Desperate Places

In English, we have a phrase, “on top of the world!” It describes someone flying high because of some success or good news. Perhaps they got engaged, passed their driving test, earned a promotion, or won a prize. 

What is the opposite of “on top of the world”? Perhaps it is “carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.” Another very English phrase, but also easy to understand. It’s when someone feels so weighed down by trouble that they are almost crushed. They feel desperately small and hopeless. All it takes to go from being on top of the world to having the weight of the world on your shoulders is one phone call. 

One bit of bad news can crush our lives. And that is why it is essential to know how Jesus treats people in desperate straits. Let’s look briefly at a story in Mark 10. It comes right at the end of the chapter, and that is important. Let me explain.

Jesus was on a mission. He was headed for Jerusalem. Back in Mark 8, we see Peter’s great confession of Jesus as the Christ, which was immediately followed by Jesus predicting his death. It becomes clear that you cannot have Christ without the cross. Jesus repeated the prediction in chapter 9, then again in chapter 10. In 10:32, we read that “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid.” Jesus was marching out ahead – he was on his great Easter mission. His disciples were astonished, perhaps because of how boldly Jesus was walking towards trouble. And the entourage of followers felt fear as they anticipated whatever tensions would face them once they arrived. 

Again, Jesus repeated his prediction that he was going to Jerusalem to be condemned, awfully mistreated, and killed. Next, we read that James and John decided to stake their claim to positions of prominence in his future kingdom. It was an awkward moment. But it did allow Jesus to give the key verse in the whole Gospel. Mark 10:45 – “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

With the great line delivered, the natural next verse would be Mark 11:1 – “And they approached Jerusalem . . .” The most significant verse in the book, and then the big arrival in Jerusalem – Easter week! 

But, instead, we get one more story. An interruption. As they left Jericho to climb the long road to Jerusalem, someone started crying out to Jesus. The man could not see, but when he heard who was passing by, he began to shout. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the identity of Jesus has been gradually revealed. Now we hear a great Messianic title echoing through a crowd who immediately rebuked the shouting man. Perhaps the Messianic language felt too risky, especially this close to Jerusalem. Maybe they feared the authorities, who could be in the midst and ready to hit back against this famous troublemaker from Nazareth and his supporters? But the rebukes failed. He just shouted more.

We watch Jesus’ reaction to this interruption in the last four verses of the chapter. Remember that he was on a mission, and the next stop: Easter week. Now a blind beggar is shouting at him. A nobody, especially in those days. But he was a somebody to Jesus. Notice the three things that Jesus does for this man:

  1. He calls him. In verse 49, we see Jesus calling the man. What an honour! Jesus is effectively saying, “You are somebody, you matter, you have value, and I want to speak with you.” Dismissal, further rebuke, even rejection, could all happen from a distance, but Jesus called him close. Isn’t it wonderful to pause and reflect on what this shows us about the heart of Jesus, and therefore, the heart of God? Yes, God sits on the throne above everything that is. He is high and exalted, in charge of the cosmos. Yet time and again, the Bible shows us that God humbles himself to reach down to the very lowest of the low, to people like this man, crushed under the weight of the world, but important to God.
  1. He asks him. After coming quickly to Jesus, the man is met with a question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (see v. 51). It seems like an obvious question. After all, he is blind. But we shouldn’t judge a situation so quickly. Jesus asked him a question and effectively communicated, “You are a full human, with dignity; let me not assume anything.” After all, we do not know this man’s story. What would he answer? Would he say something about needing to provide for his family? Would he ask something for a family member suffering from an illness? We cannot assume to know his answer, and Jesus didn’t assume to know his answer. 

It only takes a moment for the weight of the world to roll onto a person’s shoulders, but Jesus still honours him as a human with dignity. Naturally, we should do the same for others. And let’s not forget that we are a phone call away, a car crash away, a circumstance away from having our whole life turned upside down. And even if that happens, Jesus will still treat us with dignity too!

  1. He heals him. The man’s request was about sight. And trusting Jesus did lead to him seeing again. Jesus had underlined the man’s value, then the dignity of the man, and now we know that he has a new future too. What a powerful moment for all around! Actually, perhaps the powerful moment is found in the last few words of the story. He “followed Jesus along the road.” The astonished disciples and the fearful entourage were joined by this newly seeing man – a true follower of Jesus.

