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!)

Fully Known, Fully Loved

fully-known(This post was first posted on www.cordeo.org.uk)

Human beings tend to default to a self-at-the-centre mindset in everything.  We even bring this predisposition to our understanding of Christianity and end up with variations on the same theme.  We are the seekers, we find Jesus, we commit to Jesus, we live for Jesus, etc.  If we are not careful we can paint our own self-at-the-centre approach in the colours of Christianity and assume all is well.

Perhaps we have heard counter arguments against our being the seekers.  After all, the great initiative surely rests with Christ in this regard since he came from heaven to earth, from the throne to the manger, from God’s side to ours.  As one of the great punchlines of Luke’s Gospel tells us, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10) The story of Christmas and the first Easter are conclusive, “while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Accepting that Jesus moved toward us before we could ever move in his direction, let’s ponder what we might call the encounter.  In John’s Gospel we get the stunning opening prologue that introduces us to the Word of God who is at the Father’s side, but who pitches his tent among us, comes to reveal the Father, full of glorious grace and truth, who comes to his own but they do not receive him, and yet is able to give the right to become the children of God to those who do.

After this prologue, the introduction really continues for the first four chapters or so as we are introduced to great themes that will continue to develop under the intense pressure of the tension between Jesus and the authorities.  In these opening chapters, we are introduced to themes of belief, of glory, of signs, of witness and more.  And in these opening chapters we get incident after incident of people encountering Jesus.

John the Baptist comes as our first witness to Jesus, declaring that he is not the Christ, but is just a voice preparing the way.  He declares that he is just baptizing with water.  But he points to the coming Christ who is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and the one who will baptize people with the Holy Spirit.  The focus is well and truly on Jesus when he finally walks into the action and starts to meet people.

After a couple of John’s disciples follow Jesus, one of them brings his brother to Jesus.  Jesus seems to already know him.  As soon as they meet, Jesus renames him.  Next verse we have another person being brought to Jesus by the witness of another, this time it is Phillip bringing Nathanael.  Nathanael is understandably skeptical about the idea that the Messiah could come from Nazareth, but as he approaches Jesus he also finds that Jesus already knows him.

What Jesus says to Nathanael seems to stir an extreme change in Nathanael.  Jesus makes one comment about the lack of deceit in Nathanael and he suddenly declares that Jesus is the Son of God and king of Israel.  That is a big shift from his skepticism about Nazareth.  Looking at the clues in the text at this point it feels like Nathanael may have been pondering the story of Jacob as he sat under the fig tree, maybe he was praying about it.  Jesus knew Nathanael.  He knew what he had been thinking or praying and proved it with his deceit comment.  He reinforced it with a reference to angels ascending and descending (but notice who is the connection between heaven and earth – it is Jesus!)

In the second chapter, Jesus starts to reveal his glorious kindness, sensitivity, and power at the wedding in Cana, before heading for the temple in Jerusalem.  He created a stir there and people started to trust in him at some level.  But interestingly we are told that Jesus did not entrust himself to them.  Why?  Because he knew what was in man.  So we are introduced to an example man – Nicodemus.

Jesus and the teacher of Israel have a conversation in chapter three that again begins with Jesus revealing that he does indeed know what is in man.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus with kind words and Jesus seems to rebuff him by stating that unless he is born from above, then Jesus can’t chit chat with him about the God subject.  Jesus knows that this great teacher is actually still spiritually dead on the inside.  Nicodemus is confronted not by a Rabbi come from God that he can approach, but by someone who sees to the core of who he is and what he lacks.

In chapter four we get another person encountering Jesus.  This time it is a troubled woman shunned by her own peers who meets Jesus at a well.  Not surprisingly it soon becomes clear that Jesus knows what is going on in her life too.  While she is still thinking this is just another man trying to make a connection with her, Jesus tells her about her five husbands and live-in lover.  She is undone.

Just as we cannot take credit for seeking Jesus, nor can we take credit for getting to know him first.  When we meet Jesus we are meeting one who knows all about us.  Maybe this is an aspect of evangelism that we have let slip over the years?  Perhaps we are proclaiming a gospel that focuses too much on the person, and too little on Jesus?  Perhaps as people encounter Christ they will be undone as they come to discover that he already knows them, and yet loves them still!

