Preaching Out of an Event

The first two sermons in the book of Acts were, in the fullest sense of the term, occasional. That is to say, they arose out of and were addressed to an occasion. On Pentecost the coming of the Holy Spirit, with all its outward effects, brought together a crowd of curious and interested listeners:

When this sound was heard, a crowd gathered . . .They were astounded and amazed . . . saying to one another, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:6, 7, 12).

This intense interest provided the introduction to Peter’s message.

Similarly, on the second occasion, Peter spoke to a crowd that was already anxious to hear him. On this occasion it was God’s healing of the cripple at the temple gate that drew them:

So they were filled with amazement and astonishment at what had happened to him … all the people were amazed and ran together to them [Peter and John] at the portico called ‘Solomon’s.’  (Acts 3:10, 11)

And later on in the book, Paul at Lystra (and to a lesser extent, at Athens) found himself addressing audiences that had already become curious about his mission and anxious to hear what he had to say prior to the message itself.

In all of these instances, the introduction to the sermon was an event. Wouldn’t it be great if every week, when you rose to preach, you too had before you a crowd of people, already stirred to the marrow to hear what you have to say? “Sure, that would be great. But such events don’t take place every week in my congregation. In fact, few things ever happen that stir my congregation’s interest. If they did, I think I could preach with more enthusiasm, and people would listen more eagerly with better results.”

I think you are right. As a matter of fact, in my book, How to Help People Change, I compared and contrasted teaching in the counseling context with teaching in the preaching context, pointing out that

… the counselor has one great advantage over the preacher: the counselor teaches in the milieu … Teaching in the milieu, addressing the actual situations people are facing, makes a great difference.

What is that difference? The counselor, like Peter and Paul, teaches the counselee about matters that he already considers important. That is to say, a counselor teaches the counselee about something that has already captured his interest and concerns him. Like the Jews gathered on Pentecost, when the sermon begins, he already is asking such questions as, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12) He already is stirred to his roots. And if he gets the right answer, it probably won’t be long before he is asking, “What should I do?” (Acts 2:37).

In a sense the movement of an effective sermon may be described by the change in concern expressed in those two questions. From curiosity and interest at the outset, it should lead the congregation to the point where they say, “Where do we go from here?” It is a movement from desire to know God’s will to desire to do it. A good preacher always seeks to satisfy both concerns. He is interested in teaching what God requires and how to conform to His will. He moves from explanation to implementation. He will never settle for less.

“But,” you ask, “how do I bring this off? I don’t have events like Pentecost taking place every week.” That’s true. As a matter of fact, you don’t even have the starting advantage of the counselor who addresses his teaching to a present concern of the counselee. No. You begin with the most difficult task of all. You must speak week by week to people who are often apathetic, whose concerns are elsewhere, who see no immediate application of your message to their lives, etc. That is not an easy task.

How do you handle such a task? The answer at once is both simple and complex; simple in that it is easy to say and complex in that it takes time and effort to do. The answer is: you must create an event.

“Create an event? What do you mean by that? Am I to stage some happening in the congregation that will capture them? I don’t understand. You’d better explain.”

God seemed to think that this was a good way to open a sermon, because He used it so frequently in Acts to give an occasion for addressing crowds of people with the gospel. Every counselor knows how much easier it is to interest a person in a biblical passage when its message bears upon a recognized problem in his life. That is why the wise preacher creates an event for the members of his congregation at the outset. He does not presuppose that people who have been thinking all week long about something else will be interested immediately in what he is about to say. He knows that he must stir them out of their other interests, out of their lethargy, and out of their indifference. And he must get them so interested and concerned before he actually begins to preach the body of his message that, like the Jews on Pentecost, they will be asking to hear more. One way to do that is to create an event.

The ‘event’ I am talking about is not an objective event occurring in space and time. Rather this event is subjective, occurring in the mind. It is a mental milieu. Properly described, such an event will be just as real as if it were actually happening. When someone cries “Fire!” in an auditorium, the concern and the resulting action of the audience may be exactly the same whether there is an actual fire or not. Only one fact is necessary for the speaker to get action-he must be convincing. The same is true for the preacher. When Whitefield, Spurgeon, and Edwards spoke, they were so convincing, and people became so involved that they gripped the pews for fear, reached out to keep others from falling over a cliff, rushed to man lifeboats, etc. These preachers verbally created events to which their congregations responded.

That is what you to some extent must learn to do in the introductions to your sermons. Time and thought must be spent in discovering how to involve your congregation in the truth of God that you are about to proclaim. “But I am not Spurgeon or Whitefield or Edwards!” you protest. No, of course you are not, and you never will be unless you are willing to do the hard work of preparation that they did. The biggest problem is not the lack of native ability or proper training. It is simply this: many preachers do not take the time or give the thought in preparation of sermons that is necessary to create an event in the mind of the hearer. To capture the interest and arouse the concern of listeners take effort.

