Preaching God and example
Many preachers in conservative evangelical circles say that they find narrative the hardest parts of Scripture to preach. I think that is particularly true of the way in which we draw appropriate applications from biblical narratives. Here’s the issue for a preacher who already knows that what he ought to be is expounding the text: once I’ve got to the heart of what this passage is really about (what we call at Cornhill the Big Idea, but other names are available), in what particular direction and from which particular angle should I apply that truth? (in Cornhill parlance, what’s the Aim?).
Graham Goldsworthy’s book Gospel and Kingdom many years ago had, so it seems, a significant influence in rightly warning preachers away from simply mining biblical narratives for moral lessons (stuff like “which ‘Goliaths’ in your life should you be slaying?”). That is an extremely helpful corrective, but it can sometimes leave a question hanging. I’ve often heard that question expressed like this: if I’ve taken that kind of warning on board, how can I avoid having essentially the same application in every single sermon of a series I preach on, say, the book of Judges? Won’t that approach lead me to preach just the great theological themes of a passage (nothing wrong with that in itself), but to do so quite repetetively and without paying a great deal of attention to the details of character and plot in each particular text? (To be fair to Goldsworthy, he may deal with that. I ought to re-read Gospel and Kingdom.)
I recently came across this two-fold piece of advice in drawing application from narratives: ‘identify the central act of God in a narrative and observe the way the characters in the drama respond to him’ (Daniel Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work: the theory and practice of biblical application, p.181). The first instruction here is essentially in the Goldsworthy line: avoid moralism and preach what God is doing in this event. The second instruction, though, leads us to the details of the characters and plot in each particular narrative. Doriani is wanting the preacher to hold the characters up to his hearers as models and examples, whether good or bad, of different responses to the actions of God. Thus in 1 Samuel 17 (Doriani’s major example) we must certainly preach that believers now are first of all to identify ourselves with the Israelites cheering on the hillside while they watch God’s appointed champion defeat God’s enemy on their behalf. But in addition to that we can and should also preach David as an example to follow in caring deeply enough for the honour of God to act bravely, and also his brother Eliab and Saul as negative examples, in their own separate ways, of a response to the action of God narrated in the text.
This avoids moralism. It also helps avoid same-y expressions of good biblical theology that might pay too little attention to the details of each particular narrative.
A mindset not a method
Expository preaching, says Dick Lucas, is a mindset not a method. That's a really helpful thought and one I've been coming back to again and again recently. Someone asked me last week at our younger ministers conference whether there is a PT approved (!!) set length of passage to preach. That's a fairly bizarre question when you stop to think of it. Every text has a context right up to the context of the whole Bible and if you never stop saying 'this portion I've got belongs in a wider context' you just end up with the Bible as your text – and therefore one (rather long) sermon! So, a bizarre question. But the right answer is that we teach a mindset not a method.
In other words, the answer to the question is no. We do encourage preachers to take whole sections that belong together, especially in OT narrative. But you can preach a text in an expository way just as you can a longer section. (Though preaching a text which is faithful to its context and setting is much harder than a longer section; even though it may appear otherwise). You can even, I believe, have a topical series which is still expository. A wedding sermon can be expository, as can a youth club talk.
All that we teach tends to focus on handling the word of God accurately. These lessons apply whether you're preaching on Acts 2 in its entirety or just verse 42. Both can be expository sermons. Because expository preaching is a mindset not a method.
EMA featured books #4
Messages that move by Tim Hawkins is another book about preaching. But don't yawn. Not until you've had a look. For sure, of the making of books about preaching, there is much. But Tim's book is different. For starters, it's written in a quirky, but engaging style that those who know Tim or have read any of his material will recognise. This means it is easily readable – a great feat for a book on the "how to" of preaching. What others preaching books can you say that about? Secondly, it is remarkably thorough and deals comprehensively and helpfully with all aspects of a message, including some of the parts of preaching that other texts leave behind – introductions, conclusions, illustrations. All very helpful comments on these from Tim.
So, it may be another book on preaching. That is fact. But it is a very welcome one.
For sure, this is not an advanced textbook. As such, it is a book that will serve two audiences. For experienced preachers there are really useful lessons and nuggets to ensure your preaching stays sharp and on track. For less experienced preachers (perhaps the primary audience?) this will serve as a really good introduction to preaching. I could easily see us getting a copy of this, for example, for each of our occasional preachers in church. Just occasionally I found myself disagreeing with Tim as did the member of our BookPanel who reviewed it: for example, we thought it is possible to preach on a passage such as Phil 4 and the end result being to stir emotions rather than being concerned that someone should do something as a result. Nevertheless, that's a minor criticism. There's much here to encourage existing preachers and build new ones. My commendation was genuinely heartfelt: "In this delightfully practical book you'll find down to earth wisdom, helpful encouragement and biblical exhortation. Read it and buy a copy for a fellow preacher."
Or, as our BookPanel member said, " I run a preaching group in the summer term, and I'll get my guys to read this as part of it." Perhaps you should do likewise?
EMA featured books #3
The God who became human by Graham Cole is the latest in IVP's New Studies in Biblical Theology (NSBT). This series has some really outstanding contributions in it now, and it's always a delight to stock them. This particular one is an excellent volume. I read it in one sitting and will come back to it again and again – at its most basic it is a biblical theology of the incarnation – nothing ground-breaking there, you might think. But as he goes along, Graham interacts with all kinds of viewpoints and issues, making this one of those books that is greater than the sum of its parts. Technical at times, and with lots of quotes, but clear chapters and conclusions and lots to make this preacher think about both his worship and his preaching – not least about theophanies, Blackham's OT theology, and the wonder of the incarnation. It's not out yet, but will be available at the EMA. Deeper than the average read, but worth some of your British spondoolies.
