Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2c

This week I’ve been thinking about implications of the parable of the sower for us preachers.  So far we have had this post, and then this post, but now we’ll finish the list with this post:

6. The same message can do two things.  Obviously we all want to see a good crop showing evidence of seed penetrating good soil and bringing abundant life.  But we should not be surprised when the same message brings two different responses.  Remember that the same presentation of loving grace both won the hearts of some, and hardened the heart of one in John 13.  It is like popcorn in a sizzling pot of oil: the same heat will bring one of two results – if the heat moves the heart of the kernel then the whole thing will turn inside out into beautiful tasty popcorn.  If the same heat only has effect on the outside, then that kernel will turn into a tooth-breaking ball harder than iron, harder even than lego.  Same heat, different result.  The preaching of God’s grace in Jesus will bear these same results with people.  (Click here for an earlier article on the subject of popcorn!)

7. Don’t be discouraged by lost seed.  We should be saddened whenever anyone does not respond to the word of God, but don’t let it halt your ministry.  We can dream of, and long for, and pray for a gloriously responsive crowd before each message we preach.  But when you drive home after church and it was not quite what you had prayed for … don’t be discouraged.  The kingdom spreads by the weakness of the word and that weakness will often be felt by the preacher in the weakness of their preaching.

8. Be thrilled by divine transformation.  We should also not grow familiar with the gradual miracle of life transformation.  Don’t lose sight of where someone was and what they are becoming now.  Hopefully you have some people in your church that you can continue to be amazed at as you see the transforming power of the penetrated word in their lives.  Jesus’ audience would have understood the three “failed” seed categories, but they would have been amazed at the idea of a hundredfold crop.  Let’s be the same in word ministry – amazed in the right direction!

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Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2b

I am thinking about the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-15.  Yesterday we thought about how the kingdom of God spreads by the word, bringing genuine transformation, but not to all. Here are some more thoughts for us preachers to ponder:

4. The goal in seed sowing is heart penetration. The problem with the first three soils is that the seed lacks penetration.  In human terms it looks like a non-transformed heart.  The seed by the path people are self-lovers who are not penetrated at all by the seed. The seed in soil on rock folks are self-lovers who wither spiritually as soon as testing or trial comes because they are still trying to protect self.  The seed among thorns group are attracted to Jesus, but feel the tug of cares, riches and pleasures … and these ultimately win.  None of these people have their hearts transformed.  They love self and show it in different ways.  But the seed in good soil penetrates deep.  The life is not on the surface, but comes from deep within.  That is where Christian transformation takes place.

Seed is not impressive as a projectile.  An acorn will barely dent soil as it falls on it, but if it penetrates, then from inside it can change everything!  In Italy, apparently, there is a famous grave where an acorn fell in with the famous deceased occupant.  Centuries later the great marble slab lies broken in two by the oak tree that eventually grew up.  The word of God is not very impressive as a tool for pressuring conformity from the outside, but when it gets inside a heart then watch patiently as that life is transformed!

5. Listeners should take care then how they hear.  Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need to hear carefully (in Luke 8 see verses 8, 9-10, 18, 21).  In a sense the applicational burden of this parable is on our listeners rather than on us as preachers, but actually, there are several ways we can help our congregations to heed Jesus’ instruction here:

  • Be a careful listener yourself – it will show in your life and in your preaching.
  • Make it clear how important it is to hear the word of God – make sure they know you are just the messenger, but the source of the message is worthy of heartfelt attention.
  • Don’t be dull – be the most engaging and effective communicator you can be.  God’s word is worthy of our best efforts, and what a frightening thought that we could get in the way of our listeners hearing!  (Don’t be boring. Don’t be monotonous.  Don’t be laborious.  Don’t be uninteresting.  How else can I say it?)

Tomorrow I will finish the list of thoughts, but feel free to comment at any time.

 

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2

Yesterday I preached on the parable of the sower in Luke 8 (also in Matthew 13 and Mark 4).  It is probably the third most famous parable (after Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan), it is one of only a couple where Jesus explains his meaning, and it is the parable of parables because Jesus also explains why he preached in parables so much!

As before, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but some lessons from the parable that may be applicable to us as preachers.

The parable is very simple. A sower scatters seed.  Same sower, same seed, different soils.  By the path seed was trodden on and snatched away.  Thin soil on rock seed shot up and withered without root.  Among thorns seed started to grow, but got choked.  Good soil seed grew and was very fruitful.  From the perspective of a farmer wanting a crop, only the last category was successful.

