10 Pointers for Preaching Easter

10 targetfEaster is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

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!)

How Do You Pray for Fellow Believers?

PrayingHands2There is a strange phenomena in the church when it comes to praying for people.  Obviously this is a generalisation, but I have observed it enough to suggest that it may be a pattern.

When people become followers of Jesus our prayers for them seem to change.  Before they are saved we pray for God to work in their lives and circumstances, for their hearts to be drawn to Christ, for the spiritual blindness to be taken away, etc.  Once they trust Christ and are in the family, then what do we pray for? Often it seems to shift to the more mundane matters of health and career.

This is not just the case in church prayer meetings, but also among leaders too.  I know that I am tempted to pray more fervently and more “spiritually” for those who are outside God’s family, or for those who are on the fringes.  But for those who seem to be doing well in human terms?  It is tempting to assume all is well.

Take a look at Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in 1:15-23.  He begins by referencing how thankful he is for their faith in Christ and love for the saints.  These are healthy believers – they have a vertical relationship that is spilling into their horizontal relationships.  These are the kind of people I am tempted to bypass as I pray.  Not so for Paul!

The One Thing – He goes on to make clear the one thing that he prays for them: that the Father might give them the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him!  That is, Paul prays for these believers to know God.  Simple.  Or is it profound?

Clearly he doesn’t mean that he wants them to “come to know” God, but to grow in their knowing Him.  He wants their relationship with God to go deeper, that the union they have with Christ should become more vibrant and developed.  (Remember that “in Christ” occurs almost forty times in Ephesians – union with Christ is a massive theme in the letter.)

I suspect many of us who have a passion to see the lost brought to salvation may fall into the trap of then missing the growth potential that exists for a believer.  There is so much more than just getting saved and then telling others, there is massive potential for spiritual growth and maturity.

The Three Things – Paul spells out this one prayer request with three specifics.  He wants God to enlighten the eyes of their hearts to know three things.

First, he wants them to know the absolute certainty of their calling in Christ.  We have churches filled with people who carry the label of Christian, and yet have all manner of uncertainty and confusion over God’s calling on their lives.

Second, he wants them to know that they are God’s inheritance – an inheritance He considers to be gloriously rich!  This is not something new believers readily grasp.  Just as it takes a wife many years to truly believe that her husband really loves her, so it is with God’s people.

Third, he wants them to know how much power there is toward them as they trust God for it.  That is, is there enough power for a life like mine to be truly transformed by the gospel?  Is there enough power for me to be raised from my sinful state of death to do the works God has prepared for me to do?  There is if that power is the same power that raised Christ from the dead, seated him in glory, put all enemies under his feet and made him head over the church!

Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is incredibly encouraging for us to read.  More than that, it is deeply challenging to recognize that this prayer was prayed for those who were already faithful and loving.  Let’s not bypass those that seem healthy and established in our churches and in our ministry spheres.  Let’s pray for them, and for ourselves too, to be growing in our relationship with God, knowing more profoundly the reality of our hope, his inheritance and the abundance of power available!

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.

Biggest Mistakes Preachers Make

Slip2This week I want to share some of the biggest mistakes preachers make.  Actually, these are the biggest mistakes I have probably made.  Perhaps this can help others pondering the wonderful privilege of preaching the Bible!
Mistake 1 – Simply Harvesting Imperatives
It feels easy, and it feels right, to turn proclamation into imperative presentation.  All you have to do is present the text and then make sure people know the imperatives: the “must do” or “should do” or “best do” of the passage.  Whether or not there is technically an imperative in the text, we so easily turn a passage into mere instruction and press for change as we preach.
Sidebar: Introducing the Imperative
The mood is one of several features of a verb.  In Greek, for instance, there are four moods: indicative, subjunctive, optative and imperative.  The mood presents the verbal action or state with regards to the verb’s actuality or potentiality.  The imperative mood is concerned with intention.  Thus the most common use of the imperative is to express a command.  However, it would be wrong to collapse imperative into commands (or assume all commands are imperative).  An imperative can be used to forbid an action (prohibition), to express a request (such as in prayer), a sense of resignation, a pronouncement, a condition, or even just a greeting.  So? Simply identifying and harvesting imperatives is not a shortcut to an instructional/applied sermon!

Remember the Context – Typically the epistles will offer lists of instructions, but never in isolation.  The chapter breaks and section headings may segregate a set of instructions or commands, but the letters were written as a coherent whole.  We are to present our bodies as living sacrifices . . . in view of God’s mercies.  We are to walk in a manner worthy . . . of the calling we have received.  We are to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is . . . the Christ presented in the first half of Colossians!

Remember the Mechanism – As long as we think lives are transformed by the pressure we can apply in our preaching, our ministry will be desperately restricted.  Lives are transformed by pointing the gaze of listeners’ hearts toward Christ.  In Christ, in Christ, in Christ . . . so walk worthy.  The captivating truth of what God has done in Christ is preached, the Spirit works in the heart, an appetite to please God comes forth like sap in a fruit tree, and the instructions are there to guide the growth.

