Continuing on from yesterday you might like to know we're also singing this new version of My hope is built on nothing less. The video gives you an idea in a broad sense. But you do need to know we're not octaving it (singing one part low and then another part really high) as they do here. I dislike that. A lot. I think it's one of the most manipulative things you can do in music. So we're going for a middle-of-the-road key! We've also added back in one or two more verses from Edward Mote's original. Still, if you know this version here you'll be able to raise the roof with us at the EMA as we sing about our certainty in Christ. Never mind the cheesy video. Learn the tune.
Why the long speeches?
I'm really appreciating Christopher's new book on Job in Crossway's Preaching the Word series. It's available in the UK at the EMA and afterwards. Here's some really helpful thinking about the repeated interventions of the comforters:
Why do we have to go on listening to these dreadful speeches? After all, God is going to tell us at the end of the book that they are wrong (Job 42.7). So what is the point of listening to them?…This is a natural question. One general answer is presumably to warn us not to be like them when our natural pharisaism causes grace to be leeched out of our conversation and we lapse into the religious certainties of grace-free philosophy or religion.
But the question is intensified after we have heard Bildad's spine tingling description of Hell in chapter 18 and when we are about to hear Zophar's equally terrifying description of judgement in chapter 20. What specifically is the benefit to us of having to listen to these detailed and deeply evocative descriptions of hell?
To answer this question, we need to acknowledge that the fault with these sermons is not only in their content but in their misapplication. They describe life under the judgement of God..before drawing the conclusion that Job is under the judgement of God. Their deduction is false. But their descriptions of hell are entirely accurate.
These sermons, like some of the laments in the Psalms, help us feel and experience through poetry just how dreadful it will ultimately be to fall under the wrath of God.
Christopher then suggests three explicit ways that helps us:
- they stand as a warning against the reality of hell. We must repent.
- they help us grasp the depth of the darkness and suffering that Jesus endured for us
- they help describe in some measure our experience in this age as we drink from the same cup from which Christ drank
Seen this way, there is every reason to go on listening to these "dreadful" speeches.
Three weeks to go…
…it's three weeks until the Evangelical Ministry Assembly. We'd love to see you from 8-10 July at the Barbican Centre in London. Don't forget we've some free accommodation still available with local families if you're struggling to find somewhere to stay. Do pass this invitation on to friends in ministry. We've planned the conference to serve those who are themselves serving in local churches and hope you can join us to be encouraged yourself and be an encouragement to others. I may be slightly biased, but I know what we're singing, what we're stocking in the Bookstall and – most importantly – what's being proclaimed from the front, so I want to say, with no hint of self-aggrandisement, make sure you come. Book here. If you're using twitter, use #EMA2014.
Careful who you call a heretic
Sometimes we have to call out false teachers. It’s the Bible way. We ought to do that soberly, carefully and wisely. There’s no place for a heresy hunter in the pulpit. That’s not just a personal opinion. Read Paul’s letters. See the balance and focus. He does name names. Sometimes. Not often, though. We need to be very careful in extending ourselves beyond his limits. And our naming should always be linked to shepherding the flock. We don’t call out false teachers because they are in the news particularly, or because we’ve read their latest book. We must think about our flock, what is good for them, what protects them.
I say this because I think there is a tendency within our circles to be rather liberal with the word heretic. I’m perhaps a bit sensitive to this at the moment because it’s a label that’s been thrown my way by Ted Williams book on New Calvinism. Or, to be more precise, he doesn’t use the precise word but says that we “change the terms of the gospel.” Serious stuff. I’m happy to let it pass; I don’t think it’s worth commenting on, other than to say it made me search my own heart to make sure I’m not too free with this serious word.
All this was reinforced for me this week when I was reading a Facebook post about someone who wanted some more info on covenant theology. Fair enough. But there was a short post from someone which said (I can’t remember exact words) “As long as you don’t want to know about New Covenant Theology. Heresy.” Here’s the danger of social media where words are cheap and fast. But heresy? Really? Moo – a heretic? Carson, likewise? For both, as far as I can make out, follow a form of NCT, at least.
