A reluctant prophet (and a fishy tale)

If ever you were in Sunday School, you will remember this lively, short, book of the Bible.

A Fishy Tale

It’s a fishy tale, that resonates with the children – yes, we will have a whale of a time! However this little bible book has a very grown up message!

In brief, Jonah was commanded by God to preach a severe message to Israel’s neighbour, the Ninevites (nothing to do with hand cream, but the capital of their enemy Assyria).

Anyway, rather than swallow the message, hook, line and sinker, Jonah rushes off in the opposite direction, boards a boat, and seeks to escape.

A severe storm brews, and pagan sailors start calling out to their gods. Eventually, they realise that they are caught up in the crosswinds of displeasure from almighty God, and agree to hurl Jonah into the sea, whereupon, God gets a big fish (not a whale, sorry) to swallow up Jonah, and rescue his reluctant prophet.

From the belly of the fish, Jonah cries out to God, and the fish obediently vomits him out onto dry land. Finally, Jonah does what he is told, and preaches a message of judgment to the people of Nineveh. This is the great message: “salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9), which was good for Nineveh and good for us too!

To Jonah’s great surprise, they hear, heed, and repent (even their cattle put on sackcloth!).

Job done, right? God’s reluctant prophet profits from God’s provision, preaches the proclamation he’s been given, and the Lord proceeds to protect pagans from perishing! (how about that for a pod of P’s?!)

Ah, but… Jonah is mad at God. Surely these wicked people are not worthy of God’s lavish grace. But Jonah ends with words of rebuke, directed at the reluctant prophet: “should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh?” (Jonah 4:11)

Some lessons

  • Sometimes we turn and run rather than face the living God. As Winston Churchill was once reported as saying: “Occasionally a man stumbled over the truth but he always picked himself up and hurried on as if nothing had happened”.
  • Sometimes we prefer to feel superior towards the people around us, rather than getting on with telling them about God’s love and his mercy.
  • Sometimes God is very kind and gracious towards us, and again and again, he welcome prodigal children back into his family.
  • And, sometimes, God brings storms into our life, so that we might finally cry out to Him and recognise he is our King.

The story is told of a mother seeking her wayward teenage daughter. Who, like the famous prodigal son, had wasted her money, and her life, on loose living. Not able to bare it any longer, the mother posted hundreds of notices all around the city: “Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, come home”.

Who is not drawn back to God by his compassion, mercy and love? Indeed: grownups and children alike need to hear again the message of Jonah. Perhaps that is why Jesus uses it as the key symbol of his ministry on earth (Matthew 12:38-42).

Do join us any Sunday to hear more!

 

Lessons from the Long Distance Cycle Ride

Lessons from the long distance cycle ride

 As team GB secure the first silver medal of the Olympics in the women’s cycling road race, I was reflecting on my recent (and more modest) cycle ride: 300 miles over Cumbria and Northumbria covering East Coast to West Coast of England.

 I rode with a friend, in blustery but not unpleasant, conditions, during the last week of July. By all accounts ours was a less arduous affair than the 150 mile single day Olympic event. Nevertheless: mental and physical fitness is required if one is to complete the task.

 A few key lessons from long distance cycling have occurred to me which translate into the summons to long-distance discipleship:

 Pack light

 It is something of an art to pack two panniers with everything needed for all conditions over 6 nights. Judicious selection of clothes and jettisoning anything unnecessary is essential.

 Long distance discipleship requires “travelling light”. The Bible’s advice is:

“…let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  (Hebrews 12:1). For that reason we should confess our sin daily and look to our marvellous saviour as if today was the first day and the final day in which we believe.

 Wear the gear

 I think that it would be fair to say that Lycra is not a fashion item! The extra padding (in the posterior) and protective and streamlined clothes are essential for the long distance cyclist.

 Of course, we realise that we should “put on the full armour of God” (Ephesians 6:10ff.) in order to engage in the fight for the faith.  But I am also reminded that once Jesus had exorcised the demon from a man, the crowd noted that he was sitting at Jesus’ feet “dressed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:15). I guess this is one of the outward evidences of “putting on the new self” (Col 3:9ff); becoming more Christ-like.

 Fuel up

 Cycling 60-70 miles per day over hilly terrain meant that we burnt more than 5,000 calories.  It is not quite enough to replace that with 20 Mars bars! We tried to balance protein, carbohydrates, sugar and salt to maximise energy over the long day, and not just find quick sugar fixes.

 The obvious analogy is the need to keep feeding on God in order to be sustained in the Christian life. Jesus is both the “bread of heaven” and the one who promises the Holy Spirit – “streams of living water flowing from within” (John 6; John 4, 7). We should eat and drink for our daily sustenance.

