Category Archives: Preaching

Get With The Times

Every pastor knows the value of a good illustration.  I have a few in my pedagogical toolbox and I use them regularly.  Some are timeless and I’ll likely keep using them as long as I teach and preach.  Others made sense to everybody 10-20 years ago, but fewer people are grasping them with the passage of time.

One of my favourite illustrations has to do with baptism and the covenant promises signed and sealed by God in this sacrament.  I’ve used it countless times in sermons and catechism lessons.  I didn’t come up with it — I don’t even remember where or from whom I first heard it.  It’s the illustration of the cheque.

This is the illustration as used in my book I Will Be Your God: An Easy Introduction to the Covenant of Grace:

We must distinguish between extending the promise and receiving what is promised.

An illustration might help.  It is not a perfect illustration, but it will get the point across.  Imagine if I were to give you a cheque for $10,000.  Another name for a cheque is a promissory note.  It is a promise from me that you will receive $10,000 from my bank account.  But say that you take my cheque and put it in your pocket and then forget about it.  Next week you pull those pants on and you put your hand in your pocket and there is a crumpled wad of paper.  It has been through the washing machine, so you are not quite sure what it is anymore.  You throw it in the garbage.

Did I extend a promise of $10,000?  Yes, I wrote the cheque and gave that promissory note to you.

However, did you receive $10,000?  No, because you did not take the cheque to the bank and deposit it or cash it.  You did not do anything with that cheque and so you missed out on what was promised.

Do you see the difference now?  It is the difference between extending a promise and receiving what has been promised.  It is the difference between giving a cheque for $10,000 and getting $10,000 in your hand.

That is what happens in the covenant of grace.  God proclaims the promises of the covenant to all in the covenant.  Every single person — and that needs to be stressed.  However, not every single person receives what is promised in the covenant: the blessings.  That is because there is a human responsibility within the covenant relationship.  Everybody needs to bring the cheque to the bank, so to speak.  The big question is how.

Do you see a possible problem this illustration might encounter today?

When we moved here to Australia in 2015, we right away noticed that cheques are almost completely extinct here.  It was getting like that in Canada, but Australia is even further along in electronic payments for everything.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever seen an Australian bank cheque.  Still, I’ve kept on using the cheque illustration, banking on the hope that most people still know what I’m talking about.  Most probably do, even the kids in my catechism classes.  Yet the illustration is undoubtedly losing its currency.

I’m mentoring a couple of young men from my church in teaching catechism.  I have a sabbatical coming up shortly and they’ll be taking over my catechism classes.  One of them was teaching on baptism.  Afterwards, we got to discussing this illustration and I asked how it could be updated.  “A gift card,” was the reply.  Hmmm…..

Indeed, if someone gives you a gift card for $10, it’s like a promise for that amount.  However, in order to cash in on the value of the gift card, you need to do something with it.  If it’s for iTunes, you need to get yourself to the iStore.  If you leave that gift card in your pocket and forget about it, it’s given you no benefit.  You have to redeem it.  Similarly, with God’s covenant promises, you have “to redeem them” in order to receive their value and benefit.  The way that’s done is through faith in Jesus Christ.  I think that works to bring the illustration into a new era.

As I intimated in the book excerpt above, it’s not a perfect illustration.  It can only be taken so far.  For example, it doesn’t reckon with the reality that not appropriating the promises for yourself doesn’t leave you in a zero-sum state.  If you don’t deposit your cheque or redeem your gift card, you’re just left with nothing.  There’s no penalty.  But if you neglect or spurn God’s covenant promises, there are serious consequences (e.g. Hebrews 10:26-31).

It’s often said that the best way to teach is to show and not tell.  A well-crafted illustration does exactly that.  “Well-crafted” means also ensuring our illustrations are relevant and easily grasped.


The Preacher’s Doubts

Preachers are just regular people.  We’re not uber-Christians who never struggle with sin or weakness.  I’ve been preaching now for 19 years and I’ve experienced my share of ups and downs directly related to my calling on the pulpit.  A lot of my downs have had to do with doubts.  Let me share what some of those are and how I’ve been led through them so I can carry on.  I’ll divide them into two categories.