I spent a happy week a few years ago leading a preaching conference in Cameroon. There were 100 mostly pentecostal pastors who all, almost without exception, believed in a form of prosperity teaching. I was immediately cautious. But on examination I discovered that this is not the maliciously derived prosperity teaching of some so-called churches but a genuine misunderstanding of the nature of the relationships between covenants and how revelation works. They were reading Malachi 3.10 and simply preaching it like it was. Now, you can’t call that heresy, I don’t believe. It’s wrong and they need help and direction, but these guys are not wolves in sheep’s clothing. Interesting then, that even a phenomena like prosperity teaching is not uniform, nor should we treat its exponents uniformly.
All of which is to say, careful who you call a heretic.
Face to face
“And all the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio will fail to wipe it out – a living man in communication with a living audience”
I was moved by those words from the American writer John Steinbeck, in his little book Travels with Charley. Steinbeck gives a touching description of meeting a lone travelling actor in, I think, Wisconsin. This man is not a particularly good actor, but he perseveres doing his shows before modest local audiences in small town America. Steinbeck comments how this very human meeting of “a living man…with a living audience” will always have about it a quality that cannot be rivalled by “the sterile wonders of movies and television and radio”.
I like that. Does this not transfer to preaching? I think it does. Preaching is the week by week living interaction of a living loving praying pastor with a living needy congregation? He may or may not be impressive and successful in the world’s terms. But he is a loving human being face to face with living human beings. Let us learn to value this unimpressive activity very highly and never to think that telecommunication or recordings can ever replace it; set side by side with face to face preaching, these other things are indeed “sterile” for all their technological wonder.
When I first started preaching I was given a series of videos by the Australian evangelist John Chapman (now in glory) on how to prepare a sermon. Anyone who has heard Chappo will know that he was a great communicator of the gospel and that a central strength of his preaching was his tremendous clarity and simplicity. To the casual observer, this clarity and simplicity appeared simply as a natural gift of Chappo’s. He certainly was gifted, but he had also thought carefully about the nature of effective preaching. This is where his 20% comes in.
In the course of his instruction on the video, Chappo took a fairly randomly selected passage from Romans (some verses from chapter 3, I think) and asked the group of trainees in the video a series of questions….
(I’m working from memory here, but I think this is about right)
‘If I were giving a lecture on these verses at a theological college, what percentage of the content would I cover?’ Chappo’s answer: ‘90%, or more.’
‘If I were leading a home group Bible study on these verses, what percentage of the content would I aim to cover?’ Answer: ‘Maybe 70%, or so.’
‘If I were preaching on these verses, what percentage of the content would I cover?’ Chappo’s answer: ‘20%.’
This final figure might prompt some sharp intakes of breath among trainee preachers, but I think Chappo was on to something. His point is not that a preacher should randomly select his favourite 1/5th of the content of a passage – perhaps his favourite verse – and share a “blessed thought” on that portion or verse; but rather, I think, that a preacher should identify what is central and at the very core of the passage and draw that out with simplicity, clarity and power. Trying to go down every alleyway and explore every nook and cranny of a passage (especially a longer passage) leads to dull, commentary-like sermons. But getting to the heart of the passage and communicating that effectively to the hearts and minds of our hearers – that’s the stuff of good preaching.
Themes to get straight on in Galatians, part 2: the cross
After my previous post on the significance of the Spirit in Galatians, here’s a second in a similar vein, this time on the cross. Here are the all the references: 1.4; 2.20, 21; 3.2, 13; 5.11, 24; 6.12, 14.
Let’s just see for now some of the key things the cross is said to achieve:
· a right standing with God: ‘if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’ (2.21).
· the blessing of the Spirit coming to all nations (3.13-14; and note the link between Christ crucified and the Spirit given, also in 3.1-5).
· our being crucified with Christ, so that we may live a new life of ‘Christ in us’, by faith (2.20).
