John Hindley: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

John HindleyJohn is pastor of BroadGrace Church in rural Norfolk (England).  John authored Serving Without Sinking and You Can Really Grow  (Good Book Company), as well as Suffering and Singing (10ofThose).  John is married to Flick and has three little ones. In his own words, “John Hindley is a wicked and filthy wretch made beautiful by Christ alone.”  I am thankful to John for offering this guest post as we head into the release month for Foundations.

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To be human is to dig. At least, that is what it is after the fall. To be human outside the garden, East of Eden, is to heft your shovel and dig again. It is to hope (if there can be a hope beyond hope) that this time the guy who sold you the map was honest, despite the way his parrot kept laughing at you.

To be human, for some, is to sail against the storm, hack your way through the undergrowth and then force your spade into the earth. For other the dig comes after a lie-in and pleasure cruise. But we are all digging, where X marks the spot, because there must be treasure somewhere. One of the maps has to be right, and there has to be a chest filled with pieces of eight. Or with peace, with hope, with love, with joy, with meaning, with forgiveness, with a future, with life.

Maybe we know what we are searching for, or maybe we dig with the desperation of not even remembering what we are digging for. We dig the sands of career, health, family, hobbies, holidays, wealth, stories. We dig and dig until one day we hear the sound of a spade against a chest. Carefully the chest is unearthed, and then gently prised open.

When we look back on that day, it still makes us smile to realise how wrong we had got it. We thought we had to dig. It never occurred to us that we were the treasure.

To be human, truly human, is to be the treasure that Christ paid the highest price to win. It is to be the delight of his eyes despite our running, our striving to find treasure far from him. It is to be the blood-bought forgiven who will always be treasured by their Captain until he comes back for us. We are safe, hidden in Christ.

And now, when we dig, we find treasure everywhere.

The Why Behind Preaching

UnionWhyMost of the time we tend to focus on what we are doing.  Sometimes we ponder how we could do it better.  Too rarely we ponder the motivation behind our ministry.  Why do we preach?

Let’s ponder two simple reasons (loaded with multiplied motivations in pregnant-with-meaning summaries):

1. Because we love God.  The God we love is the God who loved us first – who loves, who speaks, who gives of his riches, who gives himself.  This captures our hearts and gives us something to say.  We love God because he is the best news we have ever received, and so we want to spill that thrillingly good news to others.  We want to see God’s work built up, and it is a work done not by force, but by proclamation, presentation and appeal.  We are not mere recipients of a good message, but we are drawn into the eternal conversation out of which that message has come – the Spirit of God is at work in us pointing our hearts to Christ in whom we see the heart of the Father.  God is at work in hearts and we get to participate in that.

Preaching as an act of devotion, an act of worship, and even preaching as obedience to God’s Word and as obedience to his calling on our lives – these could all be added.  But the bottom line surely is this: as we take stock of our own motivation in preaching, are we still gripped and driven by a vertical responsiveness?  This can so easily grow dull or become corrupted by a self-elevation and self-worship. Surely the best thing to do here is to spend time on our face before God and ask Him what our motivations are (ask yourself and you may respond with a lie!)

2. Because we love others.  Loving God shapes our loves to conform to his.  He deeply loves the people who will sit in the church on Sunday, or who will visit for the guest event, and so gradually our love for these people grows too.  We want to serve them by offering the very best news there is.  We want to preach because people need to hear the good news – both those who still live as dead in the realm of darkness, and those who are in the family, but feel the constant pull of the flesh toward self-reliance.  We preach because we want others to have the joy that comes from not only receiving, but also spilling to others according to the way God made and wired them.

Love the Lord, love your neighbour . . . simple.

Hershael York: The Book of Acts and Us

HYorkDr Hershael York is the Senior Pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky.  He is also the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  I really appreciated his books Speaking with Bold Assurance (2001), that Hershael co-wrote with Bert Decker, and Preaching with Bold Assurance (2003).  I am really thankful for this post on the enduring relevance of Acts for us as preachers in today’s world – a reality I hope is demonstrated in Foundations (forthcoming from Christian Focus).  Over to Hershael:

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The New Testament epistles would leave us puzzled and perplexed if we only had the gospels without the book of Acts. We would not know how the gospel advanced to the Gentiles, who Paul is, when Christianity spread from Jerusalem to the world, or even why the church took shape and functioned as it did. Perhaps most significantly, we would not know the components and contours of apostolic preaching.

