Category Archives: Preaching

Putting R&D into your character

Feeling very tired after a busy day at work participating in a conference in London and lots of calls. But also feeling excited about the opportunity to speak at the Tayside Christian Fellowship final service before Christmas on Simeon’s song from Luke 2, you’re welcome to come along if you’re in Perth on 19th December.

Was such a privilege to be at Cupar Baptist Church last week, speaking on The Good Samaritan and Mary & Martha, please pray for this fellowship especially. Then off to Kelso Evangelical Church on 9th January speaking about the “fiery tongue” from James 3!!

Just finished listening to the Christianity Today podcast series on Mars Hill – what a story! So sad, but also moments of real, incredible beauty.

These bible verses and podcasts are all driving home to me deeper the need to be “righteous & devout” as Simeon is described…not having a mask, or being someone different “on stage”…not turning a blind eye to pain and hurt, but also not just skipping to the end to “put a bow on it”…but taking time to listen to the stories, feeling the emotion of broken lives, feeling burdened for the pale reflection we often exhibit of true beauty…the secret to it all, as I heard again tonight from Martin Luther is to realise “all of life is repentance“ (or should be!). Thankful there are many people in my life who can truthfully be described as “r&d”!

Embedding whole life discipleship into your church’s DNA

A review of Scattered & Gathered by Neil Hudson

This is my third book review on our Thrive Scotland reading list. If the first book (Thank God it’s Monday) helped us understand our work as a joyous calling to kingdom living, and our second book (Every Great Endeavour) helped deepen our biblical basis for whole life discipleship, then this book is our manual for embedding these truths in our churches.

Neil writes with warmth, sensitivity and empathy, learnt no doubt through years of helping church leaders wrestle with these meaty topics. He uses his experience to gently unpack our established expectations of church – what it means to be a gathered community.

Throughout this is a book of encouragement and exhortation for church leaders, who Neil wants to spur on rather than drag down. This is not a book selling a new formula for quick fix discipleship, or a list of new initiatives to do on top of our current activities.

Instead it is a realigning of what we are already doing across a broader canvas and with our frontlines in sharper focus

Each chapter starts with a reframing of testimonies from biblical characters – shedding fresh light on some familiar stories. After delving into key topics such as worship, preaching, small groups and fellowship from a whole-life perspective, he then identifies helpful examples of how it might look in practice, alongside advice on making a start on incorporating a wider kingdom perspective into our church rhythms.

This is a timely and practical book for church leaders keen to equip their church for life on the frontline. For those who have sought to create a church culture more supportive of our scattered lives, but seen it remain a fringe issue, this book provides the blueprint to moving from gesture to posture, for…

“Gestures are fine and are appreciated when offered, but a posture is permanent“

This series is in anticipation of the Thrive Scotland conference coming in September.

Into The Viper’s Nest

Last Sunday I spoke at Montrose Baptist Church on Mark 15 where Jesus is humiliated and beaten by Roman soldiers on his way to the cross. Whilst on one level we see the powers of darkness rejoice, for those that eyes to see, we also see that Jesus covers our shame. Hope you enjoy it.

Whom shall I release?

Here is a message I shared with Cupar Baptist Church in May on Mark 15 where Jesus is before Pilate, as we see the innocent presented as guilty and the guilty presented as innocent. Hope you enjoy it.

The Master’s mind

At the start of Ephesians Paul has been praising and adoring God. Although he writes about “us” and “we” in verses 3-14 he is really inviting us to view God’s wonderful acts on our behalf…it is as if he is stood in front of a beautiful picture and is helping us admire it…do you see this bit? And this? How wonderful the artist is! He says to us. From verse 15 he changes his focus – he moves from adoration to intercession, from worship to supplication.

