My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. (John 10.27)
Have you ever been overcome with despair as you wonder how to get through to your friend who is presently a stubborn professing Christian? Have you looked into the eyes of an unbeliever and asked yourself how you might bring them to Christ? Have you wondered how you might appeal to them and somehow have them follow the Savior? If you are a pastor, have you sat in your study and wondered how you might help people to “get it”?
To one degree or another all believers have shared these thoughts. What happens next, however, is of vital importance. What do we do about it?
If you are a preacher then you know that you are never really ‘ready’ to preach. Preachers could always use more time in prayer, further meditation upon the text and to reconsider appropriate application. However, the time eventually comes when we must take that walk from our seat in the pew to stand behind the sacred desk to proclaim God’s word. It is at this point that we must be as ready to do what God has called us to do.
Why Are Some Guys So “On”?
This brings me to my question: Why do some guys walk to the pulpit and from first word to last seems to be clicking, dripping with passion, demonstrable brokenness, and a visible burden for their people to ‘get it’? While others are able to deliver a biblically faithful message but seem to lack that extra ‘something’ that makes a good sermon different?
A couple of weeks ago I came to one of those times in sermon prep where I was just staring at the Bible and wondering what I was going to do with the passage. Specifically it was in Leviticus 24. This chapter deals with the regulations for the lamp stand and the bread. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we have a case of blasphemy. The offender is the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman.
(Lev 24.10-11) Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp,11 and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed.
The commentators debate about the specifics of the offense, but suffice it to say, this man spoke in an insulting, irreverent, and unholy manner concerning the Lord God of Israel. He was not impressed by him and felt no obligation to fear him. So like Goliath, he mocked him.
The penalty for this divine hate crime was quick and efficient community execution by way of stoning.
(Lev 24.15-16) 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death.
I have been quite refreshed by the book Feed My Sheep. It is a compilation with contributions from Mohler, Sproul, Piper, and MacArthur (among others). As you might expect, it is a very helpful reminder and instruction into the priority of preaching.
This particular quote is from Sinclair Ferguson in his chapter preaching to the heart. The whole chapter is very helpful, but this was particularly appropriate:
There is a center to the Bible and its message of grace. It is found in Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected. Grace, therefore, must be preached in a way that is centered and focused on Jesus Christ Himself. We must never offer the benefits of the gospel without the Benefactor Himself. For many preachers, however, it is much easier to deal with the pragmatic things, to answer “how to” questions, and even to expose and denounce sin than it is to give an adequate explanation of the source of the forgiveness, acceptance, and power we need.
Since many readers of this site are pastors, even young pastors, I thought it would be helpful to share this quote of a confession from Bryan Chapell concerning a misguided practice from his early days of preaching.
In my earliest years of ministry, I most valued mining obscure texts. I thought the effort showed how serious I was about all of Scripture. I also believed that handling such passages well would show how qualified I was to preach.
Preaching difficult and little-known texts was like showing my diploma. I later learned to love shedding light on important texts or bringing new life to familiar texts. Concentrating on the Bible’s ‘fine print’ gave people the impression they could not read their Bible’s without me. My pride may have appreciated this perception, but it was poor pastoring.
The Bible became an opaque book full of grammatical mazes and logical knots that I had to untangle each week. Thus, by consistently choosing texts in the Bible’s densest forests, I denied people the sunlight it more regularly offers and made them less willing to approach its paths.
Some people may have thought much of my abilities to handle the Word, but more lost confidence in their ability to do the same. (Chapell, Bryan. Christ-centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005. 69.)
I love this quote. I will totally be picturing barrels and praying for explosions tomorrow morning.
One of my predecessors at Tenth Presbyterian Church, Donald Grey Barn-house, used to say that when he preached to an audience, he used to think of them as barrels sitting on the pews. Most of them were empty. But some of them had gunpowder inside, and his job was to produce explosions. He did it by striking the matches of the Word and throwing them into the barrels. When he hit one that had gunpowder, there would be an explosion. God put the gunpowder there. Then, as the Word was preached, there was a spiritual ignition or rebirth. This is one of the reasons we should value preaching so highly. –James Montgomery Boice, Feed my Sheep
As a preaching pastor I found this quote from Kaiser to be both helpful and convicting:
“Evangelicals in particular are known for leaving messages at the cognitive level. We often think we have done our job when we have asked God’s people to ‘think about this,’ or ‘believe this,’ or ‘remember this.’ But it suddenly struck me one day that Beelzebub could respond just as well to my sermons if that was all I was asking people to do. The devil believes all of these things and more. He knows they are true; he just doesn’t act on any of these claims. Thus, we must call for action.” (Walt Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, p. 59)
In my week, Monday begins a new sermon preparation process. As one friend said recently, “As soon as I wake up on Monday morning I feel the next sermon tapping me on the shoulder.” Application is one important aspect of this preparation. As I work on sermon structure and content I am also stockpiling a list of potential avenues for personal and corporate application. Although it is time consuming and mind engaging, I don’t find this part of sermon prep particularly difficult. What is more difficult, in my view, is how to deploy the application.
One of the traps that preachers get into is a predictable routine. In the event that the preacher is organized he is often a bit too organized–and predictable. Surely you have heard sermons that have a story on the front end, the outline introduced (3 whatevers that ensure faithful….) and then the working through each of the points, a list of application points at the end, a quote, a plea, and then a prayer. Week after week these boiler plate sermons are served up with the creativity of a cafeteria lunch.
My plea is this: mix it up a bit.
If some preachers were baseball pitchers they would have the same routine with every batter: fastball, curveball, cutter, change-up, repeat. This may work the first time through the line-up, but eventually decent hitters are going to start teeing off on your predictability.
In the pastoral scope parishioners won’t tee off they’ll tune out (or maybe nod off?). With all the work pastors …
As a pastor I often get the question, “Do you have any advice for helping my kids to benefit from the sermon?”
This is a question that I really appreciate because it recognizes the importance of the preaching of the Word of God and our reception of it. It recognizes that even the children are to hear, and to best of their ability, understand what is being preached.
What follows are some things that I have done as a Dad and also as a pastor.
Pastors who wake up on Mondays face a unique reality. We are coming of a time where we have worked hard the previous week in the study. The preparation culminates on Sunday morning as the sermon is delivered. In the aftermath we are humbled and encouraged; humbled because of our preaching and encouraged because of God’s sovereignty. But overall, much of the time, we feel good because we worked hard.
Now it’s Monday. And you feel, well, helpless. What can you do? Can you call up individuals and give application questions, or have them restate your proposition, main points and fallen condition focus? Unlikely (and unrecommended.) We are in that familiar spot of weakness. We so want people to get it but feel so limited in how to make them get it.