Your Job is to Make Words Clear

When I used to live close to London I sometimes visited the British Library. There you can see some amazing treasures, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus.  It is amazing to see such ancient books, but they are not the easiest things to read and understand. For one, they were written in uncials: ITISNOTEASYTOREADTEXTWITHOUTGAPSORPUNCTUATION.  Oh, and they are in Greek, just to add to the challenge.

Thankfully we don’t have to read Greek text written in uncials (unless we want to, then praise God that we can access so much!) We are blessed to have the Bible very accurately translated into our language and readily affordable (or free online). They even add in spaces, lower case letters, punctuation, etc. How blessed we are! I suppose I should also mention the chapter and verse divisions, which save a lot of time. And there are the somewhat and sometimes helpful section headings.

But remember that to many people in our churches today, the text feels as inaccessible as an ancient uncial codex! To many, it feels like a big block of text with thousands of words running into each other.

And so the preacher goes to work each week, diligently studying a passage in order to first understand it, and then to preach it. That work moves from the initial simplicity of familiar words, through the complexity of trying to grasp an author’s flow of thought, and out into the warm sunshine of studied simplicity. Hopefully, the preacher is then in a place to make sense of the flow of thought, to identify the major thoughts and to see the supporting role of each subordinate thought. The passage no longer feels like a random set of instructions and assertions.

When we preach our task includes the need to make a string of words clear.  We don’t have to start with an uncial script, but to all intents and purposes, we practically are.  Listeners hearing a string of verses often grasp very little during their first exposure. As we preach we look for ways to emphasize the main thoughts, we look for ways to demonstrate how the “support material” in the text explains, proves and/or applies the main thoughts.  Without technical jargon, our preaching needs to verbally achieve the formation of something like a clausal layout in the minds and hearts of our listeners.  Certainly, by the time we are done preaching, they should not see the text as a string of random words or thoughts . . . it should be much clearer than that!

Preaching goes way beyond clarification of the meaning of a string of words. But preaching won’t go anywhere good if it bypasses this critical element of the task.

You Preach to Ordinary People

It is good to remember that your church is not a unique collection of hyper-spiritual elite super saints. Nor is it the strangest and most bizarre collection of people either. You preach to ordinary people.

Ordinary people have doubts that they don’t think they’re supposed to have.

Ordinary people generally feel tired and short on motivation.

Ordinary people often have fears that may be unfounded but still feel ever so real when they lie awake at night.

Ordinary people are anxious about “little things” and distracted.

Ordinary people think they struggle, but assume that everyone else has it all together in life.

Ordinary people don’t think they are particularly significant, or influential.

Ordinary people sin.

Ordinary people are oblivious to some of their sin, but painfully burdened by other aspects of it.

Ordinary people, even after responding to the gospel of grace, still feel that their standing before God depends on their own effort and spiritual “success.”

Ordinary people already feel guilty about several things, not least their lack of proactive witnessing.

Ordinary people are very ordinary.

You preach to ordinary people. You are also one of them. It would probably be good to prayerfully consider what this might mean for how you present yourself, how you present the message, and how the message is supposed to intersect with their lives.

A Random Series of One-Off Appearances

I recently wrote about preaching series that work their way through a Bible book, or a section of a Bible book. A comment, from Anthony Douglas, made an excellent point. He wrote, “They also normalise what used to be an uncontested idea – that God’s people are meant to turn up week after week, rather than in a random series of one-off appearances.”

This puts a finger on a very clear cultural shift that has taken place over the years.

Is it because the rhythms of society have changed? Sunday used to be a noticeably different day when I was growing up. But then, once it became a seventh shopping day, it quickly became the pre-eminent shopping day. Going to church was dethroned as the primary activity of the day. Add in sports, split families doing child transfers, etc. and Sunday is not what it used to be.

Is it because the variety of alternatives has grown? It is not just shopping and sport that offer an invitation to people on a Sunday. More TV channels, more entertainment options, greater local travel, and until Covid and cost of living challenges, even quick foreign travel became a much more common option.

Is it because family traditions have shifted? I grew up in what was a more traditional set of family values. Going to church on Sunday was not top of the list of things we might do. Rather, it was first on the list of things we always do, along with going to bed at night, and going to school or work each day. Most people today do not live life with that rhythm instilled.

