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On Preaching – A View from the Pew.

August 7, 2011

This post is about preaching God’s word and how we respond to it. It is not a criticism of preaching at my current church or the ones I’ve been at in past. It is more of a lamentation on the state of preaching, as I have been exposed to over past 10 years of listening and discerning God glorifying messages from people-pleasing entertainment. Lastly, I’ve also sat in chairs and within four walls of small and large buildings and homes even. So, it is not just the pew in a building that is in the view. Let’s begin.

I want to look at preaching of the Living Word of God. That word which was given by the Holy Spirit to men who were moved and then called, who wrote, and who died just to see the joy of seeing the word in writing. Yes, those who wrote the word, died writing it. It came at a cost. They were mocked for speaking it, led captive, hid in caves, ran from their enemies, but preserved by the Holy Spirit, so they could transfer it in writing. Then the living word was preserved for thousands of years, and then again, men of calling were used to bring it to where it is today. What we hold in printed format as The Bible.

I spend hours every week listening to various people preach the Living Word of God, which the Bible also calls Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus is the word and the Bible is all about that. The written word is the living word and the living word is Jesus Christ.

And that’s what we ought to preach. John preached Christ as the life that gives life. Paul preached Christ crucified, so that Christ will be glorified. Peter preached Christ resurrected, so that Christ will be restored to where he belongs. And I choose to devote time during the week to hear the word of God preached – on Sundays, when driving, when taking a walk, and when quickened by the Holy Sprit late at night and on weekends. As you can see, I love to be the audience and hear God’s word preached by men who are called to it today and by men who died preaching it.

God’s word, as in The Bible, must be preached. It is also important to evaluate how we preach it. It is the only way we will exalt God and exalt Jesus Christ, who is the only living God. When I sit in the pew on Sunday, I’m choosing to devote my time to a worthy cause, which allows the speaker to use his calling and gift of preaching to exalt Jesus Christ as he speaks to the audience. And we together are bringing glory to Jesus Christ the Son and the Heavenly Father, as the Holy Spirit uses us both to show to the power of darkness and the devil, and the angels in heaven – how his redeemed people love God by loving his word. By listening to his word we show our love for Him. Showing that by choice we prefer to be preached to and be preached by a person called for preaching. It is not a passive act but an outpouring of our love for the Son, because he is the living word!

Now, with that in context – what are we preaching these days and how are we listening these days?

We preach to tickle people’s ears. We preach using the language and illustrations of the culture that water down the power of the living word. We preach to entertain. We preach to see people nod heads or even clap (yes, it happens!), and are even satisfied to get those responses.

Yes, it is important to present the Word of God in simplicity and in a manner that the audience will understand, but not sacrifice the value of the words that are spoken. The sermon might be downloaded 50,000 times as being popular or effective but if the sermon contained even one casual sentence that marred the weight of the scripture, the whole message becomes useless. One thoughtless line can cause the preached message to fall from its calling of exalting Jesus Christ. It is this enormous burden that speakers of the living word must carry, if they believe that preaching is their calling and vocation.

I’ve heard countless sermons from many speakers on radio, podcast, video, and in churches. Out of all those I’ve listened to, one speaker stands out: Charles Spurgeon. There is something about his words, written and spoken, that help me see how Spurgeon saw his calling and how seriously he took it. His words are weighty, powerful, and exposit the scriptures effectively to elevate Jesus Christ as he should be and listeners are appealed to draw near to Christ. Spurgeon ends his sermons, almost always, drawing you to the gospel if you are new to Christ or urging you to grow in knowing him better if you already know Christ.

In these times, knowledge gathering is not a “pull” exercise but a “push” machine. Everything is pushed to us. We do not labor to get knowledge. As a result, we are constantly being fed. And a big part of that is the three-some channel – radio, television, and internet. We do not take a text and read it with commitment and wrestle with the ideas and its content. Same goes for God’s word. We like bite-size intakes. Preaching has given into this also. We want to stick to the familiar and what people know most about – movies, sports, wars. Preaching will include illustrations from movies, sport events or personalities, and war and military related stories. We often talk about modern day heroes, and use their life stories to supplement the message being preached. Nothing wrong with that – but often our stories and personalities are chosen just because of the likely chance that our audience knows about them. It is not the knowledge of the Bible that we count on, but on movies, sports and wars for sure.

