Category Archives: Preaching

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Audience Analysis, Christianity, Homiletics, Incarnation, New Testament, Preacher's Personal Life, Preaching, Religion

Preaching Holiness – Postscript

Holiness2This week I have been sharing some thoughts about holiness.  Obviously much more could be written, but just to finish the week, let me offer a quote from Michael Reeves’ 2012 book, The Good God (in the USA it is called Delighting in the Trinity).

“People even say things like ‘Yes, God is loving, but he is also holy’ – as if holiness is an unloving thing, the cold side of God that stops God from being too loving.

Balderdash! Poppycock! Or at least, it is if you are talking about the holiness of the Father, Son and Spirit.  No, said Jonathan Edwards,

Holiness is a most beautiful, lovely thing. Men are apt to drink in strange notions of holiness from their childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour, and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. ‘Tis the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties; ‘tie a divine beauty.

What is holiness, then?  The words used for holiness in teh Bible have the basic meaning of being ‘set apart’. But there our troubles gegin, because naturally I think I’m lovely. So if God is ‘set apart’ from me, I assume the problem is with him (and I can do all this in the subtlest, most subconscious way). His holiness looks like a prissy rejection of my happy, healthy loveliness.

Dare I burst my own bubble now? I must. For the reality is that am the cold, selfish, vicious one, full of darkness and dirtiness. And God is holy – ‘set apart’ from me – precisley in that he is not like that. He is not set apart from us in priggishness, but by the fact that there are no such ugly traits in him as tehre are in us. ‘God is God,’ wrote Edwards, ‘and distinguished [that is, set apart from] all other beings, and exalted above ‘em, chiefly by his divine beauty‘ (for the connection between holiness and beauty, see verses like Psalm 96:9).

Now the holiness of a single-person God would be something quite different. His holiness would be about being set apart away from others. In other words, his holiness would be all about aloof distance. But the holiness of the Father, Son and Spirit is all about love.  Given who this God is, it must be. Edwards again: ‘Both the holiness and happiness of the Godhead consists in this love. As we have already proved, all creature holiness consists essentially and summarily in love to God and love to other creatures; so does the holiness of God consist in his love, especially in the perfect and intimate union and love there is between the Father and the Son.”

good-godThis extended quote has been from pages 93-94.  One more sentence to finish, “the holiness of the triune God does not moderate or cool his love; his holiness is the lucidity and spotlessness of his overflowing love.”

Okay, just one more, “The beautiful, loving holiness of this God makes true godliness a warm, attractive, delightful thing.  It is not about becoming more mean and pinched, for this God is not mean and pinched.”

If you don’t have a copy of Mike Reeves’ book The Good God (Delighting in the Trinity in the USA), be sure to get yourself a Christmas present, it is a must read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, Preaching, Religion

Preaching Holiness – part 4

Holiness2This week we have been pondering the preacher and the theme of holiness.  There is so much more that could be said about each point, but hopefully we have had something to think and pray about.

15. Every sliver of unholiness will be judged and purged.  We really have no clue of how good that will be!  (That includes the unholiness of “older brother” religiosity . . . which means more of our lives will get there “as through fire” than we probably realize.  Nevertheless, what an utter relief the purging of all sin will bring to ransomed souls.)

16. When we make holiness sound like sour pickled vegetables we don’t motivate anyone to think beyond this life.  The New Creation will be wonderful in many respects, not least because of the total absence of sin and pain and tears, as well as the presence of Christ Himself.  Too many in our churches still have lingering images of sterility and fun-free hymnathons.  The Bible gives a lot of future glimpses to motivate us in the present.

17. Jesus was holy and magnetic, often our version of holiness is anything but.  The truly holy person is fully alive.  At the same time that person will be profoundly attractive and deeply offensive.  (And if the Gospels are an indicator, then such Christlikeness will be attractive to needy people, and offensive to religious people.)

18. The great threat to holiness in the church is not just the worldliness of culture, but also the pseudo-holiness of church culture.  Just as a weekend of binge behavior in a degraded society is horribly empty, so too is a relationally empty performance devoid of meaningful engagement with God and others (sometimes polite conversation can be empty too).

19. Preaching for holiness cannot be restricted to applications of conduct, nor even of conforming the mind…it must seek to engage and stir the heart.  It is not what goes in from the outside that defiles a person (i.e. religious duties and traditions), but what spews forth from the heart.  So preach in such a way as to engage the heart.  Informing the mind and pressuring the conduct will never suffice when the heart of the problem is the, uh, heart.

20. The overwhelming use of the term “Holy” in the New Testament is in reference to the Spirit of God.  Let’s be sure that our preaching is pursued with a thoroughly biblical and growing understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in respect to our sanctification.  Too much Christianity still ignores the Spirit or turns Him into some sort of battery pack (either highly visible or highly invisible).  It is by the Spirit that we are united to Christ.  True relationally rich holiness is our privilege in the Gospel!

