Category Archives: Stage 8 – Message Detail

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.

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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!

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Preaching and the Tone of the Message

ToneHead2So assuming we agree that the tone matters, how are we to arrive at the tone of a message?  Three steps are needed here:

1. Consider the tone of the text.

As we develop sensitivity to the text and the setting of the text, we should be increasingly effective at grasping the tone of the author.  We need to go for a humble confidence rather than a brash confidence in this.  We are looking at lots of factors and weighing them up.

2. Consider the listeners to the message.

Who are you preaching to, and what is the occasion of the sermon?  Sometimes the occasion will influence the tone significantly (i.e. a funeral), sometimes it will be less significant.  It is not enough, though, to figure out the tone of the text and replicate that.  That text needs to be preached with sensitivity to these listeners.

3. Consider yourself as a preacher.

What is your natural or default tone?  Do you have a theological bias?  For instance, do you see everything as duty and expectation?  Do you see everything as gentle and joyful?  Do you turn any passage into a guilt trip?  The better you know yourself, the better you will be at selecting tone on purpose rather than defaulting into a tone that is less than helpful.

When you have evaluated all these factors, then there is still a bit more to consider.  Next time I’ll blog about the dangers and the needs as we think about preaching tone.

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Final Focus

mirror2In a recent discussion, my colleague made a passing remark that is well worth pondering for us preachers.

When the message ends, where are people focused?

Traditional preaching tends to leave listeners focused on themselves.  After an introduction, compelling and gripping or otherwise, then comes the body of the message, followed by an applicational conclusion.  So where are people looking as they leave?  If we are not careful, they will walk out with gaze firmly fixed on self.

1. Is there a problem with fixing the gaze on self?  After all, isn’t our goal to have people working harder to be good christians?  I hope we have a more gospel-oriented goal than that!  The turn toward self was the fruit of the fruit tasting back in Genesis 3 (take a look at the passage and trace the “nakedness” theme starting in 2:25, for example).  The turn toward self is the constant tendency of our flesh in its autonomous rebellion.  The teaching of the Bible should not be throttled down to a set of to-do items that leave us self-oriented and self-concerned.  To get to that we have to evaporate the very life from the Bible!

2. So where could or should listeners be looking?  The Bible is God-centred, and Christ-targeted.  A healthy message will surely leave people more God aware and more Christ focused.

3. But what about getting better behaved believers?  If all we have ever witnessed is pressured people striving to live up to the pressure of applications, perhaps it is time for an experiment . . . try getting some folks’ to gaze on Christ and watch the transformation that will come.  The gospel really is not about work, at least, not our work.  It is about Christ and His work for us.  And I am convinced that while short cuts to conformity are tempting, the harvest will be meager.  Try working messages to the point that the end stress is on God and not on the listener to perform.  The results may be significant in behavioural terms, and so much more.

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Preaching Layered Story Sensitivity

WeavingJust a little post to finish off this mini-series.  So you have decided not to pluck a story and lift sometimes imaginary life lessons from it.  You have studied it in its context and started to note the layers of intricate story within story crafting that the author has done.  Maybe you’ve been nudged to recognize the meaning of the story with the help of commentaries too, of course.  But how do you preach it?  This can seem overwhelming.

1. Determine the main idea of the story.  In light of its context, what is the main thought of the story you are actually preaching?

2. Figure out how much context you need to set.  This is determined not only by the story itself, but also by your context.  Some groups of listeners are ready to handle the bigger picture more than others.

3. Decide which layering details help communicate that main idea.  There will be so much you could spot and point out, but some of it will not make sense to listeners, or will seem like exegetical trivia if you can’t give a full sweep and explanation.  But if you don’t give some “fingers on the text” observations, listeners may think you are making up your own take on the meaning of the story.

4. Be sure to tell the story.  So easy to think our task is to share exegetical insights and theological profundities and applicational nuggets.  Remember that God inspired the story to mark lives.  Let it do that.  Tell the story.

5. Make the application the theocentric application intended by the text.  It is about God and it is supposed to mark us in response to God.  Don’t drop God out for the sake of a top-tip for creative truth telling in foreign lands.

6. Don’t forget to invite people into the text.  Your preaching, with sensitivity to the flow of the book, should motivate listeners to want to read and dig for themselves.  Don’t be shy to suggest that.

So much more could be said, but let’s leave it there for now . . .

