The Tragedy of Good Preaching

It’s that moment, you’ve just finished preaching. Normally you dread this moment because you aren’t sure if that sermon was any good. You struggled to show the big idea of the passage. You are not sure if the connection from the Old Testament to the Cross made any sense.  You had a few jokes that didn’t necessarily get the congregation moving but you did your best. And finally you made something of the application.

But today wasn’t like that. No, you were flowing with the passage and the Spirit was speaking. You prepared well and actually enjoyed the whole process. You could feel Paul speaking through your material. You nailed the talk, you got the message and emotion of the text right. The congregation was feeding from your sermon jubilantly and you could hear it cut through their hearts. A job well done.

But the service ends, you go home and you wonder what difference did it make? Yes it did seem to stir people’s heart and demand a response. And for a moment you saw a small spark of what some call a revival coming. But days go by and you don’t necessarily see any change. Actually people very quickly forget and your effort and good work go to waste. You wonder was it worth it? Is this job worth all the headache and sleep deprivation it causes you. After all, it will all be forgotten and barely appreciated. Such is the tragedy of good sermons. Good work gone down the drain.

But maybe the reason it feels that way sometimes is because sermons are not meant to work the way we want. Because we are not meant to work the way we think. You see like those sermons we are instruments in the hands of another. It’s not how well prepared and specific we are for the job that matters. Although that is very important. But it’s what he’s doing in us and through his Word that day that matters. Who knows what his aim for the day is? Who is he after today? Perhaps our humility is what he’s after. To help us understand it’s him who works and that without him we can do nothing, see John 15:

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

John 15:5.

But better still this understanding helps to remove the weight of transforming wicked sinners from our hands. To remind us we are but undershepherds in the service of the great shepherd and master of our souls. And what a tragedy would it be if those souls were at your mercies and the work you do? Can you even imagine the responsibility that would demand of you? The heartache and the restlessness? Thank God he’s in charge not me. Praise God he’s at work even when we don’t see!

The thing that blows my mind away is that he chooses to use those sermons. Not only the well polished but even the ones you doubt would make a difference. And sometimes long after your sermons you see a fruit here and another there. What a joy that he chooses to use you and the gift he gave you to conform his people to the likeness of his Son. That he draws men from the world to himself through your work of preaching his Gospel. How amazing and humbling that is!

I know it’s disappointing to labour hard and not see results. God knows how much I crave visible results. But perhaps our heartache results from focusing on the wrong fruit. When we misunderstand what we are called to do and what he says he’ll do.

Ours then is to honour him with everything we have. Labour hard not just for visible results but in honour of him and the gift and opportunities he’s given us. What he does with our labor is upto him because the flock belongs to him not us. And so we must continue doing our very best as preachers to honour our great Lord and Saviour but also learn to say with Luke:

10 So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty. ‘

Luke 17:10

Daily dependence

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It’s not a good thing to go against one’s conscience
And yet I see this battle within my heart
I desire to do what I know to be true and good
Not just for me but in allegiance to my loving Saviour.
My failure hurts me not just because it pains me
But as it puts a wedge in my desire for his word.
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My tears are unknown to the world
For my pain runs deep, deep in my veins.
I am a man broken, who can bind me up?
I am a failure, who will pick me up?
See the dirt that oozes from within me.
What can wash me clean?
I need a bath in that saving grace

And a will to overcome my determined failure.
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Give me the will to continue fighting my sinful heart.
Help me lest I succumb to the lies I crave but so despise.
Save me now and plant your Spirit within me.
Raise these broken and dead bones to life dear Lord!
Give me a fresh breath of your eternal life
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Turn me from the idols of my heart
Teach me the wonders of your eternal promises
Captivate my conscience with your Word
And imprison my heart never to wander again

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Make clean my ways that I may please you

Teach me to preach daily to my heart

That your Word may abide in me forever

For only you can save and keep me safe
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Shine a light instead of the darkness I display
And make me an ambassador worthy of your eternal calling
Kill in me the sin that so easily entangles
And make me useful for your good works

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Make peace the war of my heart and mind

Plant your word deep within this sinful heart

Hear my prayer dear merciful Saviour!

