Preaching in Troubled Times

“The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” (Psalm 9:9)

Troubled times can be caused by global pandemics, national disasters, or more local challenges on a city or church level. In this world we will have trouble. And when trouble comes, the preacher gets to point people to God’s Word to find the comfort and to stir the response of faith that is needed. The problem is, we don’t do ministry in a case study. People don’t tend to respond in a textbook fashion when problems come. Just a few verses after the one above comes Psalm 10:1 – “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” By definition, these seasons of ministry are not easy, but here are five important things to keep in mind:

1. The Preacher’s Relationship with God – Be Healthy. Maybe it is obvious, but it bears stating. You need to be in a healthy place to have the reserves to serve others effectively. Remember Martha. She was trying to do the right thing, but somehow she had gotten the two great commandments out of order. She was doing the classic evangelical mistake – “loving God by loving others.” It is unsustainable. Be sure to sit at Jesus’ feet and let him minister to you before you continue to minister to others. (And remember that being healthy is not just spiritual . . . what about sleep, exercise, diet? What about emotionally and relationally?)

2. The Preacher’s Relationship with Listeners – Be Sensitive. Remember that different people react in different ways to the same crisis. Listening to our culture it would be easy to only address the fear of dying in the current pandemic. But for some their concern is finance, employment, other vulnerable people, loneliness, mental health, etc. We need to know what is really going on with the people we preach to, and they need to know that we are real too. Be appropriately transparent. A crisis is a time to offer strength and stability, but don’t come across as Superman. You are allowed to struggle too, just invite others into a faithful response and share the journey together. When troubles hit, people tend to pull back. Be sure to pursue connections with people in your church. You may not see them on Sunday (or may not be allowed to meet in some strange circumstances), but you still have a phone. There are ways to stay connected. We need to do that if we are to preach effectively.

3. The Listener’s Relationship with Circumstances – Be Hopeful. In the midst of crisis people need to have perspective. It is not helpful to dismiss a crisis. I remember a lecturer on 9/11 being dismissive of the situation (it didn’t help!) But do offer perspective with gentleness. Remember also that people have troubles that are not “the trouble” too. I am waiting for someone to fix our hot water boiler right now . . . that is not a Covid-19 issue, but it is today’s issue in our house! People still have other health concerns during a pandemic, people still have marital struggles during a war, people still struggle with parenting during a natural disaster. In the midst of it all, cast a vision. Could God be teaching us to pray like we have never prayed before? Is God growing greater depth and dependence on him in our church? Maybe God is shaking the culture to wake it up to spiritual realities? (Don’t make prophetic pronouncements, just help people to look on their circumstances in light of Scripture.)

4. The Listener’s Relationship with God – Be “Evangelistic.” There will be people who are not yet believers and the crisis might be the perfect moment . . . point them to Jesus. There will be people who have been believers for years and they too need to be pointed to Jesus. Help people to know that God is who they need and he can be accessed through the Bible. That is, be biblical. Don’t jettison your biblical preaching in order to offer personal wisdom, or to drift into political proclamation, or to distract people with empty entertainment. You may need to preach from somewhere else in the Bible, but do preach the Bible.

5. The Preacher and Preaching – Be Adaptable. Your eight month series in Ezekiel may not be appropriate when a crisis hits. It is ok to suspend a series and be a bit more targeted when necessary. After 9/11 a significant proportion of preachers just continued their series. That was a big missed opportunity to show love, care and a word from God in a key moment. So you may need to adapt your content, and you may also need to adapt your approach. In the last year many of us have learned to use new technology, to preach to camera, to shift to a mixed setting with some people present and others watching at home. Crises, big and small, tend to invite adaptability. By all means do things differently, just don’t disappear.

What would you add? What things are helpful to ponder during challenging times?

God’s Great Story and You – Part 2…What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

God’s Great Story and You! is a 4-part series I wrote for LookForHope.org – a website for people looking for hope in the midst of this CoronaVirus crisis.  Please take a look at the site and spread the word so that others can find it.  Click here for part 1.  Here is part 2 of the series:

What Does Jesus’ Death Have To Do With Me?

The symbol of Christianity is a cross. It may look shiny and perfectly shaped on a necklace today, but two thousand years ago it was a symbol of execution, agony and shame. Nobody would ever choose to die exposed and humiliated on a Roman cross. But Jesus did. Why?

The simple answer to that question would be that Jesus knew it was the mission given to him by his Father in heaven. But still the question remains, why did Jesus have to die?

If Jesus’ death was somehow significant, let’s begin by asking why is there death at all? Death was not part of God’s perfect design for this world. In the beginning God created everything as an overflow of that generous love and kindness that exists within the relationship of the Trinity. He created a world that was both diverse and unified, a world of abundance and colour and vibrant life. And the pinnacle of God’s creation was the creature made in his relational image—the humans. Male and female, diverse but unified, ruling everything as God’s representatives. It was so so good, but sadly that didn’t last long.

God did not force his creatures to love him. So when opportunity came, they desired to pull away from God’s good rule and try living as independent mini-gods, setting their own rules and living for their own desires. In that moment, as God had warned them, they discovered only the inadequacy of their own nakedness. Turns out humans separated from God are not the super-beings we would like to be. Curved in on ourselves we become black holes of selfishness, draining the life from everything around us as we ourselves have lost God’s life within us.

What did God do in the face of this rebellion and mess? He promised to send a human to rescue us and defeat the enemy who had led humanity into this living death. For centuries the Old Testament unfolds the story of God’s anticipated deliverer who finally arrived that first Christmas just over 2000 years ago.

Jesus was God’s rescuer, sent to stand in the gap between a good God and a rebellious humanity. He came to reveal God’s goodness to us, but more than that, he came to do what we could not do for ourselves and make a way for us to come back into relationship with God.

One time Jesus told the story of two men: a righteous religious man and a nasty traitorous tax collector for the occupying forces. Both of them went to pray. The righteous religious man prayed a prayer full of pride, describing how good he was in comparison to others. The traitor stood off at a distance, beat his breast in desperation and pleaded with God for mercy. Literally, he asked God to provide the kind of sacrifice that would cover for his sin, the kind of sacrifice that took place inside that temple every day. Jesus shocked his listeners by declaring that only one of these men went home justified, or declared righteous, in God’s eyes. And it wasn’t the “good” guy—it was the desperate sinner. (See Luke 18:9-14)

Fast forward a few stories and we find another tax collector (See Luke 19:1-10). This one is called Zacchaeus and he wanted to see Jesus, but couldn’t because he was short. He ended up climbing into a tree for a secret vantage point. To his shock Jesus stopped and spoke to him. The crowd hated Zac. But Jesus rescued him from their anger by showing kindness to him. Zac was blown away by Jesus’ kindness and his life was changed at the tree.

Later in Luke’s gospel we find that Jesus travelled to another tree, the cross outside Jerusalem. There he voluntarily died, taking the anger not only of the crowd, but also of God in heaven, against the sins of humanity. Jesus died hanging on a tree to set us all free from the righteous judgment of God against sin, to buy us out of our slavery to sin, to win a decisive victory over sin and death, and to reconcile us back to God.

Jesus offers us all a great exchange. He wants to give us all of his righteousness, goodness and life, in exchange for all our sin, wrong, death, shame and brokenness. He is willing to take our great debt on himself and die—in fact, he already did.