Doubts Before the Sermon

Sometimes as I’m preparing my sermons, I’ll be struck with doubts about the message I’m proclaiming.  It’s not that I doubt the truth of it; it’s that I doubt the congregation needs to have it repeated.  I repeat myself so often.  Yes, I try to frame the old gospel message in fresh and creative ways, but I’m always wondering:  will Sunday be the day someone comes up to me and says, “Can you preach something new for once?  Really, it’s always the same old.  You never give us anything new.”

When I hear these thoughts I need to go to 2 Peter 1:12-15,

Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth you have.  I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me.  And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things.

I know this passage and I have known it since seminary — one of my fellow students gave a memorable chapel message on it.  But, ironically, I forget.  I forget that, in God’s Word itself, the necessity of repetition is laid upon us.  Even for those who know the truth, there is no harm but only benefit from hearing it again and again.

I also need to remember the parishioners who’ve told me about understanding something about the gospel only after I’ve told them ten times or more.  There’s the psychology of listening.  Some people hear something and grasp it instantly.  Others hear it and it doesn’t register until the fifth time, or maybe even the tenth time.  Moreover, there might be children or teens in the congregation who are truly listening to a sermon for the first time — the previous times they may have been present, but weren’t really listening.  What about visitors who might be there for the first time?  Or new members who weren’t there the last nine times you said it?  So, away with you doubts!  I must keep repeating myself.

Doubts After the Sermon

These are the worst.  Sunday evenings after being all preached out I’m often a mess on the inside.   You’ve poured your heart and soul into preparing and preaching and then:  “Was it all worth it?”  “Does it change anything?”  I wonder about the power and efficacy of preaching.

I have two passages that I call my Sunday evening lifelines.  With these words from the Holy Spirit, I get bailed out and I can sleep easy.  The first passage is from 1 Corinthians 15:58,

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.

While that was originally addressed to the Corinthian congregation, it can certainly be taken to heart by preachers too.  Our labour in the Lord is never in vain — it’s never pointless, it’s always worth the effort.

My second Sunday evening lifeline is found in the well-known passage of Isaiah 55:10-11.  God says,

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, and make it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent.

If I’m preaching God’s Word, it is always going to do something.  God always has a purpose behind it, even if it’s not always immediately obvious to me.  My Father promises this and I need to take him at his word.

Moreover, once I get beyond the tunnel vision of Sunday evening, I can see that God’s Word is doing things.  Hearts and lives are being changed.  There is growth in understanding the goodness of the good news in Christ, and therefore also growth in love, joy, and worship.

I’m quite sure I’m not alone in struggling with these kinds of doubts.  In speaking with other pastors, I’ve heard of how Sunday evenings can be the worst time of the week.  If you’re one of those pastors, I hope you’ll find encouragement from the lifelines I’ve mentioned, and maybe others.  If you’re a parishioner, may I encourage you too?  Provide that feedback to your pastor.  Reassure him and let him know concretely how his labours in the Lord are not in vain.  Let him know that his repeating essential truths has borne fruit.  And maybe, just maybe, those moments of doubt will grow weaker and fewer.


FRC Launceston Livestreaming and Video Archive

The Free Reformed Church of Launceston (where I serve) has just recently started livestreaming our Sunday worship services (9:30 AM and 3:30 PM, Eastern Australia time).  You can also find an archive of recent services.  It’s all here at our YouTube channel.

Additionally, the notes for most of my sermons eventually end up at TheSeed.info


Calvin: Ministers Ought Not to Steal

I’m reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  For the first time.  Yes, shamefacedly, I have to admit that I have never read the work from cover to cover.  I’ve grazed here and there.  I’ve used the handy index to look up what Calvin said on particular topics.  But never, since buying it in 1992, have I had the discipline or desire to digest the whole enchilada.  I’m glad that I’ve finally begun to do so.  Calvin has some remarkable insights, many of which have been noted by others (the law as a mirror, the Word of God as spectacles, etc.).  But frequently you stumble across something which, it seems to me, others may have overlooked.

