The blood, the guts and the glorious Gospel

I’ll be thinking about Leviticus this week, morning, noon and night.

Literally.

I’m joining about 150 enthusiastic leaders and young people who will be investing a week of their lives, trawling through the glory (and gory!)that is Leviticus. (The camp/event is called Contagious)

Having spent many hours in prep, I feel like I have already been blessed. Though often feared and neglected, Leviticus is a marvellous book. By the end of this week, I am fully expecting to gain a much bigger view of sin, the atonement and my great High Priest.

To give you a flavour (or a reminder) of the riches of Leviticus, check out this brilliant video.

To hear some great sermons on Leviticus, I would recommend the sermons of Pete Woodcock, which you will find here. (Crosspreach, by the way, is a great place to find sound preaching).

 

Keep It Simple…

Over at Desiring God, a great reminder for us that preaching has a rather simple formula. See great things; then say what you see!

“…preaching is not fundamentally complicated. Yes, there are numerous factors to consider when thinking through what to say and how to say it, but I would like to suggest that all faithful, biblical preaching shares a single characteristic. It flows from the heart of a man who has seen great things in the Bible, has savored what he has seen, and stands before God’s people to say what he saw. Faithful preaching can be much more than this, but it shouldn’t be less.”

(Jonathon Woodyard, “A Simple Formula For Effective Preaching”)

Preach To The News

What is the preacher’s task? Does he communicate the contemporary news to his people, broadcasting current affairs from the pulpit? No. The herald of God – should he have the foggiest notion of his task – will endeavour to proclaim a news that is vintage. Indeed this ‘good news’ is millennia’s old!

91SCNRRD25

That the Word of God is relevant, but not recent, is a fact that should sit perfectly well with us. The preacher’s appointed task isn’t to relay the temporal, ephemeral, and often trivial. The words we speak are living and enduring. They will resound long after the current newscycle. They will echo in eternity itself.

And yet… Could it be that the news should actually be featuring more, not less, in many of our sermons? Having listened to a lot of preaching (including my own!) I would argue in the affirmative. True: the daily news should not drive the agenda in our expositions. But with reasonable regularity our sermons should be applied to the daily rag.

Let me pose the question like this: What does my sermon have to say to this week’s news?

Does this passage, for instance, speak to citizens who are suddenly living under a new prime minister, or who are facing the future within a new and uncertain political landscape?

Alternatively, how might this passage address the racial tensions which are being felt across the United States right now?

Then again: does our text have anything to say to people who are filled with fear and fury in lands like Turkey and France?

These sort of questions will take our application in new and helpful directions.

It is not possible, nor helpful, to aim our applicatory-sights on every news story. Nor is the pulpit the place to get ‘all political.’ We should keep our personal views out of the place where God’s views are meant to be heard. But the Bible has a message for the globe. The preacher who only ever addresses individual concerns will convey (however inadvertently) that the Bible itself is parochial.  The Bible is not so impotent that it cannot speak to political uncertainty or a terrorist attack.

The summary? Don’t be so foolish as to preach the news. Preach God’s Word to the news.

A Few Simple Ways That Most Of Us Could Instantly Improve Our Preaching

My preaching could be better, and so could yours. Here are just a few ways that we might improve our sermons.VRU2C8T6L1 (1)

Apply more  – The upsurge in recent decades of expository preaching has seen a welcome focus upon explaining the Bible. At the very same time, biblical application has been arguably in decline. Of course, application must be done biblically, carefully, and sensitively –  but application must be done. I would suggest that we shouldn’t wait until the sermon’s conclusion before we start showing the relevance of the text. Start early. Show people right from the off that the passage lands in the street where they live. And keep showing them throughout the sermon.

Don’t just make the obvious points – Many sermons suffer from stating the obvious. We preachers tell people what they could easily pick up themselves with only a superficial reading. Now its true, we do need to explain things simply. And yes, we must remind people of the truths they know. What I am suggesting, though, is that having spent hours studying the passage, we help people see some things which are less obvious. Don’t just explain the easy parts. Explain the hard parts. Could it be that some sermons aren’t very interesting because they don’t go deep enough?

