As I am reading through the Bible I am currently in the Psalms – what a great book! Sadly, for some, Psalms seems to be preached only as filler material in the summer holidays. There is so much potential for preaching in the book of Psalms. Let me offer three possibilities opened up by preaching from this book:
1. You can introduce new treasure to people. People tend to be familiar with some Psalms. Probably 23. Perhaps 24, 1, 110, 121, 127, 51, 8, 73, 37, 27. But what about Psalm 36? Or 33? There is a whole host of Psalms that tend to get ignored in the annual audition for three filler sermons. And don’t just stick to the filler sermon approach. Why not preach Psalm 34 at the start of a series on 1Peter? It certainly was in the mind of the apostle as he wrote his epistle. Why not preach Psalm 118 in connection with Easter? It might add a new set of thoughts to the Easter considerations since Jesus would very likely have sung that with his disciples at the last supper.
2. You can connect with a different group of people. It may be a stereotype, but some have suggested that engineers enjoy epistles. They like the truth statements, logical flow, direct discourse. So if that is the case, who might appreciate the Psalms? Artists? Sure, and there are more of them than we tend to realise in every congregation. How about the suffering? Certainly. Psalms connects with different people at different times in the complexities of each personal biography.
3. You can offer a more vulnerable sermon. When David wrestles with spiritual realities, why not be more open that we do too? Personal sin struggles, doubting God’s goodness, tendency to trust in ourselves, feelings of extreme fatigue, etc. We don’t preach to preach ourselves, but we ourselves do preach. The Psalms opens up the possibility of greater vulnerability from the preacher, and hopefully stirs vulnerability in the congregation. The Psalm writers didn’t treat God as delicate or fragile, they blasted their prayers at Him. Perhaps we can stir greater prayer in churches that tend to pray religiously, and Psalms would be a worthwhile workshop for that kind of goal.
Yesterday we looked at the danger of treating Christ as our role model. Today I’ve kept up the pseudo latin title pattern (since Christians seem to love latin in the blogosphere) and want to zero in on a related danger: treating biblical characters as examples to copy.
Surely the biblical narratives were written both to instruct us and to warn us, therefore they are legitimately to be treated as examples in our preaching? Yes, but there is still a danger that we fall short of preaching the Bible when we fall into a simple, “go thou and do likewise” approach. Points to ponder:
Paul probes deeper than behaviour in 1Corinthians 10:1-13 – There he states that there is example in what happened to characters in the Old Testament, but the purpose of that example is not to push the Corinthians simply toward good conduct. These were examples, “that we might not desire evil as they did.” The people of Israel all “did” the same things, but the problem was with their desires. They wanted evil, and they did not please God. The passage heads toward a warning for those who are self-confident (a real danger for those who are diligent to obey conduct-focused preaching!)
Paul pushes beyond behavior in Romans 15:1-7 – The Old Testament was written for instruction, but the goal goes beyond conformity to conduct codes. Paul is pushing for a vertical and horizontal outworking in the context of relationships. The fruit of the instruction is supposed to be hope, mutual harmony and participation in the worship of the Father through the Son.
Biblical characters are responsive humans, not conduct models – In every narrative we see real people living in a standard set of circumstances. That is, they live in a fallen world, swimming in the post-Genesis 3 world of autonomy from God. And they live in a world where God is inviting them to respond to His Word. Some respond in fear, others in faith. To simply look at a godly individual and then make the application to go copy their conduct is like telling a small boy to watch motorcycle racing and then go do the same on his bicycle. He may deceive himself by leaning forward and making engine noises, but the reality is missing. We have a lot of people in churches acting like Christians, but the performance is a charade because the reality of a living union with Christ by His Spirit has been overlooked in the effort to act like virtuous biblical heroes.
Godly conduct is profoundly important. But for it to be real, it must come from the depths of a heart vivified and responsive to Christ, it will not come from copying the externals of exemplary individuals while ignoring the inner realities of those people as they walked with God.
