I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life and I’ve preached a lot of sermons too. Any preacher who is serious about his calling spends a lot of time each week preparing for those 20 or so minutes on Sunday morning. Sometimes we get feedback on how we did, sometimes we don’t. So we don’t always know if the words of our mouths or the meditations of our hearts have been pleasing either to God or to the congregation. We can only pray that something good will result from our efforts.
The question that always stands out, though, is what makes a good preacher. Some people have honed the art of public speaking to such a sharpness that they are bound to surpass your average run of the mill speaker. I’ve read that Patrick Henry was such a talented public speaker that people would often lose track of time during his orations, thinking only a few minutes had passed when it was actually over an hour. Must a good preacher have such a skill? Or maybe a good preacher is a man whose knowledge of Scripture astounds even other pastors and who fills his message with a list of supporting passages almost too long to follow. Or maybe a good preacher is a man who can, in the pulpit, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Well, in my opinion, there is only one way to measure whether or not a preacher was good on any given Sunday—did he proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you? I don’t care how clever the argument, how well delivered the sermon, how sonorous the tone of his voice–if a preacher doesn’t tell you that you, yes you, are a sinner deserving of eternity in hell but that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, bore your punishment on the cross at Calvary, rose from the dead on the third day and promises salvation to all who confess with their mouth that He is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead–if you don’t hear that the preacher wasted 20 minutes of your life.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he came among them determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is what matters in the pulpit. It is a message so profound, so filled with meaning that every preacher ought to be able to find 60 different ways to express it every year of his ministry. I pray God shows each of us who dare to speak to His assembled people in any congregation how to do this small but immeasurably great service.
I am working now to refocus my ministry. I’m doing a number of things to help me in that–rereading my ordination vows, reading books on pastoral theology, focusing my prayer life on this effort and reading what Scripture has to say about the work of those called to pastoral ministry. Paul’s second letter to Timothy is of particular importance in understanding what a pastor’s role is to be. It was most likely Paul’s last writing and in it he encourages his protege Timothy and all the others who have followed him in ministry.
There’s a lot in the short letter but I want to write today about an encouragement that isn’t meant just for pastors, but for everyone who serves in ministry in the Church–in other words to every Christian. It’s the 15th verse of the second chapter. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth.”
Paul wrote elsewhere that he was not ashamed of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). And his encouragement to Timothy and to us also carries this message. Don’t be ashamed of being a Christian in a pagan world. The Gospel is the only true good news in this present darkness and we are called to witness to it everywhere we go. Sometimes this will be uncomfortable, for us and could lead to difficult situations in our lives. Indeed Paul writes a bit later in 2nd Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” But that doesn’t change the charge Christ has given to all His elect people.
Another aspect of this charge not to be ashamed relates to what we will experience on the Day of Judgment. On the day of the Lord’s return everyone will be judged–even those who are destined for salvation. We will see and know all that we have thought, said or done that is contrary to God’s will. We will know in a extraordinarily powerful way just how great our Lord’s atoning sacrifice was for us, how much we deserved eternal separation from the Holy God. I am sure that shame will fill our consciousness as we look back on our sins. But Paul tells us that one thing that should not cause us shame is the work we do in handling the Word of Truth.
I read recently that only 17% of self identified Christians in this country actually live out a Biblical worldview. The influence of our secular culture seeps into our lives and teaches us to deny the plain teachings of Scripture about so many things. Everything from divorce–a violation of the 6th Commandment–to the common desire of Americans for more and more material things–violating the 9th and 10th Commandments–to even qualified approval of abortion–violating the 5th Commandment–to whatever else you want to list–all such opinions represent a failure to rightly handle the Word of Truth and will cause us shame on the last day.
If the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God it is our responsibility as His witnesses in the world to proclaim what it teaches, even though it’s teaching is an offense to the world. Just because the world around us doesn’t live a Christian life–that is no reason why Christians ought not live as true followers of the eternal Word–Jesus Christ our Lord.
