Below is the message from the 9:30 worship service. Yes, that’s a gingerbread house behind me. The children’s musical was that night.
Preaching is one of the most glorious and frustrating tasks in ministry. It feels great to invest in the preparation of a message, deliver it with confidence and clarity, and witness God apply it to the lives of listeners. It also feels a lot less than great to struggle in the preparation of a message, deliver it with fear and fumbling, and wish you could run and hide after it’s all said and done.
Preaching is physically depleting; you speak energetically and animatedly for a long time. It’s emotionally draining; you pour yourself out and the needs of others in. It’s spiritually demanding; you must remain close to and speak for God. It’s mentally difficult; you need to explain, illustrate, and apply Scripture correctly and effectively. It’s personally daunting; your ministry hangs on communication and you’re constantly evaluated.
How do we preach so God is glorified, listeners are edified, and we aren’t terrified? How do we finish a message feeling good and not feeling like sending a resume to the postal service? I’ve finished a lot of messages less than satisfied. Here are six culprits I’ve identified in my preaching that can give me a strong desire to hide in the closet after a message.
Forcing the Bible into my own framework. I have a great message I want to communicate so I cram it into an unsuspecting passage. When the main point(s) of my message is NOT the main point(s) of the biblical author I’m headed for trouble; even if my point is implied in the text or based on godly wisdom. I spend more time away from the Bible, trying to connect my point to it, filling up space with my wisdom, and justifying my authority instead of resting on Scripture’s authority.
Fearing man and not God. I want to impress people. I want their praise. I want to appease critics. I want to avoid offense. I want more and better opportunities. I want visitors to come back, perpetually upset members to recant, and particular sinners to repent. Because of pride, I make man bigger than I make God and worry more about people reflecting my glory back to me than reflecting God’s glory back to Him.
Failing to balance and prune the message. When people lose interest in the message, it’s often because I failed to effectively illustrate and apply the biblical text. I exposit and exegete so long I leave my less biblically fit listeners in the dust. Other times I am overconfident in my content and ability; failing to prune what is unnecessary. As the message drags on and loads up on information, everyone is worn out including me.
Forgetting God’s ongoing work in my life. I forget I’m not preaching by accident. The Holy Spirit has been at work in my life preparing me and my listeners. My sanctification has come a long way but still has a long way to go. My ministry is bigger than my preaching. While it may be the most visible, it is not the only fruit of my ministry. I must deliver my message with a humble confidence in who God is and what He is doing in and through me.
Feeling other concerns and distractions. Yogi Berra famously said, “90 percent of the game is half mental.” I think he meant focus and concentration were crucial to baseball. They are even more crucial to preaching. When distractions from the worship service, church, people, circumstances, and life cloud my mind the message gets lost in the fog.
Finding identity in preaching and not the gospel. According to Ephesians 2, I was a dead slave of sinful desires and a child of wrath. But God, because of His great love, made me alive in Christ so I might know the riches of His grace for eternity. I did not earn this identity, it was a gift. When I’m a great preacher and lives are changed I add nothing to my identity in Christ. When I’m a sorry preacher and I can’t wait to get out of the building I have subtracted nothing from my identity in Christ. If I fail to rest in Jesus, preaching becomes a plea for validation, approval, and significance. If I rest in Jesus, I am free to make preaching all about the glory of God and the beauty of the gospel.
Ultimately, God can take our weakest messages and use them for His glory and let our best messages fall on deaf ears. Preaching depends on Him. And yes, some crowds are tough, spiritual warfare is real, and some things are beyond our control. We can’t manipulate our way to success. Yet, I’ve found if I stay true to the Bible, cultivate a fear of God, balance and prune the message, remember the bigger picture of God’s ongoing work, stay away from distractions, and seek my identity in the gospel my messages are much more fun. Hopefully these observations I’ve made of myself will be beneficial (I especially hope you enjoyed the alliteration in my main points). God help us bear the weight of preaching with the power and grace only He provides!
Miley Cyrus stole the headlines from Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards for her shocking performance of “We Can’t Stop.” She emerged on stage with tongue out from a giant robotic teddy bear and danced in a graphic and sexually suggestive manner. At the end of her routine she stripped down to a flesh colored bikini and began an even racier duet with Robin Thicke that left many in the audience visibly uncomfortable.
It was the most talked about performance after the VMAs, even outpacing N’SYNC’s brief reunion with 4.5 million Twitter mentions.
But was it really “shocking”? This is the MTV Video Music Awards after all. At the inaugural show in 1984 Madonna writhed around in a wedding dress singing “Like a Virgin” and in 2003 at the same event had a three way kiss with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Nothing in Cyrus’ routine from the twerking to the sexual-positions-as-dance-moves, to the shameless song lyrics departed from our new cultural norms.
