Hallelujah! The Lord Reigns

Here is one pastor’s attempt to address politics from the pulpit. I usually will do one sermon sometime during a presidential election year on church/state, Christian citizenship issues. I preached this sermon on July 5. If you are willing to wade into this potential quicksand in your own congregation, this may be a guide of some sort. [Note: please pardon the formatting which didn’t cross over very well from Word to this website.]

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HALLELUJAH: THE LORD REIGNS (Psalm 146)

            The ever-quotable C. S. Lewis dropped this line in The Weight of Glory:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it, I see everything else. 

Lewis is writing about a Christian’s gospel lens—the first portal through which we look at everything: family, work, relationships, church, politics.  For a believer, that should be our first lens, but for many, it is not.  Especially when it comes to politics.  Instead of first looking through our gospel lens, we look through our Republican lens or our Democrat lens or our Fox News or MSNBC lens.  We let people tell us what we should think about this candidate and that issue, and many of us swallow it hook, line, and sinker without ever looking at it through our gospel lens.  Mark Sayers recently observed …

We‘re in a moment where many are increasingly skeptical about their faith while dogmatic and even fundamentalist about their political ideology.  Flip it.  Be passionately steadfast in your faith and radically skeptical of your own and anyone else’s political ideology.

         That’s what we’re going to try to do today: flip it.  We’re going to try to get the gospel in its first place and let it serve to correct our political vision where it needs correcting.

            The psalmist can help us.  I invite you to open your Bible to Psalm 146.  A few weeks ago, in my morning devotions, my psalm for the day was 146.  I’ve read it 100 times, but it never struck me like it did that day.  Because I do my devotions for me rather than you, it’s rare when God takes a text I’m reading and says, “Preach this.  This is not just a word for you, this is a word for my people.  Preach this psalm.”  So with the Spirit’s help, that’s what I’m going to do today.

            Psalm 146 is the first of five praise songs that conclude the Psalms.  In a book with a name that means “praises,” the last five psalms are one big exclamation point to end the book.  Each of the five begin and end with a hallelujah.  After praying through lament and anger, confession and thanksgiving, after praying creation, exodus, and wisdom themes, Psalms ends on a high note of praise—a crescendo of praise from …

Psalm 146:1 – “Hallelujah! My soul, praise the Lord!”

to

Psalm 150:6 – “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah!”

From one voice to every voice (cue the tympanies and cymbals): “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!”  This arrangement is not accidental.  It reminds us that no matter how much mud and hell and enemies and darkness and guilt and sickness and sadness and suffering and grief we experience in our walk with God, the last word is praise—always praise.

And that goes for our politics too.  Psalm 146 has a political edge to it.  It reminds us who’s in charge, who to trust, and what matters most to him.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).

I

The psalm begins with profound praise …

My soul, praise the LORD.

I will praise the LORD all my life;

I will sing to my God as long as I live.

This is not lip-service praise.  This is not perfunctory praise.  This is extravagant, soul-deep praise.  In Hebrew thinking, the soul is not just some ethereal part of who we are; the soul is who we are—a person doesn’t just have a soul; a person is a soul.  So when the psalmist offers this praise, he offers it from the deepest parts of who he is, from head to toe, from heart and mind, from life and lips he offers God praise.  And it’s not a one-shot deal either.  He intends on praising God as long as he lives.

            The psalmist doesn’t just know about God, he knows God—has a relationship with God, is intimately acquainted with God, calls him “my God.”  And he can’t stop singing and talking about God.  This is a God-centered, God-saturated psalm.  The psalmist refers to God 15 times in just 10 verses.  He uses God’s covenant name, Yahweh—the LORD—11 times and God’s title, Elohim—God—4 times.  The Lord is his God, and he makes no bones about it.  Doesn’t leave us guessing.  Doesn’t leave us wondering where he stands with God, what he thinks of God.  According to A. W. Tozer, What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”[1]  This psalmist leaves no doubt what comes into his mind when he thinks about God.  He can’t get God off his mind, off his lips, or out of his eyes.  A little boy and his grandfather were watching a sunset at the beach.  “Pops,” asked the boy, “do you ever see God in a sunset?”  Pops replied, “Anymore, I hardly see anything else.”  That’s a gospel-lens and that’s our psalmist.  He begins this God-saturated psalm with profound praise.

