There is a story recorded about the historiographer Socrates which I thought was interesting.
Socrates, the ecclesiastical historiographer, reports a story of one Pambo, a plain, ignorant man, who came to a learned man, and desired him to teach him some psalm or other. He began to read unto him the Thirty-ninth Psalm, “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue.” Having passed this first verse, Pambo shut the book, and took his leave, saying that he would go learn that point first.
When he had absented himself for the space of some months, he was demanded by his reader when he would go forward. He answered, that he had not yet learned his old lesson; and he gave the very same answer to one that asked the same question, forty-nine years after.
We have arrived once more at a New Year. It is rather hard to believe. And yet most of us feel like Pambo if we are honest with ourselves. All the resolutions we made and broke. All the things that we swore to ourselves were going to be different. All of the ways we wish we could take back the time, the words, the activity, the lack of activity, the relationships which we wish we had done a better job with.
The beauty of the Christian year is that I can’t get stuck looking at my failures forever. There certainly are times for introspection. There are certainly times for self-analysis. But the beautiful thing is that the Christian life isn’t directly about me. Nor is it directly about you. It is about Jesus! And the entire ministry of the church is centered around telling, proclaiming, and reminding each and every one of us that we have been invited into God’s story. And God is ferociously committed to doing, without fail or forgetfulness, all he has sworn to do in us and through us for the sake of Christ.
Think about it. The Christian year (that is to say, the story of the birth, life, and resurrection of Jesus) is broken up in three parts: Christmas Time (God WITH us), Easter Time (God FOR us), and Pentecost or ordinary time (God IN us). Just meditate on those three things this New Year as you seek to live a life of worship for who God is and what he has done, is doing, and will do in the world. Whether you are successful in keeping your resolutions or failing at them, God is not distant and far off. No, in the incarnation, God drew near. God took upon himself all that we are, so that we might be redeemed. In the grace of the cross and the shadow of the empty tomb, God has made himself our advocate and sacrifice. But God did more than show the way. God himself, in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, became the way. The beauty of corporate worship is that we are not making promises to God. Rather, we are being reminded of all of God’s promises to us.
So enjoy this new start to a New Year. Strive after holiness. In Christ, God has given you all you need to see sin put to death. But when you fail, know this. God is well-pleased with you just as you are. God is not in love with some better, newer, far off distant version of you. God loves you right here right now.
You and I aren’t that much different than the learned man’s young protégé, Pambo. We will take a lifetime to scratch the surface of the deep lessons of holiness and Christ-likeness. But the grace of the gospel is that whether we ever get it right or not, we are welcomed at the feast to celebrate for all eternity Jesus Christ, who waits for us with open arms. And what a day of rejoicing that will be.
How is Advent meaningful when we know the message and the story so well? Because Advent is not just about remembering God’s story, but rather a time to have our lives undone and rewritten into God’s story.
As I have the opportunity to travel, I increasingly enjoy looking for places to eat that are not chains or franchises. Food tells a story, and as the tag-line of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives” host Guy Fieri goes, we need to “slow down, and take a look around.” When we move beyond intake of food as mere mechanism for survival, and instead look at the intake of food as participating in culture, story, and creativity, the idea of eating a meal becomes a whole adventure in and of itself.
Slow down, and take a look around. It sounds like it could have a lot more application than just food. December is here already, and with it comes the frenetic pace to finish the year. There is no shortage of things to occupy our time. And of course, the church will roll out her best in décor and art, as we focus our time on “Advent.” But what is “Advent,” exactly? We know the story. We can nearly recite all the verses. The songs and scenery hardly change. How do we fight simple rote and nostalgia with fresh eyes and ears? More than merely remembering Jesus’ first coming, Advent is a time to long for Jesus’ return.
The time of advent is a time of preparation. It is a time to slow down, look around, at both the world and ourselves and be reminded of why Jesus had to come. We are a sin-sick people. The aftershocks of the fall are all around us, like the waves in the sea. War, sickness, anger, greed, selfishness, injustice; all are things that are part and parcel of a world in need of salvation from itself. It was this world that Jesus was born into to save. It is this world that Jesus will come again to in order to transform and fully and finally redeem.