Forget the Short-Cut - It feels like a short-cut: just find imperatives, or turn some content into imperative, and then pressure people.  You will even get encouraging feedback (the flesh loves this stuff!)  But you won’t see much true, genuine, abundant growth.  Forget the short-cut and preach the text, in context, pointing to the God it reveals, and the growth may be imperceptible (good fruit growth isn’t instant), but it will be definite, genuine, multiplying, healthy, Christ-honoring, loving, joyful, peaceful, etc., fruitful growth!

 

UK Competition: Buy Galatians, Maybe Win Set

GalatianscompetitionI have a little introductory devotional guide to Galatians coming out in March.  In it, I take the reader through Galatians one preaching unit at a time, making clear the main idea and structure of the passage (although this is not intended to be a devotional and not a preaching guide, I suspect it may be helpful for preachers too).

Anyway, I really love the way 10ofthose.com are passionate about getting good Christian books to as many people as possible!  And with the release of this book, they have come up with this competition.  If you pre-order a copy of Galatians, then you will be entered into the draw to win one of five sets of the series (multiple authors including David Cook, Jeremy McQuoid, etc.)  If you click this link, or the picture, it will take you to my partner page on 10ofthose.com.  Thanks!

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs – #2

RadarScreen2The second of five radars may well be the most important and the most difficult to develop.  Yesterday’s radar considered one aspect of our textual study skills, but this radar is about our underlying assumptions about everything.  I think we should all prayerfully ask God to develop in us:

Radar 2. Hissing Radar (in your assumptions)

The most dangerous assumption we can make is that we are neutral and can think clearly.  Every one of us has spent our entire life swimming and soaking in the brine of a post-Fall world system that hisses constantly with The Lie of pseudo-godlike autonomy.  The serpent introduced skepticism about God’s word, God’s character, and invited humanity to dive into a totally new version of godliness.  This new godliness meant that we humans became the image of the god of this age – self-absorbed, autonomous and overly confident in our own independent capacities.  We live our lives deafened to the hiss of our serpent-shaped existence.

The Gospel doesn’t save us from one or two sins we have done, but from the absolute self-loving, God-hating, autonomy of our spiritually dead hearts.  The problem we have as believers is that we tend to think we are somehow now immune to the subtle influence of The Lie.

Our flesh has been pickled in the subtle but sour vinegar of that original Lie.  As we seek to grow, let’s pray that God will develop in us a radar that will hiss when our assumptions evidence that serpentine autonomous impulse.

Here are some quick flags to highlight areas this lie often surfaces:

  • God can be a source of resources for us, but always from a distance.
  • With suitable resourcing I can do the job myself . . . i.e. sanctification.
  • I can be a good Christian, but I don’t need any sort of relational closeness to Christ.
  • I don’t need you (where you is God, or you is other believers).
  • I make independent and uninfluenced decisions, and therefore I am alive.
  • If my preaching can offer practical guidance, then individuals can make the decision to apply the teaching and be successful at living their individual and independent lives.
  • Etc.

May God develop in us an early warning system that hisses whenever our assumptions are dangerously autonomous and self-glorifying.

5 Radars Every Preacher Needs

RadarScreen2

To grow as preachers, I believe we need to develop several internal radars.  Think of a radar as an early warning system that beeps when there is an issue in the vicinity.  To be without any radar is to be dangerously naïve.  This week I plan to work through five radars we can prayerfully develop in our preaching:

Radar 1. Old Testament Radar (in your text)

Sometimes Bible writers flag up their use of earlier texts, “to fulfil what was written…”  Often they simply allude to, or hint at, biblical texts that are feeding into their thought.  Biblical writers typically assumed that their readers would have a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament, but most of us do not have anything like a full Jewish familiarity with the Old Testament.  Hence we need to develop the radar.  Unless we do, we will miss a lot of what is sitting in the sermon text before us.

I am not suggesting that every sermon should fully develop every earlier biblical allusion in the preaching text.  I am suggesting that a preacher who is unaware of how earlier texts inform and shape the preaching text will struggle to be a good steward of the preaching text.  The best preachers do not say everything there is to say, and they do speak with clarity and simplicity.  Please preach with clarity and simplicity, but with clarity built on the richest and most determined exegetical study already under your belt.  This means lots of things, but it must include a growing awareness of earlier texts assumed by the writer of the preaching text.

For example . . . think about John 3:1-16, Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.  Nic knew his Bible, but was treated as unqualified for conversation about spiritual matters.  In the course of the conversation the text is picking up on Ezekiel 36, Deuteronomy 29, Numbers 21, and perhaps the overarching backdrop – Genesis 3 . . . (is Nicodemus dead and needing a new birth, or not?)

