Monthly Archives: October 2010

Preaching In Dialogue With The Congregation

My current reading is ‘The Preaching Of Jesus‘ by William Brosend. I wouldn’t have come across it but for my membership of the Ministry Today board, because a copy was sent to us for review, and I volunteered.

I like reading books about preaching, but this one wasn’t a natural as the foreword is by Marcus Borg, a scholar whom I find altogether too sceptical. However, it was also commended on the back by a scholar I admire, Ben Witherington III.

In this short post, I want to highlight one early and important point in the book. Brosend uses an elaborate first chapter to argue that there were four major characteristics to the preaching of Jesus. The first of these is dialogical preaching. This is not the same as those hackneyed ‘dialogue sermons’ from thirty or forty years ago, where two people presented an artificial conversation to cover the loss of confidence in proclaiming the Word. (And in any case, ‘proclamation’ is Brosend’s second characteristic.)

No: Brosend means that when Jesus preached, he was in dialogue with Scripture, tradition, the culture and his listeners. Here I just want to highlight one important point he makes about the preacher’s dialogue with Scripture. It is this: are we in dialogue with the passage in a way that is sensitive to the way our congregations will be in dialogue with it? Will they have been wrestling with the passage all week? Most unlikely. Will they have been consulting learned exegetes? Even less likely.

It isn’t that protracted meditation and responsible exegesis are bad things. But if we only bring our own questions and/or the scholars’ questions, we are not going to connect the Word to the listeners.

I think that’s a salutary reminder when preachers are often taught (especially, in my experience, in the Methodist ‘Faith and Worship’ course) to put academic exegesis first. I’m glad for the reminder.

Losing Faith, Rediscovering Faith

Some churches – particularly ‘traditional’ ones – are good at keeping the people they have, but not at recruiting new faces. Some other churches – especially evangelical ones – are so fixated on evangelism that they reach new people but don’t notice they’ve brought them into a building with a revolving door. Retention is one of their problems.

Various people have done work in recent years on the question of those who have left the church. Books such as Michael Fanstone‘s ‘The Sheep That Got Away‘ and Alan Jamieson’s ‘A Churchless Faith‘ come to mind. Now Andy Frost of Share Jesus International has done some research, and is touring it around the UK. It promises to be challenging but accessible material.

So I commend the ‘Rediscovering Faith‘ tour and the accompanying book ‘Losing Faith‘ to you. I hope to be at the Staines leg of the tour on 9th November. I think it could be a highly worthwhile evening for a mere £3 admission.

A Brief Sermon For A Memorial Service

Tonight, one of my churches holds an ‘All Souls Service’, where we invite all the families for whom we have conducted funerals over the past year. (My other church will do the same in a fortnight.) One church I previously served also had such a service, but the Anglican rector always took that, and so I was never involved. This evening, then, is my first stab at such a service. We shall scroll the names of the deceased on the screen, while family members light a candle in memory of their loved one, and our worship group will quietly sing some music while that happens.

Meanwhile, here is what I plan to preach.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Most of the funerals I take are for people whom I have never had the privilege of knowing. I know that can create a hurdle to leap between a grieving family and me, the minister.

Tonight, I am conscious of a further hurdle. The great majority of you had your loved one’s funeral conducted by my predecessor, Nick Oborski. He has now moved to Epsom, and I came here to replace him two months ago.

What I want to share with you in these few thoughts this evening is quite personal. The Bible reading we heard a few moments ago is one that is special to me. It became special to me eight years ago when a dear friend to my wife and me died of breast cancer. Carolyn was only 41. I chose this Bible passage for her funeral, and it has meant a lot to me ever since.

The theme I want to take from it is ‘Grieving with Hope’. Let me introduce it this way.

At the risk of over-simplifying things, I notice two main trends when I visit a bereaved family to arrange a funeral. One is the distraught family, overcome with grief. The other is the family that says something like this: ‘Dad wouldn’t want us to be sad. We want the funeral to be a celebration of his life.’ One family majors on sorrow, the other on joy. One is focussed on grief, the other on hope.

Paul says,

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. (Verse 13)

He doesn’t say, ‘do not grieve’: he says, ‘do not grieve like [those] who have no hope’. In other words, we can grieve with hope. Grief and hope. Sorrow and joy. Grief, but not hopeless. Sorrow, but not despairing.