Here are a few things for us to ponder:

1. God’s kingdom spreads by the word, not the sword. I think it was Tim Keller who made the helpful observation that Jesus could have chosen other Old Testament analogies for the word of God – a hammer, a fire, etc.  But he chose a seed.  Every other kingdom that has spread has done so at the edge of the sword, killing and threatening.  Christ’s kingdom advances through the weakness of a spoken message.  Be encouraged in your preaching, you are part of that advance.

It may seem weak when you look at your preaching, and even at the results of it, but all over the world there are millions of people worshiping Jesus and being transformed day by day who began their journey by hearing a presentation of the gospel from a friend or from a preacher (and most of those presentations were probably not that impressive!)

2. God’s kingdom spreads by profound transformation, not questionable conversion.  The parable is so simple, but we may wrestle with the second and third soils.  Are the signs of life something to celebrate?  Are these people saved?  Surely we should count every one we can?  Perhaps we would do better to be astonished by the profound crop of the good soil instead of trying to count every sprout as part of the harvest.

Jesus’ hearers would have been stunned at talk of a hundredfold crop.  We should be stunned when a life is truly transformed.  Jesus turned the world upside down with eleven transformed disciples, plus the women in that inner circle.  He was not anxious to count the crowds who only wanted miracles or Judas Iscariot who looked like an insider but ultimately wanted money over Jesus.

3. God’s kingdom spreads, but not to all.  We should be bothered that not everyone receives the gospel message with heartfelt response.  We should be bothered for their sake.  We should be bothered for logic’s sake too – if anyone sees how good the good news is, how wonderful Jesus is, how full life to the full is, then it makes no sense to not give everything in response.  But many will  not.

CS Lewis said there are two types of people in the world – those who say thy will be done to God, and those to whom God ultimately says, thy will be done.  This parable, in part, can encourage you to press on when you are seeing more non-response than you feel you can cope with!

Tomorrow I’ll add some more thoughts.

Some Spurgeon Preaching Thoughts

I’ve recently been reading Michael Reeves’ excellent book, Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ (Crossway, 2018).  As you would expect, Spurgeon said a lot that can be helpful to preachers.  I’d like to share some quotes and chat about them, but be sure to buy the book and have a helpful read!

“Great hearts are the main qualifications for great preachers.” (p28)  Too often we fall into thinking that a great preacher is made by great learning, or great skill, or great presentation, or even great personality, but Spurgeon is pushing deeper here.  He is pointing to the relational core of the preacher and saying that to be a great preacher, we need to be in a very healthy relationship with Christ, with self, and with others.  The problem is that many preachers have character issues that others excuse as personality quirks.  Great learning, great skill, great force of character, and so on do not compensate for problems at the core of a person.  Hear more of Spurgeon:

“A man must have a great heart if he would have a great congregation. His heart should be as capacious as those noble harbors along our coast, which contain sea-room for a fleet. When a man has a large, loving heart, men go to him as ships to a haven, and feel at peace when they have anchored under the lee of his friendship. Such a man is hearty in private as well as in public; his blood is not cold and fishy, but he is warm as your own fireside. No pride and selfishness chill you when you approach him; he has his doors all open to receive you, and you are at home with him at once. Such men I would persuade you to be, every one of you.”

We live in an age of perpetual noise, of constant distraction, of increasingly accepted narcissism.  The 21st century is not the ideal time to grow the kind of heart that Spurgeon describes here, but we must.  Perhaps it is time to put our phones on silent, turn off the social media, and invest time into private prayer, personal enrichment and enriching fellowship.  Have a conversation. Read a book.  Intercede for dear folks in your church.

We cannot be corporate managers of churches and expect spiritual results.  We are in the business of heart change.  May our hearts lead the way.

Children vs Students

Small children and students have some things in common, along with some real differences.  If you are a parent or a professor, your goal is to help them mature and become all that they were created to be.  Maybe as preachers and Christian leaders there are one or two helpful thoughts to be found in this comparison?

Children have vivid imaginations.  When you read them a story, they can see it happening.  It doesn’t take too many years before they graduate from needing the colour pictures and can see everything you describe.  If you tell a scary story, they are gripped with fear.  If you describe a person, they can see them.  Children don’t process through abstractions particularly well, but they will live in the story you tell them.

Students have somehow learned to store abstractions in their short-term memory, while losing the skill of vivid imagination.  When you lay out a lecture before them, assuming there is some sort of motivation to learn the material, they will diligently take notes for later review and they may pass the exam before the details fade from their minds.  It all seems very efficient and education is celebrated. However, the values they live by are probably determined more by the stories they watch on the screen and the influence their peers exert than the wisdom nuggets picked up in lectures.

