Why preachers must think for themselves
Last weekend I had to produce an emergency sermon – a sermon in a hurry, you might say. We wanted a service that was responding to what had happened in Paris and planned a change to our programme. Out went 1 Kings 9 (to be resuscitated at a later date) and in came Luke 13. There’s no typical sermon prep time for me, but it’s rare that a sermon takes less than 8 hours work. And here I was, at 10am on a Saturday morning (a day off), sitting in my office with a blank sheet of paper.
At such times, I confess that I resort to the help of a commentary more than I would normally do so – more extensively and more quickly. I’m not ashamed of that – it’s the nature of ministry that such times sometimes come and I don’t think God is going to hold that against me!
So, here’s the thing. An otherwise excellent little commentary on Luke got things a little wrong. It was Leon Morris in the Tyndale series who points out that the two verb forms of metanoeo = “repent” in Luke 13 are different. One is a present imperative (in v3) and one is an aorist (in v5). I thought I would check. I only know a little Greek [insert standard kebab shop joke here, if you must]. But when I checked, I found that this wasn’t the case – at least, not in NA27 that I was using.
They are both the same – present, active subjunctives. Am I missing something here? Quite possible, and no doubt the emails will come flooding in like a small trickle. But in the circumstances, I believed it wrong to take Leon Morris’ application too far – that both one off and continuous repentance are in view in Jesus’ mind.
Commentaries are a great, great help. Don’t know where I would be without them, in fact. But every preacher still has to think for himself.
Picking up a little on Richard Pratt’s lines to NT application, I really like this idea of three ‘eras’ – the inaugural, the present and the future. Here’s a little expansion, particularly as it relates to the warfare of Joshua:
In terms of the inaugural work of Christ and his Apostles:
– there is an initial defeat for evil spirits
– there are initial warnings for humans
– there is initial salvation for humans
But Christ also has a present work which is reflected in Joshua:
– there is an ongoing defeat of evil spirits (Eph 6.11-12)[most people in our congregations don’t even believe in the presence of evil spirits]
– there are ongoing warnings for humans (2 Corinthians 10.1-6)
– there is ongoing salvation for humans (2 Corinthians 5.20)
There is also a future work which Joshua foreshadows:
– a final defeat for evil spirits (Revelation 19.13-15, 20.10)
– there is final judgement for humans
– there is a final salvation for humans
And of course, the final answer to the holy war question is if that you struggle with that, you ain’t seen nothing yet compared to what Jesus is one day going to do.
What do we do with holy war?
One of the hardest things for OT preachers is to work through what is going on when it comes to holy war – what does it really mean to totally devote things to destruction? It’s a tricky question, and a key objection to the battle scenes we find in Numbers, Judges, Joshua and on into the monarchy.
We had an excellent hour with Richard Pratt on just this topic. We’ll post the video soon, but here are some headlines. First, the word used to denote this holy destruction is a law word (Lev 27.28) where it is actually an act of piety. Various things given to God could be redeemed, but not those things that were ‘haram’ – they belonged totally to God and could not be bought back.
The culture of the time, of course, was to take things for yourselves, and this was as true in war as the rest of life. The culture was for the victors to take the plunder, including human plunder. To the victor the spoils. Thus, in the context of war, to devote something to destruction was actually an act of self-denial: it was to give to God wholly something that was normally reserved for yourself: it is, in that sense, an act of piety. This is why Achan’s sin (Joshua 7) is so terrible.
Second, we need to set the battles in the context of the larger battle that exists between God and Satan – a battle which begins in Genesis 3 and finally comes to an end in Revelation 21. This is the Lord’s battle – a vivid reminder of which is found in the Commander of the Lord’s Army (Joshua 5-6) who is neither for Joshua nor his enemies, but for the Lord. In other words, the battles are not ethno-centric (committed to the propagation of one particular race) but deistic – God-centric, in other words.
Third, it is easy for us to think that just because we breathe air, we deserve to die (Pratt’s caricature, not mine!). Whilst true at one level, it is also true that there are particular kinds of wickedness that come up before God which deserve immediate judgement. To put it another way, not every city in the Bible is destroyed. Many are not. But there are some whose sins are so significant that they deserve judgement – Sodom and Gomorrah are a case in point.
