Happy Christmas to you all
Christmas is a busy time for preachers. Few of our congregation will be working on Christmas Day and yet, even though the nature of our sermons on 25th December may be different, they still require (or should!) the same careful work and prayer and they still demand the same energy and emotional investment. I’m not actually preaching on Christmas Day this year, but I remember what it is like. So, Mr Preacher, chances are your Christmas may not be as relaxing as it is for some others, at least not at first. But our heartfelt prayer is that you do get time for rest and fun and that the wonder of the incarnation grips you afresh. “For you know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich.” See you in January!
The six graces
I’m preparing my Christmas carol service from 2 Corinthians 8:9 this week – one of my favourite Christmas texts. It’s well known territory, but I’m trying to resist the idea that I know the passage and can preach this particular text with my eyes closed. So, back to first principles, and some textual work on the whole chapter.
As I’ve done that, I’ve been struck by the six graces. We tend to think of five graces (from Greek mythology: charm, beauty, nature, human creativity, and fertility). But in fact there are six, according to the Holy Spirit. There they are in chapter 8 verse 7. “But since you excel in everything: in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you – see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”
The strong implication is that alongside giving as a grace (a gift), these other characteristics should be seen in the same way. That’s a rather challenging list, is it not? It’s a good example of how preaching too fast through a passage can sometimes soften the things the passage says in the detail. I’d want to preach 2 Cor 8 as a unit, certainly. But I think I’d want to come back to some of the detail too.
For when I pause and think of how I live, here is real challenge. Faith? Speech? Knowledge? Complete earnestness? Giving?
There’s a book in there somewhere, I know. But more importantly, there’s something to help me pray, confessing my sin and crying out to God the Spirit to conform me to the image of his Son. Amen and amen.
In other words
I was greatly helped this week by reading a section of Job; Job 33:19-28. It’s part of Elihu’s first speech to Job. Christopher Ash persuasively argues that Elihu should be read as speaking truth to Job, in contrast to the three other friends.
Elihu addresses himself to Job’s complaint that God is silent (v.13). He asks Job to consider someone who is ‘chastened on a bed of pain … they draw near to the pit’ (vs.19, 22).
He says this of such a person in vs.23-26:
Yet if there is an angel at their side, a messenger, one out of a thousand, sent to tell them how to be upright, and he is gracious to that person and says to God, “Spare them from going down to the pit; I have found a ransom for them – let their flesh be renewed like a child’s; let them be restored as in the days of their youth” –
…then that person can pray to God and find favour with him, they will see God’s face and shout for joy; he will restore them to full well-being [or perhaps: to righteousness].
This is a beautiful picture, ultimately, of the mediatory, ransoming work of Christ. From one perspective, it only expresses truths which are already substantially familiar to a Christian who knows Mark 10:45 well. But how kind of God to breathe it out and preserve it for us, because of the way in which those truths are expressed:
• it’s addressed to someone feeling on the very verge of death, wondering why God seems silent;
• the long conditional clause (‘yet if there is an angel… and [if] he is gracious… and [if] he says to God’) powerfully conveys a sense of deep longing for such a mediating messenger from God;
• how rare such a mediator seems to be (‘one out of a thousand’);
• the graphic language of being ‘spared’ from going ‘down to the pit’;
• the sudden calling to God that he has ‘found a ransom for them’;
• the new reality this opens up for the sufferer: they can now pray to God and be sure of finding his favour, and they may now see God and shout for joy.
In our own Bible-reading, as well as our preaching, these are aspects of the work of Christ and its fruits to dwell on and draw richly from. A devotional time on this section felt very different and led to some different prayers than one on Mark 10:45 might, and so too should a sermon on it.
Comforting Hearts, Teaching Minds
…is the title of a book of family devotions based on the Heidelberg Catechism, written by Starr Meade and published by P&R. It contains a year’s worth of daily material, and for a while now has been used most evenings chez Ward. Each day has a paragraph to read, and a short Bible text look at. It’s led to at least one entertaining conversation in which Ward Junior was appalled that one of his youth leaders had not heard of the Heid Cat.
Now different kinds of evangelical will have their own view on the particularities of the various Reformation creeds and catechisms. Some love the way that these traditions anchor us and prevent various slides into unbiblical short-sightedness. Others are sniffy about them because they worry about exalting the theological traditions of men too highly.
Whatever one’s view on that, this book has been good for our souls. Could I make a case that it’s a bit unbalanced here and there, with a bit too much on this or rather too little on that? Sure I could. But our noses have been rubbed in topics that haven’t often come up in other family Bible-aids we’ve used – the Lord’s Supper, and the keys of the kingdom, to name two – and we’ve been provoked to talk about things in ways we haven’t before (‘so when Jesus is proclaimed to the youth group this week, the door to heaven is being opened to some and closed to others’. That gives an angle on the weekly kids’ meeting that opens your eyes a bit.)
Even the very first question gives an angle on Christian truth and its effect that is not one of the regular ‘go-to’ expressions in our corner of the church:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ.
