Friday, November 27, 2015

What Preaching Is

One of the things I love about my current job is training younger preachers. By the grace of God I've probably preached 500 times over the past 15 years and hopefully I've learned some things along the way though I've still got plenty more to learn. And however many times you've done it, every sermon starts as a blank page...

I've particularly been helped by Marcus Honeysett, Dick Lucas and Tim Keller to see that preaching must hold out Christ. Andy Stanley's 'Communicating for a change' was a game changer in terms of getting away from complexity to simpler sermons and better connection with people.

For all the skill though I wonder whether preaching is more a matter of conviction than it is technicalities. There is good communication and bad communication, and there is a serious responsibility to communicate well, to make sense, to argue well.

Sermon preparation varies. I'm pretty convinced it's more an art than a science. I'm persuaded by Keller that more time with people and limited time in preparation is a good idea... in the end I think it probably comes down to something like...
Sermon preparation is Exegeting Christ from the text and Repenting to Christ.
As I sit in front of a Bible text and a blank page the goal is to exegete Christ from teh text. The Bible is, one way or another, in some way or another, from one angle or another, about Christ.

If I'm not drawing that HIM from the text I've missed the point... and better get repenting to him, crying out for him to make himself known through the ink on the page and the light of his Spirit in my heart.

In seeing, let me get to my knees. Let me repent again to him.

Pixar and others tell us that stories are about the "once upon a time... and every day... but then one day..." moments. And so it is with the gospel. I live my life blissfully/sinfully unaware of Christ in some way in at least some part of my life, but then I encounter him in the text, and everything begins to change. I'm called to fresh repentance - however long I've been walking with Jesus or not.

And then, what is preaching?
Preaching is doing that in front of people.
I stand as one human being in front of other human beings. All of us somewhere in the middle of life, and - whilst I want to initiate a conversation, entice them to see that what we're going to look at matters - my goal must be to exegete Christ from the text in front of people, with people, for people, and then to lead the way in publicly repenting (repeating and restating the repenting I've done in my study) so that together we might all go to Christ.

When that's my goal - we'll get to Christ. When that's my goal - I stand inches ahead of people having already faced what the Spirit says through this text in the preceding days rather than over and apart from people. I come as a broken person, convicted, humbled, needing Christ for myself.

Encountering Christ does wonders for my posture and tone, my compassion and tenderness, not to mention my desire to be clear and persuasive. Encountering Christ doesn't wonders for me, turns my life inside out, upward and outward.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Life You Never Expected

Andrew and Rachel Wilson share their story in the middle of raising children with special needs.

Our own parenting journey hasn't been without its challenges over the past six years - some of which I've shared, some I've not. None of our situations are as severe as the Wilson's. In the pain and the frustration and the disappointment we've found grace we never knew we needed or could receive.

There's something amazingly reassurring and compassionate and real in the tone of Andrew and Rachel's voices and I commend this podcast to you. It's cliche to say light shines out of broken pots, but that's what I hear in their voices. I respect and have learned much from Andrew-the-theologian, Andrew-the-apologist, Andrew-the-thinker, but I'd take Andrew-the-parent any day. I'm glad Andrew is doing a PhD, that will serve people well, but so too does this story, forged in the pain of life.

The Wilson's are living 'the life [they] never expected' which is, of course, true for many of us. Their interview relates to their book on the same subject. Like Emma Scrivener's A New Name (on anorexia), whether you share their experiences or not, you'll find in their journey, light in the darkness, company in the loneliness, honesty among the well-meaning platitudes that are the best many people can offer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An extraordinary gift for ordinary people

[8] And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. [9] And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. [10] And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. [11] For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. [12] And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12 ESV)

I'm preaching in a couple of weeks time... here's a few scribbles, your interactions welcome.

Glen Scrivener notes (in a sermon on this passage which I think is excellent) that the film Prometheus is a photo-negative of the Christmas story. I'm no great fan of the Alien films (unlike my wife who loves them) but I found Ridley Scott's 2012 film to be an intriguing exploration of what it means to interact with our makers and to explore more of the human condition.

The genre gives a great canvas to explore grand themes. In this case, the intrepid and courageous crew head off to find our makers, and find only that they hate us... a theme reflecting in the other parental relationships in the film. An exploration of the story of progress that seeks to throw of those who went before and assert ourselves in this world.

Quite a contrast to the events of the Christmas story.

Angels, regularly on stage in the early chapters of Luke, do what Luke repeatedly records them doing: shining with good news. They are evangelists from the courts of heaven. Far from reporting heaven's hatred for it's offspring (Acts 17), they record that God is not far from us - indeed he is to be found in the nearby town.

There is here an extraordinary gift for ordinary people. 

The audience here are very ordinary. 
A group of labourers on a night shift. Not the courageous. Not the great and the good. Some of us think very highly of ourselves, especially in our youth, but we are for the most part: ordinary. Life is mundane. Life is ordinary. And the subject of the angel's good news is "for all the peoples". His claims will carry a exclusivity but it is utterly inclusive.

The good news delivered is of a gift. 
"Unto you is born." My two year old can't quite sing happy birthday to you properly yet, so he sings "Happy to you", which is the sentiment of the angels. Good news to you. A gift to you. A Saviour. Managers and Leaders are brought in to turn company's and football teams around. The language of salvation is used in those situations - but where managers make demands, Saviour's save. All is gift here. Exclusively inclusive because it doesn't depend on us but upon the giver and the gift.

