Numbers 22: Then God gave speech to the donkey.
There’s no other story in the entire Bible like this one. Balaam is a backslidden prophet of God who’s on his way to put a curse on God’s people. His donkey is stubborn and is misbehaving. As Balaam angrily beats the poor animal, God gives the donkey the power of speech. This incident has caught the imagination of countless readers. The movie industry did a series of “Francis the talking mule” stories in the 1950’s. Later on, TV brought us the story of a talking horse, “Mr. Ed.” Then, Don Francisco brought the story to everyone’s attention in his song, “Balaam.” The punch line in Francisco’s song reminds me that when God uses me to deliver his message that I shouldn’t become conceited. After all, he could have used a donkey instead. I know this, God is God and he can do whatever he wants. If it serves his purposes to make an animal speak his words the Lord certainly has the ability and the authority to do so. And if he commissions me to speak his message I know it isn’t because I’m such an intelligent, articulate person that I stand out in the crowd. The Lord calls and uses people for his own purposes. Still, for man or donkey, it’s an honor to be so called!
Take Away: If God can use a donkey to deliver his message we know he can use us.
Retelling the old story
2Peter 1: This is the post to which I’ve been assigned—keeping you alert with frequent reminders.
In the early days of my ministry the so-called “special days” were especially challenging to me. Every year Easter and Christmas came around and I felt challenged to come up with some innovative way to preach sermons on them. I was especially challenged by “civil” calendar events like Mother’s Day and Independence Day. Ultimately, I arrived at a two sided solution. For Father’s Day and the like, I don’t preach on the day, but acknowledge and observe it early in the service. Then, having done that, we move on to a regular worship event. “Spiritual” calendar events, though, need to be highlighted. I was still left with the challenge of preaching a sermon that would help people better process the meaning of the day. Finally, the Lord seemed to have mercy on this struggling preacher. It dawned on me that spiritual events come around as reminders. I don’t need to “dress them up” with some impressive new approach. Instead, I need to go back to the basics and retell the story. From that point on, I prepared sermons for those days with a sense of freedom. As I read this passage from 2Peter today I see that he set the example for me and countless spiritual leaders through the centuries. He tells his readers that some things need to be said again and again and that, to some extent, if the leader is successful in keeping people reminded of basic spiritual truths that leader has been successful, fulfilling his or her God-given assignment.
Take Away: We never progress to the point that we don’t need to be reminded of foundational spiritual truths.
Tending to my knitting
1Timothy 4: Keep a firm grasp on both your character and your teaching.
A portion of the minister’s life is spent “up front.” The congregation gathers and the pastor opens the Word of God and begins to preach and teach from it. It’s tempting to come up with interesting stories or to ride whatever hobby horse is in play at the time, but instead, the minister is to keep his or her teaching in check. God doesn’t call people to the ministry to entertain with stories or to convince others that their political views are the same as God’s. The preaching and teaching is for the good of the kingdom and not an ego trip. Another portion of the minister’s (and everyone else’s for that matter) life is more private. The more successful the public ministry is the greater the temptation to cut corners when no one’s watching. If the minister drifts off from sound teaching, there’s a chance that someone will point that out. However, if character is lacking, things can get far out of hand before it’s found out. To some extent, ministers have a lot of help keeping a firm grasp on their teaching and preaching, but practically no help at all doing so with matters of personal character. Paul urges Timothy to tend to his knitting on both fronts. This is good advice for ministers of all times and places, and actually, good advice for all of us.
Take Away: The real “you” is the person you are in private when no one is watching.
Competition for the title “Number One Sinner”
1Timothy 1: I’m so grateful to Christ Jesus for making me adequate to do this work.
The letters to Timothy and Titus are all about pastoral leadership. Paul has entrusted congregations to these men and now he writes them letters of encouragement and instruction. The Apostle writes, not always as an overseer, but sometimes as a fellow pastor, a man called by God to proclaim the gospel and shepherd the Church. He pictures himself as one of Jesus’ favorite trophies of grace. That is, he, of all people should be declared too bad, too lost, too committed to sin to ever be saved. In his grace and mercy though, the Lord has done just that. He not only saved Paul but he called him to proclaim the gospel message. Every time he preaches his life is speaking more loudly and eloquently than his words. He sees himself as example number one of just how gracious, forgiving, and merciful God is. If that’s true, then even as I read these words 2000 years after they were written, the very fact that they were written by this “Public Sinner Number One” speaks as loudly as what he actually writes. Still, having said all that, I’m compelled to add that any minister worth his or her salt shares Paul’s confession of unworthiness. To some extent, no one can properly proclaim the gospel, or even get saved in the first place, unless they read Paul’s words and think, “not so fast on that ‘Sinner Number One’ stuff Paul, let me tell you my story.” The bottom line is that if not for Jesus none of us would have a chance. Those called to the ministry, of all people, can join Paul in his thanksgiving to Jesus for making us “adequate to do his work.”
