Doing the numbers
When you're planning a sermon series, there comes a point when you have to decide how you're going to divide up the book. Note this is even true if you take one week at a time and don't announce sections in advance. At the very least (in this situation) you are making weekly decisions – though I would contend that if you're going to take that approach (and I have sometimes), then your pre-work should have given some time to this question – otherwise there is a danger your sermon series could feel very bitty.
Now you have to make some crunch decisions. Take a book like Numbers. Is this going to be a three year series, or a shorter one! I would suggest that with such an unfamiliar book you don't want to rush things, but then neither do you want to get bogged down. There are obviously great benefits in going slowly – it gives a chance to tackle all the issues and also does justice to all your study. But, conversely. larger sections gives people a broader sweep of the issues the book raises and which we need to take to our hearts.
The answer is….. whatever is right for you. It will depend so much on context, congregation, location, style – all manner of things, in fact. I'm probably somewhere in the middle. I want to do justice to a book like Numbers, but I also recognise that a sermon series is unlikely to cover everything – these are not expository lectures I am planning. So here, for what it's worth, is my sermon planning for Numbers, a series I called "Homeward Bound" – though I might not stick with that title another time through. I've given each sermon a punchy one word title which is my effort to summarise the direction of the section.
- Numbers 1-4: Numbers
- Numbers 5-6: Purity
- Numbers 7-8: Worship
- Numbers 9-10: Preparation
- Numbers 11-12: Discontent
- Numbers 13-14: Rebellion
- Numbers 15: Grace
- Numbers 16-18: Rejection
- Numbers 19: Cleansing
- Numbers 20-21: Salvation
- Numbers 22-24: Blessing
- Numbers 25: Seduction
- Numbers 26-30: Beginnings
- Numbers 31: Victory
- Numbers 32: Disunity
- Numbers 33-36: Inheritance
Mrs R and I had a hot date last weekend going to see Bach's St Matthew's Passion at the National Theatre. Wonderful stuff if you like that sort of thing. And many of the words (it was an English translation) taken straight from the gospel account, of course. Edifying too, then. But it all ended rather sadly.
The Passion (perhaps the clue was in the name) ends with the death of Jesus and the carrrying away of the body by Joseph of Arimathea. Then some of the narrating cast sing a series of questions to answer which, loosely translated, mean "Where is my Jesus?"
For those who know the gospel accounts, it is entirely unsatisfactory. The normally reserved Mrs R told me later that she was tempted to stand up and shout "He's alive!" though I'm rather glad she didn't! But she would have been right. We need the cross and the resurrection, otherwise the death of Jesus is just another hero story and not the story of the salvation of the world.
"He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification" (Romans 4.25). Don't let your preaching, therefore, be just like the Passion. Tell the full story.
Drawing lines of application
Just last weekend I preached 2 Cor 2.12-3.6 – a passage in which Paul defends his ministry to the Corinthian brothers. In many ways it's a fairly straightforward passage to exegete. There are one or two hurdles, but on the whole exegesis is pretty plain.
But what about application? There are quite a few passages like this where Paul is talking about himself, his ministry, or perhaps praying for a particular church. How do we draw lines of applications from such passages? We must, of course, otherwise our preaching will be nothing more than dry lecture information (and perhaps we are gullty of that?). Here are my convictions about that particular passage, all of which I tried to convey in the sermon as I tried to move to 2011 in East London.
- Paul's ministry as an Apostle is unique and so we must be careful about drawing direct lines of application without thinking it through. I am not Paul, and neither are my people.
- Paul's ministry is given to him to (in part) equip the saints in works of ministry themselves. That is what Eph 4.16-17 says. Therefore the principles that underpin Paul's ministry should also (with care) underpin ours. Every saint in the local church has works of service (or ministry) to do, and we can learn from Paul.
- Paul's ministry was one of church planting. Our ministry is (for the most part) rooted within the church, so we must take care not to create individualistic principles.
If you're interested, I used the three pictures Paul uses in the passage to make my points. This is a Sunday evening service at our church where the style is more informal and we are trying to engage with many people for whom English is not a first language and preaching is a relatively new concept. So we have a short (for us) 25 minute sermon and then 15 minutes of Q&A. My principles were:
- The open door: I called this gospel focus, making the most of every opportunity (v12-13)
- The pleasing fragrance: I called this gospel calling: keeping the main thing the main thing even when it is the stench of death (v14-17)
- The heart letter: I called this gospel reality: our message is one of the Spirit and therefore life, not of the law (3.1-6)
Blind spots and inconsistencies
We all have them – and we often need others to point them out. Not so long ago I went on a long journey with a fellow pastor who was hot on Sunday observance but drove the whole way at 90mph (on a 70mph motorway). Just a short while ago I spent an evening with some London Christians who love Jesus on Sunday morning but on Saturday were seriously (and I mean, seriously) hard drinkers.
