Turning Blah Blah to Wow!

wow2A lot of people in our churches read a lot of the Bible as filler and waffle.  They wouldn’t state that overtly, of course.  After all, it is the word of God!  But actually, in practice, a lot of the Bible is read without real engagement.  Consider the epistles, for instance.  Why does this phenomena occur?

1. Because of complex sentences.  It can be hard for any of us to truly track a sequence of sentences from Paul.

2. Because of unfamiliar words.  Stewardship. Saints. Manifold. Rulers.  Not necessarily unknown words, but not words most people tend to use in normal life.

3. Because it seems to lack direct relevance.  We can’t help but look for what it is saying “to me,” which means the rest can seem distant or theoretical.

4. Because of familiar words.  Hang on, didn’t we say unfamiliar words were the issue?  Actually, Christian terms can grow too familiar – grace, given, revelation, promise, gospel, church, wisdom, boldness, confidence.

I am looking at Ephesians 3:1-13, for an example.  Paul begins a prayer in verse 1 and then gets distracted before returning to the prayer in verse 14.  Why does he get distracted?  Because he mentions his imprisonment for the sake of “you Gentiles.”  This triggers his explanation of why those Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t feel the way they probably do feel – i.e. losing heart.  (Actually, it was Trophimus, sent from Ephesus, who indirectly led to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment in Acts 20, so they probably felt an extra burden over Paul’s imprisonment!)

So to lift their hearts regarding his sufferings for them, and therefore to make clear their glory (i.e. their value expressed in his sufferings as part of God’s plan), Paul goes off on a theological digression that should thrill our hearts as well as it did theirs!

But instead most people read it as “blah blah blah…Gentiles…blah blah…grace…blah blah…wisdom…blah blah blah”

Enter the biblical preacher!

The preacher’s role, is, in part, to slow people down in this text and to help them make sense of what Paul is actually saying.  No word is wasted, and no word should be lost under an indiscriminate “blah blah” flyover reading.  So?

1. God gave Paul a key role in unveiling new news – God gave Paul a key role in his forever plan for the sake of the Gentile believers, which was to reveal the momentous new news of the Gentile co-equality in the gospel!

2. God gave Paul grace to preach Christ and explain the news - God gave the ultimate-sinful-nobody, Paul, grace to do two things – first, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ; and second, to make clear God’s great plan, the new news about the Gentiles.  Why? So that the church can be God’s trophy cabinet to show off his multi-coloured wisdom to the spiritual realms!

3. God’s plan gives us Gentiles stunning boldness! – God’s plan in Christ means that we Gentiles have ridiculous boldness when it comes to entering God’s presence (don’t forget the temple imagery in the previous section)!

So, the Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t lose heart, but instead they should be thrilled at their glory/value demonstrated in Paul’s suffering for their sake!

This is true for us too, just as the scars of Christ are beautiful to us because they show God’s love for us.

(I wouldn’t preach these three points as they stand, but I would make it my aim to help listeners hear the content of a section like this, turning the blah blah blah into Wow! after Wow!)

Genre Shock

Shock2Can a church experience genre shock?  Maybe.

Let’s say you have been preaching through a narrative series – perhaps a gospel or the life of Abraham or David.  Then you start a series in Romans.  This could be a shock.  From flowing plots and character development to tight and complex logical sentences, abstract theological explanations and loaded terminology.

Is there a way to ease the transition?  And if there is, is it necessary?  I would say probably not in most cases, unless the last series has been a long one and the shift in genre is stark.

Here’s how not to avoid genre shock – preach every text as if it is an epistle.  This is certainly a popular approach for some, but it has real weaknesses.  For instance, narratives get choked by multiplied principles and preaching points.  Poetry gets dissected so that the emotive force of the imagery is lost in a torrent of triple-pointed outlines.  And epistles feel like more of the same, when they should be like theological dynamite for the life of the church.  Let’s not go with this “every-text-an-epistle” approach.

Here are a couple of ways to transition from one series to another of a vastly different genre.  I am certainly not saying these ideas are necessary, but they certainly are ideas:

1. A genre intro message – Let’s say you are going from a gospel to a prophet.  Instead of diving into the complexity of apparently disordered prophetic burdens about places we’ve never heard of, why not preach a message that introduces people to the blessings of being in the prophets . . . and then start into the specific book the week after.  This might allow time in a more familiar passage by way of transition and preparation.

2. A new series intro message – Let’s say you are going from the Life of David to an epistle.  Instead of getting bogged down in the opening verses and complex sentences, why not introduce the series with the story of the letter.  If it’s history is rooted in Acts, then you have the chance to give the setting in a narrative fashion.  Tell the story, set the scene, taste the epistle by previewing the series and maybe put the main idea of the book up front so it doesn’t get lost in the progression of passage after passage.