Perhaps it is a simple matter of progression, but we tend to think of listeners in church as being students rather than children.  That is, we drift into lecture mode more than gripping story mode when we preach.  We assume that if our listeners are taking notes, or at least if they are present and awake, then all is proceeding to plan.  The truth is these “students” with their notes are at best storing our points in their short-term memories.  They are likely more influenced by the screen and their relationships.  The lasting value of outlines inscribed on scraps of paper will be minimal.

Perhaps we would do better to preach as those who offer not just nuggets of wisdom, but most profoundly as those who offer a person.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners dust off their old “imaginers” and start to see the Christ of whom we speak.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners start to experience the emotion of being in the story.  Let’s preach so that they are not simply collecting abstractions, but are being marked by the characters they encounter in the passage, supremely by the God revealed there.  If we do that, then maybe their motivation for gaining the life wisdom will increase to a level where they care about the points we make.

The mark of success in preaching is not having a lecture hall full of students leaving with your outline on their notes.  It is seeing the change in your listener that can only be explained by their encountering Christ and being changed from the inside-out by His Spirit.

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 1b

Thinking about the parable of the two builders at the end of Luke 6, yesterday we thought about the point of the story (that wisdom is in the doing of what Jesus said), and that Jesus said when, not if.  That is, trouble to test our lives is coming.  Here are two more reflections for us:

3. We are not exempt from the “hear and do” teaching. All Christians are prone to fall short of the “do” step.  Preachers are especially prone to this error.  We can so easily think it is enough to hear, to read, to know, to understand, even to believe … but Jesus said that we need to actually do what he says.  This is true in two respects:

  • It is true as a preacher. We need to be those who hear Jesus and put into practice what Jesus preached. It is frightening to get up close to some big-name speakers and discover that their spiritual immaturity has been pandered to because of their status.  It is sad to discover some who hold positions of spiritual influence have gaping flaws in their character and would rather excuse themselves than seek to grow in those areas.
  • It is true for our preaching. What kind of sermons are we building?  It is a problem if our sermons are being built late on Saturday and early on Sunday (I know I have been guilty of this for various legitimate and less legitimate reasons!)  Even if we start several days earlier, when do we have time to do what the passage teaches?  Could it be that we read, we study, we understand, we believe, and then we preach a sermon built directly on the ground without a foundation because we have not done the doing part?  Our sermons will stand up to testing if they have first been tested “under applied conditions” in real life.

4. Let Jesus motivate you. 

  • There is motivation in the words Jesus spoke on several levels.  It is encouraging to us in those areas where we are actively obeying even though it is not easy, and we don’t see automatic fruit.  It is a warning that we all need, that disobedience may not yield instant consequences, but the house will eventually collapse if it is built on hearing only.  It is an explanation for some who find themselves picking through rubble because of past choices.  There is lots of motivation in the words Jesus spoke.
  • There is also motivation to be found in the Jesus who spoke the words.  We can drop into the passage at a parable and hear the instruction, but miss the voice that is speaking.  This is the same Jesus who was pursuing the people, inviting them to follow him, to be with him, to see who he was, to discover his love for his Father, his compassion for hurting people, and his love for his own.  Four verses at the end of Luke 6 can pack quite a punch, but the book of Luke as a whole invites us to put ourselves completely under the influence of Jesus, the one who loved us and came to seek and to save that which was lost.  Parables are not just good stories, they are stories spoken by a good person.

Next week I will offer some preacher reflections on another parable…

Why Keep Humour Subtle?

I was talking with some friends yesterday about humour in preaching.  We decided that it always seems to work best when it is subtle.  Why?

Imagine a line running through your sermon.  It is the progression of your main idea – that combination of unity, order and progress that keeps your message coherent, structured and moving.  It is possible to use humour below that line, in a subtle way.  Or it is possible to interrupt that line and feature some humour above that line.

When we generally keep our humour below the line, i.e. subtle, it means that the progression of the message is uninterrupted.  It means that the message is treated as the most important thing.  It means that listeners are free to engage the humour or ignore it.  Actually, it means they can catch the humour or miss it, but they won’t feel like they are missing something that is key to understanding the message as a whole.

I am not suggesting that our humour should be tricky, or an “inside joke” – that is typically rude to those who notice it but don’t understand (which is why saying, “sorry, that is an inside joke” never feels good to listeners, no matter how much you smile, laugh, apologise, etc.)

I am suggesting that humour is a complicated thing.  I think we should be extremely humble about it.  If you think you are funny, you probably aren’t.  If you think you can tell a joke, you probably can’t.  If you think your funny remark will make sense to everyone, it probably won’t.  And if you think other cultures will easily get what you are saying, well, you probably haven’t watched a mix-culture crowd react to preaching much.  (That was a very sour sounding paragraph!  I don’t mean to sound sour, I just want to encourage humility in this area.)

