The Paradoxes of Preaching
We began last night by recognizing that the modern world is unfriendly to preaching. Words have largely been eclipsed by images, and the book, by the screen. And so preaching is regarded by many people as an echo from an abandoned past. George Target, who is maybe known to some of you, has written, “The sermon is now a sacred relic, a dubious thing of withered skin and dried bones. The sermon is an anachronism, probably the major barrier between Jesus Christ and the world.”
Well, I don’t think any of us regard the sermon as being the chief barrier between Jesus Christ and the world, but that is the considered opinion of a critic of the situation today. So in consequence of this unfriendliness to preaching, there are some preachers who lose their morale and give up. Either they don’t have the heart to persevere, or they transmogrify the sermon into a sermonette, into a little homily, into a dialogue, or something else equally unsatisfactory.
Now I want to invite you tonight to consider with me that authentic Christian preaching has a number of indispensable characteristics. They appear at first sight to contradict one another, but I think we will see that they complement one another in the tension of a paradox. Hence, my title tonight, The Paradoxes of Preaching.
Authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary. On the one hand, I hope we agree that Christian preaching is biblical preaching. We do not occupy the pulpit in order to preach ourselves, in order to broadcast our own views, or ventilate our own opinions. No, our understanding of preaching is that it is essentially an exposition of the Word of God.
So in that sense, all Christian preaching is expository preaching, not in the rather narrow sense of that term, namely, that it is a running commentary of a long passage of Scripture, but in the broader sense that the sermon is intended, as we saw last night, to open up the Word of God, to expound it, to explain it because we are trustees of God’s revelation and we are determined above all else to be faithful in our stewardship of it.
The name of Donald Coggan will, I think, be familiar to many of you. He was Archbishop of Canterbury some decades ago and died about a year ago. He was a great believer in preaching. He wrote, I think, three books on the subject of preaching, and I want to quote from one, which is called, “Stewards of Grace,” published in 1958. He wrote this. “The Christian preacher has a boundary set for him.” Or her. Forgive the sexist language, but Archbishop Coggan lived before the sensitivities about inclusive language arose. So I won’t correct him. I’ll read to you what he actually wrote. “The Christian preacher has a boundary set for him. When he enters the pulpit, he is not an entirely free man. There is a very real sense in which it may be said of him that the Almighty has set him in his bounds that he shall not pass. He is not at liberty to invent or choose his message. It has been committed to him, and it is for him to declare, expound, and commend it to his hearers.” And a little later he has the phrase, “It is a great thing to come under the magnificent tyranny of the Gospel because the Gospel sets us our bounds, beyond which we may not go.”
So on the one hand, true, authentic Christian preaching is biblical preaching. But at the same time, it is intended to be contemporary. It resonates, or it should resonate, with the modern world. It wrestles with realities of our hearer’s situation. And in our resolve to be biblical, we refuse to lapse into irrelevance. Instead, we seek to relate the ancient text, as we’ve been seeing, to the modern context. The true biblical exposition goes beyond exegesis, which is explaining the meaning of the text, to application, granting the message of the text.
Bishop Stephen Neill, a well-known Anglican missiologist and scholar who died a few years ago, in one of his early books on the ministry wrote this. It’s rather suggestive, I think. He says, “Preaching is like weaving. There are the two factors of the warp and the woof. There is a fixed, unalterable element, which for us is the Word of God, and there is a variable element, which enables the weaver to change and vary the pattern at his will. For us, that variable element is the constantly changing pattern of people and of situations.”
So our preaching is to be both biblical and contemporary. I like to imagine a flat territory. I don’t have a white or black board to draw it, but I can draw it in the air. I like to think of a flat territory that is deeply divided or cut by a ravine, or a canyon, or a gulf, or whatever you like to call it. On the one side of the canyon is the biblical world. On the other side of the canyon is the modern world. And between the biblical and the modern world is this deep canyon of 2,000 years, at least, of changing culture.
