How Do You Respond to Your Greatest Fear?

We live in a world of fear.  Deep down, most people live with a fear of something happening to their health or their loved ones.  Many people live in cities with soaring crime rates.  Geopolitical changes in a country on the other side of the world can raise the fear of terrorist attacks.  What we see on the news makes us afraid, or else what we don’t see on the news does.  Some are afraid of the cultural shifts that are rocking the moral foundations of society.  And for the last eighteen months, the fear of COVID-19 has been at the forefront of everyone’s thinking.  Either people fear the illness itself or fear the response from governments.  Fear is a feature of life in this fallen world.

I know that logic does not necessarily mix easily with fear – it never helped much with shadows at night when we were children!  But still, logically, it would make sense to fear most what is most significant or powerful.  Why worry about hay fever if a third of your village has died from food poisoning in the last month?  So, what is the most important, significant and potentially life-changing person or problem facing each of us today?

In Luke 8, we find Jesus on tour.  In the previous chapters, he has gathered his disciples around him and begun his ministry.  From the end of chapters 9 to 19, he will journey to Jerusalem and all that waits in store there.  But in chapters 8 and 9, Jesus is on tour in Galilee.  He is teaching and helping people.  The chapter starts with one of his more famous teaching moments – the man sowing seed on four kinds of soil.  The different soils lead to different responses.  But the bottom line of that story is that our hearts can be good soil for the seed of God’s word.  Good soil does not provide the seed, nor the sun, nor the sprinkling of rain.  It is just churned up mud, ready to receive God’s word.  And Jesus promises a multiplied harvest: a hundred times what was sown.

After the teaching comes a couple of stories where fear is a feature.  In the first story (Luke 8:22-25), the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee when a terrifying storm hits.  Even the experienced fishermen are scared of this storm, but Jesus woke from his sleep, and he rebuked the wind and the waves.  Immediate calm descended.  But their hearts were stirred up.  They were afraid.  Notice their response – they ask, “who is this?” and continue to follow him.  That is the correct response.  Jesus has overwhelming power and authority.  The proper response to someone so significant?  Fear.  And the desire to know more about him, to follow him, to be with him.

In the second story (Luke 8:26-39), the disciples arrive with Jesus in the region of the Gerasenes.  I suspect they may have been a little nervous in this foreign territory.  Perhaps they would tell stories about this region over the campfire late at night with the orange glow of the fire flickering on their faces.  This visit did not serve to change their prejudices!  As soon as they arrived, a man with many demons approached Jesus.

Many of us live in a time and place where demonic manifestation is not the preferred strategy of the enemy.  Many of our societies like to think of themselves as too sophisticated for this kind of thing.  Nevertheless, in this one man, we see classic features of evil.  For instance, evil always pulls towards death.  For this man, that meant nakedness and not living in society, but among the tombs. 

Today we see the same pull towards death in anyone struggling with addictive behaviour and its impact on their life.  We see it when we consider the impact of gangs and crime in a city or watch the news and ponder the march of evil on a grander scale.  Stripping away life, civility, community, and fellowship is always a feature of evil, and we see it all too much in our world.  If we look back in history, we see this in the concentration camps of the Nazis, the work camps of Communism, or the destruction of terrorism.  We may not see many demon-possessed men in our local graveyards, but there is plenty of evil in the world today.  Evil pulls towards death, and in Luke, the mass suicide of the pigs only underlines that truth.

This story presents the fearful reality of evil, and it also shows us another aspect that we must recognize.  The multitude of demons in this man greatly feared Jesus!  They didn’t negotiate,  certainly not as equals.  They begged.  They recognized his authority both in the present and in the future judgment.  The greatest evil in this world cowers in the presence of Jesus.

I can imagine the disciples at this moment.  They would not have been fanning out through the crowd offering their expert commentary on Jesus’ actions.  I imagine them squeezed in behind Jesus.  Nervous.  Awkward.  “Me? Oh, I am with him!”  We must remember Jesus’ authority over all evil and lean in close to him.  We are with him!  Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

This story does not just present us with evil and its fear of Jesus.  It also shows us that fear in the response of the local people too.  As they came and found the impossible-to-contain man dressed and in his right mind, they were afraid.  This Jesus is too powerful, too significant, too much of a life-changer.  He made them feel uncomfortable and afraid.  Like many people, even today, it is too scary to let someone turn their world upside-down.  Much better to live with the evil we have gotten used to than to have everything changed.  So they were afraid (compare verses 25 and 35), and they sent Jesus away.

