The Resurrection Matters Now

The Resurrection is at the very heart of the Christian faith.  After Jesus died in our place, bore the penalty for our sin, triumphed over the forces of evil and revealed the humble and sacrificial love of God for the world to win our hearts and our trust, then on the third day he rose from the dead: conquering death, vindicating the sacrifice for sin, and establishing a new hope for us all.  What is that hope?  Since Jesus is the firstfruits from among the dead, there is the promise of more resurrection to come –  ours!

Because of Easter our lives are changed.  We are no longer under condemnation, because Jesus was condemned in our place.  We no longer fear death, because Jesus has proven that death is defeated.  We are no longer living in darkness and confusion about God, because we know just how much he loves us, how far he would go to redeem us and how absolute is his victory over all that is against us.

But as another Easter comes and then fades away, I wonder if the present implications of the Resurrection have gripped me as they should.  I can look backward and forward, upward and outward, but are the Easter effects leaving the present me essentially untouched?  That is, I can think back to the first Easter, forward to the return of Christ, upward to heaven and outward to the world, but what about me here and now?  What difference does the Resurrection make to me, now?

Certainly, Easter is a past historic event with glorious implications for my future experience beyond death in this world.  Of course, Easter means that I have the certain expectation of being accepted by God rather than condemned, and it gives me a message to share with a needy world around me.  But is Easter all about past and future, heavenly status and evangelistic witness?

In what sense is my moment by moment experience of life marked and shaped by Easter?  Is the present effect just gratitude for heavenly blessings and my hope for the future?  Has Easter just changed my standing before God, and my ultimate destination beyond this life, but left me essentially a grateful anticipator of a better future?  Or has Easter actually done something in me now, something more than just stirring gratitude and hope, important as both surely are?

Let’s briefly chase the present significance of the Resurrection in the New Testament:

When John the Baptist announced Jesus’ arrival he pointed to two aspects of his mission.  Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  And Jesus was also “he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  This is shorthand for the full expectation of the New Covenant promises in the Old Testament – Jesus was the one who would deal with our guilt, paying the penalty for it and carrying it away that we might be free of condemnation.  And Jesus was the one who would bring about an internal change in us by giving us the Holy Spirit to stir a new liveliness to God within us as our hearts are transformed and we enjoy not only the new status of being forgiven, but also the new experience of being adopted into God’s family.

Later in John’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that his departure would make possible the coming of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7), and subsequently reveals in prayer what eternal life actually is: “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).  To be truly alive we need not only to have our guilt forgiven, but also to experience the very life of God himself, which is only possible through the renewed presence of the Holy Spirit in us.

After Jesus rose and later ascended, we come to Acts 2 and Peter’s explanation of the apparently drunken behaviour of the believers.  This was not drunkenness, this was the promised pouring out of the Holy Spirit.  How was this possible?  Because Jesus who had been crucified did not remain in the tomb, but rather than experience decay he rose and now was able to give the Holy Spirit.  For Peter, the giving of the Spirit was only possible because Jesus had not remained in the tomb.

My fear is that I can too easily miss this Easter reality and settle for a past, future and heavenly salvation, while missing the present reality.  Yes, Jesus has represented me, died for me, forgiven me, and given me confidence that death will not be the end of me.  But more than that, because he rose it means that I am no longer living simply a flesh-life with an added heavenly future.  Instead, I have the Spirit of God dwelling in me now.  So, Paul could say in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

Is that life that the Spirit gives simply a future grant, or is he speaking of a present tense new gift of life?  Doesn’t the fact that Jesus is alive today mean that I am not living my life alone, but in fellowship with him?  Do I not get to join Jesus in his mission to the world, and in his relationship with his Father?

When Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote about Romans 8 he referred to our union with Christ as “the ultimate doctrine.”  How true this is!  When Jesus rose from the dead it was not simply to prove that the offering had been accepted, nor to simply demonstrate victory, nor to just establish hope, also it was also to make possible our present union with him by the Spirit.  The Resurrection of Jesus has massive here and now implications!