· the end of the reign of sin’s passions and desires over us, since we are united to Christ in this way (5.24).
· the living out and preaching of a gospel that does not demand law-observance but instead is concerned only with new life in union with Christ, received by faith, and lived out in step with the Spirit (5.11; 6.12, 14).
There’s obviously much more that could be said. But even these sketchy thoughts should help my preaching of the cross from Galatians try to attain some of the glorious richness of the content of the letter itself.
Themes to get straight on in Galatians, part 1: the Spirit
I wrote in a recent Proclaimer about the overall aim of Galatians. I’m following that up with a couple of posts on two significant themes in the letter. The first seems to be quite often overlooked: the Spirit. If you were forced up against a wall and required to identify just one single theme as central in Galatians, it could arguably (and maybe controversially) be the Spirit. He appears frequently; I count 14 verses: 3.2, 3, 5, 14; 4.6, 29; 5.5, 16, 17, 18, 22, 25; 6.1, 8.
Here’s how Paul’s argument with regard to the Spirit in Galatians seems roughly to run:
· all Christians have received the Spirit, and have done so through believing the message rather than through doing works of the law (3.2-5).
· Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, with the particular purpose of enabling us to receive the Spirit (3.14).
· As God’s sons, what we have been given by God is the Spirit of his (true) Son (4.6).
· Since this is the life we now have, the only right and safe way to progress in Christ is now not by any law-observance, but by living both individually and corporately in line with the Spirit (all the references from 5.5 to 6.1).
· What awaits us on the last day – either destruction or eternal life – will be the just outcome of whether we have placed our energies and hopes in the new life that the Spirit of Christ brings, or in measurable, attainable human actions (such as circumcision and food laws) (6.7-8).
In tracing the Spirit through Galatians, I’m want my preaching on the more well-known ‘headline’ theme of Galatians – which is justification by faith – to weave the theme of the Spirit into the heart of my messages as inextricably as the Holy Spirit himself wove it into the letter.
I am preparing to preach John 2:13-22 this Sunday. In some ways it is quite a simple passage. The exegesis is not too difficult. Nor is the central point, that Jesus is the true Temple, the presence of the living God on earth. That his pure zeal for his Father’s house and his bodily resurrection show that this is true. And so on.
But the question I have been grappling with is this: so what for today? I don’t want to leave us simply marveling that if we had been around in the right place at the right time, we could have rubbed shoulders with the presence of God on earth – wonderful though that is. So I have found myself thinking about how the church of Jesus Christ, indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, is the Temple of God on earth, at least the Temple under construction. And thinking how we ought to respond to that.
I won’t tell you here what I’ve come up with, not least because it may change between now and Sunday when I preach it at Christ Church Mayfair. I’m not sure I’ve got it right. I know the commentaries don’t help much with this kind of question. But I know it is very important, and can make the difference between a bland or banal sermon and an insightful and incisive one that has real pressure and impact to it. It is this hard thinking that makes sermon preparation such intense work, and inseparable from our involvement as pastors with people.
Keep it focussed!
A Sunday away recently brought home to me afresh how very important it is not to overload our sermons with cognitive content. The sermon had five long sub-points to the first point. All worthy. All true. But far too much for me to grasp or hold on to (and I am trained to listen to sermons; it’s my job).
At Cornhill we sometimes use the crèche test. A young mother has left her baby in the crèche for the first time; during the sermon she is paying at most 30% attention, because she is worrying about her baby. When she goes to the crèche at the end, a crèche helper asks her about the sermon. If she says, “Well, it all sounded good and worthy, and he said a lot of things, but I don’t really know what he said” it’s a failure. If she says, “I missed a fair bit of it, but the big thrust was this…” (and gets it right), and the big thrust of the sermon is the main thrust of the passage, hey presto! the whole exercise looks more promising.
It reminds me to make sure I leave enough of my preparation on my desk and to work hard at keeping a clear focus to the sermon, and to work hard to make sure the main focus of the sermon is indeed the main focus of the passage. Easy to say. Hard work to do.