About half of the Book of Acts consists of speeches, discourses, and letters. In fact, like the Greek historian Thucydides, Luke actually moves the narrative forward through careful reconstruction of speeches by followers of Christ and their opponents. He records eight addresses delivered by Peter, Stephen’s lengthy sermon that enraged the Sanhedrin, Cornelius’s brief explanation, a short authoritative address by James at the Jerusalem Council, the advice of James and the elders in Jerusalem to Paul, and nine sermons and speeches by Paul. Clearly Luke believes that what the church said impacted what they did.

But Luke is more than a historian. He is also a theologian. He is not merely recording the words spoken, but the heart of the Christian message, the kerygma, that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, Lord of Heaven and Earth, and that his crucifixion and resurrection provides redemption from sin for all who will repent and believe.

While manners and modes of communication change through time and across cultures, that core message of the gospel is the unshakeable and irreducible axis of Christian proclamation on which faith rests. The message of what God has done through the person and work of Christ is not merely a historical chapter that we have advanced beyond. Now as much as in Acts, the preaching of Christ is what God uses to move the narrative forward until Christ returns.

Marcus Honeysett: What Does It Mean To Be Human?

mhoneysettMarcus is the director of Living Leadership and an elder at Crofton Baptist Church in South East London.  He has authored four books, including Fruitful Leaders and Gospel-Centred Preaching (with Tim Chester).  Many people have benefited greatly from Marcus’ teaching and writing.  I am thankful to Marcus for offering this guest post on such an important question.  Remember, this guest post series is offered to mark release of Foundations – please do check out FourBigQuestions.com and encourage others to follow @4BigQs on Twitter and Facebook.

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So God created Mankind in his own image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)

The two most foundational things about being human beings are:

  1. That we are creatures
  2. That we are special creatures – made in the image of God

Therefore when God blesses the man and woman, telling them to be fruitful, increase and fill and subdue the Earth it is as dependent beings, not independent ones.

In this dependency is the very foundation of life. Everything broken about the world can be traced back to rebellious, sinful desire to live independently from God rather than dependently upon his fatherly goodness as his dearly loved children.

This means that we are never more fully human than when we are consciously living in repentance and faith. A constant walk with God, is the thing that maintains our life and our joy because we were made for it – and forsook it back at Eden. A daily appreciation and thankfulness for the spilt blood of Jesus Christ is the thing that keeps us conscious of God’s everlasting mercy.

Confessing our sins, turning with hatred from evil, glorying in the cross brings healing and gospel transformation by the Holy Spirit. Why? Because when we do we are acknowledging and celebrating true creatureliness. We embrace our dependency. We delight not in God’s absence from our lives but in the closeness of his presence.

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Glen Scrivener: What is the Essence of Sin?

Glen-321AGlen is an evangelist and director of Speak Life. He is the author of 321 – The Story of God, the World and You and blogs at Christ the Truth. He lives in Eastbourne with his wife, Emma, and daughter, Ruby.  At our church we give away copies of 321 to  visitors, it really is a fantastic resource.  I am thankful to Glen as he launches this guest post series for Foundations.  (I will post complete guest posts here for most of the series, but would love for you to check out the book website, FourBigQuestions.com and so you will be directed there to finish this post – thanks!)

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What is the essence of sin?

Is it “climbing onto the throne of your life”?
Is it “stealing the crown for yourself”?
Is it “shaking your puny fist in the face of God”?
Is it saying “Shove off God, I‘m in charge, No to your rule”

Well, yes. But is it deeper than that? You bet!

You see, if we define sin as “self-rule” what do we say to the Iranian refugee working his fingers to the bone, sending back every penny to the family?

What do we say to the woman serially abused by the terrible men she invites into her life?

What do we say to the drug addict whose only remaining desire is the hell-bent drive to throw his life away?

What do we say to the down-trodden mother who’s completely lost herself in her family?

What do we say to the self-harmer consumed by self-loathing?

All these people are sinners. But is their sin best captured by a definition of “self-rule”? Surely not. And the Bible knows this, which is why its teaching on sin goes far deeper than “self-rule.”

In the Bible we are . . . click here to see the rest of Glen’s post on FourBigQuestions.com

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Foundations Guest Series Introduction

Foundations CoverWhat do you do when you have one opportunity to communicate the life transforming message of the Bible? Where do you go biblically to address the key issues people really need to hear today?

