Old and New
I’ve just finished watching the BBC documentary Inside the Commons, Michael Cockerill’s unparalleled insight to the workings of the UK Parliament. I confess to mixed feelings. On the one hand, I have a vague sense of history and nostalgia and quite like quirks, like the Speaker marching through the Palace every day with someone in front of him singing (yes, singing) “Speak-ker.” But there’s another part of me that thinks “That is completely and utterly bonkers.” Indeed, from the point of view of democracy there are plenty of moments when the whole system seems somewhat dysfunctional. Moreover, holding Old and New together seems, at best, difficult, at worst, impossible.
I do worry about some OT preaching I hear. I do worry about some reactions to my own OT preaching. I find a nostalgia about the Old Covenant which is misplaced and ignores the sweep of Bible history. I find hearers who explicitly say things like “Wouldn’t it have been amazing to live in the Old Covenant?” and I find preachers who seem to imply that to be the case.
Profoundly we do that when we fail to preach Christ. For Christ does not belong in the Old Covenant; rather the Old anticipates him. It is not then, that we cannot preach from the Old Covenant. But we mustn’t preach the Old Covenant itself.
To do so would be completely and utterly bonkers. You may feel that you do not do so. Great. But let me ask you what the people hear?
Where do you go…?
Yesterday’s post raises an interesting question. Where do you send Christian couples for sexual help? Mrs R and I have looked into accredited training before now, but it’s a no go for most Christians as most accredited courses require Christians to sign up to commitments they cannot possibly honour in good conscience. So where do you send people? Here are some ideas:
- Physical issues are often best dealt with by medical staff. Doctors are well placed to help in this area.
- Relational issues are less straightforward. If a couple are committed to working things through then a trip to Relate can be helpful. However, if you’re unsure about their commitment to one another, such secular counselling is not the place to send them.
- There are good resources around – but there are equally rubbish ones too. Read things yourself first before recommendations.
- The Bible is surprisingly frank and clear about sex. It is also clear about the heart from where many sexual problems spring. That means that most front line help (certainly in the first instance) should be able to be given in church itself. Perhaps it’s not you – but identify a couple in the church who can help in this area.
And remember, like many pastoral problems, Christians are often very cautious about asking for help in this area – perhaps more than any other. The damage is often already done. Encouraging people to seek help without judgement is key to getting things rolling.
Mrs R and I have just written a book on sex. That’s not news, particularly, but I was interested that as part of the process I sent a draft to one of the UK’s top secular sexologists for comment. I happen to think she’s a pretty good one. The response was interesting, stating that we held “wildly different views on sex.” Now, I’ve read most of what that particular person has written on sex and I wasn’t initially convinced she was right. For married couples hoping and trying to stay loyal and committed I think much of her advice is good and proper – not wildly different.
But then I thought some more. In fact, she recognised what I failed – initially at least – to see. Your outworkings and applications may be very similar, but if you differ in your foundational principles that give rise to those applications, then your views are indeed “wildly different.” Sooner or later that’s going to show.
Christians need to think about this when they go to the world for sexual advice (and there are precious few reliable Christian places to go). Sexual advice may be helpful from such places, but needs to be filtered always through a biblical grid because, fundamentally, Christians views and the world’s views are indeed, wildly different.
Using news stories as illustrations
An older preacher I know stores up news stories in a file index system and retrieves them for use as illustrations as and when the need arises. That requires a level of dedication (and time) I simply don’t have. I tend to use the BBC or The Times search functions: very powerful tools indeed. That requires, of course, a knowledge of what you’re looking for. The story must be there somewhere in the back of your head for you to be able to search for it adequately.
But, it also requires a healthy scepticism. News stories – especially online ones – tend to be reductionistic. I think as preachers we need to exercise some caution and realise we don’t always know all the facts. Passing on stories as gospel without being in full possession of the truth is the way of the world – witness the 400,000 who signed the Jeremy Clarkson petition without even knowing what happened! Extraordinary.
But there is more to most stories – and those about Christian bashing which circulate on social media are often very skewed indeed. Take care Mr Preacher. For example, read the actual ruling of a hypothetical tribunal and you discover that Mr A was sacked not for “being a Christian” but some aggressive infringement. I recently read a notorious Ofsted report from cover to cover and had some sympathy (if it reports correctly) with the Secretary of State.
Preachers are not tabloid reporters. Illustrations are helpful windows, but need careful thought if they are going to serve the purpose for which they’re intended.
This morning I spent a happy time with some of my tutees from the Cornhill Training Course. They come from a variety of backgrounds: Anglican and Free Church, married and single, older (some retired) and younger. All of them (and they are 6 months in) have given up things to come and study with us. I asked each of them the same question: any regrets?
To a man (and all my tutees are men, but we also train women!) they said “No.” I was comforted to hear that. It’s not always universally true. Some people start out and find it’s not for them. But they are an unusual rarity. Even though we have a significant number who don’t go into full time ministry, still we find very, very few who ever regret taking the course.
Perhaps you have someone in your church who would benefit? Now’s the time to think about it and one of us here would be glad to chat through some of the options. Why not get in touch?
Fifteen years ago I was in the same boat. I left behind a relatively successful (though I cannot say glittering!) business career. The nice car and house went. We lived a simpler life. And I can honestly say, hand on heart.
Preaching and Leading
Different strokes for different folks. We all come from different traditions which determine what structure services have and who leads and preaches and – critically – whether these are the same people. I’m – to quote Levy – Free Church Reynolds, which means I am comfortable with both leading and preaching in the same service. And for some of the reasons I outlined yesterday, I happen to think that’s an extremely good model. But we don’t particularly stick to it, chez nous. I’m often leading not preaching and vice versa. And that’s OK too, provided there is at some least some joint planning and thinking. When services are a game of two halves with no connection whatsoever, I don’t think it particularly helps anyone. In fact, sometimes it can hinder: imagine you’ve got a particularly sober sermon. The rest of the service needs to reflect that, at least in part.