Now we—I don’t know what you like to call us. Conservatives, shall I say, orthodox, evangelical, New Testament Christians? I’ll say conservatives. We conservatives live in the biblical world. I think it’s true to say that’s where we feel comfortable. We believe the Bible. We love the Bible. We meditate in the Bible. And when it comes to preaching, our preaching all comes out of the Bible. We wouldn’t dream of preaching from anywhere else. But somehow it goes up in the air and never quite lands on the other side. Our preaching is biblical, but often not contemporary, not earthed in contemporary reality.
So because we’re comfortable in the biblical world, we don’t feel so comfortable in the modern world. The modern world threatens many of us. At least those of us like me who are senescent, if not actually senile. We feel threatened by the modern world. We read a book like Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” and we go into a profound state of shock from which it seems we never again emerge. So I don’t think it’s unfair to describe our, the average conservative sermon as being biblical, but not contemporary.
Now those who are and like to be called liberals make the opposite mistake. They live in the modern world. They don’t feel threatened by it. They’re moving with the moving times. They read modern philosophy, modern novels, modern poetry. They read Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” and it doesn’t shock them. They have their built-in shock absorbers.
So how shall I draw their preaching? Well, it’s all earthed in reality. That’s why people listen to them, because they resonate with the modern world. But where it comes from, Heaven alone knows. It does not come out of the Bible, because the tragedy of the self-confessed liberal is that he or she does not accept the authority of the Bible.
So in that drawing, that simple drawing, I think we see one of the major tragedies of the Church today, that conservatives are biblical, but not contemporary, liberals are contemporary but not biblical, and almost nobody is building bridges. But I see authentic Christian preaching as essentially a bridge-building exercise, relating the ancient Word to the modern world. And it is our responsibility to be faithful to the biblical text and sensitive to the modern context, as we saw last night.
So we must never sacrifice either to the other, biblical and contemporary equally. But in order to do this, we have to study on both sides of the canyon. If the bridge is to be firm and immovable, then of course it has to be deeply rooted on both sides of the canyon. So we have to study the Bible. We have to study the modern world; otherwise, we cannot relate the one to the other.
To take biblical study—of course all of us are readers of the Bible—but I wonder if we take seriously our responsibility to grasp the whole message of Scripture, not just read our favorite passages. Many of us like Psalm 23 and bits of Romans 8, but we are called to know the Bible. The Bible is our textbook.
The Bible reading method that I have found most helpful, although there are many, like Scripture Union, for example, which I also recommend, but the one that has helped me most is the one produced by Robert Murray McCheyne, a Scottish minister in Dundee, Scotland in the middle of the 19th Century. In 1842, Robert Murray McCheyne worked out a Bible reading calendar that will enable his people to read the New Testament twice, and the Old Testament once every year.
What is fascinating about it is that—I should say it’s rather exacting, because it does involve reading four chapters a day. My own practice is to read three in the morning, and if I’m still awake in the evening, I manage the fourth then. But anyway, Murray McCheyne’s purpose was that we should read the whole Bible through every year, New Testament twice, Old Testament once.
But what’s fascinating is that on January 1st of every year, we don’t begin with Genesis 1 to 4, and on January 2nd, Genesis 5 to 8. Instead, we begin with the four great beginnings of Scripture: Genesis 1, Ezra 1, Matthew 1, Acts 1. And when you think about it, each of those beginnings is a new birth. Genesis 1 is the birth of the universe. Ezra 1 is the rebirth of the nation after Babylonian exile. Matthew 1 is the birth of Christ. And Acts 1 and 2 is the birth of the body of Christ.
So here are four major beginnings in the biblical story, and as we read, we’re following them through. And I found it such a help. You grasp onto themes, biblical themes, that appear, and disappear, and reappear, ’til you get a kind of overview of the message and story of the Bible itself.
