I will be involved in a fight on Sunday morning!
Let me explain…
I heard two very different comments during the course of the last year, prompting some personal reflection. This has again played on my mind as I come to preach on Mark 6:14-29 on Sunday morning…
In a context far removed from Randburg Baptist Church, someone said to me that they “enjoyed the preaching” of a particular pastor. It’s not an uncommon statement. While there are no doubt many who do not “enjoy” my pulpit ministry (too deep, too long, too technical, too boring, not enough stories etc), I have also been the recipient of that kind of comment – on rare occasions! “Pastor, I enjoy your preaching. You speak well.” You get the picture. Well, for a sinful man, that feels good, and fuels pride quite quickly.
The second comment was in lecture I attended on a year ago by Dr Mark Jones, a Puritan expert visiting from Vancouver. The seminar was on worship. The point was made that worship is a battleground, because there is a war between divine faith and shallow human faith as we come to worship. God wants our focus on him, whereas we want to “feel good.” And so on…
It got me thinking… on an ever narrower issue: Preaching, as part of corporate worship. Is preaching the Word of God to be regarded as “enjoyable?” What is our standard for assessing pulpit ministry? It preaching to be fun, or is it a fight?
For the true preacher of God’s eternal truth, I would suggest that it is a fight. It is a fight to be disciplined in preparation, it is a fight of the mind and heart to engage with the text, and to hear God speak. It is a fight to avoid a thousand distractions and carefully plot through the historical context and grammatical construct of a passage. It is a fight to understand the text in the world in which it was written, and it is a weekly fight to grapple with the application of those principles in our era. It is a fight to be a workman unashamed who rightly divides the truth. It is a fight to stand and deliver in a way that is Spirit-dependant, and not rely on some clever homiletical tricks. Preaching is a fight.
But what about out in the pew? Is it also not a fight there? As hearers (and at times I am privileged to sit and hear as well J), we also have a fight on our hands. In our sin-affected humanness, we want to feel good, to have our ears tickled, and to feel warm and fuzzy stuff. We do not like to have our minds challenged too much, to have some funny stories and good illustrations and to ensure that the preacher dude doesn’t go on so long that our minds wander. The preacher must be engaging and fresh. I happened to see the profile of a pastor that a Call Committee of a South African Baptist church produced a few years ago: they wanted someone whose preaching would be relevant, inspiring and creative… sadly, biblical and accurate and applicable did not feature.
And those are just the superficial little fights we have.
The bigger battleground is the heart, is it not? God’s Word, accurately unpacked and applied is deadly. Psalm 19 is clear as to the effects of God’s Word – reviving the soul, bringing light to the eyes, making wise the simple and bringing joy to the heart. But souls do not actually want to be revived. We actually like our darkness a little too much. Proud sinners do not want to be confronted and made wise through challenges to godly living.
Preaching is a fight as the Word is unleashed. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV). There is a fight that occurs each Sunday in churches – both in the pulpit and in the pew. There is a sword at work, empowered by the Spirit of God. And the sword thrusts are hard, clear and decisive. The Scriptures shatter our pride, open our eyes to the glory of God, and humble us before a cross and a suffering Saviour who alone can save, show us our sins and fallenness and highlight God’s standards. We fight against that sword. It would be must easier if the preaching was just fun. But when the sword is being used, it cannot be enjoyable. It is not enjoyable to be convicted. It is not enjoyable to have your mind challenged, and brain stretched with divine truth as doctrine is infused. It is not enjoyable to be confronted with your own sin and failure and waywardness. It is not fun to have the way of godliness painted for you, and the demands of Jesus illuminated. It is not fun to see the centrality of a cross where Christ died so that you and I could be set free. It is not fun to have our thoughts and attitudes and behaviours exposed for that they truly are, and to then be challenged to confess, repent and strive for godliness. It is never enjoyable to come face-to-face with the idols of our hearts, and to be reminded of our need of Christ and His righteousness. Oh yes, to be sure, it is always gloriously encouraging to be reminded of the cross, Christ, justification and the hope and vitality that we have as part of the “every spiritual blessing in Christ.” But even that is a fight, and not fun.
