The Holy Spirit working through me
Romans 15: The wondrously powerful and transformingly present words and deeds of Christ in me.
Adventures, Paul’s had some! He’s pioneered the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the region. He’s been at the forefront of a tidal wave of the work of the Holy Spirit and, because of that, he’s not only taken plenty of hits, he’s also seen first-hand just what God can do. Paul, though, is quite humble about all that. He doesn’t glorify himself. Rather, he gives glory to the Lord for it all. At times, even though he’s in the middle of it all he’s found himself more bystander than participant as something “wondrously powerful” happens. Paul understands that it isn’t his cleverness or winning personality that’s “triggered a believing response.” The message about Christ is actually delivered by Christ, through Paul. I wish I had a better handle on this. So often I find myself behaving as though it’s all about my performance. I let myself become so focused on how I’m doing that I forget that, actually, I’m not required to do much at all. The Lord wants me to place my full weight of trust on him and allow him to minister through me. My cooperation is required and the Lord will use my personality, education, etc. along the way, but it’s all powered by his Holy Spirit and not by me. There are times when Paul is amazed at the response to his ministry. As I cooperate with the Lord, I, too, will be surprised as lives are touched as the Lord ministers to people through me. Let’s not be guilty of underestimating the ability of the Lord to minister through us.
Take Away: As we cooperate with the Lord he does amazing things through us that surprise us as much as anyone else.
Teaching on teaching
Matthew 13: Are you starting to get a handle on all this?
In this chapter Matthew gives us several examples of Jesus teaching. We hear about the sower and the seed, a series of stories about how, in the Judgment, the division of the human race will take place and stories that illustrate the growth of the Kingdom of God. Of course, each story is true and helps us better understand spiritual reality. However, the overall purpose of the stories is to teach the disciples how to teach kingdom truths. Jesus explains that the reason he tells stories is to “create readiness.” If he begins his teachings at the high school level, all those who are at the elementary level are left out. Therefore, he starts with stories that pry open some new small comprehension that wasn’t there before. As he concludes this “teaching on teaching” Jesus asks his disciples if they get it. I think “getting it” doesn’t necessarily mean that we Sunday preachers are supposed to always build our sermons around stories (although it’s not a bad idea). Instead, “getting it” means that we remember to start our preaching at the level of our listeners. Seasoned students of the Word tend to forget that things we take for granted are new territory for others. We also like “church words” and freely sprinkle them into our sermons. On one hand, we don’t want to show disrespect for people by talking down to them. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so “above and beyond” that the average person is untouched by truths that could transform their lives.
Take Away: We need to minister to people at their level of understanding.
How to get a better preacher for your church
Malachi 1: You say “I’m bored – this doesn’t do anything for me.”
The people of Malachi’s day have lost the edge off of their religion. Worship services are a burden rather than a blessing. For them, righteous living is more about “have to” than “want to.” What should be the most satisfying part of life has become just another burden for them to bear. Malachi tells them why it’s like this: they’ve settled for a cheap religion. When they bring an animal to the Lord they don’t pick the finest they have. Instead, they pick one that’s probably going to die anyway. Even when they brag that they’re going to make some significant offering, at the last minute they just can’t bring themselves to do it and settle for a mere token offering instead. The result, according to Malachi, is a dull, boring religion. The less they put into their relationship with God the less they get out of it. Here’s the real kicker: God isn’t satisfied with their religion either. He says, “If this is how it’s going to be just lock the Temple doors.” Apparently, the Lord isn’t into playing church. I don’t think this concept gives us preachers a license to preach dull, sloppy, poorly prepared sermons or for singers and others to sleep walk through church. However, from years of experience I can affirm that the people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them. Why not give it a try? Get up early enough to pray for the services and for yourself, arrive ahead of time, focus on the Lord, and give 100% to worship. Who knows? You might have a better preacher at your church than you think you do!
Take Away: The people who get the most out of worship services are the ones who put the most into them.
Getting stuff from God
Micah 2: I’ll preach sermons that will tell you how to get anything you want from God.