An Able and Faithful Ministry: some practical conclusions
The second half of Miller’s inaugural Princeton sermon draws out some practical conclusions. Some of these are just for the moment: interesting to read but somewhat removed from life today. Others are bang up to date and worth repeating. So here are a few headlines to close off this reading of his sermon, something I’ve found edifying and challenging in equal measure. These are not particularly connected to one another, but are worth collecting together in one final post.
First, the church cannot make men gifted or pious. She cannot “impart grace, nor create talents.” Nevertheless, “there is much to be done.” The kingdom is a kingdom of means, he argues, and God “is not to be expected to work miracles to supply our lack of exertion”. In other words, we cannot sit back and expect godly preachers to spring from the earth.
Second, churches have a responsibility to both identify potential pastors and fund their education. This was clearly a key issue in his day, and remains so. We all of us have a Paul-Timothy mandate to give adequate time and money to training the next generation of those who will minister. There are good signs, for sure, but we must not be complacent.
Third, Miller argues that the judiciaries of the church (for which read leadership today) need to guard the entrance to the ministry. We must not get so excited about men and women wanting to serve full time that we suspend any sense of good sense ourselves. Not everyone is cut out or gifted to be in ministry and we must not elevate ministry to such a high level that we give the impression that secular work is something of a second best. It is, quite simply, not. Interestingly, in terms of admission to seminary, Miller gives his two key questions: “has he a heart for the work?” and “has he those native faculties which are susceptible of the requisite cultivation?” In other words, acceptance into seminary is not necessarily the same as acceptance into ministry. So should it be today.
Finally, he urges us to support seminaries. For me, this translates into a prayer for all those responsible for training. Ultimately this responsibility lies with the local church, but we delegate it to seminaries, colleges, courses, individuals; our prayer for them needs to be Miller’s prayer for himself as he sets out to lead Princeton.
“O my fathers and brethren, let it never be said of us, on whom this task has fallen, that we take more pains to make polite scholars, eloquent orators or mere men of learning, than to form able and faithful ministers of the New Testament. Let it never be said that we are more anxious to maintain the literary and scientific honours of the ministry, than we are to promote that honour which consists in being ‘full of faith and of the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 6.5), and the instruments of ‘adding much people to the Lord’ (Acts 11.24). The eyes of the church are upon us. The eyes of the angels, and above all, the eyes of the King of Zion, are upon us. May we have grace given us to be faithful.”
An Able and Faithful Ministry: competent knowledge
In Miller’s inaugural Princeton sermon, his attention to competent knowledge. He defines this very precisely as being difference from talents (which are latent abilities to teach). Interestingly, given that Princeton was a theological seminary, he does not start with what a man is to know, but rather what a man is to do. This, for Miller, is an important distinction. Competent knowledge for him is defined not by syllabus, but by goal.
For Miller, the goal is to preach. “He is to be ready, on all occasions, to explain the Scriptures.” You might expect him to reduce this knowledge down to “bible” therefore, but he does not. Sure, this is his major component, but to it he adds original languages, some Jewish and Christian history, geography, background, theological controversies, natural theology, systematics, biblical theology (although he does not call it that), church history, pastoralia. He adds in quite a few liberal arts subjects as well.
You might want, I guess, to take aim at some of these. Are these absolutely necessary to the competent preaching of the Scriptures. Miller says “yes” and he is, at least in part, onto something. A preacher is more (not less) than a competent exegete. He knows how the Bible works in all its facets. He understands how people tick. He knows something of the world. There is a rounded understanding – at which exegesis stands at the centre – which makes him an able and faithful minister. Yep, I’m with Miller on that.
That brings challenge to our training institutions of course. But more importantly, it brings challenge to us. For our ability to preach is never static. We need to keep on growing and learning: and all of that rather begs a question: what are you growing and learning in? Do you have truly competent knowledge?
An Able and Faithful Ministry: talents
Following on from yesterday’s post about Samuel Miller, he spends just a short time in his inaugural sermon talking about talents. This is second qualification for an able and faithful ministry after piety. He is helpfully realistic: “not every minister must, of necessity, be a man of genius.” To which many of us breathe a sigh of relief. It’s something that’s worth picking up on, however. We aspire, of course, to be the best preachers we can be. But we are not all Stott or Lloyd-Jones or Lucas, and – guess what – that’s fine! We can burden ourselves with too much self-expectation.
What is interesting when it comes to talents is that Samuel Miller, to the normal abilities to teach (what doctor would ever be allowed to practise, he argues, without some demonstrable ability), turns his attention to what he calls “good sense.” Without this, he says, the effectiveness of a preacher will be seriously curtailed.
“Though a minister concentrated himself in all the piety and all the learning of the Christian church, yet if he had not a decent stock of good sense, for directing and applying his other qualifications, he would be worse than useless. Upon good sense depends all that is dignified, prudent, conciliatory, and respectable in private deportment; and all that is judicious, seasonable and calculated to edify in public ministration.” A minister without good sense, he argues, will end up in “drivelling childishness” which will bring the ministry and the Bible into contempt.
