Sitting Alone

In John 6, Jesus appears to have a public relations disaster.  He starts the chapter with a huge crowd and an event that will become a favourite of children’s Bible story books – in fact, the only pre-passion narrative that makes it into all four Gospels.  But he ends the chapter with a question mark hanging over his core disciples and a poignant reference to one of the twelve being a devil.

How does it all go so “wrong” for Jesus?

The passage begins with a huge crowd gathering with Jesus and a reference to the forthcoming Passover feast.  He takes five barley loaves and two fish (a poor person’s food) and turns it into more than enough (a proper feast).  The response of the people seems to be on target.  They start asking if he is the Prophet anticipated in Deuteronomy 18, and they want to make him king.  From a human standpoint, it looks to be a successful operation at this point.

Overnight Jesus sends the disciples on ahead and takes a creative shortcut across the lake, ready for the morning crowds.  The morning crowds are yesterday’s crowd, plus some others from Tiberias, and they come looking for something.  Jesus cuts through the hype and identifies what they want – another free lunch.  But this is insulting to Jesus, who actually came to give eternal life.  How often do we petition Christ for the petty things, while ignoring the far greater gifts that he wants to give us?  It is certainly not wrong to pray about the little stuff, for he does care for everything, but when we only care for short-lived comforts, while ignoring his greater giving goals, then we insult him.

Along the way Jesus critiques the Jewish idea that Moses had given them the miracle bread from heaven, when in fact it was the Father.  Then, instead of making himself the new Moses that they referred to in verse 14, Jesus makes himself the bread from heaven, sent to save and sustain the people.  He will turn none away, will give them true life, and will raise them up on the last day – a past, present, and future package of assurance from God. (See vv35-40, for instance.)

This only makes the Jews grumble about him.  How can he be the bread?  They wonder if he is talking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Rather than backing away from the physicality of this misunderstanding, instead Jesus goes along with the language of eating and drinking.  (Remember how people have already misunderstood the temple language in chapter 2, the new birth language in chapter 3, and the living water and food language of chapter 4.)

I suspect Jesus wasn’t expecting to be understood in reference to the later ordinance of the Christian church – communion, Lord’s Supper, or whatever your church calls it.  Rather, I think he may well have been thinking of the Passover meal.  The people were expected to eat all the flesh of the lamb, as well as drink all the “blood of the grapes.”  It was a special meal, an “eat-it-all-because-we-are-leaving-in-a-hurry” type of feast.  It celebrated the Passover lamb, provided to rescue the people and let them live in the face of all that was happening in Egypt that night.

Jesus could have been misunderstood as speaking of flesh eating and blood drinking, but I suspect that was not the issue.  Actually, what he meant was also insanely challenging.  Just as God had provided a way for the people to live through the Passover back in Egypt, so now there was a new Passover coming.  This new Passover was for eternal life.  The provision was costly and there was an implicit demand in the meal.  Jesus was effectively saying, “It is all about me, I am giving everything for you…make me your everything.”

Jesus was the whole lamb, the drink, everything.  At the next Passover he would make it clear that his body was being given and his blood was to be shed.  What was most offensive to human sensibilities was not the potential misunderstanding of eating flesh and drinking blood, but instead the absolute nature of Jesus’ offering and implicit demand.  He gave everything, so make him everything.

We humans are not fans of such absolute expectations.  We’d rather blend our options.  The crowds certainly felt uncomfortable and quickly dispersed.  The popular vote was lost in a day.  Maybe ten to twenty thousand people left and just twelve remained.  Jesus spoke truth and they didn’t like it.  He turned to the twelve.  “What about you?  Want to go too?”

Peter’s response is reflective of our situation too.  We have been drawn to a place of belief.  We are blessed not only by knowing Jesus, but also by knowing there is no alternative!  “To whom shall we go?”  Peter’s response is spot on.  “You have the words of eternal life.”  He certainly does.  But those words are not popular.

We live in a world where people live in fear of saying something that will receive the backlash of irrational intolerance and hatred.  To stand for truth is as unpopular as it has ever been, and there is no longer a Christian-worldview majority ready to affirm and support us in these times.  Instead it feels like everyone is fleeing the scene and chasing empty alternatives.  Will we leave him too?  To put it bluntly, where would we go?  This world has no viable alternatives to Christ.