I apologize for not posting the last several weeks, my wife and I were on vacation. As I’ve gotten older I’ve found that I need more time just being quiet than I once did. Our vacations used to be hectic. Now they’re calmer. I like calmer.
After returning I began preparations for a celebration at church next Sunday. We are celebrating the founding of our congregation 190 years ago. The President of the AFLC will be preaching, there’ll be a meal, and visitors from all over the place are coming to share this time with us. 190 years is a long time and the people who founded this congregation way back in 1826 have long since joined the Church Triumphant in glory. We’re still here, carrying on the work of proclaiming the life giving Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us.
It’s been a long time since our congregation was founded. And it’s been even a longer time since Jesus ascended back into heaven. Sometimes we get a little concerned about that. After all, we remember and give thanks for something that happened 2000 years ago–2000 years! Now that’s a long time isn’t it? And there are people who will say that if nothing has happened in 2000 years, nothing is going to happen. Jesus isn’t coming again and we should just get along with our lives in this world.
There have always been doubters of God in this world. David writes “the fool says in his heart there is no god”. So doubters there were even then. And others have pointed out that nothing seems to really change, so everything must just be as it is and will be in the future. There are no end of people who try to measure God by their own standards and deny Him when He doesn’t fit. To them the Lord replies, “my ways are not your ways and your ways are not my ways”.
One of the big differences between God and mankind is that we live within something we call time. Things have beginnings and endings, they come to pass and they are over. God, on the other hand, is not bound by time. He stands outside it and relates to it in a way which the human mind cannot even begin to comprehend. If we could understand God, even for a microsecond, I’m sure we would go insane. The complexity of the human brain is no more comparable to God than a one celled organism is comparable to a human being.
So how do we know that Jesus will return? It’s been a long time coming, right? And yet Peter writes that to the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day. So, in God’s eyes, even if we are to take Peter’s words literally, it’s only been 2 days since ascension. So time is not the answer to the question of how we can know that Christ will return. The answer is God’s sovereign will recorded in the Scriptures and testified to by number of kept promises we find there. In just the right time, Christ came amongst us. In just the right time, He is coming again.
I’ve been following a dispute that has broken out among some of our Calvinist brethren about the definition of the relationship between the 3 persons of the Trinity. It’s kind of technical, so I won’t bother to deal with it here–there probably aren’t too many people who would find it much more interesting than watching paint dry.
But the dispute made me think about the variations and varieties of Christian theology and what that means for those of us who are followers of Jesus. I am a Lutheran. I am a Lutheran because I believe that the Lutheran Church has the purest expression of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for you. But I also recognize the many commonalities between Lutheran theology and Calvinist theology. Indeed–I go so far as to say that John Calvin was Martin Luther’s best student. Still, we do have differences.
And then there are our brothers and sisters who have an Arminian theology–the Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, etc. I have more areas of disagreement with them. And don’t start on the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Coptic and Assyrian Churches. And yet, we are all indeed brethren if we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead, for we are then saved. (Romans 10:9)
You see, friends, when Jesus is in the mix, those things that separate us from one another cease to seem very important. Just look at the Lord’s disciples. We have Matthew, a tax collector for Herod whose operation encouraged gouging as many people as possible. And then there is Simon the Zealot. The Zealots were a radical group opposed to Roman rule and to everyone who collaborated with the Romans. Yet here they were, following the same Lord, trusting the same Savior. And Simon didn’t even try to stick a knife in Matthew’s back. There’s something about Jesus that changes us, isn’t there.
I sometimes tell my congregation that American Christians have more in common with a Christian in Tanzania who lives in a mud hut than with the unbeliever who lives next door. When the Lord comes again and the world is remade that guy from Tanzania might very well be your next door neighbor.
In the presence of Jesus everything is different. Everything is better. Everything is forever.
I read something this morning that struck me as something I should have seen on my own but never did. A writer was commenting on the 10 Commandments. Now amongst Lutherans we tend to speak of Law and Gospel as separate things, each of which has it’s own purpose in God’s design, but they are not to be confused. Martin Luther said you weren’t a real theologian until to could rightly divide the two.
