The preacher was accomplished and confident; he held the concentration of the crowd, and he certainly had my attention. Although not for the reasons he would have wanted.
He had taken one of the stories about Jesus, and explained it from the perspectives of the different characters involved, which is not necessarily a bad tool for analysing the story as we work out who we are supposed to identify with (hint: we’re not usually the hero).
But what blew me away was that he took as the main lesson of the sermon, the climax of what he was saying, someone who wasn’t even mentioned in the story. I’m concealing details here, but imagine the story of the young boy bringing the fish and loaves to Jesus, and the preacher majoring on the fisherman and the baker. You get the idea.
Why would you do such a thing?
Maybe out of a desire to look clever? There are some preachers who delight in producing rabbits out of hats. They leave you dazzled and dependent, because you could never replicate the trick, but you think what they have done is so amazing you keep going back for more. Self-diagnosed cleverness is a horrible thing to see.
Maybe out of a desire to keep attention? This man was peaching on a passage that everyone in church kew well, and most will have led bible studies, or children’s groups, or even preached sermons on. So did he fear losing us unless he produced something new?
Maybe out of a loss of confidence in the way the gospels tell the story? Out of a desire to make a familiar tale live, he ceased to submit to the contours of the narrative, and the gospel writer’s authority. He was using the bible as a source book, rather than the authority.
There is a terrible price a congregation pays if it sits under this kind of ministry. It ceases to trust the scriptures as they stand, because they are taught to listen to the preacher rather than to look at the text. The text would not/could not have produced his ideas. But that’s not the worst price.
- The congregation becomes less discerning. They loved this sermon, and responded well to the jokes and stories, and the direct application. It was well done. But I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘Hang on – that’s not in the text!’ Because they had been trained, or massaged, out of that habit. But that’s not the worst price either
- This preacher is on the staff of a seminary, training the next generation of pastors. which means that if any students who pass through his care pick up this method, they too will give their churches ij the future similarly well-meant but weak food. But even that, though tragic, was not the worst price.
- We were denied Jesus. The mighty hero of the story was placed in a queue of characters, and his saving work relegated to a sidebar. The story which preaches him so wonderfully became a morality tale which could save no-one.
Now, we can’t make windows into other people’s souls, and there may have been a dozen good reasons why a busy preacher preached like that. I’ve preached string-and-duct-tape sermons, and I’m sure you have too.
But what gives me pause is that the instinct seemed wrong. If I’m having to wing it, I know that the safest route is always a route to the Saviour. Even if I am more than usually intellectually shallow, thinly prepared, trite and under-prayed, I know to point to him.
But this one missed.
So let’s assume I had been preaching that sermon, and that the pattern was consistent. How would I have diagnosed the problem to myself?
I think it would betray that I had lost the sweetness of finding Jesus within the sweetness of scripture.
Let me explain what I mean.
Jesus is the personal and defining centre of scripture. Everything flows into and out of him, and not a piece can be properly understood without reference to him. That is an objective truth but also a subjective experience, and one of the surest marks of the Spirit’s work in us is an increasing satisfaction in Jesus.
This is a heart issue. I remember hearing an experienced evangelist talk about preaching Christ from the Old Testament. An audience member, obviously bored, asked him whether it wasn’t possible to preach from the Old Testament without going to Christ. ‘Of course it is!’ cried the evangelist – and then slyly added, ‘But why would you want to?’
Which means we preachers should experience an increasing satisfaction in Scripture, as his promised word and finished work. We relish Scripture as the words of Jesus himself, explaining himself.
That sermon betrayed a failure of both parts. How can you preach from the gospels and not delight in Jesus? How tired must a preacher be to find the main truths repetitive and stale? Most worryingly, how do we become dulled to that danger?
If I were that preacher, and that were my habit, I would feel an urgent need to take a break from preaching. Call it a sabbatical, a break or whatever, but don’t for goodness sake make it an academic task, or sign a book contract. Read, and re-read your Bible. Take some of the great writings of Biblical theology which have been written in the last decades, and learn to trace again the fingerprints of your Saviour all over the pages of your personal Bible. Dive into rich commentaries and discover how much weight the bible can take, and with what dizzying variety it tells its same story.
At which point someone is going to raise the question of practicality and relevance, and maybe that’s what the preacher was aiming at. Which betrays at least three mistakes.
First, it assumes that the main point of the text is not relevant, and that the relevance needs to be sought elsewhere. Not so. The Bible is, among other things, God’s declaration of what he finds relevant, and what he expects his people to find relevant. The preacher’s role is to ensure that God’s issues are addressed. We have our questions and they have their place, but it is his questions which will last for eternity. ‘Who do you say that I am?’
Second, it also assumes that delighting in Jesus on his own terms is not practical and relevant. Again, not so – if we remember what the Bible is for. The goal of scripture is not the bald communication of truth, but the formation of God’s people, individually and together, into the likeness of Christ. There are many things he has not told us, but those he has are designed to produce obedience (Dt. 29:29). Delighting in Jesus is the most life-transforming event in a person’s life. I think a sermon like that was assuming that people had heard the old stuff many times before and needed something new. I suspect he wanted to do something clever. But God does not honour new and clever. He shapes his people through the old truths.
And finally it seems to assume that delighting in Jesus does not involve me and my everyday world – but again that is not true. Take the three great titles of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King. From one angle they are utterly Christocentric and nothing to do with us at all. It does not sound like 21st century London! But turn the kaleidoscope. What is a Prophet without a people to speak to, a Priest without a people to intercede and sacrifice for, or a King without a people over whom he rules?
In other words, his most precious titles are actually about us as well. Our sisters and brothers in Syria know that believing in Jesus as the Prophet, Priest and King has a life-shattering relevance.
Even more centrally, think about the central term of our Christian identity, ‘in Christ’. What that means is that every aspect of his person and work, every title and every promise necessarily has an entailment for believers. There is nothing he has told us about himself which isn’t simultaneously a truth for believers to claim about themselves in their relationship to him, and therefore an opportunity to change to be like him more.
One pulpit I stood behind for many years had an engraved plaque, facing the preacher. ‘Sir, we would see Jesus.’ Don’t make him disappear.
Chris’s latest book, ‘Cutting to the Heart – Applying the Bible in Preaching and Teaching’ with be published in June by IVP.