So we need to study the Bible. Then we need to study the modern world. What has helped me most here is that I brought into being in 1972 a reading group in London. I invited about a dozen young graduates in our congregation, a couple of doctors, an architect, an employee of the BBC, a couple of teachers and so on, to join me in this reading group. They were all Christians, committed Christians, and anxious to relate the Gospel to the modern world.
What we did—and we met about every month or every other month—was to agree on the book that we’re going to read before we meet. Then when we meet, we will go around the circle and everybody would be given about one minute only to pinpoint the major question which the book raises for Christian people. And then out of that we establish an agenda for the evening and go hammer and tongs in discussion, until in the final half hour we ask, now how does the Gospel relate to people who think like this?
I should explain that the books we choose are not Christian books. We reckon we read enough theology. What we do need to do is to persuade ourselves and each other to read more from the modern world in order to understand it. And so at the end of each evening, we decide what book to read before we meet again, or it might be to go to a movie. I dare say some of you think Christians ought not to go to movies. But it seems to me that if you go for your education, I sit on the edge of my seat and study what I’m seeing. And I never go alone. I don’t want to be sucked into the worldliness of it. I want to go with friends so that after it, again, we can discuss it.
So I can only say that these young men and women dragged me screaming into the modern world, and that this discipline of reading, particularly the cult books in the university, the books that students are reading. We—I mentioned Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock,” we read that once, I remember, and were greatly struck by it.
So on the one hand we’re reading the Bible, trying to understand the totality of its story, and on the other hand we’re studying the modern world. I sometimes call this double listening, listening to the Word of God and listening to the voices of the modern world, its cries of pain, its cries of anger, of despair. We need to listen to both voices.
Of course, we don’t listen to them in the same way. We listen to the Word of God in order to believe and obey Him. We don’t listen to the modern world in order to believe and obey it. But we listen to the modern world in order to understand its cries of pain and so on. So in this double study, we will make it increasingly possible for ourselves to relate the ancient Word to the modern world.
Well, I spent a long time on that. It’s the first of our five paradoxes, that authentic preaching is both biblical and contemporary at the same time.
Two. Authentic Christian preaching is both authoritative and tentative. The 20th Century was an epoch of doubt. I’m sure as we look back, we will agree with that. It began with the first ten years of the century in the decade of Edwardian triumphalism. While Edward VII reigned in Britain, everything throughout the world seemed stable, fixed, and immovable. But the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic in April 1912 was an omen of worse disasters to come, for the social stability of the Edwardian era was shattered by the two World Wars. And then in the 20th Century, all the old landmarks, symbols of stability, were destroyed.
And now at the beginning of the 21st Century, people are floundering in the swamps of relativism and doubt and uncertainty. Even the Church in many parts seems to be as blushingly uncertain of itself as an adolescent child. I don’t think that’s unfair. The Church often doesn’t know what its message is or ought to be for the world. So many preachers seem to conceive their task nowadays as sharing their doubts instead of sharing their faith. The parading of personal doubt belongs to the very essence of post-modernity.
So there on the one hand is the need for authority. There is a great need to recover the voice of authority in the pulpits. Bishop JC Ryle, the first evangelical bishop of Liverpool at the end of the 19th Century, was very disturbed about this same thing, the lack of authority in the pulpit. And he wrote, “Old and experienced Christians complain that a vast quantity of modern preaching is so foggy, and hazy, and dim, and indistinct, and hesitating, and timid, and cautious, and fenced with doubts—how many is that? Seven, eight, is it, epithets? “That the preacher does not seem to know what he believes, himself.”
Not that we should ever presume to use the formula, thus says the Lord. It isn’t that kind of authority that we presume to use. Or the Word of the Lord came to me saying. That was the language of the prophets, who were organs of direct revelation. But preachers are not prophets in that sense. We are not recipients of a direct revelation from God, nor are sermons divine oracles.
