- Seek to give a consistent diet – it is not good to vary meals between a few scraps one time and gorging on overly rich fare another. Seek to preach so that listeners have a consistency in their diet.
- Seek to give a cumulative diet – it is not possible to give everything that is needed in every meal, or in every message. Seek to preach so that listeners experience a cumulative growth in their biblical awareness and their relational knowledge of God.
- Seek to give a healthy diet – no normal parent balances vegetables with poison. Do not accept heretical content, even if it is wrapped up in the salad leaves of Gospel truth. Don’t blend curving your listeners inward with drawing them out to Christ. Preach Christ and him crucified. Don’t preach Christ and effort intensified.
- Seek to give a timely diet – some fare fits in certain seasons and when it is missing something does not seem right. In my culture we tend to expect Turkey and mince pies in December, and more salads in the summer. Whether or not your church follows the church calendar, at least in some basic points, your listeners do. Christmas and Easter at least deserve some appropriate messages, perhaps harvest or mother’s day is a must too? Don’t disappoint, there’s nothing to be gained.
God delights to transform lives. There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament. In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness. In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.
These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts. When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing. It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.
When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!” Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms. This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way. Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together. So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:
1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives. In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea. He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below. This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God. It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.
Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation. Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment. Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again. Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless. If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him. But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.
God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty. He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever. And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving. Fully forgiven, forever, really?
2. Our hope is in God himself. The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture. No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed. Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be). God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them. God gives us Himself (v6). And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving. He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc. And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7). This is forgiveness-plus!
As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself. So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn. Morning always comes. We live in darkness, but we live with hope. And our hope is God Himself.
3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now. As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131. The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything. Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child. How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?
Well this is a weaned child (v2). That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need. Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother. We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there. We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace. A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.
A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now. Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.
From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts. God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!
Many Christians feel slightly awkward about the idea of receiving a crown or reward from God. For a quick check, take a look at James 1:12, 2 Timothy 4:8, 1 Peter 5:4, and Revelation 2:10. Crowns for loving God, for loving the appearing of Christ, for serving as an elder, for remaining faithful to the point of death . . . crowns, for people. Awkward. Surely crowns should only go to God?
One of the great challenges we all face is extricating ourselves from the brine in which we are pickled in this world. Actually, we can’t do it. We are so immersed in the glory grabbing ethos in which we live that we can’t see any other way. This world has become our home and we need someone from outside to come in and rescue us. God has done that in Christ. Without that rescue we have no hope of understanding how heavenly crowns work.
So we are here, in a fallen world where power is corrupted, where power is abusive, and where power is always linked to clambering over and suppressing others. If someone is at the top of the pyramid, then they must have stood on others to get there. In this world it is hard to see how power can ever not go hand in glove with corruption and selfishness. That’s this world. What about in another and better world?
We should take the angst we feel about crowns and rewards and then let that energy drive us into the Bible to explore what God is like. How does God wear His crowns? Why would He ever give any away?
The Bible’s presentation of God gives to us the fact of three persons within the one God. The Father is ever the initiator. Surely He has the right to demand His position, the worship of everyone else and an exclusive right to eternal preeminence. Indeed He has every right, but what does He do? He elevates, honours and glorifies the Son. He gives everything to the Son. He puts all things under His feet. He gives Him the name above every name.
Alright, so the Son is the ultimate pinnacle of the heavenly pyramid. Fine, all crowns to Him then. But what does the Son do? Ultimately the Son will subject everything, and be subject, to the Father. In the most humbly glorious way imaginable we find the heavenly interchange to be “to me, to you” as the Son receives and reciprocates the totally giving and selfless nature of the Father.
Fine, but what about the Spirit? Is there not tension within the Trinity because the Spirit is never crowned or elevated like the Son is? There would be if the Spirit was from us. But the Spirit is also forever proceeding from both the Father and the Son, so His nature is like theirs, so He too is humbly preferring the other – the Holy Spirit is the humble Spirit because that is a key feature of the holiness that is uniquely God’s. No clamour. No grabbing. No “me first.” Glorious divine humility.
So, what about us then? Surely we can’t come into that world and do anything but corrupt it, can we? We certainly would if we entered unchanged from this world. If God gave me a crown right now I know I would make a mess by immediately feeling the powerful impulse of my rebellious flesh to honour myself. God is wise enough not to give us crowns too soon. Once the transformation of our life, in full heavenly sanctification is complete, then we can receive crowns and rewards.
In that day we won’t consider elevating ourselves. Neither will we bring with us a false humility that rejects the crown. Instead we will handle crowns and rewards in a way that befits the heavenly world of God’s love that we have entered.
Crowns, for people. Awkward. Surely crowns should only go to God? Ultimately they will. Surely the heavenly way is to take off the crown and give it away as we see in Revelation 4:10. And in casting our crowns at His feet we will have joined in the love-driven glory-giving life of the Trinity.
