With Me: Luke’s Easter Narrative

3CrossesbI have just written a blog that underlines one of Luke’s tools in his Gospel writing – he loves to use pairs.  Actually, he uses them for two reasons and if you are preaching from Luke this Friday or Sunday, you should be aware of this key feature in his wonderful Gospel.  To read the article, click here.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 6

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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And to finish off the list . . .

6. Be aware of who is truly wise. Step back and think of wisdom literature as a whole genre for a moment, consider the dynamic that is going on. In it’s simplest form it is this – a wise person is offering his wisdom to someone who is less wise. Remember this is not the same as knowledge or information, it is personal not abstract, it is applied in the complex situations of life, and we all stand alongside Rehoboam while the offer is made – who will we listen to – wisdom or folly?

The wise person comes to us in the written word, as a person of authority, of greater wisdom, or greater experience of what it means to live in God’s world, and in God’s way. That wisdom runs right through Proverbs, it is what is being searched for in books like Ecclesiastes. Think of the massive climax towards the end of Job when God breaks into the discussion with His wisdom – it’s huge, isn’t it? In wisdom literature, the wise person offers their wisdom for us to benefit from, freely. Can you see where this is going? Wisdom finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Listen to what Paul says in 1 Cor 1:26-31:-

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

That’s why I said earlier in the week that when we get into wisdom literature, it can seem as though those big themes of the Bible have been laid aside for a while. They haven’t been, but we might need to work a little harder to see them and we need to need to be very wary of preaching wisdom in a way which is purely focused on temporary benefit for us. Proverbs are too often preached as “super-tips” for a better life now only. Be wary of approaching Song of Solomon in a way which only celebrates human sexuality in this life. Watch out for an understanding of Job that gives answers to suffering in this life without lifting our eyes to eternity. Let’s not preach wisdom in a way which only celebrates His gifts without lifting the eyes of our listeners to the wonder of the giver.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 5

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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Continuing the list of areas for special attention, so far we have had beware of self-improvement, beware of making promises out of proverbs, and preach thought units.  Last in the list:

4. Consider what it means to preach a reflective genre… reflectively. We have already seen that wisdom literature requires reflection. How might this impact our sermons in this genre? We need to give serious thought as to how we can encourage reflection in our listeners, even if it is only for the time we are standing up there preaching. Two thoughts on this; firstly avoid information overload. This is true for preaching any genre, but nowhere is it more important that in preaching wisdom.  Don’t bombard people with dozens of different thoughts or ideas; it doesn’t encourage reflection, it encourages confusion, headaches and people to stop listening altogether.

Conversely then, create space. Create space to work out illustration and application – “You cannot serve both God and money” isn’t a proverb, but it is a good example of a relatively short journey from original context to contemporary application. But wisdom like Proverbs 15:5 “A fool spurns a parent’s discipline, but whoever heeds correction shows prudence.” will take some time to unpack. How does it apply for people who don’t have God-honouring parents? What about people whose parents have died or who no longer under their parents’ authority in the way they once were? Does this proverb no longer apply to them? If so, how? And what are the subtle ways we all try to squirm out of correction – wherever it comes from? Be creative, take time to explore this piece of wisdom from as many angles as you can. Finally, create space to think, respond, pray. Why not give people time to do this at some point in your sermon (and not necessarily just at the end)?

5. Identify the central issue of a book. This is crucial. In a book like Job, it is easy to forget that the central tension of the book is presented very clearly in chapter 1, Satan says to God that Job loves God not for who He is, but for what He gives Job. The accusation is that Job loves God’s stuff more than he loves God. And the tension of the rest of the book is, in many ways, an exploration of that accusation – will Job’s faith stand up to the accusation, or not? It’s important to work out everything which follows in light of this. In Ecclesiastes you have to go to the end of the book to find the central issue – (12:13–14) Keep this conclusion as your focal point as you drive those windy roads of Ecclesiastes!

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 4

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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4. Areas for special attention

So let’s try and get down to nuts and bolts. What practical steps can we take to try and improve our preaching of wisdom literature?

1. Beware of self-improvement. It is all too easy to focus on the fact that Job ended up with more stuff at the end of the story than he had when it started, or to preach Proverbs 22:4 in such a way that we motivate our listeners with the prospect of material blessings now, rather than the glorious treasure that awaits us when Christ appears. It’s true, wisdom literature seems at times to focus on material blessings in this life, but I think there is more going on here – and more on that later.