In both cases, neither could spot the inconsistency of their position, as I’m sure I cannot in my own life. I need people around me to graciously and lovingly point out such areas. And I do need it (and so, I epxect, do you):
- it’s part of the work of putting sin to death in our bodies which we must be committed to
- we are called to live pure lives in the world (see, for example, 1 Peter 2.12)
So, if you can’t work it out yourself, ask someone close. What are your blind spots and inconsistencies? Then, in the power of the mighty Spirit of Christ, put them to death.
New conference audio – only 19 years late
We've a small staff, but we're gradually getting round to transferring old conference audio from tape to digital. Latest are four talks by Peter Adam from the Senior Minister's Conference in 1993. Peter is the principal of Ridley Theological College in Melbourne. Click here for the free talks on:
- Foundation of the Ministry of The Word
- What then is Preaching?
- The Practice of Preaching
- Evangelical Protestantism
Psalm 150, Luke 6 & Ezekiel 1
If you want some audio to start the week with, here are the most recent sermons from the PT directors:
- Christopher preached last Sunday at St Mary's Maidenhead. He took the church weekend on the psalms and you can listen to his sermon on Psalm 150 here.
- Vaughan is just starting a series at St Ebbe's on Luke 6 – the sermon on the plain – and you can hear the first three sermons here, here and here.
- I've just come back from preaching Numbers in Asia, but I took a break from that book and preached Ezekiel 1 (a last minute change) on the Sunday morning as the church prepared for a period of praying together. You can hear the audio here.
What do you do all day?
In the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Joanna asks Huck what it is that ministers actually do.
"Oh, nothing much. Loll around, pass the plate – and one thing or another. But mainly they don't do nothing."
"Well then, what are they for?" asks the curious Joanna.
Huck has the answer. "Why, they're for style. Don' you know nothing?"
This great Mark Twain quote is remembered by Derek Prime and Alistair Begg in their excellent book, On being a pastor (p149). This week I've been teaching the Cornhillers about a pastor's private ministry (as opposed to his public ministry) and realised it's a much neglected topic. There's an excellent chapter by Johnny Prime in PT's own The Practical Preacher – here are some other resources on private ministry:
- Reforming Pastoral MInistry edited by John Armstrong – some good stuff here
- The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter
- The classic text, The Christian Ministry by Charles Bridges
- There's also a good article in the Sepember 2009 Briefing "One sheep at a time, the power of one-to-one ministry."
- If you can make it through, Gregory the Great has some winsome advice in his Pastoral Rule (you can google it or it is in the second series of the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers volume 12)
At the very least, make sure you're not just for style!
What do you do with those total destruction passages?
Numbers has a bit of everything – law, story, poetry, prophecy – which makes it an exciting book to read and preach. But it also means that the tricky issues raised by OT preaching ALL come up in Numbers, not least of which is the herem holy destruction like that against the Midianites (Numbers 31). If you're preaching these sorts of passages, you've surely got to talk about the issue and understand it for yourself. One book I've found very helpful is Show them no mercy which includes an excellent chapter by Tremper Longman III on this very subject. It is in the 4/5 views series produced by Zondervan . I found it useful for understanding the issue myself and also understanding what other people think, even if some of them are far from being mainstream evangelical views. Worth the £8 it costs.
Why context really does matter
A bit more banging of the drum.
Have a quick look at Numbers 30. Woah! One verse on oaths for men and 15 on oaths for women. Or, more precisely, why oaths for women can always be overridden by their fathers or husbands. Not very 21st Century. In fact, totally demeaning to women and a good illustration of how regressive Christianity can be.
Well, that is certainly one way to read it. But think again. Think about some context, both immediate (in a section of the book where women have their rights extended) and historical – where women had few rights if any.
Now this passage is transformed. It's a liberation – can you see it? Women can take oaths just like men, and except in certain circumstances they are binding too.Women are protected too. OK, husbands and fathers can – for a short while – nullify their vows, but after that, the oaths are confirmed and they are legitimate before God.
Quite a different reading (and, in this case, I would suggest, the proper one).
Yes, I know we say it a lot. But content really does matter.
A new start: recommended audio
Here is the audio from Vaughan Robert's talk at our Spring Wives Reunion last week. It's based on Luke 6. Although some of the application is targeted specifically at the wives, it's really good stuff for anybody in ministry, especially those who find it a struggle to get going after the summer break. I sat through the talk and thought it was very helpful indeed: faithful exposition matched with warm application. A great way to start the week and the term.