Hold It Together!

One of the challenges we face when preaching epistles is the challenge of coherence. We need to hold it together!

In a narrative, it is typically clear that all the details are working together to tell a story (though not always, it seems, for some preachers!) Sometimes an apparently disconnected detail can actually help us to understand more clearly what is going on in the story, if we will only take the time to wrestle with the detail.

But in epistles, we sometimes find a dense set of theologically rich and eminently preachable truths. And the temptation will be to select and present some of them. But here is the problem: authors of biblical epistles didn’t compile random lists of theological phrases. They wrote coherently. Their content flowed logically and sequentially.

When you are preaching a paragraph in an epistle, be sure to invest study in the flow of thought and not just the theological meaning of details. How do the sentences flow from one to the next? How does this paragraph fit with what has come before and where the author goes next?

Biblical authors were not drunk. Plus, the inspiration of God’s Spirit also reinforces our expectation of coherence. They were not random. It does make sense. It is our job to make sense of it, and then, in our preaching, to make sense of it for others. Our job is more than that, but it should not be less than that. When you have a text to preach – hold it together!

Now Shipping in the USA!

I thought The Little Him Book wasn’t going to be available in the US until early 2021. I was wrong! It is now shipping – perfect timing for Christmas.

Let me also introduce you to 10ofthose.com – this is a company that I have loved watching grow in the UK and am really pleased it is now also in the USA. Their vision is to make great Christian materials available at a low cost so that instead of just buying a single copy (which you can, of course), you might be motivated to buy “10 of those” to give away to friends (various multi-buy discounts available).

This link takes you to my affiliate page and anything you buy on your visit to the site will drop a few cents toward our support. Thank you!

So please do get hold of The Little Him Book and let me know what you think. It is a little book (perfect stocking stuffer), and it is all about Him (perfect gift for family members, for your small group, for church staff as a thank you, for your pastors, etc.) Reviews on 10ofthose, Goodreads, Amazon, etc. are all greatly appreciated (as are direct recommendations to friends, on facebook, twitter, etc.)

If you are in North America – https://www.10ofthose.com/us/affiliates/mead

If you are in UK / Europe – https://www.10ofthose.com/uk/partners/pouredout

Thankful to Mike Reeves and Michael Card for their kind endorsements of this book!

A Biblical Introduction to the Incarnation

A few years ago I wrote Pleased to Dwell, an easy-to-read introduction to the glorious subject of the Incarnation. As we are coming to the end of November, I thought I might mention it in case you weren’t aware of it. It is written in 24 short chapters that walk through the whole Bible and make a great companion to the advent season. (Also, if you are preaching this Christmas, there are many sermon ideas implicit throughout the book!)

A friend from seminary shared the book on Facebook and added this comment, “May I recommend this for your reading this season? Not only gives an overview of the entire Bible, but especially gives fresh insight into Jesus coming to earth.”

Another friend, from my church, made this comment too, “I really enjoy this book and read it most years in December.”

Anyway, I thought I’d mention it just in case it might be helpful to some. It should be easy to find a copy online, and if you are in UK/Europe, you might like to grab a copy from 10ofthose.com.

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PS With all the talk of cancelling Christmas2020, here is a new video from Cor Deo in which I take a quick look at 10 Incarnation realities that no crazy year can cancel!

Refreshing the Routine

It is so healthy to have good devotional routines.  Maybe you have benefited from the same morning routine for years … get the coffee, read your Bible, spend time in prayer, etc.  If you love the rhythm and wouldn’t change any of it, then please ignore this post with my blessing!

Sometimes it can be healthy to freshen things up, and that doesn’t have to wait until the 1st of January.  Why? Because it doesn’t have to be an annual commitment.  What matters is your personal walk with Jesus, not your success or failure in maintaining a specific habit.  If an element of your rhythm grows stale, talk to him about it and make adjustments.

