Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 3

In Luke 18:1-8 we have the first of a pair of parables about prayer.  In this case it is the persistent widow and the unjust judge. I am not going to talk about how to preach it, but rather think about some of the implications of the passage on us as preachers.

Here are three things that matter:

1. Prayer.  This was a parable Jesus told to encourage people to pray and not give up.  Simple enough.  We know that persistence in prayer is a biblical idea.  But for many of us, we don’t live with the pressures of survival and injustice that might nudge us to more persistent prayer.  To be honest many of us live in the top 5-10 percent of the world’s wealthiest and the danger is that our comfort undermines our awareness of our need to pray.  What’s more, as those involved in leadership and ministry we can easily let our prayer lives drift because of the constant demands on our time, ever-beeping technology, etc.  Remember Acts 6:4 – church leadership, like the apostles, is primarily about the Word and prayer.  We need to pray persistently.

2. View of God.  This matters massively.  Jesus used a totally ungodly judge to prove his point, then amplified his point with the character of God.  Sadly, though, many think God is a lot like the judge in the story, only less persuadable.  Our view of God is the most important thing that can be said about us.  And the pressures of ministry, the struggles of interpersonal conflict, or even apparently unanswered prayer can secretly sour our view of God, even while we still preach good truth on Sundays.  This parable says that your view of God really matters.

3. View of time.  Following on from point 2, many of us can easily get so caught up in the present that we lose the eschatological edge that should cut through every situation we face.  Jesus is coming back.  Through busy lives, unhelpful “baby out with bathwater” theological reactions to sensational teaching, and a lack of attention to Scripture, we can easily start to think that today is as predictable as yesterday, and that there is no radically different tomorrow to influence how we live and how we pray.  But there is a different today that comes from living in light of that tomorrow that will come when Jesus returns.  Will we remain faithful: trusting and praying for situations that seem so unjust, and looking for his coming?

There’s plenty more that could be added, please do so in the comments below!

 

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Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2c

This week I’ve been thinking about implications of the parable of the sower for us preachers.  So far we have had this post, and then this post, but now we’ll finish the list with this post:

6. The same message can do two things.  Obviously we all want to see a good crop showing evidence of seed penetrating good soil and bringing abundant life.  But we should not be surprised when the same message brings two different responses.  Remember that the same presentation of loving grace both won the hearts of some, and hardened the heart of one in John 13.  It is like popcorn in a sizzling pot of oil: the same heat will bring one of two results – if the heat moves the heart of the kernel then the whole thing will turn inside out into beautiful tasty popcorn.  If the same heat only has effect on the outside, then that kernel will turn into a tooth-breaking ball harder than iron, harder even than lego.  Same heat, different result.  The preaching of God’s grace in Jesus will bear these same results with people.  (Click here for an earlier article on the subject of popcorn!)

7. Don’t be discouraged by lost seed.  We should be saddened whenever anyone does not respond to the word of God, but don’t let it halt your ministry.  We can dream of, and long for, and pray for a gloriously responsive crowd before each message we preach.  But when you drive home after church and it was not quite what you had prayed for … don’t be discouraged.  The kingdom spreads by the weakness of the word and that weakness will often be felt by the preacher in the weakness of their preaching.

8. Be thrilled by divine transformation.  We should also not grow familiar with the gradual miracle of life transformation.  Don’t lose sight of where someone was and what they are becoming now.  Hopefully you have some people in your church that you can continue to be amazed at as you see the transforming power of the penetrated word in their lives.  Jesus’ audience would have understood the three “failed” seed categories, but they would have been amazed at the idea of a hundredfold crop.  Let’s be the same in word ministry – amazed in the right direction!