And so we sit, almost alone, before Jesus.  Do we want to follow the crowds and reject Christ and the God he came to reveal?  It would certainly feel easier to follow the population, for the popular vote is never with God.  But honestly, we would do well to follow Peter’s pathway here… “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus gave everything for us to have eternal life.  Will we make him everything and follow him, even if nobody else will?

How Does Preaching Change Lives? – Jonathan Thomas

Here is a great little three minute clip from Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  Click here for the clip.

To see the full interview, which is well worth it, please sign up to the Cor Deo Online mailing list and we will give you access when it is released later this week.  Click here to sign up.

Thank you to Jonathan for the interview for Cor Deo Online – it has proved to be a very helpful series of clips for this site too!

Learning to Preach in Changing Contexts – Jonathan Thomas

Here is another clip from my interview with Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny.  I appreciate Jonathan as a friend and as a preacher.

In this clip he talks about what he has learned from preaching during lockdown – a lesson that we all need to keep learning whatever the circumstances we find ourselves in.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

What have you learned in recent months, or what challenges do you anticipate in the coming months?

The Pastor’s Job – Jonathan Thomas

Last week I interviewed Jonathan Thomas, pastor of Cornerstone Church, Abergavenny (Wales).  I’m linking to a clip from this interview because I think you will really appreciate what he has to say.

Jonathan talks about how easy it is to reduce ministry down to a litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy, but then tells his own story of growing into a fuller appreciation of the magnificence of Jesus.

To see the full interview, you just need to sign-up to the Cor Deo mailing list and we will make the full interview available to you!  Click here to sign-up – http://eepurl.com/drPqj1

A Purposeful and Proactive Pursuit

At first glance, John 5:1-18 looks like any other healing narrative in the Gospels.  Someone gets healed by Jesus, it’s a miracle, and the authorities aren’t happy.  But in John’s Gospel the writer is more sparing in his choice of healing stories – one child, one invalid, one blind man, and one dead man.  So maybe the story in John 5 is intended to highlight more for us readers than “just another healing”.

John chapter 5 is a strategically placed narrative in the flow of the book as a whole.    But then comes chapter 5 and an incident that seems to spark tensions that will rumble through the next chapters, and the next twelve months, right up to the Passion Week when Jesus died.

In other healing stories we see desperate people crying out to get Jesus’ attention, or going to great lengths to get close to him.  But in John 5 we see Jesus making all the moves.  He initiates a healing with someone who doesn’t know who he is.  And from a human perspective, the response he gets is not great.  This wasn’t a situation where Jesus chose a person he knew would respond well to him!

Notice the three moves that Jesus makes in this story, because he still makes those moves today:

1. Jesus initiates meeting the need of a hurting and broken man.  In verses 6-8 Jesus approaches the man and asks if he would like to be healed. As soon as the man has given his excuses for not being healed, Jesus simply tells him to get up, take up his bed, and walk.

2. Jesus initiates confronting the man over his deeper issue.  The man is accused of breaking the Sabbath in verses 9-13, but he doesn’t know who it was that healed him. (Don’t miss the delight of the authorities at the blessing of the miracle that had taken place!  Actually, we are so used to their reaction that it doesn’t register with us anymore, but it should!)  Then, in verse 14, Jesus finds the man and confronts him over his sin.  We don’t know whether this is referring to lifelong sin, general sin, specific sin, or even the sin he was contemplating, but nevertheless, Jesus knows that he needs more than functioning legs.

Sadly, the man immediately rushes off to tell the authorities that Jesus is the man they should be arresting.  Which sets up the third and most startling moment of initiative from Jesus:

3. Jesus initiates proceedings that will lead to the solution for sin: his own death.  The authorities are upset with Jesus for inciting others to break the Sabbath, but Jesus dies not want to deal with that “lesser charge” – so he just ramps it up to the highest crime possible.  He makes himself equal with God.  What had started as a small misdemeanor, from the perspective of the authorities, is now a full capital crime.  And Jesus is the one who made sure it got to that level.  This was no mistake.  He knew what he was doing.