Who is this gift to the ordinary? An extrordinary one. 
Firstly, the Christ. Great David's Greater Son, God's anointed one - the Spirit anointed one as Luke-Acts will make abundantly clear. The one abundantly overflowing with the loving Spirit of the Father steps into the world.
Secondly, the Lord. God come close is God made small. God in a manger.

Christmas doesn't tell the tale of a God who hates us, who keeps distant, despising and demanding of us. Nor of a God for the intrepid, courageous, bold and able. Rather, an extrordinary gift, God himself for the ordinary. The story Luke tells - which you could read for yourself - is the story of the self-giving God. God in a manger who grew up to be God on a Roman Cross... for our salvation is one that is very great - rescue not from relegation or disappointment but from death and corruption. Gift, to us and for us.

Steve Jobs is portrayed by Aaron Sorkin as describing the problem of his (our) human condition as being "poorly made." Sin, in a phrase, acknowledged and yet with the blame deftly shifted. If we are poorly made we can blame our maker for our failings. Luke would tell us, we are God's offspring - fearfully and wonderfully made and yet thoroughly and deeply corrupted. Yet all is not lost. And that's the point at Christmas. Far more can be mended than we know (Spufford). The sad things can come untrue (Tolkien). We can be saved from the darkness within ourselves and the divine judgement under which we stand. How? Because heaven sends the Spirit-anointed Son into this world. God's gift: Himself.

Image - Creative Commons - FutUndBeldl

Saturday, November 21, 2015

At the Table with Sibbes

One of my heroes of faith is Richard Sibbes. Mark Dever summarises that for Sibbes the Supper was not a means of conversion - that only by the gospel word - but rather strengthened, confirmed and assured of faith already present.

Sibbes speaks of The Lord's Supper, in Bowel's Opened: The Saint's Comfort:
God gave his Son to death, to shed his blood for my sins. What would become of the hunger-bitten, thirsty soul, that is stung by Satan and his temptations, were it not for the blood of Christ to quench our thirst, and the body of Christ given by the Father to death for sin? Were it not that the soul could think upon this, where were the comfort of the soul? All this is represented to us here in the sacrament.
 We feed on the body and blood of Christ spiritually, and are refreshed by it as our bodies are refreshed with the bread and wine. God does not feed us with empty symbols and representations, but with things themselves, that the soul which comes in faith to partake of Christ crucified, and be knit to him, who is in heaven. There is as sure a union and communion between Christ and the Christian as there is between the food and the body when it is digested.
Let us come to this blessed sacrament, this sweet food of our souls with hungry appetites and thankful hearts, that God has given us the best comfort of his word. He will feed us so sweetly that nothing is good enough for our food but himself, with his gracious word and truth. Let us be very thankful and stir up our appetite for him.

How shall come?
  • Firstly, let us think seriously of our life this week past. For Christ, the food of the soul, relishes well with the sour herbs of repentance. Let us stir our hearts to repent of our sins and sorrow at our corrupt nature and life, and feel our lack. Then Christ will be sweet to us. As the Passover lamb was eaten with sour herbs so Christ our Passover is eaten with repentance.
  • Secondly, come with purging. Many things clog the stomach. Do not come in worldly wicked and malicious affections but lay them aside.
  • Thirdly, consider the need of spiritual strength. We need his assistance. Let us often frequent this means of grace and come prepared to find Christ making good on his promise in his best time, so we can say with the truth of heart, experience and feeling with the church: My beloved is mine and I am his.” 
Image - Creative Commons - 10MFH

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Come to the Table

Part 1 – Liturgy 

Here is the traditional shape of a church service for most of church history, across the traditions... a pattern of Word and Sacraments... whereas today many evangelicals would emphasise either Word and Spirit or simply the Word.

1. The Liturgy of the Catechumens / Word 
  • Bible Reading
  • Preaching
  • Creeds
2. The Liturgy of the Sacraments / Eucharist
  • Confession
  • Eucharist
  • Sending out into God’s world
Only the baptised could participate fully in the second part of this service. Catechumen’s gain access after a period of Catechesis designed to educate desire for Christ, building up to Baptism and a first Eucharist.

  • What would the experience of this kind of service be like? What does this include that we miss - what are we missing out on? What's missing that's normal for us?
  • What does the two-stage service communicate about the value of Baptism and The Supper, and the church? 
  • Jonathan Edwards was fired (in part) for wanting to keep this ‘barrier’ at the Table... why would Baptism be the qualification for eating and drinking at the Table? What's helpful about that and what's difficult? What questions does this raise?
Part 2 – The Table 

The key texts for interpreting the table are that Jesus says "this is my body/blood given for you" and "do this in remembrance of me" "proclaiming his death". Understanding has varied in the history of the church... As a rough over simplified sketch...
  • 11th Century - The East and West split over Trinity & Politics, not so much over communion. Few today would understand which side of the argument they'd fall on. Does the Holy Spirit come from the Father, or from the Father and the Son? From this, 1000 years of schism in the church. There's a richness in much Eastern liturgy of the Supper that feels like reading Calvin most excellently in Alexander Schmemann.
  • 16th Century – Protests against Rome by Luther over many issues, including The Supper. 
  • Luther says the Bread and Wine remain but doesn't resolve how. 
  • Zwingli pulls away more strongly towards symbolism that emphasises a solemn remembrance. 
  • Calvin finds a middle pathway and sees the Holy Spirit as the one who makes Christ present at the table.  
  • Rome condemns the Reformers for their teaching in this area and the Protestant Oxford Martyrs are killed over this issue in a highly-charged political context.
  • Taking up each of the five major positions - how do you view the table from this perspective? How important is this moment? What expectations would you have? What questions would you have? 
Part 3 - Calvin