Christians tend to view the books of Moses as a flat collection of laws. Many tend not to distinguish the progression within the books, both in terms of the progression of revelation of law (in response to progressive sin and failure), as well as the progression in generations. Deuteronomy is anything but flat. Here we have a new generation and the aged Moses giving his parting-shot sermon to the people he has seen grow up in the wilderness. There is a passion in Moses and a unique opportunity set before the people. Don’t miss the following applicational emphases in the book:
1. God’s loving instruction. It would be a gross misrepresentation to turn Deuteronomy into a flat book of laws and codes. Through Moses God is communicating a loving desire for the people to thrive as His people, to be blessed, to prosper in the land, etc. It is easy to communicate threat without love, or warning without motive.
2. The danger of comfort. Surely a people who had watched their parents die in the wilderness, who had heard stories and perhaps remembered their miraculous deliverance from Pharoah and his armies, who had seen the miraculous as children and as adults, surely such a people would be well situated to thrive in the land before them? Deuteronomy repeatedly warns of the dangers of forgetting. We humans can struggle to remember. Especially when things are going well and we are comfortable. Perhaps Deuteronomy should be preached in our culture once a year? It wouldn’t be wasted!
3. The motives of obedience. God certainly lays out for the people the expected obedience. What would it look like for them to be faithful to the marital arrangement that is set before them? Obedience, of course. But Deuteronomy never lets us settle for an outward conformity. Just as in a human marriage there is no satisfaction in ritual and plastic obedience, so in relationship with God the core issue must be the heart. That is what needs to be circumcised. How easily we turn loving instruction into self-concerned ritualistic obedience. Even in these days God knew that ultimately it would take a prophet greater than Moses to capture the hearts of a straying humanity.
I have to admit that Numbers is not a book that I rush toward. The main reason for this is that I have not studied it in depth and so should probably preach it in order to develop my appreciation. Nonetheless, here are three thoughts from reading it through these last few days.
1. Faith does not automatically flow from the miraculous. Many people assume that if we could just see something miraculous, then we’d believe. After all, if we could just see God doing wonders in our midst then the culture would come flocking. Numbers again underlines that even God’s people don’t automatically respond in faith to observed wonders, so assuming others will is presumptuous. Water from a rock, a budding staff, the ground swallowing rebels, and consequently that generation were a people of faith? Not quite. The issue is not what we see, but how our hearts perceive what we see. If we don’t want to believe, no amount of miraculous intervention will guarantee true faith.
2. The Law’s community function did not generate faith. The nation that had started with one man, become twelve men, then seventy, then hundreds of thousands needed to be constrained and ordered. Their sin and rebellion had led to a growing statute book and legal code. By the time we get to Numbers we might assume that being a people with well defined laws meant they were ready to believe and trust God. Caleb and Joshua are the glorious exceptions. The ten spies didn’t. The people didn’t. Even Moses didn’t. In fact, rather than getting caught up in what Moses actually did wrong in chapter 20, perhaps the writer is vague on the errant action to point us to underlying faith issues. The great leader under the Law who disobeys God through lack of faith (Num.20:12) seems to contrast with the great man of faith before Law who kept God’s commands (compare and contrast Gen.26:5).
3. God’s promise plan is not thwarted even when the faithless miss out. It is important to help listeners know that Numbers sits in the flow of the Pentateuch, rather than as a stand-alone collection of stories. God’s plan to bless the world back in the beginning of Genesis was articulated clearly in his promise to Abram. By the end of Genesis the seed promise has grown into an extended family, with blessing to all families reiterated in the blessing of Judah by Jacob. That nation through which the blessing would come is born in Exodus despite the three-fold attempt by Pharoah to curse the “too numerous people.” At the other end of the wilderness sojourn we see another king seeking three times to curse a “too numerous” Israel. Again, the attempts to curse God’s nation lead only to their blessing. Thus the promise to Abraham marches on, with just Deuteronomy left: a sermonic call for circumcised hearts and love for God from the new generation heading into the dangerous place of security and peace.