The tension created in this story rumbles on through the coming chapters and months right up to chapter 12, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for that first Easter week.

So this story at the start of John 5 is significant in the flow of John.  But is it significant in the flow of our lives today?  It should be, absolutely.

Jesus still takes the initiative, far more than we tend to realise.  How often is he kind to us in ways we have not asked for, or even before we knew him?  Jesus knows what it is to be human in this hurt and broken world, and he is very proactive in initiating acts of grace in our lives.  Sadly, just like the man in John 5, we are also often slow to respond (although hopefully, unlike what we know of the healed man, we have responded to Jesus with faith!)

Jesus still takes the initiative in seeking us out to flag the issues of sin that lie deep within us.  He knows that functioning legs are not enough.  Nor is a healthier financial situation, a fixed family relationship, or whatever other kindness he shows.  He knows us.  He knows our sin.  And he knows how to put his finger on that sin issue to help us move closer to what we should be.  While we may have resisted his pursuit before we were saved, let’s never resist his initiative now that we are his.

Jesus would still take the initiative to instigate his own death – he  loves us that much.  But he doesn’t need to do that.  His death stands as an accomplished, eternity-changing, heart-revolutionizing reality for us to respond to.

He shows kindness to us, he probes deeper to deal with our real issues, and he was willing to die to take care of those deepest issues.  John 5 underlines to us that Jesus is not passive, nor reactive.  He is proactive, initiating time and again in our lives for our good.  Let’s be those who are alert to his initiative, and who are responsive to what he wants to do in our lives today.

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 3

So our culture tends to show in how we preach.  We may accept that premise, but so what?  In part 1 we introduced the subject, and in part 2 we listed five ways our culture will be showing.

What should we do about it?  Here is a six-step action plan…

1. Write an initial list of your assumptions.  What comes to mind when you think of a typical preacher from your culture?  It is good to have a starting point so that as you think and research further you will see what you have learned.  Maybe start without any real categories, just what seems obvious to you.

2. Start to analyze your culture using categories.  In the last post I listed five: self, authority, confidence, humour and emotion/passion.  You might also consider organizational style and clarity (in respect to sermon content), use of visuals and expectation of the audience to read during a presentation, body language, smile and facial expression, and more.

3. Triangulate a new vantage point.  This is especially hard if you have only lived and attended church in one culture.  But it is still possible.  Select a culture that is not your own, but you have some awareness of … for example, most British Christians have some exposure to podcasts and speakers from the USA.  Listen to some good examples (not the extreme stereotypes that people like to use to dismiss “everything American” but preachers that you can enjoy and appreciate), listen not only to benefit from their preaching, but also to try to identify what makes their preaching distinctly American (or whatever culture you select).  Obviously there are always caveats, three white conservative evangelical preachers will help you to spot some common traits, but you will have missed the massive tradition of African-American preaching, etc.  You are not doing this to generalize or to label, but rather to gain a vantage point for your own culture.

Do the same with a culture you are not familiar with.  For instance you might find a handful of examples of preachers from a third continent.  Be careful not to just watch a handful of preachers with a different ethnic background who also live, study and preach in the USA or the UK – the distinct differences will be reduced by their assimilated context.  A totally new culture can give you the culture shock of unfamiliarity that will help this process.

Once you’ve started to recognize some commonalities in these two other cultures, making notes for your own use, then try step 4:

4. Watch your own culture from the vantage point of step 3.  Maybe find a handful of preachers from your own culture and watch them.  How do they differ from what you observed in the two cultures of step 3?  Be careful not to just feel at home and simply affirm them as generically good preachers.  Recognize that they have strengths and weaknesses from their culture.  Maybe having had a dose of a different culture or two you can start to spot some idiosyncrasies that may not be so helpful after all?  If you only see positives in your own culture, then go back and repeat step 3!

5. Ask questions. Sometimes you can gain a lot of ground quickly by just asking someone who is from outside your culture but will be honest enough to answer your question.  This will be more helpful after doing some good thinking yourself.  If you just jump to this then the benefit will be reduced, but it is still worth doing, especially if that person is in your church and you are preaching to them regularly.

