When less is more
Something happened to me recently as I was about to preach – something that winds most preachers up. The service had been packed a bit more than usual of good and right things, and so in order for the service to finish in good time I needed to shave a few minutes off of my sermon. (We try to finish in good time so that the kids’ group leaders can plan accordingly.) This doesn’t happen often with us, but inevitably in any church it’s going to happen from time to time.
At that moment a preacher can easily strike up a good line of chuntering in his head, as he sees the minutes tick by. All the wonderful fruits of my study that won’t now get an airing! All those carefully-crafted explanations and powerful applications that won’t see the light of day! You might start to feel as put out Christopher Lee allegedly did when his role as Saruman was entirely cut out of the cinema release of part three of The Lord of the Rings (although he did make it into the extended DVD version – but I digress).
So on the hoof I cut out one of my two closing applications. Was it good for my humility to have to do that? Of course it was. It’s very easy for our right convictions about the vital centrality of the preached word to morph into a preciousness about myself as a preacher with this sermon I’ve prepared. It’s good of the Lord occasionally to pull us up short on that one.
And was the sermon obviously worse as a result? I doubt it. Perhaps sometimes in God’s goodness one punchy application actually has a deeper impact – and maybe even a wider impact – than ticking through a longer list. This is not an argument for ten-minute sermons or a justification for services eating into the sermon-time every week, but nevertheless with preaching, as with many other things in life, occasionally less is more.
The Risen Movie
Here’s Dan Rackham, a recently graduated Cornhill student, on the Risen movie which he got to see at a pre-screening. Includes, towards, the end, some ideas for how you could use it evangelistically as part of your Easter outreach, though I’m not sure I will be dressing up as a character….. 😉
One of the problems with EMA is that, being based in central London, many who might really benefit from it are unable to attend just because the cost of accommodation in London for three nights is simply unaffordable.
For the past few years, we’ve been looking for ways to help facilitate such people and are so grateful for a small group of volunteers who have generously offered their homes to host a guest (or sometimes two!) for the duration of the conference. This kindness makes all the difference to those guests and also to us too; to be able to welcome those who otherwise would be prohibited from coming. We are so thankful for this willingness to help and such hospitality.
This year’s EMA runs from 21st-23rd June. Perhaps you also may be able and willing to offer your home to someone for those days? If so, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re a pastor, please feel free to pass this request onto members in your church that may like to help.
Equally, maybe this is your solution to attending the conference if accommodation costs were a hindrance to you? Or perhaps you know someone whom this would really benefit? Again, please feel free to get in touch at the above email address. We’ll do our best to help you out where we can.
Thanking you in advance.
PS: We are also looking for hosts for the Cornhill Summer School which is the week after EMA (27th June- 1st July); if you’re able to help then, let us know about that too!
Burn out survey
Please spare us 5-10 minutes… to help us answer a survey about burnout in pastors, Christian workers and church employees. The survey is being done in partnership with the Good Book Company and in advance of Christopher Ash’s new book on burnout. We are hoping that this survey will not only reveal the extent of the problem, and where it is strongest, but also heighten our awareness of how vulnerable we all are in our busy lives. Data collected will be released on the Good Book Company Blog and in other Christian media in March. Click here to complete the survey
Two fundamental preaching mistakes (2)
If pursuing style over substance is not your temptation, praise God! But you are almost certainly tempted in the other direction. For the second fundamental preaching mistake is to pursue substance over style. All that matters in this kind of preaching is getting the text right. Now, don’t hear me wrong. Preachers must get the text right. But to think that in doing so, they have done all they need to prepare a sermon, they are sadly mistaken, dangerously mistaken.
I’ve just come back from a small European preaching consultation – a great time away with 12 other brothers from around Europe. One of our guys from Latvia gave me a great insight: we sometimes describe expository preaching as giving God the microphone, but if people are asleep in your sermons, you’ve just taken the microphone away from him again. Or, to push the metaphor, if doing the hard work of getting the text right is giving God the microphone, an empty delivery is just pushing the mute button.
Many of us conservative evangelicals readily extol the virtues of substance. We’re right to do so. But we must not ignore style. How we convey what we are to convey is important too. A good preacher is not just one who gets the text right, but conveys it in a way that engages listeners. Quite what that means, of course, is heavily dependent on your congregation and setting.
But it must be something you are thinking about. In the second year at Cornhill we keep working on students’ handling of the text: but not at the exclusion of style, for want of a better word. So we evaluate and try to help them with how they deliver what they have prepared as well as the content. That’s essential. We must avoid the kind of intellectual arrogance which assumes that if we’ve understood the text, then the sermon job is done. That’s as much a fundamental preaching mistake as pursuing style over substance, something we’re rightly critical about. It’s time for us to be critical about this imbalance too.