The rescued man wanted to be with Jesus.  He begged that he might be with Jesus and get in the boat too.  We know from reading the Bible that he would eventually get to be with Jesus, as we all will, but first, he had work to do.  Jesus had churned up that region like ploughing mud in a field.  Now he was going to plant this man as a single seed into that mud.  I am excited to imagine what a hundred-fold increase might look like for him!  Maybe we will meet the Gerasene contingent when we get to heaven!

I wonder, did he look jealously at the disciples?  “Why do they get to be with you when I get planted into this fear-churned world?”  Again, we know from reading the Gospels the answer to that too.  The disciples would need a longer apprenticeship, but after three years with Jesus, he would also plant them into this evil world.  Jesus planted them with a promise.  “All authority has been given to me, therefore go and make disciples . . . baptizing . . . and teaching . . . and don’t miss this: I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:18-20)

We do live in a world filled with fear.  One day we will be with Jesus, away from all evil.  But for now, Jesus is with us as he multiplies a crop from our apparent insignificance.  May we not only see the evil around us that causes us to fear.  May we remember that evil cowers before Jesus.  May we respond to his greater significance in the right way – pondering who he is and leaning into him and his plan for our role in this world.  Fear Jesus, for he is more powerful and significant than any evil, or all evil!  Let us trust him as he places us in the mess of this world and see how he transforms lives through us!

7 Good Thoughts, 1 Ultimate Thought

Effective preaching should stir lots of thoughts. But it is important to distinguish good thoughts from ultimate thoughts. Any of these good thoughts become a problem when they linger as the ultimate thought from a sermon:

1. Thoughts About Self (Application). When we preach the Bible, we should preach with relevance to life that manifests in application. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about themselves as the ultimate thought of the sermon. I should try harder to . . . I must change in regards to . . . I need more discipline in my life . . . etc. Be applicational, but don’t make application the ultimate goal so that listeners go away thinking about themselves.

2. Thoughts About the Text (Education/Fascination). When we preach the Bible, we should enthusiastically invite people into the world of the text. Good preaching will stir good thoughts about the meaning of the text. People will learn, and they may find that the biblical text is genuinely fascinating. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about their fascinating new insights into the text as the ultimate thought of the sermon. Educate, fascinate, enthuse people for the Word of God, but don’t make this instruction the ultimate goal so that listeners go away thinking about the text as an end in itself.

3. Thoughts About Gratitude for Sermon (Appreciation). When we preach the Bible, we might inadvertently stir appreciation for our ministry. Good preaching should stir good thoughts of gratitude. The problem comes when listeners are left thinking about how much they appreciate the preacher as the ultimate thought of the sermon. By all means, be thankful for expressed gratitude; it is a real encouragement that we all need. Never let that become the ultimate goal.

4. Thoughts About Preacher – Positive (Admiration).  The last one can easily morph into this one. When we preach the Bible, we might accidentally or deliberately impress our listeners so that their thoughts are those of admiration. It could be our knowledge of Scripture, our ability to communicate, our sense of humour, our picture-perfect family life, etc. I hope it is obvious what the problem is here: some may be true, some may be a half-truth, some may be fake veneer – the concerns are mounting. You cannot always avoid a bit of admiration, attraction or affect in your preaching. You are standing up before a crowd and speaking, which is already something some of your listeners greatly fear. Of course, they may be impressed. But ask the Lord to search your heart and flag any deliberate impulses to impress. You don’t want to be the ultimate thought from your sermon.

5. Thoughts About Preacher – Negative (Aggravation).  You also don’t want to be the ultimate thought from your sermon because of negative reasons. Good preaching may convict and stir an adverse reaction to you as the messenger. That happens and maybe God’s plan. But the problem comes when listeners are left thinking about how much the preacher aggravates them because of tangible pride (see #4), annoying delivery habits, unhelpful content, antagonistic tone, etc.

6. Thoughts About Illustration (Illumination). When we are preaching, we will sometimes use illustrative material to help explain, support or apply what we are saying. Sometimes an illustration will capture the imagination of your listeners and achieve your goal in using that illustration perfectly. This is good. But it is not good when an illustration is so overwhelming that it becomes the ultimate thought. Don’t leave listeners thinking about that movie, that scientific anecdote, that witty response, or that poor little boy at the sports event.