Here are some ideas that might be helpful:

1. Separate devotional Bible reading from devotional Bible study.  You will benefit from both, but combining them is not always the easiest.  We can end up going too slow for reading, but too fast for meaningful study.  Maybe the reading part can pick up the pace, while the study part allows you to dwell in a book you are motivated to study for a while. (And once the grass looks greener for feeding in another Bible book, move over and study in that pasture for a while.)

2. Dust off the memory muscle.  It wasn’t too long ago that we used to store phone numbers in our own memory, but the combination of internet and smart phone has effectively retired the memory muscle for too many of us.  Why not pick a chapter, or even a book of the Bible, and enjoy committing it to memory (it allows for meditation throughout the day, as well as spillover benefits for preaching, etc.)  One thing I have found helpful is to write out and then review using just the first letter of each word.  (Eg. John 3:16: F G s l t w t h g h o a o S, etc.)

3. Print and mark a complete Bible book, or section.  We aren’t restricted to holding a bound Bible and wrestling with whether to underline in it or not.  It is not unrealistic to copy and paste the text of a Bible book, adjust format to give us the space we need, and then mark it up in great detail – get to know every detail, every repeated term, identify the flow of thought, note every significant detail observed or noted from commentaries, etc.  I remember visiting a friend’s house who had the entire Gospel of John, marked up, and lining the wall of his bathroom!

4. Foreign language Bible reading for biblical fluency.  Maybe you have studied an original language, but only use it at the sporadic puzzle solving level (where you look at the text and hunt for subject, verb, and then create an English language rough interlinear…and then don’t use the language again for a while).  Or maybe you haven’t studied Hebrew or Greek, but can get by on holiday in French or Spanish.  Perhaps you would enjoy taking a few minutes each day with the Bible in that language (French, or Greek, or whatever).  Make it your goal to be able to read a section fluently – familiar with the vocabulary and grammar enough to read it through without auto-translating into English in your head.  Instead pondering the meaning, enjoying the rhythm of the language, and relating to God rather than wrestling with a lexicon.  This would take a little bit of work, but it can be devotional and relational in a surprisingly short amount of time.

This list could go on forever, we could mention journaling, or prayer walks, or adding in reading with a helpful Puritan, or finding a companion for regular devotional teaming up, etc., but those are my top four refreshment suggestions today.  What have you found genuinely helpful to help make the morning read the Bible and pray time more meaningful relationally?

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Coming Soon: The Little Him Book

It is now just four weeks until The Little Him Book releases in the UK (early 2021 in the USA – click here to pre-order the book in the UK). My hope is that this little book that makes much of Him will be a helpful tool for many. Who might appreciate it?

  1. Christians wanting a brief and refreshing read about Jesus to stir their hearts to worship again. It could be used as a prompt for personal devotions, grab a quick chapter at lunchtime or as a light bedtime read.
  2. Young Christians wanting a brief and engaging introduction to what the Bible teaches about Jesus. They need to know about him, and the right response is a life of worship. This little book can help with both of these goals!
  3. People asking questions about Jesus. This may be a helpful evangelistic tool for people who may have some exposure to church, but have not yet grasped the significance of Jesus. As with any evangelistic tool, read it yourself to decide who it might be suitable for as a gift.
  4. Preachers wanting ideas for a series about Jesus. Don’t just preach this book, the Bible is better, but maybe this book can give you a jump start on an engaging series for your church.
  5. Youth Leaders wanting the bones of a series of short talks. Don’t just read the book out, but use it to help you formulate 10 brief talks for your youth group (and why not give everyone a copy of the book too?)
  6. Parents wanting an engaging read for family devotions. You could read each chapter out loud in a few minutes – they are easy to read and non-technical. And if you like to sing together, there is a suggestion at the end of each chapter!
  7. Book givers! You may be a dying breed, but if you love giving books to others, then this could be a great book to stock up on. Buy a stack and give away at Christmas, at special events, as an encouragement to a struggling friend, or to someone getting baptised, or to your pastor to thank him for his ministry.

Thank you to everyone who helps get the word out about this book release. Your RT’s, likes, shares, etc. on social media are all appreciated. And thank you to everyone who buys a copy or copies to pass on to others. I really appreciate your help.

