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.

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…

Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

The Power of Telling the Story

ourstory2There is more narrative in the Bible than any other type of Scripture.  People are surrounded by the power of narrative every day.  And yet preachers are often tempted to skimp on telling the story.  Why?

Life is lived in multi-layered narratives.  People engage with narratives all week: every film, TV show, sports commentary, most commercials, interactions at the coffee machine at work, catching up with spouse and children at home, chatting with neighbours over the fence – it is one mini-narrative after another.  Then they come to church and we too often leave the stories for children and preach a more “sophisticated” message.  Oops.

God gave us so much narrative in the Bible because of its power in engaging us with the wonder of his self-revelation.

So when you preach a narrative, tell the story.  It will be more effective than offering lists of instructions and points from the same passage (not to say that you shouldn’t clarify the main point and seek to demonstrate the relevance by means of possible applications).

How does telling the story work?

1. Listeners will identify with characters – if a story is told even relatively well, listeners will either be drawn toward a character, or repelled by a character.  We humans are wired to connect or pull back.  Neutrality to people is not a natural reaction (although in a fallen world we will be more neutral than we were intended to be).

2. Listeners will feel the tension of the plot – once the story moves from mere setting to some disequilibrium, listeners will typically feel compelled to listen for resolution.  We can’t help it.

3. Listeners will be marked by the resolution of that tension – that resolution, if the story has been told effectively, will register a mark in our hearts because we have been feeling emotionally engaged by the characters in their situation.

4. Listeners will find their lives superimposing on the image of the story – humans naturally overlay their own situations, struggles, feelings, doubts, hopes, etc., onto the stories of others.  This could be our empathetic relational wiring, or it could be self-absorption, but either way, we tend to be marked by stories not involving us because we connect somehow.

Preaching that tells the story is better than preaching that ignores the story and goes after just presenting propositions.

10 Listener Fatigues

yawningman2When listeners listen to preaching there are many different fatigues that can undermine the effectiveness of our preaching.  If we are aware of these fatigues, then maybe we can craft our preaching with sensitivity to the listeners.  Let’s jump into the list:

1. Genre Fatigue.  Each genre will tend to create a sense of same-ness in a series.  Let’s say you are preaching through an epistle for weeks and weeks.  Eventually, if we are not careful, the default patterns will prove tiring to listeners.  For instance, the description of historical background, the complex sentences in the text, the pattern of explanation and application, etc. can all become a bit too similar week after week.  Look for ways to be creative in such a series so that there is variation.  (Many of the following “fatigues” will help to see how this variation can be found.)

2. Key Text Fatigue.  Many Bible books contain a key text that will tend to be repeatedly referenced throughout the series.  For instance, any series in Colossians should probably reference 1:15-20, and maybe 3:1-4, to make sense of the subsequent sections.  This can get tiring for listeners, especially if the vocabulary of Colossians 1:15-20 is not really understood by the listeners.  Look for ways to reference the key text with variety – simple summaries, variations in wording, different styles of phraseology, but without losing recognition of what is being referenced.  Reference it without the reference.  Don’t always be overt, but let subtlety in reference to the key text be part of the series too.

3. Main Point Fatigue.  A true series of sermons through a book should be reinforcing the main point of the book, not just providing the launch texts for entirely disconnected messages.  But beware that listeners don’t get bored or annoyed by the repetition of the main point.  Keeping with Colossians, it is true that Paul could hardly do more to point us to Christ as the all sufficient one for salvation and growth, but figure out ways to preach the series so that listeners don’t start getting annoyed at hearing that we need to look to Christ in everything.

We’ll continue the list tomorrow…

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition (pt.2)

envelope2Continuing the brief list of a dozen pointers from yesterday…here are four more:

5. Master the whole.  Don’t just preach chunk by chunk through the epistle without getting to grips with the flow of the whole.  You cannot accurately preach a portion of an epistle without a good grasp of how the whole is working together.

6. Get the author’s logic.  Don’t read a section and look for three preachable parallel points.  Instead wrestle with what the author is trying to do in this particular section.  Sermon outlines can always adjust to fit the text, and they should do so.  Don’t adjust the text to fit your outline.

7. Preach to today.  Don’t just present a set of commentary labels and then try to apply “back then” truths to today.  Instead, preach the text to today, and go “back then” to substantiate what you are saying.  Wrestle with how that audience is similar to, and different from, your audience today.

