Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Freshness in preaching

Having come to the end of giving seven parables in Matthew 13, Jesus then asked the disciples if they understood what he had just taught them. They all said that they did, which is surprising, and probably amusing for most readers, but they may have assumed that they did, because often those being taught give a similar response. It surely was a shallow response for them, suggesting that they did not fully appreciate the seriousness of what Jesus had taught. But who are we to throw stones at them? 

Whatever their level of understanding of what he had just taught them, Jesus provided them with a way of knowing what they, as future teachers in his kingdom, would do. He did so by using the illustration of a householder who shows people what he has in his home.

It is obviously a wealthy home, full of pleasant surprises. We can imagine surprises in different rooms in his house – from the kitchen would come meals the like of which they had never tasted before; in the sitting-room, there would be incredibly comfortable chairs; in the library, there would be works of beauty; and in his treasury there would be an endless amount of money to share with the needy who came to him for help. 

The disciples were informed that in the house (God’s kingdom) they would have a treasure store (their knowledge of the kingdom) to share with others at suitable times. This knowledge that they would possess would be twofold – they would state what they knew already about the kingdom and they would also explain the new discoveries they would make about the kingdom, and of course they had just been told some new things about it by Jesus on this occasion.

Perhaps we can say that for them the old was found in the Old Testament and the new would yet be recorded in the New Testament. Or we could say that the new could describe greater appreciations and understandings of what they thought the Old Testament had said about the kingdom of the Messiah. 

Of course, there are lessons here for pastors and other teachers in that what they teach to their congregations should be both old and new. Studying the Bible usually, if not always, has that effect on those who prepare messages – they see aspects of truth in a passage that they did not see there before – what they may have thought was only old also becomes new. After all, no one knows everything about a Bible passage. 

Yet I would also suggest that old and new should mark what every Christian should find in the Bible. Christian experience is about being fresh as well as being accurate. After all, we are teaching or sharing what a book says about Jesus and his kingdom, and because he is the focus of what it says we should expect to find what is old (be reminded) and what is new (discoveries of his grace and plans). 

Monday, 1 January 2018

A good new year

There was a revival in Croy near Inverness between the years 1763 and 1774. Many were converted during that time under the ministry of James Calder, and in his diary he mentions that many of the converts were young people. 

Here is what he wrote in his diary on New Year’s Day, 1765. ‘As the year 1763 was a happy year in this place – much happier than in former years – with regard to the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in the saving conversion of sinners; and as the year 1764 was a happier year still in that respect, may the Lord grant that the year 1765 may exceed them both in the number of saving conversions here and elsewhere. O may many, very many, souls of every rank and sex and age be gathered in this year to Christ in the gospel net…. Lord, send prosperity, for Jesus’ sake! Amen.’

What did he have to say on December 31st of that year? ‘This being the eve of the expiring year, good cause have I to close it with warmest sentiments of gratitude and praise to my God, and my father’s God, and my children’s God, for the many instances of his undeserved goodness vouchsaved me and my flock and family during this period. Blessed be his gracious name, this year has exceeded the last, happy as it was, in the number of converts betwixt this parish’ [and a neighbouring one which was without a minister and he must have been looking after it]. Then he writes, ‘O Lord, grant, for Jesus’ sake, that the new year which is now beginning may exceed this and all former years in the same happy respect!’ 

The revival lasted for a few more years, with ebbs and flows. Whatever else can be said about it, 1765 was a good year spiritually in that area. It would a good year for us if we saw the same.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Are you a scribe who shares?

It is impossible for us to know what Jesus thought of the answer given by his disciples to the probing question he asked after his teaching about the kingdom (the question is found in Matthew 13:51). They affirmed that they had understood all that he had taught in the seven parables recorded in the chapter.

Whatever their grasp of his teaching was at that time he proceeded to illustrate for them their future role in his kingdom. He said that they would be like a wealthy man who could provide surprising and satisfying provisions for his guests when they visited his home. We can imagine a guest being surprised and delighted by the food on the table, the comfort of where they socialised, and the value of gifts that the owner would  provide. The role of the disciples would be as if the wealthy owner took money from his treasury and gave it to those who were his guests.