We are no longer stood beside him viewing the picture – we are now the recipients of a gift he wants to give us. I am praying for you he says…ever since the first day that I heard about your faith. I am praying for all of you, without faltering, without stopping …but what is he praying for them? He wants them to know God. He is praying to God the Father that He would help them to know him better.   Paul knows that this is the most important and vital prayer he can pray for another believer. He knows that we struggle to really comprehend the truths of verses 3-14 and our knowledge of God is at times superficial and transient. I want us to notice three things about this request for the knowledge of God:

i) A spiritual knowledge – firstly it is a spiritual knowledge. He prays that God would give them the “spirit” of wisdom and revelation. Over Christmas I had the pleasure of sitting with the in-laws to watch Mastermind. Do you know how this programme works? Have you seen it? Each person has a specialist topic that they answer questions on in round one and then general knowledge questions in round 2. Here are some specialist subjects that were considered not suitable to be used:

  • Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth.
  • Cremation practice and law in Britain.
  • The banana industry.
  • Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement.

Now maybe you wouldn’t chose those topics, but how would you revise for your own specialist topic? You would get films, books, Internet – whatever you could to research everything about you topic…and hope for the best! Paul says knowing God is not like this. The most learned (but unsaved) university theology professor has less true insight into the knowledge of God than a young child who has come to faith in Jesus. Amassing facts is a futile task, if we come to them as we come to every other piece of knowledge.

So what is spiritual knowledge? It is the ability to understand, accept and hold a conviction about truth that is granted completely and utterly dependent on the movement of the Spirit of God. And it comes to us Regardless of intelligence, race, gender, wealth, age – or any other human quality. We come to understand something we didn’t before, we come to accept something we previously rejected, we come to believe something we previously denied, we come to trust in someone who was previously unknown to us. In essence it is not becoming a mastermind on a favourite subject, but coming to a place where we understand the Master’s mind.

ii) A hidden knowledge – secondly, it is a hidden knowledge. Paul is praying that God would open the eyes of our hearts to help us see the unseen. What is truly humbling is that none of us have the slightest chance of finding this spiritual knowledge on our own, unless God opens our eyes. Yes, there are glimpses that we can get of the divine being from creation, but left to our own we are utterly incapable of discovering truth about God. If God had chosen to remain unknown there would have been absolutely nothing any of us could have done about it. If we come to really understand this it should deeply trouble us…if what I have said is true, then nothing in the strength of my human wisdom can fathom the mysteries of God.

Is this not what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1.20-31? “The world in its wisdom did not know him”. He is beyond our reach. He must reveal himself, and to whom and when and how is entirely at his discretion. The wind blows where it pleases, so does the self-revealing almighty God. It is a knowledge that we are at first entirely ignorant of – all of us at one time were outside of Christ and cut off from this knowledge. As we shall see next time, we were by nature objects of wrath and dead in our sins. This is the natural condition of men and women. We should not be surprised at people’s response to the gospel.   To the natural man it is foolishness.

There is nothing wrong with the message, it is not a secret knowledge, it is plain for all to see, but it is us who must be changed to understand it. We must come to know the unknown, and see the unseen. What is hidden must be revealed – that is why the preaching of the gospel is so important. For in proclaiming Christ crucified to a lost world we are the means by which God has chosen to open blind eyes.

iii) A gradual knowledge – thirdly it is a gradual knowledge. Look at what he says…I keep asking… Not only is it spiritual and hidden but it is also gradual in our experience of it. there are times when we receive fantastic new insight into God, but it is not always like this. Remember how it was for the blind man in Mark 8.22 – after Jesus touched his eyes the first time he could see people moving like trees, then Jesus puts his hands on the mans eyes again and he can see clearly. Was Jesus suffering from a temporary problem with his healing power? No, it was a metaphor for how we come to see spiritually, that was immediately played out by Peter – who has been shown by the Spirit who Jesus is…the Messiah, but is blind as to why he came v33 as he tries to rebuke Jesus for talking about going to the cross.

Our knowledge of God generally comes to us little by little and is a slow process! Sure there is the moment when our eyes are first opened and we see Jesus for who he really is, and we are overcome with adoration and awe. By God’s grace he grants more experiences like that throughout our life, but the norm for us seems to be a gradual opening in our understanding to the radiant brilliance of his beauty. Like the years and decades that it takes us to get to know our wife, so knowing God takes a lifetime and beyond, into eternity.

Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

What is the gospel?

Gospel.bmp

The following is a talk for a children’s prize giving service, where there were lots of kids and I only had 20 minutes. It’s a quiz / message montage experiment!