Maybe this is an aspect of our own relationship with Christ that has slipped from our awareness too?  How easily we can slip into presenting ourselves carefully to Christ as if he does not know all the gritty reality of our inner lives.  How easily we can pray wearing a mask.  How easily we forget that Jesus really knows us, and fully loves us.  We are totally vulnerable before him, whether we know it or not, he knows us.  We are fully known, and yet fully loved!

5 Ways to be a Good Bible City Tour Guide

TourGuide2When you move to a new city it can be very overwhelming.  I remember moving to South London back in the days before my phone knew how to get me to my destination.  I had a huge book of street maps on the passenger seat and I gradually learned to navigate between key landmarks.  I would have loved a tour guide sitting there instead – as long as it was a good tour guide.

I would not have appreciated hearing meticulous details about the front of several houses in an obscure cul-de-sac.  “Turn right into Downing Close.  Pull over behind the white care.  Notice how houses 3, 5, and 7 all have a black gate, but different colour front doors?  Isn’t it intriguing to note how number 5 in particular does a good job keeping the side hedge trimmed and the roses look pretty good too?”

That kind of detail, presented with a dull lack of enthusiasm, would have quickly pushed me back to trusting in my book of maps.

What makes a good tour guide?  And what has this got to do with preaching?

We live in a time when very few people grow up with a good level of biblical awareness. Consequently our churches have a growing population of people who find themselves lost when they open the pages of the Bible.  They need help, and the preacher might be their main “tour guide” to help them get around.

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. Preacher Bible Guides should believe that their listeners need to journey in the Bible for themselves during the week – a sermon on a Sunday is not enough Bible for anyone.  We must realize how much people need to be in the Word when we aren’t there to preach it to them.

2. A good tour guide knows the big picture and the key landmarks.  It is not enough to know your way around a few key streets, you need to know how the whole fits together and what the significant landmarks are.  In Bible terms this means you need to know the big story, and understand the key landmarks: can you tell the Bible story by key characters (Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul), or by key covenants (Abrahamic, Palestinian, Davidic, New), or by key events (creation, exodus, exile, cross, second coming), etc?

3. A good tour guide knows fascinating details that help to make sense of, and add colour to, the big picture.  It is important to be able to slow down and help someone see the significance of what is happening in a particular passage of Scripture, but not as a cul-de-sac in isolation.  The best tour guides can point to a detail, tell the story, and make the big picture make more sense.

4. A good tour guide knows when to go to a big landmark and when to go to a little detail.  The same is true for the preacher.  Learn how and when to give a sense of the whole, as well as how and when to make much of a detail.  You need to be able to do both, and you need to learn when to do each one.

5. A good tour guide genuinely loves the city.  Nothing worse than good knowledge offered dispassionately as if it actually doesn’t matter.  A good tour guide will help you fall more and more in love with the city and its story and its people and its charms.  How much more is this true for a Bible City Tour Guide?

Believe that your listeners should be discovering more for themselves all week long in Bible city.  Know the big picture and key landmarks, as well as the fascinating details that bring the big story to life, and know when to offer big picture or little detail.  Love the Bible city and the God revealed there.  Put that all together and you are the kind of Bible City Tour Guide that people in our churches are crying out for…

The Story of 3 Great Unions

Union with Christ is becoming a fashionable term in church world.  Some are recognizing the significance of the term, seeing it as the framework in which all of salvation theology makes sense.  Others are using it because others are using it.

Yet the term is used in a variety of ways.  Some will speak of an ecstatic union where the human soul ascends into some sort of beyond revelation intersection with an unspeaking God.  Others will use union with Christ as a label for the legal position achieved by the atonement wherein the sinful soul is counted free and just through association with Christ.  Still others will speak of a true union where the believer is truly united by the Holy Spirit to Christ in a marital relationship.

While the term may be used in these three different ways with varying levels of merit, there are actually three unions we should ponder biblically:

1. The union of God with God. The Bible gives us a glorious glimpse into the Trinity, the perfect union of Father and Son by the Spirit that overflows in creation. When the Fall follows we naturally ask what will this God do?

(The Promise – This God promises to defeat sin and death, to send a deliverer who is the Son, and ultimately to achieve a marriage-like connection with humanity.)

