Last week, along with hundreds of other pastors from around the globe, I enjoyed the immense privilege of listening to the preaching of Stuart Olyott. Not only were the contents of his sermons an encouragement, but the manner of his preaching was an example to be emulated. Though it was not the purpose of the conference, I did wish that we could have heard from Stuart something of how he prepares to preach. There is so much, particularly for us younger men, to learn from those senior figures who are still preaching so incisively.
Since returning to Northern Ireland, I have dug out Stuart’s book Preaching Pure and Simple, which I read near the start of my ministry with profit. I have also since discovered some online material which you will find below. I have enjoyed listening through these lectures (originally given in Singapore) under the title “Preaching Like the Master.” It will do your preaching good to download this material.
|PRE01||What preaching is||54:16|
In July 2014, Don Carson led a seminar on “Preaching from John’s Gospel” at the Faith Mission in Edinburgh. It is well worth hearing – not least his opening comments on how to preach from any Gospel, in which he highlights a tendency among preachers which is, in my experience of reviewing several hundred sermons over the past five years, all too common.
“Many of us preach from the Gospels looking for immediate application to the lives of our congregants…The Gospels are not given to us first and foremost as discipleship manuals…as introductions to the importance of faith. They are certainly not given to us as the provision of psychological profiles in conversion. That’s the way many of us have been brought up to preach Peter walking on the water. We analyse what is going on in Peter’s mind as far as we can from the text and thus we jump to an application about how people get attracted to Christ, and then they take the first steps out there in the storm, and then they look around and see the waves, and are terrified. And so suddenly pericope after pericope in the Gospels becomes a kind of source for psychological analysis in the steps of conversion or something along those lines.
What we have to remember is that the Gospels are first and foremost accounts of Jesus. Preaching from the Gospels means telling folks a lot about Jesus and the point of each pericope, each unit, is first of all something to do with Jesus – who he is, what he says, what’s he’s done, and then where it fits into the larger storyline which brings us to the cross and the resurrection. And not only about Jesus but Jesus as he comes to us in history and fills in the gap between Old Testament belief and New Testament dawning…
If we preach the Gospels in such a way that we forget their historical locatedness, and go immediately to application to us today, what we lose is the ability of the Gospels to explain how we got from the Old Testament to the New Testament, how we got from there to here.
This may be one reason for something else I have observed – that evangelicals tend to preach far more from the Epistles than the Gospels. But in an age of increasing Biblical illiteracy we need to be regularly and systematically preaching through the Gospel accounts – of which we are blessed with four! Each of the four Gospels is written with a particular audience and purpose in mind and we need to think carefully which particular Gospel resonates most closely with our particular audience. “Why Four Gospels” by Donald Bridge (Christian Focus Publications, 1996) is a brilliant and readable introduction to this subject.
The Don Carson seminar was hosted by “2 Timothy 4” and can be accessed (in 8 x 20 minute sections) on www.2tim4.org
Director, 2 Timothy 4 Trust
Lots of interesting things covered in this interview. But helpful practical discussion on the time needed to prepare sermons.Tweet
Occasionally – though not often enough – emotion has overwhelmed me in the pulpit. Even more rare in my case, have I ever felt a lump in my throat when listening to a sermon. It must be something of the Scotsman in me, but it just doesn’t happen very often.
Yet such a thing happened to me recently. The thanks goes to a pair of sermons by Dr Sinclair B. Ferguson.
As many readers will know, Sinclair Ferguson recently concluded an eight year ministry in First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina. On his final day in the pulpit, Dr Ferguson preached two messages from the book of Hebrews. The first message (“Not the end“) was his concluding sermon on the entire letter of Hebrews. His second message (“Jesus is always the same“) was an exposition of Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”
There were two reasons why Sinclair chose the evening text. First, for its simplicity. And secondly, for its focus on Christ. Pastor Ferguson resolved that his last word to his congregation would be easy to understand, and that it would exalt the Lord Jesus.
In the closing minutes of the exposition, we hear pastor Ferguson pleading one last time with his congregation. ‘Are you trusting Christ’?, ‘Do you know Christ’?, ‘Have you sensed how great and gracious he is’? People were invited, as they had been invited each Sunday for eight years, to come in faith to the lowly Jesus. This was the sum and substance of Dr Ferguson’s appeal.