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#Romans 7:25. #battlewithin #savinggrace

Get ready for your ministry job!

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When I started my Christian ministry training it was quite hard to explain to my family and friends what I was doing. To be honest, not many people know what I actually do except my frequent jibber jabbering here. And honestly, I would hate it for my identity in Christ to be reduced to a title.

But in my mind I expected I would do an apprenticeship then maybe get some formal theological training and like everyone else get some proper job. Say something people acknowledge and respect like a pastor maybe even a bishop, college professor or some title of some sort. Because in our world training equals getting a job and some title.

There’s only one title and it’s taken

But I was deeply challenged when I realised there are no titles in Christian ministry. If you like it, there’s only one title for our Lord and Saviour and then there’s all of us his servants. He is the head and we are the body as we see in Ephesians 1:

22  …God placed all things under his (Jesus) feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

We have no titles only opportunities and gifts for service.

Problem is though most Christians are happy to accept that they still believe there’s a fundamental distinction between the man who stands in front and those who sit listening to them. Which is not surprising because in our world those who stand on the stage are the real heroes and the audience better listen to them. The show is on them as the rest of us spectate. But it’s not the case in Biblical Christianity.

Yes, there are responsibilities in the church according to God-given gifts, opportunities and training but they are all for the sake of the one master, King Jesus, and for the benefit of his body, the church. The pastor is no different from anyone else as long as it involves building God’s church.  And the pastor is not doing more ministry than the man in the back row if they are a Christian.

A ministry for all

In the Bible, we see that God is building his church by his Spirit as a whole and he achieves this through his Word. It tells us that God is working in us, Christians, not just the man in front to build his church. And the church as a body is responsible for ministry as we hear and speak God’s Word to one another. We see this clearly in Ephesians 4:

15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4. 

I used to think that the pastor, “the Minister”, is responsible for the ministry and everyone else comes to receive or support them in this. But that’s not how the Bible sees Christian ministry, not it’s how the world works not God. It’s a man-made dichotomy and bureaucracy that no longer exists in the redeemed community of God’s people.

Those in the teaching ministry are not the bosses and everyone else a slave. They are but mere servants given the responsibility of equipping the church with the Word for the noble job that every Christian share in, building God’s church to maturity.

 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

Ephesians 4.

The Bible teacher or preacher whichever title they go by are like the man who mixes the concrete for others to do the building work. Their gifts and training are important and a blessing to the church but don’t make them the big dogs as is the case in the world. Rather they equip others with God’s Word and they join the church in building the body.

Get ready for your ministry job

This should be very liberating for preachers. Can you believe how hard a task it would be if you had to do all the ministry while everyone else cruises for the rest of their Christian life? It’s also very reassuring as all we need to do is make sure to equip people with God’s Word and then join them in building the body by speaking this truth to each other.

It’s great news for every member of the body as there are countless opportunities and possibilities to do ministry at work, at home and at the church gathering as long as we are equipped with God’s Word. You are the minister at home, at the office and at your friend’s party. And for this reason you should get as much training as you can from God’s Word.

It means we don’t go to the church gathering as we do a show, rather we go with our sleeves rolled up set for some building work. And we don’t need to wait until the pastor comes to speak to a colleague at work or our struggling neighbour. No, as long as we have God’s Word then we are fully equipped for all the opportunities God has laid in front of us to do Gospel ministry.

What a joy that the God of the universe would entrust us all with his most precious work, the job of his Son, the ministry of reconciliation. How amazing that all of us, Christians, regardless of titles have the one job that has lasting significance. For we all share in the ministry of our Lord and Saviour:

…And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5. 

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All things in moderation?