Because Jesus rose from the dead that first Easter, it means that I can enjoy relationship with him now, not just in the future.  Because he rose from the dead I can know not only that my status is changed in heaven’s records, but I can know the love of heaven now, as it is poured out into my heart by the Spirit that has been given to us (Rom.5:5).  Because Jesus rose from the dead, I don’t just speak to needy folks out there, I can also see the stirring of my own heart in the daily experience of union with Christ.

This Easter let’s celebrate all that the Resurrection of Jesus means for us, not only in our anticipation of the future, but also in our experience in the present.

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Preaching Easter … 10 Pointers

10 targetfI can’t believe it is three years since I posted the 10 Pointers series.  Here is one part of it for this weekend…

Easter is a critical season in church ministry.  There may be people in church who would normally not be in church. There will be regulars who need to be captured by the Easter story afresh.  Here are 10 pointers for preaching Easter:

1. Tell the story – whether people are first-timers, once a year attenders, or regulars, they need to hear the basic Easter story.  Jesus told his followers to have a regular reminder in the form of communion, so we can be sure that Easter itself should include a clear presentation of what actually happened.

2. Pick a passage – while you can preach a blended harmony of accounts, why not pick a specific passage and preach it properly?  At the very least, it will be a blessing for your own soul.  For instance, Luke’s account of the trials, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is marked by his distinctive “two witnesses” motif . . . underlining the certainty of what took place.  His use of the term “it is necessary” underlines the ‘must-ness’ of God’s plan.

3. Undermine familiarity – the frequency of reference to the death of Christ, combined with serene artistic impressions and popular jewellery, has made most people unaware of the reality of that first Easter.  Carefully pick a fact or two to help bring it home: Jesus was probably crucified at eye-level; the condemned had to lift his body weight to take a full breath.

4. Beware of shock and awe – people won’t be drawn by your graphic description of gory medical detail.  Rather, they will be won by the Spirit.  Be sure to preach Christ and him crucified, don’t try to shock people into a response.  Some may be hardened by exposure to Hollywood special effects, but others may grow faint at the mention of blood.

5. Recognize there is emotion in Easter – we certainly don’t want to manipulate emotions, but neither should we deny them.  Easter stirs emotions.  There will be sadness at what Jesus went through and why it was necessary (my sin). Yet also the joy and celebration of the resurrection – Easter mixes and stirs the emotions.   Preach in such a way as to make evident the emotion within the text you are preaching, while engaging with the mixture of response from those listening.

6. Make clear the truth of Easter – it is hard to think of a good excuse for not making clear the truth of Easter, including the fact of the Resurrection.  Apologetically this is ground zero for our presentation of the Gospel and Christianity.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

7. The Resurrection is more than proof – be careful that the Resurrection does not become simply the proof that theologically Christ’s sacrifice was accepted, or apologetically that Christianity is true.  Yes and yes, the Bible presents this truth and offers unparalleled historicity, but there is more.  The Resurrection introduces the wonder of New Covenant spiritual life now, and hope for the fulfillment of God’s plans in the future, and so much more.

8. The Crucifixion is more than payment – just as the Resurrection can get reduced to a source of proof, so the Crucifixion can be reduced.  Some will make it just an example for us.  That is very weak.  Some will present it purely as the payment for the penalty of our sin.  This is stronger, but still incomplete. Consider John’s Gospel emphasis on the cross as the revelation of the glory of God’s character, or as the means by which people are drawn to Christ.  (Obviously, if your passage is focused on satisfying the wrath of God against sin, then don’t fail to make that your emphasis!)

