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Long term readers of this blog (for whom professional counselling may be advisable) will know that I have been struggling to mention Jesus of late.

The reason for my dilemma was Jonah 1. What does one do if one’s exegesis does not naturally lead to Jesus or the gospel?

You may remember that I explained the tension in terms of

         The Grammatical-Historical Method of Interpretation    (text means what it meant in its original context to its original hearers)

vs

       The Christo-centric/Theological Method of Interpretation       (the text being viewed in the light of the whole Bible & especially Jesus)

I made the point that it isn’t always easy to cover both approaches in the same message. Indeed, it might make for a rather confusing double message.

Well I still haven’t resolved the issue definitively, but I am thankful to the Puritans and Jim Packer for at least helping me out with Jonah 1.

I heard J.I. Packer back in 1993 at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London. He did two masterly talks on preaching. In one of them he spoke of a simple template that the Puritans often used in examining Scripture. They said that each text should be searched for three different elements:

  • Law
  • Gospel
  • Example 

Every text had at least one of these, if not all three. As Packer explains:

Law: is anything that convicts us of sin, shows us that we are under God’s judgement, and points us towards our need of salvation. So under this head might come such things as God’s righteousness, His glory, His laws and commands, as well as our sinfulness.

Gospel: is anything that speaks of God’s saving provision. So here would come His grace, mercy, faithfulness, as well as the obvious gospel matters of  Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and so on.

Example: are stories and/or people that illustrate the above.

Jonah 1 is a wonderful passage as it contains all 3! So I was able to show this simple framework to my flock and then explain how the first message had been about Law shown through Jonah’s Example–the disobedient, runaway prophet being described as causing the same kind of evil as God had condemned Nineveh for!

But now, in the second message, we were going to see Gospel worked out despite Jonah’s Example, as God is able not only to discipline and turn-around his way-wood servant, but also cause the salvation of a ship load of pagan sailors in the process. Such a message speaks hope and encouragement to us in our fallenness, as we see God’s power to fulfill His purposes and His grace to transform people and situations.

Even I could get to Jesus from there!!

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Non-Christians just don’t get it.

Still preaching through Jonah, and by a happy coincidence we had Jon 2 with the Prophet’s prayer from inside the fish on the same Sunday as a believer’s baptism! There were quite a few non-Christians present, so I tried my best to be interesting as well as preach the gospel clearly.

I started off (and finished off) with a reference to the anniversary of the JFK assassination. My major point in the sermon was on how Jesus had used the sign of Jonah to speak about His own death and resurrection.

One non-Christian fell asleep.

The other telling event was the look of sheer incredulity on the face of a 20-something visitor when I spoke about the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. Her face said “wha-? You believe this stuff! Man I must have come to some kind of cult or something.”

I found the whole thing depressing. Not least because all the Christians thought it was a great service and a top-notch message! In other words, it made sense to them….but not to the unbelievers present.

I am starting to realize how disconnected the average non-Christian really is from church and faith. We don’t even have the common language to have an informed communication about the gospel.

In fact, we are quadrupally alienated.

1. Church culture is odd and strange to them.

2. Christian language does not communicate anything meaningful any more.

3. The Christian world-view is also radically different to their own modern/post-modern secular consumerist one.

4. Even our Christian ethics and value are no-longer broadly shared (consider the fury generated by traditional Christian views on hetrosexual marriage).

What did I learn this Sunday? The gap is huge. Perhaps it is no longer even possible to minister to non-Christians in the same sermon or service as believers.

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I’m Getting Really Worried Now.

Just to talk about a sermon that does not explicitly talk about Christ or the Cross or the Gospel just….well….just feels wrong. I’ve decided to give-up trying to be clever about all this, and simply think-out-loud and see where it leads me.

Firstly, there are other things that make a sermon distinctively ‘Christian’. If I preach on the Fatherhood of God, on our adoption as His Children, or on the difference between being a son of a God and a child of God, then these are distinctively Christian messages. If I focus on the Holy Spirit, His personhood, His deity, His ministry, these are also distinctively Christian. Likewise, the classic framework of Creation–Fall–Redemption–Consummation that gives the Bible its metanarrative, would make for a distinctively Christian message.

Now it might be objected that none of these can be preached without reference to Christ. For example, how are we adopted as God’s children? Through Christ’s redeeming work on the Cross. However, one could also contend that no Christ-centered truth can be fully preached without reference to the Father or the Spirit. For instance, can we fully preach the Cross without reference to the Father’s role? Or the resurrection without reference to the Holy Spirit’s working?

So perhaps true Christian preaching is not so much Christo-centric, but Trinitarian?