New Resource for Lockdown

Here in the UK we are about to head into another national lockdown.  When we entered the first one back in March I decided to launch a series of short videos – Pursuing God’s Heart.  They were simple Bible reading highlights to offer encouragement to my church and any others that wanted to join in.

Now as we enter Lockdown #2 I am excited to launch a new series of resources.  I am calling it Pursuing God’s Heart Yourself.  These short videos demonstrate how seven portable principles can turn our Bible reading into Bible feasting.

We are working our way through these seven principles in church at the moment, using the book of Jonah.  Click here to see a brief introduction to the seven principles:

And today I started the first series of videos – inviting you into the little book of Ruth over the coming days.  I don’t cover every verse in Ruth, I’d encourage you to do that yourself.  My goal is to cover all the principles and show how they will help you feast in the book of Ruth.  Click here for the first video in the series. (Apologies that I can’t get the image to link for some reason!)

If this series might be helpful to others, please do share the videos and encourage others to take advantage of this new tool.  The hope is to go through the principles several times.  We will start with Ruth, then we will go through them again in a different Bible book.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could emerge from the next few weeks or months having feasted on God’s Word, loving Him more and living for Him more fruitfully in this needy world?

(For part 2, click here … for part 3, click here … for part 4, click here)

A Fierce Mercy for All

Like so many other passages in the Bible, the book of Jonah gives us a sobering reflection of our own hearts, and a thrilling glimpse into God’s heart.  Consider the first chapter of Jonah – the story of the storm.  It begins with Jonah receiving three instructions from God: get up, get going, and get preaching to Nineveh.  To actually go to Nineveh and preach for God there was a unique and even bizarre commission.  Why would God ask him to do that?  Unlike some prophets who hesitated or questioned God’s call, Jonah just flat-out rebelled against it.  He got up, and got going in the opposite direction.  Maybe he felt that he could put himself out of the reach of God’s calling, or maybe he felt that Tarshish was a better alternative to this horrifying calling to Nineveh.  But what Jonah discovered is that going away from God is always going in the direction of disaster and death.

The rest of the chapter tells the story of the storm.  God doesn’t just let Jonah run away.  There is something about God’s relentlessness that should cause us to pause and praise God for his determination in the pursuit of his people. 

God hurled a storm at the ship, and in response the sailors frantically hurled their cargo overboard while crying out to their own gods.  Maybe it was in that cargo-dispatching exercise that Jonah came to light, sleeping in the hold of the ship.  His sleep is described as a deep sleep, but that does not mean it was not tormented.  I can imagine him hearing God’s call in his sleep: “Rise…go…call out!”  Next thing he knows, the ship’s captain is shaking him awake with almost identical words: “Rise…call out!” 

The rest of the narrative is wrapped around an exchange between the sailors and Jonah.  They cast lots and find out that Jonah is the key to understanding this terrifying storm. 

Who are you, Jonah?  So they ask him about his God, and then they ask what they should do for that God.  They actually start by asking a series of questions about his occupation, his hometown, his nation and his ethnic heritage.  It sounds like an invitation to give a self-introduction, but really they are asking about the spheres where Jonah would be expected to have gods.  These sailors were pagans, and they wanted to know which of Jonah’s gods was upset with them – was it the god of his occupation, or the local god of his hometown, etc.  But Jonah finally speaks and says, “I fear the LORD.”  He goes on to explain that the LORD is the God of heaven, the creator of the sea and dry land.  This is no local deity in the playground of the pantheon of local deities.  This is the ultimate cosmic God over all. 

Did Jonah fear the LORD?  He was running away from the LORD’s calling.  He was sleeping when everyone else was trying to save the ship.  He was silent as they were trying to discern the source of the terrifying storm.  And even after this moment of revealing his God’s identity, Jonah doesn’t ask for a moment to repent of his sin – he merely instructs the sailors to throw him overboard.  He is more committed to dying than he is to honouring the LORD’s calling on his life.