9. Clarify the ultimate identification – preaching any narrative will naturally lead to listeners identifying with characters in the story.  The Easter story is full of potential points of identification: deserting disciples, denying Peter, doubting Thomas, betraying Judas, power-hungry Caiaphas, self-protective Pilate, hurting Mary, mocking soldiers, shouting crowds, repentant thief, etc.  But don’t miss the central character: Jesus Christ came to identify with us, to bear our sin, to take our place, and to invite our trusting and adoring gaze in his direction.

10. Never lose the wonder – be sure that if you are preaching Easter to others, that it has first refreshed and thrilled your own soul.

Helmut Thielicke described Spurgeon’s humour as “Easter laughter,” that which comes as a “mode of redemption because it is sanctified – because it grows out of an overcoming of the world.”  May Easter so grip our hearts this year that our preaching points others to the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb, and so that our own souls burst out in praise to the God who would make such an event the centerpiece of His glorious redemptive plan!

Reflecting on a Decade of Blogging

I started this blog back in the spring of 2007.  I had no intention of becoming a “blogger,” but the platform made sense as a way to share thoughts about preaching.  That was the original design: not to share my preaching, but instead prompts to help other people think about preaching in a way that would be helpful.

While I have reduced the number of posts in recent years due to a combination of ministry circumstances and other writing, I have posted over 2200 times and written around a million words on here.  I have been pondering a few reflections on this past decade of blogging and am finally getting around to sharing them:

1. Bless others, don’t stress.  For over a decade I did not monetize the site, or build any business out of the subscribers or hits.  I have just given thoughts away and hope they have been helpful. I know there are many who are wanting to build income through their online presence and a regular churn of materials in blogs, YouTube, or even the “special offer” PDF books that some people put so much energy into selling.  Honestly, I have enjoyed not having the stress of needing the blog to be a success.  While I know the challenges of needing to fund a ministry, I always appreciate it when helpful material is given away.  (I have experimented with allowing ads on here in recent months just to try and cover some of the costs, I hope they haven’t been too annoying!)

2. Building a word bank is helpful.  I blogged for years before publishing any writing. Before blogging I was producing academic work for years.  Someone once told me that you need to write a million words before it is worth reading.  I know I blogged for some time before I had a paid article published, and about seven years before my first book was published.  Blogging is a nice way to put words out there and hopefully help some other folks.

3. There is a difference between blogging and publishing.  It is easy for the flesh to get involved and to start declaring our own importance.  The truth is that blog posts are not the same as peer reviewed journal articles or published books.  In our social media driven narcissism it is easy to think that subscribers, hits and unique page views say something about our worth as humans.  They really don’t.  It is nice to write, and it is encouraging to find out others have read your writing and found it helpful.  At the same time, there will be worse materials getting more attention because the writer or organisation has more online clout, and there will be better materials getting no attention because the writer doesn’t know how to get it out there.

4. I still believe books are better.  I would rather spend an hour and read a book by a good author instead of spending that same hour reading blog posts by the same author. I fear that preachers who only digest what they receive into their inbox will grow mentally and spiritually impoverished without even realizing it.  I am thankful for blogs, but my church needs me to read books.

Thank you for reading this blog over the years. I hope it can be a blessing to preachers in the years to come.

 

Living in the Shadow of the Cross

I grew up in a church that had a steady weekly rhythm of three meetings. There was the Sunday morning service where communion was the main and central feature – different folks sharing thoughts, songs and prayers that generally pointed us back to Calvary. Then there were the other two meetings: one was a Gospel presentation that always seemed to be targeted at unbelievers, the other was a Bible study that was definitely for believers. These were all good meetings and I am thankful for how much I benefited from all of these as I grew up. However, there was an implicit, though unintended, contradiction in this set of meetings.

The communion time kept new believer and seasoned saint together at the foot of the cross every Sunday morning. However, the other two meetings gave the distinct impression that the cross was for unbelievers who needed to get saved, but for believers there was a Bible study that could be anywhere in the Bible … almost as if we had moved on from the cross.