No, our formula is rather, the Bible says, or we find in the Word of God this, that, or the other, provided we’ve done our hermeneutical homework, and that we’re conscientious in applying to the Scripture adequate hermeneutical principles so that we can say to the congregation, this means this and not that. Because we, as it were, take them into our confidence as to the principles that we’re working by. And then we can indicate what these are to the congregation. And then we can say with Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:5, “…our gospel came to you, not in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and with full conviction…”
I long to see preachers in the pulpits of the world today who proclaim with full conviction. Conviction and courage are essential requisites of authentic Christian preaching. Bishop Phillips Brooks gave one of the earliest Yale lectures in preaching in the year 1877 and it’s still in print. I recommend the book if you want to read books about preaching. And I would like to quote something he says in his book. “Courage is the indispensable requisite of any true ministry. If you are afraid of men and a slave to their opinion, go and do something else. Go and make shoes to fit them. Go, even, and paint pictures which you know are bad, but which suit their bad taste. But do not keep on all your life preaching sermons which will say not what God sent you to declare, but what men hire you to say. Be courageous. Be independent.”
Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn the need, the necessity of this confidence and courage during our seminar these days?
At the same time, b) alongside authority, it is often right to be tentative because God has not revealed everything, and he has not revealed all of what he has revealed with great simplicity and clarity. So Chris Wright mentioned this morning a verse that I’m very fond of, too, and that I think we all ought to know by heart, namely, Deuteronomy 29:29. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God. The things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever that we may do all the words of this law.”
Now that important text divides truth into two categories, the revealed things on the one hand, and the secret things on the other. The revealed things belong to us; the secret things belong to God. And that is why Christians are a strange combination of dogmatism and agnosticism. There are some things about which we are able to say I know because it is plainly revealed. But there are other things in which we should have the courage to say I don’t know because it hasn’t yet been revealed. And the great apostles admitted this. John says, “We do not know what we shall be. We know that we’re the children of God now, but what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” Paul says, “We know in part and we prophesy in part. It’s only later that we shall know as we are known.”
So you see, the Scripture itself recognizes that not everything has been clearly revealed. So many of our troubles arise when our dogmatism trespasses into the secret things or our agnosticism trespasses into the revealed things. Keep the revealed things and the secret things apart, and be confident about the one and tentative about the other.
I would like to see in the pulpit throughout the world—alongside the authority that belongs to God’s infallible revelation, I would like to see the due humility and diffidence which belong to its fallible human interpreters.
Even the great Calvin—forgive me if I quote him again, but he really has been one of the greatest teachers that has ever been given the Church. And you think of him probably as being a very dogmatic person, but as a matter of fact, he wasn’t. Listen to this quotation from one of his commentaries. He wrote, “I shall state my own view of what this means freely. But each of you must form his own judgment.”
So there is a recognition that in the pulpit we mustn’t claim to be infallible. It’s the Word that may be infallible, but we are fallible interpreters of it, and we have to be willing to say to the congregation, now, I believe this means this, for this and that reasons, but you must make up your own mind as to whether it means this or not.
Besides—one other thought here. If we serve everything up to the congregation on a plate, pre-cooked and ready to eat, we condemn them to perpetual immaturity. Isn’t this the reason why Jesus forbade us, his disciples, to call anybody their father or their teacher on earth? In other words, we must not adopt towards anybody, or require other people to adopt towards us, the dependent relationship of children to their parents or disciples to their guru.
There are to be no gurus in the Christian community. Only pastors who seek to open up the Word of God. Because how do pastors feed the sheep? How do shepherds feed their sheep? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Because the answer is, they don’t. Of course if a baby, newborn lamb is sick, a shepherd will take the lamb into his arms and feed it with cod liver oil or something, but spoon feeding is only given to the little baby lambs that are sick. The normal way that the shepherd feeds the flock is to lead it to the pastures where it feeds itself. And that is exactly what we are to do. We lead the congregation into the pasture of the Word of God and teach them to feed there themselves. We help them to feed themselves.
So it’s not easy to strike this balance between the authoritative on the one hand and the tentative on the other, between the dogmatic and the agnostic, between the infallible Word and the fallible human interpreter. But although it’s difficult, we have to struggle with this second paradox.
So authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary, and it is both authoritative and tentative. Thirdly, authentic Christian preaching is both prophetic, in a sense I’ll explain in a moment, and pastoral.
Indeed, the whole Church is called to this double ministry, prophetic on the one hand, and pastoral on the other. Prophetic in the sense that we bear witness without fear or favor to the doctrinal truths and ethical standards which God has revealed. But we are pastoral in the sense that we deal gently with those who are slow to believe and fail to attain to the ethical standards of God.
So some preachers have a very faithful prophetic ministry. They show great courage in declaring God’s Word. They refuse to compromise it or to accommodate to the secular world outside. No, they remember that it is false prophets who say peace, peace when there is no peace, and that the true prophet is one who includes warnings of judgment within his message.
But these prophetic witnesses, who are very faithful and courageous, are sometimes also pastorally insensitive. They seem to enjoy seeing the congregation squirm under their whip. They exhibit little of the meekness and gentleness of Jesus. And they even do what Scripture says He would never do, and that is, break bruised reeds and snuff out smoldering wicks. But they do that very thing. If faced with Paul’s dilemma, shall I come to you with a whip or in the spirit of gentleness; they opt for the whip. There are. There are preachers like that; are there not? I hope not here. But there are some pastors who are prophetically bold, but pastorally insensitive.
Then on the other hand, b) other preachers excel in pastoral care and love. Their favorite words are tolerance and compassion. They are well-acquainted with the frailty and the vulnerability of fallen human beings. They remember that Jesus said he did not condemn the woman taken in adultery, and so they also seek to be nonjudgmental in everything. They are pastorally very gentle and loving, but they forget that Jesus also told the woman go and sin no more, and He also told the Samaritan woman, go and fetch your husband, because He insisted that they face their sin before He was in a position to slake their thirst with the Water of Life. And by forgetting the holiness of God’s love and his call to repentance, their prophetic witness is blunted and their trumpet gives an uncertain sound.
Once again, it’s not easy to combine these two things, prophetic witness and pastoral care, firmness and gentleness, discipline and compassion. It was Chad Walsh, an American Episcopal layman, a good many years ago, who I think first defined preaching as disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed. But there are many preachers who are so busy disturbing the comfortable, they never go on to comfort the disturbed, and vice versa.
So authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary, both authoritative and tentative, both prophetic and pastoral, and now, fourthly, both gifted and studied. Under this heading we face the question, who and what makes a preacher. How do preachers become preachers? What are the factors which equip a person to preach? Does God create preachers, or do they have a share in the creative process themselves? Well, I believe the only possible answer, again, is both, and we’ll look at each separately.
On the one hand, every authentic preacher has been called equipped and anointed by God. Now the very concept of a self-made, self-appointed preacher is grotesque. No, those who are called to proclaim the Word of God, to preach the Word of God, have been called by God to do so. We hope they have.
Notice that the five lists of charismata, of spiritual gifts in the New Testament, and there are five, include pastors and teachers, and the gift of exhortation and encouragement. And it’s highly significant that when the Apostle Paul lists 10 conditions of eligibility for the presbyterate in order to become an elder or presbyter in the church, there are ten conditions he gives in 1 Timothy 3. Nine of them are moral and spiritual: hospitality, self-control, no drunkard, not greedy for gain. Nine of them are moral and spiritual, and only one of them could be called a professional gift, a gift that is necessary for the profession of being a pastor, and that is the word didactics, having a gift for teaching.
So the reason why a person who is hoping to be ordained into the pastoral and preaching ministry needs to have a teaching gift, it shows quite clearly that the pastorate is a teaching office primarily, and therefore those who enter it need to be didactikos.