Jonah feared the LORD with his lips, but apparently not with his life.  He cuts a deeply forlorn figure in this chapter.

Who are you, sailors?  The writer wants us to contrast Jonah with the pagan sailors on the ship.  Jonah used the word “fear” to describe his relationship with God, but the writer tells us multiple times that these sailors were afraid too.  They feared the storm (v5) and so cried out to their individual gods.  Perhaps their hurling of cargo included a sense of making sacrifices to their gods – but nevertheless, their gods remained mute and unresponsive.  Then, when they hear about the LORD from Jonah, they are exceedingly afraid.  These hardened pagan sailors show a startling “godliness” when Jonah tells them to throw him overboard.  First, they try to dig through the waves and row to dry land, but they are unsuccessful.  Then they demonstrate their fear of the LORD as they cry out to him (something Jonah never does in this chapter). Then, after they throw Jonah overboard, we are told they feared the LORD exceedingly (v16) and offered sacrifices and vows to him.

Did these pagans become fearers of the LORD?  In some way, they clearly did.  They seem to be responsive to what they learn about him.  They try not to throw Jonah into the sea, perhaps recognizing that this God could genuinely judge them for it, and they cry out to the LORD when they finally feel forced to into it (notice the use of God’s name!)  And then, once the instant calm descends, instead of laughing off the whole situation, they are then deliberate about making a sacrifice to this God, and they make vows for the future too!

These sailors went from fearing a storm to fearing the LORD with their lives, as well as their lips.  They offer a stark contrast to Jonah in this chapter.

Who are you, God?  Perhaps this storm-at- sea narrative touches a nerve for some of us.  First, even for the hardened pagan sailors who did not know God at all, there was hope.  They were introduced to him and responded beautifully.  There is nobody in our continent today that is so hardened and so distant from God that they cannot come to know him.  God could have simply sunk the ship, but he spared these sailors.  As soon as Jonah made a splash, the sea ceased from its raging.  The mercy of God.

Second, and perhaps more relevantly for many of us: even if we are running from God in some way; even if we should know better; even if our claim to fear the LORD is clear from our lips, but hard to discern in our lives – there is hope.  Jonah knew God and responded terribly.  Perhaps you feel that, of all God’s people in this continent, you are the most like Jonah at this time.  You should know better, but you’ve drifted too far.  God could simply give up on us, but he doesn’t.  Jonah hit the water anticipating that when he gasped for his next breath, he would fill his lungs with seawater and perish.  But God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah.  The mercy of God.

At the end of Jonah chapter 1 there are many questions left unanswered.  Why was Jonah so determined not to go to Nineveh and preach God’s message?  Why was he so willing to die rather than preach?  And so on.  But one thing is clear, and this one thing is good for us to ponder for our continent and for ourselves: our God is fiercely merciful.  He is determined.  He does not give up.  He will come after us.

Praise God for his fierce mercy.  Praise God for the hope that his Word can stir in us.

Always Deeper?

Every time we come to a biblical passage to preach it we should find ourselves going deeper. We don’t want to stay at a previous level of familiarity or response, because that is ultimately a recipe for growing stale ourselves. Here are five ways to probe a familiar passage for greater depth:

1. Mark up a clean print out of the passage. I find it helpful to print out the passage I am looking at. If my Bible is written in, then old markings can trigger old message outlines, or focal points of the passage. Even if the Bible is unmarked, the layout on the page can sometimes obscure details because of line breaks, columns, etc. So print out the text and analyse what you see. What words are repeated? What structure or flow of thought becomes evident? I was looking at Jonah 1 for the last couple of Sunday sermons. The use of the word “hurl” and “fear” both stood out, along with the centrality of the conversation between Jonah and the sailors.