7. Thoughts About the World (Consternation).  When we preach, we do not simply offer biblical truth. We provide biblical truth that speaks into the realities of our current context. In the process, we will need to help people see what is going on in our hearts, our community, our culture, our media, etc. As uncomfortable as it may seem, the pulpit does have a role to play in speaking truth into the bubble of contemporary cultural narratives. It is good to help people think, discern, and even react to injustice and corruption in our world. But it is not good when our cultural commentary becomes the ultimate thought in our listeners.

The bottom line is relatively simple, but it bears stating and pondering for us all. It is good to preach in such a way that people feel the force of the text in their daily lives, grow in their appreciation of the beauty of God’s revelation, feel thankful for good preaching, look up to a Christlike example, feel discomforted appropriately, gain insight through a powerful illustration and grow in their awareness of the state of society. These are all good thoughts. But these should not be ultimate thoughts. 

The ultimate thought that we want our listeners to linger longer in the hearts and minds of our listeners is simple: it is Him. May we preach so that our listeners walk away pondering the character, the heart, the goodness, the grace of God. Preach that they would see Jesus.

Why Humility Makes Sense

Last time I wrote about genuine humility in Bible interpretation (click here to go there). We live in a time when there is an increasing pseudo-humility, and a decreasing genuine humility in biblical interpretation. Why does humility make sense?

Increasing Pseudo-Humility – As truth apparently becomes more personalized, people can sound increasingly gracious if that is the tone they choose (there is a militant version of it too, which is also dangerous). The gracious tone and pseudo-humility sound like this: “I can’t tell you what this means to you, but my personal interpretation, for me, is this…” If anyone ponders whether this is a humble approach to the Bible or not, they will end up thinking about the horizontal dimension. That is to say, I don’t insist that my truth must also be your truth. Horizontal.

Decreasing Genuine Humility – But what about the vertical dimension? After all, if the Bible is God’s Word, then humility in interpretation should be evaluated vertically. Beneath the shroud of pseudo-humility lies an incredible arrogance. It says: “I have sufficient knowledge of every relevant subject, and have no worries about being culturally conditioned, so that I can evaluate the content of the Bible and sit in judgment over what it should mean in the realm of ‘my truth.'”

So why does humility make sense? Three quick facts to anchor our hearts as preachers and as readers of the Bible:

1. I am not God. Seems obvious, but in a fallen world, it certainly bears repeating! What I actually know is an infinitesimally small fraction of all there is to know. I am so shaped by my environment and culture, and yet incredibly unaware of how much my values reflect that reality.

2. God is God. He always has been and always will be. He is very good at being God. (Included in this statement of the obvious, but worth stating nonetheless, is that God is a wonderful communicator…why do we think we should sit in judgment on his inspired Scriptures?)

3. God is humble. It is easy to think that God values humility in us because it serves the pride in him. Dictators demand subservience. But the Bible reveals a God to us who is anything but a demanding dictator. His other-centred, self-giving and self-sacrificing nature appreciates humility in the human heart for the right reason. It is not to crush us, it is to lift us up and embrace us. God values humility in us because it resonates with who he is.

Let us be and help others to be humble and gracious. Vertically, we sit under the teaching of God’s Word with humility. Horizontally, we can speak of the meaning of God’s Word with gracious attitudes but also with boldness. This is what our “subjective truth” world desperately needs.

Handling God’s Word With Genuine Humility

Hermeneutics matters massively for us preachers.  It also matters for the people to whom we preach.  How we interpret the Bible makes all the difference in every aspect of faith and life. 

When hermeneutics is taught, you will typically find some standard elements.  There will be a foundation in bibliology – establishing the unique nature of the inspired Word of God.  There will usually be a set of general hermeneutical principles – guidelines that work whatever passage we may be studying.  Then comes the special hermeneutical principles – guidelines for each specific type of literature or genre.

I want to suggest that we need to include humility in our hermeneutics.  I don’t just mean humility that we may be misinterpreting a passage – although that is always helpful.  I mean humility as a foundational attitude. 

Humility or Hubris?

We live in an age when many believe it is not right to claim any definitive interpretation of a text.  Most people in our increasingly subjective age dismiss the idea of authorially intended meaning that retains any authority.

Many will see this subjectivity as a source of genuine humility in biblical interpretation.  Bombastic declarations of a definitive biblical interpretation have always been the antithesis of humility, have they not?

