Rotating Header Image

the chronic fatigue syndrome of preaching in nz – andy shudall

Picture1

There’s is a chronic fatigue syndrome in our churches and it is laying people low. Its symptoms are many and its impact is systemically evidenced. It is found behind our lecterns, pulpits and music stands.

Preachers are tired – chronically tired – of preaching God’s Word.

We download sermon outlines, pass off googled illustrations as examples from our own lives, we cut and paste chunks of spoken text and pass it off as borrowing, not plagiarism, because there’s nothing new under the sun right? We peddle truth as though it were a little thing, cheap and cheerful and not the great treasure that it is, for we would not want to wear down those who cannot handle the weight of the riches of the text.

We lean on commentators and scholars before we dig into the text for ourselves, we smooth over rough territory for fear of offending others, indolently wander through the pastorally rich soil of the manure of others’ lives whilst pointing at the flowers of purple patches in Scripture’s great and varied plains. We take the easy roads rather than the paths of challenge, comforting where we should disturb the comfortable.

We give laws for success, rules for happy living, guides for victory and ways for regular giving. We ask for money but not for surrender, request action but not repentance, commitment without conformity to Christ. We encourage and exhort but not correct or rebuke. We, whose lips should be bridled by the bit of Christ’s truth, take license to interpret sin as service and rebellion as rehabilitation. We take the mantle of the Pharisees and wear it with designer labels, pointing at the imagined other, in order to make ourselves feel more at home, at peace, in place and powerful.

There is a chronic fatigue syndrome in our churches – people, our congregants, choose not to listen to God’s voice, refuse his authority, deny his sovereignty, question his goodness, redefine his love, spurn his compassion, ignore his character, begrudge his grace, rebuff his call, negate his beauty, rebuff his mercy, disbelieve his word, reject his truth and say ‘good word today pastor’.

We’d rather sing empty “oh”s and “ah”s, or words so arcane that no one gets much more than their gist. We’d prefer to have silence, or songs, or pictures, or practices, or passion, or prayers or any thing – ANY THING – than to teach and preach, proclaim, explain, expound and apply the acute edges of God’s Word in all its complexity and variety. We’d forgo twenty minutes of patient preaching for a thousand hours of results producing activity. We choose productivity over faithfulness, management over hermeneutics, and leadership over pastoring.

It is wearing us down and we are tempted to retreat into ear scratching and itch twitching in our preaching – but, unlike chronic fatigue syndrome in the human body, the body of Christ has a remedy that is readily but not easily available.

“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:1-5

preaching Jesus in every sermon – andy shudall

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

How do I preach Jesus from this passage? How can I bring Him clearly into it without forcing Him in? Must I always get to Jesus?

In talking through and training others in preaching from the Old Testament these are the questions most often posed.

The starting point is wrong. The foundational assumptions underlying such questions are sinking sand and will never produce a hermeneutic that confidently preaches Jesus from the Jewish Scriptures. You’ll get bogged down, you’ll bolt him on, you’ll clumsily build bridges and awkwardly introduce him as though he doesn’t belong. There is a better way.

Jesus is God’s first spoken Word, “in the beginning” …”was the Word” “…the Lord made the heavens and the earth”. Jesus is God’s last and supreme Word “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” He is the Alpha and Omega of history, salvation, revelation; of the whole of God’s Word. He is the divine inclusio; there is nothing said outside of the Eternal Son as the primary focus of Scriptural content.

We do not come to the context and text of the Old Testament seeking to jemmy Jesus in, we don’t sneak him through as though he were an uninvited guest, we mustn’t speak of Him as though he were a last minute addition to the plan, nor as the required repairman of a plan gone wrong. He has always been the best and the better, the first and foremost, the face in the crowd, the saviour in the wings, the friend to the weary, the guide to the lost, the lover of the loved, the comfort of the outcast, the ram in the thickets, the Lord in the midst, the light of the glory, the grace in the Law, the king on the throne, the word to be heard, the shepherd of the sheep, the judge of the wicked, the healer of the broken, the protector of his people, the prophet to the deaf, the sign to the blind, the speaker of truth, the rebuker of liars, the song of the worshipper, the joy of the faithful, the refuge for the persecuted, the anchor in high seas, the voice in the stillness, the destroyer of nations, the exalter of the humble, the melter of mountains, the friend in the furnace, the God in the wilderness, the redeemer of the world. He is the open secret of the gospel – long unrecognised and now proclaimed for the whole of creation to see and to know.