2. Beware of making promises out of proverbs. Yesterday, I mentioned the example of Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”), we need to teach this in a way which both understands and communicates that proverbs are generally true, they not promises. This proverb is saying that if 100 sets of parents train their children up in the gospel, more will become followers of Christ than won’t, but this is not a promise that 100% will. Wisdom literature often provides us with general truths, not promises to be claimed.

3. Preach thought units. In his excellent book “Preaching With Variety”, Jeffrey Arthurs points out that Proverbs are often grouped together, though the connection between them can be quite subtle and not always obvious. Look hard, reflect, pray to identify those units of thought. And don’t be afraid to use a good commentary. Arthurs also suggests taking a more thematic approach to Proverbs, where you can draw together a few proverbs on the same theme (laziness, alcohol, parenting, old-age and youth) from different parts of the book. Also, there’s nothing wrong with simply preaching a whole sermon on one proverb.

In other wisdom books, the units of thought are often much larger. I’ve heard of someone preaching through Job a verse a week, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

We will complete this list next time . . .

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 3

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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3. Be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature.

I’ve already mentioned some of the challenges in teaching wisdom. But there are other challenges – how about the theological question of preaching wisdom literature? Think of some of the big Bible themes – creation, sin, promise, redemption, and so on. When you dive into wisdom literature, it can seem as though these big subjects get very little development as we read through the wisdom literature. And even when they are mentioned, it might be hard to see how our understanding is developed therein. Song of Solomon is a good example – I mean, what is it about? There’s a whole lot of stuff in there on men and women and well… you know what I mean. But what has this got to do with those important big Bible doctrines? If you’ve read anything on the Song of Solomon, you’ll see this tension getting to people – there’s a big debate going on – some people will tell you that it’s basically some kind of sex manual for happily married Christians, others will tell you that it is nothing of the sort, that it is a book about Christ and his church. I’ll leave you to do the reading on that, but I’m convinced that the argument itself comes from this apparent disappearance of the grand narrative of the Bible story. I say apparent because we’ll pick up on this later in the week.

Another problem, more practical perhaps, comes when we try to preach from a book like Proverbs. How should we divide the text up? A chapter at a time? A verse at a time? Is there really a connection between these proverbs that can help us draw our thinking together into a unified sermon message? And what about Job? Even breaking the text up into sizeable chunks is still likely to make for a lengthy sermon series. Or Ecclesiastes – how many messages are you going to take to get through this book? One or more?

Then there’s the issue of how wisdom literature functions. Think of verses like Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) or Proverbs 15:22 (“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”) Don’t many of us will know godly parents who faithfully taught their children the gospel all their lives, and whose hearts are now breaking for those same children as they are far from Christ? And didn’t Rehoboam surround himself with not one but two teams of counsellors?

I’ll attempt some answers tomorrow, but for now let’s be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature, and not rush in without a proper respect for the sophistication of this beautiful genre.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 2

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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2. Know why it is important to preach wisdom

With the exception of the Psalms, wisdom literature is very often neglected by Bible teachers and readers alike. Why is this, and what do we miss out on when we neglect wisdom literature?

Firstly, we miss out on the necessity of reflection. Now of course, all scripture requires us to reflect on it, and to meditate on it. But think about it for a moment, I was preaching recently on Luke 14 and an incident of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. It was a narrative passage, and so none of us in the room had much of a problem with what the passage was saying in the immediate sense – a sick man came to Jesus on the Sabbath, and Jesus healed him. I suspect that sadly, not everyone hearing that sermon believed that the miracle actually happened, and sadly, not everyone understood the significance of what Luke was saying about who Jesus is, but do I think that at the very least, everyone present understood the passage in it’s immediate sense – that Luke says a sick man came to Jesus and that he got healed by Jesus.

But imagine now that I am preaching this Sunday on Proverbs 30:18-19:-

18 “There are three things that are too amazing for me,

four that I do not understand:

19 the way of an eagle in the sky,

the way of a snake on a rock,

the way of a ship on the high seas,

and the way of a man with a young woman.

What is the immediate meaning of this passage? What is it saying, in order for us to reflect on it? That’s a bit harder, isn’t it? And I suspect that many of us stop reading at this point, and flick over to Philippians to find something with a clearer immediate meaning. But this is the point – wisdom literature underlines to us the necessity of reflection. This proverb is inviting me to stop what I’m doing, to reflect, to take time to think about what this could possibly mean, what the connection is between these four “ways” and in doing so, to get a little wiser.

