Spirit-Led Preaching at the EHS

I recently attended the meetings of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, hosted this year by Don Sunukjian and the team at Talbot Seminary. I have been going to EHS since it began in 1997 and have never failed to find there a warm and engaging group of people who value the preaching of the Word and want to see it done more effectively. jack hayford

This year’s theme was Spirit-Led Preaching, and featured Dr. Jack Hayford, the long-time pastor of The Church on the Way in Southern California. I was impressed by Dr. Hayford’s deep dependence on the Holy Spirit and with his unshakable conviction about the work of the Spirit in our preaching. How the Spirit’s work intersects with our work has always been a matter of mystery. Pastor Jack did not eliminate that mystery – nor would we want him to – but he did build our sense that when we speak the Word of God to people, the Spirit of God is at work. Of course this wasn’t news to anyone, but it was refreshing to hear from one who believes this truth so profoundly.

I have sometimes wondered how our preaching might change if we were able to deepen our sense of spiritual expectation. If we really did believe that God was actively present and that people were going to change as a result, how might that affect the preaching that we do? Would we be more hopeful? Would we be more energetic? Would we be more present to the moment? What might that even sound like?

One thing I think might change in my preaching is that I would become a lot less hypothetical. So much of the preaching that I do is anticipating some result postponed for another time. But in theory at least, I believe in a God who is present and active in the person of his Spirit. Why might God want to do by his Spirit right here and right now as I preach? How will the Spirit work to change us through this sermon in the present moment? If I were take more time to consider that question, I might be more open and responsive to the result.

So often we preachers think we have to do the Spirit’s work for him. We feel we have to be the eloquent one – the powerful one. This concern is obviously misplaced. The Spirit is going to do his thing. That you and I get to be a part of this is more our privilege than our obligation.

We Could Do That!

I had a delightful moment in my introductory preaching class last week. I was working on the definition of preaching, trying to help the students appreciate what they were doing in my class. I like to say that preaching is “helping people hear from God.” It’s simple, but I think it profound. When I finally put the definition out there, one of the students surprised me (and I think herself), blurting out the words, “I can do that!”hearing

There was a joyful relief in her voice. Preaching is a hard business and it is tempting to own too much of it ourselves. Yes, we need to be intentional about what we are doing, and yes, we need to dig deeply into the task. But at the end of the day, preaching is what God does. We are not the preachers. It is God who is speaking. Our task is simply to help others hear what he is saying.

What a relief!

My student, like a lot of students before her, came into the class burdened by the sense that she was going to have to be eloquent, witty, and powerful in presence and expression. Not that any of that hurts, but what she came to understand was that none of that was really her job. Which is why it was so encouraging to come to understand that God is the one that is making his voice heard.

Not only does this perspective relieve the pressure from us, but it also makes for a more authentic sermon. We are no longer speaking on the basis of our own authority or wisdom, which frees us to adopt a humbler, more welcome stance.

We can do that. We might not be able to offer eloquence, but we can offer help. We can clarify. We can relate. We can point directions and we can help people listen.

A lot of preachers out there are making a lot of noise, such that it is not so easy to hear the voice of God. We could quiet our own voice so we could hear his voice. We could listen more and help more.

We could do that.

Integration and Disintegration

I have long been struck by the integrative nature of Jesus’ life and ministry, particularly as it has been summarized in John 1:14. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, … full of grace and truth.” cross

In Jesus, we find the integration of the objective and the subjective (Word and flesh). I might suggest that this describes the vertical line that traces the distance between heaven and here. But according to John, we also find in Jesus the integration of cognitive and affective (truth and grace), which describes the horizontal line that intersects both head and heart. I would suggest that this verse, then describes the shape of the cross which serves both as the philosophical model as well as the theological means of transformative preaching.

Great preaching will integrate these themes, speaking truthfully of the Word, objectively given, but also with a measure of grace that appreciates the implications of our preaching for our lives today. Great preaching lives and breathes. It is not solely a standard by which we are measured. It presents a way of being that we can embody.

I am concerned about preaching that dis-integrates the two. So often we hear preaching that reduces the gospel to mere doctrine, as if reconciliation to God is solely a matter of intellectual assent. Of course, it can roll the other way also, where preaching is understood to be little more than an encouragement to better and more moral ways of being.