II

And then he sweeps up politics in his praise.

            He begins with a warning in v. 3 …

Do not trust in nobles,

in a son of man who cannot save.

            What does he mean by nobles?  He means princes, kings, powerful people—in our context, presidents and politicians.  Israel had a slew of kings across their history.  Other than David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Josiah, and a couple more, most of Israel’s—and when the kingdom divided, Judah’s—kings were a bunch of chumps, and their reigns were summed up with this phrase, “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”  Even Israel’s greatest kings had their faults.  David had his sins; Solomon lost his way.  Not a single one was perfect.  Not a single one could save.  They might have appeared to be as powerful as God.  They could win battles here and there.  They could build alliances that made for temporary peace.  They could make shrewd trade deals and move the nation’s economy in the right direction.  They could speak like an angel and snort like a bull.  But they couldn’t save.

            They couldn’t even save themselves.  Look at v. 4 …

When his breath leaves him,

he returns to the ground;

on that day, his plans die.

            If there’s one thing every king, every prince, every president, every prime minister, every pope, every pastor, every politician has in common it’s this: they all die … (except Queen Elizabeth who’s like 112 and still kicking—but one day she’ll die too.)  We have economic problems.  We have stubborn social injustices.  We have strained relationships with traditional enemies.  We have immigration issues.  We have massive national debt.  Politicians can make a positive dent in some of these issues, and many have, but they can’t make a dent in the death issue: “If elected,” says candidate Smith, “I promise to end death as we know it.”  Nobody promises that.  They can’t change death, legislate death, fix death.  They can’t fix it for their constituents.  They can’t fix it for themselves.  They can fix some things, but they can’t save anyone.

            And even the things they fix often don’t stay fixed.  Because when the politician breathes his last and bites the dust, somebody takes his place and changes the plans.  This is especially true in a day when American politics is more polarized than ever.    That’s why every American election is framed by the politicians and the media as “the most important election in our lifetime.”  The Democrats want to change everything the Republicans are doing.  The Republicans want to overturn some things the Democrats did when they had the power.    But mostly all they do is blame and fight and divide and insult and posture.  Ernest Benn said, “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.”  I have a higher view of politics than that but not as high these days as I once had.

            This psalmist didn’t have the highest regard for politicians either.  He says, “Don’t trust them.  They can’t save.”  They rarely keep their promises.  And if they do, when they are out of power, their plans leave with them.

            The psalmist’s imperative, “Do not trust in nobles,” is another way of saying, “Don’t put your hope in them.”  And if there’s one thing we’ve seen in the last 40 years in American politics, it’s this: well-meaning Christians are quick to put their hope in politicians and their political parties …

  • He said he’d end abortion—we still have it and still funnel millions of dollars to that slaughterhouse called Planned Parenthood.
  • She said she’d appoint conservative judges—but even then, as we’ve seen this past week, no one can’t predict how judges will rule in specific cases.
  • He said he’d champion religious liberty—but in secular America that will be constantly tested.
  • She said she’d create more opportunities for minorities—we’ve seen great progress, but there are still miles to go.
  • He said he’d get the economy roaring and cut my taxes—but who could have predicted a pandemic, and what do we do about people who get left behind in a roaring economy?

In other words, don’t put your hope in politicians to solve your problems or the nation’s problems.  They can make a dent.  They can do some good.  But then comes a pandemic.  Then comes Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and legit protests and riotous anarchy and the Chop Zone and attacks on police and posturing politicians and general chaos.  It reminds me of G. K. Chesterton’s astute observation that in making the world …

God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but whichhad necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it.[2]

            Don’t trust, don’t put your hope, in politicians.  I’ve seen some Christians go beyond trust to worship.  They think their hero can do no wrong or they cover their eyes to lousy character because they like his or her view on some issue.  As Christians we need to court a little more skepticism about our favorite politicians and our favorite political party.  In reflecting on these lines in the psalm, Eugene Peterson put it this way … 

Admiration is healthy; it is a clear glass through which we see in others gifts and attributes to which envy is blind.  But hero worship introduces a distortion; it confuses mere humans with the near divine.  Hero worship is a first cousin to idolatry.[3]

There are some good men and women, people of integrity, that serve in politics.  Pray for them because as one man put it, politics is “the Devil’s playground.”[4]  Temptations are plenty.  Corruption is always one decision away.  And the voices in a politician’s ears are so loud and so many, it can be hard to discern the voice of God.  How any of them maintain their integrity is a gift of God.  So pray for them—those you like and those you don’t. The Bible tells us to (1 Tim 2:1-3). 

