Friday, 31 December 2010

Have you got a minute

It does not seem that long since we entered the twenty-first century, yet we are already into its second decade. Time is speeding by and we are often oblivious to its rate. We are accustomed to persons breaking speed records, but very few take note that time itself is the fastest commodity of all. We only have each second of time for a second, we only have each minute for a minute, and then each is gone.

How many minutes did we have in 2010? About 525, 600. We may have slept for 170,000 of them, which leaves about 350,000 minutes that passed through our hands in 2010.

What can we do in a minute from a spiritual point-of-view? Imagine that each of us offered a prayer during each of these minutes, which means we would have prayed 350,000 prayers in 2010. We can pray when we are doing other things, so the suggested figure is not that unrealistic, especially when at other times we can offer more than one prayer per minute. Hopefully we did pray a large number of prayers throughout the year. These minutes have gone for ever, but we have the whole future in which many of them can be answered.

Another activity that we could have done in each minute was to think about Jesus, even if what we were doing was thanking him for saving us. Imagine thinking about Jesus 350,000 times in 2010. I’m sure most husbands think about their wives each minute, and vice versa, or at least every five minutes! Even if we extend the timeframe to five minutes, we would have thought about Jesus 75,000 times in 2010.

The point of this unusual exercise in arithmetic is to encourage you that time may not have been as wasted as you think. You may have offered up many more prayers in 2010 than you realise and you may have thought about Jesus far more often than you can remember. Such minutes may have passed for ever, but their effects will last for ever. God rewards those who pray to him and who think about Jesus. Hopefully we will do the same in 2011.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Some features of preaching

When we look at the sermons of Andrew Bonar that have been handed down in books and other ways, we will see several prominent features. Here are four that I observe.

A leading feature of his preaching was that it was imaginative. Many of his sermons display this characteristic, but as an example I refer to his address on angel workers in which Bonar imagines a gathering of angels in which they relate various visits they made to earth on behalf of God (eleven of them, plus an introduction and a conclusion, which of course ignores the notion of three headings each sermon). All the missions are recorded in the Bible, such as the angelic missions at the Passover in Egypt or in the life of Christ. This method has the benefit of using a string of word pictures with a basic theme, yet each being different. If the listener knows the Bible, then this type of sermon has a gripping effect because the listener is curious to discover which incident will be described next. If the listener does not know the Bible, he still finds the presentation intriguing. Of course, what seems to be the main feature (angelic visits) actually is the background – the main feature turns out to be God’s message to Bonar’s church in Finnieston, with a wide range of applications covering Christian workers (most of the angels are nameless), the unconverted (the angels involved in acts of divine judgement spoke of its awfulness), the wonder of speaking about Jesus, the wonder of serving Jesus, and so on. I suspect that all who heard him got the message, and also that few forgot the message.

A second feature of his sermons was simplicity. Bonar prepared for his sermons by reading the original languages and studying appropriate commentaries and other helps. Yet what is so striking about each of his sermons and addresses is their straightforwardness. None of them are difficult to understand. Of course, making a speech complex is not the mark of an effective communicator. The best way to convey important information is not to simplify it, but to clarify it. I have heard low-level sermons that actually had nothing to say; and I have heard complex sermons that confused me although I realised that I understood the doctrines being discussed. How pleasant it is to listen to a straightforward sermon on profound doctrines delivered in a manner and choice of words that are easily grasped. Listeners did not leave Bonar’s sermons scratching their heads, although many left with pierced hearts.

A third feature of many of his sermons was a focus on crucial aspects of Christian living. Bonar was deeply concerned with holiness of life. It was one of the priorities in his own life. He was sensitive to the presence of indwelling sin in himself and in others, and realised that its outworkings had to be dealt with in his preaching. For Bonar, living the Christian life was a serious matter and he never trivialised it by inappropriate comments from the pulpit. I suspect that this concern about living the Christian life explains the large number of sermons that he preached on Bible characters. In them the ups and downs of the Christian life are seen, and remembered. Dealing with such enabled Bonar to warn his listeners about dangers and to encourage them with examples of growth and development.

