The King’s songbook
Preaching the psalms is harder than it looks. I’m pretty convinced about that every time I pick up a psalm to preach or, as is the recent case, a few psalms to write study notes on. They’re rooted in the Old Testament, like (say) OT narrative and therefore we have to apply some of the same rules and guidelines we apply there. They’re poetry, like the prophets, and therefore we have to apply some of the same rules and guidelines we apply there. But they’re also heart songs and therefore sermons that reduce them down to logical truths expressed in cold language are hardly doing justice to the text; in which case that’s hardly expository preaching.
No, they’re a tough nut. Ironically, we often say to new preachers or those with little experience – “just choose a psalm and preach on that.” That’s a difficult gig for someone starting out and we ought to be more thoughtful.
Of course, when we get them right, the results are immensely rewarding. Take Psalm 127, for example. I think this is an example of where getting it wrong could actually be pastorally damaging. If we tell the childless couple that children are a reward from him, what are we actually saying? But what if, instead, we realise this is a covenant song sung by a covenant king, Solomon. What if it’s about him rather than us, in the first instance? What if it’s about The King, rather than us, in the second?
Then your first stanza (1-2) would be something like “the king and his city prosper when the Lord builds” and the second stanza would be something like “the king and his family increase when the Lord rewards” (3-5). These points could then unpack the richness and depth and colour of the poetry whilst being rooted in the real covenant meaning – with obvious, encouraging, challenging and helpful lines of application. Altogether better, I would suggest.
Context – aiding application
Yesterday we saw how the context aids understanding. Many preachers are OK with this, and – to be fair – pretty good at it. But context also aids application. It’s when we see a passage in its context that we begin to see the thrust of why it was written and, so, the primary lines of application today.
Take yesterday’s passage – John 15.26-16.15. My struggle was, in part at least, with lines of application. Is it simply a case of “this is what the Spirit does, Hallelujah!” No (though that would at least be a good start). In this section of John’s gospel there is a residing tension. Jesus is going (14.28). That’s tough for the disciples because the chief call is for them to abide in Christ – i.e. to keep going (15.4). Here is a big ask: keep going, says Jesus. I’m going, says Jesus. How can the two be reconciled? Answer – gloriously, Jesus will send his Spirit, another Helper, so “I will not leave you as orphans.”
So far, so good. But those truths in themselves do not really give you the sharp application the passage deserves. Because, in fact, the presence of Jesus in the world brought opposition, and so too the presence of Jesus by his Spirit, carrying on his work, is going to bring the same opposition (which is the thrust of the immediate context in 15.18-25). There is a tension here – the same Spirit who will aid us and bring us the presence of Jesus will also, precisely because he brings us the presence of Jesus, lead us into the world’s hatred.
Ah! Suddenly now the passage has bite. It makes it harder, as it happens, to apply. But once you get there, you’ve got application that has real zip and does what the passage does. No generalities here – “isn’t it nice we have the Spirit?” No – at one level, it’s not nice at all. Just read 15.18-25 again! But it’s precisely into this context that the application really takes hold of us.
Context isn’t everything here. The application is in the passage, not in the surrounding verses. And yet it is the surrounding verses that really sharpen and shape the application and turn the general into the particular. This is what the passage is about, and this is what your people need to hear.
Context – aiding understanding
One of the rotten tomatoes that sometimes get thrown at us is that we are obsessed with context. I hope – I really hope – that’s not true. If we’re obsessed with anything, it’s getting the text right, and there is absolutely no doubt that using context appropriately is a key tool in that process. Of course, as with every tool, once it becomes the master rather than the servant it’s a dangerous weapon. Two common errors: one – making context an integral part of the sermon rather than letting it shape the sermon (as though one were giving a lecture); two – letting context so dominate that you end up preaching the surrounding verses and not the passage itself. Both outrageous mistakes.