Miley’s performance grabbed headlines and tweets not because she grabbed certain body parts but because of the narrative behind it. That narrative is one of corruption. Miley Cyrus was once Hannah Montana, a popular Disney character who lived as a normal teen by day and a pop star by night. Her image was wholesome, family-friendly. Millions of fans bought her merchandise and copied her example. In a USA Today article from 2008 she was asked if she planned on being a good role model for her fans and said:
Yeah. That was the plan from the beginning. That’s kind of the point of everything that I do. I always try to bring in just being a good role model and setting high standards for yourself.
On Sunday, this same Miley emerged on stage from a giant teddy bear, surrounded by dancing teddy bears, and wearing a teddy bear outfit. One of the most compelling images of innocence is a child clutching a teddy bear. This symbol of childhood innocence was injected with hyper-sexualized dancing and Miley’s popular song, “We Can’t Stop,” which describes the singer at a party where everyone is taking ecstasy, getting drunk, dancing like strippers and looking for a casual hookup. Next came Robin Thicke singing his song “Blurred Lines” about his desire for a good girl he can treat like a sexual animal while Miley provided backup vocals and complimentary body gyrations.
This theme of corruption – of Hannah Montana and of our daughters in general – may be why the crowd looked ill at ease with the performance. It may also be why much of the huge Twitter response was negative and why fellow artist Josh Gracin tweeted:
Thanks Miley Cyrus… Now I have to explain to my 11 yr old daughter why she can no longer follow your career.
Rather than hide from the corruption it was embraced with imagery and songs to provoke a reaction – a different kind of shock than we have gotten from Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Lil’ Kim.
In the corruption of Miley Cyrus we see the corruption of our children. The cute princess clutching her teddy bear as she is tucked into bed at night becomes a casual hookup at a college party, an indecent picture texted to the junior class, an object tailored to please others. The adorable little hero who wants to fight the bad guys becomes a frat boy who can’t recall every sexual conquest, a porn addict immersed in fantasy, a freshmen compromising his values to win acceptance. The sexual revolution reduced individual persons made in the image of God into bodies frantically chasing objects that will satisfy their appetites. It’s what happened to Hannah Montana and it is what’s happening not just to our children but to us as a whole.
By the grace of God, many still see this corruption as a bad thing, as revealed in the reactions to the VMA performance. Yet, there may come a time when nearly all of our culture openly embraces the corruption caused by sin. In Romans 1:28-31, Paul describes the progress of humankind from the innocence of Eden to the full corruption of sin:
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
The gospel tells us we are all corrupted because of sin. Psalm 53:3 says, “…together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Yet Jesus took our corruption upon himself so we could be innocent and pure again. In Jesus Christ, God “…has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:4).
There may come a time when we no longer see the corruption caused by our sin. When the culture is so blind that God has no choice but to give it up to what ought not to be done. The fact that we can still see our corruption and mourn is a sign that God’s grace is at work. We are all, like Hannah Montana, corrupted, but we don’t have to stay that way. The only answer for all of us sons and daughters of this world is the good news that what was corrupted by our sin can be made pure and whole again by Jesus.
At the end of January I had the chance to speak at YEC East for SBCV in Virginia Beach. I had a lot of fun and was blessed by Matt Papa and Kristian Stanfill leading worship and illusions from Harris III. Below is my message from Exodus 14 from the Friday night session for those churches who were able to brave the snow and make it out!
Before the epic and wildly popular Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote its prequel, The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey. The first of three films retelling this beautiful tale was released in December 2012. The reviews of critics, LOTR fans and casual movie goers are conflicting and varied. No matter what one might think of The Hobbit as a film or novel, there is more than a bit of wisdom to be gained from this story.
Hobbits live in a beautiful little country called the Shire; they build cozy homes in the sides of hills called “hobbit holes,” complete with fire places, large pantries and rooms just for sitting. They grow vegetables and flowers, eat more than five meals a day and enjoy each other’s company under fireworks with music and ale in hand. Hobbits don’t venture outside the Shire. Hobbits don’t go on adventures. They are content to live their quiet lives eating, gardening and laughing.
Generations before, the home and wealth of the Dwarf people (a race separate from Hobbits) was stolen by a monstrous and merciless dragon, leaving them to aimlessly wander the earth. A company of 12 Dwarves decide to reclaim what is rightfully theirs and reestablish the Dwarf kingdom. However, they cannot do it alone. They need a spy, a burglar…a Hobbit. One morning, a wizard appears on the doorstep of a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins. This wizard invites Bilbo on an adventure.