The logic of this position seems to make sense.  After all, people will say, there are many interpretations out there in the wider church world.  Furthermore, nobody has the right to claim to be right in their interpretation and thereby critically evaluate the interpretation of others.  And so, the logic goes, we are free to make of each text what we think best in our context.

Many people will feel this approach is the epitome of humility.  In reality, the tone may feel humble, but the core posture here is hubris, not humility.

Any Fixed Points?

Let’s be simplistic and imagine two marks in a diagram.  One represents the Bible.  The other represents you or me.

The Bible is a fixed point.  I know the Word of God is active, but hear me out.  The biblical text is an objective and fixed point.  God inspired the Scriptures so that every word in the original manuscript of each document is precisely what he wanted it to be.  We may release new translations, but the original text does not move.  And it still has absolute authority. 

We are not fixed points.  When I come to the Bible, I bring all sorts of assumptions.  My culture, my place in time, my worldview, my experiences, etc., will all influence how I understand the biblical text as I read it.   

Human nature, and the tendency of our time, is to subject the Biblical text to my subjective evaluation.  So the Bible becomes “unfixed” while I sit fixed in my position as the evaluator.  Chronological arrogance creeps in.  I start to evaluate what the text should mean in light of my great cultural insights.  Rather than acknowledging my arrogance, I can avoid the problem of sounding proud if I simply declare my interpretation to be personal to me. Then I won’t tread on any toes by declaring it to be the truth for anyone else. 

The reality is that the Bible is not subject to us; we are subject to it.  We are the moveable ones in the diagram.  Swayed by every wind of fashionable thinking, we don’t know as much as we might think we do.  So wherever we live in the world, or whenever we live in history, we are subject to evaluation by the Bible.  The Word of God comes against our assumptions.  It speaks against the spirit of the age.  It opposes the arrogance of our minuscule knowledge. 

On a horizontal level, our tone toward others may be humble.  But vertically, our subjective approach to God’s Word is the height of arrogance. 

Humble Hermeneutics

So what does it look like to interpret the Bible with humility?

  1. Let us be humbly thankful for God’s Word.  What a privilege we have to read, in our language, an accurate translation of the Bible.  What an honour it is to have this gift from outside of our world.  What a blessing to be able to read God’s self-revelation – we would be grasping in the dark without it.  What an encouragement it is to have God shepherd us through His Word.  He knows what we need and works in our specific circumstances, by His Spirit, and through His Word.
  2. Let us be humbly responsive to God’s Word.  Instead of arrogantly evaluating the Bible against what I think I know to be true, let’s humble ourselves.  Humbly respond to God’s Word as He challenges your thinking, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and every possible aspect of your life. 
  3. Let us be humbly confident interpreting God’s Word.  As we carefully apply a sound hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures, we can confidently assert the meaning of the text.  Always humbly recognizing that we could be wrong, or there could be a better way to state it, we can speak the Word of God as God’s Word.  This does not mean our tone should become bombastic or unloving.  But let’s not settle for the pseudo-humility of subjectivity in our Bible reading.

We need a humble hermeneutical approach to the Bible as we prepare to preach. Our hearers need to learn that same posture and approach. We live in an era of subjective pseudo-humility. Let’s pray that God will raise up generations with a genuine humility in handling God’s Word and a courageous willingness to respond to it and proclaim it!

It Can’t All Be “We”

As far as authority is concerned, there has been a shift happening over the course of a couple of generations. We have shifted from authorities being respected, to not being respected, to being distrusted and even opposed. Think of the police, or politicians. Actually, let’s think about the preacher. People may like the preacher, listen to the preacher, even appreciate the sermons, but there is a resistance to the concept of the preacher speaking with authority. One result of this is the shift in perspective and tone from preachers. Preachers often preach as fellow observers and recipients of the biblical text. The sermons are much more in the “key of we” than they used to be. There are benefits to this approach, but also some problems.

Back in the 1970’s the issue of authority was addressed in Fred Craddock’s book, As One Without Authority. This was a hugely influential book and it brought the “New Homiletic” into the consciousness of many in the preaching community. While there is plenty to learn from writer’s like Craddock, there is an underlying issue that needs to be faced. The New Homiletic, built on an underlying New Hermeneutic, is strongly emphasizing a reader-response approach to the biblical text. While we should think about what we, as readers, bring to our understanding of any passage we are reading, we must never lose sight of the author and his/His intent in the text.