Nevertheless, context is important. If our heart’s desire is to say what God has said (which surely is the core of expository preaching) then we must consider context. The danger is we simply distort the truth, otherwise. It’s not that we necessarily preach things that are wrong (I hope we’re not that naïve), but if we don’t preach what the text is saying, the sermon is robbed of its power: it’s just us and not the Bible.
Take my passage from last Sunday. It was John 15.26-16.15. I confess to really wrestling with this passage. I found it dense, deep and stretching. Fortunately I was given 60 minutes to preach (!!!!!) which helped a little (though could easily make me a very lazy preacher, not thinking clearly enough what to include and what to discard). At one level, it’s relatively straightforward: Jesus himself gives us three useful headings – the ministry of the Spirit is to testify about Christ (15:26), to convict the world (16:8) and to glorify the Son (16:14).
But it is only when you see these truths in the context that they begin to take on the significance they must have. The ministry of the Spirit is not some abstract concept or general encouragement for those who are saved. No – the Spirit is “another Helper” who both brings aid but also opposition – hence why the passage (and the section) are so interspersed with warnings about falling away (e.g. 16.1). It’s only when we see the context that the passage itself makes sense.
Claiming celebrities (old and new)
There is a growing trend amongst evangelical preachers and pastors to want to make celebrities born again Christians. I understand this and have even indulged in some (unhelpful) speculation myself. For the most part, we hear one or two things that people say and assume this somehow translates into a fully orbed salvation of the kind of which we approve.
It’s a dangerous path that can quickly backfire. Someone who says something vaguely religious today turns out to be heterodox tomorrow on some other key doctrine (no names!). If we hold up someone uncritically, perhaps quoting them to try to appear down with the kids, we can end up doing more harm than good.
I think these kinds of people fall into two camps. There are those, first of all, who just speak about God in very vague terms without any apparent relationship with him in and through Christ. I got that feeling about Ayrton Senna, whilst watching the excellent documentary film about him yesterday (free on Amazon Prime!). It’s not that I’m saying he is not born again or is, I’m not his pastor, and it’s not my place to judge, but I certainly don’t want people following his lifestyle.
Then there are those who speak about Jesus, but it’s never quite clear whether their interest in our wonderful Saviour is personal or religious. A number of public figures come to mind. Again, we can be quick to latch onto any crumbs, wanting to validate evangelical Christianity, forgetting that the best people to validate our faith are those we know and for whom working out faith in action is a daily pursuit – i.e. your own church members!
We do it with the oldies too, of course. I have gained great benefit from reading CS Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and even Richard Baxter. All, however, need to be read carefully and critically. I would not want to give my hearers the impression that everything they said and wrote can be digested without question.
Teaching the prophets to children. Seven reasons why we don’t.
How would your children’s teachers in church react if you told them they needed to do a series on Ezekiel in Sunday School? I bet it wouldn’t be met with universal enthusiasm. Why not? After all. All of scripture is God breathed. Teaching prophecy is not on too many curricula though, I would guess. Here are seven reasons why we don’t do it. And one good one why we should.
1. Kids’ leaders don’t hear prophecy taught well in church and so don’t have confidence to do the same. Their chief learning experience for teaching others is almost certainly your own preaching; if they are too scared to teach prophecy to kids, you need to ask yourself some pretty searching questions first.
2. We don’t have a huge quantity of good material to draw down on. Truth be told, some of our kids material is a bit Ho-hum anyway. And that’s for the easier parts of the OT. A friend ministering in Surrey told me this week that he was using The Gospel Project in their Sunday School. They’ve done a minor prophet a week, he told me, with this material, and both kids and adults love it. Look it up.
3. We don’t have confidence in poetry for kids. I’ve been away at our Women in Ministry conference this week. Almost 100 women, many of whom teach kids: and we’ve been focusing on prophecy. What has been astonishing is how those who are experienced in teaching kids have seen very quickly how the images of poetry actually resonate with youngsters better than they do with adults. We probably imagine the opposite.
4. We don’t know the prophets well enough ourselves. We are purple passage prophet lovers (try saying that with a mint in your mouth!). We know and love Isaiah 53, but not 54. Say no more.