Two fundamental preaching mistakes (1)
There are many mistakes we can make in preaching – right from the moment we open our Bibles on a Monday morning through to the delivery of the sermon and what happens afterwards, there are many traps into which we could fall. But to those committed to expository preaching, there are two fundamental preaching mistakes, two wrong philosophies (if you like) that we can be tempted to embrace. During my preaching life I’ve committed both of these, although (almost certainly like you) one is more of a tendency than the other.
The first fundamental preaching mistake is to pursue style at the expense of substance. Frankly, this is the current worldly trend. We think that, in order to be engaging, style is everything and so we give everything to this cause with the result that our exposition becomes exposition-lite. In fact, it is so thin, it becomes a kind of jus de chausette: so weak, insipid and tasteless that it is no earthly good whatsoever.
Herein lies the great challenge. A sermon can sound great, look great, feel great (people might even say it is great) – but if it has no content, it is NOT great. It cannot be. Period. A sermon without substance is not a sermon. A preacher is not a great preacher if his preaching is without substance.
And there is always a danger that this is the kind of preacher we might become and the kind of preaching we might propagate. We are so keen to communicate to today’s generation in a vivid, engaging, contemporary, eye-catching and memorable way that style trumps substance every time. It’s a fundamental preaching mistake.
Preaching Noah, part 3: systematic theology
In the previous two posts I’ve outlined some exegesis of Genesis 6.9-7.24, and set it in a very little biblical theology. My aim in this little series of posts on Noah is to show that apparently fine decisions in the interplay of exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology will make for big differences in sermons on this text. Now to systematic theology for an example.
Back in Genesis we were told that Noah is righteous and blameless (6.9; 7.1). Genesis makes clear that it’s a righteousness set against the background of an evil world, summed up in the phrase ‘righteous in this generation’ (7.1).
An obvious bit of theology that immediately pops into the mind of every evangelical preacher who rightly does not want to downplay sin is that, in the words of Romans 3.10, ‘there is no one righteous, not even one’. A further bit of commonplace theology may then occur: saved people do perform righteous acts, but the point is that they can only ever do so by virtue of God’s grace coming to the sinner first.
If I allow these (true!) theological thoughts to control where my sermon will go, I am likely to commend Noah as an example of a sinner justified by grace and sanctified to trust in the Lord because of that. In other words, I will fit Genesis 6.8 into my ‘justification grid’ and 6.9 into my ‘sanctification grid’. I think it is also likely that a sermon that is shaped in this way by these bits of theology is likely to have little to say about the salvation of Noah’s family and of the animals – whereas the Genesis text has a lot to say about both of these things.
It’s already clear that I don’t want my sermon on Noah to go in these directions. Too much that the text majors on would be lost – Noah’s unqualified righteousness; his righteousness as the reason for him being saved; the salvation of others simply because they are his family or are with him. And the sermon would major on too much that is at most only implicit in Genesis: justification by faith; prevenient grace; Noah as a type of Christian the believer. I will note salvation by grace in my text, but I’ll see it in the grace extended to Noah’s family, by virtue of their belonging to the one righteous man. In the way Genesis is written Noah is primarily Christ and we are primarily Noah’s family.
Therefore, I think that the text itself leads me to set it in perhaps less frequented contexts, and these point the way to the points and applications that I will make:
– in biblical theology: people’s fate is often determined by the righteousness or otherwise of their head; this theme runs strongly through Israel’s history.
– in systematic theology: Christ was saved through the judgment of the cross because of his obedient righteousness (Phil 2.8-9), and in this he is of course unique. Our sole and sure way to be saved from coming judgment is to become members of his family.
Preaching Noah, part 2: biblical theology
We’ve done some exegesis on Genesis 6.9-7.24 (see previous post). Now let’s move to how the rest of Scripture will help us. I’ll stick to two texts where Noah comes up explicitly:
(1) In Ezekiel 14.14 (and similarly in v.20) God says that if a country sins and he plans to send famine to kill its people, ‘even if these three men – Noah, Daniel and Job – were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.’
I’m noting through these Noah posts how rather fine decisions make big differences in preaching this text. We come to one here:
(i) Does this Ezekiel reference tell me that Noah’s family could not have been saved just because they were related to a righteous man? If I think so, then I will probably assume that Noah’s family were righteous like him, and saved for that reason. I will consequently preach that the only way to be saved is to be righteous by trusting in the Lord’s word, just as Noah and his family were.
