Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
preserve my life according to your word. (Psalm 119:37)
God Used a “Dead in the Water” Sermon
James Smith approached Pastor Hugh Litchfield and asked, “Do you remember me?” James explained that 10 years earlier he had visited the church where Litchfield was serving. James was facing jail time over tax violations, that led him to abuse alcohol, and that jeopardized his marriage and relationship with his children. His life was a mess.
James explained that Litchfield preached on trusting and obeying God’s Son who saves and salvages broken people. The pastor urged hearers to take responsibility for their behavior, not blame others, turn away from all known sin,, and turn back to God. James knelt and asked the Lord for forgiveness and a new life of following Jesus. From that point on, the Lord began to restore his life. James got out of trouble with the IRS, quit his drunkenness, and his marriage was better than ever. He was so grateful!
When Litchfield got home, he found his old sermon notes from the message that helped James. After preaching, Litchfield always jotted down a phrase or two at the top of his manuscript as to how he felt the sermon had gone. For that sermon he had written, “Dead in the water! No one listened! A waste of time!” Litchfield concluded, “If we offer faithfully to God what we have, somehow He may use it in glorious ways. Never underestimate what the Lord will do with what we offer in serving Him.”1
This post continues some guidelines for my own teaching and preaching that I used at Belhaven University in Houston, TX. I have also used them at Jester III prison and with other pastors and Christian workers. They are adapted from an older document written for pastor-teachers, but I apply them to all Christian teachers and preachers, men and women.
Our Teaching and Preaching Must Consider the Needs and Capabilities of Our Audience
Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 3:2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Hebrews 5:12-14 You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.
Comments: We must walk closely with our people to understand them and serve them well. The New Testament apostles and prophets tailored the depth and language of their teaching to their hearers. Matthew and Luke wrote similar Gospels, but Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience and Luke wrote to Gentiles (non-Jews). Paul’s letters the Ephesians and Colossians are similar but different, because of the differing backgrounds of the readers. In Revelation chapters 2-3, Jesus dictated seven letters to the churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). These letters are shaped by the various strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats each congregation faced. So today, we must wisely analyze our audiences to present God’s unchanging truth to them in the way they may best understand and respond to. Mark 12:37 says that the common people heard Jesus gladly. We must aim for the same.2
Our Teaching and Preaching must Be Motivated by Zealous and Fervent Love for God
Scriptures: Acts 18:25 Apollos was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, and he spoke with great fervor (passion, zeal, enthusiasm) and taught about Jesus accurately. Mark 12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. 1 John 4:10,19 This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins….We love Him because He first loved us. Psalm 116:1 I love the Lord, for He heard my voice; He heard my cry for mercy.
Comments: Martin Luther, Jack Miller, Jerry Bridges, and others remind us to keep on preaching the gospel to ourselves before we minister to others. We must continually face up to our own sinfulness and then run to Jesus again through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. We rejoice again by faith in the truth that Christ fully satisfied God’s law, that He is our propitiation (atoning sacrifice), and that God’s holy wrath no longer burns against us. Teachers must keep on believing all over again the precious words of Romans 4:7-8: “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.” When we taste and see for ourselves repeatedly that God delights to show mercy, then our teaching and preaching to others will be fresher, warmer, and sweeter.4 “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where we found bread.”5
It’s very possible to stay close to the Word of the Lord and not be close to the Lord of the Word….Learn much of the Lord Jesus. For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. Let your soul be filled with a sense of the excellence of Christ. (Alistair Begg)
Our Teaching and Preaching Must Flow From Fervent Love for God’s People
Scriptures: 2 Cor 5:13-14 For Christ’s love compels us….And Jesus died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for Him who died for them and was raised again. 1 Thess 5:7-12 Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well….You know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.
Comments: Rather than being aloof and lording his authority over his hearers, Paul was gentle like a mother who loves her child and willingly gives of herself. Paul shared his whole being with them, not only his message. And he was also like a nurturing father, not exasperating his spiritual children, but instead bringing them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. Paul was a living example of Jesus’ summary of the Law: loving God and loving neighbors.6
It’s easy to love to teach and preach, but harder, better, and more Christ-like to love the people we teach and preach to.
Prayer: Lord, help us to understand and obey your word. Deliver us according to your promise. Make our lips overflow with praise because you teach us. Help us, save us, sustain us, give us delight in you. Seek us when we stray like lost sheep. Help us never to forget your commands. Help us to point others to you with our lips and our lives. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.7
To be continued. You can read Teaching and Preaching the Bible (Part 4)
Notes (various Bible translates used): 1 Adapted from Hugh Litchfield, Visualizing the Sermon. 2 See also Audience Adaptations in the Sermons and Speeches of Paul by Jay E. Adams and Between Two Worlds by John Stott. 4 Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace. 5 D. T. Niles. 6 NIV Grace and Truth Study Bible. 7 Prayer based on Psalm 119:169-176.