This is to me and interesting thought. The old joke about preaching says “what shall I preach about?” To which the answer is “about God and about 20 minutes!”  Perhaps a more accurate version would be “about the Trinitarian God and about 20 minutes.”

[More to follow…]

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(This is a follow-on from my previous post “What I Learned About Preaching THIS Sunday – Oct 27th”)

OK, when I put it like that, it seems terrible!…Doesn’t it?

To me this raises two important and related issues:

I. What Makes a Sermon a Christian Sermon?

II. What Does One Do If One’s Exegesis Doesn’t Get One to Jesus

Let me deal with these, over several posts,  one at a time.

I. What Makes a Christian Sermon a Christian Sermon?

There is a line of thinking that says that Jesus must be the focus and subject of every sermon.

I have heard this put in various ways…

“Whatever the text is, make a bee-line from it to the Cross” (after CH Spurgeon)

“If you preach a sermon from the Old Testament that a Jewish person would preach, then you have preached it wrong.”

“Every sermon should reveal the gospel.”

I am sympathetic to these approaches. If a preacher is proclaiming a text and  there is no mention of Jesus or the Cross or the Gospel, one may well wonder if that is indeed a Christian message. But… I am also uneasy.

The underlying principle here seems to be that every true Christian sermon will take a text and then show how it fits in to the wider, broader, Christio-centric meaning of Scripture as a whole. Now that is surely a good thing, a right thing, a necessary thing. But,

  • EVERY message, on
  • EVERY text

1. Is this preaching or theology?

This seems to be more a practice of biblical or even systematic theology. What about actual exegesis? What about what the text actually says? What about what it actually meant in its original context?

I accept that no Biblical text can be viewed in its original context alone. If we hold to a high view of Scripture, then every text began originally in the heart of God, where Christ has dwelt since before eternity. Therefore from God’s perspective, every text’s original context was in some way Christ.

2. Do we take context seriously enough?

However, God also chose to unveil His full revelation slowly and in stages. He chose to reveal Himself in and through history–real people and real events in specific historical and cultural contexts. Therefore, if preaching a text without placing it in its wider gospel/Christ context is to not fully preach the text, then to preach its Christ dimension without also preaching its specific historical and cultural context is to not fully preach the text as well.

To take my dilemma as an example, Jonah chapter 1 meant something specific to its original audience, not just in the light of Christ. To fully understand and expound the text, I must do both. I must show how it fits into the Christ context, but also how it fits into it’s specific ‘there and then’ context too.

3. From Christian sermon to Christian series?

The thing is, I’m not convinced you can always do that in one sermon. If you have 50 minutes, maybe. But 20 or 25? And what about the idea of each sermon having one specific proposition or thesis? (This is the idea that one of the things that makes a sermon a sermon, as opposed to a talk or a lecture, is that it has a very focused message and purpose. It is like a nail or an arrow, a singular message designed to penetrate a specific target.) What does one do if one finds one dominant theme or message from the Christo-centric context, and a different one from its specific historical/cultural context?

In other words, one sermon may not be enough to legitimately expound the different meanings of a text, and not every one of those meanings may explicitly be Jesus. Hence, a sermon that is not explicitly about Jesus or the Cross.

Perhaps we need to say that a sermon series may or may not be fully Christian, given its overall emphasis of different truths. But that within any given series, individual messages may not talk about the Cross or the Gospel.

[…to be continued.]

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A heavy cold and cough threatened disaster. My voice nearly gave out during the prayers. So I had to improvise a little. It was the first in a new series on the Book of Jonah, and “stand-up & preach” had to become “sit-down & talk”. Here’s what I think I learned….

1. Sometimes a Change is As Good As a Change!

What do I mean? My church normally gets a change by me being away and a different preacher takes the pulpit. A different voice, a different style, it’s refreshing for them. They appreciate the quest speaker, and they appreciate having me back too. Well it seems that a radical change of presentation by the same preacher can work just as well.

I sat down on a stool, rather than standing behind the pulpit.

I spoke much more conversationally, rather than a preaching/declaration style

I shared something of my thought processes of how I had explored the text, not just the conclusions/points arising from that thinking.

All in all, it made for a very different sermon experience. People found it a refreshing change.

I would not do it every week. But it has made me wonder whether I need to be a bit more deliberate and varied in choosing my preaching style. I have a preferred style. But it is not my only one.  Selecting a different option at least once a month might be a good idea.