Can we say he was a true follower of Jesus? After all, maybe he only followed briefly? Interestingly, this is the only healing in Mark’s Gospel where the person healed is named. Why would Mark tell us his name (and his father’s name)? Why would Matthew and Luke not include the name when they told the story in their Gospels? There is a good chance that the reason was that Bartimaeus was known in the church for whom Mark wrote his Gospel. “Bartimaeus? The older guy in the third row?” Yes, him. “Oh, I didn’t know that had happened to him.” There are probably people in our churches today who have a personal history with Jesus we don’t know about. After all, it doesn’t take much to find ourselves in a desperate place. It can happen at any time. And we know how Jesus treats people like that.

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A Psalm written in a desperate place, Psalm 13:

7 Ways Church Helps Healthy Thinking

The last couple of years has created a whole set of experiences that were new to most of us.  Lockdowns, social distancing, virus testing, online church, and so much more.  Whatever we may think of the measures that have been taken by our governments, it is always good to evaluate the impact of circumstances on the health of the church congregation.

Last week I listened to a discussion between two scientists and a clinical psychologist.  One of them raised the issue of churches and “faith communities.”  In a society marked by social isolation, a widespread lack of meaning, lots of anxiety, increasing aggression and polarized society, he noted the potential benefit that participation in a church might have for the thinking of the congregation.     

Without getting “too psychological” – here are seven ways that church participation can help people to think well and live life in a healthy way:

1. Preaching: The Anchor – Preaching is not merely an educational exercise, although good preaching will help people learn, of course.  Regular Biblical preaching also functions as an anchor in the storms of life.  People are bombarded with intense messaging all week, but when the Word of God is preached, they are reminded of ultimate realities.  Everything else may seem upside-down, but that only reinforces the value of preaching as reminding.  God is still God.  God is still good.

2. Singing: The Crowd – After the disruption to congregations meeting, or being able to sing together, I hope that we have all recognized just how significant corporate worship is in the life of a healthy believer.  Whether the “crowd” is twenty people or a thousand people, it does us good to stand together and sing out our worshipful response to God’s goodness.  When that is taken away, believers suffer in numerous ways.

3. Fellowship: The Family – So many in society suffer from having no meaningful relationships.  The statistics are staggering.  Being part of a local church family is incredibly significant with respect to our sense of sanity.  The regular interactions, the sense of belonging, the familiarity of weekly connections, even the warmth of a handshake or hug . . . it all makes a difference.  During the first half of 2021, churches here were allowed to meet.  While others chose not to do so, our church continued to meet. I am sure this made the negative impact of lockdown far less significant for our church family, even if there were numerous inconveniences along the way.  Who can measure the negative impact of isolation psychologically, relationally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually?

4. Service: The Role – Healthy thinking does not simply flow from good teaching input.  Serving refreshments every third Sunday, greeting people on the welcome team, participating in church set up, hosting a homegroup, teaching the 3–6-year-olds, etc., all these specific roles in the life of the church make a difference in the life of those serving too.  When that is taken away for a season, some will struggle with a reduction in their sense of meaning.  It is personally healthy to be contributing to the life of the community.

5. Unity: The Conversation – When people are forced apart, they will tend to lose a sense of conversation and perspective.  Some may lose touch with anything outside their family unit.  Others will keep the TV news on for constant company.  Still, others will select a small set of voices to hear, or distractions to enjoy.  But the church is not a social club uniting like-minded people.  God has a way of bringing different races, different interests, different political views, etc., into one gathering of people.  We need to be engaging with and hearing from each other to help us have a healthy perspective.  Solitude is not God’s design for the primary context in which we should think.

6. Pastors: The Shepherds – Christians need each other’s gifts to stay healthy and to grow spiritually.  And churches also need the feeding, leading, caring, protecting and mentoring of the shepherds too.  The example, the teaching, the perspective, the courage, the gentleness, and the faith of the pastors all have a tangible impact on the members of the flock.  Sometimes this may be felt in a direct and personal challenge, but week by week exposure and encounter is also highly beneficial.

7. Weekly: The Rhythm – How many churches are struggling because the normal schedule was disrupted for too long?  Maybe for some people, the rhythm of life has shifted and they now need to reconsider how healthy it is to try and do life without meaningful church involvement.  Maybe for others, the fear of Covid is still keeping them away from the many healthy benefits of church participation.  After significant disruption, it might take some deliberate effort to re-establish healthy habits as far as the priority of church involvement.

I am making no comment here on what churches should do regarding safety in these Covid-sensitive times – that is another discussion for another day.  I am making a big comment that the church itself is incredibly important for believers to be healthy in every regard. 