If we believe a(A)uthorial intent matters, which it surely must if there is to be any correspondence between truth and reality, then it would be inappropriate to preach completely in “we.” As a preacher, you prayerfully study the text in order to determine the author’s intended meaning as closely as possible. Then you prayerfully consider how to preach that text to your listeners so that they can relevantly hear the truth of God’s word in the tone of God’s heart.

Your crafting of the sermon should never obliterate your study of the text, or else you preach a message stripped of the authority of God’s Word. Your authority is not the concern. His is. So when you preach, there should be a humble (you) and yet authoritative (His) explanation of the meaning of that biblical text and its implications for your listeners.

Humble but authoritative does not mean we have to jettison the “we” completely and become bombastic, haranguing, nagging, drill sergeants (remember the “humble”). However, humble but authoritative cannot be merely suggestive, reactive, passive and soft, either. There may be nobody in the room who consciously considers your role as a preacher to be authoritative, but everyone should sense that what you say is more than a suggestion.

If “we” is at home anywhere in the sermon, perhaps it is in the more applicational elements. After all, a strong division between clergy and laity has far less biblical argument in its favour than the role of authorial intent. You speak as one who needs to respond to God’s Word as much as anyone else. You speak as a priest to priests.

So there must be plenty of “we” in a message – we need to hear from God, we need His grace, we need His instruction, we all have gone astray, etc. But make sure you don’t infect the explanation of the text and the declaration of biblical truth with the subtle yeast of “we” . . . if it loses its anchor point in authorial intent then we all drift together. Understand and explain the meaning of the text with humble authority, and then take a lead as one of the “we” responding to His authoritative Word!

5 Pointers for the Discouraged Preacher

Preaching is a ministry that comes with plenty of scope for discouragement. Preaching involves being buffeted spiritually, giving out, receiving criticism, seeing disappointing results, and then having to go again, sometimes all too soon! The weekly emotional roller-coaster often has more low points than adrenaline highs.

1. Discouragements are par for the course. Facing discouragement is normal in all ministry. If someone in ministry claims to be on a perpetual high, then something might seem a bit off. If you are feeling discouraged, you are not alone. Across the globe there will be many others struggling with a passage, frustrated by a lack of response, tired from the spiritual onslaught, and drained from issues swirling in our culture that are impacting the church. Remembering that others are feeling it too can be a help at times like this.

2 .Remember God’s work in your life. He gifted you, prepared you, shaped you, and has used you. Reminisce over those times when God’s work through you has been clear and evident in the lives of others. Remember the blessing of your training – the formal studies, the encouraging relationships, even the books you’ve enjoyed reading. Recall those models and mentors that have inspired you, those prayer partners that have stood with you. Review that file of encouraging notes and emails.

3. Identify the actual standard for your ministry. It is so easy to start feeling pressured by standards that God is not holding up against you. It could be the long-serving previous pastor, or a famous preacher in an edited podcast that you enjoy (or that your congregation enjoys). It could be a world-renowned preacher, or a fellow minister in your church. God is not expecting you to be someone else. He wants you to be you. Empowered, growing, improving, but still you.

4. Who should you please? You cannot keep everyone happy all the time. You may preach with great sensitivity and still step on some toes. When it comes to preaching, you are not called to keep multiple plates spinning where each plate is the emotional happiness of key people in your life: the board of the church, the key political figure in the church, the most sensitive person in the church. It isn’t even to keep your spouse, or other big supporters of your ministry happy. Your goal is to love the Lord radically and seek to please Him.

5. Pray, Prepare and Preach. If we take stock of your lifetime of sermons and add them to mine and a few others, what do we discover? We discover that the chances of this Sunday’s message being the catalyst for spiritual revolution is very low. By all means pray for big things, but remember the principle of a good basic diet. It isn’t the stunning, best ever, perfect cuisine that raises a healthy adult. That Christmas lunch or special birthday dinner is great, but it is the good basic diet offered day by day that raises a healthy adult. In the same way, if all you can do for this Sunday is a good basic sermon – great, go for it. Your church will be the healthier for it. Pray, get your nose into the text and give what you can come Sunday.

Some Sermons Need More Preparation Time

Years ago I heard a preacher say that “a sermon prepared in the mind of the preacher only reaches the mind of the listeners. But a sermon prepared in the mind, and in the heart and life of the preacher reaches the heart and life of the listener too.”