2. Take the opportunity to probe the original language. If you are able to pick up the original text and read it, great, do it. If not, then a more technical commentary can help us delve to new levels of insight in a familiar text. My Hebrew is not good enough to just read the text straight, but a commentary helped me spot the intriguing use of the word for “dig” being used instead of the more natural word for “row” in Jonah 1. This more vivid term underlined the difficulty the sailors faced in rowing to shore, but also perhaps prefigured something of Jonah’s burial at sea. I might not make a big deal of that when I preach, but I want to at least notice it for myself.

3. Approach the passage from some different perspectives. You might ponder the passage from the perspective of different characters within the story (i.e. look at Jonah 1 through the eyes of the pagan sailors, or through God’s eyes, instead of just the more familiar Jonah perspective.) Or you could look at the passage using a couple of commentaries that aren’t your usual go-to resources from people you always agree with. You could even engage a passage with a couple of friends who would have their own unique perspectives.

4. Dig into the cultural background for new insight. We must never forget that we come to a Bible passage as an outsider. We may be familiar with the content, but we are not native in the historical context. A bit of digging can help us to gain greater insight into all that is being assumed or hinted at in the passage. Again, in Jonah 1, when the sailors asked Jonah where he was from, what was his occupation, what people did he belong to, etc., that sounds like an invitation to give a brief personal introduction. Actually, in that culture those questions would all be pointing in the same direction … which of your various gods have you offended? Is it your hometown god, or is it your career idol?

5. Prayerfully walk through the passage in light of your current circumstances. When we engage with a Bible text, there is always more to see in the text itself. But there is also the different eyes with which you see it. The truth doesn’t change. But your circumstances and experiences do. When we recently preached through Acts, we found the 2020 Covid-19 context gave us a fresh perspective for much of what was already so familiar. I am sure that Jonah will be the same this time through – same book, more to notice, and a different world in which to preach it!

What other ways do you find to go deeper when you come back to a familiar passage?

Preaching as Connecting

There are some obvious ways in which the idea of connecting might relate to preaching.  We could think about connecting the world of the Bible with the world of today’s listeners.  Or we could think about connecting God’s will with our lives – sort of a “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” idea.  We could even move things down to a more practical level and think about connecting preacher with listeners, or biblical truths with relevant applications.  But in this post I am not doing any of these.

In preaching we get to make connections that are theologically critical, but typically remain separated in the minds of most believers.  How about these three to get us started:

1. Connect the cross of Christ with the life of Christ.  Too easily we can think of Jesus’ life and ministry as being somehow distinct from the cross.  It is as if the cross was a necessary but difficult diversion from what he was previously doing in his healing and teaching ministry.  So, we can think of Jesus as a great example and leader in his ministry, but as a victim of malevolent human agency on the cross.  Actually, the character that is constantly showing in his encounters with hurting people is the character that is presented in stark relief in the hours of extreme hurt on the cross. 

The cross is not a distasteful interruption to his ministry of revealing God’s character to us – it is actually the moment of greatest clarity.  It is that humble Jesus, that selfless Jesus, that giving Jesus that is constantly doing his revelatory work.  That is true beside the Sea of Galilee, as it is true beside the road in his crucifixion.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the life of Christ from the death of Christ.

2. Connect the life of Christ then with the ministry of Christ now. In church world we have done a good job of helping people to know about Jesus’ three years of ministry two millennia ago, but a lousy job of helping people to know that that same Jesus is praying for them today.  I was really struck by Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly.  That book really builds the readers confidence that the Jesus who was so approachable, so humble, so kind, so gracious, so present with both sinners and sufferers in the stories we know so well from the Gospels is the same Jesus that we sinners and sufferers living our stories today can still approach. 

A lot of Christians have a massive disconnect between the Jesus they read about in the Gospels, and the saviour they are trusting with their lives today.  Jesus was so stirred by the battered fallen creatures of back then, but we assume he is impatient and frustrated with us today.  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Jesus of today.

