Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 2c

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

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

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

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

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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.]

Children vs Students

Small children and students have some things in common, along with some real differences.  If you are a parent or a professor, your goal is to help them mature and become all that they were created to be.  Maybe as preachers and Christian leaders there are one or two helpful thoughts to be found in this comparison?

Children have vivid imaginations.  When you read them a story, they can see it happening.  It doesn’t take too many years before they graduate from needing the colour pictures and can see everything you describe.  If you tell a scary story, they are gripped with fear.  If you describe a person, they can see them.  Children don’t process through abstractions particularly well, but they will live in the story you tell them.

Students have somehow learned to store abstractions in their short-term memory, while losing the skill of vivid imagination.  When you lay out a lecture before them, assuming there is some sort of motivation to learn the material, they will diligently take notes for later review and they may pass the exam before the details fade from their minds.  It all seems very efficient and education is celebrated. However, the values they live by are probably determined more by the stories they watch on the screen and the influence their peers exert than the wisdom nuggets picked up in lectures.

Perhaps it is a simple matter of progression, but we tend to think of listeners in church as being students rather than children.  That is, we drift into lecture mode more than gripping story mode when we preach.  We assume that if our listeners are taking notes, or at least if they are present and awake, then all is proceeding to plan.  The truth is these “students” with their notes are at best storing our points in their short-term memories.  They are likely more influenced by the screen and their relationships.  The lasting value of outlines inscribed on scraps of paper will be minimal.

Perhaps we would do better to preach as those who offer not just nuggets of wisdom, but most profoundly as those who offer a person.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners dust off their old “imaginers” and start to see the Christ of whom we speak.  Let’s preach our text in such a way that our listeners start to experience the emotion of being in the story.  Let’s preach so that they are not simply collecting abstractions, but are being marked by the characters they encounter in the passage, supremely by the God revealed there.  If we do that, then maybe their motivation for gaining the life wisdom will increase to a level where they care about the points we make.

The mark of success in preaching is not having a lecture hall full of students leaving with your outline on their notes.  It is seeing the change in your listener that can only be explained by their encountering Christ and being changed from the inside-out by His Spirit.

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…

The Quest!

I remember Haddon Robinson telling us in class that he wouldn’t give anything for simplicity on this side of complexity, but simplicity on the far side of complexity?  That was worth so much.  What does this mean?

Cheap Simplicity – It is easy to look at a text and say disconnected truths. Keywords in each verse can nudge us into theological explanations and hobby-horse parading with the text as our justification.  To tell the truth, while we may make true theological statements by this kind of preaching, the chances are that we will make both exegetical and theological errors in the process.

Complexity – What does the passage really mean?  I am not asking what preachable words or thoughts are present in the text.  I am asking how the words and sentences fit together?  If you assume that the writer was neither drunk nor wasteful, what is the coherent flow of the section?  This is complex work.  This will take some prayerful wrestling and dialogue with an expert or two (good commentaries help, but won’t give you instant understanding of the flow of thought).

Golden Simplicity – Once you have prayed, wrestled, tried, failed, corrected and tried again, you may eventually arrive at a golden destination: an understanding of the text’s details in context, grasping the flow of thought and unity of the passage . all in a relatively glorious simplicity.  Aim for this when you prepare to preach.

Preaching in Step with the Spirit

This is a simple post, but I think an important one.  As a preacher, are you preaching in step with the Spirit?

I am not referring to your lifestyle and personal holiness, although that is vitally important.  I am referring to your preaching.  Rather than multiply words, I am going to lay this out as simply as possible:

The world, the flesh and the devil are constantly pointing us to ourselves.  After all, we can be “like God” and we just need to take some initiative.  We are constantly bombarded with reinforcements of our self-reliant tendencies and self-concerned focus.

The Holy Spirit is pointing us to the love of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.  As we look to Jesus we can find salvation, and we can discover the transformative power of the glory of his grace.

Your preaching cannot change anyone in itself.  But it can either go against the Spirit, or be in line with the Spirit’s work.  Are we pointing to Christ, or are we pointing people back to themselves?

Simple question.  Profound significance.

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.

Marginally Helpful Preacher Metaphors – Part 1

Perhaps you have read Between Two Worlds by John Stott?  It is a classic textbook for preachers.  In it, Stott lists the biblical metaphors for a preacher: a herald, a seed sower, etc.  Then he reverently adds his own – the preacher as a bridge-builder.  Well, this is not a classic textbook, this is a blog post.  And I am not John Stott.  So I am going to offer several only marginally helpful metaphors for the preacher.  They are probably helpful as far as they go, and it is also helpful to not go too far!

A Video Painter – When you are preaching biblical narrative it may be helpful to think of yourself as a video painter.  You might be thinking these metaphors are only marginally helpful because this is not a real thing, but hang in there.  Narratives are powerful.  They grip listeners with the tension of a plot.  They stir identification and association with the reality of the characters.  When a narrative does its work, it can really work in the heart and mind of a listener.  So what is the preacher to do?  Are we supposed to strip out those narrative features and perform an autopsy on a dissected and dead story?  Or are we supposed to preach that story in words that paint moving pictures on the internal video screen of our listeners’ imaginations?  A good preacher of narrative ignites the imagination, paints pictures that move, and allows the text to do what the text was inspired and designed to do.  There is more to preaching narrative than that, but there shouldn’t be less.

Next time we will add another!

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.