And it struck me, as I listened, that this is the sum and substance of any pastor’s appeal. What does ministry boil down to if not presenting, exalting and commending Christ? Do we really have anything else to preach? Could there be a more fitting focus to a minister’s last sermon than the Lord Jesus?
I wish Dr Ferguson well as he returns to Scotland. And I pray earnestly for Derek Thomas and First Presbyterian Church, Columbia as a new phase of ministry begins. Thank God that while ministers change, Jesus never changes.
Glory to His name!
In 2006 my wife and I moved our little family to Edinburgh. We lived there for three years while I was in grad school. When we first walked the streets of that beautiful city we could not have looked more out of place.
For one thing, we had tans.
We hailed from a Florida suburb where people believe that all castles belong to the Walt Disney estate. So, our early expeditions through storied Edinburgh were marked with wonder. An actual, free-range, castle sat right by our church, plain as day! Excitement over the “discovery” dominated our chats with locals, who had beheld that majestic structure so often that they were reportedly
“… sick of hearing about it, Tim.”
We boarded city buses like they were alien spacecraft: “Look honey! There’s a whole upstairs!” We gushed at the cool local accent, assuming that Floridians possess the pristine speech of Eden. Our well-worn city map unfurled in the wind like a creased flag. We claimed sidewalks in the name of tourism.
Fortunately, we were not alone. Tourists lay siege to Edinburgh, especially in the summer. But over time we felt ourselves identifying more with the locals than with newcomers. In fact, familiarity with the city meant that we could spot tourists immediately. The tell-tale sign?
Tourists look up. Locals look down.
Tourists can barely command their shuffling feet because their child-like minds are rapt in wonder at the shiny lights around them. The locals keep their eyes to the ground, deftly traversing familiar paths.
We also learned that both tourists and locals have their charms and they actually need each other. There would be no city to tour without the locals and the city would be less vibrant if tourists never came. Edinburgh runs as much on the tourists’ wonder as it does on the locals’ confidence.
Brace yourself for the abrupt transition:
The “tourist” wonder and “local” confidence belong in sermon preparation as well. They represent two approaches that work together to yield a healthy appreciation for the text.
The Wonder of the Tourist:
When I do the initial reading of the text, I really want to be amazed at what I’m reading. Wonder comes easily in the Gospels. But books like Leviticus present a few challenges in my quest. However, there is always something magnificent to see.
To a tourist, the intricacies of levitical regulations might form just one big idea, like the astonished man who looks at the Great Pyramid of Giza only to exclaim
“Man, that pyramid is great!”
His reaction seems childish and simplistic to the local. But hasn’t the tourist actually captured something essential? You haven’t really seen the Great Pyramid until you’ve seen it as great.
Likewise, the reaction of the tourist in Leviticus might be: “God is so holy!” Basic. Simple. Inescapable.
The tourist mindset seeks to capture the “essential impact” that the text can have on eager eyes.
The Confidence of the Local:
I say, “Yes! God is holy!” But then, with the confidence of a seasoned local, I want to guide the tourist to a more complete understanding. Leviticus can inspire awe because of its detail, but it is driving us to something amazing: the truth that Christ would fulfill all of the demands the law and that through Him we can be made righteous in God’s sight.
The intricate commands were actually revealing man’s inability to keep them perfectly. God still demands holiness. But He provides what He demands. His provision came through the death of His son, Jesus, our Great High Priest. We can still maintain the tourist’s wonder at God’s holiness, but the local has shown us that there is more than meets the tourist’s eye.
The local mindset works to gain meaningful perspective on the text, reading with confident understanding of the whole “city” of God’s counsel.
Tourists emphasize the grandeur or the emotional impact of a place, but they often lack perspective and miss crucial elements that locals have known for years. Yet locals can tend to think they’ve seen it all before, overlooking the initial impact of what they know so well. When they work together, wonder and confidence produce a message that inspires as much as it informs.Tweet
Preaching, when done anywhere near properly, is exceedingly hard work. The pastor’s seemingly effortless sermon is just the tip of a very large ice-berg. Beneath it lies hours of sermonic sweat. Even our worst sermons are generally a great effort to prepare (not to mention our better ones)! If our congregations only knew the half of it!
