Friday, 8 May 2009

Preaching is God reaching out to us

In Isaiah 53:1 the prophet uses an interesting image when he connects divine revelation to the arm of the Lord. Three interpretations are given of this illustration. One suggestion is that it is a divine title, whether of God or of the Messiah, depicting him acting in power on behalf of his cause. The second suggestion is that the illustration depicts God’s divine attribute of omnipotence which he uses on behalf of his people. Obviously both suggestions are similar.
I prefer a third suggestion, which I read in John Brown of Edinburgh’s work on Isaiah 53 – he said that the illustration ‘arm’ of the Lord is the same as the prophet’s report mentioned in the first half of the verse; in other words, in the act of delivering the message the human side is the words of the prophet and the divine side is the arm of the Lord active as the sermon is delivered.
What truths does this picture indicate we should want the Lord to do during a sermon?
Firstly, an arm is used to indicate an action of reaching out towards another person. So in a sermon we want God to reach out to us; indeed a true definition of a sermon is God reaching out to the listeners.
Secondly, we should desire the Lord to reach out in power during a sermon. A weak person is very grateful when a strong person stretches out his hand to help, who shares his strength with another. Whenever we listen to a sermon we are weak for a variety of reasons – our sinfulness, our current temptations, our difficult providences. We come to listen to God and receive his power.
Sometimes we wonder in what ways God can display his power. Amazing miracles come to mind. Yet I would suggest that the most awesome display of God’s power is a sermon, not because of the eloquence or brilliance of the preachers, but because of what God is doing in a sermon. Often a sermon is an occasion of salvation, but we must not forget that also it can be a place of divine hardening (2 Cor. 2:14-17). In a sermon, people are being prepared for heaven or hardened against the gospel.
Thirdly, we should desire the Lord to reach out in tenderness and love. Coming to a sermon, we remind ourselves that we deserve his judgement. If he were to use his power in that way, we would have no hope. But we realise that he can use his power tenderly in order to express his love. We long for God to caress our souls in a sermon and this he often does as he warms our hearts with the sweet story of the Saviour’s love or by reminding us of the many gracious promises of the Bible or by assuring us of the glories connected to his eternal purpose.
Fourthly, we should desire the Lord to reach out, pointing out to us where we should go. In other words, a sermon is often the occasion when the Lord stretches out his arm in guidance. We come to the sermon in a confused state, puzzled by what is happening, whether in the world, in our country, in our denomination, in our community, in our congregation, in our lives. We need the Lord to give his assessment of where we are. It is good to get the wisdom of friends, or even to recall the insights we may have received from God in the past. But when we come into the presence of the Lord we get a fresh word from himself in a sermon.
Therefore, during a sermon we should encounter the arm of the Lord reaching out to us in power and tender love, giving us guidance concerning our lives. The sermon is always his Word for the present situation in our lives.


cath said...

Not entirely relevant, but this puts me in mind of a vaguely remembered quote possibly from John Bunyan (?)
>>Think not, that because thou canst not reach him with thy short stump, he cannot reach thee with his long arm.<<

"The sermon is always his word for the present situation in our lives" - do you think it's fair to say we don't value the preached word enough? the old writers seemed to view with awe the providences of the meeting of individual hearers with a particular sermon. Preachers and hearers have a huge responsibility (to each other, to themselves...) on the occasion of every sermon ?

Malcolm Maclean said...

Thank you for the Bunyan quotation.

Yes, I think preaching is devalued today. We have lost sight of the reality that in a sermon God is speaking to the hearers (including the preacher) in a way that is unique. We often don't expect the Holy Spirit to apply the preached message in different ways to individuals listening to sermons. I suspect most of this can be traced to lack of prayer before and during the sermon.