A Sunday Morning Prayer for an Ashamed Workman

Gracious God and Heavenly Father, I bow before you wishing that in this past week I had done my best to present myself before you as an unashamed workman. I wish I could confess that I have spared no effort in my calling as a Minister of the Gospel, charged with correctly handling and proclaiming the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).

But I can’t because I haven’t.

I have not been sufficiently impressed with the enormous responsibility of standing before God’s people to say, “This is what the Lord’s says” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

On the one hand, I have relied on my own skills to understand your word, not seeking the Spirit’s enlightening to learn and express the thoughts of God (1 Corinthians 2:10). On the other hand, I have not used all my gifts, having been lazy in the study of the Scriptures, unwilling to dig a little deeper into the text to bring out new treasures as well as old (Matthew 13:52).

In my preparation my ear was more attuned to the accolades of man than the praise that comes from the only God (John 5:44).

I have allowed many things, including legitimate pursuits, to distract me from the needed study so that I might preach Christ from all the Scriptures (Luke 24:44).

I have studied to preach, rather than studied to know you and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3).

I have been mechanical and professional in my preparation, withholding my affection from (2 Corinthians 6:12) God’s dear lambs and sheep (John 21:15-17).

It’s not just that I’ve been a hearer of your word and failed to do what it says (James 1:22); I’ve studied your word and will be teaching your word and all the while I have not given determined effort to put it into practice (Matthew 23:3).

I confess to my horrible shame that, even now, I am more bothered that my inadequate preparation will reflect poorly on myself than that it will distract from your glory and the blessing of your people (Acts 12:23).

And so, gracious God, as I prepare to go into the pulpit, what shall I say?

I pray that you would forgive me for my pastoral sins through the blood (Galatians 2:20) and righteousness (Philippians 3:9) of the Lord Jesus Christ who sent me to proclaim his Word (Ephesians 4:11).

I crave renovating grace as well as forgiving grace. I ask that you would grant me your Spirit so I may not be an ashamed workman in this coming week, that I, resisting the devil and fighting the flesh, may give myself wholly to the matters of the ministry so that everyone may see my progress (1 Timothy 4:15).

Repenting of my sins and thankful for your mercy,

I plead that you would receive glory as I present my faltering efforts to you (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Enable me to preach in weakness and fear, and with much trembling (1 Corinthians 2:3).

Exalt your own name in the preaching of your word (Psalm 138:3).

Give me clarity of thought and expression (Colossians 4:4).

May I preach with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:4) so my hearers may receive it as the word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Enable me to proclaim Christ (Colossians 1:28) so that he may have the pre-eminence in all things (Colossians 1:18).

With the Lord Jesus I cry out, “Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:28)

And I pray for your precious flock, whom you love (Revelation 20:9).

Bless them with the richness of your grace far beyond my preparations.

“I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done?” (2 Samuel 24:17) Why should they suffer for my failings

As the Lord Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish and the people ate and were satisfied (John 6:11), so may Christ multiply my offering so that his people may be fed with the bread of God (John 6:33) and be satisfied.

I pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus who, having made peace through the cross, now preaches peace. Amen.

An Enjoyable Review And An Unenjoyable Dig In The Solar Plexus

Aaron Armstrong gives a positive review of David Murray’s book “How Sermons Work.” I was really struck by this quote from the book, which Armstrong quotes:

“Preachers must not draw applications from the accidental, incidental, or coincidental parts of a passage, but from its essentials alone.”

That pretty much states a pitfall that all of us preachers fall into much of the time.

Read the entire review here.

Preaching and Biblical Theology

Seminary seems as though it belongs to a different lifetime! It’s almost 30 years since I attended Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia and it is curious to look back on those days and reflect on how much they meant to me.

One thing that stands out about them is the sense of perplexity I and other students felt as to why certain courses were included in the curriculum and why certain emphases seemed to run through many of them. For me, one of the most perplexing of these was the emphasis on Biblical Theology – the technical term for that branch of theology that is not merely ‘biblical’ in that it is self-consciously drawn from Scripture; but which charts the progression in divine revelation and, more specifically, the history of Redemption.

At one level I could see its importance in the grand scheme of the discipline of theology in general and how it relates to hermeneutics. It provides a healthy and necessary connector between exegetical theology and historical theology en route to a full-blown Systematic Theology. But my problem was, ‘How does it relate to Practical Theology – especially in the realm of Homiletics?’

Westminster at that time placed a high premium on this particular theological discipline. This was hardly surprising, given the roots of Westminster theology in that of Princeton and the fact that Geerhardus Vos was such a significant figure in the development of Biblical Theology. However it seemed to some students it was an emphasis that was being pushed too far and its relationship with preaching was a case in point. The then President of the Seminary immortalized the link in his book, Preaching and Biblical Theology (P&R; Philipsburg, NJ) 1961, and it featured prominently in his preaching classes as much as in his own preaching.