As we approach Easter again this year, do we see it as a season for evangelism, or as a season for personal renewal? Hopefully both. After all, the cross is not just for conversion. In fact, if we reflect on the teaching of Scripture we will recognize that we not only come to faith at the foot of the cross, but we also become mature in its shadow.

Consider the explosive book of Galatians. Paul was deeply bothered to hear that this new group of believers were being troubled by false teachers. These imposters wanted to supplement the Gospel of God’s grace that Paul had brought to them with an apparently “more complete” teaching. What was this more complete gospel? It was one that made the Law a central feature of both conversion (circumcision) and Christian growth (law-keeping effort). Paul was desperate to save the church from this error.

At the end of chapter two he gives the main thrust of his letter from verses 15-21. Notice how he refers to justification four times, followed by references to life six times. He is concerned about both – how do sinners get justified, and how do believers then live? Galatians 2:20 is a synopsis worthy of planting in our hearts:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

His death was my death. When Jesus died I co-died with him. Now it is the resurrected life of Christ that is vibrant within me. So how do I live in this flesh? I live by looking to the one who loved me and gave himself for me – I live my life by a cross-focused faith.

Then we come to chapter three of Galatians, and the first three verses challenge our human tendency to move beyond the cross, thinking we are becoming somehow more sophisticated.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Paul describes his ministry amongst them as one of placarding the cross. His phrase “publicly portrayed as crucified” is meaning that he painted a vivid and bold picture of the death of Christ as the overwhelming focus of his ministry. He had clearly “preached Christ and him crucified” (see 1Cor.2:1-5) and they had responded to that message.

But now Paul was shocked that they felt they could move on to a more sophisticated spirituality that fixed its gaze not on the cross of Christ, but onto their own flesh-driven efforts to mature (“being perfected”). During the next couple of chapters Paul pursues his powerful contrast between the gift of the New Covenant – wherein believers have a close relationship with God by looking to Christ and receiving the Spirit – and turning back to the Old Covenant that was never intended to save, but only point them to their need of Christ. Our flesh has an infinite capacity to think we can somehow go it alone, by our own efforts.

Galatians is just one place where we see this critical tension in life. We will always be pulled away from God’s salvation and life plan towards a self-reliant alternative. We may be more familiar with the rebellion version – that fleshly tendency to indulge in sin and go it alone in the realms of temptation. But there is a religious version too – a fleshly tendency to indulge in the sin of self-reliance where we start to go it alone in the realms of self-righteousness. For example, how easily do we fall into the default “try harder” approach to life when seeking to overcome temptation, or when sensing a need for a closer walk with Christ?

God wants us to mature, to grow more and more into the likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ. Easter is a great time to be reminded that our growing to maturity is not about our venturing out into various levels of academic or experiential sophistication, nor is it about gritting our teeth and simply trying harder as we look to our own resources. True Christian growth will always be nurtured in the shadow of the cross.

Billy Graham: Some Lessons for Preachers

Billy Graham has changed address. He is now more alive than ever. Upon hearing news of his death I thought it appropriate to reflect on what preachers might want to learn from his life and ministry.

I remember hearing Billy Graham preaching during Mission England in 1984/85. As a boy I sat on the terraces of the stadium and heard his voice ring out with clarity, urgency and sincerity. A few years later technology allowed LiveLink – I remember sitting in a large tent and watching him preach on the screen, and then several friends going forward to trust in Christ for salvation. His book on Angels was the first Christian book to ignite a love for reading in me. A few years later as a student I listened to a cassette of him preaching as I drove into university each day. I lived at the tail end of Billy Graham’s ministry, but I am a grateful recipient of it nevertheless

As preachers in a new century, what can we learn from Billy Graham as we reflect on his life and ministry? Here are a few lessons, please do add more:

1. Preach Christ. Billy Graham gradually developed a very significant platform in society. He had access to Presidents, and yet that never swayed him into preaching politics. He was known across the globe, and yet that never stirred him into promoting himself. He preached Christ.