But relentless rigor carries along with it a real temptation. Biblical preachers are tempted to be lazy. Following the first flush of enthusiastic sermonizing, we may start to question the worth of putting in so much work week after week. Gradually, perhaps, we find ourselves spending more time out of the study than in it. We feel attracted to other uses of our time which are less exhausting than sermon preparation. Soon, our study gets squeezed into ever tighter corners of our schedule, and our preparation becomes little more than taking a quick look at the passage and jotting down a few choice thoughts.
If ever this happens, we need to be rebuked, and rebuked quickly. Ajith Fernando has recently written just such a gracious ‘wound of love’. Our Sri Lankan brother has written a convicting article about the failure of properly preparing to preach. The whole article is striking and warns my soul about complacency.
Here are a few powerful quotes:
Fernando also comments:
“May the Lord release us from our addiction to mediocrity and cause us to be ignited with a passion for His glory that causes us to prepare well whatever the cost.”
Amen, and God help me.Tweet
The other day one of the fathers in my congregation told me a story about when his son was younger. If he would come to Church and fail to spot me he would query his father where the “sermon” was. He equated me with the sermon. That is a real dilemma, of course, because we are told that we ought not to preach ourselves. Had I followed his son’s reasoning I would have been speechless.
What prompted this father to recount this story was his little girl’s comment that Sunday morning when she came into the Church building. Looking for me and not seeing me, she asked her father where God was.
You might think the girl is on shakier ground than her brother in describing her pastor. But she might intuitively be grasping, and is unwittingly expressing something significant about the Christian ministry: when a minister preaches the Word of God, God himself is speaking. Remember how the first chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession (Of the Holy Scripture Being the True Word of God) states it:
THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
The basis for this audacious claim is the Word of God itself. I’m referring to a number of passages sprinkled throughout the New Testament that speak of the Lord Jesus Christ preaching long after his glorious ascent to his Father’s right hand. For example, in Ephesians 2:17 the Apostle Paul speaks of how the Lord Jesus came to the Ephesians and preached peace to them so that Jews and Gentiles might be reconciled to one another and both to God. We know Christ’s body is not ubiquitous so how did he come and preach to those Gentiles? He preached by his Holy Spirit through his apostles.
Paul expressed the point even more explicitly in Romans 10. There he addresses the need for the preaching of the gospel so people might call on the name of the Lord and be saved. The ESV renders Romans 10:14 this way: “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” The ASV (1901) leaves out the preposition of resulting in this translation: “. . . and how shall they believe in him whom they have not heard?” Many commentators favour translating the relative pronoun as denoting the person who is heard rather than the message that is heard (Stott, Hendriksen, Dunn, Murray, Morris). The one people are to believe in is the one preaching to them. Leon Morris, in his commentary on Romans, explains the sentence like this: “The point is that Christ is present in the preachers; to hear them is to hear him (cf. Luke 10:16), and people ought to believe when they hear him.”
The apostles learned this from Christ. In John 10:16 he spoke about the other sheep who must be brought into the sheepfold of his grace. How will these elect sheep come in? By hearing Christ’s voice. How will they hear Christ’s voice? When those he sends preach the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 20:21-22). In fact, Jesus identifies himself so closely with those he sends he can say, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (John 20:23). Through his appointed and Spirit anointed ambassadors Christ declares God’s name to his brothers (Hebrews 2:12).
Admittedly, Christian ministers today aren’t apostles. Indeed not. But nor has Christ been muzzled for almost 2000 years because of the passing of the apostles. Christ still speaks today. When ministers proclaim the Scriptures they are carrying out an apostolic ministry and Christ preaches through them. When ministers preach the word of God, Christ preaches.
A Colossal Consideration
This is weighty. It’s weighty for those who listen to the preaching of the Word. They have a holy obligation to receive the word preached, not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
It is also weighty for ministers of the gospel. We speak for the exalted Christ so that people hear him and believe in him. This consideration addresses the content of our preaching. We must preach the Scriptures, inspired by the Spirit of Christ. The pulpit is no place for human opinions or flights of fancy. We must be able to say about our preaching, “This is what Christ is preaching to you today.”
But the thought that we speak for the exalted Christ also bears upon the communication of our content. We shudder to think that we might distract people from hearing Christ. We want them to forget about us. We really want them to see no-one but the Lord Jesus and to be amazed at the gracious words that come from his lips. We who are ministers are Christ’s mouthpiece, the mic of our Master, so that through us his people hear him. We are the microphone. He is the voice. They see us. They hear him.