Whatever the reason, we are living in an age where diligent church attendance is not normal. A good percentage of church folks are prone to what Anthony described as “a random series of one-off appearances.” It does feel like a good number of people come to church on Sundays when they have nothing else planned.

The challenge for us, as church leaders, is to think carefully about how we respond to this. It is always tempting to simply dial up the pressure. We can put attendance in church membership covenants, we can declare the importance of diligent attendance, we can chase people when they are absent, etc. Let’s be careful of an outside-to-in approach that pressures without stirring motivation. It is easy to slip over the line into creating a legalistic culture that contradicts the gospel we preach.

What does an inside-to-out approach look like? In one sense, we can aim for making church on a Sunday, or a midweek home group, or youth group, so good that people don’t want to miss it. Whether it is the quality of the preaching and worship, or the warmth of the fellowship, why wouldn’t we want to make church as good as it can possibly be – both for believers and guests?

Then there are other details. It is totally appropriate to pastorally care for people. Their absence is an indicator of concern, so checking in is not wrong (but the tone can convey more legalism than care). Teaching the benefits of full participation in the church community, and involving people on the various teams to help ministry happen is appropriate (but always being careful not to fall foul of the outside-to-in evaluation ourselves – just because someone is present is not automatically a positive indicator of spiritual health).

This is where Anthony’s point comes in – sermon series helpfully support the idea of attendance. Preaching in series normalises the idea that church is not a random collection of one-off sermons for a random set of one-off appearances. Now, that does not mean we can make each sermon fully dependent on full attendance at the series – remember that guests always begin by being first-time attendees. They need to be able to fully engage the message, even if it is part 7 in a 10-part series. Even so, a well-crafted series subtly communicates the expectation of regular attendance, and if done well, will motivate it too.

As Anthony put it in his comment, “series preaching better accords with God’s not-so-subtle decision to supply his word to us in rather large chunks sometimes.” We need the whole of John, and Acts, and Romans, and Habakkuk, and Isaiah, and Genesis, etc. The Christian life is not covered by a one-day seminar, it is a lifelong journey of preparation for eternity to come. So just preaching our favourite fifteen passages simply won’t suffice!

Preaching Series: Six Suggestions

Last time I shared a few reasons why I think sermon series should be a key part of the preaching schedule in a church. Here are some suggestions to help them work well:

1. Spirit – Does a series quench the Holy Spirit?  Does preparing a sermon quench the Spirit?  It is amazing how a series can be scheduled many months ahead of time, then when a particular Sunday comes, the text and its application fit as if the Spirit Himself had made the plan.  Nevertheless, we still need to allow flexibility in our schedules.

2. Scheduling – It is unhelpful to pack the schedule so tight that the preacher feels under pressure from the schedule.  Consider leaving “buffer weeks” in the schedule between series.  You will have no problem filling them when the time arrives, either with a visiting missionary, a one-off message on a text you’re dying to preach, or addressing an issue that comes up, or a one-off for one of the preachers you are mentoring in the church.  You might also need to extend a series by a week. Buffer weeks are never a problem. No buffer weeks can create a headache.

3. Variety – A long series in the same book can get old.  There are several ways to avoid this.  Vary the message structure (include a first-person sermon, a more narrative sermon, a more interactive sermon, etc.)  Vary the text length (some weeks you may choose to cover only a few verses, but other weeks it would be possible to cover a chapter or two).  Perhaps sameness can be avoided by having another speaker involved (see below).  And, of course, a long series in the same book can get old, so . . .

4. Length – Think through the length of the series.  The old days of seven years verse-by-verse through one book really are the old days.  Today some advocate that a series should not go longer than 8 weeks.  Others say  4 or 5.  I say you have to think through the situation – who is preaching, to whom, what are they used to, what is the preacher capable of doing effectively, what is the subject matter, etc.  No hard and fast rules, but several months will probably get old for some.  Cover ground more quickly, or break the series and then return to it. Remember that a new series is a moment for new energy, new invitations to guests, etc.

5. Preachers – A series with more than one preacher can work well, but it takes some coordination. Make sure you are on the same page about the book’s structure, main idea, relevance to your church, etc. Probably don’t go higher than 2 or 3 preachers in a single series. If you are blessed with more, save them for the next series. Be sure to communicate and take advantage of the team ethos.