3. Connect Christ with God.  Hopefully this one is the most jarring of all.  Theologically I hope that Christians know that Christ is truly God, just as the Father and the Holy Spirit are truly God.  Also it should not be a stretch to hope that Christians know Jesus is the one who reveals the Father to us.  And yet so many still seem to have a mental distinction between the demeanour and character of Jesus in the Gospels from what we know to be true of God the Father in heaven today.  Too many gospel presentations have inadvertently reinforced the error – the angry judge in heaven is only appeased by the pleas and sacrifice of our kind advocate Jesus. 

When we look at Jesus in the Gospels, or when we gaze at the cross and see the Son suffering there, we are seeing the heart of the Father revealed to us.  I wonder how many Christian lives would be revolutionized if people actually dared to believe that the Father’s heart is as for them as Jesus’ heart was for the sinners and sufferers he encountered in the Gospels?  As a preacher we get to reconnect that which should never have become separated – the Jesus of the Gospels from the Father he came to reveal to us.’

There are probably more theological truths that so easily become disconnected in our thinking.  As preachers, let’s help people to put back together what should never have been separated at all.

Preaching to Students in a Pandemic

[Thank you to Peter Dray of UCCF for asking me to write this post, which he included in Connect, September 2020.]

Preaching to students is one of the very best ministries. But what about preaching during an unprecedented pandemic when many of our teaching opportunities are virtual?

Here are six quick thoughts that may be helpful – three on what they need to hear, and three on communicating online.

1. What is true now is always true, so the message does not change.

2020 does not feel normal at all! There is uncertainty all around us, political turmoil, people divided against each other, and a world living in fear of dying. But that description was also true last year and will be true five years from now. 2020 has just made some things feel more vivid.

God loves this broken and hurting world. He loves it so much that he sent his Son on the greatest ever rescue mission. He loves it so much that He has sent His people out, empowered by the Spirit, to proclaim the glorious news of Jesus. So, since the need is as great as ever, our message does not change.

2. What is felt now is far more vivid than before, so speak from God’s heart to theirs.

Since the comfortable culture bubble has been burst, people are potentially more prepared for a message of life and hope. They are feeling concerned, fearful, confused, upset, and vulnerable. When people are feeling more intensely, we can’t simply present cold hard facts and expect them to connect. Yes, our message is a set of truths, but those truths come from the loving heart of God. Seek to speak from God’s heart to theirs: sensitively, passionately, directly, and clearly.

3. What is needed is today’s good news, so speak the truth with targeted relevance.

Don’t just preach a message from last year. The gospel is, by definition, highly relevant – that is why Jesus became a human in the first place! Let’s look for ways to speak into the lives of our listeners with the highly relevant message of what God’s love has done for us in Christ.

4. Anticipate the difference of preaching without hearers in the room.

When you speak to a group of students there is energy in the room, sometimes distraction, often responsiveness. When you speak to the back of your phone or a webcam, the room feels really dead! Know that you will find the experience more draining than normal preaching and be sure to go to God as a top priority to make sure you let Him minister to you before you try to minister to others (like Mary in Luke 10:38-42).

5. Adjust your content to consider two crowds.

The students listening to you may be the same as before, but there is a difference: they’re no longer sitting together in a big group. Your style needs to be more personal and direct. Focus less on addressing the student group as a crowd, and more on speaking directly to your hearers as individuals.

At the same time, given that whatever is put online can be seen by anyone, remember another crowd too. You probably won’t go viral and be watched by millions, but you still need to be careful. Do not to speak carelessly, even in humour, in a way that could be clipped or misappropriated by antagonists to our faith.

6. Apply some basic principles to communicate effectively to camera.

Try to get your camera at eye level, beware of a distracting background, and get as much natural light as possible. Get closer to the camera as if you are on a Skype call with a friend, not standing several metres away as you might in a meeting. Learn to make eye contact in a single lens (not easy).

Test your setup before you preach. Trim content and get to the point quicker. Your viewers have just a screen, rather than the energy of a room full of people. It’s harder to concentrate on a preacher on screen, so do anything you can to help them listen.

And one bonus thought – be sure to get helpful feedback from others and watch what you are expecting others to watch… we are all on a steep learning curve this year, but what we have to share is so worth sharing!