I know I will be in a fight on Sunday morning. You will be too, no doubt! I pray that I will be accurate, clear and relevant. I hope that appropriate application will be brought to our people as the Word is unpacked. I trust that there will be real engagement with the truth as the Spirit works to illuminate and convict and change. I pray that much life change happens – for me and for all who will be present.
I hope no one will leave saying that the preaching was enjoyable.
It will be a fight for all of us.
We don’t have to go far to hear the verbal misuse of the Lord’s name. Sometimes some other adjectives are put alongside those names for more effect. It’s on TV. Movies are full of that kind of speech. Comedians try to add to their supposed humour by injecting profanity and blasphemy into their shows. Sit in the workplace, and you’ll hear it. School corridors, playgrounds, sport fields and gym change rooms echo with the name of God, used to punctuate sentences. You’ll hear on the Tee boxes on golf courses as shots are pulled and shanked. You’ll hear “Jesus” and “O my God” statements coming from the table next to you in a restaurant, and it is sadly evident that it’s not believers swapping testimonies…
The use, and in fact misuse of God’s name, is commonplace. So then, how do we handle that as believers?
The “10 Commandments” seems so clear, right?
““You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7, ESV)
Based on that verse – that commandment – Christians seem to be offended. We’ve got to go and tell them to stop, right? That verbal, auditory offence gets under the skin of professing believers in Christ. And so there are many – in good conscience – who feel the need to go to your friend, family member, golfing partner or boss and tell them not to use your God’s name in vain – in such a cheap, shallow way. “God’s name is being verbally profaned and I need to defend God’s honour and tell them to stop!”
But let’s stretch the thinking a bit… and please do not accuse me of heresy! This is merely to broaden the dialogue. Is that thinking not inconsistent? See, God doesn’t call us to defend His name, does He? Look at the context in Exodus 20 :-
Commandment #1 : ““You shall have no other gods before me.
Commandment #2 : “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3–4, ESV)
Just think about it… God prohibits false religion and idolatry in commandments 1 & 2. Then He gives the prohibition on misuse of His name. And what do Christians get the most hung up on? Blasphemy, right?
Just imagine a devout, Bible-believing believer in an open plan office… together with 3 other colleagues : a Moslem, a Buddhist and an atheist who openly blasphemes.
What is the typical response from the Christian? “O, got to tell that guy to stop saying God’s name in vain because it is offensive to me!”
Huh? But there is no offence because of the openly false religion that is flaunted and celebrated and promoted, and no offence taken to the Buddha or frog or whatever that openly sits on the desk?
How often are our responses as believers to the spoken misuse of God’s name fuelled more by our own personal offence to the auditory insult, rather than a real genuine concern for God’s glory? If we were genuinely consumed with God’s honour being offended, would we not be as horrified and as confrontational about the falsehood of the wrong religious systems and the visual idols that are so openly displayed, even more than the verbal misuse that occurs?
Just a thought...
We’ve all had sleepless nights – not only due to coffee – but where something just runs through your mind over and over. The clock ticks on and on and on… the issue does not go away. The bedroom starts to lighten, and the birds begin to tweet – and the concern still looms large on the horizon. It could be something in life, family, business or a relationship that eats at your mind – just lying there, thinking and pondering the issue.
Maybe you even face something at the moment? What is bothering you today? Each one of us will have something. Some people have more than one issue. And often we don’t know how to deal with it – there doesn’t seem to be any solution.
Well, while accepting this is not some “magic wand” verse, nor a quick promise for the day, allow me to share something from the experience of the psalmist from Psalm 94 which trust will be of some help…
“When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” (Psalm 94:19, ESV)
Some versions read, “In the multitude of my anxieties within me…”
So then, what were the Psalmists anxieties? We don’t know for sure, but we can guess from the Psalm. We get a sense of trouble, enemies and being threatened. His life was in danger, the righteous were being oppressed while the wicked seemed to prosper. Through all that is looked like God did not care. This was compounded by murder in the land of the widow and stranger and orphan. Evildoers abounded. The Psalmist has a list – a long list of problems and things that concerned him.
So do you – if you take time to think about it. Don’t issues trouble you too? In the country, our city, your family, your church, relationships with people, financial issues, your future, your health or someone else’ health? Maybe you can say like the Psalmist here - “In the multitude of my anxieties within me… When the cares of my heart are many.” That is real and honest and raw.