This means that some sermons should probably wait. You may have prepared meticulously through the steps – you understand the text, you have accurately identified the main idea, your message helpfully presents the passage relevantly so that the main idea can be delivered to your listeners – in traditional terms, it is a well-prepared sermon that is ready to launch. But maybe it needs to wait.

Why might a sermon need to wait? The point I am making is fairly obvious. It is not enough to become informed in preparation for preaching. In some way that truth needs to soak into our lives and bring about some level of transformation. Perhaps you are working on a sermon on prayer, or on financial giving. The problem is, although you understand the biblical teaching on the subject, you are honestly not much of a pray-er or giver. Postpone the sermon for a year, and with God’s help, let those truths soak into your heart and change your life. Then preach it. Don’t preach yourself (always a temptation after a season of growth), but preach the sermon with genuine conviction.

Practical implications of this truth – I am sure most people would agree with the previous paragraph, in principle. Theoretically that makes sense. But practically? What about the preaching calendar? How can I postpone a sermon mid-series? How can I prepare another sermon at potentially short notice? The lack of an obvious solution could perhaps be a spur to several partial solutions. Perhaps we need to pray through series of sermons more before we launch into them. Once in a series it is possible to give less energy to a section in order to come back to it more effectively later. Certainly we shouldn’t be starting our sermon planning on Saturday evening – that leaves no wiggle room for anything. Somehow we need to break patterns of urgency that leave us constantly playing catch-up and lacking in the buffer capacity to look ahead, to pray, to plan, to ponder.

Bottom line . . . it is easy when preaching regularly to lose sight of a fundamental reality of ministry. Busy ministry schedules can leave us scraping along from one deadline to the next. At its core, ministry involves the privilege of being first in line to be taught, rebuked, corrected and trained by the word of God. If that has gotten lost in the shuffle, it is time to confront your current version of the shuffle.

The “Sweetest Agony” of Ministry

Somebody has said that preaching is the sweetest agony.  It is sweet when lives are changed.  And it is agony the rest of the time! 

That is probably unfair, but whatever ministry we are involved in, it is good to pause and reflect on the sweeter parts of it.  After all, there is plenty to find discouraging!

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed.  Sometimes you preach a message or have a conversation and a life is changed completely.  More often, change occurs over a longer time frame.  It can be hard to measure when change occurs.  But occasionally, people may write a note that specifically lists the impact of your ministry. 

Since there is always a long list of reasons to become discouraged in ministry, it is a good idea to keep a log of some of these encouragements.  Keep a collection of those notes and let them sit there, ready for a day when you really need to be reminded of the sweeter aspects of ministry.  Keep an email folder of encouragements that you can go back to when the inbox is overwhelming and discouraging.

With all that is going on, and all the reasons for discouragement, why not take a moment to look back and list some of the lives that you have seen changed by the grace of God?  If you have some encouraging notes already collected, why not read a few and give God thanks for how he has worked in the lives of those you serve?

There is nothing as rewarding as seeing lives changed, but there is one other person to remember.  If the sweetness of ministry is changed lives, then don’t forget the one life that hears every sermon you preach, every conversation you participate in, etc.  By this, I mean you. 

Every time you prepare a sermon, you are involved.  Every time you plan a workshop, prepare a talk, anticipate a conversation, or schedule a one-on-one meeting, you are part of it.  This means that you get to go through the times of prayer, the low points, the spiritual highs, the wrestling with the biblical text, the struggle to figure out how to lead a session, the grappling with formulating your main idea, the prayerful decisions to omit material, and the practice runs of a sermon or speech with only you and the Lord listening.  You are there.

Much of ministry can feel like the agony of labour, striving to work through all that it takes to eventually bring to fruition something helpful for others.  It can seem like thankless toil.  People don’t understand the time you invest, nor the stress you often carry.  But let’s remember the good times too.  The times of sweet fellowship with the Lord.  Those moments where your desperate prayers give way to clarity on a way forward.  The times when study leads to deeper understanding of a text and greater worship in your heart.  These are times of blessing and encouragement in ministry.  Sweet times. 

Let’s find ways to mark these moments.  Maybe write a thank-you note to God and put it in your files.  Maybe a journal entry, highlighted to help you find it again.  Perhaps you have a collection of visual “memorial stones” on a shelf – markers of moments to help your memory.  You need some way to remind yourself of the sweetness of ministry: how good it has been, how good it can be, and how good it will be again.