Work harder at the logical flow – The best sermons are clear sermons. And one of the things that makes a sermon clear is the fact that its easy to follow. Putting a negative spin on it, some preachers are like butterflies. They hop from flower to flower but there is no obvious connection between each leap!  Preachers who speak with clarity are less like a butterfly, and more like a locomotive train: they progress sequentially from one station to the next, with a clear sense of direction and a steady sense of development. To help us strengthen this area, we should revisit our manuscript prior to preaching. We should review our manuscript and ask questions like: do the topics arise in order? Does every sentence, paragraph, and main point naturally flow from the one before?  In addition, periodic ‘summarising’ will also help our listeners follow the movement of the sermon.

Use everyday language – JC Ryle’s little book Simplicity In Preaching argues for plainness in a preacher’s language. Ryle talks about using simple Saxon words rather than words which come from either a French or Latin base. He also generally counsels us against using long words. Reading the newspapers, and simply talking to people, can help us in using everyday language, and not just the language of the commentators.

Tighten up your illustrations – Illustrations are great slaves but poor masters. Used rightly they can illuminate; used wrongly they can confuse. One preacher I used to listen to had a habit of using illustrations which were encumbered with details. Some of these details were tangential to the point he was making. The result: confusion! At other times his illustrations didn’t seem to even make the point he was drawing out of them. I noticed this about this brother, but I dread to think how often I have done the same myself!?  A further danger, peculiar to illustrations, is that they can shine a positive spotlight on the preacher. The “when I was doing my quiet time the other day…” illustration is probably not the most endearing thing to say to a congregation! Equally bad is “During our family devotions….”!  The church will naturally assume the preacher is engaged in these things, but when said (even in passing) such illustrations can appear self-serving.

—-

*I recommend the writings of Bryan Chapell on the subject of transitions.

 

Easter Retrospect

UVB3URX1FMOn the run up to Easter I wrote about how we might avoid preaching a terrible Easter sermon. A brief retrospective is now in order…perhaps peppered with a little more nuance.

I spoke about the dangers of:

  1. preaching an apologetics lecture rather than a sermon
  2. preaching a compendium of the resurrection accounts
  3. focusing on facts alone
  4. becoming amateur psychologists
  5. overplaying differences between character responses
  6. ignoring our distance from the eye-witnesses
  7. preaching in a joyless routine manner

I suppose my simple reflection in retrospect is that points 1 to 4 are less of problem than points 5 to 7. I think errors 5 to 7 are always wrong, whereas 1 to 4 are more a matter of where we place the emphasis.

As it happened, on Easter Sunday morning I was preaching John’s account of the resurrection. My Easter sermon, therefore, had a more ‘evidence-heavy’ feel to it. After all, John is working hard in his gospel to demonstrate why we should believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God!

I certainly hope that it was more than an apologetics lecture. But the sermon certainly had an ‘argumentative’ feel.

All this to say, it not wrong to have emphases in our Easter sermons. What matters most is that we allow the passage to guide us as to which emphasis is most appropriate.

How To Preach A Terrible Easter Sermon

Like the spirits who plagued the Demoniac, my mistakes in Easter-preaching have been legion. The subject is always lively, but the preaching is sometimes grave! So in a deeply ironical tone, neither to be copied or encouraged, here are seven ways to preach a terrible Easter sermon. Please, I beg of you, do not try this in your pulpit this Sunday.FontCandy (24)

Mistake 1: Give an apologetics lecture rather than a sermon.  Easter sermons are bound to flex some apologetic muscle.  Just like preaching Genesis 1 and 2, we know that Easter preaching will be met with the raised eye-brow. At times, my response has been to transform my sermon into an apologetics lecture. Perhaps as much as two-thirds of my sermon has been surrendered to the objections of the sceptics. The intention is good but the sermon is bad (or maybe non-existent?). Our apologetics needs to be proportionate and ideally tethered to the text. Above all, let us preach the passage, and trust that the Scriptures have the power to change lives!