Typically we say the Law has 3 purposes. First, it shows us God’s will. I like to compare this to a curb in the street–it shows us where the edge is and we know if we go over it we’ve messed up. You can’t drive on the sidewalk. The second purpose or use of the Law is that it is a mirror. When I look into it I see myself as a sinner for I have violated every one of God’s commandments. And the third use of the Law is that it is a guide for our lives. Not only do we where the edge is, we are also told how to move and live in the area between the curbs.
All of that is pretty standard stuff among Lutherans. But this morning I learned something new about it. God does not give the Law to the people of Israel until after He has rescued them from slavery. First He saved them, and then He gave them the Law. Salvation first, then duty, if you will.
For those who do not know Jesus as Lord the Law is a daunting thing. It seems merely to tell us what we can’t do and, stubborn and self centered as we are, we recent that. So while we might give lip service to the Commandments as good things, we actually don’t like them. But when the Holy Spirit brings us to faith through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Law we [secretly] hated now seems beautiful to us. Now we don’t grumble about what God wants of us, we are overjoyed that we get to follow His will.
When we apply that insight to the situation of the giving of the Law we see that God’s work in the desert foreshadowed the work of Christ for us. First we are saved–then we love the work God prepared for us to walk in before time even began.
Without God’s antecedent work of salvation the Law is our enemy, but afterwards we can see it for what it truly is–a gift from God to His people.
A few years ago the talking heads on television were all debating who was responsible for the recession and the collapse in housing. Some said it was greedy bankers. Others said it was the fault of government policies that encouraged the greedy bankers to make bad loans. Everybody had a villain in mind–except the blame was never directed at the real culprits–us. You see people in this nation had amassed an unsustainable amount of debt and when the least little fluctuation happened it all fell apart. As Pogo once said, we have met the enemy and it is us.
Debt is never our friend, it is always our enemy because as long as it exists we can be called to account. It is, I fear, what awaits our nation in not too many years.
There’s another type of debt that all of us owe. That’s the debt we owe for being poor sinful beings who have sinned against God in thought, word and deed without any excuse. If you default on your mortgage, you can walk away from your house. But there is no walking away from the debt sinners who to God. It must be paid in full. The only way we could pay that debt on our own is to endure the eternal wrath of God.
But God, pure and holy, perfect and just, had mercy upon us and sent His Son to bear our punishment. We didn’t have to pay what we owed. Jesus paid that debt. We didn’t have to suffer for what we have been and done. Jesus suffered for us. We didn’t have to see the grim visage of an angry God. Jesus did that when He cried out on the cross, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
This was far better than having someone pay off our mortgage for us. This was life eternal in the presence of the divine. We owed a debt that we couldn’t face paying. Now we owe a debt that we could never pay and so we cling to the cross, where we meet the God who saved us.
Have you seen the pictures of how bad the air pollution is in parts of China? Everyone seems to be walking around with surgical masks on and you can see, even in a photograph, particles floating in the air. If you breathe that in, you are not just pulling in the life giving oxygen and other gases natural to the world, but the evil and potentially deadly result of mankind’s mindless misuse of God’s world.
One thing I’m pretty sure of–when Christ comes again and His people live for eternity in a remade world, there won’t be any air pollution. Everything will be perfect and all of His people will receive nothing but benefit when we fill our lungs with the air of glory.
In a way, though, we sample that pure air when we come to a saving faith in Christ Jesus. For at that point we aren’t standing in the middle of a smoggy metropolis, our feet aren’t searching for a foothold on soil made unproductive by the sin which distorts all of God’s good creation–for at that point, we are standing right on the dividing line between this world and the next. As we breathe we breathe in a whiff of the pure air of heaven. We smell, ever so faintly, the beauty of glory. Our eyes see as in a glass darkly, but still we see the beauty of what God wanted for us. God’s people walk, as the old hymn tells us, on the verge of Jordan and we see afar, but yet we see all we have ever hoped for.