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paul davison – the encouragement of old sermons

Back in May, John Tucker talked about sub-Christian Sermons. This was his opening shot:

Do you ever go to your sermon file looking for an old message to rework and preach again?  My experience is that it can be a little depressing.  Invariably, I come across some old manuscript and think to myself, ‘Did I really write this? Did I really preach that?!’

I know the experience, and I know the feeling.  But what I want to suggest to you is that these moments fall into those very rare and precious occasions that should warm your heart and inspire you on in your preaching ministry.

My pattern is to preach from a full text (all power to those with the ability for note-less sermons!).  Perhaps a few scribbled changes, certainly some moments of off-piste preaching, but the notes are generally a faithful record of what was delivered.  Each week I drop it in one of the appropriate 66 folders in the filing cabinet, with topical series finding their own folder.  File and forget.

Perhaps it is work on a parallel passage in another gospel, the invitation to preach in another church, a perennial theme or topic that needs another hearing in the congregation, or just the passing of years and the pressing need to go back and preach some things all over again to new ears or people who now listen from a new place in their lives. And so as part of your new preparation you go back to the filing cabinet (apparently filing is not about making a mess of the floor, but retrieval – who knew!) and you read what you preached back then.

It is an opportunity to experience what I think is one of the most encouraging and motivating moments in your Christian ministry.  And you need this sort of encouragement because it is by and large a rare commodity.  My personality type doesn’t get too excited about those “good sermon” comments, however sincerely meant they no doubt are. But reading one of my old sermons does fuel the fire.  If I read it and I don’t like what I preached back then, I get to see my own progress.  It is a tangible measure that I am not the preacher I used to be.  I have grown and improved.  The old sermon might look like the work of a novice to me today, but it takes the eye of someone mastering preaching to recognise it.

Perhaps it is my style that has altered.  I see the clunky words, the poor phrasing, the weak structure or the rough transitions. It may be that my biblical knowledge has developed and I see a change in my theology or that a more nuanced explanation is required.  The difference could be because pastoral care for the congregation has softened the hardness of my youthful words or conversely it might strengthen my resolve to speak with sharper clarity about critical issues.

Of course, the old sermon might actually read quite well.  I might preach it essentially the same way next Sunday.  However that demonstrates a consistency in my practice and maturing convictions that the passing of time and more reading and thinking have not changed but rather reinforced.

So if you find it hard to see whether you are making progress week by week, perhaps go back a few years, read an old sermon (or listen to an old mp3) and see if the message you preached back then can still do you some spiritual good today.

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Paul Davison has been the pastor of Hastings Baptist Church longer than anyone else.  He tries hard to be effective through all kinds of ministry of the Word, including preaching.

paul davison: the pike river remembrance service

I can’t remember the last time a sermon by a kiwi for kiwis made its way on to the national stage –but that’s what happened at the Pike River Remembrance service. Surely a daunting challenge and at the same time a unique opportunity.

Daunting, because the sermon was broadcast live around New Zealand; the presence of political and community dignitaries; the limited time to speak; the unspoken (perhaps even spoken!) pressure to make it palatable to a secular audience; and on top of that the raw pain and grief of the families, friends, colleagues and community. But it was also a unique opportunity … for all the same reasons.

My observations aren’t of the speaker, who I don’t know, but whom I am sure his community love and appreciate for his kindness and compassion through this disaster. However I do want to examine the contents of the sermon. In just on 1000 words, what was said – what could be said?

Firstly, there was a Bible reading (John 11:33-36) which was drawn into the homily. The first third of the sermon was a sincere acknowledgement of the crushing grief experienced by those close to the miners and the mine. The community support that Mary and Martha received was paralleled with the support from around New Zealand and the world for the people of Greymouth.

The second section aimed at tackling the “Why” question: Why did these miners die? The answer given was that the mine explosion was an accident.

“… they weren’t taken. Not by God, fate or anything else. Their deaths were tragically the result of an accident, a terrible devastating accident, but still only an accident. There was no divine fate at work to snatch their lives away.”

God can’t be blamed because he isn’t involved in these things. So where was God? The third section spoke of God being there: “Waiting patiently, ready to reach out and offer comfort and support.” Again, leveraging off the Lazarus story, Jesus’ own grief and pain at the death of his close friend lets us know that:

“… in Jesus we have a God who is not away up there, completely divorced from everything we feel and hope for, but rather we have a God who can identify with us. A God who understands what it means to grieve.”

Therefore all who mourn can cry out to the God who understands our sadness.

Some of my observations:

  • I did appreciate that the sermon was restrained on matters of eternal destiny and did not over-promise salvation for all – the temptation of many.

  • I don’t really think that community grief and Jesus’ tears are the main points of John 11. So while the Bible was used, I don’t think it was used well.

  • Unfortunately, this exercise in theodicy offers us a deistic God who winds-up the universe and leaves it ticking along with natural forces in control. I might not understand the course that God is charting, but I do want to know that someone is actually at the helm.

  • Incarnation is, in the end, not enough. That Jesus knows our pain and grief is of some comfort. But more importantly he has acted (cross, resurrection, ascension and heavenly reign) and will act (second coming) to bring about a world where one day “there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

If it had been me speaking, I might have explored how reaching our limits, being unable to enter the mine, brought many people – even our agnostic Prime Minster – to talk about prayer and God and hope.

I might have considered how death, with about 75 people dying every day in New Zealand, is reconsidered when it is concentrated in one place with 29 lives lost. Death focuses our minds more sharply on questions of God and eternity and religion/spirituality.

Easy for me to offer a critique from a distance; I suspect the reality of being up close physically and emotionally makes it much harder.

With only 1000 words what would you have said?

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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.

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? (more…)

paul davison: applications – faithful, focused and fresh?

I know I haven’t worked hard enough on my passage/sermon when the applications I want to make are: “Read your Bible, pray more, go to church and give money”. It seems that these actions can often be the practical implication of nearly any and every passage in the Bible. Or can they? (more…)