Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!

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Psalms: A Disconnect and a Nudge

Point 1. At a recent preaching seminar the organiser admitted that he had only ever chosen to preach from the Psalms once.  He asked everyone present how much they choose to preach from the Psalms when they have the choice on what to preach.  The general consensus was almost never.

Point 2. Speak to any Christian who has been walking with the Lord for more than a few years.  Ask them what book of the Bible has been dear to them during the most challenging times in their experience.  Times of hurt, of doubt, of grief, of loss, of fear, of insecurity, of loneliness, of pain, of betrayal . . . the times when life was as life often is. The answer, time and again, will be the book of Psalms.

The Disconnect. People come to church in the midst of life in all its colour and complexity.  People are hurting, doubting, experiencing, struggling, suffering.  A significant proportion of people in our churches every Sunday are dealing with a significant level of life’s complexity.  Yet as preachers many of us seldom if ever choose to preach from the book that countless Christians have grown to love precisely because it does engage with the harsh realities of life in a way that we can identify with.  This is a disconnect.  (Not to mention the fact that when some do preach the Psalms, they have a habit of dissecting into theology-sized chunks that feel like an epistle in presentation – that’s something I’ve written about in other posts!)

The Nudge. Why not preach from the Psalms sometime?

Single Verse Sermons

The site received this comment from Peter D:

I have been studying Charles Spurgeon’s sermons. He would often take one scripture and expound on it from every direction he could, would that be thin blooded? I’m preparing a message for later this month and want to focus on one verse within Psalm 63 – it sticks out to me and brings the whole psalm to life, for me at least. In your opinion is it best when dealing with psalms to preach the whole psalm in it’s entirety or can focusing on one part bring it to life for the members?

This is a good question.  Regarding the Psalms I would suggest it is always important to study a Psalm in its entirety, but it may be effective to focus on one part if that seems appropriate for the situation (i.e. when covering the full text in a longer psalm would prove overwhelming or unachievable). 

But what about single verse sermons? Certainly in the past there were many more preachers who preached on single texts, often going from those texts to a sometimes comprehensive canon-wide presentation of the pertinent doctrines suggested (or sometime not suggested) in that text.  Sadly there are many who try to copy the approach of a Spurgeon without achieving a comparable level of personal spirituality and biblical maturity.  There is certainly a place for doctrinal preaching, as well as better and worse ways to do it.  Perhaps there should be a post on that subject sometime . . .

But what can we say about single-verse sermons?

1. If a single verse is a complete unit of thought, great!  For instance, many proverbs stand alone as a complete unit of thought and can be profitably preached as such.

2. If a single verse conveys the main idea of the unit of thought, great!  In some passages there is a single thought that encapsulates the main idea of the passage and it might be effective to preach the verse, while choosing how much of the context to refer to at the same time (depending on situation of sermon, listeners, etc.)

3. If a single verse conveys a significant proportion of the main idea of the text, this might be effective.  As above, the surrounding context will need to be brought into the message in some way or other, but appearing to preach a single verse may work well.  In Peter’s comment above, I noticed how he still tied the single verse to the message of the Psalm as a whole, which makes me think it might be very effective.

4. In a topical message, a single verse may act as sectional manager for that section of the message, but that manager must not act autonomously from the influence of the full unit of thought.  That is, the verse must be understood in its context.

5. If a single verse is used without awareness of context, or to preach a point it wouldn’t give if understood in context, or if preached without studying the context . . . well, please don’t.

Natural Born Series

Some preachers plan series in a relatively simple manner.  They select a book of the Bible and then preach, unit by unit, through the book, or through a section.  Others select a topic and select appropriate passages to organize a topical series.  I am not critiquing either approach, but want to offer another option too.

Just as we are in danger of reading the Bible to look for a message, so we can fall into reading the Bible to look for a series.  One way this manifests itself is in the sections we dismiss, as much as those we select.  For instance, what if we were looking in the Psalms and were drawn to a section like the Psalms of Ascent?  Well, fifteen weeks might be too long for a series, so we are tempted to look elsewhere.

As often as possible we should simply soak in the text.  Like taking a leisurely bath rather than a quick shower, we should take every opportunity to be saturated by a section.  Something happens once it gets into you.  Let’s push the analogy and say that the skin of our soul becomes wrinkly . . . even when you step out the evidence remains.

So for example, I was preparing a synopsis of a longer study on Psalms 107-118 (the section before the Ascent Psalms).  A dozen psalms that present a unified and powerful message.  If I had been looking for a series, I would have gone elsewhere because 12 weeks is probably too long.  (Or settled for the more obvious Egyptian Hallel of 113-118, missing the blessing of the first part of the sequence.)  But after soaking in this text for a while, I can’t help but find myself thinking of creative ways to present the message of this section.  Combining psalms, summarizing a block of three with a focus on one, perhaps even preaching a message that traces the flow through all twelve.