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2b

I am thinking about the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4-15.  Yesterday we thought about how the kingdom of God spreads by the word, bringing genuine transformation, but not to all. Here are some more thoughts for us preachers to ponder:

4. The goal in seed sowing is heart penetration. The problem with the first three soils is that the seed lacks penetration.  In human terms it looks like a non-transformed heart.  The seed by the path people are self-lovers who are not penetrated at all by the seed. The seed in soil on rock folks are self-lovers who wither spiritually as soon as testing or trial comes because they are still trying to protect self.  The seed among thorns group are attracted to Jesus, but feel the tug of cares, riches and pleasures … and these ultimately win.  None of these people have their hearts transformed.  They love self and show it in different ways.  But the seed in good soil penetrates deep.  The life is not on the surface, but comes from deep within.  That is where Christian transformation takes place.

Seed is not impressive as a projectile.  An acorn will barely dent soil as it falls on it, but if it penetrates, then from inside it can change everything!  In Italy, apparently, there is a famous grave where an acorn fell in with the famous deceased occupant.  Centuries later the great marble slab lies broken in two by the oak tree that eventually grew up.  The word of God is not very impressive as a tool for pressuring conformity from the outside, but when it gets inside a heart then watch patiently as that life is transformed!

5. Listeners should take care then how they hear.  Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need to hear carefully (in Luke 8 see verses 8, 9-10, 18, 21).  In a sense the applicational burden of this parable is on our listeners rather than on us as preachers, but actually, there are several ways we can help our congregations to heed Jesus’ instruction here:

  • Be a careful listener yourself – it will show in your life and in your preaching.
  • Make it clear how important it is to hear the word of God – make sure they know you are just the messenger, but the source of the message is worthy of heartfelt attention.
  • Don’t be dull – be the most engaging and effective communicator you can be.  God’s word is worthy of our best efforts, and what a frightening thought that we could get in the way of our listeners hearing!  (Don’t be boring. Don’t be monotonous.  Don’t be laborious.  Don’t be uninteresting.  How else can I say it?)

Tomorrow I will finish the list of thoughts, but feel free to comment at any time.

 

A Spurgeon Preaching Thought: Bible

“Love your Bibles. Keep close to your Bibles.” 

Perhaps one of the greatest privileges of the preacher is also one of the greatest dangers: time with the Bible.  We have to go above and beyond a casual reading of Scripture in order to speak it out to others.  The risk is that it become a professional tool, rather than a life-giving gift from God himself.

One area where this can show is in that of our confidence in Scripture.  We need to be confident in the Bible, but where does that confidence come from?  It is easy to settle for an academic confidence, birthed out of knowing the facts that build a presentation on the authenticity and authority of the Bible.  But as John Piper has helpfully challenged us in recent years, our confidence should not be built on something that is external to Scripture itself.  Here’s Spurgeon on this matter:

We accept it as the very word of the living God, every jot and tittle of it, not so much because there are any external evidences which go to show its authenticity, — a great many of us do not know anything about those evidences, and probably never shall,– but because we discern an inward evidence in the words themselves. They have come to us with a power that no other words ever had in them, and we cannot be argued out of our conviction of their superlative excellence and divine authority. (Quoted p41 of Reeves.)

Rather than gradually learning a convincing argument for the Bible’s reliability, we need to be meeting Christ there so that our confidence is birthed by the Spirit himself at work in us.  What would Piper say, quoting Edwards, that we “ascend to the truth of the gospel in a single step, which is its divine glory…” there is more to chase there, but for now, let’s finish with a paragraph that we could well pray with Spurgeon:

O living Christ, make this a living word to me. Thy word is life, but not without the Holy Spirit. I may know this book from beginning to end, and repeat it all from Genesis to Revelation, and yet it may be a dead book, and I may be a dead soul. But, Lord, be present here; then will I look up from the book to the Lord; from the precept to him who fulfilled it; from the law to him who honoured it; from the threatening to his who has borne it for me, and from the promise to him in whom it is “Yea and amen.” (quoted on p48 in Reeves.)

[Be sure to get a copy of Mike Reeves’ excellent book on Spurgeon.]

Some Spurgeon Preaching Thoughts

I’ve recently been reading Michael Reeves’ excellent book, Spurgeon on the Christian Life: Alive in Christ (Crossway, 2018).  As you would expect, Spurgeon said a lot that can be helpful to preachers.  I’d like to share some quotes and chat about them, but be sure to buy the book and have a helpful read!