Even the word gospel with its OT overtones (Isaiah 52.7) is a warfare term. We tend to reduce gospel to ‘believe and be saved’ but in fact it is an announcement of a battle victory.
All of this of course is a million miles away from a standard 21st Century perspectives where holy war is thought to be and reduced down to some kind of ethnic cleansing. That puts us on the back foot. But here is holy Scripture, and thinking more carefully about these issues allows us to think positively, as indeed we ought.
Christ in the Old Testament (again)
It’s been really useful to have Richard Pratt with us this last week. His sense of humour is so dry he’s almost an honorary Brit! He gave us three excellent sessions on Joshua for which the video will be available shortly. There were, as you might expect, some insights along the way – not least some of the richness with which he encouraged us to think about how we preach Christ from the Old Testament.
I found his teaching helpful because as I think about Christ in the Old Testament, I tend to think functionally: themes, types, trajectories, texts and so on. That’s a valid approach. But Richard’s reminder was that there are temporal ways to think about Christ in the Old Testament too.
The Old Testament, he argued, anticipates Christ in three ‘eras’ (though that is my terminology not his). It looks forward to his inaugural work; his present work; and his future work.
In other words, Christ is foreshadowed in what he has already done, in what, by his Spirit, he is presently doing and in what he will one day do. These three time periods (done, doing, will do) are constantly in view in the Old Testament. You can’t do all of these lines all the time, but these different lines of development give you rich seams with which to preach Christ and what it means to be in him.
Simply reading is not simple
Simply reading what Scripture says is really difficult. Here’s what I mean:
I was recently looking with a group at just two verses – Titus 2.1-2: “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.”
Just two verses. No difficult words. No complex logic. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, at least half of the people in the group took from it as their first point: “Elders must teach sound doctrine.” How true! But look again: how different from what Paul actually wrote to Titus here.
Here he doesn’t tell Titus to teach sound doctrine. He tells him to teach what ‘accords with’ sound doctrine.
What is that, we might ask, having just read v.1? Verses 2ff. tell us: it’s all these instructions that Titus is to teach to different groups in the churches. When we notice this, then a rather different central point to the sermon emerges: “Elders must teach the lifestyle that fits with sound doctrine.”
I certainly don’t mock any of the people in the group who fell into the bear-trap of not actually reading carefully the few simple words in Titus 2.1-2 that were in front of them. We all simply fail to simply read all the time. (Anyone who’s ever tried to proof-read a document that they’ve written and have missed obvious bloopers despite countless reading will know how hard it is. And there’s plenty of study been done that shows that, when we read, our eyes are both constantly scanning ahead and also taking in whole words or short phrases at a single glance.)
This means that the preacher needs to find ways of forcing himself to slow down his reading. There’s no one right way of doing this. For myself, I try always to write out by hand any passage I’m speaking on, word for word. If I’ve got two or three long chapters of OT narrative as a single unit, I might just allow myself to summarise paragraph by paragraph.
The main reason I do this is simply that it forcibly slows the speed of my reading down to the speed at which I can write.
(And I’m old enough to think that having pen in hand focuses my concentration. I’d like to find biblical warrant for this prejudice held by many like me whose childhood computer was a Sinclair Spectrum and who therefore are still slightly agog at contemporary technology, but I can’t.)
The more familiar a Bible passage is, the more necessary I find this process. That’s because the more familiar I am with it, the more I think I know in advance what it says. And in that case when I think I’m reading it I’m really not. I’m just looking at the text on the page while the tape of what I think it says is playing in my mind.
Every preacher needs to find their own way of doing this. But we need to give God the respect of slowing down our reading of his word.
On not preaching what we know is there, part 2
Another example of the strange phenomenon of a preacher in his preparation actually spotting something central in his text, but then losing sight of it and not preaching it because he lacks the necessary biblical/theological apparatus to make sense of it, to relate it rightly to Christ and to his people, and therefore to preach and apply it faithfully and powerfully…
I recently heard a seminary lecturer claim that the active obedience of Christ is the most sadly underused doctrine in pastoral ministry. Now we could probably think of other candidates for that unwanted accolade, but I do think that the speaker is on to something.
One place in which this comes out is in the difficulty that many evangelical preachers have with those OT figures who are said in one way or another to be blameless before God.