In Book 2, Calvin works his way through the Ten Commandments.  He approaches them as the guide for the life of a Christian redeemed by God’s grace in Christ.  As part of his explanation of the Eighth Commandment (“You shall not steal”), he points out that this commandment also means that Christians are bound to fulfill whatever duties they have been given, “to pay their debts faithfully” so to speak (Institutes 2.8.46).  He applies this to various callings in society:  rulers, parents, children, and servants.

Interestingly, he also applies the Eighth Commandment to pastors:

Let the ministers of churches faithfully attend to the ministry of the Word, not adulterating the teaching of salvation, but delivering it pure and undefiled to God’s people.  And let them instruct the people not only through teaching, but also through example of life.  In short, let them exercise authority as good shepherds over their sheep.

In other words, pastors obey the Eighth Commandment when they fully discharge their calling.  Particularly, we’re to proclaim the gospel with fidelity.  Anything less is to be considered as theft.  We are robbing God of what he is owed and we are robbing the people of God what they are owed from us.  I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that application before!

But, according to Calvin, sermon imbibers can also be thieves:

Let the people in their turn receive them as messengers and apostles of God, render to them that honor of which the highest Master has deemed them worthy, and give them those things necessary for their livelihood.

When parishioners fail to honor their pastors by listening to them and providing for them, Calvin points out that this is actually robbery.  But by attentive listening and loving support for their under-shepherds, Christians are following the Eighth Commandment.  Have you ever thought about this in those terms?  Didn’t think so.  But it makes sense, right?

 


Serial Expository Preaching

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When I was growing up, if our minister announced that he was going to have a series of sermons on a book of the Bible, we knew what to expect.  No matter the length of the book, this meant a series of 6-8 sermons.  It meant that, in each of those sermons, the minister would take one or two verses as his “text” and then work from that.  Those verses (the “text”) would generally be the thematic launching pad for dealing with other material in the context.  Each sermon would not only deal with the text, but also circle around the text in some way.

In my seminary training, this same approach was encouraged.  Our preaching professor suggested we preach with series of sermons on books.  We were taught to keep the series short (6-8 sermons) because people’s attention spans are limited.  We were also taught to isolate one or two verses as our “text” and then develop the sermon out of that.  If I’m not mistaken, this method was called the “analytic-synthetic” approach to sermon prep and delivery.  To be honest, I just called it plain confusing.  Sermons delivered with this method can suffer in terms of structure, making them difficult for listeners to follow.  I also found it difficult to prepare sermons in this way.  To me, it seemed unnatural, awkward, forced.

When I first started preaching (as a missionary), I largely followed my training.  However, since I was preaching to people who had not been accustomed to our CanRC preaching idiosyncrasies, I soon found that these methods were not effectively communicating God’s Word.  I wanted to be clear, not confusing.  Having done some reading and having heard others preach, I decided to try a more systematic and common-sense method of preaching.  I would take a passage of Scripture and in my sermon work through that passage from beginning to end.  No, it’s not a lecture.  You explain the text, but also throughout apply the text, and above all, demonstrate how that text points us to Christ.

As I finished up my missionary service and began serving a regular congregation, I began thinking more about what it means to preach in a series.  Is it necessarily true that a series on a book must be limited to 6-8 sermons?  I put the question out there on Facebook to gauge the sentiments of congregants and others.  I was encouraged to hear that people didn’t feel that this limitation was necessary.  So I said, “What if I were to preach straight through the Gospel of Mark, verse by verse?”  The consensus was: “Go for it.”  So I did.  I began preaching right through Mark, starting in 2007.  Mid-way through that series, I received a call to Hamilton and, after catching them up, I continued with the series there.  After over 70 sermons, I finished Mark in 2012.  Did anyone ever complain about that series being too long?  Never, at least not to my face or to my consistories.  In fact, quite to the contrary, people seemed to appreciate it.  I’m sold on “serial expository preaching” — preaching that goes through the whole book, verse by verse, beginning to end.