The Gospel Persists

I am on a flight returning home from Boston where I spent the week teaching a group of ThM students at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. There is nothing like a full week of homiletic conversation to stir up my juices for this work of preaching. Working with this eclectic group of students renewed my passion for this great work that we share. images

One of my new student friends was preparing to return to Beizhing where he would be teaching hundreds of Chinese preachers how to preach more effectively. Another was preparing to engage student ministers on the campus of a major American university. There were a few freshly-minted young pastors full of promise and optimism about the ministry God was preparing them for. One man was in process of selling his cable media company so that he could devote himself full-time to the gospel. I even had the privilege of working with a couple of Army chaplain, one of which was with Special Operations in the Airborne division. This courageous man will soon be leading the training of hundreds of Army chaplain to preach.

As we worked together these days we gained respect for each other and for the ministries to which we had been called. I was personally humbled by the knowledge that the things I was teaching would be passed along by these students all over the world. Together, we all kindled a fresh appreciation for and passion for the possibilities of our preaching – particularly, integrative preaching.

We spent a good deal of time talking about the difference between merely “good” preaching and what we might call “great” preaching. Greatness as a quality in preaching can seem elusive. While we were able to identify a great number of potential markers of greatness, we settled on the idea that a great sermon is a sermon that changes lives. It has become of obvious to me that through these incredible people, a lot of lives are being changed – a lot of great preaching is going forth.

It is easy sometimes to take the view that preaching is past it’s prime and that it is not particularly well received in contemporary cultures. Yet I keep meeting people like these and I find it impossible to support the pessimism. The gospel persists – it goes forth. People are hearing from God and the Kingdom of God is being established in result. I am just happy to have some small part in the whole thing.

The Object of our Desire

Okay, let’s get one thing straight right off the top. We are subjective beings. In that the postmodernists are correct. We live locked in space and time. We are subject to our point of view, directed by our experience, our education, our parents, personality, and passions. We cannot escape it.  objectsubject

But this is not to say that there is no objective truth, nor does it suggest that we cannot know it. The very fact of our subjectivity requires there be an Object if there is any meaning in the world. Go back to your high school grammar – subjects point to objects. If we are subjects we must be subject to the Object of our existence.

Here is another thing that postmoderns are correct about. Subjects cannot know the object fully and with complete certainty. Subjects can observe, learn, test, and observe, but they can never be sure that they are fully in possession of all the pertinent facts or have not tainted these facts by things we prefer might be so. We can stumble upon the truth by accident. We can discern the truth through scientific observation. We might even be correct, but we can never be certain that we have achieved either.

Of course, there is another way that the subject could know the truth about the object. The object could make itself available to the subject – and this is exactly what has happened. It is, in fact, the nature of the gospel. It is the grounds upon which we find the voice to preach.

Preachers are not so wise to have been able to overcome the limitations of their own subjectivity in and of themselves. Preachers are not any more powerful in that regard than anyone else. Preachers simply have been given access to the Truth by relating to the Object. God is making himself known to his subjects. He has done it through his Word and he does it now through those who preach his Word.

The point is that subjective beings, by definition crave relationship with the Object of their being. Through preaching we can help to make the reconnection.

The Place of Compassion in our Response to Evil

Yesterday I said that evil exists and that its antidote is found in the gospel. Today I would like to add a word about compassion.

I remember a line from an old Steve Taylor song, “I just want to stay angry at the evil.” I have resonated with that line over the years as it has become increasingly convenient to find ways to get along with the evil in the world – to tolerate and coexist comfortably with things that are at odds with what is right and true and good.

But while I want to name evil correctly in the world, I also want to be sure to sustain a strong heart of compassion for those who struggle with evil and its consequences, consistent with our understanding of the gospel and its attendant grace.

To say that mental illness, like any illness or dysfunction, derives from an evil root, is not to say that we must not offer compassion to those who are caught up in it. I am not an expert in mental illness, and would not claim to be, but I can affirm that those experiencing such torment require us to respond with love and not with anger.  To be compassionate is to be gracious and grace is at the core of the gospel.