3. A big story bridge message – Let’s say you are going from Genesis to John or Philippians.  Instead of forgetting Genesis like yesterday’s newspaper, why not take a message to trace the story you saw in Genesis through the canon to set up the next book?  Most people in our churches do not know the big biblical story as they could.  Why not use a message to trace the story forwards and set up the next series?

Whatever you do, make sure the transition message actually has a main idea and is not mere buffering.  You may be preaching something creative, but be sure you are preaching something.

The Biggest Lesson for Preachers from Kids Books and Movies?

movie2We live in a world that is marked more by narrative than we tend to acknowledge.  Stories are not just for children, the movie industry is massive, so is TV advertising, and sports journalism, and all of these are profoundly narratival in form.  So what might be the biggest lesson for preachers from children’s books and movies?

How about this: people still appreciate them second and third time.

I have a two and a half year old who will happily hear the same story over and over again each night.  There are numerous books to choose from, but she will often pick the same one to experience again.  Somehow knowing how the story goes doesn’t change her appetite for hearing it.

I think most of us will gladly watch certain movies again.  Even with the constant stream of new movies being released, there is something familiar and powerful about experiencing an old favourite again.  Even knowing the ending, there is always more to appreciate.

So what does this mean for preachers?  When you have a familiar narrative to preach, be sure to tell the story!

It is tempting to think that people know it and so you can skim the storytelling part and dive into some nuanced theological construct or applicational point.  Don’t do that!  Be sure to tell the story and tell it well.  Why?

1. Stories work even when people know the ending.  The point of a story is not simply to find out what happens, but also to experience the journey.  The identification with characters, the tension, the resolution, etc., will all work in people who know how it turns out.

2. God inspired many narratives because they do a work in people.  When we finish reading the Bible that does not mean we have exhausted it – we have only just begun!  God knew that life is lived in narrative and so we identify most readily with narrative.  Let the text do its work in listeners and don’t short change them.

3. There is always more to see and feel in a story.  The story may be the same as last time it was preached (although don’t give yourself or other preachers too much credit here – there are a lot of Bible stories preached poorly!)  But your listeners are not the same people they were last time . . . life has happened, their story has moved on.  So they will engage the story in a fresh way.

4. People appreciate hearing the narratives.  Our goal in preaching is not originality of content, but presentation of the gospel and transformation of life.  Telling a familiar story well will do both.

Webinar on Poetic Literature

webinar_bannerThis Thursday I am leading a webinar on “An Introduction to Poetic Literature” at 18:00 GMT.  It is free and if you would like to join, you just need to register on this page.

The Union Podcast Interview continues today as I am asked “How is Christ becoming man vital for our salvation?”  (I believe there will be five episodes this week.  I won’t post every day, but will list the links after the series completes.)

 

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.

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!

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.

Don’t Stain Glass the Bible Folks

StainedGlassLots of Christians have a habit of “stained glassing” Bible characters.  Sometimes it seems like pretty much anyone other than Jezebel and Judas Iscariot will get a free pass and find their actions vindicated by believers.

Why does this happen?  Perhaps it is the result of Sunday School training that can sometimes turn the biblical narrative into myth-like stories with morales based primarily on character behaviour.  Perhaps it comes from too easily assuming that faith in God is a binary reality whereby any faith in an individual equates to full faithfulness, rather than recognising that God patiently works with people who are in the process of learning to trust Him rather than themselves.  Perhaps we are just nice people who assume almost everyone in the Bible is a nice person too (i.e. you have to be overtly evil to be anything other than laudable).  Perhaps it comes from forgetting that the primary character to focus on in the Bible is God, rather than the people, so that the people become models for our actions where perhaps they shouldn’t.

So where does this happen in the canon?  There are countless examples, but let me prod our thoughts with a few characters that tend to get “stain glassed.”

The Patriarchs – Abraham responds to a call from God, but when does he really trust God’s promise?  Sure, he moves with his family a long distance, but it is only after he separates from his family that God follows up with him.  Then it is another while before Abraham seems to finally trust God’s promise about his seed.  So between his initial call and his being declared righteous by faith there is the bizarre incident with giving his wife away in Egypt.  Abraham is on a journey, a faith journey.  And if we try to sanctify his decisions and affirm it all, then we may upset the wives in our congregation, and misrepresent the text.

Other OT Characters – Ruth was amazingly godly, but was Naomi acting by faith when she setup a very compromised situation?  Do we want to affirm everything about Mordecai and Esther?  Heroic and courageous?  Certainly.  But deeply faithful?  Worth pondering.  Nehemiah always gets lauded as the ultimate leader, but what legacy did he leave in respect to the hearts of the people, as well as the building project?  Was Jonah just reluctant, or was there a heart issue with him, in contrast to the character of the God he ended up somewhat representing?

Disciples – This is an interesting category.  Perhaps it is an anti-category.  That is, often I hear the disciples being treated like dunces when we treat them as if they should have fully grasped the content of all four gospels before the gospels were even written!

The Bible is full of real people with real issues and real messy mixed up faith responses, and for that we should be profoundly thankful.