Take Away: Anything “adequate” about us is evidence of the Lord’s grace at work in our lives.
In over my head
Ephesians 3: So here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head.
It was hidden in plain view. Throughout the ages the Lord God has intended to save all people. Some considered to be insiders are no more “inside” than those assumed to be outside the saving work of God. It was always there, easy enough to see, but missed by most. Now, the secret is out and throughout the Gentile world people are responding to the way made clear by the work of Jesus, the Son of God. The Apostle Paul is amazed to find himself in the middle of things. He, more than most anyone, had been blind to God’s intention, at one point actively fighting against it. In fact, Paul has been twice surprised: first, by the fact that all along God intended to save all who will come and second, by the fact that he, Paul, has a role to play in the revelation of this plan. The Apostle considers himself to be, of all people, an especially unlikely candidate. Still he finds himself uniquely equipped for the work, with words and ministry flowing out of his life. He knows that the Source of all this isn’t in him at all, but, rather, is the result of God’s doing through him what he could never do otherwise. Paul’s experience is, of course, extraordinary and a person who wants to lay claim on any similarities had better tread carefully. Still, it’s important for preachers and teachers and professors to get their heads around this. On one hand, believing God has chosen us and uses us in surprising ways lends us a sense of spiritual authority and self-assurance in our service of the Lord. On the other hand, knowing that none of it actually comes from us grounds us in real humility. Otherwise, we end up thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, and the possibility of our ministry being used of God is greatly diluted.
Take Away: When God calls and uses a person that person must never lose sight of the fact that their usefulness is the Lord’s doing and not theirs.
The voice of authority
2Corinthians 10: I write in the gentle but firm spirit of Christ.
Paul’s first letter was rather stern and was, in general, well received. Most of the church at Corinth took it to heart and responded positively to it. However, we see here that not everyone received it in the spirit in which it was written. Some complain that Paul should mind his own business and that “them and God” will work things out. Others point out that there are leaders aside from Paul in their number who hold different opinions from him. Yet others say that Paul writes tough, but in person he’s not very impressive and his letters shouldn’t be treated as though they’re the final word on anything. The Apostle takes all this on in this passage. He wants them to understand that he’s being as patient with those who oppose him as possible, but that his words aren’t his own, but carry with them the very authority of Christ. He hasn’t tried to manipulate them and he hasn’t avoided the more sticky points. He knows that there’s opposition both outside and inside the church. After all, his teachings are radical and run counter to the world’s way of doing things. He’s not just putting band aids on severe wounds. Rather, he’s in a battle to the death with an ungodly culture that still has a foothold in the Church. All this he does under the direct authority of Christ. If they want to hear from someone with authority, he’s it! Paul’s self-assurance here is breathtaking. In spite of his obvious weaknesses he pulls no punches in claiming authority in this situation. I’m sure there’s a case to be made for humility and for letting people work things out between them and God. Here, though, I’m reminded that sometimes God chooses to use unlikely people to state his message. This, I think, is different than a preacher taking a text and, using its authority, delivering a sermon. This kind of prophetic voice is seldom heard, but when it happens people tend to recognize it. Beyond recognizing it, we’d better pay attention to it.
Take Away: It’s the Lord who gives authority to his message.
2Corinthians 7: I know I distressed you greatly with my letter.
The book of 1 Corinthians is almost painful to read. It’s clear the there are some sick situations there and that this church is far from being a healthy congregation. The Corinthian church isn’t a prototype of what a Christian church is supposed to look like, although how Paul deals with them is a primer on how a spiritual leader is to deal with a difficult church situation. An insight in this passage is that as Paul writes to Corinth he knows the impact his words will have on the church. Beyond that, his words impact him as well. Administrating this strong medicine is painful for Paul too. The old “this hurts me more than it hurts you” line is literally true in this situation. Paul gets no pleasure in writing to his friends at Corinth as he does. He’s frustrated with them and somewhat fearful for them. Still, he expects his strong medicine to bring about, in the long run, good results. Sometimes parents have to be disciplinarians. It would be nice to always feel warm and fuzzy about things but to do so isn’t what real love is like. In his first letter Paul steps up to the plate, telling them the facts of spiritual life even though, in his words, “I felt awful at the time.” Sometimes preachers have to be disciplinarians. As it is for Paul and as it is for parents, proper discipline should never carry with it a sense of pleasure in causing pain. I imagine tearstains on the parchment that contains what we think of as 1 Corinthians. In the same way, there should be tearstains on the sermon notes of a pastor who preaches a sermon that will cause some pain. Otherwise, that sermon should never be preached.
Take Away: Sometimes discipline must be done but it should never be done with pleasure.
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.