Sometimes it is easy to over-complicate the gospel and lose sight of its simplicity. How would you summarise it in one sentence?

Simply put it is this: “God sought you beyond all the mess that you might desire him above all the gifts.” Note that God is the active one – he initiates the action; secondly God seeks – we are not the seekers, God is the original missionary, seeking us. Thirdly “beyond the mess” – God is not looking for people who have all the answers. He specialises in the mixed up, confused, failed. Whether we admit it to other people or not, we can hide it from everyone, but not God.

For what purpose does he seek us? To save us from hell? Give us a ticket to heaven? To be happy? To make our lives more fulfilling? No, ultimately He saves us to give us a new passion in life. In Mark 8.34 & 35 we read “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” God wants to give us a greater passion for him than our own selfish desires. A passion for him that exceeds our passion to seek what we want in life.

This is to be our passion, to desire him alone. Greater even than our natural (and right) desires for his good gifts. Many of us never get beyond the gifts – family, security, love, possessions and material blessings. He saves us to desire him above all these things.

That was what the cross was all about, God rescuing a people not just from slavery, but to himself. Want to think about what this means by listening to some of our poets – through their music…but first some disclaimers (slide 3; all slides are available here).

Then I started the quiz, rules are on slide 4. I split the room into the under 18’s and the over 18’s. Each took it in turns to guess the singer, the song (when I read out the lyrics) and the year.

1. Robbie Williams – Candy (2012). Lyrics:  “And if it don’t feel good what are you doing it for?” Comment: Are our feelings the best guide for judging what is right? Feels good = do it; feel bad = don’t bother. This is the exact opposite of Jesus’ call to self-denial and delayed gratification in Mark 8.34. Also read out lyrics from Feel (2002) “I just wanna feel real love, feel the home that I live in. Cos I got too much life running through these veins going to waste.” Comment: We all have a longing for meaning, purpose, acceptance, love from those around us.

2. Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011). Lyrics: “It doesn’t matter if you love him, or capital H-I-M, just put your paws up, ’cause you were born this way”. Comment: Are we really perfect as we are? Is the message “you don’t need to change God loves you just as you are”? Jesus said, unless you are born again you cannot enter the kingdom of God. Must be born twice. Someone once said that “God loves you too much to leave you where you are”.

3. Adele – Don’t You Remember (2011). Lyrics: “When was the last time you thought of me, or have you completely erased me from your memory?..But I know I have a fickle heart and a bitterness and a wandering eye and a heaviness in my head.” Comment: We all make mistakes. We all want unconditional love and acceptance. But is that the kind of love we give to others? We build our lives around “the perfect one”, and all of a sudden they are gone. Nothing is certain, nothing lasts forever, yet we yearn for this kind of love.

4. The Script – If You Could See Me Now (2013). Lyrics: “I still look for your face in the crowd, oh if you could see me now. Would you stand in disgrace or take a bow? Oh if you could see me now.” Comment: We all want that acceptance of our family. Deep down we need security. There is nothing wrong with this, if we didn’t get it when we were young, we can spend the rest of our lives doubting others’ love. Can make us struggle to accept the unconditional love of God, which comes as a free gift that we cannot earn.

5. Upsy Daisy – In The Night Garden (2007)…one for the little ones!! No deeper meaning than wanted to give one for the pre-schoolers!

6. Michael Jackson – You Are Not Alone (1995). Lyrics: “You are not alone, for I am here with you. Though we’re far apart, you’re always in my heart. You are not alone.” Comment: We all want to be loved and for that love to always be there. It is a beautiful thing to find it in another person. But the call of God is to seek me above all others. To desire me above everyone else and everything else. Even your kids and wife or husband.

7. Joan Osbourne – One Of Us (1995). Lyrics: “If God had a name, what would it be and would you cal it to his face…What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus tryin’ to make his way home.” Comment: The point is that God was one of us! He had a name, it was Jesus. We can go through life asking the wrong questions. Not realising that the answers are already there. We sit on the fence with our favourite objections and never give God the effort or rigour that we put into choosing which mobile phone to buy.