David is an obvious example.
Another is Noah, of whom it is said that he ‘found favour in the eyes of the Lord’ (Gen. 6.8), and that he ‘was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God’ (Gen. 6.9). For many of us, our most controlling theological grid says, “Avoid any hint of works-salvation at all costs”, which leads to the common reading of these verses that’s often summarised as ‘grace found Noah’. I have an exegetical problem with that: it inverts what v.8 in fact says. It does so, I think, because it’s assuming a view of salvation which plays up Christ’s passive obedience at the cost of his active obedience. In other words, an assumed theological grid has twisted the text a bit.
The text looks a little different, though, if I come to it knowing that I have been saved, in part but significantly, because there is ultimately one man whom the Father judged worthy of passing through judgment to emerge alive on the other side precisely because of his life of obedience to the Father. If this is in my mind, I can allow Gen 6.8-9 to point me to Christ without having (in my view) to bend it a little out of shape. (Of course, in the richness of God’s word, Christ’s passive obedience for us, quite apart from our works, is foreshadowed straight after the flood in Noah’s sacrifice, 8.20-21).
One other tricky “he keeps insisting he’s righteous” figure in the OT is Job. If I may plug a (former) colleague’s book: Christopher Ash’s recent commentary on Job in the Preaching the Word series handles the issue of Job’s righteousness quite superbly. Here he is on Job’s final self-defence in ch.31: ‘There will come a man whose perfect obedience will extend both to his single-hearted worship and love for his Father and to his perfectly sinless and utterly good treatment of all his fellow human beings…. [Christ] fulfils the innocence of Job in the perfection of his obedient life.’ We will see this, says Christopher, only if we read Job 31 ‘in the light of the doctrines of justification and of union with Christ from the rest of Scripture’ (p.320).
On not preaching what we know is there, part 1
As we Cornhill staff listen to students giving practice sermons and talks and then lead the subsequent discussion time, I’ve noticed an occasional phenomenon. It goes like this:
• Leader: “Explain the logic and flow of that passage to us as clearly as you can.”
• (Student does so, and does it quite well.)
• Leader: “Good. But that wasn’t the central message of your sermon. Why not?”
• Student: “Well, I just didn’t know how to preach that.”
One very honest student (whose permission I have for this) was recently preaching to us on the second half of Isaiah ch.1. I, along with some others in the group, felt that he’d missed the crucial logic at work in vs.21-26. In that section, Jerusalem moves from being indicted by God as a ‘prostitute’ inhabited by murderers (v.21) to being called ‘the city of righteousness, the faithful city’ (v.25). And Isaiah tells us how this dramatic shift is going to occur: God will turn his hand in judgement against his enemy Jerusalem (vs.24-25a – which is no surprise), and in doing so will not sweep Jerusalem away but in fact will remove all her impurities (v.25 – which is a big surprise: here is divine judgement that does not destroy but purifies).
So we asked the student: “If that’s the core of the passage – judgement from God on his people that purifies – why did you preach about forgiveness, which is a rather different topic? What went wrong in your prep that led you to miss the key thing?”
To which he replied, with refreshing openness: “I didn’t miss it. I did notice it. But I just didn’t have a category for it.”
I think that’s a perceptive comment. A preacher who knows he must study Scripture carefully will often spot the core message of a passage accurately. But that’s not enough for preaching. He needs to have the necessary biblical/theological grids and frameworks in place which allow him to make sense of what he’s seen in the text, to know how to relate it to Christ and to his people, and therefore how to preach and apply it with faithfulness and power.
If my core understanding of Christ’s saving work defaults constantly to justification and forgiveness as my only controlling categories, then although I may still notice when Scripture says something else about salvation (as Isaiah 1.21-26 does), I’m probably not going to know how to make sense of it, preach it or apply it. As Mr Spock used to say, I may see the data in front of me, but it just won’t compute, Captain.
Further on this to come…
Is WHY the right question?
So, the Archbishop has doubts. I think it’s a brave thing to be honest about and a bit more honesty about struggles, appropriately expressed, would be no bad thing in our circles. But I wonder sometimes, if pastorally we need to change the record?