Not one to mince his words! How does he justify this biblically? Simple: he takes Jesus’ words in Matthew 10.16 and says that “good sense” is shorthand for being “as wise as serpents, as harmless as doves.”
There’s something in this for those in ministry today, including myself. We live in an angry world, where rights are claimed over responsibilities offered. We live in a litigious world, greedy for money. We live in an advertising world, where all kinds of shameless strategies are used to lure us into giving up our hard earned cash. We live in an infantile world, the world of the prank, where we trick others and then laugh at their reactions. In this climate, the preacher of the gospel of grace must be different. He must surely have good sense.
Matthew 10.16 is only a short verse. But it’s worth thinking about, working through and praying in.
An Able and Faithful Ministry: piety
In between other things, I’ve been reading James Garrestson’s new biography of Samuel Miller, one of the founders of Princeton Theological Seminary. It prompted me to read his inaugural sermon at the Seminary, preached on the text of 2 Timothy 2 (entitled “an able and faithful ministry” which Garretson then uses as his biography title). It’s a wide ranging sermon, more of a lecture really, but containing some valuable insights on ministry. The sermon is available online here, but I thought I would share some of what he says which still resonates today.
First up, Miller says that every minister needs to have evangelical piety. It is, he says, the “first requisite.” This is – as you might imagine – a kind of mystical mumbo-jumbo that some people assume piety to be, but rather, “that he is a regenerated man; that he has a living faith in that Saviour whom he preaches to others; that the love of Christ habitually constrains him; that he has himself walked those paths of humility, self-denial and holy communion with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, in which it is the business of his life to endeavour to lead his fellow men.”
This is indeed a high calling! And “without piety, he cannot be an able minister.” Miller argues that we too readily get excited about those who want to go into ministry (from his point of view, as families, from ours, more likely as churches) without really seeing any evidence of this godliness. “This kind of destination…is as dangerous as it is unwarranted.”
Moreover, and here it is particularly convicting for those in theological education, we convince ourselves that such institutions are “calculated for training up learned and eloquent men”. Thus, “accursed be all that learning which sets itself in opposition to vital piety! Accursed be all that learning which disguises or is ashamed of vital piety. Accursed be all that learning which is not made subservient to the promotion and the glory of vital piety.”
It’s not that piety is everything (more of that tomorrow). But if it lacking, then a man in ministry is nothing. We might say, to put it in more modern language, that a preacher without a real, living and active faith is destined to destroy both himself and his ministry. All of which is a sobering thought for every preacher and teacher.
“Examine yourself to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13.5).
My favourite Christian book all googled up
One of my favourite Christian books, if not the favourite one is Brian Edwards and Clive Anderson’s The Bible in the British Museum. I keep giving away my copy so I have lost count of how many I have had. I like to think this is keeping young Clive and his dear wife in the style to which they are accustomed, but I rather doubt it.
There’s a new twist to the tale however. Google have now launched their Cultural Institute version of the British Museum. This is basically Google Street View on the inside; they have spent the last three months sending a little remote rover around the museum so it is fully online. It’s an amazing resource. You can see it here.
Of course, it’s nowhere near as good as actually visiting in person, but if that’s too much of a stretch, this is a really good second best. Although, it must be said, that without the guide it’s not nearly so much fun. Here’s what to do. Buy the book, fire up the Google machine, make yourself a coffee and rejoice in the Bible.
James in one mouthful
I had something of an epiphany last night. It came as we read James in one session at our small group. It’s an amazing way to take this unusual book in. I say unusual, not in a pejorative sense. It’s simply different from the Greek logic of Paul that we embrace so easily. James, as I’m sure you know, is much more Hebraic in its forms and logic so issues and themes get gnawed away at, then James switches tack, then returns to the same theme (try tracing through the theme of tongue and speech, for example).
There’s no mistake, as you read through, what the big issue is: the melodic line is very clear. James is calling his readers to true religion; religion where faith is matched by deeds: this is friendship with God. And seeing that big picture unlocks much of the so-called “bitty” nature of the book.
Actually, it’s not bitty at all when everything is connected back to that big thing. The irony for me is that we try to shoehorn James into a Pauline kind of structure, where it simply doesn’t work. It’s not that sections are entirely divorced from one another, that would be a preposterous suggestion. But the logical connections are decidedly not Pauline.
All of which, as we were reading, got me thinking. How do you preach a book like James in an expository manner – i.e. saying what God says? Two standard approaches fall short. Texting (just ripping out purple texts) is almost bound to ignore the connection to the whole. But even a more standard “few verses at a time, in order” approach may fail to do justice to the way the book works. It is more like Proverbs than Ephesians, after all.
So here’s something to ponder. What about preaching it thematically? Yep, thematic expositional preaching. I bet that puts the cat amongst the pigeons.