“Great hearts are the main qualifications for great preachers.” (p28)  Too often we fall into thinking that a great preacher is made by great learning, or great skill, or great presentation, or even great personality, but Spurgeon is pushing deeper here.  He is pointing to the relational core of the preacher and saying that to be a great preacher, we need to be in a very healthy relationship with Christ, with self, and with others.  The problem is that many preachers have character issues that others excuse as personality quirks.  Great learning, great skill, great force of character, and so on do not compensate for problems at the core of a person.  Hear more of Spurgeon:

“A man must have a great heart if he would have a great congregation. His heart should be as capacious as those noble harbors along our coast, which contain sea-room for a fleet. When a man has a large, loving heart, men go to him as ships to a haven, and feel at peace when they have anchored under the lee of his friendship. Such a man is hearty in private as well as in public; his blood is not cold and fishy, but he is warm as your own fireside. No pride and selfishness chill you when you approach him; he has his doors all open to receive you, and you are at home with him at once. Such men I would persuade you to be, every one of you.”

We live in an age of perpetual noise, of constant distraction, of increasingly accepted narcissism.  The 21st century is not the ideal time to grow the kind of heart that Spurgeon describes here, but we must.  Perhaps it is time to put our phones on silent, turn off the social media, and invest time into private prayer, personal enrichment and enriching fellowship.  Have a conversation. Read a book.  Intercede for dear folks in your church.

We cannot be corporate managers of churches and expect spiritual results.  We are in the business of heart change.  May our hearts lead the way.

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 1b

Thinking about the parable of the two builders at the end of Luke 6, yesterday we thought about the point of the story (that wisdom is in the doing of what Jesus said), and that Jesus said when, not if.  That is, trouble to test our lives is coming.  Here are two more reflections for us:

3. We are not exempt from the “hear and do” teaching. All Christians are prone to fall short of the “do” step.  Preachers are especially prone to this error.  We can so easily think it is enough to hear, to read, to know, to understand, even to believe … but Jesus said that we need to actually do what he says.  This is true in two respects:

  • It is true as a preacher. We need to be those who hear Jesus and put into practice what Jesus preached. It is frightening to get up close to some big-name speakers and discover that their spiritual immaturity has been pandered to because of their status.  It is sad to discover some who hold positions of spiritual influence have gaping flaws in their character and would rather excuse themselves than seek to grow in those areas.
  • It is true for our preaching. What kind of sermons are we building?  It is a problem if our sermons are being built late on Saturday and early on Sunday (I know I have been guilty of this for various legitimate and less legitimate reasons!)  Even if we start several days earlier, when do we have time to do what the passage teaches?  Could it be that we read, we study, we understand, we believe, and then we preach a sermon built directly on the ground without a foundation because we have not done the doing part?  Our sermons will stand up to testing if they have first been tested “under applied conditions” in real life.

4. Let Jesus motivate you. 

  • There is motivation in the words Jesus spoke on several levels.  It is encouraging to us in those areas where we are actively obeying even though it is not easy, and we don’t see automatic fruit.  It is a warning that we all need, that disobedience may not yield instant consequences, but the house will eventually collapse if it is built on hearing only.  It is an explanation for some who find themselves picking through rubble because of past choices.  There is lots of motivation in the words Jesus spoke.
  • There is also motivation to be found in the Jesus who spoke the words.  We can drop into the passage at a parable and hear the instruction, but miss the voice that is speaking.  This is the same Jesus who was pursuing the people, inviting them to follow him, to be with him, to see who he was, to discover his love for his Father, his compassion for hurting people, and his love for his own.  Four verses at the end of Luke 6 can pack quite a punch, but the book of Luke as a whole invites us to put ourselves completely under the influence of Jesus, the one who loved us and came to seek and to save that which was lost.  Parables are not just good stories, they are stories spoken by a good person.