21. If you long for greater holiness in the lives of people in your church, don’t preach for “holiness.”  Instead, pray and preach for spiritual vitality in their relationship with Christ.  If we, and they, will love God, then what we want to do will be profoundly holy.  The Gospel does a work on our wants!
So much more could be said, but let’s pray for the beauty of God’s holiness to pervade our lives, our ministry and our churches . . .

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, Preacher's Personal Life, Preaching, Religion, Stage 5 - Message Purpose

Preaching Holiness – part 3

Holiness2This week we are chewing on matters of preaching and true godly holiness.  I won’t review where we have been already, but please do go back to the first posts if you missed them.

10. People need instructing in holiness, but never in a sermon severed from the glorious good news of the Gospel.  There are plenty of instructional sections in the New Testament epistles, for example.  Don’t go joyriding in an Imperative Harvester, but instead keep the instructions firmly planted in the rich soil of Gospel content within the context of their own Bible book.  We might take weeks to preach an epistle, but the original hearers heard them in one sitting.  So make sure you aren’t plucking instruction and losing the rich theological setting for them.

11. The preacher’s personal holiness matters beyond words.  This is more than conformity to high standards of integrity.  It also shows in your love, your joy, your peace, your patience, your kindness . . . oh wait, I see what is going on here (it’s back to the tangible reality of the Holy Spirit again!)

12. Holiness is not merely movement away from something, it is movement towards someone.  False holiness will come across as a sour reaction against everything, whereas true holiness involves movement toward God, and out of ourselves toward others.  Christlikeness involves being like Christ, who was no sour hermit.

13. We must think root and not just fruit in respect to holiness.  If we ignore the appetites deep within, then we can give the impression that holiness is something people should pretend to like (while really only obeying through gritted teeth because they would much rather be sinning).  The new inner relish given by the Spirit results in genuine hatred of sin and delight in God’s holiness.

14. The world should not be allowed to define holiness … neither contemporary culture, nor your parents’ culture.  While some let contemporary cultural values shape their own, others let the cultural values of a previous generation do the shaping. Be Bible soaked so that it shows in your life, your personality, your attitude, etc.

(Probably) the final part of the series will go live tomorrow…

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, Preacher's Personal Life, Preaching, Religion, Stage 5 - Message Purpose

Preaching Holiness – part 2

Holiness2We are pondering God’s holiness and our preaching.  Let’s continue the list of thoughts:

5. The Gospel is not just a solution for the guilt of our un-holiness, it also includes a recipe to generate true holiness.  Often preachers offer a way to get rid of the guilt, but leave listeners feeling that the pursuit of holiness and their ongoing commitment to Christ’s cause is a burden planted firmly on their shoulders.  The Gospel isn’t simply about forgiveness of sin, it also includes the transformation of the human heart and the wonder of union with Christ by the indwelling Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit).

6. The compulsion stirred in a Gospel-gripped heart is infinitely stronger than our most vehement tirade.  We will always be drawn to the notion that our pressurized guilt trip will bring about change, but only because we don’t fully understand humans or the Gospel.  Peer and preacher-pressure may manufacture diligent religious duties, but a delighted heart will give anything for the One loved.  Preach Him that others might love Him.

7. Show me a heart that truly loves Christ, and I will show you a life that is growing in holiness.  If the people in our churches could just catch a glimpse of the wonder of God’s pure love in Christ then the result would be incredible growth in holiness.  Our privilege is to seek to know Him more and offer Him more effectively.

8. True holiness momentum comes not from the pulpit, but from the stirred heart.  So preach and present the One who stirs hearts.  Our task is not primarily to instruct and constrain.  It is to present and invite.  Offer the most compelling Christ that you can and you will barely scratch the surface of the richness of the One who for all eternity has brought infinite delight to the heart of the Father in heaven.  We could always do better at preaching Christ.  Let’s stop wasting time and energy preaching performance and give ourselves to the Christian minister’s great privilege.

9. What spills from the preacher’s heart on Sunday must first thrill the preacher’s heart during the week.  If our lives are too caught up with the business of the church enterprise instead of prayer and ministering the Word, then we may give leadership speeches, but we won’t be preaching Christ out of the overflow of our own hearts.  In this sense, holiness momentum is generated via the pulpit, but the starting point is private delight in the wonder of Christ.

More tomorrow…

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, Preacher's Personal Life, Preaching, Religion, Stage 5 - Message Purpose

Preaching Holiness

Holiness2Holiness is a huge theme in the Bible.  It should be a huge theme in our preaching.  Sadly, what is often preached about holiness seems to fall woefully short of the richness of the biblical reality.