5. We don’t know how to properly teach Christ from the OT, so prophecy is especially difficult. We either ignore Christ and make kids into Old Covenant children or we flatten everything and impose a kind of shapeless Christology which has no bearing on the text.
6. Many of our occasional teachers have got used to preparing lessons on the fly or without adequate thinking and prayer. Most of us have churches where this kind of teaching is voluntary, undertaken by full time workers, mums and dads. Teaching prophecy is just, well, harder, and so we imagine we don’t have time.
7. All of these are perhaps symptomatic of a deeper malaise. We simply pay lip service to 2 Tim 3.16. The ‘all’ is particularly problematic. We are pretty content actually with being selective.
There is of course only one answer to each of these points: it is a resurgence of the full acceptance of the authority, sufficiency, clarity of Scripture. A robust doctrine of the word of God will make us as confident in Malachi as it will in the story of the golden calf. And if these 7 reasons ring true, at least in part, perhaps the first thing we need to do is to teach our Sunday School leaders a better doctrine of the holy Book.
The songword sentimentalists
There’s another curious phenomenon when it comes to the words we sing: it’s that some of us (hmm, myself too, if I’m honest) are curiously sentimental about song words when we’re often not sentimental about anything else at all. Don’t get me wrong, there’s not anything fundamentally wrong with sentiment, but I see in my own heart how often sentimental words (whatever that means for you) can sometimes trump truth. Perhaps, more common is that we end up singing things that we love but don’t necessarily resonate.
Here’s an example. Just to extend my post bag a little more you understand. I minister in the East End of London. Few of us have any kind of daily or even semi-regular experience which sounds like this:
When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze
Then sings my soul….
This hymn is encouraging us to praise God, inspired by the nature around us. But what if that is not our nature around us? My middle class sentimentality might like this hymn but will it really serve and resonate with an urban, working class group of people. No. Of course not.
Interestingly, Stuart Hine’s translation of a translation of a translation (it was Swedish, then German, then Russian, and only then English) is pretty loose. Well. When I say, pretty loose, he ignored some verses and added new ones. Including, I understand, this one above, which Hine penned as he crossed the Carpathian mountain range. I might sing these words too if I was a mountaineer. But an earlier translation is probably better, even though it itself includes an archaism in line 2 which needs resolving (see yesterday’s post, suggestions on a postcard please):
When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth.
Now, living in London, that is something I can see, and therefore, I can sing… How great you are!
The songword bullies
Few things are as likely to stir ire (and lead to an extended post bag) than challenging some of the vocabulary of our best loved songs. It’s extraordinary really. I love hymns and old songs, but I have an equally strong distaste for archaisms. Singing, you see is a ministry of the word (I read that somewhere, in the Bible maybe?) and one, though not the only, reason we use modern Bible translations is that they are comprehensible. If we are to sing the word to one another we need to apply the same criteria.
Why don’t we? It’s in part, at least, because we’ve privatised singing. I’m happy and content singing what I like. It’s not about serving others. If the words mean something to me, then how dare you change them! We had some of the same debates when gradually moving away from the AV and we now need to resist the songword bullies and have the debates again with some of our sung ministry of the word.
I’m still going to sing hymns. Don’t put me down as one of those contemporary music only people. Not me! But in one sense I do want everything to be contemporary, by which I mean understandable. Otherwise we might as well be singing in another language, untranslated. And we all know what the Bible says about that.
Listen. Instead of reading (sometimes).
I’m enjoying some audio books at the moment. Not Christian ones, as it happens, but some Len Deighton 1980s spy thrillers (please don’t tell!). These particular books (a set of nine) are my comfort books. I first started reading them when they were first published and must have read the series 15 or more times since. I know some people never read the same book twice, but I love going back to familiar territory to help me switch off and relax (just for those who are really worried I also read David Copperfield, my favourite book, once a year).