Some preachers see themselves essentially as life trainers. They know Christianity brings transformation, they long for their listeners to be changed and they know they have a key role to play. Consequently it is always tempting to take on the responsibility for life change through direct and clear instruction, moral pressure and vocal encouragement, along with the necessary warnings about the dangers of living in other ways. Is this your model of preaching? Are you conformity coaching? If this paragraph describes your ministry then it is time to prayerfully take stock and investigate more intently how Christ changes lives.
Some preachers see themselves essentially as teachers. They believe in a God who has spoken and whose Word is the treasure they share from the pulpit. They know that a life is transformed as the truths of Scripture take root and weed out the rubbish of life lived according to the many words of the world, the flesh and the devil. Are we information investing? We should be, but it should be more than that.
Some preachers know their role is primarily introductory. That is, they know that what brings change is not merely Christianity, nor even Christian teaching, but rather Christ Himself. It is as we look on His glory that we are being transformed. Thus the preacher’s role is more humble than conformity coaching since what is needed is transformation at a far deeper level – something we know we cannot achieve by our instruction, pressure and exhortation. The preacher’s role goes beyond information investing to something much more personal. The preacher’s role is primarily that of match-making . . . let me point you to Jesus and how wonderful He is.
Whatever label you want to use, make sure you understand the difference between conformity coaching, information investing and match-making. The difference can make all the difference in the world.
Here is an interview I did on Evangelical Focus . . .
A preaching ministry is built on a whole set of convictions. Convictions about God, the Gospel, about people, about ministry. It is right that we let these convictions grow over time as we spend time in the Bible, and learn from mentors, from experience, from life. In this post I’d like to flag up one of these convictions.
Here it is: God is a good communicator.
This seems so obvious, but so many build a preaching ministry without this conviction in place. Here are some implications of this conviction to ponder:
1. No matter how clever you are, what you can make it say is not as good as what God made it say. So do your best to preach what the text is saying. Do your best to let the details, and also the form of the text influence how you preach it. Try not to just say what it says, but also to do what it does. Seek to re-create the effect and the affect of the text!
2. Our job is not to make the Bible interesting. Whatever other good reasons there are for using “illustrations” in your preaching, this is not one of them. We should seek to explain, prove and apply as well and as interestingly as we can, but first of all we must be gripped with enthusiasm for God and His Word if we are to communicate it with any contagious influence. Simply trying to add interesting material like spicing a bland steak is not our calling.
3. We do not make the Bible relevant, we demonstrate and emphasize its relevance. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful. All of it. Our task is to help people see that.
4. Reading the Bible is not a curse. Forget preaching it for a moment, some of us seem intent on convincing Christians that reading the Bible is a negative thing. I’ve heard well-meaning Christians teach that it is hard to enjoy the Bible, so just go for the smallest goals possible. If we give the impression that reading the Bible is a drudgery that can only be achieved by courageous acts of self-determination, then let’s not be surprised if people don’t spend much time in it.
God is a good communicator. That conviction is critical for effective preaching.
To be an effective preacher you need to love your local church. It is not enough to love the church in general. Even if your ministry takes you to other places, still it is healthy to love your local church. (I know that it is not our church or my church, it is Christ’s, but let’s go with this terminology for the sake of this post.)
It is the people in your own local church who know you, who pray for you, who know your family and care for them. It is the people in your own local church who will sense when something is not right in your life. It is these people who will speak the truth to you, even when you don’t want to hear it.
Of course, there are complexities. The local church can become an antagonistic environment. It can become both a source and a threat to your livelihood. Receiving a salary from your local church means that you can be fired, or opposed, or any number of other challenges. Nevertheless, it is important to love your local church.
It is not enough to love the church in general. It is unwise and ungodly to love the income, the respect you get, or the power you develop. It is possible to use your local church position to get power or respect both within that church, and more widely. We have to be wary of using the church instead of loving it.
So we need to love our local church. Why? Because God loves it. This is the local expression of the Bride of Christ and God is at work there. This is the local gathering of believers that need not only your gifting, your time, your contibutions and your energy, they also and preeminently need your love. You can work fifty or sixty hours per week, preach and lead multiple meetings, visit people in their homes or in the hospital, give of your time, gifting and energy, but if you do not have love you have nothing.
Maybe it is really obvious. Or maybe this has become your greatest challenge in ministry. Maybe you are feeling loved and encouraged, or maybe you are feeling beaten up and ready to quit. Whatever the circumstance, it is vital to look to Christ and to love your local church.
It was a pleasure to chat with Glen Scrivener recently and he has posted that conversation as a podcast here. I appreciate Glen’s ministry and encourage you to take a look around his websites, as well as on Youtube.