The discussion I was listening to was focused on human thinking.  I hope that as we take stock after two years of Covid-19 disruption, we will see how local church involvement is critical for all aspects of a healthy life: mental, psychological, emotional, social, relational, even physical, and of course, spiritual.

What have the last two years taught you about the value of the local church?

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Join me for a journey through the Psalms! One detail to help us read the Psalms Today, and one detail to help us apply the Psalms Today. Hopefully, you will want to then read the Psalm and share your highlights with someone else!

Back to Basics

Happy New Year!  As we head into 2022, I imagine we are more aware than ever that we don’t know what these next months might bring.  We may face worldwide challenges and global concerns.  We may face changes closer to home that we did not anticipate.  We may thrive, or we may struggle.  How should we head into the unknown?  It is always a good idea to check our foundations and get back to basics.

In 1173, they laid the foundations for the bell tower of Pisa Cathedral, Italy.  This freestanding structure took quite a while to complete.  Within five years, the building was up to the second level, and it was already leaning.  The foundation was the problem. Construction was delayed for most of the next century, but by the 1270s, the builders were up to the higher levels and were trying to fix the noticeable tilt by building one side higher than the other.  The tower was finally completed in 1372.  It has survived four earthquakes, and scientists believe it may stand for another two centuries.  But the issue remains – the building is tilted, and the foundation is the problem.

The same is true for us in our Christian life.  We tend to make tweaks at higher levels of our spiritual life.  Perhaps a sophisticated theological nuance, or maybe a clever new personal discipline will fix the issue?  The reality is that whether we have been a Christian for decades or for only a short time, the foundation is the place to make adjustments.  Whether our struggle is overtly spiritual or seems to be disconnected from our personal spirituality – I am thinking about marital issues, relational struggles, emotional stress, etc. – whatever the problem, we always do well to take a look at our foundations.

So what are the foundations of our faith?  We need to evaluate how we answer four basic, foundational questions:

1. Who is God?  The God revealed in the Bible, the Trinity, is different to and better than any other god that humanity has ever imagined.  And yet, how easily our view of God shifts from the biblical revelation of the unique glory-giving, relational, Triune God to a more generic power-God or a more mystical experiential-God.  Too often, we fall into inadequate views of God that diminish the impact of knowing Him in our daily lives.

Thankfully, we can remember that if we want to know what God is like, we need only to look at Jesus.  Jesus came to reveal God to sinners and to rescue sinners for God.  Our struggles in life should push us back to the fundamental reality of spending time growing deeper in our relationship with Jesus.  Making tweaks at level 7 or 8 of our life will not help us anywhere near as much as time spent with Jesus as he reveals God’s heart to us.

2. What is a human?  The Bible reveals to us the wondrous complexity of humanity.  From the beginning, it points to our image-bearing relationality, creativity, and diverse abilities.  It goes on to emphasize our inherent value and worth.  It also underlines our fallenness, as we will see in the next question.  One of our significant problems is that the cultural “water” we swim in every day seeks to blind us to the relational dynamic hard-wired into our very core.

Our world bombards us with the message that our value and worth come from accumulating wealth, knowledge, achievements, capacity, or influence.  So we play the game by the world’s rules and wonder why we struggle and burn out.  Yet deep down we resonate with the idea that our greatest joys and our greatest struggles all happen in the context of our relationships.  Don’t pursue a sophisticated solution to life’s struggles when getting back to basics often helps so much: invest in your walk with the Lord, love your spouse, play with your children, laugh and pray with your friends.

3. What is our problem?  We live after Genesis 3.  The world as we know it is a fallen world.  There is no single moment of our day that is not pulled down by the gravity of fallenness.  And yet, so often, we live and think as if the Fall didn’t make that much difference.  We spot sin in others but believe ourselves to be untouched by so much of it.  Sometimes we become experts at acting like the older brother in Luke 15, condemning the sins of our younger brother while not recognizing how deeply infected we are, too.

How easily we blame circumstances for our struggles.  If only my spouse would change, or the government, or the media, or my church.  If only, if only . . . and yes, there certainly are problems in all of these people and institutions.  But are we dreaming of changes at a higher level of the tower while missing the most profound issue of all?  Sin is the problem, and I am not immune to it!  When we stop to remember how desperate our need is, it drives us back to the foot of the cross, broken and needy.  That is actually a great place to be.