Many of us don’t like reflection. We live in the internet age of social media and immediate information, preferably in 160 characters or less. But wisdom literature defies that approach to life and demands that we slow down, maybe even that we stop what we are doing, and that we consider. Sadly one of the reasons why we neglect wisdom literature, is that we have lost the art of reflection.

Think of the book of Job – it’s a long book. Who of us hasn’t struggled through some of those passages and wondered if it will ever end? Again it’s tempting to turn forward a few hundred pages in order to find something a little easier to understand – but that is kind of the point and it’s all wrapped up in the genre itself. We might be looking for an easy answer to the problem of suffering, something we can post on Twitter or Facebook, but God refuses to give us that kind of answer, He gives us a proper answer, He gives us the book of Job. And it is a cosmically-proportioned book, to discuss a cosmic struggle.

So let’s know why it’s important to preach wisdom. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the specific challenges.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – 1. What is Wisdom?

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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We’re going to think this week about preaching wisdom literature. It’s a big subject, so let’s pitch right in and ask, how can we improve our preaching of this important genre? Firstly…

1. …Understand what wisdom is.

What exactly is biblical wisdom? Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question, is to look at a passage – not in one of the wisdom books ironically – but a very important narrative in 1 Kings 12. Solomon, the archetypal wise king, has died and his son Rehoboam is taking the throne. The people of Israel come to him and say “Your Dad laid a heavy burden on us in taxes and so on, so lighten it for us.” What is Rehoboam going to do?

He starts well – he gets counsel. First, he listens to his father Solomon’s old advisers. They tell him “Do as the people say and they will serve you totally.” Next he takes counsel from his old school buddies, and they tell him that he needs to stamp his authority on this people, make a statement, show them that he is not to messed with. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thigh… he disciplined you with whips, I will discipline you with scorpions.” That ought to do it – that’ll show them who’s boss. So who is Rehoboam going to listen to? – And here’s the point, because for a Hebrew reader, this decision has “wisdom” and “folly” written all over it. Solomon’s counsellors are older, they are experienced in helping to run a country, they have spent a lot of time with wise King Solomon and they would have learned from his wisdom. Rehoboam’s old school pals are young, have no experience of running a kingdom, and not much experience of life, either. To the Hebrew mind, it’s a ‘no-brainer’. A wise man is going to listen to the wise old counsellors and the foolish man is going to listen to the foolish young counsellors. Which will Rehoboam do? Will he show himself to be wise or foolish? I’m sure you know, and the rest as they say, is history.

And this is invaluable to us in understanding biblical wisdom. For us Westerners especially, when we think of wisdom our minds go very quickly to intelligence. We tend to think that the cleverer, the more educated a person is, the wiser he/she will be. But that is a Western idea, not a particularly biblical one. I imagine that Rehoboam’s young counsellors had a good education, but they were still foolish by way of their youth and inexperience. Many of us live in a culture which is obsessed with the idol of youth. We are drawn to young people with new, fresh ideas. But again that is a Western idea, not an expecially biblical one. In biblical cultures, older people were held with higher regard than younger people because of their years, their experience and hence their relative wisdom. Of course there are exceptions – you will find foolish old people and wise young people in the Bible – Solomon himself, as a young king recognised his need for wisdom and asked God for it – and that’s a big theme in Proverbs for example, of enabling the young to get wisdom. So let’s understand what wisdom is – it is not intelligence, education or information. Wisdom is the knowledge of God and how to live in His world. 

And tomorrow we’ll actually look at some of the wisdom books. I promise.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Conclusion

97LutherSo for the past couple of weeks I have been blogging through Luther’s lesser known 97 Theses.  Let’s finish them up and wrap up the series.

(93)-94. This holds true also of the saying that the love of God may continue alongside an intense love of the creature.

Luther refers to “a kind of subtle evil” in arguments that try to balance what he sees as mutually exclusive.  In this case, he wants to push away from some kind of balancing of love for God and love for non-God.

95. To love God is at the same time to hate oneself and to know nothing but God.

Loving God is seen as the opposite of sin, which is self-love and hatred of God.  When we reduce sin to misdemeanors and “sins” then we can easily lose sight of this.  At the heart of the human problem is the human heart and the problem is profound!  A lot of Christian preaching leaves listeners very content with their elevated view of themselves, and the teaching easily turns into top tips to be a better you.  We must not let humans be the residual focus of our preaching.