I cannot imagine the kind of mental anguish that would drive a person to commit the kind of atrocity that we saw on Friday. I also understand how a well intentioned society can exacerbate such problems through inadequate service and opportunity for care. Even the church (even people like me), can unknowingly  create the conditions where people feel a deeper sense of shame than welcome when they come into our midst, and that too is the incidence of evil – our inadvertent evil.

It might seem a little oxymoronic to speak of compassion in the same breath as we speak of a healthy abhorrence of evil, yet such is in the spirit of the gospel. It helps no one to merely mush into the middle. God hates our sin, but he loves us in our sin. To love like this is itself to war against the evil

See also: Evil and its Antidote

Also: Sermons, Souls and Shootings

Evil and its Antidote

Evil exists and we should talk about it.

Yesterday, I made some comments about the Newtown shootings. Among other things, I spoke of how sickness of soul is at the heart of these unspeakable situations. I mentioned how that it is events like these that remind us why we still need preachers. Where else are you going to hear anyone speak of the reality of evil and the answer provided in the gospel?

You certainly aren’t going to hear much of this in media, social or mainstream. Most of what I have heard in the last several hours has focused on mental illness, and while I would not want to discount or disparage the psychological aspects of the killer’s dysfunction, I would say that such explanations are far too simplistic. Chemical imbalances or mental anguish are not the reason for these shootings. Plenty of people experience mental illness without taking guns into schools.

Let us call this what it is. This is evil and evil requires a more than purely physical response. This is a spiritual problem and it is important that we see it as such. The Bible describes life as a struggle between powers.  The biblical worldview acknowledges that there is an Evil One who is actively engaged against all things right and pure and good. Evil is expressed as sin, which is far more than simply breaking social prohibitions. Sin, at its core, is a prideful rebellion against truth and righteousness. It is a self-pitying cancer that gives birth to pain and fear and mental suffering. When sin plants its seed it blossoms into every kind of evil, including the kind that we saw yesterday.

At a time like this we need preachers to help lead the conversation. We need people who can help us see the spiritual dimensions. We need preachers who can remind us that the gospel offers a meaningful response. In the gospel we have a means by which God reverses the gravitational pull of evil. In the gospel we realize the grace that says we don’t have to manage for ourselves, but that we can find meaning, truth, and forgiveness in the love of God expressed in Jesus Christ. The gospel is the antidote to evil and our ultimate response to human tragedy. These powers are not equal and evil does not exist entirely unrestrained. The gospel teaches that the day will come when all will be put right as God asserts his authority. But that day is not yet here and for now we must resist the influence of evil.

I understand that people do not always live out the implications of the gospel with integrity or with consistency, but that does not obviate the importance of the claim. In the gospel we have the opportunity to re-orient ourselves so that our internal compass points us true. Preachers understand this, and we need them to help us hear this truthful message.

Yesterday I made some comments about form and function and I turned those comments to the subject of guns and their control. I think it is probably wise to try and restrain the opportunity for evil through a simple thing like restricting access to instruments whose only possible function is to exacerbate the incidence of evil. That would help, as similar measures have helped keep people alive all over the world.

But at the end of the day, the problem we are dealing with has little to do with illness or government policy. The problem is that there is evil among us. The problem is that evil exists. The limiting influence of the gospel is being itself limited by those who want to re-imagine evil as something less dramatic.

But perhaps tomorrow as we gather in our churches, with the memory of eighteen slaughtered children on our minds, we might be better positioned to hear the message of the preacher – that evil exists and that it has to be extinguished. The gospel is that extinguisher. The gospel must be preached.

See: Sermons, Souls, and Shootings

Preaching Christ, Not Moralism

Moralism is one of the easiest traps for a preacher to fall into. In our attempts to challenge our listeners and to affect change in their lives, it is simpler to pick the low-hanging fruit – pray more; read the Bible more; be more faithful; be a better Christian. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these encouragements, but when such things are not rooted in the person and work of Christ, they come off as attempts to try and win God’s favour by our hard work instead of by the grace that God commends. I love this quotation of Tim Keller…

In nearly every text of Scripture a moral principle can be found, shown through the character of God or Christ, displayed in the good or bad examples of characters in the text, or provided as explicit commands, promises, and warnings. This moral principle is important and must be distilled clearly. But then a crisis is created in the hearers as they understand that this moral principle creates insurmountable problems. I describe in my sermons how this practical and moral obligation is impossible to meet. The hearers are led to a seemingly dead end, but then a hidden door opens and light comes in. Our sermons must show how the person and work of Jesus Christ bears on the subject. First we show how our inability to live as we ought stems from our forgetting or rejecting the work of Christ. Then we show that only by repenting and rejoicing in Christ can we then live, as we know we ought.