A fourth feature of his preaching was his enrapture with the Saviour. This was a lesson he learned early, during his time in Jedburgh. In his entry for Sunday 29, 1836, he records, ‘Especially blessed be God for bringing me to Jedburgh, where my views of truth have been greatly quickened, and the necessity of preaching Christ in every sermon impressed upon me by example and by experience. If already God has so wrought, I sometimes cherish the hope that, when He has ordained me, and actually put me into the ministry, I shall be a thousand-fold more useful. Since last year at this time my times of strong sorrow and vexation have been few; I find that the constant service of Christ is the true remedy.’ There are several matters that could be highlighted from this comment by a trainee pastor: the spiritual benefits for preacher and hearers of preaching Christ in every sermon; Bonar’s logic that initial blessings were indications of future ones from God; and his realisation that engaging in service for Jesus was an effective way of getting rid of negative feelings and fears.

What was the reason for Bonar’s success? His daughter, in her Reminiscences, provides the reason: ‘The congregation that gathered round Dr. Bonar in Finnieston Church was attracted, not by the eloquence of the preaching, but by its simplicity, and the fresh light the preacher threw upon the Scriptures, making them appear to many like a new book.’ She continues: ’The most ignorant among his hearers could understand his simple unfolding of truth, while many a striking saying fell from his lips as he leaned in his characteristic way over the pulpit, and talked quietly to those before him. The most fearful felt their faith strengthened by his joyous confidence in the things of which he spoke. Eternal things came very near, and unseen things became real, as they listened to one who spoke as if already among them.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A preacher who is heard

I have been thinking a lot about my preaching, mainly because of some things I observed in studying Andrew Bonar's methods of delivering sermons. I realise he lived in a different world from today, a world which we are told dislikes preaching. I suspect that he would reply that the inhabitants of the various places where the gospel was declared in the New Testament did not like its contents either, yet the apostles and others continued to preach to them. And, I assume he would say, that is to be expected in all periods and places.

Although Andrew Bonar was a successful preacher, he was not regarded, by himself or others, as an orator. Indeed his daughter observed that even after years of preaching ‘Strangers had to grow accustomed to the peculiarities of his voice, and his habit of letting it suddenly drop just when the hearer's attention was fixed.’ So how was he able to build up his congregation in Glasgow numerically and spiritually? What were the secrets that made over 1,000 people gather regularly over many years to listen to him? One response that we might give is to stress it was God's sovereign purpose, which is a true answer, although I suspect we often use it to avoid our responsibilities. Another answer is the state of God's servants as they focus on their preaching. How did Bonar personally prepare for and protect his preaching?

One reason was his focus on prayer in discovering which passage to preach from on each occasion. He records in his diary that he had ‘been much impressed with the sin of choosing my text without special direction from the Lord. This is like running without being sent, no message being given me. I ought to feel, “This I am sent to tell you, my people.”’ Bonar wanted to preach not only from God’s Word, but he only wanted to preach what God wanted him to say from the Word on each occasion. Therefore he went to God in prayer in order to discover what verse(s) he must preach about.

Prayer was essential for another reason as well. Bonar not only wanted to preach God’s message, but he wanted to preach it with God’s power. He wrote on one occasion, ‘God will not let me preach with power when I am not much with Him. More than ever do I feel that I should be as much an intercessor as a preacher of the word.’

Bonar also believed that preachers should be in a spiritual frame of soul whenever they preach, and the two marks of such a frame are joy and love. He noted ‘that joy in the Spirit is the frame in which God blesses us to others. Joy arises from fellowship with Him – I find that whatever sorrow or humiliation of spirit presses on us, that should give way in some measure to a fresh taste of God’s love when going forth to preach.’

Further he also wanted to preach aware of God’s presence, to preach ‘with the solemnity, and earnestness, and affection that Jesus would have had had He been there’. He did not mind the prospect of preaching with God at his elbow, indeed he desired it. I suppose that a preacher would not flaunt himself or engage in trivialities if he was conscious of God’s presence.

Bonar did not assume that his prayers had to be limited to preparation. Prayer should not only precede his preaching, it should also follow his sermons. Perhaps surprisingly, Bonar did not regard preaching as his main activity of the Lord’s Day (and he preached at least twice on them); instead he believed that intercessory prayer was his most important work of each Lord’s Day. So he spent a lot of time praying about his listeners each Sunday after they had heard him.

One feature of his preaching that worried him often was church growth without converts through preaching. He was not content to have individuals converted through other means, although he rejoiced over such. I suppose he took to heart that most New Testament church growth occurred through preaching. This problem is not limited to him, since today I would suggest that, in the main, less people are converted through preaching than by other means. His response was to pray until he saw blessing through his preaching.

So I suspect that Bonar was heard by God before preaching, heard by his people in preaching, and then heard by God after his preaching. He was a preacher who was heard because he prayed.