So the Church has no liberty to ordain those whom God has not called and equipped or gifted. On the contrary. What is ordination? Now of course we come from different church backgrounds. A majority here are Anglican, but there are other who belong to independent churches, who I’m sure are Methodists, Presbyterian, Baptists. And so we probably have a somewhat different understanding of the meaning of ordination. But I hope very much that what I am going to say is something that will be acceptable to all of us. And that is this: Ordination includes at least a public acknowledgement by the Church that God has called those who are to be ordained. And further, a public commissioning of them to exercise the ministry for which God has gifted them and to which God has called them.
So the call and the gift go together as a basis for ordination. And in particular, the gift for teaching is an indispensable qualification. Without this gift and its accompanying call, nobody can be a preacher.
So that’s on the one hand, the need for the call and the gift. But on the other hand, b)the divine gift, call, and anointing are not enough in themselves. The gift has to be nurtured by and developed by the people who have received the gift. So Timothy was exhorted not to neglect his gift, 1 Timothy 4:14, but rather to fan it into flame, 2 Timothy 1:6. How he was to do this, he was not told in those passages, in the pastoral epistles, but presumably he would do it by disciplined study, by the conscientious exercise of his gift.
Now I still meet preachers from time to time who are suspicious of the exhortation to study. They think it’s incompatible with the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And if they only are anointed by the Spirit, they really don’t need to study and study will be superfluous. Sometimes they even quote Jesus, or misquote Jesus, who said, “Don’t be anxious what you shall say because it will be given to you what to say, because it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” And they don’t seem to recognize that the context for which, of this valuable promise, is the law court, not the church. And it’s a promise that is applied to prisoners in the dark and not to preachers in the pulpit.
So we still need to study. More appropriate is 2 Timothy 2:7. Do you know this wonderfully balanced verse? “Consider what I say. Ponder what I say. Study what I say. And the Lord will give you understanding in all things.” He gives the understanding, but we have to do the studying. And he doesn’t give us understanding without study.
So we must accept the call to be students and to ponder and study the Word of God. It has long been recognized by church leaders. Here is Spurgeon. “He who no longer sows in the study will no more reap in the pulpit.” Phillips Brooks again, “Learn to study for the sake of truth. Then your sermons will be like the leaping of a fountain and not like the pumping of a pump.” Martin Lloyd-Jones, “You will always find that the men whom God has used signally have been those who have studied most, known their Scriptures best, and given time to preparation.”
Billy Graham, I heard him speak some years ago to about 600 clergy in London, and he said that if he had his ministry all over again, he’d make two changes. The atmosphere was electric. People were saying to themselves, what? The greatest evangelist in the world needing to change his ministry, if he had it all over again? Yes, he said. I would make two changes. I would study three times as much as I have done. I’ve preached too much and studied too little. And secondly, I would give more time to prayer.
Study and prayer, the two priorities which were given to the apostles of Jesus, who said that they would give themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer.
So authentic Christian preaching is both biblical and contemporary, both authoritative and tentative, both prophetic and pastoral, both gifted and studied. And fifthly, it is both thoughtful and passionate.
In all authentic preaching, the mind and the emotions are together involved. Clear thinking and deep feeling are combined in authentic Christian preaching. Now some preachers are extremely thoughtful. Their desk is piled high with commentaries and concordances and all the rest. And their biblical orthodoxy is impeccable. They not only study, they bring the fruits of their study with them into the pulpit. Every sermon is the product of painstaking exegesis and application. Wonderful. Most commendable. But their sermons are as dry as dust and as dull as dishwater. They would never dream of leaning over the pulpit with tears in their eyes begging people to come to Christ and be reconciled to God. There is no feeling, no heart, no heat, no passion in their preaching. They never provoke the little child, whom Charles Simeon of Cambridge provoked, who turned to her mother while he was preaching and said, Mama, what is the preacher in a passion about? And we should be.