We preach Christ. That is our calling. That is our task. That is also, the key to our effectiveness in producing the results God has in mind for us and for our listeners.

Misrepresenting Christ

Building off of last week’s internet meme of the poor woman who attempted to improve an ancient fresco portrait of Jesus, Liam Thatcher makes some great points about the way in which we represent Christ in our preaching.

No doubt, by now you have seen the woman’s ill-advised efforts. Thatcher’s response was insightful…

First of all I chuckled at the absurdity of the situation and the unfortunate botch job. Let’s be honest… the picture is amusing, and somewhat reminiscent of Mr Bean’s attempt to restore ‘Whistler’s Mother’. 

Secondly, I pondered the aesthetic-ontological questions of whether this lady had indeed destroyed a work of art, and what the philosophical implications were of covering an original work (albeit a pimped-up version) with a print. 

Thirdly, I wondered if Gimenez’s version didn’t unintentionally capture something of Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him’ (Isaiah 53:2). 

Fourthly, I felt sobered by the whole thing. And here’s why:

It’s undeniable that the poor lady was just trying to help. There was nothing malicious about her work. In fact there was something beautifully reverent about it. Just… reverence misplaced and misguided. 

And then I got to thinking this: How many times have I, in my preaching and theology, out of my desire to make Jesus accessible, palatable and beautiful to a sceptical audience, inadvertently botched my representation of him, blurring out his true form and depicting him as less than he is? 

I was struck by the way the crown of thorns, a key feature of the original painting, was now lost under the mass of fuzzy hair. Are there elements of Jesus’ life, death and character that I simply gloss over and airbrush out?

Few of us, I’m sure, begin our lives as theologians or preachers with the expressed intent to misrepresent Christ. We start out like Gimenez, with good intentions. We love our Lord, we hate to see him faded and deteriorated in the public consciousness, and so we set out to restore his image… we’re just trying to help. But if we’re not careful our zealous attempts to help people see Jesus in a fresh light, coupled with varying levels of skill and the temptation towards pacifying people rather than portraying him as he truly is may lead us to compromises that blur his true likeness. 

Preachers. Thinkers. Writers. Artists. Next time you have an opportunity to paint Christ, consider carefully the accuracy and beauty of your work, before it goes public!

Church: Christ Church London
Church Website: christchurchlondon.org

The Responsibility of the Gospel

Reading in the book of Acts, I am struck by Paul’s deep sense of responsibility before the gospel. In chapter 20, verse 18-20 he says,

“You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews. 20 You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”

Just a few verses earlier we read how Eutychus fell asleep as Paul talked “on and on” (verse 9). I always saw that verse as humerous, until I stopped to think about the earnest of Paul’s conviction, such that he would instruct his people with such persistence.

“I have not hesitated to preach to you the whole will of God,” he said. “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” You need to bear a sense of responsibility before God for these people. “Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

I understand that the power of the gospel is the power of the Holy Spirit and it is up to him to work graciously and powerfully among us his people through our preaching. But that doesn’t relieve us of our sense of responsibility. I am reminded of what Paul said to the Roman Christians (10:13-16), that without a preacher, no one can hear the message of grace that could save their souls if only they were to call upon the name of the Lord.

I know that deliberate and consistent instruction in the gospel feels tedious to some. Of course, this doesn’t mean we cannot offer our teaching in compelling ways. We are accountable for our stewardship of the gospel. We will give an answer for how consistently we preach it.

