Two Christmas books
As (in ministry terms at least) Christmas gets nearer very quickly, our thoughts soon turn to evangelistic resources, and rightly so. There are lots of good ones and those of us in church leadership should be praying and planning for how we make the most of this golden opportunity.
But it’s not only a good time to reach unbelievers. Christmas is also a good time to exhort and encourage believers. And I’ve recently read two books that will do just that. The first is by Willie Philip and is called “Song for a Saviour’s birth.” It’s not out until end October, but it’s worth putting on pre-order. It’s a classic set of five sermons working through the songs in Luke’s gospel. Each is (or was) a sermon, I guess, so you can imagine the sort of thing. It’s clear, careful and heart-warming.
Slightly different is Tim Chester’s new advent book. Called “The One True Story” it is a series of advent devotionals numbered – surprise, surprise – one through twenty-four (like a proper advent candle, there is no twenty-five). I read this in the summer, as far from Christmas as you can possibly get, and it stirred my heart greatly. We shall use it in our family devotions this year, and I encourage you to do the same – and get your church reading it too. The idea behind the book is to trace through Bible themes as they are fulfilled in Christ, some obvious (the anointed one, the suffering servant) some less so (the new ark, the whisper). So, and here’s the clever part, as you read you are not only being encouraged with Christ, you’re learning biblical theology and how to read the whole Bible well. For that reason alone, we leaders should be encouraging our people to read it.
Christmas is not just for unbelievers.
Valley of Vision
It’s getting near Sunday. So, a dose of the preachers’ prayer is not amiss! However, I can’t reproduce it due to copyright restrictions. That’s sad, but you can follow the link or buy the book. Many of these ‘prayers’ are not prayers, of course, but were turned into prayers from the writings of various puritans by Arthur Bennett. Someone said to me recently, “I wish there were a footnoted version” – but there isn’t, and that’s in part, at least, because they are composites. You won’t find these precise prayers in the writings of the Puritans.
That’s not to say that the book is less helpful for it. No, not at all. And in fact, given that they are not verbatim prayers for the most part, I would love a gently modernised version that I could use in church. For there is a depth and breadth here that is sadly lacking in much of our public praying. It is perhaps churlish to keep asking this question but I do wonder how much of our public praying would be of the profundity that would make it into such a collection. And why not?
Of course, we want our public praying to be simple. We want it to be accessible so people can genuinely say “Amen”, but where’s the depth? Where’s the breadth? Where’s the deep doctrine? Most often, sadly lacking.
There are very few helpful resources on transgender that argue carefully and clearly from a biblical standpoint. We need lots of help in this area. Up to now, Mark Yarhouse’s Gender Dysphoria is about all there is. It’s good, but it’s complex. That is why I was very pleased to read Vaughan Roberts’ latest book called, innovatively, Transgender. It’s not quite out yet, but is available from our friends at The Good Book Company for pre-order.
Now, I don’t want to overplay this book. It is not a comprehensive guide and theology to the subject. And for pastors, the theology section is well trod already, although no less helpful for that. Where this short book really scores for me is in two ways.
First, it is simple (and short). It is therefore easy to read at one sitting and get a grasp of some of the issues. It is easy to pass on. It is relatively easy (therefore) for Christians in church to be reading. It’s not overwhelming to be handed a copy. In other words, it is a superb starter.
Second, there’s a very useful section at the end entitled “wisdom” about how Christians should best react and deal with this particular issue. Again, the pastoral team of a church would probably want to discuss this more with greater depth, but it is an excellent starting point for pastoral wisdom in dealing with others who struggle in this area.
For these two reasons alone (though there are more), I warmly commend it.
(EMA) 2017 and Luther
It will not have escaped your notice that next year is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the church notice board incident. It’s worth celebrating in your church. There seem to be fewer Christians who know very much about it. Of course, Luther can be a stumbling block for some because of his view on the Jews: I found Carl Trueman’s church history lecture on this subject very helpful (it’s available through iTunes podcasts here). Notwithstanding this difficulty, we should surely be celebrating the birth of the Reformation.
For those who know nothing about it, I found the Hollywood makeover of Luther quite compelling. Joseph Fiennes is pretty good (especially as tortured Luther) and, whilst there would be some other things you’d want to say, it’s a solid starting point. Why not plan for a cinema showing in your church as part of your evangelism next year. Popcorn, pop and the 95 theses. What’s not to like? [Clare Cox is a bit too good looking to play Katharina, by all accounts].
Or, come and hear Garry Williams at next year’s EMA. He’s taking a one off session on Luther which, knowing Garry, will be typically stirring and provocative all at the same time. We’ve opened the bookings specially!
A Better Tune
Every now and then you sing a hymn that is crying out for a better tune. Even a slightly better tune. This is one that is in my head now and I’m glad not to be able to shake it off. 18th Century finest Moravian:
Jesus, your blood and righteousness
my beauty are, my glorious dress;
mid burning worlds, in these arrayed,
with joy I shall lift up my head.
2. Bold shall I stand on your great day
and none condemn me, try who may;
fully absolved by you I am
from sin and fear, from guilt and shame.
3. When from the dust of death I rise
to claim my home beyond the skies,
then this shall be my only plea:
Jesus has lived, has died for me.
4. O give to all your servants, Lord,
to speak with power your gracious word,
that all who now believe it true
may find eternal life in you.