What do I mean? After the events in Paris, we held a special service and I preached on Luke 13. We thought that was the appropriate response, especially in our multi-cultural setting with quite a few French people and French speakers. During the service we had an extended prayer time. And some people were expressing WHY questions. That’s what you’d expect, and it’s OK to ask God that. After all, it’s a common theme in the psalms.
But there’s a sense in which that question is actually answered in the New Testament. Although we can’t specificise about every situation, we do know that Romns 8.28 AND 29 (note both verses) holds true. There is a sense, then (and I don’t mean to be trite about this) where the answer to the WHY question is always “because he’s conforming us to the image of his Son.”
Now, I fully realise that such an answer might seem glib and insensitive – especially to those in the midst of real struggles. But pastorally, we need to train ourselves and our people to be asking a different question. Perhaps not “instead of”, but at least “as well as.”
That question is not WHY, but HOW?
How is God conforming me to the image of his Son. What is he doing, right at this moment, to make that a reality? I think it is only then that we can fully embrace what James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Like Jesus, in other words.
The Lord’s prayer and me
The Lord’s Prayer is in the news at the moment, I’m sure you’ve noticed. Cinema advertising agencies have apparently reneged on an agreement to show a Church of England video of various people praying the Lord’s Prayer. More of that in a moment.
As a pastor, I confess that at times my relationship with the Lord’s Prayer has been less than straightforward. Like many non-conformists I’ve over-reacted against a kind of repetitive “babbling” (Matthew 6.7) by not using the Lord’s Prayer enough. And I’ve got something to learn here from Anglican brothers who are more committed to its regular use.
Nevertheless, there is still a risk of peddling a kind of superstitious nonsense when it comes to the Lord’s Prayer and that is why, I admit, I’m rather glad the video’s been taken out of cinemas. Of course, there is a big question about the issues that raises in terms of censorship, accessibility, etc etc. I know that – but this post is not about those.
Rather, it’s about the fact that this particular campaign is seriously flawed anyway. For one thing, I’m not sure that the strapline “Prayer is for everyone” is necessarily true, certainly as it might be understood by a watching public. You can’t pray to one to whom you have no access, can you? Prayer is for Christians. Maybe this is too nuanced a point and I’m being too pedantic? OK, I’ll take that.
But more generally, we risk giving the impression that being a Christian is praying THIS prayer or just asking God for things. That rather dangerous proclamation is endorsed by the justpray.uk website which is linked at the end of the ad. For there, on a protestant site, are prayers to pray including the Hail Mary and a prayer addressed to St Christopher for travelling mercies. I have to say that for this website alone, I’m pretty glad the ad was banned.
And last night, in my Bible reading with little Miss R, we read the Lord’s prayer together, talked about what it meant and then prayed it. It was a precious time.
A very different Christmas
There are an increasing number of Christmas resources which you can use as part of your seasonal evangelism. Some of these are short and sweet; others longer. Some are for kids; some for adults. Some are for everybody; others are for those who are asking genuine questions. Some are for church use; some for personal use. I happen to think we need all of the above. Christmas is still a good time to share the gospel, by which I mean a good opportunity. It’s true that the opportunity may be diminishing: but even Richard Dawkins likes singing carols and you only have to see the wrath that follows councils renaming Christmas as Wintertide or some such stuff to know there is still an emotional attachment to the time of year.
Speaking as a non conformist, I wonder if there are fewer people coming to Christmas services? However, even if that decline is real and not just in my head, having good resources on tap is always important.
And that’s why I’m pleased to see Rico’s latest little book, A very different Christmas: what are you hoping for this year? This is not a short tract, and it’s not for someone who is not really interested. But it is engaging enough and short enough to be accessible to someone who has genuine questions or wants to find out a little more. In other words, perhaps the guy at the door who says “Interesting sermon” to which you, of course, reply “Why interesting?” AND “Let me give you something else to think about.”
Rico’s book, peppered with illustrations as you might imagine, is deep enough to be profound, long enough to cover quite a bit of ground, but short enough to digest at one sitting and still come back to. It’s difficult of course to review such books trying to put myself in the shoes of an unbeliever. But the book is clear about the gospel and its implications without being unnecessarily aggressive or rude.
I like it. A lot.
You ought to have some up your sleeve. So to speak.