6. Evaluate and adjust.  The more thoroughly you do steps 1-5, the more likely you are to take stock and start to make some adjustments.  This will involve not only understanding more of what is stereotypical in your culture, but also evaluating what traits you personally reflect from that culture, and thinking through who your listeners are too.  If they are from different cultural backgrounds, then that creates some obvious opportunities for adjustment.  But even if everyone in your church is saturated in your own culture, there may still be cultural idiosyncrasies that you could choose not to reflect in order to strengthen your communication.

Maybe you have travelled and become more aware of your own culture? Maybe you are ministering outside of your home culture? What other categories might you add to what has been mention in this short series

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 2

Yesterday we began the series by flagging that your preaching is probably more influenced by your national culture than you tend to realize (click here if you haven’t read part 1 already, it will help to make sense of this post.)

Here are some aspects of our preaching that may be more reflective of our culture than we realize:

1. Self.  How much of ourselves do we inject into the talk, and how do we speak about ourselves?  How comfortable do we feel telling stories about ourselves to support what we are saying?  Do we assume our listeners want to hear about us because we are the one speaking, or are we further down the continuum that assumes our role is to point them to the subject at hand rather than to the person stood before them?

2. Authority.  Do we tend to take the stance of the celebrity expert, or the authoritarian scholar, or use the indirect authority of gentle encouragement?  It is not just whether we speak with authority or not, but how that authority is wielded.  This is about whether we are more direct or indirect, instructive or suggestive, bold or subtle.

3. Confidence.  Related to authority is the issue of confidence.  Do we tend to show confidence when we speak, and is our confidence (or lack of it) usually more focused on subject matter, or on ourselves?  What can seem confident and humble in one culture can be heard as arrogant and aloof in another.

4. Humour.  Even though every person’s sense of humour is highly personal, there are cultural cues in our use of humour too.  What can have one crowd guffawing with laughter can easily leave someone from another culture wondering what all the fuss is about.  Some cultures value personal wit, others leave all humour to the experts, some cultures thrive on scripted stories, but others will naturally find such staged moments tiresome.  Self-deprecation will be another ingredient that shows at differing levels in different cultures.

5. Emotion/Passion.  Some cultures generate more public speakers with flare and enthusiasm, others are much more reserved.  While many will joke about their own cultural stereotypes, what shows in preaching is not always so obvious – in fact sometimes it can go in the opposite direction (I can think of some cultures known for being at one end of the continuum and yet generating many preachers who seem to reflect the opposite end of the scale!)  How does enthusiasm show, and in what element of the message does that energy become manifest?

These are just five categories of cultural influence on our public speaking.  What would you add to the list?

Your Culture and Your Preaching – Part 1

Last evening we sat down as a family to watch the first part of a training course that we want our teens to experience this summer.  It was very helpful.  And it was presented by someone from a different culture than the one we are living in.  Some of the differences were striking, but I wonder if the presenter might only have a limited idea if asked what was peculiarly typical of his culture.

One of the benefits of living in a foreign culture is that it gives you eyes to see your own culture of origin more clearly.  Our culture is like the water a fish swims in – it is all around us and affects everything, but we tend to be oblivious to it.

As preachers we work to know the world of the Bible and the world of our listeners, and maybe we think about our own world in respect to the inner landscape of our own lives that help us to recognize where we might be inclined to push an issue harder or avoid it altogether.  But I suspect a lot of us preachers remain fairly unaware of how our preaching and communication reflects our own culture.

Culture is made up of a series of overlapping categories that shape us and the way we communicate.  We are influenced and shaped by our family of origin, our education, our local area of upbringing, subcultures we choose to identify with (political, entertainment, music, special interests, etc.), national culture and even global-regional cultures (i.e. Latin America, or North America, or even Western vs Eastern).

And yet, while we are all individual in the profile of our various sub-cultural influences, still we tend to reflect the broader categories more than we realize. Even with clothing neutralized, vocabulary filtered, physical features blurred and accent removed, I suspect we might still be able to identify a speaker as being typically British or American or Australian or Italian or Polish or South African or Japanese or Brazilian, etc.