I admit it, I haven’t preached through Leviticus. For many people it is the book that undoes their read through (my suggestion? Read faster and get the sweeping history rather than trying to meticulously study through Leviticus every time . . . and keep the pace through the rest of the Bible too!) So I haven’t preached it, but I can say this: when I preached the whole Bible in a single message, the key text came from Leviticus.
So here are three themes that are worth pondering, both in preaching Leviticus itself, and for preaching elsewhere:
1. Worship and Atonement. Leviticus launches with seven chapters on sacrificial offerings, then builds to the climactic Day of Atonement description in chapter 16. It is too easy to preach from the New Testament and make vague references to “Old Testament sacrifices” and how glad we are not to have to do them. As a preacher it would be well worth reading this section closely enough to be able to describe what was involved in “all those sacrifices.” Can we really grasp all that Jesus has done for us if we are basically unaware of the system in place prior to His sacrifice?
2. Living and Loving. The priestly code of early Leviticus flowed out of the conclusion to Exodus (and the terrible golden calf incident). But then in Leviticus 17 there is a passing reference to another ghastly failure, this time on the part of the people: worshipping goat demons. What follows is yet more law, this time focusing in on the people who needed to live with one another and love one another in light of who the LORD is. In the midst of this section we find the seven Mosaic feasts described in chapter 23. Again, to preach the New Testament effectively we need to know our way around the annual feasts of Israel.
3. Living in God’s Presence. So the last time I preached the whole Bible in a single message, what text proved pivotal? It came from Leviticus. It is about living in God’s presence. Sounds like it will feel like a pressure passage pushing us to live holy lives so we might be able to approach God? Not quite. The anticipation of Leviticus 26:11-12 shows God’s desire to dwell with His people, a desire that shows throughout the canon and culminates the whole story in Revelation 21.
“I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”
Exodus is not just a book with stories for children, it continues the weighty foundational role and themes of Genesis. Does God keep His promises? How will He redeem His people? What kind of God is He? What is their relationship with Him? I suspect Exodus may well be under-preached in light of its significance. It is a book that is quoted and alluded to repeatedly in the rest of the Old Testament, and in the New Testament as well. Here are three momentous moments not to be passed over:
1. Passover in chapter 12. Here is the moment that the Jewish people would look back on for centuries to come. With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, the LORD delivered His people from captivity in Egypt and launched them on their journey to home. The hardened heart of Pharoah was baked solid as God prepared to deliver His people, with the showdown between the LORD and the gods of Egypt being decisively won. And at the very heart of this key moment in human history? A perfect and innocent lamb slain to provide blood protection for the people who trusted God’s word. The LORD himself protecting them from the destroyer.
2. Sinai in chapters 19-20. Delivered safely into the wilderness the kingdom of priests arrived at the place where God would meet with them. It was an impressive encounter, perhaps too much for them to bear. The kingdom of priests seemed to shrink back in fear (as Moses tells us later on), and the first boundary markers of the Law were established for them, along with a simple earthen altar. If God had called His son out of Egypt, then the familial imagery seems to move to the marital at Sinai – covenant commitments both ways, but would both prove faithful?
3. Glory in chapters 32-34. The revelation of the Law given in Exodus and Leviticus has a progressive development, apparently instigated by failure on the part of the people. Despite chapter 24 and their fellowship with the LORD, they were unfaithful to Him in profoundly flagrant ways before the Golden Calf. God’s anger raged hot, for He is Jealous, but Moses interceded for His presence to go on with them. Amazingly, while on the mountain with the LORD Moses dared to ask to see His glory. How could he have confidence to make such a request? Earlier in the same chapter we are told of his regular face to face conversations with the LORD whose tent was pitched down near the people. But the LORD up on the mountain could not be seen. Yet Moses got that wonderful encounter with the trail of God’s glory. And what did God reveal? A stronger power than that image of power, the golden calf? Absolutely. He was given a divine glimpse of God’s goodness and covenant loyalty and mercy. Not a weak God, for He does deal with sin. A powerful God whose power of character overwhelms our conceptions of raw force.
So much to preach, and this post has only scratched at the surface!