2. Personal Integrity. Billy Graham would have been a colossal scalp for the enemy to take. It would have been a huge media frenzy. It never happened. He is a lesson to us all on the power of personal integrity in ministry. He made choices regarding money, and especially personal purity, that many would scoff at today. But we should thank God for men who make it to the finish line.

3. Profound Conviction. Billy Graham believed what he preached, and so listeners felt the force of his message. The direct manner of his communication left listeners without any doubt that he wanted them to hear him and act on what he said. This conviction was not a performance, it was forged in the crucible of prayer and a personal walk with Christ.

4. Pioneering Innovation. Billy Graham was willing to embrace transport and technological developments to preach Christ. When others felt constrained by tradition, he was willing to travel further and press into the use of newspaper columns, network radio, television, satellite broadcast and so on. What he did may look antiquated now, but he was radical then.

5. Proclamation Ministry. Billy Graham proclaimed a message. He was a herald. There is certainly a need for those who can debate or engage in high level apologetics. There is a place for various approaches to evangelism and ministry. Billy Graham heralded the gospel. “The Bible says…” may sound quaint to some, but it rang crystal clear in many hearts. He knew that God would use the proclaimed Word.

6. Preach Simply. Billy Graham preached so that ordinary people could understand what he was saying and relate to it. He avoided complicated terminology. He didn’t show off his learning. He kept the vocabulary and the sermonic structure simple. He would build rapport, show that something is not right (sin), and then announce the hope to be found in Jesus, inviting response.

7. Pathos Targeted. Billy Graham knew that the Gospel had to be proclaimed to the heart. He knew people feel empty, they feel lonely, they feel guilty and they feel afraid of death. He did not harangue his listeners with duty, but proclaimed the message with deep compassion.

8. Prayer Integral. Billy Graham knew that for lives to be transformed it would need to be the work of the Holy Spirit. Thus, he was a man of prayer. His ministry was bathed in prayer. We might say his impact can only be explained by prayer. Copying Billy Graham’s intonation or gestures, using his illustrations, replicating his urgency, and even plagiarizing his sermons will not bring significant fruit. Copying his prayer life might.

He preached in person to over 210 million people through his ministry. I suspect none of us will come close to that. But we would do well to seek to emulate a life lived with utmost integrity, gracious humility, profound simplicity – and may we also proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to an ever-needy world.

Preaching Myths – Part 8

I could extend this series for much longer, but I think I will finish with this familiar myth:

8. Since preaching is not a performance, as long as the content is good, delivery doesn’t matter.

This myth is birthed from a good motivation.  Many preachers want to honour the biblical text (content), and don’t want to draw attention to themselves (delivery).  So, in an attempt to avoid performance or entertainment, the preacher therefore ignores delivery.  This is worth wrestling with though:

A. Poor delivery skills will draw attention to the preacher.  If you have ever heard someone preaching with an unchecked verbal pause (i.e. the repeated use of a word without intending to use its meaning), or with an awkward gesture, or without any hint of a smile, or with unusual or absent eye contact, then you will know that it can become very distracting.  A preacher you cannot hear, or who bores you to tears, or who doesn’t seem to care about you, is a preacher who will draw attention to himself as people try not to roast the preacher over their Sunday lunch (instead of celebrating the great content that may or may not have been there).

B. Working on delivery is not about performing.  Obviously, for some it is, and there are plenty of examples on YouTube or in the press that bring shame on the name of Christ for their quirky insistence on being strange.  However, for most of us, working on our delivery is a matter of love for our listeners and good stewardship of the ministry God has entrusted to us.  Working on delivery is not about performing, it is about communicating effectively.

C. The goal of giving attention to our delivery is to help us become more natural.  We are not living in the old days where delivery was largely about platform presence and effective acoustics (i.e. vocal projection).  In this day and age, the goal should be to be natural, normal, authentic.  And in the unnatural environment of public speaking, it takes work to be natural.  It takes some work to make our gestures “fit” the size of the audience, or to progress logically or chronologically from left to right (from the listeners’ viewpoint).  It takes work to bring the energy and dynamism we have in conversation into the strange setting of addressing a crowd.  Our goal is not to perform, but to be able to communicate effectively … and to be ourselves.