What happens when we “feature” humour and let it break through the line and become a significant thing in the message?  We interrupt the flow of thought and require listeners to both understand and appreciate our humour.  We run the risk of making the humour a feature of the message, and sail very close to being an entertainer, which is a far lesser calling than being an engaging authentic proclaimer of God’s Word.  We risk alienating individuals, groups or cultures within our congregation.

I absolutely do not believe we should avoid all humour in our preaching.  I do not believe in dispassionate, disconnected or dull preaching.  I think we should prayerfully take onboard helpful feedback as God continues to sanctify our sense of humour over time, but then generally let the humour be an appropriate, loving and subtle element of our preaching.

Preaching in Step with the Spirit

This is a simple post, but I think an important one.  As a preacher, are you preaching in step with the Spirit?

I am not referring to your lifestyle and personal holiness, although that is vitally important.  I am referring to your preaching.  Rather than multiply words, I am going to lay this out as simply as possible:

The world, the flesh and the devil are constantly pointing us to ourselves.  After all, we can be “like God” and we just need to take some initiative.  We are constantly bombarded with reinforcements of our self-reliant tendencies and self-concerned focus.

The Holy Spirit is pointing us to the love of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.  As we look to Jesus we can find salvation, and we can discover the transformative power of the glory of his grace.

Your preaching cannot change anyone in itself.  But it can either go against the Spirit, or be in line with the Spirit’s work.  Are we pointing to Christ, or are we pointing people back to themselves?

Simple question.  Profound significance.

Preaching: A Platform for Ministries

When we preach we tend to think about the people sitting in front of us.  Rightly so.  Whatever the size or apparent significance of this group of listeners, they are the ones God has prepared and convened for the public preaching of His Word, and so this is a key moment.

However, that Sunday sermon is also a platform for other ministries.  Let’s consider three:

1. Your other ministries.  While we don’t want to develop prideful delusions of grandeur, it is good to consider how to be a steward of your ministry.  The best thing you could do might be to put all your energy into improving what you do as a preacher.  But you might also consider whether the work that went into that sermon might feed into a shortened recorded summary for a different audience, or a blog post, or an article, or a book chapter, or a set of tweets, or whatever.  You may not have the global reach of some famous author/speakers, but if there are some people that would benefit, why not make best use of the work you have already invested in a message?

2. Your listeners’ ministries.  The people listening to you are not just there to be blessed.  They are also there to be developed and launched in their own ministries.  How is your preaching shaping the way they handle the Bible, communicate gospel truth, trust God in their spheres of service?  While every sermon will have its primary goals that you prayerfully hope to achieve which tend to be unique to each sermon, don’t forget that there are some secondary effects that also matter – how your listeners are motivating and trained to handle the Bible, how your listeners are equipped for ministry, etc.

3. Your church’s ministries.  The sermon you preach on Sunday is not just about that slice of time and those people in their response to it.  It also sets the tone for all the other word ministries of the church.  How is the Bible treated in small groups, or taught in Sunday School, or trusted in youth ministry, or seen as relevant in counseling, or birthing spiritual conversations, etc.  Sunday’s sermon will, especially over time, set the tone for the word-based ministries of the church throughout the week – both formal and informal.

Preach to the people in front of you, but prayerfully ponder how the Sunday sermon can shape more than just that moment.

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 3

We have thought about the preacher as a video painter, and as a gallery guide.  Here’s the third in my list:

A Quirky Detective – When you are preaching epistles it may be helpful to think of yourself as a quirky detective.  You might be thinking that quirky is a strange qualifier to add, but hang in there, I have a paragraph to come up with a justification for that bit.  Epistles are powerful.  They offer a unique presentation of gospel truth and application of theology to a specific situation.  When an epistle does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to ignore the contextual features and offer sterilized theological argumentation using a blend of biblical and theologically loaded terminology?  Or are we supposed to hold out the epistle in all its uniqueness, helping listeners to see how the letter was designed to change lives then, and consequently, watch them feel the force of it now?  A good preacher of epistles ignites the imagination, clarifies the thinking of the writer, demonstrates its compelling relevance to today, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  A detective holds up something as apparently insignificant as a piece of mail and shows how it unlocks and clarifies a real life (and death) situation.  And since people might expect an epistle to be just another boring letter, it probably doesn’t hurt to be a bit quirky too (all the best TV detectives are a little bit unique!)  There is more to preaching epistle than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

As before, feel free to add your own metaphors in the comments and I might develop some (giving credit).