But the verse does not end there… see what follows… “In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul” or “…your consolations cheer my soul.”
This man acknowledges all that is happening. He doesn’t try to hide his problems and confusion and distress at life. “I do have a multitude of anxieties and concerns. ”
But – and hear the glorious “but” – Your comforts Lord delight my soul. In the middle of all the problems, the comforts of God bring a delight and joy to His heart.
So then, what are the comforts of God? Are they some form of warm feeling that descends out of heaven, and maybe a nice feeling of security and happiness? No. I don’t think so.
I believe that the comforts of God are the truth and promises found in the Word of God – truths about who God is, and what He has done for us, and what He has promised us. The pages of the Bible are full are the comforts of God for those that are in relationship with God. Those passages are designed to bring encouragement and hope. As Paul wrote:
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4, ESV)
What about all the other comforts found in Scripture for those who are part of God’s family and are in relationship with Christ? Surely believers find comfort in God’s sovereignty, faithfulness, love, grace, power, wisdom and justice? The truths that He will never leave us nor forsake us and “I will be with you” shore up weak faith in times of feeling abandoned, right?
The nature of God provides a solid foundation – that he is the steadfast One, the Rock, the strong tower, mighty fortress, the King established on His throne.
There are rich promises of hope for the believer – that Christ is coming to claim His bride, the inheritance stored up for us in heaven, the assurance that Christians are marked with His seal and that our lives are hidden with Christ in God.
It’s like there are 2 lists…. The multitudes of our anxieties within us, but counterweighted against God’s comforts. And the latter far, far outweighs the former! Praise God for that! God’s comforts far outweighs the trouble and distress.
That means that we can and should come and find comfort in the promises contained in the Bible, and pray for the Lord to impress those on our hearts so that we truly trust in Him and find rest in Him.
Millions of learners, parents and educators around our country became familiar with the concept of OBE (Outcome Based Education) a few years ago. The essential premise was to ensure that learners were competent as an end goal – outcomes were the acid test of what they supposedly knew. The outcome was the standard.
Millions of professing believers around the world hold to something similar in the spiritual world – almost an Outcome Based Theology. The essential premise is that our understanding of God is determined by an outcome assessed by human perspectives and standards.
Let’s take God’s goodness as the most common example. It’s a great attribute of God, and one that many love and find comfort in – “You are good and do good” (Ps 119:68). But if we boil it down, what is the actual gauge of God’s goodness for people? Experience shows that the acid test for many people of God’s goodness lies in their assessment of a good and pleasing outcome. God’s goodness is prayed for and appreciated, but the assessment is often “a good outcome” according to human standards.
That form of outcome based theology pops up in various ways – conversation and prayer. And is heartfelt and deep and well-intentioned …
“God, in your goodness, restore Susie’s marriage…”
“I know that your daughter is critically ill, but God is good, and everything will be OK…”
“God promises to prosper us (Jer 29:11) and so trust in His goodness to make it all better…”
And so it goes on. Now we need to be crystal clear – God in His goodness can and does bless, heal and restore. That is true - that is His unconditional grace at work, for believers and unbelievers alike.
But do you see how easily and Outcome Based Theology can enter into our thinking? God is good, and therefore we will expect to see good outcomes, but based on OUR definition of good. God is good therefore it is also assumed that He will make us happy and stable and secure – our perspective of what is a good outcome becomes the sole means of assessment.
But this is both shallow and fallacious. God, as One who is unchanging, is always good. All that He does is good. Even when, in ways that causes brain meltdown for us, God providentially acts to bring about pain, sickness and affliction, He is still good and still doing good. Where the sovereign, wise and just God acts to bring suffering, He is still good even then.
These are mysteries we cannot explain. There is a complexity in God’s will and purpose that defies human interpretation. But that is a good place to be actually – in worship and wonder looking at the bigness and beauty of an incomprehensible God.
But we dare not determine our view of such a God by what we, in our limited wisdom, deem to be good. If God graciously helps, leads, guides, provides, heals and restores, sure it is a sign of His goodness. I will be the first to affirm that. And we like that, pray for that and find encouragement in that.
But Outcome Based Theology is still a danger!