D. We cannot abdicate any aspect of preaching and “leave it to the Spirit.”  I have seen this logic in several variations.  There is the “I will do the explaining, but leave the application to the Spirit” idea – this is not good thinking.  The Spirit is involved in your study, your explanation and your application.  (What you can’t do is force change inside your listeners, that is His exclusive domain.)  Equally, there is the “I will do the content, but I will leave the engaging of listeners’ attention and interest to the Spirit” excuse for being a dull communicator.  Again, poor thinking.  We need to be leaning on the Spirit’s help in every aspect of sermon preparation and delivery.  We cannot hand over one part of that, any more than we can push out the Spirit and claim to handle any part on our own.

There are many other myths I could ponder, but I will leave it there for this series.  Thanks for your comments, conversation, sharing, etc. – it is all appreciated.

Preaching Myths – Part 7

Following on from the last myth, here’s another:

7. A sermon is the output of a mechanical process

Almost every preaching textbook offers a sequence of steps that lead from the text to the pulpit. Some books use seven, eight or ten, others perhaps fourteen or more.  The number is not the point.  The sequence of steps can give the impression that you put the Bible text in at one end of the machine, crank on the handle and out pops a good biblical sermon.

A. There is a logical preparation process for a sermon.  While there may be different labels used in the various processes, there is also a logic to the process.  You have to select a passage before you can study it and determine its idea.  You have to understand the passage before you can think about formulating a sermon.  And so, at one level, the process is necessary.  Just as it is necessary to learn the basic skills and sequences for driving a car, so the textbooks give us a helpful breakdown of the sermon preparation process.  However, after driving a car for a quarter of a century, I am no longer repeating to myself “mirror-signal-maneuver” like I did at the start.  I’ve learned that driving is about much more than basic skills and sequencing.

B. Sermon preparation requires multi-directional sensitivity.  To push the driving analogy further, I could say that driving requires multi-directional sensitivity – I have to be aware of dozens of things at once.  To fully describe what is going on in a mature and skilled driver would overwhelm every beginner.  The same is true in preaching.  The preacher needs to develop multiple levels of sensitivity to the text, to the listeners, to the Spirit of God, to the occasion, to the church where the sermon is delivered, to the culture in which the listeners live, to the acoustics of the venue, to the influence of proxemics on the delivery, to the body language of the listeners, to his/her own strengths and weaknesses as a preacher, to baggage in his/her own life that may be influencing the preaching, to the clock, and more.

There is no machine that will generate the right sermon for you and your listeners for this Sunday. What there is is a preacher prayerfully relying on God and seeking to bring together every skill learned and sensitivity developed to make this sermon the best it can be.  You may rightly say that another preacher could be more skilled and more sensitized than you are, and that therefore you are a weak option for your church this Sunday.  Good.  God loves to work through the weak.  Let’s give it the best we can and know that God has got to come through again!

Preaching Myths – Part 6

Here’s another idea that we too easily believe:

6. A sermon is just the sum of its parts.

That is to say, a sermon consists of explanation combined with application and some illustrations.  There is an element of truth here, but it would be naïve to think that it is that simple.

A. There are basic components of a biblical sermon.  Essentially there are sermon components like the introduction and the conclusion.  And there are ingredients that go into the body of a sermon, such as explanation, application and so-called illustration.  At a certain level every sermon could be analysed and found to include these components and ingredients.

B. There are nuances that influence the effectiveness of each of those components and ingredients.  For example, there is no such thing as a good illustration, there is such a thing as a good illustration of something.  A good explanation for one group of people will fly completely over the heads of another crowd.