I used to think that moderation was the best guiding principle in life. It’s what most people have in mind when they say someone is a good person in this day and age. For moderation is the standard of goodness in our world. Because nobody wants to deal with extremists and fanatics which is what we think is the only alternative to moderation.

Problem with moderation is that it’s really dependent on the prevailing culture and in this age, it’s acceptable personal preferences. But what looks like moderation today will be ridiculed and might even be abhorred in years to come.

But who am I to define how people should live especially if they don’t subscribe to the authority of God’s Word as I do. In any case, if I am the ultimate authority over my life then whatever serves me and my interests as longs as it does not harm others works. Everybody wins?

Unfortunately, moderation is also common among Christian circles. A good Christian to many goes to church, have their kick for the week, is a good citizen and helpful member of a community. And many think that’s what defines a Christian. To them, the church gathering is nothing more but a weekend hobby to meet friends or keep the guy upstairs happy.

A call to die!

But that’s not what we see in the Bible if God’s Word is the authority behind our faith. No, it’s what those who subscribe to moderation want to reduce it to. Biblical Christianity well understood is radical. It demands total surrender to Jesus and his mission. Here’s how Jesus describes it:

34 Then he (Jesus) called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. Mark 8. 

There’s no way you read this and think, well as long as I go to church, pay my contributions and do well at work, I’m a good Christian. You might be in the eyes of the world but not before Jesus and his word.

No, he calls us to a radical way of living: to die to the world and live instead for him who died that we may live. This is what informs Biblical Christianity as the apostle Paul says elsewhere:

 14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 2 Corinthians 5. 

As longs as we live, Christians are to live fully for Jesus and his mission, the salvation of the world. Moderation steals and waters down the power of this conviction for a comfortable and acceptable worldly way of life. It robs from us the joy of totally dying to self and fully living for King Jesus every day.

But how do we move from moderation to living fully for Jesus?

Knowing Jesus is all it takes

Such a radical call is only possible when we fully and continually know and trust the Lord Jesus. It’s when we know him and believe that what he has done and promised is worth it all that we can live fully for him now.

But it’s not just a strong motivation as much as it qualifies as one. It’s more than that, knowing him leads us to a new life deeply informed by his Word and fully set for his mission. We become a new creation in him to do his good work.

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2.

The answer to moderation as well as complacent Christian living is in God’s Word: in knowing Jesus. Which is a very good place to start for people at every level including unbelievers.

For God is accomplishing his plan using his Word in his people. And his word is all we need to start, continue and make it in the end. It’s what we need for our evangelism, discipleship and in training others. 

It’s for this reason that a chat with a Christian friend about the Bible is so helpful and this is why church and Bible fellowship exist. The author of the Hebrews had this in mind:

 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10. 

It makes the job of a Bible teacher and every Christian to continually point those under their care to the shepherd of their souls through his Word: to Jesus. And understanding this frees us from anxiety and guilt in Christian life and ministry as we are equipped with what works, God’s Word. 

The way forward

As you are drawn to Jesus and his word then you will be totally sold on Jesus and his mission as the apostle Paul was. You will not need a set of parameters to exercise or limit your involvement to the mission of the church. Rather you will use every opportunity, gifts, and resources to serve King Jesus at work, abroad and at home. This was Paul’s aim and should be every Christian greatest ambition in life:

20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Philippians 1. 

Worship beyond the church door!

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I recently listened to this song, My Church by Maren Morris and it got me thinking what Biblical worship means and doesn’t mean. You may need to check the lyrics and maybe listen to the song to understand where I’m coming from. I promise you will find it interesting and won’t fall away from grace.

But if you are not comfortable listening to secular country music then just read along and please tell me what you think.
Here are a few lines:

Can I get a hallelujah
Can I get an amen
Feels like the Holy Ghost running through ya
When I play the highway FM
I find my soul revival
Singing every single verse
Yeah I guess that’s my church…

(My church lyrics by Maren Morris)

Some of us might actually struggle to realize this is not a Gospel song or a church hymn. Perhaps it would pass the test in a couple of churches. But I found the song interesting not because it draws me to worship but as it warns me to be clear what worship is and isn’t about.