And it’s okay to admire worthy politicians, to respect them.  But don’t put hope in them.  Don’t trust that any politician or party is going to set everything right.  Daniel Akin observed that many believers “put more hope in Capitol Hill than Calvary’s hill!  They put more hope in a government than they do God!”[5]  Don’t fall prey to that.  You’ll be disappointed.  No politician is up to that challenge.

But our system requires politicians.  We need good people to serve.  We need Great Commandment Christians to serve.  We need the kinds of candidates where we don’t have to hold our nose when we vote.  And Christians need to vote.  Just do it through a gospel lens.  Don’t sell your soul or your mind to a political party or a political candidate.  Don’t look at them through rose-colored glasses.  And don’t jump on board with a politician just because your favorite preacher does.  Do your own work.  Research candidates and issues and organizations, look for integrity, look for positions on issues that reflect the kinds of things the Bible reveals that God cares about, make informed decisions, pray for wisdom, and vote.  Give them your vote, but don’t give them your hope.  Even the good ones will term-limit out, be defeated in reelection, retire, or die, and their plans will go with them.

III

Do this instead: put your hope in the Lord God (v 5).

Happy is the one whose help

is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the LORD his God.

            Don’t see God through your politics.  See your politics through God, through a gospel lens.  And one of the things you’ll quickly realize is that when your hope is in God, you can be happy regardless of who lives in the White House, who makes laws in Congress, and who sits on the bench of the Supreme Court.  That’s right, happy.  As Beth Tanner explains, the Hebrew word translated happy in v. 5 means …

not a passing or superficial happiness, but a deep abiding contentment with the human condition and one’s God.  It is life as it is supposed to be, and it is achieved by having God as one’s help and hope.[6]

Christians can live in abiding contentment regardless of the outcome of elections because our contentment doesn’t rest in Donald Trump or Joe Biden or in the Democrat or Republican parties or their policies.  Nor does it rest in whatever kind of economy the nation is experiencing in the moment.  Our contentment rests in the Lord our God.

And knowing that, our psalmist gushes a chorus of praise to our God, “the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and everything in them.”  God is not a flawed, failed creature; he is Creator of all that is.

And unlike the empty promises of most politicians, God is forever faithful to implement his policies of justice for the exploited and food for the hungry, doing for his people what government cannot or will not do. 

And as the psalmist lays out God’s platform in vv. 7-9, “he names the Name [Yahweh] five timesIn naming the Name, the psalm under its breath debunks and dismisses every other name.”[7]

  • “The LORD [not Donald Trump] frees prisoners.”
  • “The LORD [not Joe Biden] opens the eyes of the blind.”
  • “The LORD [not Democrats] raises up those who are oppressed.”
  • “The LORD [not Republicans] loves the righteous.”
  • “The LORD [not the President or the Congress] protects resident aliens and helps the fatherless and the widow.”

And on top of all this, the LORD “frustrates the way of the wicked.”  He throws down obstacles.  He spoils the works.  He short-circuits their evil plans.  He brings to light deeds done in darkness.  He overcomes disasters evil brings on his people and on nations.  And sooner or later he will have his way. 

  • When it seems like wrong is on the throne and right is on the gallows, take hope because it won’t always be that way. 
  • When it seems like the inmates are running the asylum, and self-interest is the only interest a politician has, it won’t always be that way. 
  • When babies are slaughtered in abortion clinics, when black Americans are denied justice, when immigrants are treated like animals instead of human beings, it won’t always be that way.
  • And when children are abused and abandoned by their parents and left on a stranger’s doorstep, it won’t always be that way either.

Politicians can help make these things better, but even when they can’t or won’t, God will find a way through his people and his church.  And if not in this life, then in the next—when God’s kingdom comes in full, and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Because unlike political systems and the politicians that run them, God can save, and God will save.  God is eternal, so neither he nor his plans will ever die.  He will bring them to pass in his time and in his way someday.  Take hope in that.  Take hope in him.