God’s man says that when the people of his nation send out a pastoral search committee that they’re looking for a specific kind of preacher. They aren’t interested in hearing sermons about repentance and judgment, but they’d love to hear sermons that tell them how to get God to do stuff for them. Such a preacher is sure to be hired on the spot. Obviously, this desire isn’t limited to Micah’s day. For many people manipulating God is what religion’s all about. Many years earlier the suffering Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him.” (Job 13:15) Earlier, Job had gotten an enormous amount of stuff from God. Now, it’s all gone and all he has left is a broken life and a stubborn faith. So which approach to God describes me? Am I in it for what I can get? What if everything I hold dear is taken from me and it seems God’s no longer playing Santa Claus? On one hand, we have people who don’t want to hear what God has to say but are very interested in what they can get God to do. On the other hand, we have a man who’s so committed to God that even when most of his theology has crashed he insists on continuing to hope in the Lord. I pray I never have to travel Job’s road but I’m certain I don’t want to follow that of the people of Micah’s day.
Take Away: Do we serve the Lord for what we think we might get from him?
The perfect man for the job
Jonah 3: In forty days Nineveh will be smashed!
Jonah’s message focuses on judgment. After all, he’s preaching to the enemies of Israel. I imagine old Jonah preached some “hell, fire, and brimstone” sermons that would rival that of American preacher Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. Jonah, in fact, preaches this sermon of condemnation and destruction in a spirit of victory and joy. Jonah tells them God’s going to get them and his attitude is that he can hardly wait for that to happen. I think it’s that attitude rather than what he says that creates a “scared straight” result to his ministry. Here’s one of their sworn enemies boldly working his way through their city joyfully proclaiming that God’s about to destroy them all. Jonah does such a good job of preaching his sermon that it has an undesired (for him) result: people listen! I can’t help but find it interesting that Jonah’s the perfect man for this job, not because he shares God’s compassion on this wicked city, but because he doesn’t.
Take Away: The Lord has a way of picking the perfect (if unlikely) people for doing his work.
Amos 7: I never set up to be a preacher, never had plans to be a preacher.
Amos starts out as an unknown, coming out of the fields near a small town to proclaim God’s message. His sermons are rough and tumble, filled with condemnation. They’re also specific: Amos names names. Now, he’s gotten the attention of some people who they don’t like what they’re hearing. In fact, they see his warning that a pagan army will “make hash of you” to be a threat to national security. One of the important priests, Amaziah, sends word to king Jeroboam that there’s a traitor in their midst who’s sowing seeds of fear. Amaziah then confronts Amos. He wants this farmer to go back to where he came from and do his preaching in that backwater place. The context of this confrontation is that Amaziah thinks Amos is just in it for the money and notoriety he’s getting and that he’s come to Bethel with his preaching show for more of the same. Amos stands up to the powerful priest and declares that he had no desire to preach in the first place. Unlike Amaziah, Amos has no family tree of ancestors who are clergy. He’s a mere farmer who’s heard from God and has been told to proclaim God’s message. To this day the Lord is still sending people into the ministry. Some of us heard that call while we were still young children. Others battled with it as teens, and still others, like Amos, were established in their lives and, in response to the call embarked on a whole new career. Amos is a poster child for all who are called by God, but he’s especially an example of how God sometimes calls adults who must walk away from one life and obey God in another.
Take Away: To this day the Lord is still sending people into the ministry.
Preaching on current events
Joel 1: Have you ever heard of anything like this?
There have been a few times when my Sunday sermon was 100% driven by current events. Some were huge, world shaking events like 9/11, hurricane Katrina, and Desert Storm. Others were powerful events on the more local level: the church gym being destroyed by fire or the death of a beloved member of the church. There are times when the preacher has to lay aside the sermon schedule and deal with what’s already on the minds of everyone. The prophet Joel ministers in such a time. A horrible plague of locusts has swept through the country devouring everything in its path. This is a disaster. Their crops are gone and there’s nothing to eat or with which to feed their livestock. Hunger and even starvation is a real danger. Realizing God has the attention of everyone Joel takes the situation at hand as his text and begins preaching his sermon. That sermon is the three chapter book of Joel.