Next week I will offer some preacher reflections on another parable…

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 1

Yesterday I preached on the two builders parable that Jesus used to finish up the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) or the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6).  It struck me that there are some helpful points for preachers in that story.  I’m not going to write about how to preach the parable, but lessons from the parable that may be applicable to us.  In fact, over the next few weeks I’ll be preaching through several of Jesus’ parables and so may try to offer some points for preachers in light of each parable.

The parable is very simple.  Two men, two houses, potentially identical in every visible respect, but different in one very significant way: the foundation.  The first man (Luke 6:48) dug down until he got to rock upon which he made the foundation.  The second man just built his house on top of the ground (Luke 6:49).  I have absolutely no building experience, and yet I know that the second man was crazy to build the way he did.  I have been living for years, and yet I do the “crazy option” with alarming regularity.

Here are a few things for us to ponder:

1. What was the point? Just like the Sunday School song, we can easily miss the point of a very easy passage to understand.  Jesus is not pointing to himself as the rock on which we must build our lives.  That may be true truth, but it is not the truth of this passage.  The point of the story is that the wise builder is the one who hears Jesus and does what he hears. Is there an area of obedience that is missing in your life right now?

2. Jesus did not say “if” but “when” … when the flood comes, when the stream bursts against the house.  We can easily fall into a modified prosperity misunderstanding, just like the Sunday School song: the blessings will come down as the prayers go up! Nice, but not always true.  Jesus said “when.”  Jesus said that in this world we will have trouble.  As preachers we need to prepare people for the real stuff of life, and we need to live our lives with awareness that trouble will hit us too.  Will we stand firm, or will we stand in a pile of rubble when trouble hits?  That depends, according to Jesus, on our doing what he teaches.

Tomorrow I will complete the list with two more reflections.

Why Keep Humour Subtle?

I was talking with some friends yesterday about humour in preaching.  We decided that it always seems to work best when it is subtle.  Why?

Imagine a line running through your sermon.  It is the progression of your main idea – that combination of unity, order and progress that keeps your message coherent, structured and moving.  It is possible to use humour below that line, in a subtle way.  Or it is possible to interrupt that line and feature some humour above that line.

When we generally keep our humour below the line, i.e. subtle, it means that the progression of the message is uninterrupted.  It means that the message is treated as the most important thing.  It means that listeners are free to engage the humour or ignore it.  Actually, it means they can catch the humour or miss it, but they won’t feel like they are missing something that is key to understanding the message as a whole.

I am not suggesting that our humour should be tricky, or an “inside joke” – that is typically rude to those who notice it but don’t understand (which is why saying, “sorry, that is an inside joke” never feels good to listeners, no matter how much you smile, laugh, apologise, etc.)

I am suggesting that humour is a complicated thing.  I think we should be extremely humble about it.  If you think you are funny, you probably aren’t.  If you think you can tell a joke, you probably can’t.  If you think your funny remark will make sense to everyone, it probably won’t.  And if you think other cultures will easily get what you are saying, well, you probably haven’t watched a mix-culture crowd react to preaching much.  (That was a very sour sounding paragraph!  I don’t mean to sound sour, I just want to encourage humility in this area.)

What happens when we “feature” humour and let it break through the line and become a significant thing in the message?  We interrupt the flow of thought and require listeners to both understand and appreciate our humour.  We run the risk of making the humour a feature of the message, and sail very close to being an entertainer, which is a far lesser calling than being an engaging authentic proclaimer of God’s Word.  We risk alienating individuals, groups or cultures within our congregation.

I absolutely do not believe we should avoid all humour in our preaching.  I do not believe in dispassionate, disconnected or dull preaching.  I think we should prayerfully take onboard helpful feedback as God continues to sanctify our sense of humour over time, but then generally let the humour be an appropriate, loving and subtle element of our preaching.

Preaching: A Platform for Ministries

When we preach we tend to think about the people sitting in front of us.  Rightly so.  Whatever the size or apparent significance of this group of listeners, they are the ones God has prepared and convened for the public preaching of His Word, and so this is a key moment.