C. There are less tangible influences on the effectiveness of a sermon.  We could go in many directions here, but lets think about the preacher.  What influences how the preacher preaches the components and ingredients of a sermon?  The preacher’s love for God and love for the listener is hard to quantify, but it surely influences the choice of sermon ingredients and their delivery.  The preacher’s personal baggage is a filter through which every sermon is processed and preached.  If a preacher is struggling with pride, then in some way it will show in the sermon.  If a preacher is angry, then in some way it will show in the sermon.

A sermon is not just the ingredients of explanation, application and illustrations blended together with sermon components like an introduction and a conclusion.  The effectiveness of a sermon goes much deeper than the quality of the elements that are blended together.  There is also the moving dynamic of those listening, the occasion, as well as the preacher’s ability, style of communication and so much more.  There are complex nuances influencing every aspect of a sermon.  Let’s prayerfully keep learning so that we can be the best stewards of the preaching privilege that we can.

Our Bible Experience

Maybe your new year Bible resolutions have already started to fade?  What we really need this year is not a renewed habit.  What we really need is to unleash God’s Word into our lives and experience all that God wants to do in us.

If our experience of interacting with God in our Bible times is going to really count for anything, then it has to be in the context of real-life struggles that the Bible has something to offer us.

Psalm 143 is a great passage to ponder as we think about our Bible experience this year.  It starts where life is at its toughest, then goes on to describe David’s experience in such an illuminating way for us.  Actually, Psalm 143 is not one of those passages that speaks directly about the Scriptures.  What it does is speak of David’s experience, which can also be our experience as we engage with God through the Scriptures.

In the first four verses David is crying out for God to answer his prayer, but to do so in faithfulness and mercy.  He doesn’t want God to be acting as judge, otherwise he, like all of us, would be in real trouble.  David is troubled by his own sin, and also by opposition from the enemy (see v3).  Verse 4 describes a wiped out David – a man with nothing left to give.  Sometimes that is where we find ourselves: either through our own sin, or the opposition of the enemy, we feel like we have had the stuffing knocked out of us and our spirit faints within.  David writes that his heart is devastated, or laid bare.  He feels like he has nothing left to give.

And so what do we do when life hits us like that?  Where do we turn?  Do we look within, or turn to a philosophy, or throw ourselves into a career or hobby, or perhaps just numb the pain with a substance?  The world really has nothing to offer us.  Of course, as we all know, we should turn to God.  And so from verse 5 David’s experience is described in such a way that it can reflect what our experience could be as we engage with God through the Bible.

I want to share five things that unleashing God’s Word into our lives might bring this year.  Before I do, a comment about Bible character envy.  Perhaps you struggle with this envy at times.  It goes like this: if I had David’s experience of defeating Goliath, or heard God’s voice on the mountain as Moses did, or met with the LORD as Abram did, then I would not struggle in my spiritual life today.  Really?

Perhaps we could reverse the situation.  Imagine we could travel through time and organise a conference for all the Bible characters to attend.  Imagine we could tell them that after their time, in the future the Messiah would come, and then his followers would write more books, and then all the books from the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the apostles, would all be gathered together and freely available in many languages. I suspect that would be a room full of Patriarchs and Kings and Prophets who would be jealous of us!

So what does unleashing the Bible into our lives offer us?

1. We are rooted in the reality of God’s greater story. In verse 5, David speaks of memory, meditation and musing on God’s past activity.  He had his own story, and he had the stories passed down from his ancestors.  And as we read our Bibles we will be lifted out of the one square metre of our own experience and struggles.  We will be reminded that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches across all centuries and all continents, from eternity past to eternity future, a story that is being written by God himself.  We need that because life has a habit of sucking us into the vortex of our own struggles.