I soaked and now the wrinkly skin of my soul is looking for an opportunity to preach the section . . . in one message, in three, in five.  I suppose, like a leisurely bath, there is probably a fragrance that lingers from this kind of study, too.

Sometimes we have to plan very pragmatically.  Let’s be sure we also create space for soaking, slow, text-saturated, natural born series.

The Bible, Expository & Consecutive Preaching – Part 4

Daniel Goepfrich wrote a substantial interaction with this blog over on his site – here – this post is specifically addressing the examples of poetry and prophets given in paragraphs 10 & 11.

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Regarding Poetry, again I don’t insist that we preach through a book – that is not what I teach (thanks for correcting your post on that).  However, it would be a shame to miss the importance of written context for any biblical passage.  Proverbs seems to be the most randomly organized, until you read Bruce Waltke or someone like that and start to see the structuring of apparently random collections of proverbs.  Whether or not that can or should be communicated in preaching is another issue.   Ecclesiastes and Job are not random collections.  Psalms, I would suggest, is not as random as our contemporary hymn books (ordered alphabetically).  It contains collections, and increasingly scholars are recognizing structure and ordering throughout the collection.  My Hebrew prof did his OT PhD on the evidence of structure and order in Psalms 107-118.  His mentor, Gerald Wilson, has demonstrated that Psalms is anything but a mere hymn book.  Again, it would be a shame to have a superficial view of this part of the canon and miss some of the richness contained in the structure and sequencing of the book.  That does not require preaching straight through, but it does urge us to have a real awareness of the literary context in our studies.

You mention prophets, and likewise, I agree that we don’t have to preach straight through.  Again, though, I suggest that even if two oracles were given at different times, or in a different order, the way they are in the Bible now is the inspired text.  Our task is neither to dismiss ordering of texts and treat them as random collections, nor is it to “reconstruct” an original and better order.  Our task, in part, is to understand the inspired text as it stands.  Whether you preach straight through or not is up to you – I do both.  However, I would suggest that not studying a passage in context will seriously undermine your ability to understand the text (and why should you study in context if it’s just random?)

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My final segment of response will come tomorrow.  Thanks.

Getting to Grips with the Genres: Poetry (2)

Yesterday’s post was concerned with how poetry works.  Now let’s consider the implications for our preaching.

Implications for Preaching Poetry

-If preaching narrative connects listeners to plot and discourse connects listeners to ideas, then poetry connects listeners to feelings attached to ideas.

-This means that preaching poetry is slow. It’s less like going on a run than it is like sitting before a painting in an art gallery. The preacher is to draw out colors, themes, nuance, and ideas, line by line, in a way that gives time and space for listeners to connect not just cognitively but affectively to the poem.

-Consider using music, paintings, pictures, movie clips, etc., to draw-out an idea.

-Consider allowing for testimony that affirms the points in poetry. Consider attaching biblical narrative to the points too.

-Poetry speaks to truths and feelings that we have felt, will feel, and need to feel. They are not fiction but fact. We need to be shaped by them. Allow your preaching of poetry the time, space, tone, posture, and space to accomplish this. It’s worth it!

Getting to Grips with the Genres: Poetry (1)

Poetry is different from narrative and it is very different from discourse. How though is our preaching of poetry different from our preaching of narrative and discourse? To answer this question, today we will consider how poetry works and functions. Then tomorrow we’ll consider some implications for preaching poetry.

How Poetry Works – Besides employing literary devices such as imagery, metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., the prevalent literary device in Hebrew poetry is parallelism. There are many ways to describe parallelism. One common way is to discern between four kinds of parallelism – antithetical parallelism, synonymous parallelism, synthetic parallelism, and emblematic parallelism. In antithetical parallelism, the first line of a sentence is in contrast to the second line (Ps 34:19). In synonymous parallelism, the first line of a sentence is similar to the second line (Ps 49:3). In synthetic parallelism, the second line of a sentence builds upon the idea of the first line (Ps. 49:5). In emblematic parallelism, the two parts of a sentence connect through simile or metaphor (Ps 49:20).

How Poetry Functions – Parallelism insists that the reader slow down, mull over, and consider how each sentence functions. More than that, because each sentence is laced with metaphor, allegory, simile, wordplay, irony, hyperbole, etc., poetry insists that its content be felt. Rhetorically, poetry connects affect to ideas.