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 5

PenInk2Yesterday we saw that there are a host of ingredients that could go into an epistle closing section.  One way to use the closing is to select an element and preach an overview of the whole epistle using that text.  Some examples:

1. Preaching Final Personal Remarks – Galatians 6:14-15

Paul keeps on reinforcing the big themes of Galatians: it is all about Christ crucified, the promised deliverer, and the work of the Spirit in making us new creatures in relationship with our Abba.  Here Paul gives a Christ and Spirit (New Covenant shorthand term) summation, just to reinforce the point already made in chapters 3-4, in the summary of 5:5-6, etc.  From these two verses you could effectively preach the whole letter.

2. Preaching Concluding Exhortations – Romans 16:17-20

Paul addressed the issue of a disunited Roman church from the beginning of the letter.  The applicational climax in 15:7-13 is brought back here in the final verses of the letter.  Romans could be preached or reviewed with this text, as it could with the doxology to follow in 16:25-27.

3. Preaching Closing Prayer – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

Again, the big themes of the body of the letter are clearly evident in this single verse: sanctification and anticipation of the Lord’s return.

4. Preaching Prayer Request – Colossians 4:2-4

Not only does Paul offer a “practical” prayer request, but it is focused on the key issue of the whole epistle – the person and mystery of Christ.

5. Preaching Greetings – Romans 16:3-16, 21-23

Paul’s list of connections in Rome gives an insight into the constitution of the church in Rome – several Jewish names among a predominantly Gentile group.  This is tricky, but if handled well, this could be a gateway into the issue that Paul has been addressing theologically throughout the letter.

Tomorrow I will almost wrap up the series by looking at doxologies, and then will offer a final post with some big letter-frame preaching suggestions.

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Felt Relevance

UserManual2People want relevant preaching, but there are various ways to be relevant.

One way is to make the Bible a resource for advising listeners on how to be more successful in their attempts to live their lives.  This statement is loaded with theological concerns, but the approach is popular and for many, the end justifies the means.  So since people will respond positively to tips for life, and that will multiply attendees at church, then all is well.  But what if we find ourselves uncomfortable with offering this kind of preaching?  Are we forced to give up on relevance and instead switch to a heady theological and doctrinal type of preaching?

I don’t think so.

Another approach to relevance is to recognize the implicit relevance in inspired Scripture.  It is God-breathed and it is useful.  Our task as preachers is not to add relevance, but to make the relevance clear and felt.  When the Scriptures are not treated as a flat data bank from which to pluck truth statements or instructions or whatever, but instead as fully dimensioned interpersonal communication, then we are on the right track.  What I mean is that we need to make the Scripture clear, engaging with it in its historical and literary context so that its uniqueness is not only evident and clear, but also vivid and felt.  Not only should we invite listeners into the world of the text so that the narrative or poem or discourse is felt and experienced, but also we should be inviting listeners to engage with the God who is revealing Himself in the text.

The combination of vivid text and personal revelation of God makes for powerful and felt relevance.  Of course, some may not appreciate this approach.  For one thing, God’s self-disclosure can be offensive to those who hunger more for instructions for independent living.  But this should not put us off.

When we preach the Bible, let’s not settle for a tips-for-life kind of relevance.  Let’s instead be Bible preachers who give our very best to help listeners experience the full meaning of the text and encounter the self-revelation of God.

True biblical preaching is relevant, because the Bible is relevant.  True biblical preaching does not just use the Bible, or start with the Bible, instead it brings together two worlds, so that the God who is over all history can work glorious transformation in the world of the contemporary listener.

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How to Preach Less than Christian – Part 1

microphoneflat2Christian preaching is easily recognisable – you need a preacher with a Bible in a church.  But what about less than Christian preaching?  Can you have a preacher with a Bible in a church, but actually have something less than, something sub-gospel?  Absolutely.  Here are some warning signs:

1. Fail to identify the “God” being referenced.

In the West we have grown complacent with the term “god.”  Perhaps due to a strong Christian heritage, or perhaps due to a lack of awareness of our Bibles, we can easily fall into an assumption that people know who we mean when we use the term.  Consequently there is a generic set of truths that are assumed to be true about God before the biblical content is added on top for a fuller, richer presentation.  This is nothing new, it has been happening for centuries at the highest level of theological scholarship as well as in the pulpit.