6. Series – Remember to balance your series too. If you have just been in Colossians, probably don’t follow up with a series from Ephesians (or any epistle, for that matter). Mix up sections or whole books across the whole canon, always prayerfully considering what book or section should leave its mark on your congregation.

What else do you find helpful as you plan series?

________________________________________________

Preaching Series: Six Strengths

Some churches always preach sermons in a series. Some churches never do. Here are six strengths of well-planned series:

1. Greater Leverage. By reinforcing and reviewing a Bible book, the series allows for the teaching to sink in and be applied more effectively than a stand-alone sermon. We often expect too much from a single sermon but underestimate what can be achieved over time with cumulative preaching.

2. Greater Coverage. When a church is preaching through a Bible book for a season, it allows other access points for people to benefit from immersion into that Bible book. For instance, people can be encouraged to read and study it at home. Midweek groups can probe the application of the passage preached on Sunday. Maybe even youth and other age groups can be in the book to encourage family conversations at home. Visual presentation does not require weekly creative energy (series title, series image, social media visuals, etc.)

3. Greater Momentum. The preacher can look back and build on what has gone before, but the listeners can also look forward and anticipate what is coming. With some encouragement, they might even read ahead and be more prepared for what is coming.

4. Greater Balance. If a message stands alone, then its distinctive thrusts will often need to be balanced within the message. This can sometimes reduce the applicational impact of a message. When you know (and if helpful, state) that a future sermon will present another side of this particular issue, this present message can be preached without too much energy for balancing it. Also, when a message has been preached and weaknesses were noted, coming weeks allow for easy correction of those weaknesses.

5. Greater Preparation. Knowing what is coming several weeks from now allows the preacher to prepare for more than just this coming Sunday’s message. This means that a book can be working in the preacher before the preacher comes to work through each passage of that book.

6. Greater Depth. When you are preaching through a book, you can overlap some exegetical work and go deeper in each passage as you prepare. For example, this week, I am preaching from Colossians 1:24-2:7. If it was a stand-alone, I would also need to get to grips with the hymn of 1:15-23, thus using up study time. Since I’ve been there already, I can build on that and focus on the preaching passage for this Sunday’s message.

There is a place for stand-alone messages in the preaching schedule – they have a definite strategic purpose. And just because you have a series, that does not mean it is effective or that the strengths are maximised. But I do recommend using carefully planned single-Bible-book series as a significant ingredient in your preaching planning.

Hints of Fallenness

The events of Genesis 3 have a continued impact on us every day.  I think it is good to continue to study it closely.  We know that the Serpent engaged Eve in a conversation that led to disaster.  He started by introducing doubt about God’s word – “Did God really say…?” But let’s consider the Serpent’s second statement to Eve.  Remember how he discounted the promise of death and offered an alternative that captured her heart, “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Her response to that offer, along with Adam, was not just a one-time thing.  Yes, that moment was critical.  But the temptation lingers for us all.  Humanity continues to pursue some corrupted form of godlikeness to this day.  We see it on narcissistic social media and in competitive work environments, and if we are honest, we can also see it in the mirror.  It is helpful to notice how easily Christians still fall for this temptation, and yet we do it in a sort of “sanctified” or “Christian” way.  Here are four variations that pull on us:

Be like God, knowing – Humanity has a hunger to be “in the know.”  We don’t easily feel settled in a position of humility, even as Christians.  Knowledge is compellingly attractive, especially when others don’t have it and we can feel superior.  Is there not some of this “insider knowledge” permeating the gossip addiction in many churches?  And what about the tendency many have to hold untested and uninformed positions as strong convictions?  Some people find personal security in their black and white views on various issues rather than having the courage and faith to grapple in the grey zones of complexity and humility.

Be like God, controlling – Humanity inherently hates the notion of a God on the throne.  This tension is clear in the moral rebellion of society, but it can still be there subtly in church world, too.  We humans dislike being out of control.  Whether it is sickness, or earning an income, or church decisions (don’t say “change!”), or whatever, don’t we tend to seek control?  And sometimes, while we are striving to control situations, we seek God’s endorsement on our situation management by praying for his blessing.