Dr. Robert Webber writes this about Advent, where he states:
Advent is a time when we ask, even plead with God not to lave us alone, for when God leaves us to our own choices and turns us over to our own ways, we are certain to drift from him. Our indifference to God is soon turned into spiritual boredom, a boredom that leads to spiritual inertia and ultimate death to spiritual realities. Advent is a time to cry, ‘O God, turn me away from my indifference, create in me a heart of repentance, and lead me to the waters of spiritual refreshment.’… (Ancient Future Time, 43)
Dr. Webber goes on to say this:
In Advent we celebrate the beginning and the ending of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil, and we call upon God to accomplish that victory in our own lives, to break in on us, to be born in our hearts, and to create us anew. This is the message of Isaiah to us: a Savior is coming not only to Israel but to the whole world. This is the message that becomes intensified by John the Baptist and Mary, who encounter us with the dramatic call to an expectation of the Christ child who will accomplish the [final] redemption of all things. (Ancient-Future Time, 44)
As we journey through this season of Advent together, find time to slow down. Find time to look at your world and your heart. As we encounter all the pain and frustration of this world, know that God is coming. As the hymn “Joy to the World” proclaims:
No more let sins and sorrows grow/nor thorns infest the ground/He comes to make His blessings flow/Far as the curse is found/Far as the curse is found/Far as the curse is found!
The promise of Advent is the promise of one who will stop at nothing to pursue, recover, redeem, and restore all that which is lost. I don’t know about you, but I need to be reminded of that.
Merciful God, who sent your messengers, the prophets, to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
(From The Book of Common Prayer)
(The following post is a lightly edited version of a pastoral article I wrote for my church a few weeks ago.)
There is something strangely odd about “evaluating” a sermon. Oh sure, we all joke about how the menu for Sunday lunch is always the same… roasted pastor. But are there good, solid ways that we should evaluate preaching?
Both ministers and congregants alike can all benefit from the task of thinking about a sermon through an objective lens. But whose lens should that be?
The Apostle Paul had a stern warning to his young apprentice Timothy. Look with me at what he told him:
[4:1] I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom:  preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.  For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.  As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)
Paul didn’t mince words. A preacher can “sound” good, and be saying nothing at all. At the same time, a preacher can be “saying” the right thing and yet under the hood not believe a word of it. So what can we do? How should we as ministers seek to self-reflect and improve our craft, and we as congregants be reflective and discerning in how we determine what a “good” sermon is?
I want to give some diagnostic criteria for listening to sermons. I have borrowed these from our brothers in the Acts 29 church-planting network. This isn’t an exhaustive list (they never really are). And there may be some you don’t agree with, and there may be other things that you think should be on this list and aren’t. But let’s consider this list as a starting place.
1. The preaching assertions (points) were clearly rooted in the text and squared with the whole teaching of Scripture.
2. The central theme was an illustration of Christ – the message was clearly all about Jesus.
3. The speaker seemed in awe of God, not merely focused upon his sermon and the audience.
4. The speaker avoided moralizing or psychologizing, and distinguished these from the gospel.
5. The goal was to get people face-to-face with God, rather than merely instruct.
6. Christ and His finished work were applied as the practical solution to any problem.
7. It was clear where the preacher was driving – and the progression of points was traceable.
8. The points were presented in a fresh, wise, and striking way as opposed to boring & cliché.
9. At the end of the preaching, the main point was both clear and persuasive.
10. It was clear the speaker understood the hearers’ hopes, fears, problems, concerns, etc.
11. The central metaphor or “hook” was gripping.
12. Jesus was made visible, not just taught about.
13. There was a balance of warmth, love and humility on the one hand and force, power and authority on the other.
14. The notes followed the message and enhanced comprehension.
(taken from the Acts 29 Church Planting Network: http://www.acts29network.org/acts-29-blog/characteristics-of-good-preaching/, accessed 10/18/2012)
So why are these questions important? The point of a sermon is supposed to be moving our hearts to see and worship Jesus. No minister does it perfectly. Some sermons are better than others. But the overall thrust of a preaching ministry must be the marriage of a man and message that are enthralled with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
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The sacrament is made to carry with it an objective force, so far as its principal design is concerned. It is not simply suggestive, commemorative, or representational. It is not a sign, a picture, deriving its significance from the mind of the beholder. The virtue which it possesses is not put into it by the faith of the worshipper in the first place, to be taken out of it again by the same faith, in the same form. It is not imagined of course in the case that the ordinance can have any virtue without faith, that it can confer grace in a purely mechanical way. All thought of the opus operatum, in this sense, is utterly repudiated. Still faith does not properly clothe the sacrament with its power. It is the condition of its efficacy for the communicant, but not the principle of the power itself. This belongs to the institution in its own nature. The signs are bound to what they represent, not subjectively simply in the thought of the worshipper, but objectively, by the force of a divine appointment.
J.W. Nevin, The Mystical Presence, pp. 67-68 (emphasis added)
This power belongs to Jesus, who has so ordained to work and minister his grace through the institution.