How were they to do so? By teaching others what they had found out about the kingdom. Their teaching would be heavenly treasure, and it would be twofold in that some of it would be old and some of it would be new. Maybe the 'old' describes what they already knew about the kingdom from what had been said in the Old Testament and the 'new' describes what would yet be included in the New Testament. Perhaps the 'new' would also include being able to see the Old Testament in ways that they could not yet understand, but which they would see after Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

What does this have to do with us? We have access to the same treasury - the riches described in the Bible. Pastors and preachers often find things old and new in passages that they have chosen to explain to congregations. New here does not mean no one else has never seen it, but it is new for them. And such discoveries of kingdom realities are full of spiritual encouragement for themselves and others.

Yet we can also say that seeing old and new should be the experience of all Christians as they read the Bible. There should be fresh discoveries of the wonders of the kingdom of God. This should happen because we are reading a book that is all about Jesus and his kingdom. Because that is the case, we should be reminded of old things and should discover new things to share with one another as we travel together sharing the life of the kingdom.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

The Pattern Prayer and Prayer for Divine Blessings

A question that arises is whether or not there are differences between what Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer and what he says later in the Sermon on the Mount about asking, seeking and knocking as expressions of prayer. Perhaps one difference is that the Lord’s Prayer guides us what to say in prayer and the later verses guide us regarding how we pray.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus tells his disciples to pray for five things. First, he mentions praise of God by his children, which describes an intimate interaction between them. In their praise, they are reverent because they recognise he is in heaven and they rejoice in his holiness, in the way that he is always perfect. 

Second, Jesus instructs them to pray for the growth of the kingdom of God. Such growth happens in two ways: one is through the conversions of individuals and the other is revealed in the ongoing and deepening consecration of his people.

Third, Jesus tells them to pray about the provision of daily needs. Here Jesus mentions daily food, but the request extends to all legitimate daily needs connected to life in this world.

Fourth, Jesus says that they should pray about pardon for personal sins, which is a reminder that such sin will be present throughout life. True confession will occur alongside forgiveness of others, which tells us that confession of sin should be made when appropriate to one another.

Fifth, Jesus instructs his people to pray for protection during spiritual conflict, which again indicates what his followers can expect throughout life. Satan and his forces are out to trap and defeat the people of God and one part of their duty is to ask for divine help in order to have victory. 

But how do they pray for such blessings? Later in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses three pictures to illustrate prayer - ask, seek, and knock. As we look at them, what ideas come to mind? Here are five suggestions. One is simplicity, a second is nearness, a third is desire, a fourth is specificity and a fifth is persistence.

The simplicity is seen in the verbs that Jesus uses – ask, seek and knock. They are taken from everyday activities that each of his listeners engaged in. We all know what it is to ask for something, to look for something, to knock at someone’s door.

The three examples also indicate nearness. If we want to ask for something, we have to be within hearing distance of the person. If we seek for something, we need to be near the space where it can be found. And if we knock at a door, it is obvious that we have to be beside it. Prayer is drawing near to God. 

The third idea is that of desire because usually the three illustrations are connected to what someone wants strongly. A child asks its parent for an item it wants, a treasure hunter seeks for an item he wants, and a door knocker wants access to the person in the room. This is a reminder that true prayer is never offered in an indifferent manner.

Fourth, the examples lead us to think of specificity. We know that normally we don’t ask vaguely, nor do we describe a person as a seeker who is merely looking at the ground, and nor do we regard someone merely standing at a door as a knocker. I suppose we could say that it is specificity that distinguishes real prayer from hypocrisy. God demands that we be specific in our prayers.

Fifth, Jesus uses the present tense when he refers to asking, seeking and knocking. He does not mean that we should only ask for something once. Instead we are to persevere with the petitions. Perseverance is the indicator of expectancy. If we give up praying for something, it may be a sign that we did not believe God could answer the petition. 

Obviously, those sets of verses are not the only teaching in the Bible on prayer. We cannot use the sets by themselves and ignore what is said elsewhere. For example, we are told that we must pray according to God’s will, which is a reference to matters that he has revealed as suitable things to pray about. And one of the psalmists says that if we regard sin in our hearts the Lord will not hear us. We can say that in order to pray we also need to be submissive to God’s will and cleansed from sin.