The Cost of Diversity

It is such a wonderful thing to look around a church and see the diversity of people that make up the body of Christ.  People from different backgrounds, with different stories.  Some seem to be likely participants in a church; others seem most unlikely! 

One person might say, “I was raised in a Christian home,” but next to them will be someone who might say, “I never went to church until recently.” Someone might say, “You would not believe what I used to be like,” while another will say, “I always thought I was a good person.” The church is a beautiful blend of backgrounds, personalities, cultures, and stories.

In Acts 16, Paul and Silas traveled through Turkey on the second missionary journey recorded in the book. Eventually, they arrived at the coast, and God directed them to cross over into Europe.  We are thankful they did!  Their first stop was Philippi.

In Philippi, we are introduced to three people who encountered the transformational power of the love of God.  In just these three people, we get a glimpse of the diversity to come as God builds the church in Europe. And there is also a challenge for us.

The first person we read about is Lydia.  She seems to have been a successful businesswoman from what we read of her home town and her trade (purple cloth).  Paul met her at the prayer gathering beside the river.  (If there weren’t ten Jewish men in the town, then there could not be a formal synagogue, so this gathering was the informal equivalent of a synagogue.)  We read that Lydia was already a worshipper of the Lord.  It is hard to imagine someone easier to reach with the Gospel!

In reality, even religious people who know the Bible are not easy to reach.  The text reminds us that it is always a miracle when someone accepts Christ because, we are told, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  Lydia was a person with a successful life and a genuine interest in God.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry.  Still, let us remember to pray that the Lord will open their hearts – otherwise, the story will always end very differently!

The second person we read about is the slave girl.  This girl must have had a horrible life.  She was a slave, used by her owners for her demonic powers.  The brief glimpse we get of her in this passage shows that she seemed to be a genuine inconvenience to Paul.  Thankfully, God delivered her from the evil spirit.  We don’t know what happened next, as the story swiftly moves on.  It doesn’t seem unreasonable to imagine believers like Lydia taking care of her.

Europe still has many people that we might find inconvenient, in comparison to the Lydias.  So many people in our continent bring with them a lifetime of brokenness and baggage.  Reaching them might feel more like a spiritual power encounter than a pleasant conversation about spiritual things over a cup of coffee.  And discipling them will always be more complicated for the church.  What a blessing it is to have this kind of person before us in ministry. Let’s pray for eyes to see the broken and the hurting around us. Let’s pray for God’s power to set them free and change their story!

The third person we read about is the jailer.  This man was probably a retired Roman soldier who had served his twenty years and was now responsible for the local prison in this colony.  He was perhaps a hardened man who had seen a lot and was now content to live with his family and experience as little trouble as possible.  This man would be hard to reach.  Thankfully, God knew how to get through this man’s hard exterior and capture his heart.

Reaching this jailer proved to be a costly experience for Paul and Silas.  They were seized, dragged before the authorities and tried by a mob.  They were stripped, humiliated and beaten with rods.  Then their wounded backs were probably pressed against a wall as their feet were put in stocks by the jailer—a horrible few hours, and perhaps a lifetime of scarring to show for it.  Perhaps the jailer heard the Gospel from them as he locked them up.  Maybe he lay in bed wondering what they had to sing about.  And perhaps he had just drifted off when the earthquake shook him awake! Sure that they would have escaped, he prepared to end his life to save the higher Roman authorities the task.  But then Paul called out and brought him into the jail.  They were all still there, after all.  And at that moment, the jailer was turned spiritually upside-down!

If God could release a slave girl from demonic oppression, why did God not do another mighty miracle in the town square and impress everyone with his power?  Why all this suffering for Paul and Silas?  God could have sent a bolt of lightning down during the day, but instead, he waited and sent the earthquake that night.  Why?  Because that hardened jailer perhaps would have joined the crowds and prostrated himself before a display of God’s power, in fear and trembling, grovelling before this foreign god.  Yet God’s goal was not to show his power but to demonstrate his love. 