Not in politics and politicians.  Put your hope in our forever faithful God.  And when you look at politics and everything else through a God-lens, a gospel-lens, you will see things clearly, you will feel hope, you will experience happy contentment in spite of circumstances.  Teresa of Avila gives us wise counsel here:

Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee: All things pass; God never changes.  Patience attains all that it strives for.  He who has God finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.[8]

Yes, he does.  He always does when we put our faith and trust in him more than in anything or anyone else.

IV

So the psalmist ends where he began: with resounding praise (v. 10):

The Lord reigns forever;

Zion, your God reigns for all generations.

Hallelujah!

            The Lord reigns even when it doesn’t look like it in the moment.  Did it ever look worse than it did when politics killed Jesus?  Parties who detested one another could agree on one thing: Jesus needs to die.  So the Jewish leadership worked with their hated Roman occupiers to kill Jesus on a cross.  And in a nod of grudging respect toward Jesus or to poke the Jews in the eye, Pilate had a sign written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek tacked on the cross above Jesus.  The sign read: “This is the King of the Jews” (19:19).  Get it?  This is what happens to any would be kings who dare defy Rome.  It doesn’t end well for them.  And it sure looked like it didn’t end well for Jesus.  But that was Friday.

            Come Sunday, Jesus got up out of that grave King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Victor over sin and death, Savior of all who turn from their sins and put their trust in him.  He was dead.  Politics conspired to kill him.  But he rose from the dead.  You can’t keep a forever King down.  He reigns for all generations.  

            So put your trust and your hope in God.  He is Lord.  He reigns forever.  He alone is worthy to break the seal on the scroll of history because he is Lord in history and of history.  It is his-story.  And he’s the only King who merits forever worship from the lips and lives of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue.  The Lord is King.  No one can outdo him or undo him.  Robert Smith said it just right …

God puts up and God takes down.  The only throne that’s never vacant is God’s throne.  You don’t elect him.  You can’t impeach him.  You can’t vote him out.  He just keeps on succeeding himself.  And the reason why he keeps on succeeding himself is because he is God all by himself.  So therefore, we need not become so out of sorts with this world.  He’s still in charge.  This is still my Father’s world.[9]

            And it always will be no matter what happens in elections.  No matter what happens in economies.  No matter what happens with this virus.  No matter if the good old USA runs its course, dies its death, and becomes, like every other kingdom in history, just another chapter in a history book.  Doesn’t matter.  Doesn’t change God or the plans of God.  God is still in charge.  God is still on his throne.  “The Lord reigns forever.”

            So look at life, look at politics, through this gospel-lens, the King Jesus lens.  Study issues and candidates through this Jesus-lens.  Do your duty, cast your votes, do the Christian thing to bear with and love those who disagree with you.  But don’t trust in nobles and presidents and political parties.  Don’t trust in men and women who cannot save and whose plans die when they do.  “Happy is the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD” … because 

The LORD reigns forever;

Christian, your God reigns for all generations.

Hallelujah!

He is worthy!

Praise the Lord!

                                                                        Preached: July 5, 2020

                                                                     First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, AR

                                                                        John Scott McCallum II


[1]A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961), 9.

[2]G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1994 – original © 1908), 113.

[3]Eugene H. Peterson, Praying with the Psalms: A Year of Daily Prayers and Reflections on the Words of David (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993), December 23.

[4]Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 85-86.

[5]Daniel Akin in his sermon “Our God is an Awesome God,” danielakin.com.

[6]Beth Tanner, “Commentary on Psalm 146” workingpreacher.org (Nov 8, 2015).

[7]Walter Breuggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 127.

[8]E. Allison Peers, ed. and trans., The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Avila (London: Burns & Oats, 2002), 288.

[9]Robert Smith, “Quotable,” Arkansas Baptist News (Feb 10, 2011), 8.

Some I’ve Learned in 25 Years at the Same Church

June 3rd marked my 25th anniversary as pastor of First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas.  While plenty of pastors have stayed longer in the churches they serve, a 25-year tenure is worthy of reflection.  For years I’ve been asked, “What’s the secret to your long tenure?”  My first response is one I borrow from another long-tenured pastor’s answer: “No pulpit committees.”  But seriously, folks, here are some things that have contributed to my quarter-century in the same congregation.