2. We are reminded that our greatest need is God. In verse 6, David describes his awareness of his own great need.  His soul was like a parched land desperately thirsty for God.  Even in our greatest struggles, we have an innate ability to assume we are just being unlucky.  If God would just give us that promotion, or a lucky lottery ticket, or a perfect spouse, or a new spouse, or a new job, or whatever … if we could just get a fair set of circumstances then we would be able to succeed in life.  Really?  When we spend time in God’s Word we are reminded that actually what we need is not financial or circumstantial, it is profoundly spiritual.  We need God.  Desperately.

3. Our responsiveness to God is stirred by His steadfast love. In the beginning of verse 8 David refers to God’s steadfast love – perhaps the key theme of the Old Testament.  You can find references to this proactive, selfless, loyal love on page after page of the Psalms.  And as we read the Bible we are stirred to respond to that love as we see God’s faithfulness to his people, God’s self-giving for those he loves.  We cannot work up faith within ourselves, but as we glimpse God’s steadfast love, then a response of trust is stirred within us.

4. We are redirected to live our lives by God’s good Spirit. The second half of verse 8 speaks of being shown the way to go. In verse 10 David asks for God to teach him to do God’s will, and for God’s good Spirit to lead him on level ground.  When we are convinced of God’s favour toward us then the next step is not only trust, but also obedience.  It may be that unleashing God’s Word in your life this year will mean God takes you to levels of obedience you never thought possible.  Maybe areas of your life that you have tried and failed to fix, and now are ingrained in your rhythms of life, and you feel defeated and resigned to living with the secret shame…maybe that is where the light of God’s Word might shine in the coming days!  Trust Him, and be willing to obey.

5. We are revived by our encounter with God. In the final two verses, David is clearly concerned about his life.  So the request is translated as “preserve my life” in verse 11.  Essentially the “preserve” is supplied by the context, but what he asks for is life.  Whether asking for preserved life or revived life, God is the right person to be asking.  As we engage with God in His Word, the deep cry of our parched souls for life can be answered because God is a God of steadfast love toward us.

Don’t make this another year of Bible reading as an attempted habit.  Make it a year in which you unleash God’s Word into your life and you encounter God in the Bible as never before!

Preaching Myths – Part 5

The first four posts have looked at issues of evaluation.  Let’s change direction.  What other preaching myths are out there?  How about this idea:

5. Only well-prepared sermons get blessed.

This is what we might call a “yes and no” type of myth.  There is truth to it, and there is myth too.

A. Ministry never depends on our ability, preparation, skill or learning.  For a life to be changed, be it through salvation or spiritual growth, the Spirit of God has to be at work in the lives of those listening.  It will never be based on what we bring to the situation, and yet we have no freedom to abdicate from our role, because…

B. Good stewardship expects proper preparation.  While we rely fully on Christ as we serve, we are stewards of the opportunity, stewards of the gifting, stewards of our learning, etc.  Therefore it makes sense that we will give full and proper preparation for the ministry opportunities that we are given.  However, this does not mean that our preparation has to be perfect, because…

C. God’s grace overcomes interrupted preparation. We all know that life has a habit of hitting us at inopportune moments.  Family problems, pastoral crises, distressing emails.  In a post-Genesis 3 world we will rarely have the perfect preparation for a sermon, just as any “gardening” in this world is now a sweaty business.  But instead of despairing, we can celebrate God’s grace.  He understands when life hits, and even when we struggle and fail.  There will be times when we preach at our weakest and God’s ministry seems to advance at its strongest.  Yet we do not abuse this grace, but instead, remember…

D. A good sermon is built on macro as well as micro preparation.  There is this coming Sunday’s message, and there are decades of messages.  How long does it take to prepare a message?  It takes a good number of hours this week, but it also takes years of cumulative study and preaching.  This means that when your preparation for Sunday is decimated by life’s circumstances, your sermon will rest on the strength of years in the Scriptures.

So the bottom line is that as a preacher you are being a good steward if you invest in preparation both for this next message, and for all your future ministry.  At the same time, your dependence is not on your preparation, but on God’s grace, because apart from Him we can do nothing.