I had one series of just four sermons and desperately wanted my hearers to hear the critical building blocks of belief. I could have gone to Ephesians or another epistle. I could have gone to the Gospels. I decided to go to Acts.

Preaching from Acts is an exciting challenge because you are entering into other peoples’ sermons as well as their situations. The first apostles were communicating the timeless gospel to the first hearers as the message spread. Perhaps what they preached then would be ideal for expressing the life transforming message today?  It is.

Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t is forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications. It is a little book that I hope will pack a big punch. In Foundations we see how the Apostles addressed the very questions that we should be asking, but typically we don’t.

Acts contains messages preached under the glare of imminent threat, thus making every word count. Acts contains messages preached to staunch Jews ready to defend the honour of their heritage, a couple of purely pagan crowds who did not know Othniel from Oprah, some brand new believers in Christ, and every other possible combination of listeners. In Foundations we hear Paul addressing the sophisticated philosophers in Athens, over-zealous pagans in Turkey, and some of the judges brought in to put him on trial. We see how the apostles united when the gospel faced its first major attack, and how they made it so clear how the foundational questions must be answered by all.

Underneath our beliefs there is a foundation, and often it sits there unchallenged. The most important issues for life and eternity are regularly engaged in the Bible, but we often ignore this foundation. We too easily think it is all so obvious that we would be wasting our energy to linger longer than it takes to give a momentary tip of the hat to these issues.

Foundations is a fast read, but I hope it will help preachers and listeners, young believers and those established in the faith. It might even be used to clarify the wonder of the gospel to those who are still looking in from the outside. This guest post series is going to run over the next weeks to help mark the launch of Foundations.

Thanks to everyone who will contribute to this guest series. And thank you to everyone who helps spread the word about Foundations – by encouraging others to follow on Twitter (@4BigQs) or Facebook (Facebook.com/4BigQs), pointing people to FourBigQuestions.com, or buying several copies to pass on to friends and pastors so that in a small way, the great wonder of the Gospel can grip the hearts of as many as possible.

Sincerely, thank you.

Active Engagement

Active2The Big Idea approach to preaching was birthed out of a clear understanding of the nature of communication.  When persons communicate they don’t simply fire words out into nowhere (I know some blogs may give this impression, but that doesn’t change communication truths!) Rather, communication involves seeking to lead another party to the point of understanding an idea that is being expressed.  Communication is about ideas and we want the other party to say, “I see what you are saying!”

Ideas change lives.  People give themselves to ideas.  And Christianity is a content-based faith – i.e. it can be communicated, it consists in ideas.  This is why a very high view of Scripture resonates with a commitment to expository preaching.  Bringing out from the text the meaning that is there and seeking to effectively communicate that truth to others with an emphasis on why it matters to them is a driving force in our lives as expository preachers.

But don’t miss a critical factor in all of this.  Too easily we fall out of true expository preaching and into historical lecturing.  This occurs when our focus becomes primarily zeroed on the historical event of the communication – i.e. Paul to the Colossians.  It is vital that we spend some time there since the original intent of the author is critical, but we cannot remain there.

The Bible is God’s communication to humanity, which includes my hearers this Sunday. What is it that God is intending to communicate and desiring them to see for themselves? That is not to say that there is a hidden message that we have to mine and offer this week.  We will be rooted in Paul’s meaning to the Colossians, but always with a profound awareness of the unique and fresh engagement that God desires with our hearers on this occasion.

Biblical preaching is not really about informing motivated folks from a trustworthy ancient text.  It is much more than that.  Biblical preaching is about God’s active engagement with His people right now.

Topical Sermon vs Topical Series

OpenBibleA1Topical sermons and topical series are not the same thing.  A topical sermon typically uses multiple texts to make the overall point intended by the preacher.  This is not wrong and can be very effective.  A topical series could use a single text each week, but not sequentially through a book.  This is not wrong and can be very effective.

I am much more wary of topical sermons, however.  Why?  Because it is much easier to abuse texts when you need to get through three or more of them in the same sermon.  You don’t have the time to explain context, develop content, linger over the passage and its impact, etc.  The danger is that the text becomes a proof text and a servant to the preacher.

It is possible to preach an expository-topical sermon.  This takes significant time to work with each passage and let it be the boss of that section of the message.

It is easier to preach an expository-topical series.  It still takes more time than preaching through a book, but working with a focus text each week will allow you to let the text be the boss more easily than when you have multiple texts.