Must we always get to Jesus? We must always start in Him. There is no Old Testament without Him, nothing to preach apart from Him. Preach a principle that does not have Christ as its principal and you preach the ingenuity of human thinking but not the inspiration of Divine revelation. Preach ethics without the incarnate Christ as its limit and origin and you preach a humanitarian ideal that is alien to Scripture. Preach the Law without preaching its telos and themelios in Christ Jesus and you preach a passage without its passion – the lawgiver who is grace and truth in flesh.

It is not so much how much of Christ we can fit into our preaching of the Old Testament, not a question of the appropriateness of mentioning Jesus, but rather how can we preach at all – I’d go as far as to say how DARE we preach at all – if we do not preach Christ in and from the Old Testament. He is there waiting to be uncovered, introduced, allowed to speak, waiting to rescue, comfort, rebuke and equip. All that comes before is but His shadow, so that we recognise Him in His fullness and preach Him in all confidence.

We must not make it awkward or simplistic for He is compelling and complex: the Eternal Son in human flesh. We must preach the passage as God first spoke it, intended it and delivered it: Christ intended, Jesus focussed and historically given. We must speak it as it was first heard: mysterious but not impenetrable, perplexing but not confused. We proclaim Him whom Scripture declares.

“He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27 NIVUK)

preaching when you know it’ll hurt – andy shudall

11-Leonard-Ravenhill

What to do when the text before you will wound the people who will sit and stand to listen to you? You know it will provoke pain in those of tender consciences. You are sure it will touch the raw nerves of the recently grieved and provoke the ire in the permafrost of resentment that imprisons the intractably disappointed. You are certain that this gobbet of God’s own breath in ink on page will blow hard into many lives and will cause pain at its first airing in the sermon.

There it sits in front of you on page and screen. Not a controversial text, not in and of itself, but explosively direct: inescapable in clarity, without convenient mitigation in textual or cultural obfuscation and resolutely core to the passage for preaching.

You could completely omit it – just this one phrase – claim naivety and blunder past it, mustering as much grace as can be gathered in the graceless act of robbing the tower of London of the crown jewels and rendering Scripture silent, empty and irrelevant. Where pulpit and Bible are relics of a bygone age but are unable to enrich a Lazarus or arrest a Midas but you will be free of charge and able to leave church unhassled and unfazed by having grieved others.

You may relativise it – find obscurity and overwhelm with details and dogma, throw the context so wide that by contrast that which is most clearly in focus becomes like a grain of sand on the shore of translation difficulties and scholarly disagreements. Thus make dull that which shines brightest and leave the text unspoken; what is said with plain tongue, unarticulated. The deaf will not hear, the blind will not see, prisoners remain prisoners but you at least will not have injured any.

You have it in your power to soften it – to upholster Scripture’s sharp edge and make from the most precise scalpel a comfortable sofa, where all may sit and none may bleed and so go into each day, and eventually eternity, comforted and comfortable but unchanged and unsaved but you will stand down from preaching with an unburdened heart and rest well comforted by comforting those that could be healed by a well-placed wound.

You can also take care to speak the Word – and speak it well – use scholarship to display and celebrate its riches, context to brighten its luminous power and skill to hone its surgical blade. With the ruthless compassion of the shepherd, aiming wounds to free the bonds which restrict and to release the festering habits and long held resentments.

As preacher you can wound, so wound well – not as some callous wolf who seeks to devour but as an approved worker who loves those she addresses; as a servant seeking to honour his master; as a mother tending her son; as a father upbraiding the wayward child – for their good and for His Glory; He will heal where He has hurt.

Do not fear when Scripture’s textual blade also turns on your own life and you are tempted to tarnish the gold, obscure the light and steal the sting to preserve your own illusion of comfort. Repent and believe for He is Good and it is His glory that He has hidden in your heart – be wounded and be healed through the God who preaches His final Word in His own Son, the wounded, healing, living but once dead, sacrificing, interceding and coming One, Jesus. The Word made flesh who carries scars for all eternity so that all wounds now may be but for a little while.

“good news of glad tidings for all peoples…” – andy shudall

manger-cross

Do I believe the news I have to share is good? Will it be proclaimed as joy and life?

Sure, the news of Jesus is good news: nuanced good news – it is full of tragedy and comedy, mourning and weeping, waxing and waning. In speaking of the Saviour I must speak of the need to be saved, uncover the threat of the holy and focus the gaze on the peril of the perishing. In the nuance we hear the Good News.