 Find friendly support

 One of the tremendous benefits of this ride was to use it to connect with friends along the way and enjoy their generous hospitality as well as be encouraged by them.

 Studying the “one another” words in Romans 12-14 and Hebrews 10 reveals how much we need other Christians and how much other Christians need us. It is in the body of Christ that we learn to love, we learn to bear one another’s burdens, we learn to teach and to learn, and we begin to appreciate the connectedness which comes through the benefit of being united in Christ.

 Go the distance

 I’m not a good sprinter.  I don’t have the lungs or legs for it!  I am better on the long haul. We are similarly reminded that the Christian life is not a sprint; rather it is “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” (as Eugene Peterson has memorably called it).  The writer to the Hebrews expressed a similar sentiment:

 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:1-4)

 Finally,

 Look up and take in the view

As we panted up some of the Lake District climbs it was so easy to focus on nothing other than the track in front of us.  It took a concerted effort not to miss the glorious hills!  And, of course, what goes up invariably does come down, and some of those swift 40mph descents were great!

The psalmist regularly looked to the hills (the Psalms of Ascent). Sometimes because it was from there that he anticipated help from their maker (e.g. Psalm 121); sometimes it was to look for mercy (e.g. Psalm 123); but mainly it was to make himself consider the greatness of his and their maker (e.g. Psalm 125)

The long distance cycle ride is both exhausting but, in an odd way, also refreshing.

Christian endurance may be helped by physical and mental stamina, but spiritual fitness comes first. I hope that you will be encouraged to: pack light, wear the gear, fuel up, find friendly support, go the distance and look up and take in the view, so that we both might be able to say with Paul:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.  (2 Tim 4:7-8)

King’s Cross by Tim Keller – a review

King’s Cross, by Tim Keller (Hodder & Stoughton 2011)

Reviewed by Simon Vibert

     Tim Keller has been criticised (or complimented) depending on which way you look at it) as being a better speaker than a writer (note the conversation surrounding Reason for God in Newsweek magazine and Tim’s own response http://www.newsweek.com/2008/02/09/the-smart-shepherd.html; http://www.edstetzer.com/2008/02/tim_keller_on_evolution_and_ot.html).  In fact, this criticism does not apply to King’s Cross.  For sure, this book started life as Bible expositions in Mark’s Gospel – and you can “hear” Tim speaking all the way through – but it has been turned into very readable and edifying prose.

 The book received a surprising and insightful boost from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the July 2011 General Synod meeting inYork:

 The American Presbyterian writer Timothy Keller has recently published a book on Mark’s gospel, entitled King’s Cross.  It is a vividly written and often very moving presentation of the great themes of the gospel (and incidentally offers a forceful defence of substitutionary language for the atonement that might give second thoughts to some who find this difficult); but perhaps its simplest and most dominant insight is that Christianity is not advice but news. (http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2122/archbishop-of-canterburys-presidential-address-http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/)

 King’s Cross divides neatly into the two recognisable halves of Mark’s Gospel – Part One: “The King” (Mark 1-10); Part Two: “The Cross” (Mark 11-16).  The book is a combination of winsome apologetical summons and affectionate (in all senses of that word) appeal to everyday human experience.  Chapter titles such as “The Dance”, “The Waiting”, “The Stain”, “The Feast” etc are surprising and enticing titles for a series of Bible talks. He credits CS Lewis as his favourite author (p.6) and it is not hard to see why Tim is often labelled as “a C. S. Lewis for the 21st century, a high-profile Christian apologist who can make orthodox belief not just palatable but necessary.” (Newsweek article).  He tells the Gospel story in a way which resonates with the human quest for a meaningful narrative for life.

 There are other big themes which are part of Tim’s “Gospel-centred” approach to Christian ministry, such as, the chapter “The Rest”.  He shows that Jesus came to earth to bring about the end of Religion as we know it:

 “Righteous” people believe they can “heal themselves,” make themselves right with God by being good and moral.  They don’t feel the need for a soul-physician, someone who intervenes and does what they can’t do themselves…Because the Lord of the Sabbath said, “It is finished,” we can rest from religion – forever. (p47)

 He also interacts with William Vanstone’s interesting book The Phenomenology of Love indicating that we all seek true, unconditional love, but are incapable of giving it.  But, ironically, in meeting Jesus we are enabled to need less and give more.  Why is that?

 If your agenda is the end, then Jesus is just the means; you are using him.  But if Jesus is the King, you cannot make him a means to your end. (p106f.).

