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.
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.
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.