Some readers are in churches where expository-topical series would be a dream (because as things stand every message is non-expository).  Other readers are in churches where it takes the annual Nativity season to break the pattern of preaching through books.  Here are a couple of nudges for both:

Preach Through A Book: This is how God gave us the Bible – in books.  People in our churches need to be people of the books in order to be people of The Book.  Working through books means that we will not bypass the awkward or challenging sections.  Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from time in a single book as they will hopefully get to know it as a whole and the impact can be reinforced.

Preach Expository-Topical Series (where each message is an exposition of a key text): People in our churches need to grasp the key texts and see how the Bible addresses key issues, or how the values of the church are biblically rooted.  Working some series this way means that we will help people see what the Bible is saying without having to remember multiple threads over multiple months.  Preachers (and listeners) will benefit from multiple genres and key texts from multiple books that will hopefully motivate them to pursue more for themselves in those places.  It may be that a good single message from Jeremiah will motivate people to get into the book, whereas a long series in Jeremiah may put people off returning to it for a while (obviously this works both ways and depends on both the preacher and the listeners!)

I think preaching through books or sections of books is the best staple for a church diet.  But I am not convinced we should avoid expository-topical series – judicious use of this approach can be highly effective if used appropriately.  Whatever we do, let’s avoid non-expository preaching where the text is not the boss of what is said.  That is a move we can’t afford to make.

 

Jesus Nudges

BeachFire2Christ is very careful with us. He knows how to shepherd hurting and discouraged souls. For an example, consider John 21. The gospel of John seems to come to a crescendo at the end of chapter 20. Thomas gets to give the great punchline of the book when he declares to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Then John seems to wrap things up at the end of the chapter. But then we get chapter 21.

John 21 does not really teach anything new about Jesus. The big themes of the gospel seem to have come to a conclusion, but still John adds this final chapter. Why? Probably because we need to focus on the disciples for a moment.

They were tired. Probably they were drained. Perhaps they were discouraged. Certainly they felt a bit down. The adrenaline of being in Jerusalem for the previous three weeks was gone and now they were coming to terms with being in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He was going back to heaven, and they would have to get used to this new life. So Peter went fishing, and six others went with him.

At least that was something he could do right, or so he probably thought. They caught nothing. And so begins a sequence of déjà vu’s designed to tenderly shepherd the hearts of these men.

Déjà vu #1: Calling – The man on the shore told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and suddenly they had an overwhelming catch of fish. Hang on, does this seem familiar? Didn’t this happen one time before, about three years before? It was in Luke 5. It was the point at which Christ called Peter and Andrew, as well as James and John, away from their fishing business and into the business of fishing for people. Now Jesus gently nudged them back on track with a careful reminder. “I called you to fish for people. Keep the focus.” He could have rebuked them, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.

Déjà vu #2: Provision – As they arrived on shore and sat down to enjoy breakfast, Jesus passed out the bread and fish. Hmm…hang on, is this familiar? Jesus providing bread and fish for everyone, besides the Sea of Galilee, maybe even in this very spot? That was in John 6 (and other places). Maybe Jesus was gently reminding them that as he had provided for their needs before, so he would continue to provide for them now. Keep trusting. He could have told them bluntly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.

Déjà vu #3: Purpose – Jesus works with us in groups, but also individually. As Peter walked up the beach he would not have struggled to recognize the relevance of a charcoal fire. There is only one other mentioned in John’s Gospel – the one where he had denied his Lord three times. Now Jesus was ready to talk things through with Peter. Actually, they would surely have talked about the matter on Easter Sunday, but now there were six other disciples needing to hear what Jesus had to say to Peter.

So began the famous conversation. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” It was a poignant and even painful question for one who has betrayed the Lord he loved. But Jesus tenderly reinstated Peter, making it clear for him and for us all, that even though he had failed, he was not finished. That is a message we all need to hear.

So Peter was not finished, but what was he called to do? Feed sheep, tend lambs, tend sheep – that is, to be about Jesus’ other great concern. Again Jesus nudged his disciples gently back toward the priority issues – fishing and feeding. That is what life is about for all who follow Jesus. We either fish for people, or support those that do. We either feed the sheep, or help those that do. It is a simple reminder of what matters to Jesus – people. How easily we forget, or get discouraged, or distracted. We are to keep giving ourselves to people ministry. Jesus could have commanded it harshly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.