(ii) However I might decide that this Ezekiel verse assumes that the reader thinks that someone can be saved from God’s judgment because of another’s righteousness, and shocks them by saying that in this case they can’t be. If I go for this, I am more likely to preach that salvation is found by being a family member of the one man who is truly and uniquely righteous.
The first of these two options fits more naturally with much contemporary evangelical preaching. However I’m going to go with the second, because I think it fits best with the impact that Ezekiel 14 seems to be making, and also with what is explicitly said in Genesis 6-7 (only Noah is righteous).
(2) A second relevant verse: ‘By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with [or: comes by] faith’ (Heb. 11.7). Another issue faces us here:
(i) Is this verse telling us that the primary purpose of Gen 6-7 was to set out Noah as an example of faith in God’s word when God warned him of coming judgment? If I go for this option, I’m going to preach Noah as an example to be followed of trust in God’s warnings about judgment.
(ii) Or is Heb. 11.7 telling us that Noah can be seen in Gen 6-7 to be exercise faith, even though that may not be a main point of that narrative?
If I go for this option, my sermon on Genesis 6-7 may legitimately make a point of Noah as a man of faith, but it need not, if I think my text itself majors on other things.
I go for (ii). I note that Heb. 11.7, while stressing Noah’s exemplary faith, also speaks of his unique role: his obedience to God saved his family and condemned the world; mine doesn’t, but Christ’s did. These unique aspects of Noah were what stood out in my exegesis, so I’ll choose to keep those at the forefront, and not let the Hebrews focus on faith shift me somewhere else.
Preaching Noah, part 1: exegesis
I’ve come recently, not for the first time in the last year, to Noah and the flood. It so happens that I’ve just been teaching those chapters at Cornhill and am preaching soon on Genesis 6.9-7.24 in my own church.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the way a preacher ends up applying this text will be markedly affected by seemingly fine decisions he makes with regard to the interplay of exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology. I know that’s true of every sermon on any text. But I reckon that with Noah apparently small decisions, or assumptions not thought through, can lead to very significant different lines of application. Let me set out what I mean.
For today, exegesis. Two key features stand out in the text:
(1) Noah was saved because he was righteous and blameless. Genesis 6.8 ends the previous section with a cliffhanger: ‘But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.’ How this came about is immediately explained: Noah was righteous and blameless, and (or perhaps: in that) he obeyed God’s commandments about the ark (6.9, 22; 7.1, 5, 16). 7.1 makes most explicit that Noah is saved because he is righteous.
(2) The key to any other creature being saved is to be with Noah (6.18, 19, 20, 21; 7.1, 9, 15). If we ask of the narrative, ‘why are Noah’s family saved?’, the answer seems to be: because they are Noah’s family. Similarly, the animals that are saved are saved because they are said to come to Noah to be with Noah. The final line of 7.23 sums up the text’s most explicit repetitions: ‘Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.’ It’s Noah who’s saved – oh, and those who happen to be his, and to be with him.
As a preacher I’ve now got some issues to face…
Part of my gut feels that I should be preaching that Noah was a sinner saved by grace through his faith in God’s word, but I honestly struggle to find that said explicitly of him here.
To put the same thing the other way round: a very large part of my gut feels that I don’t want to preach salvation by works – so what am I to do with all this stress on Noah’s righteousness and obedience?
At the very least what I mustn’t do is shape sermon points and applications which will lead me to airbrush out those features which are undeniably explicit in the text.
Next step: to move (in the next post) to biblical theology, to see how that will help.
Pastoral road trip
It may go a little quiet from me next week: it’s our UK school half-term which also coincides with the PT Cornhill half-term. I’m taking a few days off to take a friend on a Normandy D-Day landing road trip. This is visit 7 or 8 for me and I love it. Someone said to me last week that the idea of war stories (endlessly repeating the same anecdotes with ever increasing amounts of unlikely but truthful detail) was right up my street. I know, but I took it as a compliment! And he was right, anyway.
These kinds of trips do me (and I hope my companions) the world of good. In many ways, I find them better for forging friendships than stay-at-home read the Bible sessions. We do that whilst we’re away, of course. But there is so much more to talk about when you’re out and about and conversations develop naturally; we’re not just learning to read the Bible well (a good thing, of course), but we’re learning to apply the Bible well as we just talk about stuff, even stuff that happened 70 years ago. So, it’s a break, but it’s also a pastoral trip which will do me good and, I’m praying, my companion too. I commend it to you.