 The strong evangelistic/apologetic appeal is evident throughout the book.  Alongside Mere Christianity this is the kind of book which I would give to a thinking non-Christian today.  For example

 [Jesus] is both the rest and the storm, both the victim and the wielder of the flaming sword, and you must accept him or reject him on the basis of both.  Either you’ll have to kill him or you’ll have to crown him.  The one thing you can’t do is just say, “What an interesting guy.”  Those teachers of the law who began to plot to kill Jesus at the end of this episode in the temple – they may have been dead wrong about him, but their reaction makes perfect sense. (p162).

 His death on the cross is simply explained as Jesus drinking the cup of God’s wrath (the poisoned chalice) so that we don’t need to; and as going under the sword, bearing our punishment in our place.

 I join the Archbishop of Canterbury in highly recommending this book.  When Tim comes to Oxford to lead the OICCU mission next year I trust and hope he will do what he has said all preachers need to do, and that which this book exemplifies:

 To be a great preacher, one needs to be tri-perspectival in their exegesis. That is, they need to be committed to the exegesis of the Bible, the exegesis of our culture, and the exegesis of the human heart. Some preachers claim that if you exegete the Bible properly, you don’t need to bother yourself with the exegesis of our culture or the human heart. The problem with this view, however, is that the Bible itself exhorts us to apply Biblical norms to both our lives and to our world… But no preacher has consistently taught me how to do all three in the context of every sermon more so than Tim Keller. His balanced attention to all three forms of exegesis makes him very unique, in my opinion. (http://www.joshharris.com/2008/08/tim_keller.php)

 Note

More on Tim Keller’s preaching in my book Excellence in Preaching published by IVP UK, September 2011.

“I/thou” relationships in the electronic age

“I/thou” relationships in the electronic age – is the internet the preacher’s friend or foe?

 When Jewish theologian Martin Buber published his famous book “Ich und Du” in 1923 he made the important point that Christian faith is based not on “I/it” but the more interpersonal language of “I/thou”.  Existence is encounter.  God is not an object but He is a person.  We relate to God in this way because God internally relates within himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  At the heart of the universe is an interpersonal God and all human relationships which flow from this foundation.

I have been thinking quite a bit about the role of modern technology and the preacher’s role.  As I have done so, Buber’s important book has been ringing in my ears.  A couple of recent encounters have stimulated my thinking.

The Medium and the Message

First, at the Evangelical Homiletics Society meeting which I attended in Chicago recently there were a number of good papers on the relationship between the preacher’s task and the use of the internet.  For some, relationship is so important that even recording sermons, let alone uploading them for a world-wide audience, spoils the preaching beyond redemption.  I partially agree.  Preaching is intended to be relational.  If, as Marshall McLuhan famously stated, The Medium is the Message then the medium of the internet has deleterious effect on preaching.  The message communicated by the internet is one of passivity, ultra-selectivity and independence.  Preaching should engage, it should interact, it should connect with people!  Thus, for some, the internet is an enemy of good preaching.

On the other hand, some have emphasised the pedagogical benefit of the internet.  After all: reading is a highly selective and individualistic activity.  But most don’t see reading as an enemy of preaching, but rather, for most people, it is a supplement to preaching.  Although, in passing, remember that for years Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones refused to allow the printing of his sermons and then only if the full unedited text was published in order that the reader could at least attempt to hear the message.

Perhaps the danger from the internet is more subtle.  After all, something is always “lost” (as well as gained) when we make use of media.  McLuhan argued that the media is an extension of the self.  Media are not just a means to an end, but they encapsulate the personality and body of the person who uses them.  They are a message in and of themselves.  McLuhan’s concern was to warn of the costs of unthinkingly using the technology, for there is always a cost involved in using such means of communication.

The “i-age”

Secondly, the highly individual nature of modern communication was observed in an article in The BBC News magazine (26.10.10) entitled i – how can one letter mean so much?  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11625862.

Commenting on the recent launch of the Independent Newspaper’s “i” edition they speculate over what it is that is so attractive about the “i”.  Apple has added to their increasing array of gadgets from the imac; to the ipod; to the iphone; to the recent ipad.  Now, the magazine notes onto the market have sprung the idog and the iteddy toys alongside their own BBC iplayer.

The new Independent, aiming at a younger audience claims to communicate concepts such as intelligence, incisiveness, interest, influence and ideas.  Young people want things to be personalised (using “my space” and personal branding, for example); they want their information to be instant, headline grabbing and easily digestible.

So, what might this all mean for today’s preachers and congregations?

Is the internet the preacher’s friend or foe?