As the jailer stood before Paul and Silas, he discovered that their suffering was not under compulsion.  They chose to stay in that cell.  Their suffering was somehow voluntary.  That blew the circuits of his hard old heart.  Maybe this is what they meant when they spoke and sang about Jesus willingly suffering for sinners like him!

We should praise God for the diversity of people brought together in the body of Christ.  The “successful” people like Lydia, the people with lots of baggage like the slave girl, and the hardened veterans like the jailer.  Some might seem easier to lead to Christ – praise God when they are!  Some are more inconvenient to rescue and disciple.  And some will cost us a great deal of suffering to reach.

There is an actual cost to make the diverse body of Christ possible.  But ultimately, that cost is not ours, but Christ’s.  He suffered voluntarily to reach the hardest of hearts.  If we keep our eyes on him as we walk whatever path God sets before us, then maybe we can be like Paul and Silas. Perhaps we will also sing hymns of praise as we get the opportunity to represent the voluntary suffering love of God’s heart.

7 Good Thoughts, 1 Ultimate Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stepping Out Into a New World

The last year has felt like a whirlwind for us all.  There have been constant government guideline changes and the kinds of interruptions to everyday life that most of us have never seen before.  Now it feels like we are starting to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis.

The world has been shifting.  Due to the pandemic or due to societal changes, the world is not the same place as it was just a few years ago.  So my mind has gone to the second half of Acts.  Acts 13 and following chronicles when the followers of Jesus first stepped out to take the message of Jesus to a very different world.

Let’s take Acts 13-14 as a case study to consider.  Here we read Luke’s account of the first missionary journey.  The church at Antioch in Syria sent out Barnabas and Paul.  These two travelled to Cyprus, then up to what we would call Turkey.  We read of their ministry in places like Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.

Perhaps we can note some basic principles that will be helpful to us as we step out into our new world with the message of Jesus today:

1. God is active in the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:1-4, we see how God is the initiator who launched the mission of Barnabas and Saul.  As we read further, we can recognize that God is involved in every aspect of their ministry.  That same God was not surprised by the challenges of 2020.  He is continuing to work out His purposes in 2021. 

2. The enemy opposes the spread of the message.  In Acts 13:8-11, we read about the active opposition of a false teacher called Elymas.  This “son of the Devil” was trying to turn others away from the faith.  Paul did not hold back in dealing with that opposition.  Remember that this was a foreign culture, but the apostles knew that people everywhere need to hear the truth about Jesus.  We will face opposition as we seek to speak of Jesus this year.  Let’s pray for the courage and boldness we need to carry that message effectively.

3. People respond to the message in different ways.  In Acts 13:42-52, we witness a typical response to Paul’s preaching.  Some of the hearers were stirred and wanted to know more.  But opposition arose from the local Jews who eventually drove the apostles out of town.  We might expect the opposition to come from overtly evil people. However, often it is the religious and self-righteous who prove to be most resistant to the good news of Jesus.   We should never be discouraged by a mixed reaction to the gospel.

4. Remember to begin at the very beginning.  In Acts 14:8-20, we watch Barnabas and Paul as they came to Lystra.  These were not Jews with a background understanding of the Old Testament.  These were pagans with no Bible background at all.  They soon gathered in a crowd with the local priest of Zeus, ready to offer sacrifices to Barnabas and Paul (who they mistakenly thought were Zeus and Hermes in the flesh!).  Barnabas and Paul could have seized the opportunity.  After all, here was a crowd, including a strategic influencer, who all thought Paul and Barnabas were gods – they could have worked with that position of influence!

Paul could have launched into preaching about God’s greater sacrifice.  Or he could have demonstrated the similarities between Zeus and the true God.  With some careful editing, it is always possible to forge the connections between other deities and our God.  Lystrans believed Zeus was the sovereign of the universe, master of heaven and earth.  It sounds biblical.  Zeus was concerned with justice and order; God too.  Zeus showcased his power in extreme weather; there are Bible stories that come to mind. 

