Posts Tagged ‘Sermons’
After a cracking day on Monday at the Evangelical Library in London on “Reading John Owen” (opening, it has to be said, with Nigel Graham giving what may be one of the finest popular introductions to the life of Owen that it has been my privilege to hear – lively, careful, engaging, insightful) I want to do more reading and re-reading of John Owen. I was reminded, by my own efforts and those of others, why I do and may and must enjoy the privilege of reading such profound theology.
One of the works that piqued my fancy afresh was Owen on The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded (in volume 7 of the collected works). This was in Robert Strivens’ section of the works, and what prompted me to turn there again was the warning that preachers, accustomed to handling and speaking God’s Word, can develop a facade of spirituality which masks a spiritual dryness. Conscious that one can do much apparent working for God without much genuine walking with God, I thought it would be good to dip again into this work.
Re-reading can be as fascinating as reading. I am sometimes struck by what struck me the first time, or what failed to strike. The passage of time and the expansion of experience makes one wish, perhaps, that one could be as freshly excited as one was before, and one must learn to be more deeply excited than one was. Or, perhaps, some things have simply become more relevant because of the reader’s different circumstances while reading. On this occasion, I was struck by something in the preface to the work.
Owen, as you may know, had been unwell before preaching and preparing this material. He was so sick that not only was he unable to serve others, but he feared he might be taken by death and never able to serve again. Under such circumstances, he began to meditate on the grace and duty of spiritual-mindedness from Romans 8.6, where the apostle says that “to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Later, Owen took the fruit of his sickbed meditations and turned them into sermons. “And this I did,” he says,
partly out of a sense of the advantage I had received myself by being conversant in them, and partly from an apprehension that the duties directed and pressed unto in the whole discourse wore seasonable, from all sorts of present circumstances, to be declared and urged on the minds and consciences of professors: for, leaving others unto the choice of their own methods and designs, I acknowledge that those are the two things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry. (7:263)
I am, I confess, sometimes amused by the homiletical handbooks that pass for pastoral theology in our day. Some of the guidance given for the preparation of sermons seems entirely out of touch with the life of local churches. I am amused when I hear the big cheeses of the evangelical world assure congregations that they prepare their sermons, or perhaps know what they will be preaching on on any given Sunday, a year or so in advance. As the pastor of a small congregation, preaching and teaching several times a week, that seems to me to be ludicrous, even dangerous. I do not think I could do that even if I were in circumstances that seemed to allow it.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that pastors preach on a whim or without a plan. I am not against systematic, sequential expository preaching. But I do wonder how much even Owen’s aside might teach us here. This work of his springs from what I would call a topical expository series. But how did Owen come to it? And why did he choose to preach it?
He has those two answers: first, because it did much good to his own soul when he had considered it for himself; and, second, because he perceived that the same truths which had helped him would, with the blessing of God, prove a timely and profitable study for other believers under his care.
However, he goes on to confess that those two principles are the “things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry.” That, in itself, is fascinating. Here is the great theologian and the profound scholar, sitting down as a pastor of God’s people, and asking, first and foremost, what has blessed me, and will it bless others also?
If you are a preacher and teacher, however far you are willing and able to plan ahead, do such considerations have a place in your own preparation? Are you so soaking in God’s truth that you can assess what has been of particular blessing to your own soul? Are you so attuned to and concerned for the saints that you can discern what would prove particularly timely and profitable for them? Are you visiting the congregation regularly and getting to know their lives and their needs so as to be able to make such a judgment? Are you prayerfully thinking of the particular congregation before whom you will stand, converted and unconverted, more and less mature, more or less wounded and wearied, more or less hale and hearty? Are you willing to put in the effort to invest in such ministry? Are you willing to get off the treadmill of your regular or scheduled course of exposition, perhaps to plough fields that would otherwise have remained unbroken, to invest in hours of composition that you had not scheduled into your work patterns? Are you improving your own studies and sufferings to this end?
Such an approach might require that you prepare far in advance a particular course of systematic and sequential exposition, compelled by the fact that this book or section of Scripture will serve those to whom you preach. It might keep you from changing to other, apparently easier or more palatable potions of the Bible, held fast by a sense of responsibility. It might demand that you drop such a long course of sermons and preach for a few weeks on a particular portion of God’s Word. It might compel you to preach a single sermon on a single text. It might prompt you to develop what you thought was a one-off into a shorter or longer series. Again, it is no excuse for a pastor-preacher simply riding his hobby-horses to death. You will note that Owen does not manipulate his hearers by the claim that the Spirit imposed the duty upon him, though I do not think anyone can fail to see the hand of God at work in the matter. This is a man who is sensitive to the truth, sensitive to the operations of the Spirit of God, sensitive to the circumstances and needs of the saints, sensitive to the spirit of the age, sensitive to the demands of a particular place and people, and deeply concerned to be a means of blessing to those to whom he speaks.