Paul is real about the grief and sorrow that death brings. It isn’t for nothing that elsewhere he calls death ‘the last enemy’. Death is an enemy. We recognise that in our language. When someone dies after a protracted illness, we often say they ‘lost their battle’ with the disease. You battle an enemy.

And death is an enemy. It takes away from us people we love dearly. They can never be replaced. We can never be the same. Our lives take on a new shape over a period of time, but we all miss them.

In the face of an enemy’s action, our grief is not selfish. It is normal. We grieve, because we love. The one we love is no longer here for us to love. Our hearts ache with the pain, and we grieve. Anything less is unnatural.

You may know a popular reading at funerals is a piece called ‘Death is nothing at all’ by Henry Scott Holland. I have read it at funerals, but my problem is that death isn’t nothing, it’s a real and present enemy. Taken the way they are at funerals, you would think Holland was trivialising the grief experience. But they are lifted out of context from a sermon he preached when King Edward VII died. The sermon was called ‘King of Terrors’, and he knew well the terror that death brings.

So let us be real about grief. Let us own it. We don’t get anywhere without being honest about reality. And the reality of death leads us to grief.

However, says Paul, we grieve with hope. Let’s go back to that language of death being about ‘losing a battle’. Often we may also say – although not necessarily in connection with death – that someone has ‘lost the battle, but won the war’. Essentially, that’s what Christians say about death, and why we grieve with hope. We may ‘lose the battle’ in death, but in the long run we ‘win the war’.

How can we say that?

It’s because of the next thing Paul says:

We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (Verse 14)

‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again.’ That’s the key. Jesus didn’t merely die. He rose from the dead. That may seem a fantastic and ridiculous claim in an age when atheist scientists claim to reduce religious belief to a delusion, but I believe there is decent historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. I don’t have time to go into it now, and besides you didn’t RSVP to a lecture tonight. However, since I believe Jesus is risen, I believe he shows the way to hope. I believe his resurrection is the winning of the war that trumps the losing of the battle in death.

It’s by trusting our lives into Jesus’ hands and committing to follow him that we share this hope. He wants to share it with everyone. But it’s a gift that needs to be received.

Let me tell you a story. When I was young, my Dad tried to explain the Christian hope in the face of death to me. Dad worked in banking, and he asked me to imagine that NatWest had ordered him to take a new post with them in Australia. How would we feel?

Well, I would be upset not to see him, I said. Much as I loved Mum and my sister, I would not want to be parted from him.

Yes, he said, of course you would feel like that. But while we remained behind in England, he would not only be working but preparing a new home and new life for us. Then, one day when that was ready, we would move to Australia and be reunited.

For the follower of Jesus, death is like that temporary parting. While it lasts, it is full of anguish. But one day it will end, and there will be a joyful reunion. This is the grieving with hope that is Jesus’ gift to all who put their faith in him.

Let me finish with a piece that echoes that idea. It’s called ‘What is Dying?’ by Charles Henry Brent:

What is dying?
I am standing on the seashore.
A ship sails and spreads her white sails to
the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
She is an object of beauty
and I stand and watch her till at last
she fades on the horizon,
and someone at my side says, “She is gone.”
Gone where?
Gone from my sight, that is all;
she is just as large in the masts,
hull and spars as she was when I saw her,
and just as able to bear her load
of living freight to its destination.
The diminished size and total loss of sight
is in me, not in her.
And just at that moment when someone at my side says,
“She is gone”,
there are others who are watching her coming,
and other voices take up the glad shout,
“There she comes”,
and that is dying.

links for 2010-10-23

Sermon: The Pharisee And The Publican

Just for once, I’m back preaching from the Lectionary this weekend. At present I don’t have a sermon series at my smaller church. Last Sunday I sat in on a Local Preacher taking the service there, because he is candidating for the ministry. He took last Sunday’s Lectionary of Luke 18:1-8, so I am following that up with this week’s passage that comes straight after that. It doesn’t make for a series, but hopefully it creates a little bit of continuity.

Luke 18:9-14

There is a nonsense abroad in Christian circles that says, ‘We all believe the same.’ Because of our unity in Christ, all the Christian denominations believe the same.

