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paul davison: do hard things

Preaching is a ministry of the word of God that should teach, rebuke, correct and train in righteousness. Under the pressure to be “relevant” do we neglect parts of the Bible that seem hard or obscure for 21st C Westerners?

How many times have our congregations heard sermons from the first five books of the New Testament – but not heard sermons from the first five books of the Old Testament? How many times have they heard from Paul – but not from the Prophets?

The first six chapters of Daniel are action packed narrative, but how many stop there and skip the “hard” passages in Daniel 7-12? The opening chapters of Revelation are doable with the seven churches, perhaps even the throne of heaven in chapters 4 and 5, but who dare go to the “difficult” passages where there be dragons beyond?

There are undoubtedly many places in the Old Testament where you can stick in your thumb and pull out a plum: Genesis 12, Exodus 20, Joshua 1, Judges 16, 1 Samuel 17, 1 Kings 3, Job 1-2, Isaiah 6 (and many more which might be among your favourites). But what about the passages in between?

One of our roles as preachers is to teach the Bible to our congregations. That will include helping them to read what may be to them hard and obscure material from the Scriptures. (It may well feel hard and obscure to us too!) It will require extra effort and persistence on our part if we are actually going to open up those parts of the Bible that most of our people skip over or ignore.

This year I bit the bullet and made a beginning in Isaiah. I have known for years of the need for the congregation, let alone myself, to come to good terms with this prophet. Isaiah is after all the most quoted prophet in the New Testament, and second only to Psalms in terms of Old Testament books referred back to by New Testament writers. If we are to follow the pointers of the New Testament writers, then Christian believers need a good handle on Isaiah.

Nevertheless I have found Isaiah daunting – a K2-sized mountain for someone who runs out of breath on a small hill. But if it is hard for me – the “trained professional” – then how much harder will it be for the congregation? I have to lead them through the unfamiliar waters – which may only mean being just one step ahead of everyone else.

So we have made a beginning. Eight autumn sermons through Isaiah 1-12 with another four planned for November covering chapters 13-27. It will take a while but we can get all the way to 66 over the coming years. So far in the journey we have discovered a perspective on God recognisable to New Testament believers and yet strangely unfamiliar to many. It is a picture of God in his fierce judgment and yet also of a God whose promises offer unbridled hope.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …” (2 Timothy 3:16)

What hard thing do you need to do in your preaching for the sake of your congregation?

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Paul Davison has been the pastor of Hastings Baptist Church for the last 10 years. He is married to Joy and together they are the proud parents of four incredible girls.

8 Comments

  1. Hi Paul. I’ve felt the same temptations (to duck the hard stuff) and the same challenge – leading to a recent series on Jeremiah – and the same results – a much bigger vision of God.
    Like you, I feel strongly that we have a rsponsibility to lead our congregations in unlocking the bible, and preaching the hard stuff is a good way to help people open those glued-together pages.
    One thing that has made it easier for me to do this, is length of service in one place; early in my ministry I felt I had to stick to the mountain peaks – your ‘plums’. As I preached more often, and settled more firmly into harness here, I felt more confident about taking a long view and exploring the valleys and plains as well. Like you, I”ve been having this biblical conversation with the same group of people (plus many others who have come and gone and come again) for over 10 years now, and feel really comfortable about taking it slowly and unpacking the depths of the treasure chest.
    If someone is in a position with the expectation that they will be gone again within seven years, maybe within three, then I think it is much harder to take the time to draw the big biblical picture.

  2. Mark Maffey says:

    I recently had the job as part of doing the compass overview of covering From Solomon to End of the Old Testament in 40 minutes. I found myself with the Mission Impossible soundtrack cycling around and around in my head. However as I prepared I found myself wanting to spend time on a series looking at Elijah and Elisha, exploring Daniel,wanting to explore the calls of Isaiah and Jeremiah and other prophets….We neglect the old testament at our peril. Another Book I have written poetry on and preached on is Nehemiah, well worth a series.

    Regards
    Mark

  3. Thanks for a good reminder Paul. We’ve recently enjoyed a topical-slash-textual series on the Song of Songs/Solomon, and two of the darkest Psalms, 22 & 88. I was pleasantly surprised how fruitful and even encouraging these two Psalms were as our Lord is One who has walked not away from or around, but through the darkest moment in human history – the Cross. 22 is the ‘cross’ psalm, and I realised that 88 is the ‘gethsemane’ psalm. So I heartily chime in with you – do the ‘hard bits’ of Scripture!