4. What is the solution?  If the ultimate issue in this world is sin, and it is far worse than we have ever grasped, then that means the solution must be far better than we tend to think.  Our problem is not only our guilt and shame but also a hard, stony heart that rebels against God, and the total absence of the life of God through the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel, we have a complete solution!  By God’s grace and through the death of God’s Son on the cross, we have sins forgiven, a new heart bursting with love for Him, and the Spirit of God pouring out God’s love into our hearts.

May we never think ourselves too sophisticated to celebrate the good news of God’s love for us in Christ.  May we never lose the wonder of the cross.  And as we live the Christian life, may we continue to live it by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.  So make sure that you allow the Bible to be a relational nudge that leads you towards a deeper relationship with God.  Make sure that you allow church fellowship to be that relational nudge, too.

Whether we have been following Jesus for eight weeks or eighty years, it does us good to get back to the basics.  Instead of adjusting the building project at level 7 or 8, let’s get down to the foundations and make sure our view of God, ourselves, sin, and living in response to God’s grace is all as biblical as it can be.  We naturally drift away in all of these areas, so let’s be sure to invest in the foundations of our faith for greater spiritual health and ministry fruitfulness this year.

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Great Work

In Luke 5, we see Jesus gathering his disciples.  He has already been doing impressive ministry before this point in the Gospel, but this is where we start to see the familiar faces being gathered into his inner circle.  When we look at two brief incidents, we can find real encouragement for today.  This is especially true if you don’t feel particularly impressive as a follower of Jesus.  (And if you do feel impressive, it would probably be good to pray about that!)

In the first verses of the chapter, we see Jesus call Simon Peter to follow him.  Jesus was teaching a crowd and ended up using Simon’s boat as a platform for his message.  Then he asked Simon to head back out to sea and to cast his nets again.  Simon and his friends had just worked all night and caught nothing.  That was not normal (if it were, they would have found alternative employment).   Now Jesus wanted the nets in the water in the middle of the day. Again, this was not a typical request, because everyone knew that fish go deeper when the sun is shining.  However, they did as Jesus asked, and soon their nets were so full they began to break – unusual.  Even their purpose-built fishing boats started to sink – very strange.

We all experience days interrupted by unusual or abnormal events.  It is not normal to have a flat tire on your car, but it does happen.  It is not normal to experience unusual weather, but we have a category for it.  However, this was different for Simon Peter.  This was not the typical kind of unusual event.  This was the kind of combination of strange things that suddenly sent a chill down his spine and caused the hairs to stand up on his neck.

Something bigger was happening, and Simon Peter sensed it.  This is what happens when you suddenly recognize that God is not just out there somewhere, aware of everything.  This is what happens when you realize that God is right here and he is looking specifically at you.

Simon Peter suddenly felt completely undone by Jesus’ presence, the weight of his sin overwhelming him.  “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Jesus knew that he was calling a sinner to be his disciple.  Jesus called that sinner to a greater work.  From now on, he would catch people instead of fish.  Simon Peter and his colleagues left their old life behind and followed Jesus to a new life.  Two thousand years later, we are still naming churches and places after them: from St Peter’s Basilica in Rome to St Andrew’s Church in Chippenham, from St James’ football stadium in Newcastle to St John’s in Newfoundland.  How many little boys have been named Peter, Andrew, James and John in the years since?   What an impressive legacy, especially when we remember that they were just sinful fishermen.

Jesus knows that the people he calls are great sinners.  And he still calls us to a greater work.

But then there is another incident later in the chapter.  Have a look at Luke 5:27-28:

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

There is no miracle story to set up this call, just a simple instruction.  And Levi left it all and followed Jesus.  But Luke tells us a little bit more – see verses 29-32:

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

Notice how Pharisees and scribes are in the scene, adding tension to the meal?  Their complaint was simple: Jesus’ disciples should not eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners.  This little group was not living up to their sinless standards.  Take note of Jesus’ response.  Jesus knew full well that he was dealing with sinners and that they needed healing.  These were works in progress. 

To put it simply, in the first story, we see Jesus calling sinners to a greater work.  In the second story, we see that Jesus knows those he calls need his great work. 

What an encouragement for us!  Before we are anything else in the church world, we are disciples of Jesus.  Whatever ministry we may be involved in, whatever position we may hold, we are disciples of Jesus.  And he knows that we are sinful and broken people.  He knows that when he calls us.  He has a far greater work for us to do.  And he knows that he will need to do great work in us. 