We don’t.

The local churches in my home town were mature enough to recognise this. They held public meetings to discuss the differences. One evening, the subject was baptism. An Anglican vicar , a Baptist elder and a Catholic priest each agreed to speak. The Anglican sat behind a table and gave his talk. So did the Baptist.

But when the Catholic priest had his turn, he took his chair from behind the table and set it down right in front of the first row of the audience.

“Good,” he said. “I like to see the whites of the eyes before I attack!”

I am not about to do that this morning, but our reading is a story about drawing near. How can we draw near to God? Should we draw near to God? Does God draw near to us, and if so, how? All these questions are present in the story we traditionally call ‘The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican’.

It’s a deceptive parable. It’s almost too easy. We’ve known it for years, and it’s clear to us who the ‘goodie’ is and who the ‘baddie’ is. Jesus draws his characters as clearly as a cartoon. It’s like workmen have dug a huge hole in the road and put so many warning signs around it, we can’t fail to choose the right path around it and avoid falling in.

Or can we?

Take the Pharisee himself. We are so programmed to hear the word ‘pharisee’ and hear warning sirens in the New Testament that we are in the presence of someone who opposed Jesus. And clearly the Pharisee in this story is not one of the good guys, either.

But look at what he does. He goes to public worship. He prays. He seeks to live a virtuous life. What’s not to like? Aren’t these things we aspire to do, and to do well? After hearing last week about the need to persist in prayer, you can’t accuse this man of failing in that regard.

And he certainly wants to draw near to God. Wouldn’t he have sung ‘Bold I approach the eternal throne’ with the same vigour as a convinced Methodist? Wouldn’t he have affirmed every bit as much as the Protestant Reformers his own access to God? He could stride into the presence of God in his Temple.

Except … we know from the introduction to the parable that here is a man ‘who trusted in [himself] that [he was] righteous and regarded others with contempt’ (verse 9). When he attends this public act of worship at the Temple, he chooses to ‘[stand] by himself’ (verse 11). This is more than just sitting quietly in a pew on your own. This is someone who didn’t want to associate with the other worshippers. He despised the Jewish emphasis on the importance of community.

What’s he doing? He’s protecting his purity before God. He knows and keeps the Jewish Law – hence the reference to fasting twice a week and tithing his income (verse 12). But if he comes into contact with one of the worshippers who doesn’t do this as faithfully as he does, then he becomes unclean. So he’d better take precautions.

You  might think this is like the spiritual equivalent of when we take sensible medical precautions to prevent ourselves from catching diseases, like cleaning our hands with alcohol gel before going onto a hospital ward or not having close contact with someone having chemotherapy, so they don’t get an infection that prevents their treatment. Those kinds of measures are sensible. The Pharisee wants to prevent what he sees as spiritual infection because he has a superiority complex. He thinks he is spiritually pure, unlike those sharing space with him (and no more) in the Temple.

Does that sound like some of our attitudes? Of course, we hope not. But there may be certain kinds of people – or even specific individuals – whom we avoid for fear of ‘contamination’. I’m not referring to the kind of problem where someone is a bad influence on us, and we know we don’t have the moral strength to stop them dragging us down. The Pharisee is different. He thinks he’s superior. He doesn’t think he’s lacking in moral fibre.

And there are times when we come across like that. When the public pronouncements of the Church are only about the people, lifestyles and behaviours we condemn, then we sound like the Pharisee. When we portray ourselves as people who have got it all together, implying that others haven’t, then we join the Pharisee of this story.

What is the problem here? Luke puts it succinctly when he talks about people ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’ (verse 9). Because that’s the problem. That’s a contradiction of the Gospel. That stands against everything Jesus came to achieve. The whole point of what we believe is that none of us can trust in our own righteousness to stand before God. Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us needs grace and mercy from the love of God. Forgetting that is the most dangerous thing in the world.

Yet sometimes we do. Look at how people outside the Church perceive us, and you will realise that we do come across as people who think we are morally superior. That’s one reason why some people feel they can’t join us. We’re too good to be true, and we’re too quick to condemn.

Now you know and I know that we don’t intend to communicate that message. But it’s what people hear from us. Many people don’t want to come near to us, or come near to God, because we’ve given the impression that faith is all about being good enough for God – we are, and they aren’t.