Here’s an example of how we might preach today from the movies, with an illustration (I take full credit/blame for this illustration): God had a message for us and he sent it through his Son Jesus.  You may have seen the movie “A message in a bottle” – where Kevin Costner writes messages to his deceased wife, expressing his love and how much he misses her and seeking forgiveness, and locks them in a bottle and throws it in the ocean. A reporter, by chance, finds one such bottle and searches him out. Because of the message, she falls in love with Kevin Costner, and then they are united in the end. In the same manner, God sent the message to us through his word, about his Son and our salvation. That message in a bottle comes to us, and we see his love for his Son and his love for us. And…you get the point. The movie has nothing to do with the weight of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, there are some immoral scenes in the movie. But, it is being used to draw parallels on how the message was delivered to us like in the movie, and since the audience most likely has seen the movie, they will see the connection. That is the objective in sharing such an illustration.

Now, this seems like a relevant and even a nice heartwarming illustration. But, does it exalt Jesus Christ? Does it present the seriousness of sin and explain the gospel of Christ with seriousness? Why do we need illustrations that fit within our cultural context or our capacity to relate to what we know, to help us see the Heavenly Father’s love through his Son Jesus Christ? Also, we seem to steal models and frameworks from the world, and apply them to expound scripture, even when the models and frameworks are secular and not spiritual.

We also preach today using the language of the prevailing culture that describes sin, to convict people of their sin, so they can repent. The goal is worthy, but the manner may not glorify God. We use the language of the culture to talk about the sins, and then along with that we drag the gospel of Jesus Christ (and even Him!) through the gutters of the language used to describe sin. We will call by names the acts of violating a woman (rape), the acts of committing adultery (sex before marriage or affairs), the deadly acts of violating children (sex trafficking), and while doing so, we will also talk about Jesus and those words connected with the Gospel, so as to make the listener relate sin with redemption. We will even call Jesus by names, that I wonder if the speakers of old (Spurgeon, Wesley, Luther and such) would have used. We take the risk of using Jesus in an irreverent manner, even making him like a buddy, and forgetting that he deserves the respect of a King. It was he who humbled himself, not gave us the right to humble him!

We do this believing that our use of the language of the culture will help people connect with reality of sin and salvation. If we did not use the words of the culture, we fear the poison of sin will not be evident, and the application of the gospel will not be effective. We are afraid that the gospel language will not stand on its own, and needs the culture’s language and framework to make it effective. We will even draw upon our personal experiences (sin and struggles) and share them as a matter of fact using words like what were described earlier, hoping the audience will connect with the experience, and then we try to present the gospel or a principle of living a Christian life. Our hope hinges on helping people “connect” with the speaker and the message and make it effective, within the experiences of the culture and life that the audience is experiencing. In fact, sometimes we are afraid to preach the “foolishness” of the gospel message of Jesus Christ, thinking it will be rejected, and work hard to make it “intelligent” and “reasonable” for the audience.  We want to make the message interesting – and not let it stand the test of its foolishness to the world – the world that measures it by its own standards and not that of God’s. We hesitate to call people to humble themselves, before they roll up the sleeves to evaluate God and his work through Jesus Christ, because we are afraid that we will not “win” them to the message that way. And so, we resort to making the message “friendly” to what people can evaluate.

Seems like we’ve lost the confidence in the simple words of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as presented in the Bible, and want to elucidate with illustrations and examples so the audience will “connect” with the message. Also, we want to keep preaching “fresh” messages that are going over the same scripture but make it interesting and exciting to the audience. So the same point gets driven home in different ways – just so the audience can conveniently relate with what they know and can experience the joy of having “got it”. The result is – the audience feeds on milk or worst yet, on fake meat. And people leave with a heavy heart or a warm heart or just with a feeling of having heard a “good” message – and lives remain unchanged. The job of drawing closer or causing repentance or being challenged to come closer to Jesus Christ is left to “personal bible study”, “quiet times” or “small groups”. The preaching is aimed to reach the “unsaved” and sometimes to exhort the congregation on good living or rebuking the congregation on some issue (“giving/tithing” is always a good candidate for that). At times, it seems Christ gets exalted and presented – but the illustrations and the language may not elevate Christ to his rightful position and cause introspection of one’s walk with Christ – taking the risk of walking the line of irreverence while hoping to exalt Christ.