However, that Sunday sermon is also a platform for other ministries.  Let’s consider three:

1. Your other ministries.  While we don’t want to develop prideful delusions of grandeur, it is good to consider how to be a steward of your ministry.  The best thing you could do might be to put all your energy into improving what you do as a preacher.  But you might also consider whether the work that went into that sermon might feed into a shortened recorded summary for a different audience, or a blog post, or an article, or a book chapter, or a set of tweets, or whatever.  You may not have the global reach of some famous author/speakers, but if there are some people that would benefit, why not make best use of the work you have already invested in a message?

2. Your listeners’ ministries.  The people listening to you are not just there to be blessed.  They are also there to be developed and launched in their own ministries.  How is your preaching shaping the way they handle the Bible, communicate gospel truth, trust God in their spheres of service?  While every sermon will have its primary goals that you prayerfully hope to achieve which tend to be unique to each sermon, don’t forget that there are some secondary effects that also matter – how your listeners are motivating and trained to handle the Bible, how your listeners are equipped for ministry, etc.

3. Your church’s ministries.  The sermon you preach on Sunday is not just about that slice of time and those people in their response to it.  It also sets the tone for all the other word ministries of the church.  How is the Bible treated in small groups, or taught in Sunday School, or trusted in youth ministry, or seen as relevant in counseling, or birthing spiritual conversations, etc.  Sunday’s sermon will, especially over time, set the tone for the word-based ministries of the church throughout the week – both formal and informal.

Preach to the people in front of you, but prayerfully ponder how the Sunday sermon can shape more than just that moment.

The Foundation for Christian Leadership

A lot of people want to be leaders. In the church, or in parachurch ministries, there is within many a desire to be recognized as a leader. After all, leadership allows for influence, it generates respect, it validates the significance or ability of a person. Some will want to be a leader because they want to serve others. Some will want to be a leader because they want to be served by others. Most will probably fall somewhere in between. Nobody has perfect motivations, but that is not to say we are all equally flawed in that regard. Some churches and organizations would be spared significant turmoil by being careful not to appoint leaders unwisely.

The New Testament gives instruction on the qualifications for a church elder (and deacon) in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Churches would do well to take those lists more seriously. Too many churches appoint leaders based on capacity instead of character, and not every church survives to tell the tale! I have never seen a church thrive without leaders that fit those qualification lists, and I have always seen churches struggle when one of the leaders falls short of what is required there.

I have heard people dismiss Paul’s lists as standards that maybe ideal, but are actually impossible in real life. The problem is that I have been blessed to have been shepherded by church leaders that do measure up to that standard, so clearly it is not impossible. The standard is “above reproach” rather than perfection, and the qualifications are all measures of godly character. The challenge we face is that the features of an immature character are typically not seen in the mirror – it has to be the perspective of others that is trusted. This is why the church should recognize maturity, rather than a self-appointed leader declaring his own suitability for a position.

So, let’s begin with issues of character, but also go beyond that to think about two other important aspects of leadership that will always come into play over the course of a life in ministry:

Character – A Leader in Relation to God. I think it is important that we recognize how our character is shaped by God over time. Having a naturally calm manner is not the same thing as spiritual maturity any more than having a naturally extroverted temperament is the same as a spiritual gift. Over time God is at work in our character, shaping us and changing us. Some fruit of the Spirit may come very quickly, but others will take years to ripen in us.

Let’s never fall into the trap of excusing our own sin by simply saying it is the way we are wired. Let’s never appoint people for leadership based on their apparent gifting or ability, while giving a pass to aspects of their character that raise red flags to people who know them well. A more mature me will be more Christlike in every area of character than I am today.

Those lists in Timothy and Titus further focus our thoughts in four areas:

(1) The leader’s response to stress. A more mature me will not release pressure in fits of rage, nor escape stress by abusing alcohol (just to be clear, I am not saying that the current version of me does these things, but it is always helpful to recognize that I still have plenty of room to grow!) Leadership is not a ministry practiced in tranquil moments of calm, but often it will be required in moments of stress and tension.