Just in passing
Some of the most extraordinary truths in Scripture are mentioned almost in passing. Take Ephesians 1.11-14 for example. This was my passage on Sunday and it stirred me greatly. As you almost certainly already know, Paul is first of all talking about himself as a believing Jew before pointing out to the Gentiles that they too have been included in Christ. That’s why he repeats the language of predestination (v.11 compare v.5) and being chosen (v.11 compare v.4) and why he switches from the “we” language to “you” language at verse 13.
But as he points out that he, as a Jew, was amongst those who were first to believe he says the most profound truth about God’s sovereignty:
“[He] works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”
Just let that sink in! Now, in the context, he is talking about his salvation, but his description of the providence of God encompasses “everything” not just the salvation of some Jews. How do you do justice to such a truth when it is mentioned as though in passing? Here are one or two ideas:
First you could make more of it than the passage does: it could become one of your teaching points. This, I guess, is an obvious temptation. I worry about his approach because it damages the delicate balance that the Spirit has inspired and detracts from the main point Paul is making about inclusion.
You could slow up and just preach the verse. I think this is a good approach as long as it is not the normal one. Most of us preach one verse at some time or another (especially in short evangelistic contexts). There is much to be said for it and it is quite a skill. We get the students to do it here from time to time and they often struggle with it. You can still be expository doing one verse, by the way: you’ve misunderstood expository preaching if you think it needs long passages.
You could use it to inform the rest of the service. This is what I did last Sunday, at least in part. We used it to help us pray and I did a short kids’ talk. We sung a Colin Buchanan song about God being in control and then sung a grown up one too: Sovereign Ruler of the Skies. That way the service held together well and we got as much truth from the passage as we could, even though the message was not skewed away from the Spirit inspired balance.
That – of course – requires the preacher to be the leader too, or at the very least work closely together. Which is a whole different topic.
Some recent additions to our media resources
We keep adding additional old resources to our media pages, as well as new material from conferences as they occur. We’ve just added audio from last week’s wives conference here.
Can I highlight some others which might be of interest? In slightly similar vein to last week’s To Fly, To Serve – but specifically about preaching – are these three talks from David Jackman on putting together an expository sermon.
Our back catalogue now includes almost all talks from past EMAs, with recently additions including lots from Dick Lucas, and some from John Chapman, Peter Jensen, and David Jackman. If you’ve not explored our resources pages, why not give them a go? We hope the filtering system is easy and self-explanatory. We’ve also been working to improve the indexing. If you choose talks on a particular book, they’ll be listed with overviews of the whole book at the top, followed by others in chapter order – for example, if you filter to Romans, you’ll get two overviews (from Dick Lucas and David Cook), and then lots of talks chapter by chapter. If you want to filter further – to just one speaker, or just one conference, for example – then you can choose another filter from the top.
We’ve quite a few more talks to add from the archive, so we’ll hope to build up better coverage of some bible books and some topics where we’re currently a bit thin. Watch this space.
When the word provokes
Scripture is useful for all kinds of things. And we must expect our preaching to sometimes teach, sometimes rebuke, sometimes correct and sometimes train in righteousness so that God’s people are thoroughly equipped for every good work. But increasingly we live in a culture where people crave and expect affirmation. People want to hear something good and encouraging; they don’t want to hear words of correction. Even on The Voice the most awful contestants are affirmed.
Not surprisingly, this echoes in church life. A good sermon – people say – is one which builds, encourages and affirms. I happen to think that preaching which holds out Christ to people should do this a lot. And – for sure – it is easier for preachers to be negative than positive and we want to work hard at presenting the tone and application of the text.
But increasingly, I see people reacting badly against rebuke and correction – even though these are part of the Spirit’s stated aim of the Scriptures. I saw this in action just the other week when I sat under a message which gently rebuked (appropriately so, I thought). It really stirred up a storm. What should have happened is that listeners should have thought, pondered and prayed through what they heard to see if it really did apply to them and, if it did, respond humbly with repentance and a crying out to God for help to change. Instead I saw a lot of negative response. “How dare the preacher….” Interesting.
Deep down, people (and we too, probably) don’t want correction and rebuke. We want warm affirmation. I’m not saying all preaching needs to be tub thumping sin-bashing. It needs to reflect what’s in the text. But we also, as preachers, need to help people respond to those harder sermons when God is changing us into the likeness of Christ.
How do we do that? One idea – just one. We need a little more after the sermon. Not just a closing song. We need to help people through humble repentance step by step because it is so alien to the world. The rather abrupt endings to many of our services do not really help people fight this battle with the world.
To fly to serve part 4
If you’re bored with my metaphor, I’m almost done. I’ve just got to land the plane. Step 4. Your long haul flight is useless without a safe landing. You can be as careful as you like, but if you descend too quickly and hit the deck (or too slowly and miss the runway), the flight is a disaster. An ending can be short and quick – a bit like landing at my local airport, London City. Or it can be a bit longer. But it is still only the landing. It is not the level flight where all the distance is covered.
Your job is to get the passengers safely to earth and at the right destination. Don’t spend the whole of your level flight working towards Manchester, only to land them in Brussels. That won’t do. And the captain takes them right to the gate. No “you can walk from here” like some kind of cut price airline. This is British Airways!
And no presenting anything new. The descent and landing are not, generally speaking, the place to learn new things. They simply bring the truths already learnt to land safely and helpfully.
That is the work of the Bible teacher or preacher. Captain Extraordinary. Four Rings.