3 Likely Outcomes of Bible-Lite Preaching

You can save a lot of sermon time if you simply summarize the passage, or only briefly touch on the text.  It allows you so many more precious minutes for application and relevance.   But at what cost?  What is lost by eliminating any extended explanation or retelling of narratives?  What is the cost to listeners of not really entering into the world of the passage being preached?  Here are 3 likely outcomes of Bible-lite preaching:

1. Biblical immaturity.  People shaped by Bible-lite preaching will not grow towards the kind of biblical maturity that they will need to thrive in this complex and difficult world.  Knowing a few popular proof texts and surface truths liberally mixed with applicational anecdotes and motivational missives will not be enough to weather the storms of life in this world.  To be mature believers they need the soul-reinforcement that comes from deep biblical-rootedness.

2.  Anemic Devotions.  For half an hour on Sunday our people observe a “mature Christian” handling the Bible.  They will copy what they see.  If you skim the surface in order to share superficial suggestions for life that aren’t deeply rooted in the Word, then guess what they will learn for the rest of the week?  Superficial engagement with the Bible on a personal level.  In fact, they are more likely to make some good worship music on the way to work their daily devotional content and leave the Bible on the shelf.  Why? Because your sermons don’t demonstrate that the Bible has any real weight, personal significance, genuine relevance or divine authority.

3. Godless Christianity.  What is Godless Christianity?  I don’t know, it is an oxymoron.  But I do know, sadly.  It is the kind of christian culture that reinforces itself week after week in many churches – the kind of nice and encouraging sub-culture that has a thin veneer of christian labeling attached to a set of behaviours and attitudes like a set of post-its … that is, not very solid under the slightest wind of difficulty or purposeful inspection.  Bible-lite preaching may encourage people to try to live out the Christian life, but without drawing them deeper into the source of that life – relationship with the Trinity.

As preachers we have a double-duty, or even a double delight: to enable people to encounter the God of the Bible as they enter into His Word, and to be changed by that encounter.  These two go together.  But don’t short-change the first by skipping to the second.  As the world seems to spin further and further away from the anchors of Biblical truth, people need to be more biblically literate and mature, not less.  Today, people need to have more exposure to God’s self-revelation in the Bible, not less.

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 3

So far we’ve mentioned cross-referencing, quoting scholars and meandering in part 1, then apologizing and illustrations in part 2.  Now, let’s finish this list of seven quick fixes with part 3 of the list:

6. Stop trying to be funny.

To put it bluntly, either you are funny or you are not funny.  But trying to be funny is not funny.  It is annoying.  That is not to say there can be no humour in our preaching, but let it be more natural.  Unless you are a great joke teller, don’t invest minutes of a sermon in telling a joke.  Trying to entertain or seek approval by laughs is not fulfilling your role as a preacher.  Instead let your demeanor be saturated with genuine gospel joy and enthusiasm that comes from living in the text you are preaching and walking closely with God.  It will be more sincere and people will appreciate it more.  If they want stand-up comedy then the internet is replete, ready and waiting.

7. Stop scratching at your passage.

Ok, this is probably not a quick fix, but it is significant.  A lot of preaching barely scratches the surface of the preaching text.  No matter how much you add careful illustration and clear structure, you can’t overcome the lack of biblical rootedness in this kind of preaching.  Instead of adding filler, or jumping around the canon, or whatever else you might do, dig down into the text you are preaching and make sure the message has the fingerprints of this specific passage all over it.

That was quite a random list, but maybe one of two of these quick fixes fit for you?  Feel free to comment with other things you have tweaked that helped you, or what you need to do next!

7 Quick Ways to Improve Your Preaching – Part 2

Sometimes a little tweak can make a big difference.  Yesterday I started the list with stop excessive cross-referencing, excessively quoting scholars and meandering (click here if you missed it).  Here is the next installment of the list.  Do any of these quick fixes fit for you?

4. Stop apologizing.

I don’t know if you do this, but if you do, don’t.  Apologies for lack of preparation, or for complexity of subject, or for lack of illustration, or for lack of time to do justice to the subject (you’d have had more if you didn’t apologise for not having enough!) … there are probably a dozen opportunities to apologize in every sermon.  Generally speaking, don’t.  I apologized the first time I was up front at church.  The visiting missionary thanked me afterwards and told me not to apologize because everyone else was encouraged to see me up there.  Then the first time I took a lecture for one of my profs at seminary I apologized for not covering every aspect of my subject.  He firmly told me to let people think they have the full meal deal.  Generally speaking, with some careful exceptions, don’t apologize.