Had the Lord Jesus not promised us his presence and purchased for us his Spirit who would dare to preach again?Tweet
I am refreshed, recharged, and thankful. I have the remnants of a Florida sunburn and a few bruises from intense NERF wars with my kids. My phone is full of pictures and my imagination is soaring after hours of leisure reading.
This state of mind (and body) comes from a very generous church. In an uncommon act of love, Calvary Baptist Church allowed my family a solid month of vacation to visit our family and friends in Florida. I think the church saw my shoulders beginning to slump from shovelling snow and wisely prescribed a regimen of medicinal beach sand.
The experience was a new one for us. A month to relax, to read, and to reflect. So what did I learn?
The two prevailing lessons for me were:
I. Sharp thinking is essential in the pastorate
In the months leading up to our retreat, I found myself asking the elders to pray for me, because my mind felt so dull. Our church is in a phase of newness. New ministries, new members, and looking for a new place to meet on Sundays. It’s wonderful, but it requires a lot of thought. And sermons? I can’t imagine anything that requires more careful thought than reading, understanding, and helpfully applying the Word of God.
The “dullness” showed up in my preaching and administrative duties. I found myself speaking in broad generalities to avoid the pain of precise thinking. When that happens, meetings are a waste of time because they lack focus. And my attempts at application in the sermon started to sound a bit like:
“So, there it is. Let’s all just think about that this week.”
But during the second week of our retreat, I felt my mind starting to hit its stride again. Fresh insights didn’t have to be churned out immediately, so I had time to follow a thought until it rested. My friend, Clarity, broke through the clouds and showed me just how important he is to me.
My Action Plans to Make it Stick:
(a) Improve intake. Limit the snippets.
While sitting on the white sand of Fort De Soto Beach, I thought long and hard about what clogs my brain. I discovered that my brain gets dull when it’s too jumpy. I thrive when my intake includes more books, fewer blogs. More novels, fewer news feeds. More writing, less tweeting. More prose, fewer pictures.
In short, I need to treat the Internet like I treat Disney World. It’s great to visit every once in a while. But if I stay too long, I see it’s actually over-crowded, superficial, stressful, and far too costly.
(b) Pray long. Pray often.
Before the retreat, I think prayer had become very functional for me. I prayed in preparation for the sermon, for meals, in hospitals, and as a way of processing distressing news. Somehow I began to overlook the sheer joy of praying to my Father. The break allowed me to linger in prayer. Nothing kindles clarity like surrendering my plans and frustrations to the Lord. As I prayed for the future of our church and our family, I tried to round off each request with “Your will be done.” It reminded me that He is sovereign and I can trust Him. But more than that, I once again enjoyed trusting Him.
And, by His grace, He taught me a second lesson …
II. I am not defined by the pastorate.
Preaching has a vast importance. The pastorate is a sacred trust. It requires a deep personal investment, born out of a sense that God gave me breath because He wanted me to proclaim the riches of Christ. But the pastorate does not define me.
God doesn’t just call me to be “a pastor.” He calls me to be a certain kind of man. I think I get tunnel vision sometimes, thinking that my identity rises or falls by last Sunday’s message, or by the number of people who hear me preach each week. I should strive for excellence in what I do, but the target is more holistic in scope.
Sometimes a pastor’s merit is best measured by the impact he has in the lives of people who don’t call him “pastor.”
At some point during the month away, I was driving along a familiar road in our hometown, holding my wife’s hand. In the rearview mirror I saw my four kids dancing to the radio. I would never say that the woman holding my hand was just “a pastor’s wife.” The goofballs in the back were not “a pastor’s kids.” While we have obvious responsibilities, my position in a church does not define us a family. My hope for my children is that they would conform to the image of Christ, not the caricature of a pastor’s family.
My Action Plan to Make it Stick
Focus more on being a godly man, not just “A Man of God”
I know that seems like semantics. But it makes a difference in my mind. Especially when my mind is clear.
- A thought provoking piece: I think that pastor stole my sermon. Another brother has some preventative medicine against plagiarism.
- Four warning signs that you think “you’ve arrived” as a pastor.
- A good article on the importance of talking about the sermon, beyond the sermon.
- Al Mohler has 10 books he believes every pastor should read. A few of them are more pertinent to my American cousins, but it is an excellent list.
- Best commentaries on Mark.