5. O God of power, O God of love,
let the whole world your mercy prove;
now let your word in all prevail;
Lord, take the spoils of death and hell!
6. O let the dead now hear your voice;
let those once lost in sin rejoice!
Their beauty this, their glorious dress,
Jesus, your blood and righteousness.
Context and application
I explained very briefly yesterday how texts rightly understood in context bring a sermon a power that it cannot have otherwise. This is, I guess, “rightly dividing the word of truth.” But I want to go further and say that this context also drives application. Take just one of those texts from yesterday’s passage: “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: the old has gone, the new is here.”
In my teenage Bible this is underlined a few times, highlighted too, but I’m not sure I ever bothered to understand it in context. It’s an obvious truth, as a standalone verse. It is about the difference that being born again makes. It is about how significant the change is. I could make a sermon out of that!
But the context makes you think quite differently, even about application. The context is Paul defending himself against the super-apostles: Paul doesn’t mind even if they claim he is out of his mind, for – if so – it is for the Lord’s sake. And though the super-apostles are assessing Paul from a worldly point of view (in terms of the spectacular that he lacks) he will not be drawn into the same slanging match (2 Cor 5.16). Why? Because even his detractors, if saved, are new creations! The old has gone, the new has come.
Suddenly there is pointed application. This is about how Paul relates to others, especially those who are his detractors. To paraphrase the late Bob Horn, he “starts with generous assumptions.”
And so must we.
Context and power
I preached at the London City Mission thanksgiving service last week, on 2 Cor 5.21-6.2; not a straightforward passage at all, but I hope I did it justice. Preaching it is complicated by the fact that the passage is jam packed (or ram packed, per Corbyn) of well known texts: “Christ’s love compels us….”, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…”, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors….”, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us…” and so on. In fact, per column inch, there are more “poster verses” here than almost any passage I’ve preached recently.
It’s easy to get distracted by these, especially as we have often ripped the texts out of their contexts. We thus often end up conveying Bible truths but hanging them on verses that Paul (in this case) intended for a different meaning – what some people call “the right message from the wrong text.”
I am convinced that, under the sovereignty and power of the Spirit, the power in preaching lies in allowing the text to say what the text says. In other words, using the text to say something it was not intended for, even when that something is a glorious Bible truth, must rob the sermon of something. After all, I could equally shoehorn something that was wrong onto a text and make it sound genuine. Where’s the difference? – only that one is a truth and one a falsehood, neither is using the text as it was intended. The only guard therefore against falsehood and imposition is to use the text, in its context, as it was intended. That’s where the power lies.
A short break
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m taking a three month sabbatical from mid November to mid February. I need to rest, refresh and spend time with the Lord every day, but this concentrated burst will help me greatly as I seek to minister to others. There’s nothing particularly spiritual about sabbaticals: I don’t think you can make a Bible case for pastors to have them particularly. They fall into the “godly wisdom” category.
At my last church I had written into my contract that I accrued 2 weeks for every year worked to be taken with agreement of elders. This meant that after five years, I could take a 10 week study break. It also meant that if things were tough, I could take an earlier break. I liked that practice, although others work well too.
This time around there are no grand plans. No Masters to complete or books to write (though there are some projects that require some attention). No, the main project is my soul and I shall be prayerfully planning a timetable that will deliver not letters after my name, nor books with my imprint, but for a soul that is nurtured and cultivated. “O that my soul could love and praise him more, his beauties trace, his majesty adore, live near his heart, rest in his love each day, hear his dear voice and all his will obey.”
Last call for Autumn Ministers
Our Autumn Ministers conference runs from 7 to 10 November this year. We’ve got Christopher Ash on Ruth and some other inputs on application as well as the normal mix of fellowship and rest! The autumn ministers conference is always smaller than the others, so it has a very different feel from, say, the Spring (where we have 120+). This is more intimate and restful – deliberately so. Do come and join us if you can.
I’m taking a sabbatical from mid November and this is my last conference of 2016. I’d love to see you there. Book here.
The leader and his tongue
We’re off on a Cornhill+ study conference this week with a small handful of students. The aim is to do so some focused work and praying on Christian leadership. Steve Wilmshurst and I will be leading our happy band and this year we’re joined by Andy Upton to come and assist. These are normally precious times: the honour of teaching others and learning and growing myself.
This year I’m leading a session on the tongue: i.e. our speech. I’m convinced this is a much neglected topic when it comes to leadership (which seems to focus so much on the doing of leadership). But speech is at the heart of what it means to be a leader. I take it that’s why James 3.2-12 follows James 3.1. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” is then followed by James’ well-known words about what we say.
These two must not be divorced. Of course, there are general truths for everyone about speech, but James is particularly concerned to connect leadership and control of the tongue together and we must not break the link. Paul has the same concern for leaders, “Set an example for the believers in speech…” (1 Tim 4.12).
I find this a challenging area. Here are some diagnostic questions to help.
Is my speech wholesome? All Christians are called to speak words that are pure.
Is my speech hypocritical? Too many of us are one thing to some, and another to others.
Is my speech hasty? The Scriptures counsel us to think before we speak.
Is my speech constructive? Paul is strong on this in Ephesians – only speak what builds others up.
Is my speech true? Gossip, slander – these are serious sins which the pastor must put to death.
God help me.