But Paul and Barnabas did not entertain this approach at all.  Why not?  Because truth matters.  And the truth of the matter was that the God they had come to represent was not like Zeus or any other god hanging around the area.  The true God was so much better!  So Paul launched into a brief message introducing the true God.  Paul spoke boldly, calling them to turn from vain things.  He also spoke invitingly, calling them to turn to God.  And he spoke clearly, setting out the character of the true God: the living and generous creator God, patient and kind. 

The God we represent is not the same as the other gods worshipped in our world.  People worship the gods of other religions, or celebrities, or ideologies.  We can always edit the details and form connections. Still, the foundational truth is that the true God is different, and He is better because He is so so good!  Let’s be sure to start at the beginning, with the God question: which God is God?  What is He like?

5. Be prepared to suffer because it is worth it.  In Acts 14:19-23, we see Paul stoned, dragged out of the city and presumed dead.  When the disciples gathered around him, though, he stood up.  Amazingly, he then went back into the city!  After travelling on to Derbe, Paul and Barnabas don’t continue down the road to their ultimate destination, their sending church in Syria.  Instead, they turn around and go back to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch – the three cities involved in trying to kill Paul! 

Why would they do something so inherently dangerous?  Because it is worth it.  It is worth it to help people know the true God instead of their false gods.  And it is worth it because those small groups of new believers matter to that God.  We may be offering encouragement and teaching to unimpressive little groups of young believers in Europe this year, but they matter to God!

There is plenty more we can learn from this section of Acts.  Let’s find encouragement in these missionary journey accounts, and then let us press on in our ministries empowered by God!

Why Humility Makes Sense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Can’t All Be “We”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Clay-Treasure Ministry

Why does Christian ministry often look so unimpressive?  We pray for the transformation of many lives, which surely is the will of God.  However, so often we feel beaten down by the lack of response from others, and sometimes even by the lack of transformation in ourselves.  We have such a wonderful calling, but all too often, it can feel so mundane.

Understandably, we long for greater power, greater impact, and greater results.  Maybe we pray for big breakthroughs as confirmation that God is still at work in our ministry. But perhaps our frustrating experiences are confirmation that our ministry is actually going according to plan.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul continues to defend his ministry against accusation and criticism from some in Corinth.  In doing so, he offers a glorious consideration of New Covenant ministry. 

In chapter 3 he shows how, even though the Old Covenant was out-of-this-world wonderful, it is as nothing in comparison to all that is ours in Christ.  In chapter 4, Paul addresses two potential discouragements in ministry: the lack of response from the lost, and the unimpressive person we see in the mirror each day.  Paul does not want his readers to lose heart, but instead to look forward to all that is to come in the future (chapter 5).

The image Paul paints is treasure in jars of clay.  The treasure?  That is the wonder of intimate fellowship with God by the Spirit, who unites us to Christ.  The New Covenant blessings of sins forgiven, a new heart, and the indwelling Spirit are the greatest treasure.  And yet it is stored in jars of clay.  That would be us.  Fragile, easily broken, unimpressive, almost disposable.

When we come to chapter 6, Paul is urging the Corinthians to be responsive to his ministry.  He doesn’t want them to receive God’s grace, but then not allow it to work in their lives (6:1-2).  He is concerned that their affections seem to be restricted, that they are holding back their hearts in some way (6:11-13).  In between, Paul presents a long list of the factors commending his ministry for them to consider. 

At first glance, the list of commending factors seems overwhelming.  It begins with ten negative things, followed by nine positive things, and then a set of nine paradoxes (positive and negative, simultaneously true).  It feels like a long list to read, and a real challenge to preach.  But keep in mind the jars of clay imagery from chapter 4.  New Covenant ministry will be New Covenant shaped.  That is, there will be the unimpressive and mundane jars of clay, but also the real treasure within.

Paul’s life and ministry was shaped like that.  I suspect the same could be said of those who preached the gospel to you in the past, or led your youth group, or were your parents.  Very normal, unimpressive people in many ways.  And yet, there was a treasure there.

A New Covenant ministry person may seem so normal, even weak on the outside.  But within there is patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, and genuine love.  They seem to be dying physically, and yet strangely alive spiritually.  They are often poor, but others are so enriched through them.  They may not have much, but they seem to possess everything.  The Clay-Treasure ministry that Paul lived and described in this passage is not a contradiction of the New Covenant, it is a confirmation of it.

