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.
Fed up with a false dichotomy
This week I’ve read yet another round of social media posts about Old Testament preaching. The complaint goes something like this: our OT preaching shouldn’t be entirely redemptive-historical. There needs to be moral objectivity too, for this is how the Apostles preached. “These things were written for us.”
I’ve got some sympathy with this if the kind of redemptive-historical preaching is Flat-Stanley one-dimensional, “Hey presto, it’s all about Jesus, don’t y’know!” preaching. There’s certainly too much of that.
But – and this is one of the most important things I believe about OT preaching – most complaints of this sort set up a false dichotomy between the OT being the Book of the Lamb and whether Christian preachers can draw moral lessons or not. The two are not in opposition. They must never be. For being people of the Spirit places us under an obligation to live according to the Spirit and not the flesh. An Old Testament sermon devoid of any imperatives would be a strange sermon indeed.
Moreover, Paul does not divorce the two. Yes, “these things were written for us”. But why? For the Israelites who wandered in the desert “all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10.4).
Many years ago, Ed Clowney (writing in 1961) prophetically saw that this non-tension might become an issue and lead to divorcing Christ from the OT in a desire to recover some ground in biblical theology. His comments are prescient:
“The redemptive historical approach necessarily yields ethical application, which is an essential part of preaching of the Word. Whenever we are confronted with the saving work of God culminating in Christ, we are faced with ethical demands. A religious response of faith and obedience is required…. The solution [to the apparent tension] is the organic relationship that exists in God’s great work of redemption and revelation.” (Ed Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, 80-81).
I think if anyone ever asked me to say just one thing about preaching, it might well be this. There is no tension between the proclaiming of Christ and the moral obligations of the covenant. Those who see one and miss one or the other are missing the riches of the Scripture. I’m fed up with this false dichotomy.
EMA 2015: Tim Keller – humanity and preaching (2)
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. This second session from Tim Keller allowed for some interaction and challenge – and a rather bizarre set of Frozen links. Don’t worry – we know who is to blame….
EMA 2015: Tim Keller – humanity and preaching (1)
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. This, the first of Tim Keller’s two sessions, was immensely helpful. Tim at his best, I think.
EMA 2015: Christ glorified
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. Vaughan’s closing exposition gave us a really good finish. Come, Lord Jesus!
EMA 2015: Beginning and end of life
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. John Wyatt’s one off session was one of this year’s highlights. You can read the edited version in this month’s EN. But the real thing is better! A PDF of the Powerpoint slides can be found here.
EMA 2015: Christ Incarnate
All this week, we’re having an EMA fest. It’s reading week at Cornhill and what better time to catch up with some good content from this year’s EMA. I found Reuben’s exposition of Philippians 2 a really helpful challenge. I hope you do too.