I remember hearing one preacher say confidently that what our nation needs is to be moralized.  I suspect he didn’t understand what he was saying.  Moralizing is a danger in preaching, not because we don’t want to see society transformed, but precisely because moralizing won’t do the job.  Pressuring people to conform to certain standards won’t generate holiness in our churches or our land any more than pressuring a tone deaf choir to sing in tune will lead to sweet music.

Here are a few key thoughts to ponder on holiness and preaching:

1. People don’t make themselves holy, God’s Holy Spirit makes people holy.  It is so tempting to pressure people to conform to some standard, but we must preach out of a conviction that God changes lives.  The clue is in His title, the Holy Spirit.  This reality should influence our pre-preaching prayer, our content and our manner in the pulpit.

2. When we only present holiness as being “set apart from” something, it can sound so sour and empty.  What passes for holiness in many churches is so sour and strange that it seems a million miles from the wholeness of life and love we see in Jesus as we read the Gospels.  True holiness is not pinched, it is fully alive.  True holiness is not a barrel of vinegar, it is a feast of true and abundant life.

3. God’s holiness is not sour, it is infinitely beautiful and attractive.  When we present God as a celestial killjoy, we misrepresent the God whose abundant heart created and infinite generosity created unfettered joy and vibrant life.  God’s holiness is not the sterile hygiene of an operating theatre, it is the fullness of the rich loyal love He enjoys within the Godhead…

4. God’s holiness is not balanced against His love – it is the reality of His loving Tri-unity.  Too often we offer strange balancing acts that seem somewhat foreign to the presentation of Scripture.  God is not infinitely loving, but only 50% that way.  It is not true that He is love (but also something else, with the “but” being an adversative).  God is love.  And that love is perfectly faithful, loyal, pure, just, righteous and holy.

The list continues tomorrow…

2 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, How to . . . ?, Preacher's Personal Life, Preaching, Religion

Prayerfully Pondered Impact

impact2For many years people considered communication to consist merely in the transfer of propositions from one mind to another.  Many preachers still do.  Actually there is a lot more going on.  Without getting too technical, Speech-Act Theory analyses communication using three measures instead of one.  There is quite a bit of scope for this communications theory to help preachers consider their task.  Here are the three measures:

A. There is the actual set of words that comprise the communication, which can be evaluated for meaning, but only incompletely.

B. What the theory underlines is that speech doesn’t just say something, it is always delivered with the intent to do something.  Some acts of speech are typically used as clear examples, such as, “I pronounce you husband and wife” … in the right context, those words actually do something.  In reality every act of speech is given with the intent to do something.  There is the intended impact of the speaker that is communicated with and by the actual words used.  So you might use the same set of words, but with different intent depending on numerous other factors, to communicate the following: a threat, a promise, a flirtatious hint, etc.

C. Once we open up the realm of the intent of the speaker beyond mere analysis of propositions (which we automatically do as listeners), then there is a third measure to bring into the mix . . . the actual effect of the speech-act.  What actually happens may be intended or unintended, and it may be multi-layered.

If you want to chase Speech-Act Theory, by all means search for it, or for the terms locution, illocution and perlocution.  For now I want to probe this final element described in respect to preaching…

Do the actual effects of our preaching match our intended effects?  Obviously we have a significant added dimension as preachers – that God brings conviction, transformation and growth.  Nevertheless, it is definitely worth pondering our impact prayerfully.  Here are some possibilities:

1. Do people take our tone in the way we intend?  You might mean to come across as loving in what you say, but actually be felt to be antagonistic, negative or aggressive.  You might intend to couch certain content in a tone of hope, but come across as uncertain and hesitant.

2. Does the main goal of the message get through?  We do look to God to bring about transformation, but that doesn’t excuse us from prayerfully intending certain impact.  Are we seeing that impact over time?

3. Do secondary but significant goals get achieved in your preaching?  For instance, you might intend for your listeners to be motivated to read their Bibles during the week, but does your preaching bring about that motivation?  Prayerfully pondering actual impact might lead to some tweaks in your preaching that will help your church.

Leave a comment

Filed under Audience Analysis, Christianity, Homiletics, Preaching, Religion, Stage 5 - Message Purpose, Stage 8 - Message Detail

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!

image001

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, How to . . . ?, Incarnation, New Testament, Old Testament, Preaching, Religion, Stage 1 - Passage Selection

Jesus Was Not 50% Human

FiftyPercentbThere is a phrase that I suspect we would do better without.  It is only introductory to another thought, but it tends to lead somewhere potentially unhelpful.  It goes like this, “Jesus, in his humanity…” or “Jesus, in his divinity…”

I understand why we use these phrases.  There are times when you are preaching a Gospels text and you want to underline the fact that Jesus fully entered into our world and experience (albeit without sinning), so the first phrase is used to highlight some aspect of the true humanity of Christ.  There are other times when we preach something in the Gospels and we want to underline that this isn’t “just” a human, but he is also God.