So, when you are discouraged by the lack of response in others, or even the unimpressiveness you see in yourself and your circumstances, remember that the treasure comes in a clay jar.  This will be true for you if your ministry is a New Covenant ministry.  It was true for those that brought the gospel to you.  It was true for the Apostle Paul himself.  And, ultimately, it was true for Jesus!

Just take a moment to reflect on the list in 2 Corinthians 6:4-10.  Maybe you can relate to some of the negatives.  Maybe you are aware of some of the positives in your life.  But don’t spend too long looking at yourself there.  Instead, let your hearts gaze on Jesus Christ himself.  Consider how he suffered.  Ponder what perfect treasure he carried within.  Find your motivation in the ultimate New Covenant minister.  Celebrate Jesus.  Worship Jesus.  And then, take a deep breath, stand up, and press on in your service for Jesus.

The Local Church and the Missionary

The relationship between the local church in the West and the missionary sent to a far-off land has always been unique.  In one respect, the roles in this relationship may soon be reversed.

In some cases, the local church has revered missionaries and almost idolized them.  When visiting their home country, they are honoured as they regale the congregation with tales of life in exotic far flung lands. 

In other cases, the local church has felt awkward around missionaries and almost ignored them.  When they visit they have a token opportunity to “show their slides” and they sometimes feel like fish out of water – trying to communicate in a culture that is no longer their own.

Cultural Awkwardness

Whether the missionaries are somewhat celebrated or generally forgotten, they will speak to one another of the cultural awkwardness they feel when they return to their sending country.  They arrive and hear passing questions like, “is it nice to be home?”  But often missionaries feel far from home and uncertain of how to fit into the culture that has moved on from the one they left years ago.

In contrast, the local church in the West has typically felt very much at home.  It has always been the missionary’s context that has seemed strange and hard to comprehend.  The church in the West might wonder about the missionary: How do you live in a culture dominated by that strange and zealous religion?  How do you communicate to people who see the world completely differently?  How can the church exist and grow in a culture that considers Christians to be a danger and a threat to society? 

Times are Changing!

In recent years, western cultures have been experiencing significant changes.  The shift feels very rapid.  Years of preparatory work in education, the media, and entertainment culture are now bearing fruit as a much more activist-driven cultural upheaval is quickly turning everything upside-down (or right-side up, depending on your perspective!).  This is no superficial shift.  The very foundations of Western society are being replaced so that we now face a totally different worldview and a whole new morality.  Our culture is radically different than it was even at the turn of the century.  Truths everybody knew until a few minutes ago are now dogmatically dismissed and everyone is increasingly required to agree with the new truths. No debate is permitted.

Times have changed and now the home church does not feel like it is at home.  Increasingly, it feels like our culture is strange and hard to comprehend.  In the next few years we will be asking ourselves, how are we supposed to live in a culture dominated by another ideology that feels almost religious and fundamentalist in its zeal?  How can we communicate with people who are conditioned by their education and media to see the world very differently than we do?  How can our church exist and grow in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic to its very existence and considers the church to be dangerous and a threat to the safety and unity of society?

Maybe if we are not already asking ourselves these questions, we will be asking them soon.  Perhaps we should think about asking our missionaries how they would answer them.  Their experience of life and ministry in some foreign countries may become more relevant to life in “the West” than it would have been forty, or even ten, years ago. 

In the past, we may have asked the missionary about the dominant religion in their mission field because we saw families with that same religion moving in locally.  This is still true.  But maybe there is much more we can learn from them now that our culture is moving so far away from its Judeo-Christian roots and worldview.  Our culture will increasingly feel like the ideologically dominated cultures we used to think of as foreign mission fields.  Maybe we should be asking the missionaries how we can effectively reach people here.

(Photo by Roman Denisenko on Unsplash)

Some Sermons Need More Preparation Time

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

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

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

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

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

The “Sweetest Agony” of Ministry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Low Fence: Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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