Lastly, we worry much about how people will apply the preached word. We tend to forget that it is not the application of the teaching that is the goal. The application will come as people go through serious introspection of their lives, repent, and draw near to Jesus. We focus much on the application and making sure it is clearly understood, and then we expect people to work on the application. We take away the reliance on the Holy Spirit and put the burden of producing fruits on the shoulders of the audience and the understanding of the application that was preached.

Is that how we see Jesus Christ preached in the Bible and what people were called to do after they heard what was preached?

Jesus was preached with words that did not resemble illustrations of the culture at that time but plain simple truths. He was preached with invitations to get to know him better by drawing close to him and studying about him from others (fellowship) and whatever word was available (written or spoken). His love for us, which resulted in his sacrifice, was described over and over again to help us see the plan of redemption and how it unfolded in history and how it impacts even in present times. The preaching exalts Jesus Christ as the King and presents him in all grandeur, seated at the right hand of God, waiting to be given the reigns of the new creation (heaven and earth) for eternity. To the Jews, Jesus was preached by drawing from the depths of their history starting with Abraham (or even earlier) and through prophets and coming to the cross and ending on resurrection (read Peter’s and Stephens’s sermons in the book of Acts). To the Gentiles, he was preached as light of the world, the only true and living God who saves them from sin and makes them righteous through his son, and draws them into the plan of God and be given a place in heaven to worship him – even if they were not the chosen people. To Jews and Gentiles alike, presentation of Jesus Christ levels the field on God’s predestination of mankind unto salvation and that plan of redemption revealed through Jesus Christ. And then, people were called to repent of their sins (deliberate and subtle) and draw closer to Christ. Then there was one-on-one discipleship and training for speakers called into that same vocation by God, like how Paul trained Silas, Timothy and others.

Yes, Jesus used parables and illustrations when he taught (or preached). If you study them, you’ll see that they did not dilute the weight of what he was teaching. Often, the illustrations and examples (or parables) convicted his audience to their hearts and revealed truths that became easy to understand. His illustrations separated sin and redemption clearly. His examples glorified the Father. His parables concealed the mystery to be revealed at a future time. He was not preaching to itchy ears but hearts that will repent and humble.

Where is all this in our preaching and teaching today?

I have not preached much, just handful of times. I sit in the pew (or on chairs) most of the times. I have grown to love Jesus through my desire to be at the church, sit in the pew, and listen to God’s word preached to me. Yes, I can do something else in those 60/90 minutes that I’m at our church building – I can do wonderful works in my life that will glorify Jesus or meet with other brothers and sisters and enjoy a time of fellowship. But no, I decide not to do that. I choose to be available so that my brother, who believes his calling to preaching and wants to present Gods word, has the opportunity to help me see the truths of the Bible and grow me in the knowledge of the scripture. And this knowledge gathering is essential, even if it is only via a 30/45 minute sermon, to edify me. I may already have good knowledge of the scripture that is being presented or even have good understanding of the essential elements of salvation, but my commitment to listen shows my willingness to let the Holy Spirit humble me and help me listen to the same principles again so I can savor the word of God as sweet honey. I listen and want to pay attention to the doctrines of Jesus Christ, even if repeated many times over the years, to help strengthen my understanding of Jesus Christ. My commitment to God, of my love towards his Son, compels me to sit in the pew and listen. It is not an act of righteousness or good works, but an outpouring of my desire to glorify him by being a listener. And if I get bored or distracted, shame on me. Not on the speaker. And I want to trust that the Holy Spirit is helping the speaker, giving him the words being spoken.

It is my prayer that preachers will speak to exalt Jesus Christ above the world and above our culture. I pray they will not lose the confidence of the power in the words given to us in the Bible and rely more on expositing the scriptures. I pray they will avoid the temptation of preaching to itchy ears and entertaining the audience. I pray they will clearly separate sin and the gospel of Christ that redeems and help people see the grace of God poured out on mankind. I pray that preachers will teach doctrines of Christ and equip their congregation to fight every false accusation and discern the right view of Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible. I pray that Jesus will be exalted and not humbled through our preaching.

And this is my request to you: consider how you listen. Talk to Jesus Christ tonight, and daily, on how you want to listen when you are being preached to. And pray that the Holy Spirit will help you. And pray for me too – I need to be reminded often of what was written in this post.

For the King, Jesus Christ.

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