For years I had read the (poor) translation of Colossians 3:16 “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” (NIV ) in highly personalised terms:  God’s word living in my heart,  that is what keeps me on track, I had thought (of course there is some defence for this view in Psalm 119:11 “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you”).  I had a serious “aha” moment when Peter Adam rightly pointed out that the “you” is plural, and of course, the admonishing and teaching role which follows in the rest of the verse is something which happens in the corporate gathered community.  The Word of God at work among God’s people.  That’s the preacher’s task!

In a highly individualistic, web-surfing, “i” world I offer the following cautious advice for preachers using the internet:

  • beware of the disembodiment of the preacher from the hearer; and the listener from the wider body of Christ.  Christian learning happens in Christian community; 

  •  beware of pulpit plagiarism, or, more subtlety, the “drag and drop” approach to sermon preparation.  Serious thought militates against web surfing.  Books – with margins – foster deeper thought.   

  • value the plethora of good models of preaching which can be heard with the click of a mouse (my forthcoming 12 Things Good Preachers do Well has a positive take on this modern benefit).  But use resources wisely and discerningly.
  •  don’t binge or snack on homiletical fast food.  Feast and savour.
  • words matter; images are liable to distort.  Do all you can to foster the primacy of words and the Word.

 I am sure there is more.  These are my first thoughts and I would value and further discussion.   Overall, being “all things to all people in order that we might win some” seems to be a good maxim for the internet.  But be a critical user and shun the standardising individualism of our age, preferring rather to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind” (1 Cor 9:22; Rom 12:1-2).

Spectacle Frames and Skeletal Outlines

Spectacle Frames and Skeletal Outlines

We had a great Study Morning with the Students at Wycliffe Hall last week. NT tutor Justin Hardin, Doctrine Tutor Benno Van DenToren and I to bring our integrated thinking to apply academic learning, spiritual formation and ministerial training from 1 Peter. My job was to do a “walk through” sermon from first read of the text to final form.

Sometimes I detect a little impatience when we discuss matters of structure and homiletical form. Surely we need to get on with the task of preaching the message of the bible and spend less time on homiletics?

But I have become increasingly convinced that form and content belong together. The skeleton of the sermon should not be protruding the flesh, but without any bones and support structure the body if formless and lifeless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere (see http://www.Simonvibert.com) Spurgeon was a master at the art of structuring and simplifying skeleton sermon outlines, producing over 12,000 of them, still in print. I have always felt that John Stott is brilliant at this task, always leaving me with a sense that his sermon has said all that needs to be said about the passage, helping me see it with a new clarity.

To illustrate: I am not very good at looking after my glasses. When they are well cared for and not scratched I hardly notice that I am wearing them. However, at the moment, I have bent one arm and scratched the right lens. The consequence of this clumsiness is that rather than seeing through the lens I am forever noticing the scratch. And rather than having clear focus on objects in front of me I have very aware that I need to wiggle the arm around to get a clear view.

A similar clumsiness at the stage of sermon construction can mean that the congregation is distracted from the content of the biblical passage by the lack of focus in the sermon outline. Instead of seeing the passage clearly, the structure distracts.

If the preacher states: “Rejoice despite trials” (1 Peter 1:6-7) the well educated congregation knows this to be true but fails to connect this with the specific flow of Peter’s thought.

If, on the other hand the preacher says: “Welcome trials and testing because like gold, your faith is precious. God will allow faith to be tested through suffering to make it pure.”

This task of pressing for clarity in the homiletical outline is a gift to the congregation. It enables them to concentrate on how the ancient bible passage applies to contemporary life. Good preachers structure sermons in such a way that the framework supports the bible message and enable congregations to focus their gaze on the God who speaks through his living Word.

Preaching Survey – The results are in!

Many thanks to all who responded to my two questions:

1.  Who is your most favorite living preacher(s) to listen to?

 2.  Can you name what it is that they do that makes you listen?

I polled students and those on my email address book; I also received a number of results via my Facebook page.  So far, over 200 people have replied.  I do not intend to produce a “most favorite preacher” list (which would be unedifying).  Moreover, my survey was intended to give a “gut” reaction rather than a scientific survey.

The purpose of the survey is twofold

  • It assists me in writing the book “Things which 12 popular preachers do well”;
  •  The observations made about preaching and preachers will end up becoming part of a soon-to-be launched website on preaching and preachers.

I shared the following comments with my students recently:-

1.  Good preachers manifest Humanity (vulnerability, empathy, warmth), Humour (Story-telling, insight); Holiness (Spirit’s presence, unction, awe, Christ-centered); Heartiness (anointing, urgent, passion). As Jonathan Edwards put it: there is Heat & Light.  This is not the totality of things which good preachers do well, but they certainly feature highly in the congregations sense that the preacher has enabled them to meet with the living God through their sermon.