(96-97). Luther ends with two theses that urge the reader to conform their desires, using the language of will, in every respect, to God.  It is clear for him that Christianity cannot be about dutiful obedience running parallel to rebellious heart inclinations.  If we are His, then our will really should desire what God does.

I hope these posts have been helpful.  At the very least, may this nudge us to take a look at Luther’s 97 Theses and wrestle with what he was proposing for debate.  Perhaps his poking at foundational questions will make a difference to us in our understanding of Christianity, of humanity and of ministry.

It isn’t enough to educate and encourage conformity of external behavior.  That option may be tempting, but it isn’t what the Gospel is all about.  Too much of Christianity is shaped as much by unquestioned assumptions as it is by Scripture itself.  The devil would love to keep us thinking highly of ourselves and little of God.  Sadly, as preachers we can so easily fall into serving that hellish agenda.

May our hearts be drawn to Christ, and may our preaching offer the radical balm of the gospel to a profoundly sinful humanity.  People desperately need what they will never find in themselves or their own behavioural resolutions, but only in Christ himself.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 10

97LutherLuther was trying to provoke conversation, so these are only provocative thoughts. At the same time, let’s not just explain it away and end up without being challenged. Take the next few, for example:

(81)-82. Not only are the religious ceremonials not the good law and the precepts in which one does not live (in opposition to many teachers);
83. But even the Decalogue itself and all that can be taught and prescribed inwardly and outwardly is not good law either.

Before we get too upset, let’s add another to the mix:

84. The good law and that in which one lives is the love of God, spread abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Looks like Luther is back to his Augustine-influenced thinking, but is it biblical? Would the apostle Paul teach the constraining influence of the love of God in Christ, communicated by the Spirit, so that the Christian life is lived not by the effort of the flesh but by faith in Christ? Absolutely.

85. Anyone’s will would prefer, if it were possible, that there would be no law and to be entirely free.
86. Anyone’s will hates it that the law should be imposed upon it; if, however, the will desires imposition of the law it does so out of love of self.

The sinner’s desire is freedom from constraint, but what about those who seem to like law? Is this a sort of natural godliness? Luther underlines the gravitational pull of self-love on the heart, a love that can manifest in rebellion and in religiosity.

(87-89.) The law is good, and the will is hostile to it and therefore not good. In order for the law to be reconciled with the human will, there needs to be the mediating work of the grace of God to bring the two together. The law does not lead the will to grace, but grace brings the will and law together.

(90-91.) The human cannot love God unless God first gives his grace. That grace is not given to increase good deeds, but because without the grace of God there will never be any good deed, never any act of true love.

(92.) If a person can love naturally without the love of God, then the love of God is superfluous and unnecessary.

Next time we will be able to finish the 97 and wrap up the series of thought provoking theses.  As preachers these theses really poke at the very core of what it is to be human, and consequently, what we are engaging as we prepare and preach.

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97 Luther Thoughts for Preachers – Part 9

97LutherLuther’s 97 theses, for preachers. Give some thought to this one:

76. Every deed of the law without the grace of God appears good outwardly, but inwardly it is sin. This in opposition to the scholastics.

Was Jesus ever satisfied with external conformity? Or did Jesus go after the inner issues in the religious folks he spoke with? Strangely we can be tempted to settle for mere outward godliness in our churches. Why? Maybe because it is easier to pastor superficially? Thank God the Good Shepherd doesn’t pastor us this way.

77. The will is always averse to, and the hands inclined toward, the law of the Lord without the grace of God.

Amazingly, we are always going to be drawn by the lie of autonomy, of independence, even in respect to godliness. Instead of just speaking of others, let me ask us as preachers, do we ever lean toward good behavior in our own strength so that we can function with God at arms length?

78. The will which is inclined toward the law without the grace of God is so inclined by reason of its own advantage.

So are some people just more spiritually sensitive and “naturally” good? Not according to Luther. Unless God is at work, every one will be completely self-serving, however it may manifest itself.

79. Condemned are all those who do the works of the law.
80. Blessed are all those who do the works of the grace of God.

There are two types of people in the world, and in the church. It isn’t younger brothers and older brothers, at least not in the sense of the way we think of them. On the one side there are sons sat at the table in the embrace of their father. On the other there are older and younger brothers living in rebellion, hidden or overt, who want only the benefits of their father.

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