Some of you may have valid reservations about listening to this. It is a mockery of what church and worship are about and could even be termed blasphemous. But bear with me for a moment and please let me know what you think in the end. Perhaps I need to be rebuked for entertaining this thought.

In this song you have everything that would make a good “worship experience”: well-played music, a choir, and a congregation to sing along and you can be sure of many “hallelujahs” to this one. But one thing is missing, the one thing that defines Christian worship, God’s Word.

Worship as we see it in the Bible is a response in total surrender, submission, and reverence to God and his Word. It’s God’s Word that cuts people to the heart and brings honor to God through his people’s lives.

It is not a one day in a week affair but affecting all of life. In Romans 12 we are called to a way of life as a living sacrifice in response to what God has said in this amazing Gospel focused letter. This is Biblical worship:

1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. Romans 12:1-2

You cannot read those verses and think Paul has in mind just your normal church service. If so he has missed a lot that would be deemed essential for worship Sunday. He doesn’t even think about music when he talks about worship!

But far from it, the letter has bigger fish to fry. One day a week is too low a bar to define worship. He has in mind your Monday to Sunday, every day, all the time and all of life. Because a Christian is called to a life of worship when he turns to follow King Jesus.

God’s Word as the heart of worship
But it would be a big lie to assume worship is merely our response and outworking for God. As with grace, it is a gift and not something we achieve on our own even with all the right motivations to do so.

No, God produces worship in us as we submit to his word. Not even worship is our own doing but a product of our renewed minds by his word to do his will.
We see this in Romans 12:2:

2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

We can only worship God because of what he has achieved in us as those he has breathed new life in his Son. As he says somewhere else, Christians are God’s new creation made to do his good work:

10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2

It’s because of what Jesus has achieved in us, our redemption and reconciliation that we have become worshippers, that is, Christians.

And it is the work of his Spirit in us through his Word that brings out a life of worship instead of conforming to the pagan and religious life of this world.

What about the church service?
Back to Maren Morris’ song, if Sunday is just a tip of the iceberg that is a life of worship; why do music, the service, and all the liturgy matter?
To some extent, it doesn’t matter how we organize or sort our music as long as the heart of worship remains to be God’s Word.

I must not be heard as saying music is irrelevant but that it is not the heart or even the catalyst of worship, God’s Word is. Music is very helpful in echoing the truths of God’s word to each other and in response to what God has said.

Mostly I remember the songs more than I remember the sermon outline. But if we don’t have God’s Word at the center then we are not different from Maren driving down the highway with her radio on.

Most of us would enjoy a church service that has well-played music and a good choir but if I left without hearing from God’s Word and speaking this to my brothers, then I should never claim I was in church. At least not a Biblical church as we see it in the New Testament.

Is church just about the sermon then?
God’s word is the heart of worship and yet we don’t go to church as we do a school. Back to our definition of worship from Romans 12, we know worship has life in mind and the Sunday service should have people’s lives at heart.

We are not there merely to tell each other what a book says but to hear from God, encourage one another in this truth and share this life of worship together. Everything we do including music should serve this goal. If music competes or distracts us from this aim then we should be ready to cut it down or even cut it out.

In the rest of the chapter, Paul continues to talk about how church life and the body of Christ looks like and again he has in mind more than just the official Sunday service. He has every member in mind, each of us using our gifts to fully serve and build up one another not to compete with one another.

6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. Romans 12.

And as you read on it becomes perfectly clear that worship life flows beyond the Sunday service in your local church to your work place and community to how you live in this secular world.

When you clearly understand this then Maren’s car or my bicycle becomes a place of worship like anywhere else for a Christian.

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