2. The union of God and man in Jesus.  God sending His Son is the great hinge of history. The Son of God remained fully God, while becoming fully man.  This perfect union of God and man in the person of Jesus means that he is fully God, fully man, fully one, forever.  In this person we see humanity rescued and drawn to God at the cross of Calvary.

(The Promise fulfilled – God said He would deal with sin and death, and He did.  So now we can experience the first phase of the fulfillment plan:)

3. The union of God and man in the Spirit. The Son of God didn’t just become one of us to die for us, He also became one of us to enable us to be united to Him in a spiritual marriage.  Now we can taste something of the wonder of being made one Spirit by the Spirit – one with Christ.  One day this spiritual marriage will be consummated at the end of human history!

When we preach, let’s not fall into a mere status presentation of the Gospel, nor a hypothetical ideal version of ecstatic union with God.  Instead let’s keep front and centre this glorious progress of three unions that tell the wonderful story of God’s great plan.


WEST-Union-SliderSince this post made much of the theological theme of Union with Christ, I thought I’d take the opportunity to push your attention towards the growing resources available at Union.  Please be sure to take a look at UnionTheology.org for some great resources, as well as Union School of Theology if you are considering pursuing further education.

The Pathway to Spiritual Maturity

Pathway2The epistle of James is a remarkable document. He was the skeptical half-brother of Jesus who became a key leader in the church in Jerusalem. While Jesus was going through his season of public ministry, James thought he was mad. Then we discover that the risen Christ “appeared to James” (1Cor.15:7). Resurrection from the dead was enough to convince and transform skeptical James. He became a passionate follower of Christ and a leader who longed to see all who called themselves Christian living sold out lives for God.

The first chapter of his epistle starts as he means to go on. He gets right into the nitty gritty of life, but he does not want to simply offer pragmatic instructions.  James’ great concern was spiritual maturity. He wanted his readers to live fully for God.

So he launches into the issue of the various kinds of trials we face in life.  James sees trials as inevitable – for he does not write, “if you face trials,” but “when you face trials.”  James sees trials as painful – for otherwise why would he tell the reader to “count it joy when you face trials.”  The kind of processing resulting in a bottom line evaluation that this is a joyful thing is not an automatic response to suffering.  But James also sees trials as purposeful and fruitful.  Trials lead to steadfastness, which in turn brings about maturity.

That is a great promise, but how can we “count it all joy?”  How do we get there?  After all, most of us naturally will “count it all misery” when we suffer.  How can we get the perspective that James’ is advocating, and thus how can we move toward maturity?

First James counsels the reader to ask God for the perspective, or the wisdom, that is needed in times of trial (see vv5-11).  God is a loving father who loves to give good gifts, including the trials that mature us, so we need only ask.  Actually James really is at pains to underline the importance of pursuing 100% God’s perspective in these times.  Our natural approach will be to make sense of our trials from our own perspective, or with worldly wisdom.  Our natural approach will be to blame our lack of resources, or rely on our own resources to face the things that we have to face.  But James wants his readers to go 100% for God’s perspective.

God wants to give perspective to us in times of trial, and also hope to help us remain steadfast in the midst of it all (see v12).  But don’t miss where he goes next, for this is not describing some kind of Christian fatalism.  Yes God gives good gifts, including ones that feel negative, but God never gives us temptation.  I am more than capable of generating enough of that from my own heart, but it is a comfort to know that God has never once tried to get me to sin.

He gives good gifts like a Father loves to give his children good food.  He gives good gifts like a father loves his child and therefore gives the nasty tasting cough medicine when it is needed.  He gives good gifts – tasty food, nasty medicine, but never poison.  God is consistently and persistently a loving Father, so we should look to Him for perspective and hope in the midst of trials.

But when we ask for God’s wisdom in the midst of our trials, how do we hear from Him?  The end of the chapter shifts from vv19-25 to address the role of the Bible in our journey toward spiritual maturity.

He seems to begin with some slightly random relational wisdom – be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.  Maybe you have worked or lived with someone who is slow to listen, quick to speak and quick to become angry.  It is very difficult.  Maybe you are that person around others? Know that this is a description of natural humanity, or what we are like in our spiritual immaturity.  James is not giving random relational insights, he is addressing the issue of our response to God’s word.  Verses 20-21 make it clear that he is addressing our natural default response of self-protective anger when confronted or challenged by God’s word.

