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

The Gospel is a Person

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I recently had an opportunity to preach through Romans 1-3 and it struck me how obvious the Person at the heart of the Gospel message is and yet how easy it is to miss him in our preaching and testimonies. That the Gospel God promised through the prophets, the Gospel he preached through the apostle Paul is the Gospel about his Son, Jesus Christ:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 1:1-4.

It’s surprising how sometimes even well-meaning Christians can miss this as they try to emphasize a particular aspect of our conversion or Christian living. Some will want to stress the prayer on conversion while others go for the transformed life they lived after. All the while missing the one who did it all, Christ and him alone. I don’t think we would miss this if we saw the tragedy of human sin for what it is as portrayed here in Romans 1-3.

Why does this matter?

But one might ask isn’t this a mere quibbling with semantics, questions of language and communication? I think it shows what is closer to the heart. It also misses the point of the Gospel when it puts all the weight on me; my prayer, my achievements, and accomplishments.
And before long the Gospel becomes all about me and what I do for God. It’s the same old lie, a “gospel of works” packaged in good Christian lingo.

Before long we start using this criterion to judge our Christian health and fitness and the status of new believers. Are they coming to church regularly? Are they committed to weekly meetings? How is their giving? What about their prayer life? We use the results of the Gospel as the foundation of our faith, not Jesus and what he has done to undeserving wretched sinners like us. We see our merits not his own.

Shouldn’t we judge them by their fruits?

It’s a good thing we want to see change and the Gospel will produce this in time but our problem is we want to see transformation instantly forgetting that this is not achieved easily by grit and human will. True transformation is what results from hearing the Gospel constantly; being encouraged and rebuked by the Gospel and establishing firm convictions in the Gospel that consequently affect one’s lifestyle. Behavior change must start from deep within otherwise it’s fake.

This is why we need to keep hearing the Gospel message. We shouldn’t be surprised then, that Paul was preaching the Gospel to a church whose faith was known throughout the world, see Romans 1:8. And this is what Paul does in all his letters; reminding churches about the Gospel of Jesus which is what the church of Christ in Kenya and all over the world needs.

We also need to understand that transformation is a slow, messy and a lifetime process that can only be achieved by Christ’s work through the Spirit in our hearts as we keep hearing and believing his Gospel message. Our words and structures are powerless without his work in people’s hearts.

Preach the Gospel and let God do the work

I think it’s our attitude that needs changing before we think of changing the Gospel message. We don’t need to beat up people demanding a particular result. Rather, we should preach the Gospel clearly by teaching the Bible faithfully and let God do his work in his people.

Remember God is the first preacher and Gospel worker and ours is simply to point people to him and his Gospel. It’s only him who can give life to the spiritually dead and conform them to the likeness of his Son.

The only weapon therefore in a Gospel worker’s quiver is the true Gospel as preached by God in his Word. It’s what everyone needs; the young and the old. It’s not well crafted motivational and charismatic speaking. Rather, ours should be to preach his true Gospel clearly and boldly, the Gospel that points people to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Because there’s true life-changing power in this Gospel:

16 …I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith. Romans 1. 

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