That night, an obnoxious, bearded bunch of Dwarves invades Bilbo’s tiny Hobbit hole, inhale every last bit of his food and offer him a place in the company. They explain the dangers and rewards of their quest. They show him a map, detailing the length and difficulty of the journey. They give him a job description. Bilbo quickly and firmly refuses, leaving the Dwarves feeling defeated. But, as morning dawns, the curious call of adventure gets the best of Bilbo and he takes off to join the Dwarves!
As days turn to weeks and months, the journey proves more than Bilbo bargained for. The dangers are far worse than he imagined. The food and drink is never enough. Rain and wind are colder and crueler than in the Shire. There is always a dark, evil creature they must escape or outwit. The Dwarves are less than pleasant company and ungrateful for Bilbo’s help. On more than one occasion, Bilbo’s small size and inexperience gets him into trouble, making him no help at all and saddling the Dwarves with an extra burden. He quietly mourns the loss of his pleasant life in the Shire and earnestly believes he will lose his life before returning there.
At one point, the entire company is taken captive and Bilbo is separated from all the Dwarves in captivity. They escape, but Bilbo is nowhere to be found. With a stroke of luck, Bilbo also escapes and has a chance to abandon this awful journey and head home to his warm, dry hobbit hole. The Dwarves would never know. He emerges from a cave, just in time to overhear the Dwarves discussing him, wondering if he had left them and some claiming it was probably for the best since Bilbo had not proven useful. He appears, startles the Dwarves and is asked why he returned to the company. This is his answer:
“I know you doubt me, I know you always have, and you’re right. I often think of Bag End. I miss my books, and my arm chair, and my garden. See, that’s where I belong; that’s home, and that’s why I came, because you don’t have one… a home. It was taken from you, but I will help you take it back if I can.”
The inborn need for and love of home almost kept Bilbo from the journey: the confidence of belonging somewhere, the luxury of owning things and the satisfaction of building a meaningful life. He already enjoyed all of these benefits. Journeying with the homeless Dwarves awakened Bilbo to things he took for granted. His new affection for home stirred him to spend himself completely so a group of large, rude, inconvenient and uninvited guests who did not fully appreciate or believe in him could have a home of their own.
We often don’t contemplate what it meant for Jesus to leave heaven and come to earth. We might assume because He is God, it was part of His plan and He willingly came, it wasn’t a big deal. From eternity past, Jesus had enjoyed perfect fellowship with His Father, ruling at His right hand. He never suffered hunger, rejection, loneliness or pain. Coming to earth was no vacation. It was a dark, lonely journey where Jesus forfeited the praise, privileges and position of heaven to save us. Even on earth, the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head (Matthew 8:20). Our home, the one God intended for us, was stolen by sin. The only way to guide an ungrateful, rebellious race to the home they would tirelessly search for and never find was to send One who had a home and desired to share it. This is Scripture’s grand narrative: God steering His creatures home through Jesus.
C. S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Every human being has the desire for another home that cannot be satiated or explained away. Christians know this home; Paul (someone else familiar with homelessness for the gospel’s sake, 1 Corinthians 4:11) reminded the church in Philippi of our true citizenship (3:20). Today, we are far too easily satisfied with our earthly homes. Jesus said “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold[a]and will inherit eternal life.”(Matthew 19:29)
Have you written off the prospect of God calling you to leave your dream house, the highly rated schools, your BFFs, the convenient shopping, family and abundance of weekend activity options to proclaim the One who offers a heavenly home to the spiritually homeless? Foreign missionaries will tell you they miss their house with a roof, friends who speak their language and familiar restaurants. In the same breath they will tell you they have lost nothing compared to the home God is preparing for them in glory.
Which home are you more in love with?
That latest research confirms 2.5 million American homes have adopted a new Christmas tradition: Elf on the Shelf, a storybook accompanied by an actual elf doll.
Any family can have an elf. Elves are adopted, taken home and given a name. Once a year, during the Christmas season, families read the elf story together and their elf comes out of hibernation! He is placed prominently in the house so he can fulfill his chief task: observing behavior. Each night, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa all the good deeds and not so good deeds. It is from these reports Santa makes his final gift decisions.
The elf moves around the house all throughout the Christmas season…you never know where he will show up: the freezer, the bathtub, under the table or on top of the ceiling fan. It is with great anticipation that children wake up to find him in his new spot each morning and with great diligence they behave well for him throughout the day. After all, Christmas presents are on the line.
As exciting and magical as the Elf on the Shelf tradition might feel during the Christmas season, the reality of being constantly observed and then rewarded based on behavior is a weighty burden for everyday life. Many wrongly believe this is how the God of the Bible relates to humanity.