8. Candi Staton – You’ve Got The Love (1986). Lyrics: “Sometimes I feel like throwing my hands up in the air, I know I can count on you. Sometimes I feel like saying “Lord I just don’t care.” But you’ve got the love I need to see me through.” Comment: There is only one person who can help us when life is so tough and rough and messy. And that is the Lord Jesus, who says “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

9. Matt Redman – Blessed Be Your Name (2002). Lyrics: “Blessed by your name, on the road marked with suffering, though there’s pain in the offering. Blessed be your name.” Comment: Desire is the greatest achievement in our walk with God. Something I am learning more and more in my life: seeking God, praising God, blessing God, should be, needs to be, the one consuming goal of my life. Above every other love, aim, goal or achievement.

10. Charles Wesley – Jesus The Name High Over All (1749). Lyrics: “Happy if with my latest breath, I may but gasp his name. Preach him to all and cry in death: Behold, behold the lamb.” Comment: The greatest desire of my life is God himself, given us through his Son – this is The Greatest Love. His deep, never giving up, never breaking, always pursuing, always patient love. And he calls us to follow him. I also read out And Can It Be? (1738) “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace. Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me.” He offers us the unconditional love and acceptance we crave – through His Son’s bloody death on the cross and his resurrection.

So these are the two ways to live (slide 15). The broad and the narrow, self-centred or God-centred. What I can get vs What I have been given. We are all on one of these paths. If you are not a Christian, not seeking God. He is right here. He offers us acceptance and love that meets our greatest need. He offers us the opportunity to “feel real love for the home that we live in….” Many Christians still wander on the left hand side, we are looking for love and acceptance in the wrong place. The deeper you go in your relationship with God, the less you will need these other pleasures and comforts.

So this is the gospel (slide 16). Life is messy, our own poets have shown us that. God is on the hunt…the mess of our lives won’t stop him. He is ready to pour his love into your heart. He is calling you to leave all the faded hopes behind. “You are not alone…God was one of us.” In Mark 8 Jesus says take up your cross, deny yourself and follow me. Leave the self-centred pathway you were born on, and begin the most glorious adventure there has ever been.

Indestructible Faith

This has been a crazy week…if there was ever a time when my message impacted my life and my life spoke into my message this is it.

My faith has been severely tested and yet I have been blessed because of the free gift that God has given me. And he offers it to each of us. If you don’t have faith, can I encourage you to listen to this message? It’s just 34 minutes of your life…what harm could it do? God gave me the blessing of Psalm 46 for this time and I share it with you as a gift. For those at Carnoustie Community Church on Sunday thank you for a special day.

So, the fourth message in my series of Characteristics of A Genuine Faith: #4 “Indestructible Faith” from Psalm 46. You can download the mp3 file here.

faith

Why do I write?

writingFour years after starting this blog I ask myself: Why do I write? What am I trying to achieve? What do I want to communicate?

Ultimately I write because I have to, I am driven to by my burden for truth and people. I want to write pieces that will stand the test of time. As a part of my life, I want my writing to demonstrate that it is possible to be a reasonable, logical person, and have a genuine faith that unites heart, mind and will. I am driven by a desire to build a biblically faithful worldview from first principles through understanding the bible and then communicate these truths in a relevant way to contemporary society.

Dialectic devotional analysis is how I would sum up my writing. To seek to strip out the emotion from the arguments and the rhetoric from our reasonings and then understand the underlying strength of the logic on each side. But to also see the limitations of reason and logic, for these guides can only give us the glimpse of truth, they cannot bring us to it’s door. For this we need the mystery of faith, the faith that says:

I desire more than I can know, I feel more than I can touch, I understand more than I can see.

I have a very busy secular job, a long commute, and a young family, so don’t expect an update every day. But when I do get time to think, I seek to drink from the deep wells and use the same analysis and insight that I use in my day job to analyse my faith. I have written series of posts on John Calvin’s Institutes, Augustine’s City of God, Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, Eric Metaxas’ Dietrich Bonheoffer biography Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and David Wells’ God In The Wasteland. I have also written a number of posts on bi-vocational ministry, work-life balance and cultural engagement.