In enunciating good news to those who have nothing – to the poor in pocket, in spirit, in life – I must turn riches on their head and speak of the impoverishment of over-resourced, over-fed, over-indulged hearts. I must speak of the obesity of heart and body, of soul and mind, that diminishes as it bloats. I must illustrate that the mind is weakened, dulled, by edutainment and the palate is numbed by the saccharine of false gospels. I must look the rich in the eye and then whisper in their ear, “you are weak, poor and perishing”. Then the riches of the good news will gleam, entice and enrich.

In proclaiming release to the captives I have to point out the shackles of consumerism, materialism, religion, depression, desperation, comfort, injustice and complacency. I must speak of prisons: real and figurative. I have to tell men and women they are chained – often where they are most convinced that they are free. I have to tell them, “you’re a prisoner” before I can tell them that there is an open door. Then the liberty of the gospel is felt as well as heard.

In promising sight to the blind I have to speak of that which they not be seen – explaining the colours of hope to optic nerves of heart and mind, eyes and brain, that have never been enlivened. Just like Jesus, I must tell those who are convinced of their clarity that they are caught in the darkest of illusions and what they see they only guess at, and that which is not seen is that where life and light reside. When my words fill their sighted eyes with dim shadows and dark warnings, then can the Light of the World give them life that lights their world with sight. Then the healing of the gospel will be known.

In declaring freedom to those oppressed, I must speak to those stooping from their heavy burdens and happy enslavement. Those who are piled high with possessions, weighted down with worries, anchored in the Right Now but not the Not-Yet, who are abused by their passions and subjugated to the demands of culture, fashion, idols and cruel masters of all kinds – they must hear me say, “you are not happy, not free, not fully alive”. Then they may hear and know the sharp sword of the Spirit slicing through the ties that bind so they can learn a better burden – the bearing of lasting life and unfading hope. Then the goodness of the news will bring true joy.

In shouting out the news of The New Day, a new season, a renewal, I must explain the reality of God’s heavy justice, pervasive knowledge and uncompromising call. In speaking of jubilee I must explain judgement – God hates all injustice, poverty, prejudice, abusive powers, idolatrous godlessness, prisons, blindness, brokenness and death.

God hates, and calls hateful things hated, because He loves the world. Because He loves the World He sends His only begotten Son. Because He sends His only begotten Son, He sends His only begotten Son not to condemn the World. He sends His only begotten Son to save the World. He loves the World and sends His only begotten Son to save it. So anyone who trusts in and calls on and hopes through Jesus discovers Eternal Life in His Name.

And so we, as preachers are anointed and sent. We come not with our own words of comfort – they would be cold indeed. We come with good news of great joy. We come with good news of great joy for all people. God’s Word in our words expressed: enriching, freeing, sight-giving and life-imparting. God’s Word of great joy.

“I am not ashamed of the good news, for it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, a righteousness that it by faith from first to last…”

If preaching is not good news, nuanced in the power of God’s righteousness, then it is not preaching at all.

“I bring you good news of great joy…”

the praying preacher’s preaching prayer – andy shudall

shud0006

 

Oh God, this text, this gift you give,

Is mine to mine and open wide,

Explain, explore, illuminate, apply:

Share life-giving breath.

 

Oh Father, whose very Word,

Enshrined in flesh, enfleshed to live,

To die, to rise and so to save and reign:

Find solidity in me just now.

 

Oh Son, whose words,

healed, restored, redeemed and reconciled

the blind, lame, sin-sick and even dead:

Speak again through me.

 

Oh Spirit, whose presence

presided over and resided in

priests, kings, prophets and scribes of old:

Stand guard, abide with me this day.

 

Oh God, who promised dried bones might live,

Whose words could calm a raging storm,

Whose voice melts mountains and brings kings to naught:

Keep these men and women wakeful, for half an hour, as I speak.

 

Oh Lord, who sees and judges the inner mind of all,

Who understands what psychologists fear to ask,

Who unravels the mysteries of the human heart:

Grant some truth might penetrate these lives and stick.

 

Oh Blessed Trinity, who chose text to speak to all the nations,

Who wrought truth in ink by faltering human hands,

Who brought forth light, through words, in fractured human history:

Use my human voice and speak to Your people now.

 

Oh Eternal Father, Son and Spirit,

You who do not fail nor fade,

Take me, in my unwilling duplicity, and speak Your truth:

Transform these dusty sinners into radiant saints.

 

© Andy Shudall (May 2013)