Take Away: A sermon schedule can’t be driven by current happenings, but sometimes that’s exactly as it should be.
Preachers and listeners
Ezekiel 33: They love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.
They’ve gotten used to Ezekiel. For years he’s preached his sermons and acted out various illustrations for them. His words are seldom encouraging, in fact, they’re down right condemning. Beyond that all his approaches to basically the same sermon have become to them like well-worn clothes: nothing to get excited about, but comfortable. These days, it isn’t unusual for folks to show up at Ezekiel’s house on a summer evening just to see what Ezekiel has up his sleeve today. They aren’t interested in responding to his message but they do find his rants somewhat entertaining. As a Sunday preacher I have to say that this passage is chilling to me. The folks at my church have also heard my sermons for a long time now. Sometimes I fear that they’re so used to me that, as it was in Ezekiel’s day, “they love to hear you talk, but nothing comes out of it.” It’s interesting how small things become big things as I think about stuff like this. For instance, a couple of weeks ago I suggested folks take a particular course of action. Yesterday I was handed something someone had done as a direct result of that sermon. I can’t tell you how encouraging that is to me. It’s also humbling. I’m flattered that anyone would come to my church and listen to me preach my sermons week after week. I’m encouraged that some folks actually take what I say to heart and literally respond by doing something they wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’m humbled that I have the opportunity to touch lives each week in this way, realizing that in myself I have nothing to offer. If anything “comes out of it” it will take cooperation with God by both preacher and listeners.
Take Away: Preaching must be much more than entertaining.
A good word from the Lord
Ezekiel 29: I’ll give you, Ezekiel, bold and confident words to speak.
A turnaround is coming. For some time now Israel had heard nothing but condemnation from God’s prophet, Ezekiel. According to him things are going to get worse before they get better. Now, we see that things will, indeed, get better. The same man who’s condemned their sin and the sins of the nations associated with them is going to be given a different word from the Lord. His words will bring hope and deliverance. His messages will reconnect them with God, himself. What powerful words they’re going to be! These aren’t the empty promises of a politician. This is God’s man speaking God’s word to them. When the Lord gets involved words take on an additional element of power. As a preacher I’m both encouraged and challenged here. I’m encouraged that, as old fashioned as it might seem, that God can communicate to people through a weak vessel like me and that as I preach God can “stir up fresh hope” and usher in “deliverance” in people’s lives. I’m challenged to live close enough to the Lord that he can direct me in that endeavor; to trust him and cooperate with him in what he wants to say to those who are listening.
Take Away: Words directed by the Lord are powerful and can be life changing.
Trust and obey for there’s no other way
Ezekiel 3: …but you won’t die. You’ll have saved your life.
As the prophet is commissioned he’s told that his job is to warn people. If they refuse his warning, then they’re responsible to God for that refusal. Ezekiel’s job is to issue God’s message. His salvation is contingent on his faithfulness in doing so. My first reaction to this passage is one of caution. I read this from a New Testament point of view and immediately respond that my hope of salvation isn’t in my performance but in my faith in the Savior, Jesus. Does that, in some way nullify this passage for me today? Upon reflection, I think not. Old or New Testament, preacher or listener, the requirement of God is the same: obedience. The Lord calls Ezekiel to preach his message and that’s what’s required of him. He’s called to obedience even as he calls his listeners to obedience. It’s the same for me. As I understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world I must obey his call to yield my life to him and follow him. Anything else is disobedience. So, Ezekiel obeyed by preaching God’s message. His listeners were to obey by forsaking their sin and worshiping the Lord. I obey by trusting in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and living in a relationship with him. People may refuse Ezekiel’s message, but he’ll be saved in his obedience in preaching it anyway.
Take Away: No matter where a person is on their spiritual journey, the Lord’s requirement is this: obey.