But in the Bible, which God is being referenced tends to be carefully clarified.  Elijah was not satisfied that the false prophets on Mt Carmel also believed in a single powerful god figure.  Paul on Mars Hill was not prepared to start from where the philosopher-theologians had already arrived in their conceptions of a single divine being.

Perhaps one of the following should be underlined when referencing God in preaching:

A. The Person(s) of the Trinity.  Perhaps it is appropriate to clarify who is being referenced in the passage.  For instance, in the New Testament, the label “God” typically will refer to God the Father, although there are places where the whole Trinity is in view, or even God the Son.  Why not be sure to identify the persons of the Trinity in order to help clarify that the text is speaking of the Father-Son-Spirit God rather than some sort of generic OmniBeing (as I’ve heard Glen Scrivener label this alternative approach).

B. The Character of God.  Another way to identify and distinguish the true God from all false gods is to make reference to His character.  This was Paul’s approach when preaching to pagans in Lystra and pagan-philosophers in Athens – he described God’s character as the life-giving, generous, patient, kind God who providentially works in circumstance and in the sending of His Son so that people will seek for Him and find Him as they turn from the worthless fashioning of gods in their own image (and this invitation has a terminus).  Within the context of the passage being preached, there will be something that can be offered to distinguish the God who is revealed there from the gods who need little revelation since we come up with them without any trouble on our own!

Next time we’ll pursue another less than Christian approach to preaching.

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 46-50

Summer50bHere we are, the final five of the big summer fifty.

46. Read some descriptive writing.  If all you ever read is biblical commentary and theological textbooks, it will show in your preaching.  Find someone who can write effectively and spend some time with them.  We need to be able to paint pictures with our words, not just offer precise abstractions.

47. Pray about improving your preaching.  I too easily treat this as a given, so I’ll mention it again.  If you are a preacher, you should be praying.  Apart from me you can do nothing.  So why not pray specifically for God to show you areas to improve and to help make those improvements happen?

48. Nail a landing.  I’m always impressed when a preacher knows where he is going, gets there, and stops effectively the first time around.  Why not make that the goal next time you preach?  Even if you don’t write the whole sermon, at least write out the last couple of paragraphs and then nail it!

49. Schedule a break.  Summer is coming to an end and it is probably all systems go, but why not plan now for a break?  Find a couple of Sundays and book them off.  Make an appointment with a B&B or with a church visit somewhere else and just go sit.  If you always give out, you will not be serving your congregation well.

50. Prioritize a prayer list of preaching concerns.  Just to reinforce the earlier point, maybe it is time to make an actual list of preaching prayer points.  Maybe you track illustrations, maybe you have a preaching schedule.  But why not have a page of specific prayer points related to your preaching – include matters of preparation, of delivery, of growth, of longed for goals, etc.

Thanks for thinking through these.  Have any stood out as new?  Helpful? Relevant to you?

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50 Summer Preaching Tweaks: 41-45

Summer50bInto the home stretch, five more thoughts today and then the final five tomorrow:

41. Come out from behind the furniture.  Your whole body communicates, so why hide most of it?  If you have huge pulpit furniture, just come out from behind it.  This isn’t just about being contemporary, Lloyd-Jones removed the curtain at Westminster Chapel for the same reason (although he chose to wear a robe, which slightly defeated the logic).

42. Gesture bigger to look natural.  Unless you are preaching to one person across a table, you need to gesture bigger than normal if you want to look normal.  Make sure your gestures and movements are big enough for the room you are in, and then make sure they still look natural and not stiff or forced.  Simple.

43. Discover your stiff preaching zone.  Speaking of stiffness in preaching, what aspect of delivery freezes when you stand in front of a crowd?  It is a typical and subconscious response to public speech.  Find it and deal with it.  It could be your voice getting in a certain pitch range, or a fixed volume, or a specific gesture repeated endlessly, or the direction your eyes look, etc. 

44. Left to right and back to front.  Make sure your gestures make sense from the perspective of your listeners.  Left is right and right is left.  Past is right and future is left.  A bit of practice and your gestures will start to make way more sense to those listening with their eyes.

45. Practice storytelling at home.  Whether you are preaching narrative or giving an illustration, you will need to tell stories.  Some are natural at this, some are awkward in the extreme.  Practice at home.  Children are always ready to listen to a story (it doesn’t have to be biblical for practice time – what happened today while you were out?  Be descriptive, engaging, suspenseful, etc.)

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