Be like God, ruling – Humanity longs for God’s position.  Pyramid climbing is the norm in the business world, academia, social gatherings – it is everywhere.  Perhaps you have experienced conversations where the other person vies for position and seeks to establish their superiority through various tactics.  Jesus has demonstrated our God’s self-emptying and humbling nature, and calls us to have the same attitude.  Yet we can jostle for position and engage in “Christian” rivalry.  We easily sanctify the act of climbing up our pyramids as long as it is for “godly influence” or “ministry.”

Be like God, alone?  The world’s way of pursuing the “be like God” dream always includes getting rid of God in some fashion.  It’s almost as if they know that there isn’t room for two “gods” and so must competitively dismiss all others to take their position.  Perhaps it is this move to aloneness that is most sad to behold.  We know that God is jealous of His unique position and glory.  And yet God is not self-absorbed and glory-grabbing – He exists in a communion of loving glory-giving.  He doesn’t pursue the subjugation of every person for the sake of His personal sense of security.  Rather, He gives His very best to win the hearts of a corporate bride for His Son.  He doesn’t exercise authority or dominion rashly, or selfishly; instead, He humbly pursues those who hate Him that His love might capture them.

But what about the throne?  He will, after all, not share his glory with any other god, right?  Right.  But the Bible also gives the stunning expectation that those in Christ will get to rule, to sit with Christ on His throne.  We will never be “gods,” for there is only one God.  Yet He has reached down, humbling Himself, that we might be lifted up to reign with Him, to know Him, to love Him.  The moment we compete with God, we push Him aside and find ourselves alone on our own throne.  We move away from such riches for so little.

The issue underlying Genesis 3, in one sense, remains our issue today.  Do we really know what our God is like and trust Him?

Let’s continue to read His Word and be gripped by who He really is and what He has done.  Then perhaps we wouldn’t need to “christianize” and “sanctify” a worldly pursuit of power, status, influence, knowledge, and godhood in our mini-kingdoms.  Instead, we could rejoice in the reality that far surpasses all our dreams yet inherently opposes all our fleshly pursuits.  The difference?  We are called to trust with humility, rather than haughtily grab. Be sure to keep your gaze on Him, even in church world!

_____________________________________________

Redemptive Force

Imagine a scale from 1-10.  It measures the redemptive force of the content of your sermon.  10 is a full presentation of the Gospel: the full plan of God being worked out on the cross by Jesus’ death as our substitute, demonstrating God’s love, inviting us to trust in him and what he has done.  At the other end of the scale there is 1, which points towards the gracious heart of God toward sinners and sufferers, but does not make the journey to Jesus and the cross.  Let’s call this the Redemptive Force Scale.

Question: How far along the scale should you go in your sermon? 

Some would immediately say it has to always be a 10 – after all, Paul’s teaching in 1Corinthians 2:1-5 points to the need to preach Christ and him crucified.  But others might hesitate.  What if the preaching passage doesn’t naturally allow a 10?  Depending on our school of thought, we might feel another value has to be considered too.

Two great values – I feel there are two great values that have to be kept in view.  

(1) One is the value of preaching the Gospel – that is why we preach, it is critical for every listener. 

(2) The other is the value of preaching the text – we need to handle the text well, this is also critical for every listener.  I do not believe we should abandon good handling of the text in order to get to the good news.  It is not wise to imply God is not a good communicator by discarding the Bible in order to get to the Gospel.

Two common mistakes – I also feel there are two mistakes that are made much more than we’d like to believe. 

(1) One is not preaching the gospel at all.  Perhaps we think that the gospel is only for evangelism and there is a different type of preaching for believers.  Or perhaps we don’t realise how much our preaching is really pointing people back to their own resources and their own efforts.  We may not preach salvation by works, but too many of us inadvertently preach sanctification and spiritual maturity by works.

(2) The other mistake is when we sacrifice the integrity of the text in order to jump to Jesus.  A tenuous link, a stretched analogy, a missing stepping stone . . . it is too easy to slip from our passage straight into the shadow of the cross and leave our listeners wondering how we got there from this passage?  If we have to do preaching parkour to get to Calvary, perhaps we have pushed it too hard.