“But if I am willing to give the time and effort, how do I go about it?” Much more could be said in response to that good question, but for now let me simply suggest the following guidelines:

  1. Do not begin with the text; begin with the congregation as Peter and Paul did. Turn to the passage of Scripture only when you adequately have oriented the congregation to what you expect to find there and only when you sufficiently have stirred up a concern to know what God’s Word says. Acts 2:12 should precede Acts 2:17.
  2. Take enough time to create the event. Many introductions that are heading in the right direction are terminated before they can accomplish their purposes. While there is nothing worse than a poor introduction dragged out, a good idea aborted before it is born is not much better. So when you have worked hard on a good introduction to your sermon, take the necessary time to include enough detail to enable the congregation to visualize and become concerned about what you are saying. Usually it takes more than one or two sentences to bring that off. But, of course, filler, unnecessary repetition and all other dead, inoperative content must be excised.
  3. Learn how to describe events. Practice telling stories on other occasions. Work on using vivid, concrete nouns and verbs. Tape and listen to others who are adept at description. Analyze what they do to discover their techniques. Then incorporate the principles you discover into your work (don’t copy theirs). Write out introductions, choosing key words and phrases you plan to use. This sort of thing can be learned if you will only put sufficient time and effort into it.
  4. Use dialog whenever appropriate. Dialog is one way of involving the listener—it brings him up close to what is happening and makes him a participant in the conversation.
  5. Test the introduction before using it. If you cannot feel (I mean physically feel) what you are talking about in your own body, then it is not going to do the job. Keep working on it until you can describe what you are talking about in such a way that you experience the event whenever you tell it. The chill up your spine will give you assurance that you are on the track toward creating an event for the congregation. If the introduction doesn’t grip you (i.e., if it doesn’t become an event for you) it will not grip the congregation!

Why should sermons be boring or dull? Certainly those apostolic sermons were not! It is we who have made them so. Think again—every passage of Scripture is a word from God! And it is important to every member of the church. Your job is to convince him of this and show him how he may implement it in life to the honor of Christ. How dare we make God’s Word dull! There should be nothing more exciting in a Christian’s week than to hear once more what God has to say to him. What would you call it if you received a phone call from the President of the United States? Why, most of us would call that an event! Then what should one’s weekly word from God in the sermon be? Tell me.

People Listened!

Yeah, they came in goodly numbers to listen to Ezekiel. Sounds good—eh?

Not so good. Listen to why they came and what they were getting out of his messages:

My people come to you in crowds, sit in front of you, and hear your words, but they don’t obey them. . . . Yes, to them you are like a singer of love songs who has a beautiful voice and plays skillfully on an instrument. They hear your words, but they do not obey them.    (Ezekiel 33: 31,32; HCSB)

There was nothing wrong with the prophet’s preaching—the problem lay solely in his listeners! They were interested in how he preached—not in what he preached.

Today, people flock to popular preachers, some of whom preach well, and truthfully, but the listeners fail to live changed lives. The reason might be the same as it was in Ezekiel’s day.

If all those who attend popular preaching were to go out and live as they are told in the preachers’ messages—even for one week—what a difference it would make!

Truth must be mixed with faith, and faith with obedience.

Obedience is a lost concept today in some circles. All one must do to grow by grace is to listen to and contemplate the Gospel. This quasi-mystical and quazi-monastic viewpoint is dangerous. It also leads to listening to preachers “sing!”

Think about why you go to hear preaching. It may be because the preaching you hear doesn’t demand much of you. But even if it does—as in Ezekiel’s case—you must come in the right attitude. Listening to love songs won’t cut it.

What Could Be Behind It?

That’s a good question—and isn’t asked often enough when discussing the atheistic thrust of our contemporary society.

Ask yourself—why would someone go to great lengths to deny the existence of God? If what the Bible teaches is true, think of all the marvelous promises that believers have (and unbelievers don’t have) as a result of faith in Jesus Christ! A new body in which there is neither death, sickness, nor sin; power unlimited; eternal life full of joy and peace, etc., etc.

Hmmm—-there must be a pretty strong motive behind this denial of God; do you have any idea what it is?

No.

No?

Well, SCRIPTURE ITSELF TELLS US WHAT IT IS:

The wicked arrogantly thinks “There is no accountability since God does not exist.”    Psalm 10:4 (HCSB).

There you have it! In clear terms—If I can get away with it here and now (whatever sinful thing that I would like to do), there will be no one after death to answer to for[1] whatever I have done. Action without consequences—that’s what the atheist wants!

