that) but also to "show some workings" – something that as a preacher you would not normally do.
What Angus has most helpfully done is to show how important the language of direction is in the book of Jonah:
The low point is "you cast me into the deep" (Jonah 2.3) and the high point "you brought my life up from the pit" (Jonah 2.6). In fact, when you stop to read it, you find the language of direction (down, up, into, low etc) crop up time and time again. And of course, implicitly, this is how Jesus reads Jonah too – for the sign of Jonah is about going down into the whale three days and three nights followed by resurrection (see Matthew 12.38-40).