Here is the mind-blowing reality – if God in His wisdom chooses to not help, heal, intervene and restore in the way and timeframe we want, this in no ways diminishes His goodness. As the popular song reflects: “God is good all the time, and all the time God is good”. Let’s avoid the danger of Outcome Based Theology in which we either construct and demand what we think is a good outcome, or even rethink our view on God when He doesn’t act according to the plan we had desired.
Does this mean that there are never going to be good outcomes? Not at all. There will always be good outcomes to all that God does – but according to His standard and purposes! Our fallible and limited human perspective falls horribly short, and we lack the divine insight to see how pain and affliction could possibly ever achieve good.
An appreciation of the deep mysteries and good providence of God will bring us closer to appreciating and deriving comfort from the classic “goodness” passages. (Genesis 50:20; Psalm 34:8; Romans 8:28 etc.)
So, Outcome Based Theology is helpful and faith-building – provided that we humbly accept that God will achieve His will through His good purposes – sometimes even involving afflictiion. But guard against an Outcome Based Theology which redefines God according to what we think He should have done.
It is appropriate to end with the profound lyrical musings of William Cowper (1731 – 1800):
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.
Shadows and dark corners and unlit areas are typically spaces to be avoided. The thought of what might be lingering in those spaces causes a certain fear to well us within us. “Might there be a presence, a person, a thing there which I cannot see?” Dark corners in homes and gardens and bedrooms cause us to think twice about going there without adequate illumination. The apprehension of what might be there is shaped by some lingering, deep rooted form of Achluophobia, Arachnophobia, Entomophobia, Lygophobia or Merinthophobia (Google those – it’ll be fun! J)
But there is a real concern that should govern the hearts of true believers in Christ… the presence of indwelling sin. I don’t think we actually have a clue as to how deep-rooted our own sin actually is. Sure, the penalty of it was paid at the cross when Christ died. The power of sin was broken. Sure, we’re called to live in the light of those realities – to be free and victorious, living as those free from sin. But the reality is that believers will struggle each and every day. There is, as an unnamed Puritan write centuries ago, a Dark Guest which still resides in us.
Jeremiah was correct when he wrote these divinely inspired words :
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)
There is a depth to our own state of heart deception we just do not get – we deceive ourselves as to how bad we actually are. So when Jeremiah follows that statement up with this, where does that leave us?
““I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”” (Jeremiah 17:10, ESV)
God’s divine X-Ray vision penetrates down to the deepest recesses of the human heart. His illumination gaze rips away our veneer, and causes the origin of all attitudes and speech and behaviour to be revealed. Hmmmm…. If I am honest, that cannot be pretty. I self-deceive all the time. I justify and excuse and downplay behaviour and attitudes. I slip into self-righteousness along with the next person as easily as slipping on a favourite T-shirt. And yet this verses destroys any sense of illusion – because God knows, God sees and God responds. Thus, the Dark Guest I pretend is not there, or has been successfully expelled or muted is revealed…
And so I need to loop back and pray a prayer like this, in the light of this reality. This was penned centuries ago, but is as relevant today as it was back then…
O LORD, Bend my hands and cut them off,
for I have often struck thee with
a wayward will,
when these fingers should embrace thee by faith.
I am not yet weaned from all created glory,
honour, wisdom, and esteem of others,
for I have a secret motive to eye my name
in all I do.
Let me not only speak the word sin, but see
the thing itself.
Give me to view a discovered sinfulness,
to know that though my sins are crucified
they are never wholly mortified.
Hatred, malice, ill-will,
vain-glory that hungers for and hunts after
man’s approval and applause,
all are crucified, forgiven,
but they rise again in my sinful heart.
O my crucified but never wholly mortified
O my life-long damage and daily shame!
O my indwelling and besetting sins!
O the tormenting slavery of a sinful heart!
Destroy, O God, the dark guest within
whose hidden presence makes my life a hell.
Yet thou hast not left me here without grace;
The cross still stands and meets my needs
in the deepest straits of the soul.
I thank thee that my remembrance of it
is like David’s sight of Goliath’s sword
which preached forth thy deliverance.
The memory of my great sins, my many
temptations, my falls,
bring afresh into my mind the remembrance
of thy great help, of thy support from heaven,
of the great grace that saved such a wretch
as I am.
There is no treasure so wonderful
as that continuous experience of thy grace
toward me which alone can subdue
the risings of sin within:
Give me more of it.