But God says this is sheer arrogance. And, of course, that’s exactly what it is—a person thinking he is so smart as to be able to contradict all the great prophets. Well, then, what? The fact that if they are right, you can get away with some things you are now hesitating (but would like} to do? Right? Think deeply.

Some day you will have to stand judgment before God—in that day your arrogance will melt like ice cast into a fire! What will you say? How will you defend yourself? What will it be like to face God unforgiven?

[1] Two prepositions that together work!

Position in Preaching

Position in preaching is an important matter about which all too little is said—and yet it can make all the difference. What am I talking about? What is ‘position’ anyway?

Position represents a preacher’s relationship to a passage as well as to the persons who are involved with it. With whom does one identify as preacher, and with whom does he identify his congregation? The answer to those two questions tells one what his position is.

There are several possible positions that one might assume. Various names may be assigned to each, and possibly more than the three that I shall mention might be distinguished, but in order to raise the question and to point toward the desired biblical position of the preacher these three will do:

  1. The loving, learning SPECTATOR
  2. The faithful, listening RECIPIENT
  3. The ordained, sent HERALD

There clusters about each of these positions a number of factors that are consistent with the position itself. Take the SPECTATOR, for instance. Such a preacher doesn’t identify with any one particular in the preaching portion. He does not speak as does the writer of the epistle or as the preacher in the gospel; he is an outsider who is looking in on what is happening and who sees his task as enabling the congregation to look in along with him. He is, in effect, the cameraman, whose sole job is to paint the picture for the viewer. As such, for instance, he looks in on the events of the text to view Jesus at work in His redemptive-historical tasks. Largely he speaks in third person language. His prevailing response, and that of his congregation, is worship, awe, gratitude. His temptation is to be merely a listener, a viewer, a spectator. There is little that is ethical or doctrinal about his preaching. The preacher who is most likely to take this position is the biblically-theologically oriented preacher.

Then there is the RECIPIENT. This preacher stands in the crowd, along with the congregation or the individual receiving the letter, book, or message in the preaching portion. He identifies himself with those receiving truth or an exhortation or rebuke. In the gospel he identifies not with Jesus but with the crowds or Nicodemus or the man born blind, and he puts his congregation as well as himself in the same position. Whereas the spectator uses “they, he, she,” the recipient’s favorite preaching pronoun is “we.” He is no bystander, as the first preacher tends to be; he is a participant, faithfully hearing Christ’s Word to him and to his congregation, feeling its impact in his life and going out to do it. Though some ‘expository’ preachers may identify most closely with the spectator position, most would be lured into identifying with the recipient.

In contrast to the other two, the HERALD assumes a position of authority (conferred, not inherent) and exercises it in the name of the One Who sent him. He stands with Christ and the biblical writers and preachers, speaking to the congregation in the name of God and with His message and authority. He identifies with the messenger in the passage, so his favorite pronoun is “you.” This position encompasses the other two as well; the benefits of the other two positions are his and are conveyed to the congregation as well. However, he assumes the other two positions in the study and not in the pulpit. As he studies the Scripture he wants to look in, in order to be struck by the greatness of the redemption that is in Christ; and when he is, he will prepare and preach differently than if he had not been. In the study he also wants to identify with those receiving the message, so that he may experience its benefits in his own life. That too will affect how he prepares and preaches his message when he gets into the pulpit. But when he stands before the congregation, he is neither recipient nor spectator; he is an ambassador of Christ, a herald of the good news. As such, he says to his congregation (whom he views as participating observers, required to be hearers as well as doers of the Word), “Thus says the Lord!”

How do you preach? Throughout the previous articles on preaching I have stressed the need for a preaching rather than a lecturing stance, and a focus on the Holy Spirit’s telos, or purpose, in the preaching portion. Such emphases are consistent only with the third position. The herald preaches not about the Bible, or about the Amalekites or Paul, but from the Bible, about the congregation present and about God. He is not a mere onlooker or one who enables others to see what happened long ago and far away. Nor is he concerned with interpretation and meaning as ends in themselves. He is one who believes that Scripture was recorded for the admonition of his congregation and that, as he proclaims it to his people, God still deigns to effect changes in the thoughts and lives of His congregation. As a herald of the Spirit’s Word, he views true preaching as an occasion during which God and His people meet in the Word.

A Key to the Book of Revelation

A key to the two-part nature of the Book is found in chapter 10, verse 11:

You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.

After the letters to the seven churches, there are two great sections to the Book:

Section One: The First Enemy of the Church and its destruction.

Section Two: The Second Enemy of the Church and its destruction.

This verse stands between them.

If the second section deals with all sorts of peoples of various languages (hint, hint), what do you think the first section deals with?

Just a few thoughts to get you searching. Have fun!