If you’re wondering what topics I might cover in the future, I am passionate about contemporary culture, classic theology, philosophy, science, holistic discipleship, corporate strategy and community engagement. When I have the opportunity to share with churches, I seek to craft sermons that combine exposition & apologetics; precision & passion; relevance & transcendence. Examples of some talks over the last couple of years can be found here.

Advice to a new preacher

I have recently been speaking with a good friend who has the opportunity to preach his first sermon. I started to think about all the things that go through my mind when I approach a passage and the pulpit. I thought I would share them with you. So, John this is for you brother!

  1. Preaching simply means to herald – like the angels at Jesus’ birth we are to deliver a message. Its not our responsibility to come up with the message, but it is our responsibility to deliver it in a way our hearers can understand.
  2. Get their attention from the first minute. If you don’t get them then you have to work harder later on. Use your opening minutes to anchor your sermon in the contemporary world. A good introduction is often the hardest part of the whole preparation and I leave it until last. If possible tie the introduction and the conclusion together with the same illustration. But don’t force it, sometimes it works other times it won’t.
  3. Delve into the passage until its message has gripped you and its truth has overwhelmed you. Begin to jot down what you are learning from God. Most of it will not be that profound, but as you work on it, true insights will start to form – make these the focus for your illustrations and application.
  4. Always give a piece of yourself in each message. Preach as Spurgeon said “as a dying man to dying men”. Let the people see that it cost you something to bring a message to them from God.
  5. Strive to be logical in order to convince the mind, but not so much that it becomes a lecture. Strive to move their hearts but not so much that it feels like manipulation. Strive to bring them to a point of confrontation with their sin, but not in a way that sets you above your hearers.
  6. Exegesis, application and passion – like salt, pepper and chilies (!), each must be mixed in the right combination to make the perfect curry. Too much application and your sermon becomes too shallow and man-centred, too little and it becomes abstract and distant. Too much exegesis and you turn your hearers into pupils, too little and you turn yourself into a dictator. Too much passion and your hearers switch off from discomfort, too little and they don’t believe that you believe what you are saying.
  7. I often feel like preparing a sermon is like giving birth (I imagine!). Sometimes it feels like you are making little progress, but persistance and prayer almost always leads to a breakthrough and the effort bears fruit (even if you have to restructure your entire message with a week to go!).
  8. Always seek to hear God’s heart for your text, not your own voice. What does that mean? Well, don’t fit your neat application into a text that it doesn’t fit. Always exegete first (understand what the passage really says), then ask yourself what that means for today. Ask the questions the people in the street are really asking – what would the guy next to me at work think of this? Would he understand it?
  9. Beware of formulas and systems – don’t copy anyone, but learn from the more experienced. No one is so good that you can copy everything or so bad that you can learn nothing.
  10. Strive to live your life ready at each moment to step into the pulpit to stand before God and his people. The cleanliness of personal godliness will bring a secret strength to your message and an obvious anointing before your hearers.
  11. Start with you and the bible only – no commentaries or study guides. Delve into the text on your own before consuling other people’s thoughts, however esteemed they may be. Your bible and prayer are the two greatest weapons in forging a sermon of fire. Other people views can be helpful but they can also distract and divert the development of your thinking.
  12. Immediately after you have preached your heart out beware of the twin devils of pride and self-pity. Give each sermon as an offering, ask God that you might not be raised up by pride or cast down by failure. Your message is a fragrant offering, offered up and then gone forever. Do not seek to hold onto it.
  13. Before you begin spend a moment in silent prayer dedicating yourself to God asking him to make you a flame of fire in his hand.

For a preacher, speaking to people on God’s behalf is the most amazing thing you can ever do – to stand before them with a message from God will demand every ounce of your effort, gifting and character. It takes years to get to the point where we understand ourselves and our calling well enough that we begin to put the pieces together in the right order. But we never stop yearning and streatching for more power, more of the Spirit, more heart-piercing application. It is the hardest task I have ever done, and the most thrilling. If this passion begins to grow in you, then even though it be as small as a grain of sand it may be the beginning of a gifting to teach. Don’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, just start and you’ll find your own rhythm of preparation and delivery.

Look forward to hearing your message!