Unlike the elf, God never sleeps (Psalm 121:4). He sees and has always seen all good and evil deeds on planet Earth. Unlike the elf, God does not see our physical actions only, but straight through to our thoughts and motives, hearts and souls (Jeremiah 11:20). Unlike the elf, God is not logging a report of behaviors (Psalm 103:10-13) to determine the kind and number of gifts He will give; He is storing up wrath against sin (Colossians 3:6). Those who have rejected Him will suffer that wrath (Romans 2:8). Those who have repented and believed in Jesus will escape it, as He stands in their place (2 Corinthians 5:21).
God isn’t looking down to separate the good little boys and girls from the bad; He came down because we were all bad (Genesis 6:5, Romans 3:10). It is because we are bad God freely offers the greatest gift known to man: the free gift of salvation and eternal life in Christ (Romans 6:23). Even on our very best, most well-behaved day, we cannot earn it.
In the comings and goings of your household this and every Christmas season, consider what you most desire to impart to your family. What will you lift the highest, teach the loudest and champion with the greatest zeal? Will it be the earning of temporary gifts by offering temporary good behavior to a temporary tradition? Or, will it be the truth of an eternal God Who came for a hopeless people to exchange their bad behavior for His righteousness? The true answers to these questions will come years from now, from the mouths of our children.
In the gospel, God gave to us because he loved us, not because of our behavior. May Jesus Christ, infinitely greater than the elf, be the source of your joy and worship this Christmas.
“Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!” – 2 Corinthians 9:15
Or to put the question another way, are people basically good and righteous or basically sinful and morally corrupt?
I used to walk around the neighborhoods surrounding my church in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina and ask that question. The homes were filled with an intriguing mix of atheists, agnostics, Protestants, Catholics, young and old, conservative and liberal. It didn’t matter. Everyone from the Presbyterian woman who claimed to believe in both predestination and reincarnation to the agnostic mother watching her child play on the porch agreed we are basically good. Except for Hitler. And maybe terrorists.
We tend to believe everyone is basically good because then our shortcomings aren’t so bad. There is a world of difference between a good person who occasionally does bad things and a bad person who occasionally does good things. One just needs some tweaking – perhaps a little more instruction, self-esteem, and a healthy environment. The other needs a radical change at the core of their being. It’s easier to modify one’s behavior than to change the nature of one’s being.
We tend to underestimate the number of bad people in the world. The fewer bad people reduces the chance we might be one of those bad people. If the world is more evenly divided between good and bad we might end up on the wrong side of the divide. Better that we’re all basically good except a few obvious examples like mass murderers, child molesters, and politicians who cheat on their spouses.
We minimize our moral failures and exalt our moral victories. I may have cheated on my taxes but I gave thirty dollars to Relay for Life. I may be harsh with my children but I drive a planet-saving Toyota Prius. We constantly compare our “goodness” to others in such a way that we come out on top: I may have cheated on my spouse but at least I’m not on drugs. I may be on drugs but at least I haven’t killed anyone. I may have killed someone but at least I’m not a genocidal maniac. I may be a genocidal maniac but at least I’ve been faithful to my spouse.
What would happen if we removed all the restraints on our bad behavior? What if I wouldn’t go to jail for killing my enemy? What if there were no social or relational consequences to cheating on my spouse? What if my lies would never be uncovered? Would we spare the person who wronged us, stay faithful to our spouse, and tell the truth?
What if our goodness is only selfishness? As much as I want to kill someone, I love myself too much to bear the condemnation of society and friends. As much as I want sex with someone who is not my spouse, I love myself too much to endure a bitter divorce and custody battle.
This is what Jesus is getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 5:21-22:
You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, ‘Do not murder,’ and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.
And again in Matthew 5:27-28:
You have heard that is was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
This is profound. If our hate could have its way we would be murderers. If our lust could have its way we would be adulterers. If our pride could have its way we would be oppressors. If our greed could have its way we would be enslavers. If our envy could have its way we would be thieves.
And why can’t these things have their way? The laws of our land prohibit them. Social pressure keeps them at bay. We don’t want to lose our freedom in jail. We don’t want to be a social outcast and end up on the sex offender registry. We don’t want to lose our jobs. We don’t want to disappoint our family and friends. So we shelve our hate, lust, pride, greed, and envy and pat ourselves on the back for being good people for purely selfish reasons. Jesus refuses to give us any moral points for our wicked hearts being restrained by circumstances.
The Apostle Paul makes this point in Romans 3:10-12:
There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one.
Stunning isn’t it? No one does good. No one seeks God. We are not good people who occasionally mess up, we are bad people in need of a radical change. This is the foundation of the gospel. If we are good people, we only need the latest twelve step plan to fix our lives. If we are bad people, we need a Savior.
Does this mean we would all be Hitler if given the same background and opportunities as he had? Not necessarily. But it does mean we might not be Mother Teresa either. Don’t be fooled by the illusion of your own goodness. Our sinfulness is far deeper than our circumstances reveal and our need for a Savior is far greater than we imagine.