Mistake 2:  Preach a compendium of all the resurrection accounts. There is a time and a place for trying to harmonize the various resurrection accounts. It’s called a “commentary.”  Sad to say, I have  spent many a sermon shuttling between Matthew and Mark, Luke and John. I am not convinced it has been all that profitable. On the one hand, it takes up precious time: minutes are expended as I feel the need to add (or harmonize) details from the other gospels. On the other hand, we should consider the authors’ own intentions. If Mark has left out something that Luke has included, it is because Mark didn’t want to mention that detail! We need to respect what each gospel author is, and isn’t, trying to say.

Mistake 3: Spend the entire sermon on the facts of the resurrection. Since the resurrection accounts are laden with facts, it can be tempting to preach an entirely cerebral sermon. I have done this myself. The sort of “9 proofs that Jesus is alive” sermon. People leave this sort of sermon either muttering positively “that was interesting”, or negatively “so what?” To remedy this left-brain overload we should also observe the experiences and emotions in the narratives. Vibrant emotions were involved in the resurrection appearances (fear, bewilderment, grief, joy, peace). An encounter with the living Christ transformed both the emotions and the people who felt them.

Mistake 4: Become an amateur psychologist. Close your eyes and some Easter sermons will transport you from the pew to a black leather chair! This error is a pendulum-swing from mistake number 3. The focus here is entirely upon the drama within the characters. The sermon is about the emotions of Mary Magdalene, or the inward wrestling-match of Thomas. Of course, the Gospels do make some mention of these things, but we mustn’t become amateur psychologists. Facts as well as feelings, please. The objective, as well as the subjective. Jesus actually rose – and not just in the hearts of the disciples!

Mistake 5: Overplay the differences between character responses. This has been a biggie for me. It’s the error of overplaying the contrast between the characters in the  drama.  To offer an instance, in the past I have strongly contrasted Thomas’s response to that of the other apostles (he doubts / they believed). However, a more careful reading of the text shows that Thomas was actually no different from the rest in his manner of coming to faith. Throughout John 20, seeing is always believing. John sees and believes. Mary Magdalene sees and believes. The apostles see and believe. And finally Thomas sees and believes. These four waves of seeing and believing then sets up the actual contrast: blessed are those who haven’t seen and yet have believed. The lesson to draw from this little example? Be careful about playing off one character against another!

Mistake 6:  Ignore the historical distance between ourselves and the eye-witnesses. “Jesus met those first disciples and  Jesus can meet you in the same way today!”  Well….kind of! There is some truth in the statement, if we understand it rightly. But we shouldn’t give the impression that people today will meet Jesus in the same way that the early disciples did. The whole point of the resurrection accounts is that the eye-witnesses saw, heard and touched Jesus in a first hand fashion. We, by contrast to them, cannot believe in Jesus on the basis of physical sight or  touch. We believe, rather, on the basis of eye-witness testimony, those testifiers who were martyred in the confidence that they had seen the risen Lord. So tell people that they can meet Jesus today. They can hear his voice through the Scriptural testimony, and see Jesus through the eyes of faith.

Mistake 7:  Preach in a joyless, lifeless, routine manner.  In minister fraternals – where pastors tend to be at their most transparent – confessions are sometimes made about the ‘routine’ nature of Christmas and Easter sermons.  While it can be a challenge to keep these sermons fresh, such confessions are ultimately to our shame. Do we lack a sense of freshness? Then we should pray and study the harder. With the help of God’s Spirit, these familiar passages can soon fill our minds with fresh insights and our hearts with fresh joy. If cannot exhibit joy when preaching a tomb-conquering Savior, then when (O when) will we ever show it?