This, I would suggest, is pastoral preaching of the highest order – ministry of God’s truth that flows from the heart of a true shepherd of souls, a man who has drunk deeply of the sweet waters of the gospel, and is persuaded from the depths of his being that others need to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to obtain the blessing designed for those who trust in him.
Setting Our Affections Upon Glory: Nine Sermons on the Gospel and the Church
Crossway, 2013, 176 pp., paperback and ebook, $15.99
These sermons were preached in 1969 and it is a measure of their biblical sense and substance that they still sound fresh. Indeed, at points – such as when Lloyd-Jones suggests that we are in danger of having only two or three preachers in the world and everyone else “listening to them on tapes or on television or something else” as if that is the way to evangelize the world – he sounds as if the sermons could have been preached a few months ago. Woven among some of MLJ’s familiar and often-debated emphases are other strands, more central and abidingly relevant. The hope of saints in death, the foolish reliance of many professing believers on worldly wisdom, the requirement for us to know our God and his truth experimentally, the need for all the saints of God to carry with them the savour of Christ and make him known, the narrowness of the way of life: these and other matters are handled with refreshing plainness and adroitness. Much here proves an antidote to some of the crass and even carnal patterns paraded in much of the modern church. While it is, perhaps, easy to think of certain thinkers and speakers who would benefit from taking certain chapters or pages to heart, the great concern is for every reader to learn these things for himself and apply them to his own faith and life. In that respect, I found these sermons bracing to the mind and spirit, providing a helpful measure of recalibration for the soul, and I hope others would as well.
It has been my unhappy lot to be served an overcooked dinner around a silent table by a scowling lady, having discovered that the regular preacher generally doesn’t preach for longer than 20 minutes. With such memories swirling within, I was interested to read Brian Croft on the question of sermon length:
I find many pastors, especially younger ones, are regularly wrestling with this question. The pressure to answer can be self-imposed, or forced by those in your church who complain your sermons are too long. The problem is there does not seem to be one right answer. The answer to this question largely depends on the kind of pastor you are, the quality of preacher you are, and the kind of congregation you serve. In light of this, here are a few principles that might help you answer this question in your particular context.
A pastor should determine the length of a sermon…
1) Based on where your people are, not where you think they should be.
2) Based on how good and seasoned a preacher you are.
3) To leave your people longing for more, not less.
Read his explanation of these principles here. From now on, I shall not be preaching for more than 75 minutes . . .
But, would you add any more? What about when the Spirit gushes (by which I assume that not only the preacher but the congregation also appreciates the reality)? What about by the demands of the text, breaking it up into more sermons if need be? What about the length of a series of sermons?
Joe Holland offers parents some counsels and encouragements for pressing the truth into the (sometimes!) tender hearts of our children:
They sit there next to you and their feet don’t even hit the floor. You’re thinking, “What, if anything of this guy’s sermon is sinking into my kid’s head?” And with that little thought you’ve already decided not to engage your child about the sermon. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Let me introduce you to the most important rule when talking to your kids about the sermon: They retain more than you think they do. The second most important rule is like it: They understand more than you think they do.
Quoting J. W. Alexander for support (see below), David Murray provides some helpful thoughts on simplifying sermons:
It is an interesting observation that some of the greatest sermons are deceptively simple in design and development. Simplicity in design, organisation and development is the mark of a great communicator. Complexity confounds – simplicity satisfies.
A nice reminder from Iain D. Campbell:
But even if I do feel, at a human level, that I am adequately prepared for Sunday, what do I do if I have a burning conviction in the vestry five minutes before the service God wants me to say something different, and that I should preach on something other than the material I’ve been preparing? It surely belongs to the romance of preaching that God is doing more preparing than we ever can, not only of the sermon but of the preacher too. As I type this on a Saturday night, I realise that what God intends me to preach tomorrow may be very different to what I, at this moment, intend to preach. He is able to provide a sermon in an instant, and I should be open to the terrifying fact that what I have in front of me at the moment is making Heaven laugh.
Read the whole brief piece.