Don’t believe everything you read…
A salutary warning about our words can be misquoted – in a positive article in Monday's Times about US evangelicals, Tim Keller was quoted as saying it was possible to believe that homosexuality was a sin but still be in favour of gay marriage. This actually was lifted straight from an article at the Huffington Post (lazy journalism, one might argue, but then the writer of the article, Tim Montgomerie, found fame as a blogger). As Keller clarifies here, he did say these words, but in response to articulating what some anabaptists held as a position. In other words, as a statement of fact as to what others believe. We shouldn't be surprised that words get twisted or even misinterpreted, I suppose. Hey ho.
Waiting on God to refresh our strength
Following on from yesterday's post, I've found this little quote from Richard Sibbes (taken from The love of Christ) to be a remarkable encouragement:
If we find not our suits answered so soon as we would, remember we have made him wait for us also. Perhaps to humble us, and after that to encourage us, he will make us wait; for we have made him wait. Let us not give over, for certainly he that desires us to open, that he may pour out his grace upon us, he will not reject us when we come to him (Matt 7.7). If he answers us not at first, yet he will at last. Let us go on and wait, seeing as there is no duty pressed more in Scritpure than this. And we see it in equity, 'He waits for us' (Isaiah 30.8). It is good reason we should wait for him. If we have not comfort presently when we desire it, let us attend upon Christ as he hath attended upon us, for when he comes, he comes with advantage. So that when we wait, we lose nothing thereby, but are gainers by it, increasing our patience (James 1.4). The longer we wait, he comes with the more abundant grace and comfort in the end, and shows himself rich, and bountiful to them that wait upon him (Isaiah 40.1).
Running on empty
Ministers are not machines. Had you noticed? We therefore need to take care of ourselves (and encourage others to take care of us). Reflecting on my own weak humanity this week I wonder whether we may be inclined to only concentrate on certain aspects of our lives and therefore find ourselves, without warning perhaps, running on empty?
- We are spiritual people and therefore we need to take care over our spiritual walk. I guess most of us are aware of this. But what steps are you taking to guard your walk with Christ and make sure this element of your life is not empty.
- We are physical people and therefore we need to take care over our bodies. We simply cannot operate as ministers if our bodies are so worn down that they won't operate. So, we need to take care over the hours we are working, the sleep we are getting, the exercise we are seeking and the downtime we are building in. We can be at the heights of our spiritual prowess, but if our bodies are groaning and creaking we won't be able to sustain ministry.
- We are emotional people and therefore we need to take care over our emotions. I've worked out recently that my emotional tank is pretty near empty. There are lots of reasons for why our emotional strength may be drained; circumstances at home, church situations, pressures of other kinds. We may be in top shape physically, spiritually but be emotionally void. We are not going to be in any shape to minister to others, a ministry which is full of emotional giving out. What are you building into your timetable to recharge emotional energy?
Take a quick check. How are the fuel tanks in your ministry?
EMA featured books #3
Look out at the EMA for one of the best books of 2013: Serving without sinking by John Hindley. Quite simply, this book did me good. It is fresh, warm, honest and richly filled with grace, informed by a gritty realism, shot through with pastoral perspectives. There is something in it for every Christian.
Two weeks with Peter Adam on our spring ministers conferences and there are, not surprisingly, lots of golden nuggets along the way. Here's a taster, reviewing Revelation and challenging what we worship. Our congregations and churches, suggested Peter, also have idols. We need to spot these and tackle them. The idols may be:
- the past
- the building
- the building project
- a certain model of ministry
- the last minister but one
Bruce Ware love in
If I may be allowed to gate-crash Adrian’s recent Bruce Ware love-in, I would strongly recommend his (that’s Bruce’s) Big Truths for Young Hearts (Crossway). I’m currently reading through it with the family, having been recommended it ages ago by someone I met at a ministers’ conference; I can’t remember who, but many thanks if it was you. It’s essentially a systematic theology, set out in 2-3 page sections, each with a couple of discussion questions and a memory verse. It take about ten minutes to read the section out. Here’s what I like about it, apart from the obvious stuff about it being great truth:
- it’s superbly well-explained in crystal clear and very simple terms, with great illustrations. it grew out of night-time devotions with his own daughters when they were young (read their preface to get a sense of what it was like growing up with an enthusiastic theologian for a Dad and be envious – or not.)
- it reads like it was written to be read out a family and so it’s fun to listen to (so the troops are telling me)
- we must teach our kids systematic theology. There are few reasons for this: it’s a fresh and exciting challenge for a child (mine is now ten) who knows all the Bible stories inside out and might be getting bored with them; their generation will likely be under even more pressure from wider society to have a robust, coherent and well thought out biblical world-view; if all we do is read the Bible with them (great and indispensable though that is!), we’re starving them of the great traditions of godly thinking that have been passed on to us
- it could be one of the very best theology books to give to a new or under-taught believer, whatever their reading ability, but especially if they’re not in the majority who are not university educated.
Here’s what my ten-year-old likes about it:
- it answers some of the tough questions he’d been asking at the end of our family Bible-time together; (I’d answered some of them for him, but every Dad needs some back-up)
- it’s giving him Bible-truth in a way he hasn’t encountered much before
- it’s just at his level (the back cover says from ages 9 up, which I reckon is about right).