Providence and Reasons Unknown

God’s providence is a wonderful thing; by it we know that all things work together for the good of His children. In counseling, or preaching, a man of God is able assure others of this fact. He should often revert to that comforting doctrine.

But some are not satisfied with that assurance. They want more. They insist on finding out how God is working out good in any given situation. Sometimes it is apparent how God is providentially at work (or at least partially so), but more often than not we are unable to do more than conjecture about it, Paul—an inspired prophet and apostle—at times found that he could not say for sure what God was doing providentially. In the situation in which Onesimus, a runaway slave came to know Christ through that experience, he writes “perhaps” that is why the event occurred (v.15), but (having no revelation of such facts) will go no further. It would do well for us most of the time to do the same. What we have in this little book of Philemon, interestingly, is an inspired “perhaps.”

Where Protection Is Found

The psalmist writes:

Rest in God alone, my soul . . . He alone is my rock (Ps. 61: 8 HCSB).

This world is a dangerous place; full of disease, war, treachery, accidents—you name it! How can you go through life in a calm, restful manner? That’s what the Psalmist is speaking about. Behind a rock was a place to find protection in biblical days. If someone was tracking you down—as Saul tracked David—to locate a large, impregnable rock to use as a wall between yourself and the tracker would be highly desirable. That is why God is frequently called one’s Rock. That is to say, He is the Protector of His people.

In this uncertain life, have you found rest in the only true Rock? There is only one way to do so—through His Son, Jesus Christ Who died in the place of all those who would trust Him as Savior. He bore their guilt and suffered in their place. He is the One Who, alone, can lead you to the Rock of this verse—the “Rock that is higher than I.”

Need rest? Protection? You need the Rock behind which you can lie down and feel safe.

God’s Word—purified seven times over

That’s what Psalm 11:8 has to say.

”But what does it mean?”

The verse also compares it to silver that is purified that often.

“Does that mean the Word was impure and had to be purified?”

Certainly not.

“Well then, why does it go on to compare it to silver that has to be purified that many times to rid it of all impurities?”

It is not the process of purification that is under comparison.

“What then is?”

The product of the process!

“What do you mean?”

Simply this: as silver that is refined seven times over is said to be totally free from all impurities, so too are the Scriptures totally free from all error and harmful teaching.

“Oh.”

The verse means that the Bible is wholly free from error and, therefore, is pure truth! When you turn to its pages, you must have this thought in mind and be willing to accept whatever it says as absolute truth!

“You might say that it is a sterling book then . . . ?”

You might.

 

Paths

Everyone’s on one. That includes YOU. It’s interesting how God describes the pathway of His people:

The path of the righteous[1] is like the light of the dawn , shining brighter and brighter until midday (Prov. 4: 18; HCSB).

It’s a path that runs from sunrise till noon! How descriptive! The longer we walk on it the more clearly we see! The brighter life becomes, the more shining the landscape! What a beautiful description the writer gives us.

Sometime, shadows do obstruct clear sight; often we tire along the way. But the great truth all of God’s true children must admit is brilliantly expressed in these words!

The closer to the end of the journey, the more the way is illuminated. Jesus Christ is the one Who stands at the conclusion of the walk—how could it be otherwise?

 

[1] The righteous are not those who are righteous in themselves, but those who have been declared righteous by faith in the work of Christ on the cross

God’s Challenge

Here it is:

Who, like Me, can announce the future? . . . Let these gods declare the coming things, and what will take place. (Isaiah 44:7; HCSB).

God is declaring that prophecy proves.

“What do you mean by that?”

Simply this—the fact that the biblical God has predicted the future proves He is the true God. And, to boot, the fact that He alone can make the claim stick! Indeed, because of the latter fact, the former is true too.

“How so?”

Since there is no other challenger who can substantiate his claim, as He can, clearly, the former is true.

“But don’t other gods claim the same?”

Not too many of them even make the claim to predict coming events, but whenever they do they fail the test of giving the predicting facts beforehand—and, indeed, often long before—in writing that is publically received and tested as to its truth.

“What do you mean by that—and how is it tested?”

Simply in this way: hundreds of scriptural prophesies have been written, received, kept intact, etc., for hundreds (often thousands) of years which years later have been fulfilled to the T.  And that is not true of any other God but Yahweh!

“Are you sure?”

Absolutely. No other supposed God has any written record such as He has to which to point to show the fact of his existence and knowledge of the future.

“Hmmmm.”

Any God worthy of the name must be able to demonstrate His ability to do so.

“Where can I get a list of such prophecies?”

Such lists are often found in the back of Bibles in a section next to the maps. You can easily find it.

“Well, I’m going to take a look at one. Thanks for the clue.”

Welcome. Reader, how about you?

 

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