2. I Didn’t Preach All My Material

I had four points. The first two seemed to go really well. I had already preached for 25 min. So maybe more is less…and less is more. I stopped at two points. Had I gone on, I may have finished my material, but lessened my impact. As John Maxwell would say, “it’s just a thought…”

3. I Didn’t Mention Jesus.

Wha-? Really? Yes, really. And as someone who believes in a (gentle) Christocentric approach to the interpretation of Scripture, that bothers me. But, Jonah chapter 1 didn’t seem to lead naturally to Jesus. Should I force a link when I honestly can’t see one? That would have bothered me too. My exegesis may have been weak, but is that any excuse for isagesis? Ummm…another post for another day I think.

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I thought I would start a new weekly series.  A few minutes reflection upon my own preaching experience week by week, with one simple question: “What have I learned about preaching, by preaching, this particular Sunday?”

So here is my first venture…

This Sunday I broke from my current series and did a one-off on a subject that has been occupying my mind a lot of late: how do we cope with life’s storms? I took the four classic storm stories of the Bible–Jonah, Jesus calming the storm, Jesus walking on water, and Paul’s Shipwreck–and offered a simple reflection on each.  It was amazingly well received for what was a rather simple and straightforward message. Here is what I think I learned.

1. Make God BIG and CENTRAL

Although it was a message about coping with life’s storms, I focused a lot on God. Which if you think about it, is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it seems that when the chips are down, people don’t want “four easy steps to survive your storm”. What they want is to be reminded of how great God is, and particularly of such things as His sovereign power, His great compassion, the unstoppable nature of His purposes, and His faithfulness to His people.

2. Be Honest About the Christian Life

Within the context of a BIG God, and a faithful and merciful one too, it’s ok to be honest about the Christian life. If we make God big and central, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have all the answers and that not everything seems to make sense.

3. Use Pictures.

A new use for the much maligned powerpoint. For each point/storm, I had a picture of the relevant Biblical story. One was a famous Turner painting, one was a modern collage, one was a Sunday School picture I think! The point is, just having the picture up there on the screen seemed to help people. Partly it gave them a simple visual to reflect on whilst I was preaching. Partly, it made it obvious when I moved on to another point/storm! Simple visuals seem to help some, without distracting others. It was evangelist Denis Pethers who said that every sermon should be expressible in one simple picture, as well as one short sentence.

That’s all for this week. Let’s see what next week brings.

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I’m told that in American Football (that’s the one that’s a bit like Rugby) there is a tradition called Monday Morning Quarter-backing. Basically, every Monday morning after a match, the coach and the Quarter-back sit down with a tape of the game and go through every play, every throw, every decision.  It helps the QB, the key player in the team, evaluate his performance and identify areas for improvement.

It’s something we Preachers could do too.

How often do you listen to a copy of your previous Sunday’s sermon? If you’re like me, there are quite a few that you just don’t want to have to listen to ever again! Actually, these are probably the ones we most need to listen to again. It’s from these strike-outs (to mix my American sporting metaphors) that we can learn the most.

My suggestion is that we listen to our previous Sunday’s message, with a notebook in hand, and ask ourselves just a single, key question:

If I was preaching this message again, what one thing would I do differently?

That’s it.

The answer could be anything, of course.

*Sharpen the headings on the points

*Spend more time within the sermon on application

*Use a few more (or less) illustrations

*Have my ending clearly worked out

The one thing you are not allowed to put is “work harder on the sermon”. That’s a no-no for two reasons:-

Reason 1: It’s a rod for your own back . Exactly how hard is enough?

Reason 2: It’s too vague. What would you actually do differently next time? “Work harder”. Yes, but on what? The exegesis? Understanding the background? Structuring the sermon?  You can’t prescribe effectively without exactness in diagnosis.

So, write your one thing down. That’s all.

And do the same next week….

And the week after….

And the week after that….

Fairly soon, if you have a weakness in your preparation or delivery, it will become apparent. If four weeks out of five you find yourself putting down “make sermon structure clearer,” then that is telling you something.  It is also giving you something more helpful to focus on than “try harder”.

(In case you’re wondering, my repetitive mistake is….not working out, and writing down my ending. Sometimes my sermon is like a plane coming in to the runway on a foggy day. You think it’s about to land and then off  it zooms again!)

So get your notebook out, get listening, and start identifying your ‘one thing’.

Oh yes, why Monday Morning Quarter-backing on a Tuesday? Because if you’re at all human, when you’ve preached a real stinker, you”re far too depressed on a Monday to listen to it again objectively! So give yourself a little time to get back on an even keel.

And don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember, even the great Dan Marino threw an occasional bad pass!

So what’s your repeated mistake or weakness in your preaching? Please leave a comment below.

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