How do we develop this radar?  Two suggestions:

A. Read the whole Bible, a lot.  There is no tool that can compensate for a lack of personal intimacy with the Word of God.  Prayerfully and purposefully devour the Scriptures as if they are the most precious gift you have.

B. Double check you haven’t missed something with good commentators.  We need the benefit of the community of God’s people and good commentators are a real blessing.  At the same time, many do miss the influence of earlier texts and so shouldn’t be relied upon apart from A, above.

Tomorrow I will offer another radar I believe we all need to see developed in our lives.

 

Preaching Christmas

MangerJesus2Christmas is an amazing opportunity to preach to people who normally wouldn’t be coming into church.  Here are seven top suggestions for making the most of the opportunity:

1. Pray a lot – there is a spiritual battle going on and the enemy wants to keep people distracted from the truth of the gospel. In the busy world of Christmas service planning, he can also keep preachers distracted from the wonder of the gospel too!

2. Preach fact – the Christmas message is not, as most tend to think, another holiday season fairy tale and religious myth.  Luke launched his gospel with a declaration of the trustworthiness of his message, let’s take a leaf out of his book.  Look for ways to make it clear that there was an original Christmas.

3. Correct carefully – nobody likes a cavalier critique of comfortable traditions, so be careful when you point out that Jesus was not born in a cattle shed, or that Mary wasn’t timing contractions as she arrived in Bethlehem, or that the Wise Men actually arrived months later.  One of these “facts” is probably wrong, but even truth can be unhelpful if people think you are just being critical, or there is no benefit in the clarification you bring.

4. Celebrate sensitively – it is easy to hype up Christmas like a children’s TV presenter, but for many people it is a bittersweet season.  Be sure to take a moment in the message, or in a prayer, to recognize the difficulties as well as the joys.

5. Proclaim good news – yes, Christmas is a season of giving and cheer and peace.  Yes, this is a good year to mention the famous Christmas truce of 1914.  But remember that Christmas is not about stirring sentimentality and periodic pauses for peace, it is ultimately about something on the vertical plane and not just the horizontal.  Jesus came to us to bring us to God.  Don’t preach just a nice message, be sure to preach the best news!

6. Undermine assumptions – as well as communicating the gospel message in some way, remember that there is also an opportunity to undermine some common assumptions.  Making clear that there is a historical reality to the Incarnation is a good idea, and why not take the chance to clarify the nature of God’s character too?  Everyone comes into church thinking they know what God is like.  If they don’t really know Jesus, then they don’t.  Christmas is a great moment to point people not to speculations about the Majesty of God, but to bring them to the manger to meet the One who makes God known to us.

7. Worship personally – if the Christmas message has grown old for you, then you can’t preach it well.  Take some time out with your God and let Him stir your heart afresh.  Then you can preach Christmas.

Creative Christmas Sermon Options

Christmas Dog2Christmas services are just a few weeks away.  You might be getting excited, or dreading another Christmas and the need to generate more messages when the obvious options feel well worn.  Here are some other angles to consider:

Prophecies - there are some key Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, even Jeremiah 31:15.  Why not take an Old Testament approach to Christmas hopes this year?

People – maybe you have preached through Matthew’s opening chapters, but have you preached the four other ladies in Matthew’s genealogy . . . Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the one “who had been Uriah’s wife.”  Four ladies with question marks over their morality, rightly or wrongly, that set up the lady who has to be in the genealogy (also with a question mark hanging over her morality, wrongly in her case).  Or perhaps you might trace the Gentiles in the genealogy to show the greater scope of the Christmas hope?

Themes – why not track a theme this year that could be developed with one week in the Old Testament, one week in the Christmas narratives and one week later on in the gospels or epistles.  For example, consider the Immanuel theme from Isaiah 7:14-9:7, emphasized in Matthew 1, continued for our age in Matthew 28:20.

Less Obvious Passages – perhaps you might consider the less obvious Christmas passages, ie. those that aren’t in early Matthew or Luke.  You have the prologue to John’s Gospel, giving the other side of the story, if you like.  Or you have references like Galatians 4:4 and similarly Incarnation focused passages like Titus 2:11-14.

Christmas Titles – it would be interesting to explore the titles used in the Christmas narratives – Jesus, Saviour, Immanuel, King, etc.

Carol Theology – while some are keen to cut down the errors in the carols, there are some great truths encapsulated in the carols too.  Perhaps you could take Hark the Herald Angels Sing or another carol and trace the biblical background to a verse each week.  Different, but for some congregations this might be a blessing.  Remember that you are preaching the Bible, not the carol.

Contemporary Emphases - you could take key emphases in the world’s view of Christmas and present a positive biblical engagement with each one.  Gifts, peace, goodwill, family, etc.

November is here, Christmas is coming.  Let’s not have our pulpits filled with preachers trying to hide a creative fatigue over such a great subject.  Let’s take a new angle, dive into the Bible and preach with hearts spilling over!

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