5. Stop using illustrations that don’t work for most listeners.

Illustrative material generally should either work for all, or be combined with parallel illustrations that together will cover the congregation.  For example, I have some teens in my house.  If I talk about parenting teens then what about parents with smaller children, or those who couldn’t have children, or empty-nesters whose memory has faded?  (Plus, what about my teens who have to sit through the illustration – maybe your own family isn’t as good a source of illustrations as you might think!)  Then there are my hobbies, or my film choices, or my life experiences…all of which are quite specific to me.  Actually, finding illustration material that most can relate to is not easy.  But being irrelevant to a group of people for too long in a message is too damaging.

I will finish the list tomorrow…watch this space!

7 Quick Ways To Improve Your Preaching

Sometimes a quick change can make a big difference.  Let’s say you drive your car with the handbrake only partially released.  Release it properly and your driving will immediately improve.  Here are 7 quick fixes to markedly improve your preaching.

1. Stop excessive cross-referencing.

There are lots of reasons we cross reference with other passages, but not many good reasons.  I tend to think that reinforcing a point as biblical when it seems unlikely, or clarifying the background of a text quoted in your text are two of the good reasons to jump out of your passage.  But some of the bad reasons?  To fill time.  Because that’s what other preachers do.  To show off knowledge.  Because older listeners expect it.  These are not good reasons.  I remember someone saying that too much cross-referencing confuses younger Christians because they can’t follow along, and it causes older Christians to sin because it feeds their pride.  There are reasons to cross-reference, but remove the excess and your preaching will improve.

2. Stop excessively quoting scholars.

Adept transitioning between the insights of various commentaries can be like good gear changes in driving.  Referencing every scholar along the way makes those gears crunch.  Generally, it is worth asking what is added by naming the scholar?  If you use particularly specific wording and the name of the scholar is helpful, then by all means name them.  Otherwise generally decide between preaching without any reference, and making a vague reference…”One book I was reading put it like this…” (Remember, people can always ask for your sources, even though they almost never do.)  There is no requirement that you identify three commentaries and include a Spurgeon quote in every sermon.

3. Stop meandering.

Listeners will listen gripped by well organized and well-presented material.  But listeners can also spot meandering and filler like a dog can sniff meat.  Don’t look at your notes and assume it will come out ok when you are preaching.  It is much better to preach it through and make sure it can come out of your mouth and not just look good on paper.  Meandering transitions, conclusions and even whole points are counterproductive.  And with decent preparation, they are really unnecessary.

I will continue the list tomorrow, but what would you add?

Ears to Hear – Parable Reflections part 4

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus offers a second parable about prayer – we call it the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  Again, I am not going to write about how to preach the parable, but want to provoke some thoughts for us as preachers in light of this parable.

1. The Gospel is shocking.  The story of the two men going up to pray is not immediately understood because of cultural shifts and lack of biblical understanding. The Pharisee was not seen as “one of the bad guys that killed Jesus” and the Tax Collector was not someone looked at with a “soft spot … since another one gave us half our Christmas readings, and another one climbed trees to see Jesus.”  The Tax Collector was a hated traitor, and the Pharisee was the model citizen.  This makes the final verse shocking.  This man, and not the other!  We can so easily drift into a “nice” gospel where God’s benevolence is offered to decent people.  Not so!  We are all bankrupt before God and His offer of life is 100% undeserved.  Let’s never lose the shock of the gospel in our own hearts as we preach it to others.

2. Pride is frightening.  The Pharisee’s confidence was born out of his own performance.  We easily fall into that too.  A good week, a good sermon, a couple of encouragments and we can march boldly into prayer.  We should be bold, but never based on our personal right to be confident.  Our boast is all in Christ.  Yet, if we listen to our prayers, do we find traces of the Pharisee’s pride?  I am not like others…I do this and that…I go above and beyond what is required.  Pride is frightening and it is often not hard to find it in people that preach.  If anyone is a candidate to be a Pharisee today, it is probably you and me – educated, ethical, respected, maybe even impressive.

3. Brokenness is required.  The Tax Collector’s brokenness is key to the parable.  His posture, his clarity, his self-evaluation are all significant.  He knew he was absolutely sinful and called himself “the sinner.”  As such, he knew he brought nothing in his hands to God, but instead had to rely totally on the atoning mercy of God himself.  The same is true for us.  When we feel that in all its fullness, then maybe we are in a better place to preach a gospel that will not drift into evangelical pride and Pharisaism.  Furthermore, maybe our churches will have a bit more reality in them too – the church is the place where sinners should be open and real about their brokenness.  Is that true in the church culture your preaching has shaped?

Our Bible Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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