Just for a change I’ve been trying the audio version. It’s more pricey, for sure. But it’s a refreshing experience and the well known words have come with a newness I’ve not really experienced before. Even though I know what is going to happen, it’s almost as though I am hearing the text for the first time. I guess this is, in part at least, because these books are so familiar that I probably skip past some of the detail.
I’ve posted before about using an audio Bible and I continue to do that, it’s a valuable resource in the Christian armoury: ironically (for a modern product) it more accurately reflects how the word of God would have originally been disseminated. But what about other Christian books? Why not put some of these on your phone or iPod? Pilgrims’s Progress? £3. Disciplines of a godly man or woman? £10. Hole in our holiness? £11. Basic Christianity? £12. And so on. Worth a shot? I’ll take all the help I can get.
Stop and wait a while
One of the benefits of my “Month in Philemon” is being able to really get to grips with the detail of the book. I’m really enjoying this: perhaps too much, I have to keep disciplining myself to read the whole letter again and again so as not to get over-immersed in the detail. Nevertheless, detail counts. Paragraphs are made of sentences, sentences are made of phrases, phrases are made of words and words count.
Take verse 6 of Philemon, phrase 1: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for….” (ESV) and “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in…” (NIV). Two quite different understandings of a simple phrase. Or not so simple. This is, says Moo, “universally recognised as the most difficult verse in Philemon” – and it turns on how you translate koinonia and pistis.
In this case, both ESV and NIV have gone for the same understanding of pistis – faith as something you believe in. OK (though by no means 100% certain). But they diverge on how to translate koinonia. The ESV picks up the AV “communication of thy faith” – i.e sharing OF. This is also the RSV (which carried through the AV translation). The NIV takes it to mean partnership with Paul – i.e. sharing WITH.
Not a minor point – for it would lead you to two different applications. Obviously the work of the exegete is to ponder and think and pray to work out which is best. For my money, for what it’s worth, the NIV is better here. The ESV takes a translation of koinonia unknown in Paul and relatively unusual in the NT (only Heb 13.16, perhaps?). It is,says Moo, supported by few interpreters (though this in itself would not make it wrong). But you yourself have to work it out and decide.
And for that, you have to go slow, stop and wait a while.
Two degrees of separation
We had an early morning phone call this morning – always, you imagine, the bringer of bad news. “Is this Celia?” Now, Celia, for the uninitiated, is the given name for Mrs R. Most of us call her Mrs R. But occasionally some people do call her Celia. So, what was the call? An early morning sales opportunity perhaps? That darn PPI we had forgotten about? No, the caller wanted Celia Hammond and her cat emergency line.
This was a double error. You see our phone number is very close to that of the PDSA (one digit different) and we often get calls asking how Rover is doing. But this caller had called the PDSA mistaking it for the Celia Hammond Cat Whatnot and THEN dialled the wrong number. Double Trouble.
We had a laugh about it (how those breakfasts in the Reynolds household just fly by!). It was unusual – and it took us some time to work out what had gone wrong. You see, when someone phones for the PDSA we can quickly say to them “you’ve got one digit wrong”.
This was more perplexing.
Preachers strive hard to get everything right. That’s how it should be. And this little incident reminded me of two things: first, we’ve got to be careful at every stage. One mistake, one wrong direction, can often lead to another. In other words, there needs to be a consistency in our preparation which gives the same careful attention to every detail. It’s far too easy, isn’t it, to take one step askew, and then another and before you know it, well…. you can join the dots.
But secondly, it’s worth being realistic. We strive hard to get everything right, but we don’t always. Sometimes an issue in our exegesis is so perplexing that it could go either way. I think listeners will always forgive us one rare mis-step. If we serve them faithfully, they should. And the discerning may well be able to spot the missed digit, so to speak. But two steps are harder to fathom and we’ve got to guard against it. So, if in my preparation I am wrestling with a knotty problem and simply have to choose a path (with a little uncertainty), I will never allow myself to make another assumption on top of that one – I could get too far away, and that’s not good.
Celia Hammond cats can be reached on 020 7474 8811.