Perhaps a test of our hearts on this one is how we react when someone falls from grace. Do we look down our noses at them? Do we gloat? Or do we ask God to be merciful to them, and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’?

The Pharisee in this parable, then, might be a little more uncomfortably close to us than we might like to believe sometimes.

What, then, of the Publican (or the tax collector, as our translation calls him)? Here is the very person whom the Pharisee would have treated as unclean. He didn’t keep the Jewish Law. He associated with the wicked occupying Roman forces. If anyone deserved the label ‘sinner’ it was him. Described as a thief and a rogue by the Pharisee, he too doesn’t stand with the rest of the community at the altar. He stands ‘far off’ (verse 13), because he doesn’t believe he deserves to be there. Deep down he knows exactly who he is. The Pharisee is right. He most certainly is ‘a sinner’ (verse 13).

He makes me think of various people. I think of an English teacher my sister and I had at secondary school. It was a Church of England school, and rather high up the candle. One day, this teacher was talking with my sister about why he went to a high Anglican church, full of ceremony and incense. He told my sister that he envied her ‘low church’ faith, with its easy sense of intimacy with God, but in his case he just needed to go to worship to express the fact that he was a sinner.

Or I think of several church members I have met in Methodism who reject all sense that they may draw near to God. Indeed, some use the language of ‘reverence’ to remain at a distance from him. They hardly dare draw near.

But those people don’t display the anguish of the publican.[1] He beats his chest (verse 13), a common sign even to this day in the Middle East of either intense anger or deep anguish. It is particularly a sign of extreme pain when a man, rather than a woman, does it. And by beating his chest, he is pointing to the darkness in his heart. This is a man full of remorse.

So what does he cry out? ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (verse 13). That’s what our translation says, and many English versions render it similarly.

But there is a more literal translation, and it makes more sense in the context of the story. The man says, ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner’. And since the man is attending either the morning or the evening sacrifice at the Temple, this fits perfectly. The priests are sacrificing an animal as a sin offering for the people. The publican, who feels he cannot stand with those considered righteous, cries out, not just generally for mercy, but that the sacrifice being made at the altar might be for him. ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner.’

At that moment, the priests are making atonement for the people. But it won’t be very long before God himself makes atonement for this sinner and all other sinners. Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, will go to the Cross and bear the sins of the world. In Christ, God will make atonement for the publican. The publican’s prayer will be answered.

No wonder he is the one who goes home ‘justified’ before God, according to Jesus (verse 14). He is made to be in the right with God, because God himself will atone for his sins in Jesus Christ. God will remove the sentence of guilt from him. God will take away the power of guilt from over his life. Through Christ, he will be in the right with God.

You may recall that some years ago, Cliff Richard recorded a song called ‘From a Distance’. Originally written by a songwriter called Julie Gold, the chorus says, ‘God is watching us from a distance’. Yet that is not the case here. God is drawing close to sinners. He atones for our sins at the Cross. He offers us new life at the Empty Tomb.

So if like the publican we cry out for atonement, because we are so aware we are sinners, the good news is that we no longer need stand at a distance like he did. God is not at a distance from us. He is close. He took on human flesh for us. He died for us. He rose for us.

We might be nervous about the way in which the Pharisee attempted to draw near to God, and decide we want none of that arrogant presumption. Quite right, too.

But just because we have seen bad examples of drawing near to God, does not mean we should stay at a distance from him. Even though our sins do put us far from him, God is merciful and does not intend to let that state of affairs remain. We cry out for atonement, and God himself provides it.

And therefore I pray, as we are in the early stages of our relationship as minister and congregation, we will not fall into the trap of staying far off from God. What we need to do is reject the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and embrace the humility of the publican. As we humbly cast ourselves upon the mercy of God, we find he provides all we need in the Atonement of Christ through his death. As Matt Redman has said, ‘The Cross has said it all.’

Friends, let our journey together these next few years be based on that foundation.

[1] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp 153-5.

On Not Assuming Too Much Knowledge

Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of listening to Chris Blake, the current Principal of Cliff College, give some seminars on preaching and mission. In one session, he highlighted the need for preachers not to assume too much biblical knowledge among congregations. The very next day I witnessed a preacher carefully elucidating from a congregation how many of them knew the story of wrestling Jacob. About ten per cent put up their hands.