  1. Show up every day.  When you do, days turn to weeks, weeks to months, months to years, and 1995 has become 2020.  Show up.  Go to work.  Do your job.
  • Focus on my current church not some future one.  I’ve pastored two churches in 39 years.  Didn’t seek either one.  God made both happen.  I figure that if or when he wants me to move, he will take care of that, so I don’t have to.  Some pastors use too much energy dreaming about the next church, scoping out future fields, circulating resumes, instead of digging in and working the field in which God has placed them.
  • Keep learning new things.  I read (a lot and widely), listen to some podcasts, pay attention to the news, watch some documentaries, try an occasional new hobby.  Stay fresh.  Expand your mind and your capacity to think well.
  • Bold initiatives every 4-5 years to keep the church changing.  Same old, same old courts boredom for church and pastor.  A purposeful new challenge, a bold goal, a transformative change troubles complacency and stirs hope.  Don’t be content with yesterday’s ways and yesterday’s dreams.  Ask Jesus for a new dream, his dream for the church.  Change worship a little; tweak small groups, engage in some new mission, launch a fresh ministry.  Jesus is not tame.  He is on the move, on the loose, doing new things.  Join him.  Invite the church to join him.  And the more tenure, the more willing the church is to follow.
  • Love the people—even the hard ones.  Learn their names and use them.  Know some particular thing about them.  Take interest in their lives.  Weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.  Pray for them and with them.  Follow up when you hear of needs.  Some are easy to love.  The church I serve provides my best friends in the world.  But not all relationships between pastor and people are warm and encouraging.  Hey, that’s just ministry.  That’s just the church.  Love them anyway.  Bear with and be patient with the ones that try you. (You probably try some of them more than you know.)  Forgive them when they hurt you.  Point them to Jesus in all things.  Jesus said the Father is gracious to the ungrateful and the wicked (Lk 6:35).  If it’s good enough for him, it needs to be good enough for me. 
  • Admit when you screw up.  Own your mistakes.  Don’t rationalize, justify, excuse, or deny.  Don’t blame and don’t cover up.  “I was wrong” is enough.  Depending on the nature of the mistake, sometimes you need to add “I’m sorry.”  Humble yourself and ‘fess up.  I’ve found over the years that the more grace I show others, the more they show me.  And I need lots of grace.  
  • Build a team that compensates for your weaknesses.  It’s okay to have weaknesses.  Know them and staff for them—whether paid or volunteer.  If you don’t need the glory, if you’re more invested in how the church does than in how you look to others, you’ll find people to fill in the chinks in your armor.  Plus, a good team mitigates some of the loneliness, shares some of the burden, and adds to the joy.  Teamwork can get messy and can be hurtful, but that goes with the territory.  On balance, “we” can do more for the kingdom than “I” can.  And it’s about the kingdom, not me.
  • Seek Jesus every day.  I can’t imagine going into a day in ministry without having lingered a bit in Jesus’ presence in Scripture and prayer and solitude.  It’s his church after all.  Why would I think I could do his work without him?  If I’m going to speak for him on Sundays in the pulpit and in conversations with his people through the week, I better make some time every day to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”  My time with Jesus is often mundane and without fireworks and warm fuzzies.  So is much of my time with my wife, but I still seek time with her every day.  I seek it with Jesus too. Don’t think so much about the moments; think about the life long relationship you’re nurturing day in, day out, till you see him face to face.  Don’t wait for time with Jesus to happen; make it happen.

There you have it: a few of the things I’ve learned in my long years in the same church.  Maybe God will give you long tenure, maybe not.  If he does, maybe these things will help in that direction.  There are lots of perks to long tenure (that would be another post), but none more than this for me: it’s made me a better pastor; it’s made me a better Christian.

Building Pastoral Trust

I’m attaching a link at the bottom of the page to an article I read about pastoral trust in America.  It’s not stellar.  You can read the article for yourself, but let me suggest some simple ways to build and keep trust with your congregation and community …

Love the people well.  How simple is that?  When you show genuine care to your church family and to others in the larger community with whom you cross paths, your trust meter goes up.  Caring well begins with taking interest in people and their needs.  Authentic caring builds trust.  If people in your church wonder, “Does my pastor love me?” you will lose trust in a hurry.

Be a servant.  If you do the very things you ask others to do, you will earn their trust.  If putting up tables and chairs is beneath you, if giving a Saturday away to serve a church family or a church initiative is asking to much, if you expect or ask for perks just because you’re the pastor, say goodbye to trust.