Missional Preaching

From The End of Evangelicalism by David Fitch, Wipf and Stock, 2011, pp. 138-39

“Our preaching, for instance, moves away from the traditional evangelical expository techniques where the goal is correct exposition – word for word – so as to dispense accurate doctrinal information and practical guidelines for how to live the Christian life. In this way of preaching, the person in the pew takes notes, learns some principles, in cognitive fashion, applies these principles in the hopes of an improved Christian life. Taking good notes can lead us further along in our sanctification. When, however, this approach emphasizes individualized control of truth – three points and an application to take home and use according to me own personalized, Spirit-guided prompting – it promotes distance and control. …”

“On the other hand, preaching – where Scripture is the drama of God’s mission in Christ – proclaims the grand reality of God’s work among us and then invites God’s people into it. It demands a concrete hermeneutic as part and parcel of the authority that the Scriptures bear in Christ by the Spirit. Such preaching unfurls God’s mission before us, funding the imagination of all who would hear and inviting everyone to join in.”

Preaching Resurrection

Tomorrow, preachers all over North America will offer the gospel of resurrection. Of course, we preach resurrection every Sunday, but at Easter, we give it special focus. On this Sunday all the preaching that has come before finds its culmination in the message of re-birth and reconciliation.

At other times of the year we may preach about caring relationships or intentional evangelism, but whatever we preach on reaches toward the message that we preach at Easter. Every sermon, in some way, is motivated by our interest in the gospel. Caring and evangelism are only worth preaching in the context of an awareness that life can be re-born.

It is for this, above everything else, that we find our purpose as preachers. On this Sunday, we really want to bring our best, because our message is most fully realized at Easter.

Preaching Theologically, Not Simply Doctrinally

That preaching would be theological sounds obvious, or even redundant, resting as it does on a primary commitment to the voice and intention of God himself. Yet I am speaking of more than just the nature of preaching as a theological enterprise, or even the content of preaching as a deposit of doctrine. I am speaking, rather, of a specific and intentional move within the practice of our preaching that recognizes the person and will of God as it comes to bear upon our sermon. Such a move is less practiced than one might expect.

We are used to hearing good biblical preaching that leads us to an understanding of the text, perhaps even helping us to understand how that text might rightly play itself out in the practice of our lives. Strangely, even when well handled, this approach can be less gripping than it should. Preaching ought to compel us. It ought not be easily shrugged. Preaching ought to impress its truth upon us in a way beyond a simple sense of duty to the text. Great preaching will get us in the heart, demanding that we reckon with the God we are confronted by.

I don’t need more doctrinal preaching. I need more theological preaching. I am talking about preaching that does not leave me with an idea to be thought about or an application to do something about, but a God to be reckoned with. I need preaching that will lead me to worship – that will lead me into the presence of God in an Isaiah 6 sense, complete with doorposts shaking and knees knocking. I need preaching that gets at the core of the biblical message, not just at its extremities. I need to be swallowed whole by the truth as it is not just explained to me, but encountered by me.

I think this requires an intentional homiletical move on the part of the preacher. When I preach, I want my listeners to see God. I want them to hear his voice. I want them to understand his nature, his character, and his will – and I want that, in response, we all would bow our knees and open our hearts. We need to be intentional about this sort of thing, carving out time in the space of the sermon where we can draw our listeners into our Lord’s presence. It will not happen by accident. We have to lead our people in this direction. We have to plan for it.

I’m saying that preachers are worship leaders. I am tired of ceding this territory to the guitar players. A sermon that doesn’t lead us to worship is a wasted opportunity – incomplete in both intent and effect.

The best way to get there, I would suggest, is to find the theological moment in the text and in the sermon. What are we learning about God’s nature, activity, and will? How does this text and sermon find its place within the saving work of Christ? What is God trying to do among us through this adventure in his presence? How might we be changed by this encounter?

When we can find the theological element of the sermon, giving space for it to do its work, our preaching will find a depth and power beyond what we may have previously thought possible. Our preaching will serve the divine intention. If our preaching becomes more profoundly theological (and not merely doctrinal) our listeners will become more profoundly godly.

How Do You Handle the Word of God

Ed Stetzer has published an excellent research-based article on the ways that preachers use the Bible: How Do You Handle the Word of God. Lifeway research looked at 450 online sermons in order to discern the place of Scripture in contemporary preaching.

Some findings…

“Half of pastors traveled verse-by-verse through a passage, and almost half organized their sermons around a theme. Almost one out of five pastors named and explained a Greek word in their sermon. More than half explained verses by using other verses in the Bible.”