Seven suggestions to ponder:

  1. If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, pick an appropriate passage.  A message on John 3 or Ephesians 2 will naturally yield a Redemptive Force of  8, 9, or 10 without any need to compromise on textual handling in order to preach the gospel.  If the occasion is primarily evangelistic, don’t preach on Ezekiel 38-39 or Nehemiah 7.
  2. If you are preaching a regular church sermon, be sure to get on the scale.  Your listeners all need to feel the redemptive force of the text.  They do not need a moralistic coaching session that puts their focus back onto themselves.
  3. Every text allows a legitimate sermon with redemptive force.  Bryan Chapell points out that every text in the Bible was written after the fall of humanity, and every text was inspired after God had stated his plan to rescue humanity in Genesis 3:15.  Therefore, every text is, in some way, redemptive in what it reveals, what it points to, or how it works in its context.
  4. You can develop the hermeneutical and homiletical ability to move up the scale. To put this a different way, most texts are not just offering a 1 or a 2, but you need to learn how to handle the text well and move legitimately toward the other end of the scale.
  5. You will not be able to hit 10 every week.  Sometimes the text only yields a 6, or even a 3.  Sometimes a congregation is not able to track as you make a complicated link to level 8, but they will grasp the level 5 version (for example, when knowledge of the original language is required to see the level 8 connection, it may not be possible to effectively lead people that far).  Sometimes the sermon time is not long enough to give enough explanation to get to the 9, but a 7 works well.   The text, the congregation, the timing, as well as the occasion, and even the preacher, might limit where you can get to on the Redemptive Force scale without sacrificing good handling of the preaching text.
  6. A church diet with some variety of redemptive force will not hurt people at all, but generally get as far up the scale as you legitimately can.  If you consistently hit 10 in every single sermon, you might give the impression that every biblical text is only there as a launch point to get to the cross.  This may even diminish the rich revelation of God’s heart through the canon of Scripture, if people start to think that every text is only included to launch us to the same presentation of the gospel. 
  7. However you show the redemptive force of the text, let the text still be in charge. To put that in other words, each message should be shaped by the text you are preaching. You should not simply launch from the text and end up giving the same pre-packaged presentation of the gospel at the end of the message. The text you are preaching is the boss of the whole message. You want the gospel presentation to have the implicit authority of God’s Word driving it, not just the sense of authority that comes from your presentation.

I think this Redemptive Force scale could be helpful to us.  Let’s always be sure to get on the scale, and let’s preach with as much redemptive force as the text, the occasion, the listeners, and our communicative ability will allow.  Let us preach the Gospel clearly as we carefully handle God’s inspired Scriptures with precision and integrity.  And let us always remember that only God can give spiritual life to those that hear!

__________________________________

Desperate Places

In English, we have a phrase, “on top of the world!” It describes someone flying high because of some success or good news. Perhaps they got engaged, passed their driving test, earned a promotion, or won a prize. 

What is the opposite of “on top of the world”? Perhaps it is “carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.” Another very English phrase, but also easy to understand. It’s when someone feels so weighed down by trouble that they are almost crushed. They feel desperately small and hopeless. All it takes to go from being on top of the world to having the weight of the world on your shoulders is one phone call. 

One bit of bad news can crush our lives. And that is why it is essential to know how Jesus treats people in desperate straits. Let’s look briefly at a story in Mark 10. It comes right at the end of the chapter, and that is important. Let me explain.

Jesus was on a mission. He was headed for Jerusalem. Back in Mark 8, we see Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, which was immediately followed by Jesus predicting his death. It becomes clear that you cannot have Christ without the cross. Jesus repeated the prediction in chapter 9, then again in chapter 10. In 10:32, we read that “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.” Jesus was marching out ahead – he was on his great Easter mission. His disciples were astonished, perhaps because of how boldly Jesus was walking towards trouble. And the entourage of followers felt fear as they anticipated whatever tensions would face them once they arrived. 

Again, Jesus repeated his prediction that he was going to Jerusalem to be condemned, awfully mistreated, and killed. Next, we read that James and John decided to stake their claim to positions of prominence in his future kingdom. It was an awkward moment. But it did allow Jesus to give the key verse in the whole Gospel. Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

With the great line delivered, the natural next verse would be Mark 11:1 – “And they approached Jerusalem . . .” The most significant verse in the book, and then the big arrival in Jerusalem – Easter week! 