Over nearly 16 years of ordained ministry, I’ve now preached completely through several books:  Ruth, Jonah, Haggai, Mark, and Colossians.  Some of these are obviously shorter and took less time.  Colossians was 18 sermons, preached over about a year and a half.  Earlier this year I started on the Gospel According to John.  This will be another epic series.  This past Sunday, I preached my 13th sermon and that was on John 3:9-15.

To clarify, when I preach straight through a book that doesn’t mean that I’m going to do it every single Sunday, Sunday after Sunday.  I do take breaks and do some other things along the way.  Sometimes I will insert a smaller series on a shorter book — I’ve also done a couple of thematic series looking what different Scripture passages say about certain issues or challenges.  During the summer months, I often ask congregation members for suggestions on texts that they’d like to hear sermons on.  Besides those occasions, we also have Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas, public professions of faith, ordinations, etc.  So it’s not like a congregation is going to only get a steady diet of one book every Sunday morning.

What are some of the advantages to serial expository preaching?  For a busy preacher, it means that you become proficient (and efficient) in working with one particular book.  For example, there’s the area of canonics when doing exegesis.  Canonics involves familiarizing yourself with the human author of the book, the circumstances in which the book was written, the original audience, the structure of the book, the book’s theme(s), etc.  After preaching through the first five or six passages, a preacher is going to have the canonics down cold.  While you might briefly review it when looking at a new text, it will not take up much of your time.

On another level, following this approach means that you don’t have to spend any time searching for your next passage.  Text choice is already decided upon, saving time.  Moreover, you can purchase commentaries and other resources accordingly.  If you know that you’re going to be spending the next couple of years in John, you can purchase a few good commentaries on John and you’ll have what you need on hand.

In terms of advantages for the congregation, they are exposed to the full-range of God’s revelation in a particular book.  They are not subjected to the minister’s whims in choosing a text, but they will get to hear everything from that book.  That will include difficult or challenging passages that a minister might otherwise want to bypass — for example, in preaching through Mark, I was forced to deal with the thorny question of divorce and remarriage.  This approach also models how to study and read the Bible.  When we read the Bible, we read it in the obvious way, straight through.  Why shouldn’t preaching do the same?  That brings me to another advantage:  clarity for the listener.  When a listener has their Bible open and they’re following an expository sermon, they will know where the minister is at in the text.  They can say, “Oh, we’re at verse 12.  He’s explaining and applying verse 12.”  It then also becomes clearer that the minister is not sharing his own thoughts or opinions, but preaching the Word of God.  Serial expository preaching is more transparent preaching.

There are some limitations to this approach.  One is the acknowledgement that not every book of the Bible is the same.  For example, the Psalms cannot be treated the same way as Mark or John.  While I think there is some structure to the Psalter in its canonical form, it’s not as developed or obvious as in a narrative book.  Moreover, the Psalter is not even really a book — it’s more of a collection.  Proverbs is another example of a collection.  I can’t see myself ever preaching serially, verse-by-verse, through Proverbs.  I have preached on a number of individual Proverbs, but I don’t believe this book lends itself to the method I’ve been describing.

When it comes to the epistles, there are passages where the logical progression follows the numerical order of the verses and you can proceed verse-by-verse.  But sometimes the thought process in the passage requires the preacher to take a different approach.  For instance, in some passages there is a clear structure known as a chiasm.  You can’t work straight verse-by-verse through that.  It’s not meant to be treated that way.  There obviously has to be some flexibility.

Am I saying that serial expository preaching is the only and best way to preach?  No, not at all.  I’m comfortable with it and I’ve benefited from it.  From the feedback, I’ve received over the years, it sounds like congregations do work with it and have been blessed by it.  Really, all I can do is commend it for your consideration.