“In fact, 41 percent explained at least one church or theological word during their sermon. Another 21 percent avoided such words altogether. This means more than half of the preachers we studied either avoided or at least explained some of the church or theological words they used. While this is notable, it still means that one out of three preachers are not speaking in the vernacular of their audience—at least if the uninitiated or unchurched are in attendance.”

“Half of these preachers focused their preaching around one block of scripture text, moving verse-by-verse through the passage. … Another 46 percent of preachers focused their preaching around a main theme, question, or topic using multiple Scriptures to support it. …Finally, the other 4 percent organized their message around one main biblical character using multiple Scriptures to support the theme.”

“The preachers we surveyed had a definite preference for the New Testament. Nearly three quarters (71 percent) of the main biblical texts were found in the New Testament. More than a third (37 percent) of the sermons came from the New Testament letters alone. A quarter came from the Gospels.”

“When preachers flipped through their New Testament looking for a passage to preach upon, they didn’t flip far. Matthew was the most preached-upon and the most referenced book in the entire Bible. Genesis was the most preached-upon Old Testament book. Luke, John, Acts of the Apostles, and Romans—all from the New Testament—were the other most likely biblical books for preachers to use as a main text.”

While these statistics are interesting, Stetzer’s analysis is important. “How we handle the Word of God matters,” he says. “As preachers, we have a limited time with our audience every week. The question is, how will we use that time? Will we handle the Word of God in a way that demonstrates its authority in our lives and over the lives of our listeners?”

 

The Necessity of Words

I was pleased to see a piece by St. Francis biographer, Mark Galli, on Francis’ famous dictum that we “preach the gospel: if necessary use words.” This sentence is often used to suggest that the gospel can be preached without recourse to language. For the most part, this is a misunderstanding of Francis who was the kind of hellfire and brimstone preacher that would shock most of us today.

Galli writes, “’Preach the gospel; use words if necessary’ goes hand in hand with a postmodern assumption that words are finally empty of meaning. It subtly denigrates the high value that the prophets and Jesus and Paul put on preaching. Of course we want our actions to match our words as much as possible. But the gospel is a message, news about an event and a person upon which the history of the planet turns. As blogger Justin Taylor recently put it, the Good News can no more be communicated by deeds than can the nightly news.”

While I’m strongly in support of actions that prove our preaching, the fact is, it is always necessary to use words.

 

The Heresy of Application

I just spent some time working through Haddon Robinson’s excellent article, The Heresy of Application with a group of students. Robinson contends that there is more heresy preached in application than through exegesis. It is when we try to concretize the listener’s response to God’s Word that we often get in trouble. In our attempt to help people with practical aspects of their life experience, we sometimes credit God with things he never actually said.

Does the Bible promise that if we raise our children as Christians, that they will always life faithfully for Christ? Does the Word of God promise that husbands and wives who submit to each other will never experience disharmony in their marriages? Well, no, despite the fact that these things are often preached that way.

There are several kinds of implications that can arise from the texts we preach, Robinson says. “For example, a necessary implication of “You shall not commit adultery” is you cannot have a sexual relationship with a person who is not your spouse. A probable implication is you ought to be very careful of strong bonding friendships with a person who is not your spouse. A possible implication is you ought not travel regularly to conventions or other places with a person who is not your spouse. An improbable conclusion is you should not at any time have lunch with someone who is not your spouse. An impossible implication is you ought not have dinner with another couple because you are at the same table with a person who is not your spouse. Too often preachers give to a possible implication all the authority of a necessary implication, which is at the level of obedience. Only with necessary implications can you preach, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’”

Those of us who care about honoring God by getting the text right, will also want to make sure that we get the application right as well.

 

The Gospel Requirement

I just returned from the meetings of the Academy of Homiletics and the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston. This was a very productive time for me. No doubt I’ll have more to share about these meetings in the coming days. For the moment, I would like to focus on a comment made in a presentation by my friend Paul Scott Wilson of the University of Toronto.

“It seems to me,” he said, “that the gospel is the minimum requirement for any sermon.”

This was a particularly cogent comment given things I had been hearing from other speakers that same day. Some preachers, Wilson suggested, are so focused on an exegesis of a specific text that they forget to preach the gospel. In the attempt to handle the particularities of a text one can forget to see the text in the light of its overall biblical context. One can forget to offer hope.