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  5. Stephen Bond says:

    Paul
    Encouraging to see someone else struggling with these how-would-I-handle-this passages … and further along the way. Can you tell me (for example) how you would deal with, say, Psalm 58 or 137 in the context of a series on ‘selection from the Psalms’.

    Stephen Bond

    1. Paul Davison says:

      Stephen – I assume that you have chosen these Psalms because of verses like:

      “The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked” (Ps 58:10)
      “Happy are those who seize your infants and dash them against the rocks.” (Ps 137:9)

      We are confronted/offended by the “delight” of the righteous in the judgement of the wicked.

      These are great psalms to preach because that sense of “unease” with these texts will be shared by our congregations – and we need to help them come to terms with such passages.

      In terms of preaching from such passages I would:

      1. Explain the context – the historical events, as best we can discern them, which have given rise to these passages.

      The author speaks from the perspective of the victims of gross injustice and violence and we need to understand that both intellectually but also emotionally.

      So for example: The survivors of a concentration want the full weight of justice to be brought to bear on the brutal and sadistic camp guards (perhaps, a firing squad); nearly every action-flick sets up the antagonist so that the audience sees it as “just” that the hero kills them in the end.

      Those of us who enjoy relativity peaceful lives have to try to feel what these victims feel before we so quickly pass judgement on them. If we lived through what they lived through, would our response be so different from theirs?

      2. Recognise the genre of biblical passage – in these cases Psalms.

      As poetry they are considered, crafted and shaped and will have rhetorical power and hyperbole built into. I don’t want to duck the many narrative passages that describe in gruesome detail what was actually done – but the Psalms are certainly aiming at stirring the emotions. Even more than that they are giving the people of God corporate language to respond to injustice – this isn’t David’s private journal published for all the world – these are Psalms for the corporate worship of the people of God.

      I would want to ask if we as the people of God today we are emotional stirred by injustice and oppression? Are we righteously angry with oppressors? Do we pray that God would destroy the wicked? Is that not half of what it means when we pray: “Your kingdom come.”? It will be a coming of salvation but also a coming of judgement.

      3. See these passages in the context of the whole Bible and where the plot-line ultimately goes.

      There is a continuity / discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

      Climatically, we see cruelty, violence, injustice and murder being perpetrated against the Lord Jesus. He suffers with us and, more significantly, for us. In Christ we see that God knows experientially both justice and injustice. That should give us pause before we “accuse” God of being harsh.

      The OT themes of war and violence seem to be taken up in the NT in terms of the demonic and evil on a cosmic scale. The language of conquest and battle is spiritualised, not in the sense that it is unreal, but rather everything is taken to the next level. Christians are called to wage war against sin, the devil and the corrupting forces of the world. We are not called to personal vengeance.

      The concluding picture of the Bible in Revelation is of a coming judgement that is fierce and final. And that which is feared the most is “the wrath of the Lamb.” (Rev 6:16). The real Jesus Christ of the Scriptures is both Saviour and Judge. We must come to know, trust and love the God who is there, not the pacifist god of our imaginations.

      So these “tough” passages force us to examine our doctrine of God. If I don’t see the world as God reveals it and himself in the Bible, then it is me who is out of touch with reality.

  6. hi, love the challenge Paul, and your right if we don’t tackle them how can we expect our people to do the same, here at Nativity we have been this year looking at some of the harder scriptures, with about 4 months in Exodus… amazing how much the lectionary chooses to miss out. And 3 months in Revelation, skipping the first 3 chapters, and tackling some of the big issues presented by preaching in a region full of Barry Smith conspiracy theorist fans. It was great for me personaly to wrestle with these texts in understanding the bigger picture of God, but also for our people in a time when the economy is in turmoil, our church has been through a very rough past 6 years and people are wondering “what’s the point?” Seems to me that stories of identity, and encouragements to perserver speak loudest in times like this. Not sure what we will do next year, but I am keen to tackle some of the minor prophets.
    Howse Joy and the kids by the way?
    As someone who has done the Blog thing and rarely finds time now to do it i always appreciate it when others put their thoughts down

  7. Paul Windsor says:

    Paul – your sustained engagement here with one of the hardest issues we face is masterly.

    I found it very helpful.

    Thank-you

    Paul

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