Yet how can anybody preach the gospel of Christ crucified and not be moved by this Gospel? So there are some preachers who are marvelously studious, but somehow it doesn’t reach their feelings, their emotions. But then b)on the other hand, there are preachers who are all fire and no light. They rant and rave in the pulpit. They work themselves up into a frenzy as if they were prophets of Baal, and every sermon is one long, fervent, interminable appeal. But the people are confused what they’re being appealed to to do because there was no exposition before the appeal. And it is a safe rule to say, no appeal without an exposition and no exposition without an appeal.
And this is very clear in the Apostle Paul. He is a great example of this combination. 2 Corinthians 5:14, “The love of Christ constrains us,” but the word really means it tightens its grip upon us, “because we are convinced that One died for all.” You notice the conviction and the love of Christ tighten its grip. It’s again both the mind and the emotions brought together. And then he goes on, “all is of God who has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and as Christ’s ambassadors we beg you to be reconciled to God.” That is an exposition of reconciliation, followed by a begging that people will be reconciled to God.
One or two examples before I conclude. Richard Baxter, the great Puritan, British Puritan, wrote a book called, “The Reformed Pastor” that was published in 1656. It’s still in print, and if you haven’t read it, I urge you to read it. It’s a very moving book. And Baxter, one of his favorite axioms was, “First light, then heat, and not the one without the other.” Spurgeon said the same thing. “There must be light as well as fire. Some preachers are all light and no fire, while others are all fire and no light. What we want is both fire and light.” And here is Dr. Lloyd-Jones in his great book, “Preaching and Preachers.” He writes, “What is preaching?” Do you know his reply to his own question? “It is logic on fire. Eloquent reason. Are these contradictions? Of course they are not. Reason concerning this truth or to be mightily eloquent as you see it in the case of the Apostle Paul and others, it’s theology on fire. And I maintain that a theology that does not take fire is a defective theology, or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective. Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire.”
My last example is from Will E. Sangster, the Methodist leader during the Second World War. He was once interviewing with a panel a number of young men who were applying for the pastorate. And there was one rather shy young man who was extremely nervous while being interviewed. So he took the bull by the horn and he said to the panel of selectors, he said, “Gentlemen, I think I need to explain to you that I’m not the kind of man who would ever set the River Thames on fire.” That’s a phrase we have in England. Setting the Thames on fire is creating a sensation in the town. So he said, I am not that kind of person. Sangster, with consummate wisdom, responded, “My dear young brother, I’m not interested whether you can set the River Thames on fire. What I want to know is this: If I picked you up by the scruff of your neck and dropped you into the River Thames, would it sizzle?” In other words, are you on fire?
So here are five paradoxes of authentic Christian preaching: biblical and contemporary, relating the ancient text to the modern context; authoritative and tentative, distinguishing between the infallible Word and the fallible interpreter; prophetic and pastoral, combining faithfulness and gentleness; gifted and studied, necessitating a divine gift with human self-discipline; and thoughtful and passionate, letting the heart burn when Christ opens the Scriptures.
Well I don’t claim any strong or close personal knowledge of the Devil, and it occurs to me that some of you may know him better than I do. But I do know this, that he’s an enemy of all balance. And he loves—one of his favorite hobbies is tipping Christians off balance. And if he can’t get us to deny Christ, he will be happy if we distort Christ.
So instead, I want to urge you to develop what I like to call BBC—standing now not for the British Broadcasting Corporation, nor for Beautiful British Columbia, nor for the Bethlehem Bible College—but for Balanced Biblical Christianity. Let’s combine truths that complement one another. Let’s not separate what God has united. It’s in these unresolved paradoxes that authentic Christian preaching is to be found. God make us preachers like that.
So shall we pray together? And in the silence, take up one or other of these paradoxes. Pray that it may be true in your life, and in the life of your brothers and sisters. Let’s pray.
Our Heavenly Father, we recognize that preaching is a high and holy ministry and a great privilege. But we also have recognized tonight that there are difficulties in having a balanced understanding of what authentic Christian preaching involves. Deliver us from imbalance, we humbly pray. Help us to help one another to become effective preachers and expositors of Your Word. We ask these things of the glory of your great and worthy Name. Amen.