Sermons lack hope, Wilson said, because they are either too human-centred, or because they are overly focused on law and judgment. It may be true that a given text might not directly describe the story of God’s offer of salvation but every text, Wilson contended, is a window to the gospel in some way or another.

I agree. I try to teach my students to read the text both exegetically and theologically because good exegesis is designed to feed a strong grasp of theology. It is important, I believe, to read Scripture in the light of it’s meta-narrative. God is in the business of reconciling humanity to himself and that is gospel. That good news is echoed in every text of Scripture.

One of my students preached this week from the book of Proverbs. The text spoke of the wisdom of gaining advice from other counselors. There was little in that text that was explicitly Christian. This text offered wisdom that would not be out of place in most business or self-help seminars. My student, however, had a larger perspective. It was his concern to be a Christian preacher.

To that end, he spoke of the reasons why we prefer to act independently. He spoke of a latent deceit within the human heart and the arrogance that causes us to think that we can manage better on our own. He reminded us how Christ came to rebuke and redeem that independent spirit and how the counsel of the Holy Spirit is the greatest wisdom we could seek. In short, his sermon was not just a late-night infomercial. His sermon was gospel. His sermon was good news.

If it is a sermon, it ought to be gospel. That is the least that we must offer to our listeners.

 

Augustine and the Lure of Eloquence

I’ve been reading the Confessions of St. Augustine as part of my devotional life recently. Before Augustine was a bishop and theologian he was a rhetorician, captivated by the promise and lure of eloquence. That enthusiasm began to wane, however, as he began to learn the dangers of persuasive speech.

He describes his great anticipation for a personal meeting with Faustus who was a well-known public speaker, advocating for the Manicheans. He was not disappointed by the meeting. He found the man to be charming and full of “pleasing discourse.” The problem was that he found his message wanting. The man was eloquent, but what he was speaking of was weak.

Augustine grew to be concerned by the fact that those who had so enthusiastically championed the man turned out to be “no good judges” of these things. Faustus had appeared to them to be understanding and wise. The man’s smooth talking had won them over.

On the other hand, Augustine writes, there was another sort of person who was “suspicious even of truth, and refused to assent to it, if delivered in a smooth and copious discourse.”

Augustine’s prayerful response is very helpful (from chapter seven, “Healing and Refreshment”). “Of Thyself therefore had I now learned, that neither ought anything to seem to be spoken truly, because eloquently; nor therefore falsely, because the utterance of the lips is inharmonious; nor, again, therefore true, because rudely delivered; nor therefore false, because the language is rich; but that wisdom and folly are as wholesome and unwholesome food; and adorned or unadorned phrases as courtly or country vessels; either kind of meat may be served up in either kind of dishes.”

As I sit down to write another sermon today I find myself a little disturbed by this knowledge that the meaning and power of what I have to say will have very little to do with how well I say it. And yet, upon reflection, that’s exactly the way that I would want it. Anything more would be too much of a burden for any one person. The truth will out.

Having said that, I still believe that God would have us speak truth as effectively as we can. This is not to say that we would be manipulative or that we would utilize the sleight of tongue that can tempt preachers such as us. Persuasion is good. But the end (conversion) doesn’t justify the means (manipulation) when the means themselves deny the message of truth we are trying to proclaim.

 

Speaking to Postmoderns

Yesterday I spent some time working on a project to help people think about how to communicate more effectively in the postmodern context. The following items are some of my random thoughts regarding attitudes we ought to adopt if we want to be more effective in these days…

humble and confident – we can’t preach without confidence, but we won’t gain a hearing without humility

dignified and respectful – people need to feel that we respect their right to determine their own mind about what we have to say

practical and meaningful – people in postmodern times are very pragmatic given the idea that all we can trust is what works for us, but perhaps we can be practical by offering something that is perceived as meaningful

oral and engaged – communication in these days needs to seem authentic, which is to say that it will be well assimilated, present to the moment, and spoken rather than written

simple and profound – depth is achieved not through complexity but through simplicity

honest and just – truth is viewed as that which is authentic and that which works justice for others in the world

 

Authenticity: The New Fruit of the Spirit?