The point he was making is that the grand storyline of the Bible is Salvation. From beginning to end it relates the history of God’s redemptive purpose from eternity past right through to its consummation in the world which is to come and its supreme focus is Jesus Christ. If that is indeed the case, then it calls into question any sermon that is ostensibly rooted in a text but never gets beyond mere moralizing and, worse than that, never gets to Christ.

This approach to preaching still has its own inherent weaknesses. It can become very mechanical and predictable in the way it controls a preacher’s handling of the text. It can also lead to the delivery of a sermon being like ‘constructing a house out of which the occupants cannot escape and into which those on the outside cannot enter’. (For years I thought that was a quote from John Frame, though he assures me it wasn’t, but nevertheless said he would be happy to claim it if its provenance cannot be established!)

For me, it was almost a full ten years into the ministry that the full positive significance and benefit of this dimension of preaching really began to come home. Only then did I start to appreciate that it is the key to genuinely gospel-centred preaching – addressed to believers as much as to unbelievers – that is the heartbeat of healthy preaching. More than that, it is the key to ensuring that over and above the voice of the preacher heard during a sermon, it is the voice of Christ that is heard most clearly.

Every detail of every part of Scripture flows out of the overarching message of Scripture which is all about Christ and the great salvation found in him alone. Or, as Sinclair Ferguson has noted in a number of addresses recently, ‘It is almost as though the entire message of the Bible is a footnote to Genesis 3.15!’

Learning to factor in this component to our sermon preparation and cultivating the art of doing it well will not only inject freshness into our ministry, it will also ensure that we are preaching every text in light of its most glorious horizon: the story of Redemption.

The Family Illustration

I serve a young church.  I get a reminder of this when I look at our congregation at the beginning of Sunday’s service.  We are a sleep-deprived people.  We are also a people of carseats, diaper bags, toy trucks and baby dolls.  After service, our conversations take place as we watch children slide down a hill behind the church building.

People at other phases in life are certainly represented, and greatly loved in our church.  But the predominant feel of the congregation is “thirty-something with kids.”  At a recent elders meeting we realized that between our four families, we have 14 children.  That is significant.

Because of our demographics, I often use “the family illustration” in my sermons.  Here’s my rationale, which I hope is not too technical:

People get them.  

In a conventional sense, an illustration is not the place to introduce difficult material that is unrelated to the text.  If I spend 10 minutes setting up an illustration from Roman History, I likely just wasted a lot of time and I left people asking “So when did Cicero first become a Quaestor?”

In my view, I should be into the heart of the illustration in about 10 seconds.  Like this: “The other day I was shoveling snow with my kids.”  Everyone in Newfoundland shovels snow and most people in our church have children.  Immediate recognition.

However …

The family illustration is dangerous.  If overused, family stories become trite and boring.  On the flip side, if they are too hilarious they will distract people from the text.  Not to mention the danger of constantly making our kids the focus of our sermons.  “Did you hear what your dad said about you this morning????”  Bad form, dad.

Some preachers never use them.  Some use them every week.  I am somewhere in the middle.

So, here are just a few questions I ask myself when a family moment screams: “God gave you this for your sermon introduction!”

Does this glorify sin?

Kids do funny things.  Unfortunately, kids also do sinful things.  I prefer using stories that involve some innocuous family activity, rather than: “The other day, __________ hit __________ in the nose.”  The latter might be more attention-grabbing, but I do not want __________’s sin and _____________’s pain to be sources of delight for the congregation.

Is this totally true?

Isn’t it tempting to change a story to make it more punchy?  The conversation with your toddler son was certainly meaningful, but did he really say “Daddy, I just love the way you model the gospel in our home.  I want to grow up to be just like you.”

Yes, that would have been incredible and worth sharing.  Had it really happened that way.

Do I talk about my kids too much?

Yes.  I probably do.  When I use a family illustration one week, I will tend to stay clear of “home stories” for weeks to come.  For one reason, I don’t want to be on the prowl for a sermon-starter when I’m hanging out with my family.  That’s just gross.

Does this honor my wife?

“My wife shops all the time … to save money!” [rim shot].  Hold up, pastor.  Even if a wife were on board with a preacher sharing that kind of thing, it is not a good model for how men should talk about their wives.

It’s not a good idea to promote a voyeuristic journey into our marital relationship, either.  If a moment requires me to close a door, I am probably not going to open that door during a sermon.  Marital issues can be handled boldly and directly without using our own spouses as props every week.

Am I more excited about this story or the text?

We preach the Bible, not ourselves.  Although I use illustrations often, I want my sermons to be biblical, not anecdotal.  After the service I want to have conversations about the text, not what a hoot my kids are (although that is an undeniable fact).  I want “justification by faith alone” to be what wows them, not my daughter’s dance recital (which was exquisite).  Something is very wrong if the entertainment value of an illustration is higher in my affections that the biblical truth it illustrates.

If you avoid family illustrations as a matter of principle, I totally understand.  But if we see fit to use them occasionally, let’s pray for wisdom is selecting them.