Then on Monday came an email version of the latest Church and Culture blog by James Emery White, Communion and Coleslaw. He raises the same issue, but particularly among those newer to the faith. He includes a touching reaction from a new worshipper who was clearly unfamiliar with what the ‘Lord’s Supper’ is.

Thanks for the informative email.  I have been going to Meck for about a month now and I love it!  I have even talked my two friends into joining.  We are all thankful to be part of an awesome church with great values.  I do have one question.  I remember hearing about the first Wednesday of every month being a service with in-depth Bible teachings and a celebration  of the Lords Supper.  What does that mean? I understand the part about the Bible teachings but what is a celebration of the Lords Supper? Does that mean we all bring some  kind of food to share? I am planning on going tonight but I wanted to make sure I bring something if need be.  Any information you can provide with would be greatly appreciated!

What a refreshing reminder that is.

But how sad it is that we still have to give out page numbers to longstanding Christians to find Bible passages, because they still don’t know their way around the Scriptures. Not that biblical knowledge alone is a test of spirituality, but I find it moving to deal with young Christians where I can’t expect them to know stuff and sad to deal with many experienced Christians who know little more.

What are the causes? Is it bad teaching by those of us who lead? Is it a lack of passion for discipleship? Is it cultural pressures?

What do you think?

My First Gig

What was the first gig you ever attended? Mine was in 1976 at the Picketts Lock Centre in my native Edmonton. I was a brand new sixteen-year-old Christian, and the local churches were about to hold a mission with the evangelist Don Summers. In the run-up to the crusade, a concert was staged by a mainly American Christian band called Liberation Suite. Originally from Texas, they for a period of time lived out their faith in Troubles-torn Belfast. None of the money-and-luxury-grabbing lifestyle seen latter on the Contemporary Christian Music scene in some quarters for them. Here is later footage (1991) of them performing a medley of Irish Jig and Emerald Isle, their song about their heart for the people suffering in the Troubles:

They had another Irish connection. They had recruited Stephen Houston on keyboards, a Christian convert who had been playing in Irish prog-rock band Fruupp. Because of that, I had expected their music to be quite proggy. It turned out more like Chicago – not the sappy, sentimental Chicago post-If You Leave Me Now, but the brassy, earlier version.

The band had been recommended by a church youth club friend who had recently gone off to study at Surrey University in Guildford (only a few miles from where I am now). He had seen them perform there. In particular, Dave Goodwin raved about a song called Run Run Lucifer, and it became my favourite song by the band, too. Again, here’s a YouTube clip of the band performing that song (again, later – this is 1990):

Why write about this now? A few months ago, I discovered that LibSuite, as they were often known, had issued a Live In Europe CD that commemorated a gig they had played in 1976, the year I had seen them play. I ordered it from the only available source, CDBaby. However, after several weeks, they emailed me to say they could not supply it. I decided to contact the band via their website, to see whether there was any other way of obtaining it. To my great joy, drummer Randy Hill sent me  a copy, and it arrived yesterday.

I’m not suggesting every LibSuite fan contacts Randy! But it was a lovely sign of a band that has always had a good heart.

Chile Miners: The 34th Man

I’ve been sharing this story on my Facebook account. A friend who works for the Church Mission Society posted it. In all the remarkable stories about the rescue of the thirty-three Chilean miners, with the mixture of testimony to the faith of some and the confrontations between wives and mistresses on the other, comes this powerful story. Biblically, it reminds me of Daniel 3:25, where Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are in the fiery furnace. As King Nebuchadnezzar watches, he gasps in astonishment that there is a fourth man in the fire.

Do click the link and read for yourself.

RIP Solomon Burke

Solomon Burke, the ‘king of rock and soul’, has died. The preacher who took seriously the command to go forth and multiply (he had 21 children and 90 grandchildren) died in Holland today.

Many others are posting videos of his famous songs ‘Everybody needs somebody to love’ (as covered in The Blues Brothers) or ‘Cry to me’. But here is the title track of his 2003 ‘comeback’ and award-winning CD ‘Don’t give up on me’. Note the ‘preacher’ style introduction to the song.

links for 2010-10-10