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Stand guard over your heart
Joshua 23: Now, vigilantly guard your souls: Love God, your God.
The final pages of the book of Joshua contain the sermon Joshua preached to the people of Israel in his old age. It’s a mere “sermonette” when compared Moses’ farewell that fills most of the book of Deuteronomy. It may be that since Joshua has been primarily a military leader that he’s short on words and long on action. Still, Joshua has things to say that are worth hearing. He reminds his hearers that their success is all due to the gracious hand of God. One Israelite soldier has put a thousand enemy combatants on the run. Only God could do that. Their unprecedented success is because of God’s goodness. Still, there’s one area where they must be ever vigilant: their souls. Moses warned them about this many years earlier and Joshua renews that warning now. Even with military victories won there remains the battle for their hearts. As an army posts sentries to keep watch against enemy intrusion, they must stand guard over their own lives. Now, I already know that two or three pages over I will find myself in the dark ages of the book of Judges, but here I find Joshua already warning them of what’s coming. How sad to win the land and yet lose the greater war. Joshua tells them to “stand guard.” That’s good preaching to the people of Israel 3300 years ago and its good preaching for me to hear today.
Take Away: The most important thing for me to protect is my own heart.
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.
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.
Jeremiah 23: Isn’t my Message like fire?
The prophet is still thinking about the “peace and prosperity” preachers who feed their congregations a diet of “cake and ice cream” sermons. People enjoy these pleasant sermons, but what they’re hearing lacks God’s authority. Jeremiah calls such preaching “silly” and compares it to “straw” and not messages with real substance to them. The Almighty reminds Jeremiah that when the message he preaches comes from the Lord that his words are like fire and “like a sledgehammer busting a rock.” Two things come to mind here. First, the Lord’s displeased with preachers who focus on preaching entertaining, “what they want to hear” kinds of sermons. Second, there’s a great need for sermons with the fire of God’s Word in them. The first kind of sermon may get the preacher some compliments, but the second kind changes lives even as a sledgehammer changes a rock. I thank God for preachers who have ministered God’s Word to me by bringing sermons that were God-inspired and God-empowered. As a preacher myself, I don’t want to waste my ministry preaching “that’s nice, ho-hum” sermons. Life is too short and opportunities are too few as it is. Lord, let your fire ignite me, my sermons, and my listeners.
Take Away: There’s a great need for sermons with the fire of the word of the Lord in them.
Preaching to please people
Jeremiah 15: Let your words change them. Don’t change your words to suit them.
The Lord called Jeremiah to be his spokesman but Jeremiah’s words aren’t well received. In fact, they get him into a lot of trouble. As a Sunday sermon preacher I like it when people are energized by my words. It hurts when folks can hang out in the foyer chatting while I pour out my heart in a sermon. I have to admit though, that Jeremiah’s situation gives me a whole new perspective on things. Not only did his listeners reject his sermons, they actively tried to silence him. Having folks who are angry with me and out to get me over a sermon would be much worse than their simply wanting to chat about other things while I preach on Sunday! Facing such opposition, Jeremiah’s tempted to adjust his preaching a bit, to downplay the “gloom and doom” and focus on things like God’s love instead. The Lord, though, is having none of that. He looks Jeremiah square in the face and tells him to stand up and take it like a man. If he has to decide between his congregation not liking his sermons or the Lord not liking them, he’d better land on the side of the Lord. The Almighty says to Jeremiah, “Don’t let the congregation craft your sermon. Be faithful to my directions and your words will change lives.” We preachers need passages like this to remind us of the spiritual facts of life. We aren’t preaching to please people. Instead, we’re preaching to change their lives. It isn’t so much what they want as it is what they need. There’s only one in the audience who must be pleased no matter what. I need to spend time with him as I prepare a sermon, lean on him as I deliver it, and then leave the results of it all in his hands.
Take Away: It’s a good thing when the congregation is pleased with the sermon. It’s even better when the Lord is.
Isaiah 28: This is the meaning of the stone: A TRUSTING LIFE WON’T TOPPLE.
The people who hear Isaiah’s sermons think they have everything figured out. As far as they’re concerned they’ve heard it all before. If Isaiah wants their attention he has to come up with a new approach, something unique and interesting. Otherwise, in their opinion, they’re too sophisticated for his old message. The prophet says, “You aren’t as advanced as you think you are. In fact, God’s going to strip everything back to the bare basics and his message to you is going to be ‘baby talk.'” Isaiah describes the Lord’s new approach in dealing with these know-it-all people as laying a new cornerstone. That stone, he says, will be inscribed with God’s communication to his people: “A trusting life won’t topple.” That message is, at the same time, both simple and profound. It’s simple because anyone can understand it. It’s profound because it’s the secret to maintaining life in the Lord. God isn’t looking for clever people who come up with all kinds of gimmicks and cute slogans. Instead, he’s looking for people who’ll simply trust him. As I read of the Lord’s future plans for the people of Isaiah’s day, I see that he wants me, as one of his people, to hold steady, always trusting in him.
Take Away: The Lord’s looking for people who’ll simply trust him.