(2) The leader’s relationship to family. A more mature me will not neglect my marriage or parenting in order to chase my own ambitions … it is concerning to see Christian leaders with dysfunctional home lives – whatever our culture, may we model a Christlike devotion to spouses, children, parents, etc. as a top priority.

(3) The leader’s reputation with outsiders. A more mature me will gradually be seen more favourably with members of the community. Interestingly, there may be some folks whose reputation earned in their pre-conversion days might never be fixed post-conversion … or perhaps they need to spend a season as evangelistic witnesses rather than leaders so that their old community can see the change!

(4) The leader’s handling of revelation (i.e. the Bible). A more mature me will be increasingly someone who can handle the Bible well, submitting to it, and able to share it with others for their encouragement or to challenge them. I don’t believe this is saying church leaders must have a specific spiritual gift. Whether a leader can preach well or not, they must be able to handle God’s Word like a mature believer!

My responsibility is to recognize that God is the one who will continue to grow me in all areas of character. My church or ministry’s responsibility is to recognize if I have matured to a suitable level – above reproach – to be burdened with a position of leadership. So, let’s be sure to recognize people in Christian leadership whose lives demonstrate appropriate levels of spiritual maturity. As we think about ourselves, let’s be sure we pursue growth by drawing near to God, rather than by trying to practice our way to certain character qualities – that will never cut it when the pressure comes!

Before we look briefly at two more important “relationships” of the leader, let me add one very important point to this one. We have looked at the leader in relation to God in respect to the leader’s maturity and character. This is the qualification for leadership. But there is also the leader’s vitality and spirituality: this will determine the quality of their leadership. And again, we cannot practice our way to a thriving spirituality, it will come from a healthy and vibrant relationship with God.

So, character is shaped in relation to God and determines whether a leader has the required spiritual maturity to be qualified for leadership. That relationship with God will also determine the quality of that leadership, but there are two other “relationships” that will also be significant:

Capability – A Leader in Relation to the Task. Different roles will require different skills. Pastoral ministry in the local church requires people able to teach, to lead, to care, to protect and to mentor/disciple. Other leadership roles within the church may require different skills, as will non-church leadership roles. Whatever the setting, it will be important to be growing in the relevant areas. But let me mention a couple of key points:

1. Just because someone has a strength in some of these areas does not mean they should be recognized in leadership. By all means let them serve the church according to their strengths under the leadership of others, but give their character time to catch up with their capacity or learning before you appoint them to positions of responsibility.

2. Nobody is omni-competent. Nobody has every spiritual gift. The New Testament points to a practice soon forgotten after the close of the canon: team leadership. We will always be stronger working together as a team. In my church I am one of three pastor-elders, which means that I personally have two pastor-elders. We are so much stronger in a team. My gifts and strengths are complemented by the gifts and strengths of my colleagues. My weaknesses are not inflicted on the church with quite the same force as they would be if I served alone. Which leads me on to one more main point…

Chemistry – A Leader in Relation to Others. Nothing will wipe out the leadership of a church or ministry as quickly as a toxic team environment. Unhealthy competition, bad attitudes, awkward communication, political maneuvering, self-promotion, and so on, will all poison a leadership team very quickly. Every leadership team will be attacked from outside, but that is typically far more bearable than the tension that can come from within the team. How does this tension get there? There are probably a thousand different paths, but they all seem to start in the same place: the presence of leaders who are not qualified by mature Christian character.

Leadership is never presented as an easy prospect. It will add pressures, it will bring criticism, it will feel thankless … and thankfully, leadership is not a requirement for everyone. If you are leading or aspire to lead, this is a good thing. Thank you for your ministry and service. But whatever your current experience may be, remember that it is God who desires to grow your character, and it is in relationship to Him that you grow. Whatever the burdens may be, and whatever the expectations may be, keep your relationship with Jesus right at the centre of your priorities: that is the foundation for all Christian leadership.