Instead of flaring up in anger when God’s word challenges us, let us instead receive the implanted word of God with meekness or humility.  Notice two things here:

First, the word is “implanted” – which refers to it not being acquired, but natural. James is speaking of salvation and how the Spirit of God plants within us the word of God, through which we are saved. That means that we are now heart-level Bible people . . . we don’t instantly know everything, but we now have a heart-level resonance with the Scriptures. We start to find them beautifully attractive, and personally relevant. The Bible is not just an object to be studied, but a means to an encounter with God to be enjoyed and experienced.

Second, notice the attitude with which we are to receive this implanted word – with meekness.  This is a humility that is not defensive, not self-protective, not angrily resistant, but instead humbly receptive to how God wants to put His finger on issues in our life.

James goes on to describe a further aspect of truly receiving God’s word.  We are also to put into practice what is shown to us as we look intently into the Bible. This is the living word of God that will pinpoint issues in us that God invites us to responsively address.  James wants “doers who act” in response to the Bible. Notice two things in verse 25 that are really important as we mature spiritually.

First, he advocates a persevering approach to gazing into the word of God.  Like a man looking in a mirror, we won’t easily or naturally see ourselves clearly. Instead our inclination will be to see what we want to see in the mirror of the word.  But James wants the readers to really look intently and to get a clear sense of God’s perspective on us.  Seeing ourselves clearly in the mirror of the word of God is vital, but it is not enough.  In fact, to miss James’ point here and focus on ourselves would be dangerous.

Second, notice his reference to the “perfect law” which he calls the “law of liberty.”  This is not just a reference to the standard of God’s written word.  It is, I believe, a reference to the fulfilled law that we find after Christ came – a law no longer written on tablets of stone, but now etched into our newly living hearts, indwelt by the Spirit and characterized by intimacy with God.  It’s not that we must simply receive the word with humility and respond to it.  No, we go into our Bibles for more than information and self-diagnosis, we are to receive the word with humility and respond to Him.

The pathway to spiritual maturity is littered with trials – little ones like losing our keys, and big ones like losing a loved one.  How are we to engage with these trials?  By engaging fully with God.  We should ask Him for wisdom, relying solely on His character and goodness, not simply mixing that in with our self-protective narratives and self-reliant resources.  We ask Him for wisdom, and look to the Bible to hear his answer.

How easily we can make this passage a pragmatic set of suggestions, but really it is an invitation to a sold out, all for Jesus, God and God alone, fully-His relationship.  May we be leaders that seek God’s perspective alone in the trials of life.  May we be those who persevere in His word so that we hear from Him, and act on what He shows us.  Maybe then our lives and ministries will be reflective of His character as James summarizes at the end of the chapter – concern for God’s values and care for others, a genuinely Christlike maturity.

Life Now

Life2We can easily make the Martha mistake.  I don’t mean the Martha in the kitchen mistake though.  At the end of Luke 10 we see Martha graciously rebuked by Jesus for desperately trying to love her neighbor as her first priority, when she should have first loved the Lord and allowed Him to minister to her before she tried to minister to others.  We easily and maybe regularly make that Martha mistake, but I am not referring to that.

We can easily make the Martha in the street mistake.  In John 11 we see Jesus at a key point in his ministry coming to Bethany where Lazarus was ill and then died.  Martha runs to Jesus and expresses her grief, that if Jesus had been there, then Lazarus would not have died.  Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. But now Lazarus was dead and buried, Jesus was too late, and Martha understandably made a mistake.  What was it?

Jesus told Martha that Lazarus would rise again. What do you say to a grieving sister?  Maybe this was just one of those platitudes that we hear at Christian funerals.  Comfort, but distant.  Martha took it that way.  She assumed that Jesus comes to us and points off into the distant future – comfort for the by and by.  She was mistaken.

When Jesus told Martha that “I am the resurrection and the life,” he was not just referring to the far off future.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was about to reinforce the Jerusalem leadership’s decision to kill him.  What she didn’t know was that this person stood before her was soon to enter into death deliberately and with dignity.  And what she didn’t know was that in a few weeks this person stood before her would stand up and walk out of his own tomb as the conqueror of death.

If Martha could have seen the next few weeks, then she might have anticipated more in the next few minutes.  Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and Lazarus was about to be miraculously resuscitated after four days of stone cold death.