But, instead, we get one more story. An interruption. As they left Jericho to climb the long road to Jerusalem, someone started crying out to Jesus. The man could not see, but when he heard who was passing by, he began to shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the identity of Jesus has been gradually revealed. Now we hear a great Messianic title echoing through a crowd who immediately rebuked the shouting man. Perhaps the Messianic language felt too risky, especially this close to Jerusalem. Maybe they feared the authorities, who could be in the midst and ready to hit back against this famous troublemaker from Nazareth and his supporters? But the rebukes failed. He just shouted more.

We watch Jesus’ reaction to this interruption in the last four verses of the chapter. Remember that he was on a mission, and the next stop: Easter week. Now a blind beggar is shouting at him. A nobody, especially in those days. But he was a somebody to Jesus. Notice the three things that Jesus does for this man:

  1. He calls him. In verse 49, we see Jesus calling the man. What an honour! Jesus is effectively saying, “You are somebody, you matter, you have value, and I want to speak with you.” Dismissal, further rebuke, even rejection, could all happen from a distance, but Jesus called him close. Isn’t it wonderful to pause and reflect on what this shows us about the heart of Jesus, and therefore, the heart of God? Yes, God sits on the throne above everything that is. He is high and exalted, in charge of the cosmos. Yet time and again, the Bible shows us that God humbles himself to reach down to the very lowest of the low, to people like this man, crushed under the weight of the world, but important to God.
  1. He asks him. After coming quickly to Jesus, the man is met with a question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (see v. 51). It seems like an obvious question. After all, he is blind. But we shouldn’t judge a situation so quickly. Jesus asked him a question and effectively communicated, “You are a full human, with dignity; let me not assume anything.” After all, we do not know this man’s story. What would he answer? Would he say something about needing to provide for his family? Would he ask something for a family member suffering from an illness? We cannot assume to know his answer, and Jesus didn’t assume to know his answer. 

It only takes a moment for the weight of the world to roll onto a person’s shoulders, but Jesus still honours him as a human with dignity. Naturally, we should do the same for others. And let’s not forget that we are a phone call away, a car crash away, a circumstance away from having our whole life turned upside down. And even if that happens, Jesus will still treat us with dignity too!

  1. He heals him. The man’s request was about sight. And trusting Jesus did lead to him seeing again. Jesus had underlined the man’s value, then the dignity of the man, and now we know that he has a new future too. What a powerful moment for all around! Actually, perhaps the powerful moment is found in the last few words of the story. He “followed Jesus along the road.” The astonished disciples and the fearful entourage were joined by this newly seeing man – a true follower of Jesus.

Can we say he was a true follower of Jesus? After all, maybe he only followed briefly? Interestingly, this is the only healing in Mark’s Gospel where the person healed is named. Why would Mark tell us his name (and his father’s name)? Why would Matthew and Luke not include the name when they told the story in their Gospels? There is a good chance that the reason was that Bartimaeus was known in the church for whom Mark wrote his Gospel. “Bartimaeus? The older guy in the third row?” Yes, him. “Oh, I didn’t know that had happened to him.” There are probably people in our churches today who have a personal history with Jesus we don’t know about. After all, it doesn’t take much to find ourselves in a desperate place. It can happen at any time. And we know how Jesus treats people like that.

_____________________________________

A Psalm written in a desperate place, Psalm 13:

Politics? Oh, We Don’t Go There!

I suspect we need to give some more thought to this oft-stated contemporary wisdom: “We should just focus on the Gospel and not get political.”

We live in a society that seems to be increasingly divided and polarized by political discussion and media misrepresentation of opposing views on a variety of topics.  It is understandable that many will automatically agree that in the church, and in preaching, we should simply focus on the Gospel and not get dragged into the political tensions of our time. 

Here are seven preliminary points for us to ponder:

1. Politics is no substitute for the Saviour.  It is easy for some people, preachers included, to get swept up into current affairs and to put their hope in politicians or political parties.  We live in a sinful world and the world of politics tends to highlight human sin and the futility of godless solutions.  Anyone who puts their hope in a political solution to our greatest needs will be deeply disappointed.  Our church and our world need us to preach Christ and him crucified, not a party manifesto.