2. Whilst some of the top preachers include, in no particular order (although I now feel like one of X Factor judges!): John Piper, Simon Ponsonby, Mark Driscoll, Rico Tice, Christopher Ash, John Stott, Tim Keller, Dick Lucas (and there were many more!) – I agree with the comment that someone made:  “I would put down (…) as my favorite ‘big name’ preacher, but in fact, the faithful week-in-week out preaching of my local Vicar is what nourishes me as a Christian.”  I am not interested in starting a guru mentality or personality cult, but rather, I would like us to learn from those who preach well and understand why they connect with us.

3.  Finally, I think Tim Keller is spot on when he says to preachers:

If you put in too much time in your study on your sermon you put in too little time being out with people as a shepherd and a leader. Ironically, this will make you a poorer preacher. It is only through doing people-work that you become the preacher you need to be–someone who knows sin, how the heart works, what people’s struggles are, and so on. Pastoral care and leadership (along with private prayer) are to a great degree sermon preparation. More accurately, it is preparing the preacher, not just the sermon. Through pastoral care and leadership you grow from being a Bible commentator into a flesh and blood preacher.

I have much more to say in this topic, so watch this space!

Make a house a home

Make a house a home

 Some thoughts on preaching which hits home

We are preparing to move house again soon (2 miles across the other side of Oxford).  As we prepare for the process of transporting all our possessions from one house to another my thoughts turned to what makes a house a home?  The bare structure and location of a property only becomes home when it feels lived in and starts to reflect the personality of its inhabitants.

The same could be said to be true of preaching.  Many sermons which I listen to show evidence of structure, design and effort.  But they often don’t feel lived in.  They lack the warmth and personality which only comes when the preacher has inhabited the text for themselves and taken it home.

What are some of the errors which sermons make?  You can probably think of more, but these few thoughts came to mind.

Pegs

When you first move into your new house boxes get emptied and mounds of clothing, books etc. await proper ‘filing away’.  Should someone come to visit the chances are their coat will need to be draped over a chair or put on the bed.  Hopefully, in time, pegs will appear upon which you may hang your coat.

In a similar way, many sermons which I hear offer nowhere to ‘hang your hat’ so to speak.  There is content, but it lacks pegs.  Without this attention to structure, the hearer can struggle to navigate their way through the sermon.  Without pegs it is unlikely that hearers will be able remember salient points of the sermon for the week ahead.

Rhetoric gets a bad name today. But the later Greek sophists (Isocrates. Cicero etc.) believed Rhetoric to be the ability to speak with such clarity that the audience would be persuaded.  Philosophers think clearly.  Rhetoricians think clearly out loud.  Preachers should be doing the same.  This will in part be reflected by careful attention to the structure and form of the sermon.

Personality

It takes time for a house to become a home.  Over time the inhabitants will begin to stamp their own personality on their property – hanging curtains, arranging flowers, decorating to taste etc. 

Many sermons I hear lack personality.  Phillip Brooks’ now famous comment that preaching is “communication of truth through personality” is exactly right.  Obviously we don’t want the sermon to be littered with personal anecdotes and stories.  It is not supposed to be a talk about them.  However, congregations listen when they can see that for the preacher the message has hit home personally.

They have been moved by the message they are preaching.  They have made the connections as to how it applies to their own life.

Punch

Sermons which hit home are those which apply pertinently and pointedly to today’s world.  They are illustrated in real life.

Too many sermons I hear leave me only in the world of the text.  Now, of course, this is not the worst problem, there are equally many messages that never take me to the world of the text and only start in the world of today.  I guess the former may be the weakness of evangelical expository preaching; the latter is the weakness of liberal preaching.

John Stott has regularly repeated the need to engage in “double listening” – Hearing the voice of the text; hearing the voice of the world. 

When you move into a new house you are inclined to think: however did they live with that wallpaper?  How come they didn’t modernise the bathroom suite etc.  But of course, it is very difficult to see your environment and culture from the fresh perspective of an outsider. 

As preachers we need to retain the fresh “eyes” of an outsider, someone who has not spent the whole week labouring over the text, and who can see the difficult punchy questions which might need addressing.

At home in the sermon

By this expression I don’t at all mean that preaching should be psychologically therapeutic, only comforting and devotional.  What I think I mean is that I expect preaching to give me pegs (to help me recall and apply the bible to my life in the week ahead); personality (so I feel that the preacher has met with God in his preparation); punch (I see the issue with a freshness and pertinence for the week ahead).