We can easily make the Martha mistake.  We can assume that Jesus comes to us in the tough times of life and ministry in order to point our hearts into the future – that far off time when we will be with him and all the tears will be wiped and the presence of sin dusted away and we will forever enjoy what we were made for, fellowship with the Trinity.  This is all true.  But this is not all.

Jesus comes to us in the midst of hurt, and sorrow, and challenge, and struggle, and betrayal, and fatigue, and tears . . . and he comes to give us life now.

Too many gospel presentations offer only a ticket to heaven when you die. And too many Christians are walking around with hope of comfort tied exclusively to that end of life anticipation.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who comes to us, by his Spirit, in the midst of the mess we experience.  Jesus is the kind of Savior who gives us life now.

Martha misunderstood the physical implications of Jesus meeting her that day.  We can misunderstand the spiritual implication of Jesus meeting us today.

As conqueror of death and Lord of life, what is it that Jesus offers us today as his beloved friends and family?  He offers us hope for the future and a new standing with God, of course.  But never let the good news diminish into a merely status-based future hope.  Jesus offers us the loving intimacy of the Trinity by the Spirit poured out into our hearts reassuring us of God’s love, urging us to call God our Abba.  Jesus offers us eternal life now, which is to enjoy fellowship with God our Father and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.  Jesus offers us transformed hearts, filled hearts, tenderly loved hearts.  Jesus offers us his presence, his comfort, his concern and his companionship.  Jesus offers us life, now.

I thank God for Martha.  Her mistake in the kitchen in Luke 10 is a mistake I make all the time.  Jesus’ gentle rebuke of Martha resonates deeply as a loving rebuke for me.  And her mistake in the street at Bethany in John 11 is a mistake I make all the time.  I too tend to live my life as if Jesus’ presence is nice today, but the difference Jesus offers lies off in the distant future.  Jesus lovingly corrected Martha’s grieving error by giving her the embrace of her brother that day.  Jesus lovingly wants to correct our similar error by giving us his embrace, today.  That is life, eternal life.  It is not only life forever then.  It is, in the midst of all the mess I experience, life now.

Legalism and Preaching – part 3

Legalism2Legalism is not only possible for Christians, it is likely.  The default leaning of our flesh is toward autonomy. That autonomy can manifest in overt rebellion (antinomianism) or in self-righteous religiosity (legalism), but both are manifestations of a separation of God’s Law from God Himself.

You probably see the label “antinomian” being used. It is a serious charge. It suggests that someone is anti-law and therefore, by implication, pro-sin. It tends to be used of those who don’t elevate the Law as much as they apparently should. Undoubtedly there are some antinomians who are genuinely pro-sin, but I haven’t met many. I have met a lot who might be labeled “antinomians” who do not see the Law as the solution to the profound reality of sin, and who, incidentally, live lives characterized by greater integrity and with more fruit of the Spirit evident than some who like to criticize them.

As preachers we need to wrestle with these issues. We stand and speak not only of how to be saved, but also about living the Christian life. For many those are two separate messages. We are saved by grace, they say, but we live the Christian life by determined obedience to the Law.  Somehow this two-part message should feel very awkward for us.

We need to devour our Bibles and get a sense not only of the instructions in there, but also the source of those instructions.  Jesus seemed to suggest that His way would mean a greater and a deeper holiness, one that would surpass that of the fastidious Pharisees.  Yet we tend to think of the Old Testament folks as having a far more demanding legal code than we could cope with. Are we missing something?  Should we demand more strongly that our listeners keep more laws?  Or is there something implicit in the New Covenant that Jesus instituted that leads to a greater awareness of sin, and a greater victory over it?

The New Testament is clear that this life will be a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit, so perfection is unrealistic.  But is there something in the New Covenant that means we can keep in step with the Spirit, that we can delight to please our God, that we can live lives of greater moral integrity out of a heart-stirred delight rather than through external pressure?

Let’s beware of an inadequate understanding of sin and a wholly inadequate approach to living lives that please God – for that is what legalism is: weak on the problem and a flimsy solution to it.

Perhaps it would do us preachers good to take a book like Galatians and read it through again and again. If we bring with us the question of what does it look like to live the Christian life, what is sin and what is the solution for the believer?, then these questions might gradually open up Paul’s teaching there and bring new life to our ministry. It cannot hurt. Twenty, thirty, fifty times through Galatians would help us all.  Shall we?