Tomorrow I will list five ways in which our culture tends to influence how we speak.  The following day I will list a plan for growing in awareness of this and hopefully improving our speaking as a result.  In the meantime, feel free to comment with things that come to mind when you think about how people tend to preach in your culture (probably better not to comment critically about other cultures though!)

______________________________________________________________

I just finished my Journey Thru John – one highlight per chapter through John’s Gospel.  Here’s the link in case you want to take a look (notice the slightly indirect invitation and that I didn’t make bold assertions about the life-changing truths in these brief videos?  Actually, it feels slightly awkward to mention them at all.  That’s my culture showing…)

 

3 Likely Outcomes of Bible-Lite Preaching

You can save a lot of sermon time if you simply summarize the passage, or only briefly touch on the text.  It allows you so many more precious minutes for application and relevance.   But at what cost?  What is lost by eliminating any extended explanation or retelling of narratives?  What is the cost to listeners of not really entering into the world of the passage being preached?  Here are 3 likely outcomes of Bible-lite preaching:

1. Biblical immaturity.  People shaped by Bible-lite preaching will not grow towards the kind of biblical maturity that they will need to thrive in this complex and difficult world.  Knowing a few popular proof texts and surface truths liberally mixed with applicational anecdotes and motivational missives will not be enough to weather the storms of life in this world.  To be mature believers they need the soul-reinforcement that comes from deep biblical-rootedness.

2.  Anemic Devotions.  For half an hour on Sunday our people observe a “mature Christian” handling the Bible.  They will copy what they see.  If you skim the surface in order to share superficial suggestions for life that aren’t deeply rooted in the Word, then guess what they will learn for the rest of the week?  Superficial engagement with the Bible on a personal level.  In fact, they are more likely to make some good worship music on the way to work their daily devotional content and leave the Bible on the shelf.  Why? Because your sermons don’t demonstrate that the Bible has any real weight, personal significance, genuine relevance or divine authority.

3. Godless Christianity.  What is Godless Christianity?  I don’t know, it is an oxymoron.  But I do know, sadly.  It is the kind of christian culture that reinforces itself week after week in many churches – the kind of nice and encouraging sub-culture that has a thin veneer of christian labeling attached to a set of behaviours and attitudes like a set of post-its … that is, not very solid under the slightest wind of difficulty or purposeful inspection.  Bible-lite preaching may encourage people to try to live out the Christian life, but without drawing them deeper into the source of that life – relationship with the Trinity.

As preachers we have a double-duty, or even a double delight: to enable people to encounter the God of the Bible as they enter into His Word, and to be changed by that encounter.  These two go together.  But don’t short-change the first by skipping to the second.  As the world seems to spin further and further away from the anchors of Biblical truth, people need to be more biblically literate and mature, not less.  Today, people need to have more exposure to God’s self-revelation in the Bible, not less.

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 3

So far we’ve mentioned cross-referencing, quoting scholars and meandering in part 1, then apologizing and illustrations in part 2.  Now, let’s finish this list of seven quick fixes with part 3 of the list:

6. Stop trying to be funny.

To put it bluntly, either you are funny or you are not funny.  But trying to be funny is not funny.  It is annoying.  That is not to say there can be no humour in our preaching, but let it be more natural.  Unless you are a great joke teller, don’t invest minutes of a sermon in telling a joke.  Trying to entertain or seek approval by laughs is not fulfilling your role as a preacher.  Instead let your demeanor be saturated with genuine gospel joy and enthusiasm that comes from living in the text you are preaching and walking closely with God.  It will be more sincere and people will appreciate it more.  If they want stand-up comedy then the internet is replete, ready and waiting.

7. Stop scratching at your passage.

Ok, this is probably not a quick fix, but it is significant.  A lot of preaching barely scratches the surface of the preaching text.  No matter how much you add careful illustration and clear structure, you can’t overcome the lack of biblical rootedness in this kind of preaching.  Instead of adding filler, or jumping around the canon, or whatever else you might do, dig down into the text you are preaching and make sure the message has the fingerprints of this specific passage all over it.

That was quite a random list, but maybe one of two of these quick fixes fit for you?  Feel free to comment with other things you have tweaked that helped you, or what you need to do next!