2. Silence can be highly political.  While we can easily see the problem if our pulpit shifts into a soapbox for a particular political agenda, merely exorcising any hint of a political opinion from our preaching is not the solution.  Sometimes saying nothing about something is really saying something.  In fact, there are times when silence is actually saying something quite strongly.  Saying nothing about gender, sexuality, morality, etc., can serve to reinforce the cultural narrative – especially as the younger generation grow into adulthood.  A lifetime of one message from the media, from social media, from educators and from peers may be affirmed rather than countered by a silent pulpit.

I recently read Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.  It is well worth reading!  He wrote, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

3. We must define what we mean by “political.”  I hear people referring to “political” as if such a label automatically confirms that the subject must not be touched.  What do we mean by the term?  A dictionary definition is “relating to the government or public affairs of a country.”  So, does this mean the church should have no voice on slavery, racism, human rights, poverty, crime, corruption, etc.?  I think we tend to all celebrate the political stand and achievements of past believers like William Wilberforce, George Muller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.  But we also forget how many churches remained silent on the slave trade, on child poverty, or on Nazi tyranny.

4. Why do we retreat – does the Bible have nothing to say?  So, does the Bible have nothing to say on matters that could be labelled political?  Of course, it does.  The prophets were not typically the “popular preachers” in their era.  They spoke out for God about real issues in their society, whatever the cost.  Today, God cares passionately about the poor, the unborn, the marginalized, the vulnerable.  God hates the damage done by racism, or abuse, or trafficking, or crime, or unjust laws, or human rights violations, etc.  None of these issues is greater than the need for the Gospel to be preached, but let’s not claim to proclaim the whole counsel of God while refusing to address injustice or any other issue that might be labeled “political.”

5. Why do we retreat – are we living in fear?  Today we live in strange times.  We don’t have to go back to the era of the prophets to sense the change.  It was not that long ago that people would disagree and then have a conversation about it.  They might even take onboard the perspective of another and do some genuine personal research in order to understand that position better.  We were all bettered by that approach.  Today we live in a culture that increasingly models “triggered grievance and cancellation.”  If someone does not say the right things and openly affirm the sacred cows of our time, there are plenty of people ready to declare deep grievance and instigate a public take-down and cancellation of the offending party.  This can feel crippling to the Christian in the workplace, to the Christian on the campus, and to the preacher in the pulpit.  I hope we are all learning to speak wisely and avoid unnecessary problems, but we cannot afford to retreat into a silent fear where our salt loses any saltiness, and our light is extinguished by darkness.

One more quote from MLK’s letter: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

6. The church should be diverse.  The church is not supposed to be a group of people that are identical to each other.  The church is strengthened by its diversity.  This is true ethnically, as well as educationally, or materially, or demographically.  A church is blessed to have senior citizens fellowshipping with teenagers, or the surgeon praying alongside the cleaner.  And the same is true politically.  There is a blessing that comes from being able to not just tolerate people with different views, but to really know and love one another – no matter how they might vote when the next election arrives. 

7. There is a difference between addressing political issues and being “party political.”  I think this is the distinction that we would do well to introduce into our discussions about whether or not something is political and therefore not to be mentioned among believers.  There are countless issues that are political in nature that we should be talking about.  But, generally speaking, we should think very carefully before equating one particular political party with “the Christian position.”  On specific issues, some parties do hold abhorrent views.  However, maybe we would avoid some unnecessary angst if, as a general rule, we avoided promoting our preferred political party.  After all, our hope is not in a particular party, which brings us full circle back to point 1.

I recognize that different countries and cultures have differing dynamics on this issue.  I also recognize that it takes real wisdom to handle controversial issues carefully and to lead a diverse congregation humbly.  I am not suggesting we become bombastic or blunder carelessly around complex issues.  What I am suggesting is that we don’t just settle for a simplistic “rule” that will silence us when we should be speaking.  It is easy to say we should never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation.  Actually, I hope we see that we may sometimes need to do precisely that.  May God give us humility and wisdom, as well as clarity and boldness, when we do!

__________________________________________________

(Westminster Photo by Deniz Fuchidzhiev on Unsplash)

Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”