And after the déjà vu came the future view. Peter had claimed to be ready to die for Jesus. In the strength of his own resolve he had lasted mere hours. Now Jesus told him that he would get that privilege, but it would be when he was old that he too would be stretched out to die.

How was Peter supposed to live with that knowledge? He had not made it through the night before, but now Jesus tells him that he will be martyred in his old age. Now things were different. Peter knew Peter just a little bit better. And Peter had a very simple instruction to bring him through these next decades toward death – he was to “follow me.” Simple.

But Peter was distracted by his lifelong friend who was walking along near them by this stage. So Peter asked about John. Jesus told Peter not to worry about him, but to stay focused – “you follow me.”

As we live our lives we are called to fish and feed. Some will be more fisher, others more feeder. Some will be more front line, others more supportive. And we are all called to follow faithfully. We may be on the Peter path, or we may be on the John path. Neither are easy. The Peter path of martyrdom is so intimidating that Jesus typically doesn’t give us decades of warning. But the John path of growing old, being alone, dying of “natural causes” – this is also uniquely challenging. The key to both is clear, “follow me.”

As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find our values reflect his, for we will be driven by giving ourselves to people – fishing and feeding. As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find ourselves following faithfully, all the way to the finish line that he ordains personally for us. Christian? Follow me.

The Fig-Arm Journey To Simplicity

Forest2Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with this great quote – “I wouldn’t give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

I remember Haddon Robinson using this quote to distinguish two types of simplicity in preaching.  This side of complexity the simplicity isn’t worth much.  Often very young preachers offer this because it is all they have to give.  Listeners will resonate at a certain level, appreciating the simplicity combined with a young preacher getting launched into ministry.  But there will also be a lack of depth, of experience, of insight, of nuance, and of genuine impact.  This less-than-a-fig’s worth of simple preaching will hopefully yield to a pursuit of something more valuable.

The goal is arms’-worth simplicity.  This is the kind of simplicity that great preachers offer. They have a much greater and more personal understanding of the Bible, of life, of their listeners, and of themselves.  This kind of preacher knows how to plumb the depths of Scripture and serve up a simple message that is not paper thin and feather light, but life impacting and pregnant with deep truth, resonating with listeners as true. To hear a great preacher preach simply is heart warming, life changing and profoundly satisfying.

But there is a journey from less-than-fig simplicity to arms’-worth simplicity.  It is a journey through complexity.  Here are five quick thoughts on the journey:

1. It is a necessary journey.  It may be tempting to stay this side of complexity and try to fake depth by copying preachers that have made the journey.  This cannot be effectively faked.  Knowing comments, beard stroking, profound stares and implying you are a deep well simply won’t convince the more mature listeners.  Determine to prayerfully make the journey over the next years to that far side of complexity.

2. It is a multi-faceted journey. It is tempting to assume that the journey simply involves learning a lot.  It includes that, but also much more.  By all means go to seminary, read lots, learn loads, but know that merely filling your head with knowledge will not get you through the dark forest of complexity – it will probably plant you right in the middle!  There will also be life experience needed, and only God can orchestrate that.  There may well be suffering – sometimes “low level” and sometimes a horrendous “crucible experience.”  There will need to be painful feedback pursued and taken to heart.  This journey is not easy, neither is it quick:

3. It can be a slow journey.  Know that it can take years to successfully get through the forest.  Many preachers play around the edges of the forest, but never plunge in and come through to the other side.  They read a bit, study a bit (even getting a degree can be just studying a bit), and try to act like the three bushes they have hung out with constitute a forest!  It is hard to spot shallowness and ignorance in the mirror, but pray for a clear view of yourself, and pray for honest insight from others.

4. The preacher should determine to make this journey.  Only God knows the journey through the forest, but pray for Him to lead you and start taking steps.  And remember your goal is simplicity.  Know that your listeners won’t love the complexity as much as you do, so always look to grow in simplicity in your preaching, wherever you are in the journey.  Often you will fail, but always aim to communicate as clearly as you can.

5. The listeners will need to have patience with the preacher.  If you know someone on this journey, then please support them, cheer them on, encourage them.  Give them feedback that will help them grow.  Give them grace and space to make mistakes and to make progress.  Don’t chase them back to cheap simplicity, and don’t chase them out of your church because they are trying to grow.  You will be glad when they make it through, and they will make it through, in part, because of your help!