8. Let truth be felt.  Epistles can lull us into a false sense of abstraction.  Don’t give theological theory, preach the gospel applied to real life (both then and now).  Preach tangibly, use implicit imagery, be vivid, help images to form on the heart-screens of your listeners.

The final four tomorrow.

12 Pointers for Effective Epistle Exposition

envelope2Epistles are often seen as the easiest texts to preach.  After all, they tend to be logical, structured and, since they are written to churches, easy to apply.  Here are some reminders that may be helpful for effectively preaching epistles:

1. Grasp the narrative.  Hang on, I thought we were talking about epistles?  Indeed.  By exploring the historical setting, especially by paying close attention to the details in the epistle itself, plus any Acts context, we can start to get a sense of the narrative that lies behind the letter.  The letter itself is one side of a conversation at one moment in time.  “Narratives” can be preached with tension, with feeling, with imagery, etc.

2. Learn the background.  Not just the specific occasion of the epistle, but whatever background understanding would help you.  For instance, how much do you really know about slavery in the Roman Empire?  What about proto-gnostic religions?  And the geography?  Take the chance to learn more, don’t just try to replenish what you once knew.

3. Familiarise like crazy.  Don’t read a letter then preach it.  Read it.  Read it.  Read it again.  Each time through, the flow of thought will become clearer and clearer.

4. Focus on the frame.  The “letter-frames” often get short shrift from expositors.  They shouldn’t.  Look at the beginning and end of the epistle: what is included, how conventions are followed or broken, each and every clue to the situation of author and readers.

Tomorrow I’ll share the next four…

Turning Blah Blah to Wow!

wow2A lot of people in our churches read a lot of the Bible as filler and waffle.  They wouldn’t state that overtly, of course.  After all, it is the word of God!  But actually, in practice, a lot of the Bible is read without real engagement.  Consider the epistles, for instance.  Why does this phenomena occur?

1. Because of complex sentences.  It can be hard for any of us to truly track a sequence of sentences from Paul.

2. Because of unfamiliar words.  Stewardship. Saints. Manifold. Rulers.  Not necessarily unknown words, but not words most people tend to use in normal life.

3. Because it seems to lack direct relevance.  We can’t help but look for what it is saying “to me,” which means the rest can seem distant or theoretical.

4. Because of familiar words.  Hang on, didn’t we say unfamiliar words were the issue?  Actually, Christian terms can grow too familiar – grace, given, revelation, promise, gospel, church, wisdom, boldness, confidence.

I am looking at Ephesians 3:1-13, for an example.  Paul begins a prayer in verse 1 and then gets distracted before returning to the prayer in verse 14.  Why does he get distracted?  Because he mentions his imprisonment for the sake of “you Gentiles.”  This triggers his explanation of why those Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t feel the way they probably do feel – i.e. losing heart.  (Actually, it was Trophimus, sent from Ephesus, who indirectly led to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment in Acts 20, so they probably felt an extra burden over Paul’s imprisonment!)

So to lift their hearts regarding his sufferings for them, and therefore to make clear their glory (i.e. their value expressed in his sufferings as part of God’s plan), Paul goes off on a theological digression that should thrill our hearts as well as it did theirs!

But instead most people read it as “blah blah blah…Gentiles…blah blah…grace…blah blah…wisdom…blah blah blah”

Enter the biblical preacher!

The preacher’s role, is, in part, to slow people down in this text and to help them make sense of what Paul is actually saying.  No word is wasted, and no word should be lost under an indiscriminate “blah blah” flyover reading.  So?

1. God gave Paul a key role in unveiling new news – God gave Paul a key role in his forever plan for the sake of the Gentile believers, which was to reveal the momentous new news of the Gentile co-equality in the gospel!

2. God gave Paul grace to preach Christ and explain the news – God gave the ultimate-sinful-nobody, Paul, grace to do two things – first, to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ; and second, to make clear God’s great plan, the new news about the Gentiles.  Why? So that the church can be God’s trophy cabinet to show off his multi-coloured wisdom to the spiritual realms!

3. God’s plan gives us Gentiles stunning boldness! – God’s plan in Christ means that we Gentiles have ridiculous boldness when it comes to entering God’s presence (don’t forget the temple imagery in the previous section)!

So, the Gentiles in Ephesus shouldn’t lose heart, but instead they should be thrilled at their glory/value demonstrated in Paul’s suffering for their sake!

This is true for us too, just as the scars of Christ are beautiful to us because they show God’s love for us.

(I wouldn’t preach these three points as they stand, but I would make it my aim to help listeners hear the content of a section like this, turning the blah blah blah into Wow! after Wow!)