Genesis is such a critical book! I suspect it simply isn’t preached enough. The rest of the Bible is built on the foundation of Genesis, and so preaching it enough and preaching it well are very important. Here are three mistakes to avoid, although many more could be added:
1. Atomistic Reading – This is where a text is snipped from the flow of the context and becomes a stand alone. Typically this leads to a Sunday School type of preaching that treats each narrative as complete in itself, and with its own “moral of the story.” Cain and Abel has to flow out of Genesis 3, and into the two genealogies of chapters 4 and 5. Abraham does not offer us a set of stand alone tales, but a sequence of growing faith, obedience and connection with God. Joseph’s brothers show consistency between snapshots, making them more than 11 faceless foils in the story of Joseph. Be careful to study and preach each unit in context.
2. Moralistic Reading – This is where a text is snipped from the artery of life that is God’s involvement in specific history, turning the text into a tale with a moral, a lesson for the day, a suggestion on how we can live better. So we should try to avoid infidelity like Joseph did, or not give away our wives like Abraham/Isaac did, or not get caught up in tempting conversations like Eve did. But actually the goal is not our independent successful functioning: that was what the serpent was pushing for. The goal is surely more God-centred than that. Eve didn’t trust God’s Word and God’s character, but God himself works the resolution to the sin problem and invites us to trust Him and His Word. Abraham was on a journey of faith as we are. Joseph lived as if God were with him, even though he had very little indication that he was!
3. Impositional Reading – This is where a text is seen, but not heard. It is where a text acts as a trigger to recall sermons heard and points previously stated. The preacher reads the text and looks for a sermon, instead of studying the text and looking for God. Impositional reading will always lead to superficial preaching. Probe, question, examine, query, ponder, mine, and wrestle with the text. Do that with God in conversation and see if the preaching of Genesis suddenly becomes a spring of living water instead of stale old picture book fables.
Last time I wrote about biblical girders, the superstructure of the Bible that folks in churches tend to hear very little about. While not seeking to diminish the well-known passages, let’s consider whether we can help people know their Bibles better by bringing to their attention the existence and importance of some of the biblical girder passages.
Biblical Covenant Passages – A strong case can be made for seeing the biblical covenants as a skeleton on which the Bible is built. God’s promise and subsequent covenant with Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12, then 13, 15, 17 is critical. Then there’s the Mosaic content in Deuteronomy 27-30 (how often do we stumble across “who will ascend?” or “who has descended?” allusions in the New Testament?) Then God’s covenant with David in 2Samuel 7 and 1Chronicles 17. And, of course, the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36 and the latter part of Isaiah. Being unaware of these covenants is crippling if someone is wanting to grasp the Old Testament, or the development in the New Testament.
Biblically Quoted Passages – Some passages are quoted with a significant frequency. Sometimes the quote is actually just an allusion, but that doesn’t diminish its significance. Sometimes it proves the writer assumed hearers would spot it more easily. God’s spoken self-revelation in Exodus 34 runs like a refrain through the Old Testament. Psalms 2, 69 and 110 get their fair share of airtime once you get to the New Testament, as does Psalm 118 in reference to Jesus and Psalm 8 plays a key role in Hebrews. Genesis 15:6 comes out three significant times, as does Habakkuk 2:4. The lesser known part of Isaiah 6 does some heavy lifting, as does the allusion to Daniel 7. And in the passion of Christ, where you might expect lots of references to Genesis 22 (Abraham & Isaac), instead you find lots of Davidic Psalms and Zechariah quotes.
Structurally Significant Passages – Some passages seem to serve a key purpose in the structure of a book or a section. Joshua 1 serves a key transitional function between the Torah and the Kethubim. Psalm 73 seems to provide the hinge for the turn in the flow of the whole collection. John 11-12 offer a significant transition in John’s Gospel.
There are many more that could be listed. The point is that many of these are less familiar to most people in the church than David’s slaying Goliath, or Naaman dipping in the Jordan, or Daniel in the den of lions, or Jesus calming the storm, or Paul in prison in Philippi. All important, but in terms of grasping the flow and message of the whole Bible, perhaps there are too many gaps at critical points.