God the Son did step fully into our world via the Incarnation and this is a glorious truth, but I suspect the introductory phrase often undermines the fullness of the union.  That is, Jesus is fully God, fully man, and fully one.  But often we can give the impression it was a 50:50 split.  That is, look at the human side, then later, let’s look at the divine side.  Let me give an example that will hopefully help.

Here we see Jesus, who, in his humanity, … is feeling compassion for the crowds stood before him.”  Or “…is dreading the forthcoming agonies of the cross.” Or “…is angered in the face of death.”

Yes, we do see Jesus’ humanity as he sheds tears of compassion for a shepherd-less people, anticipates the agonies of Calvary, or is stirred by the sheer wrongness of a funeral.  We see Jesus’ humanity in every episode of the Gospels.  But we also see Jesus’ divinity in each one too.  Jesus told his slow to believe disciples that if they had seen him, they had seen the Father.  I think I am slow to believe too.  Here I am, two millennia later, still falling into wrong assumptions about God the Father, despite reading the Gospels so many times.

When we see Jesus feeling compassion for the crowds, in Matthew 9 or Mark 6, we are seeing God’s heart for the people.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed.  When we see Jesus feeling the weight of what lay before him at the cross and in separation from perfect communion, we see the heart of God revealed.  When we see Jesus respond in both empathy and anger at the death of Lazarus, God’s heart is shining out for all to see.  If you see Jesus, you see the Father revealed in him.

But when we use the introductory formula, “in his humanity…” then we can inadvertently hide the Father.  Jesus, in his humanity, is feeling … but the Father remains aloof and unmoved, without passion, compassion, anger, empathy or true love?  And before we know it, without even saying it, we have reinforced the traditional view that the true essence of God is completely opposite to all we know and experience, and therefore God is really out of reach.  We should think long, hard, and biblically, before we choose to stay there theologically, or imply this homiletically.

John 1:18.  John 14:8. Colossians 2:9.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Homiletics, Incarnation, Preaching, Religion, Specific text, Stage 8 - Message Detail

Identifying with Bible Characters

film3The Bible is full of stories.  Stories are very effective ways to communicate.  When a story begins, people tend to do two things – first, they identify with (or disassociate from) characters, and second, they feel the tension in the story, anticipating the resolution.  So when we preach Bible stories, let’s be sure to help listeners connect with what is going on.

1. Don’t give a history lecture, preach the story to today.  It is easier, perhaps, to dispassionately tell what happened back then.  But it is not easier to listen to that.  It is, typically, dull.  However you may choose to do it, please make it clear to your listeners how the ancient story impacts contemporary life.  That doesn’t mean you have to constantly make up-to-date references (sometimes telling a story takes time and making lots of links to today can become distracting), but do frame the sermon with relevance so people know there is value in engaging the story fully.

2. Don’t caricature the characters, encourage identification with their fallen and frail human-ness.  It is easy to pick on one solitary feature of a character in a story, but fail to give a fair representation of them.  Peter puts his foot in his mouth, but he also has the guts to get out of the boat.  Zechariah doubted the angel, but was also a faithful pray-er over many decades.  Don’t simply beat up listeners with a quick connection to the failure of a character.  Stories work slowly as the listener engages with a character all the way to the point of resolution in the story.  Simply pointing out a flaw and applying it carries all the sermonic tension of a limp rope.  Try to reflect the fullness of the character portrayal offered in the biblical narrative and its context.

3. Don’t identify without theocentrizing.  It is also possible to present the characters effectively so that listeners can identify with them, but miss the point that God is at the center of biblical narrative.  It’s not just Joseph’s kindness and personal character quality that is significant in Matthew 1, it is also very much focused on God’s revelation of His plan to both save His people from their sins and His presence with His people.  Joseph is a great example of a “fine, young man.”  But the passage presents this fine, young man responding to the revelation of God’s purposes.  Jesus, Immanuel.  That is the information that Joseph acted upon.  The amazing thing about Christmas narratives is that the theocentric truth is bundled up in a tiny human infant.  (And we get to preach the amazing truth of the Incarnation soon!)

Christmas preached as just peace and happiness and quaint idyllic scenes is a travesty – Christmas is also a set up for theocentric preaching (but don’t lose the humanness of the other characters too).

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Audience Analysis, Christianity, Homiletics, How to . . . ?, New Testament, Preaching, Stage 2 - Passage Study, Stage 3 - Passage Purpose, Stage 5 - Message Purpose, Stage 8 - Message Detail