Most ministries that are worth doing entail a whole lot of agony.  But there is a sweetness in serving God and his mission in this world.  There is a sweetness in the blessing that we receive as well as the blessing we offer to others.  And when ministry feels overwhelming and difficult, we need a way to remind ourselves of the sweeter parts of ministry, of the lives changed and blessed, including ours.

This year has started with all sorts of complexities and does not promise to be easy for any of us.  But God has promised to be with us through it all.  Let’s find ways to not let ministry drain play a decisive role in our life stories.  Yes, there will be agony in what we do, but let’s be sure we don’t miss the sweet moments too!

A Low Fence: Revisited

One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:

When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence.  The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.  

1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.

2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.

3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.

4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts.  I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching.  With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study.  With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical.  With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.

These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –

A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,

B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or

C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text. 

Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are.  I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time.  Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage.  Next week it will be a different one.

(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)

7 Ways to Not Really Preach a Passage

Here are seven ways to not really preach the text you claim to be preaching. You may notice that I will say nothing about heresy. I will assume that what is said in each type of sermon is biblically and theologically true. Nevertheless, in each case the preacher is not really preaching the text they claim to be preaching. After the list, I will suggest three reasons why this is a problem.

1. Springboard Preaching – This is where you read the text at the beginning and then leave it behind. You may go to some wonderful places in the thoughts that follow, but the actual text is long forgotten.

2. Trigger Word Preaching – This is where you allow words in your text to sequentially trigger you to preach other things. This is like a sequence of mini-springboards. Again, you may go to good places in what you say, but you aren’t saying what this passage says.

3. Cross-Reference Preaching – This is a variation where keywords in the preaching text trigger travel via the concordance to other, probably preferred preaching passages. I presume they are great passages, but this one is getting short shrift.

4. Preferred Text Preaching – This is similar to the previous one, but all the triggers take you to the same place. I once took a course in Pastoral Epistles, but the teacher seemed determined to spend as much time in Romans as possible. Wasted opportunity.

5. Meaning-Lite or Intention-Lite Preaching – This is harder to spot. It appears to be preaching in the preaching text, but the preacher has not wrestled with the text in context, or with the original intention of the author, so the text has become a superficial and context-less set of abstract thoughts for the preacher to play with. The preacher may say good things, but is the preacher saying what the author intended to communicate?

6. Theological Overlay Preaching – This is a variation on number 5, but it is harder to critique. After all, the preacher might be presenting an amazing theological lecture, but the issue is that if it isn’t the intention of the passage, then it is an overlay being imposed rather than having the credibility of coming out of the text.

7. Anecdotally Dominated Preaching – This is where there is a tip of the hat to the text, but the real energy is invested in anecdotes and illustrations. These don’t serve the preaching of the passage, they swamp it. Now, they might be theologically brilliant quotes, stories and examples, but what about the passage?

That is a quick menu of seven ways to not really preach the text you purport to proclaim. But if these sermons are biblically and theologically accurate, is it a problem? Here are three reasons why it is a problem:

A. Your preaching text is good, why miss it? The alternative may be attractive, it may be more preachable, and it may even be what they need. If it is, preach that text. But why pretend to preach this passage and then not really preach it? In your preaching calendar it will say that you preached it, so it won’t get another opportunity for several years. Why not let them have this particular passage’s truth – it is unique, it is God-breathed, and it is profitable.

B. You are shrinking the canon, why do that? When your preaching text does not control your content, then you will naturally move to easier texts, to pet ideas, to personal soapboxes. Even if these are all true, they are also too few. God gave us a whole Bible of self-revelation. When we reduce that to the extent of our preferences, that will always make for a much smaller canon. What you want to say will never be as rich, diverse, interesting and helpful as what God has said and wants to say through the preaching of the Bible.

C. You are undermining God’s credibility as a communicator, why teach that? What example are you giving your listeners, especially the more discerning ones? When they look at a text and sense that what you have said isn’t really what that text is saying . . . but you imply that it is . . . what do they learn? The Bible is not good communication? This preacher does not believe God to be a good communicator? I should let the text trigger disconnected thoughts when I read it too?

Please add more ways this happens and more reasons it is a problem in the comments. And let’s resolve, prayerfully and passionately, to always seek to really preach the passage we claim to be preaching!

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