I had an interesting online conversation with some of my students this week about the growing appreciation for authenticity as a personal value. I made the off-hand comment that I didn’t recall seeing authenticity as one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Of course, the fruits list was not intended to be exhaustive and certainly an emphasis on truthfulness might be implied. Certainly Paul’s list in Philippians 4:8 seems to value honest expression and truthful thought.

I’m not sure, however, that this is always what is understood by the contemporary use of the word, “authentic.” More often than not, authenticity is described as “being true to one’s self” which, as one of my students pointed out, often translates into a kind of selfishenss that is more concerned with one’s personal desires than it is with the concerns and needs of others.

The problem I have with being true to myself is that ‘myself’ is a sinner at the core. My greatest challenge in life is to repudiate the selfish and prideful interests of my heart in favor of the purposes of God. An authentic presentation of my truest self would not be pretty, nor would it be honoring to God.

This is not to say that I should not be honest before God. When I come before God I am stripped bare and I need to be willing to expose my most authentic self to his scrutiny and judgment. I can do this in the knowledge that he loves me and that, in Christ, he is extending grace to me. By God’s grace, I can then transcend my authentic self in order to grow into the new person that he is forming in me.

From the perspective of a preacher/teacher, however, I can say that there is value in being honest with people about our own struggles. We ought to be able to speak about our weaknesses with an honesty that comes from the knowledge that God is at work to restore and renew us.

Ultimately, however, our challenge is to appreciate that we are never to be the focus of our own sermons. My preaching is not about me. It is about God and his glory. It is about trying to be a blessing to those who listen to me. Philippians 2:3 and 4 remind us that we are not to look to our own interests, as authentic as they may be, but we are to look to the interests of others, considering their needs and person more important than our own.

I know this runs against the grain, but it isn’t the first time we find the Bible challenging our popular conceptions.

Tower Building and the Origin of Postmodernity

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.”

Whenever I hear people worry about postmodernism and the loss of truth I think of Genesis 11 and this story of the Tower of Babel. In all my reading on postmodern philosophy, it seems that the two most significant contributing factors to this eroded sense of confidence is (1) the imprecision of language, and (2) the problem of diversity. When I read Genesis 11, I come to the inescapable conclusion, that this was all God’s doing. God is the author of the postmodern problem.

Of course, it was an act of judgment on us. Our sin? We were trying to be as smart as God. We were building towers, trying to put ourselves in the place of God. Sounds an awful lot like the whole enlightenment project, doesn’t it.

Even though God judged us by confusing our languages and scattering our peoples, he still requires us to know him and to obey him. Postmodern philosophy, tells us this isn’t possible. The Bible tells us that it is possible, but not if we insist on tower building. Tower building is a bottom up project, a striving to be god for ourselves. Biblical revelation is a top down project, God making himself known sufficiently, if not exhaustively for us to obey him and find fulfillment in him.

That God is making himself known is about the best thing that I know. That he uses preachers in the process only makes the blessing greater.

 

Unction

Years ago I found myself faced with a daunting preaching responsibility. I was young and feeling unprepared for the challenge in front of me. An older pastor, a mentor to me, looked me in the eye and said, “The old time pastors used to talk about ‘unction’ – the power of the Holy Spirit that comes upon the preacher and gives the sermon power. We’ll just have to pray you down some.” That is what we did and that is what happened. God moved in a wonderful way by his Spirit through the sermon.

Unction is an old-fashioned word, but most preachers understand what we’re talking about when we use it. There is always an intangible element to preaching, the sense that no matter how well we do our homework or how well we are technically prepared, nothing is going to happen unless God makes it happen. What God will do in our preaching is unpredictable and for the most part beyond our control.

Of course, this is frustrating to preachers who would desire a greater sense of control over the impact of his words. Yet acknowledging unction is not to say that the preacher is irrelevant. There are several things that the preacher can do to put him or herself into position to access God’s power. Simply put, we can pray. We can allow God to form the truth of the message in our life. We can fast and pray and allow the message to become deeply embedded into our own heart.

To think about unction in preaching is to acknowledge that there is mystery involved. God will work in his way and in his time to achieve his purposes. This ought to comfort us. The success of the sermon does not set upon the shoulders of the preacher. It is the work of the Spirit. We’re privileged to be able to come along for the ride.