Be the same person all the time.  If you are not the same person in a committee meeting, in a church hallway, in a counseling session, at the ballgame, on the golf course or a basketball court, as you are in the pulpit, people will not trust you.  They won’t trust you because they don’t know which person is the real you.  Be the same person in the everywhere else as you are in the pulpit.

Keep confidence.  It probably only takes one divulging of a confidence in a sermon or a conversation to ruin your trust quotient among your congregation.  People’s secrets should be safe with a pastor.  I will go to my grave with the secrets people have trusted me with across four decades of ministry.

Put in an honest day’s work for your pay.  If you whine about how much you have to work, if you insist on your day off never being compromised by some urgent need in the church family, if you show up late to work, go home early, preach other people’s sermons, take two hour lunches, insist on being home every night, if you are more concerned about compensatory time than getting the job done, people will be slow to trust you.  Otherwise, they will ask questions: Does he want the job or not?  Is he all in or not?  Is he getting his job done?

Keep your word.  If you say you’ll be somewhere, be there.  If you agree to serve in a certain way, serve in that way.  If you make an appointment, keep it and be on time.  Failure to do simple things like this destroy trust level in a congregation.

Practice what you preach.  Don’t ask people to tithe if you’re not a tither.  Don’t ask people to share Christ if you’re not sharing Christ.  Don’t ask people to sacrifice personal time if you’re not willing to do it.  Don’t ask people to love their wives and children well if you’re not tending to your own family.  What we do is so loud, people won’t hear what we say—they won’t trust what we say.  Practice what you preach.  Nobody’s perfect here but we should strive to keep preaching and practice in as much sync as possible.

Admit when you’re wrong.  This is a sign of humility, and people are more prone to trust humble people.  Why is that so hard for some pastors to admit they made a mistake?  If you screw up (and you will screw up from time to time), own it, confess it, and move forward.  Most people in the church don’t expect you to be perfect, but they really don’t like it when you pretend to be.  And they won’t trust you either.

There you have it.  What would you add?  Work to build trust with your congregation.  If people don’t trust you, they will doubt your preaching, your word, your counsel, and your commitment.  If you don’t have trust, you don’t have a ministry.

Preaching on Stewardship

In most churches, it’s budget time. Some pastors will feel the need to preach on stewardship sometime in that process. Many will do it reluctantly. We’ve all heard the excuses. We’ve used them.

“I don’t like to ask people for money.”

“I don’t want to lose the gospel in preaching about money.”

“I don’t want to turn visitors off to the church.”

Can I encourage you to set aside your excuses and your fears and preach stewardship—financial stewardship. There are other areas of stewardship: time, talents, body, etc. But we’re talking money in this post. Jesus had no qualms with talking about money and possessions. He knew that is real life stuff. People think about it a lot. It can become an idol competing with Jesus for our best energies. And money follows the heart: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” said Jesus. At its heart, how we handle our money is a spiritual matter.

I’d go so far as to say that a failure to address stewardship issues from the pulpit is pastoral malpractice. Think of all the people in your congregation who could be set free from sins like envy, greed, selfishness, and materialism if they learned and practiced biblical teachings concerning money and possessions. Your congregation is not exactly combing the Scriptures for that kind of material. You need to tell them You need to teach them. That said, here are some practical tips for preaching on stewardship.

Don’t wait till the church is desperate for money to preach stewardship. Work it into the rhythms of your preaching calendar. If you’re preaching through a Bible book, don’t skip over any passages that deal with the use of money and possessions. Maybe you’d want to work a doctrinal series on stewardship into your preaching calendar. Just don’t wait till the church is desperate. Preach stewardship into your church’s DNA. That will dramatically limit desperation.

Don’t apologize for it. Nothing minimizes the truth like apologizing for it: “I know nobody likes to talk about money. I don’t either. But every once in a while I have to do it. So please forgive me. We’ll get through this and get to more important things next Sunday. Oh, and if you’re visiting today, I’m sure the last thing you wanted to is visit a church that talks about money. I don’t do it often.” Really? You know what that says to the church, don’t you? “This is a minor matter. Feel free to tune me out.” You don’t apologize for preaching on discipleship or missions or witnessing or marriage or the cross. Don’t apologize for preaching on money. It’s in the book—a lot. Jesus talks about it—a lot. It impacts discipleship, missions, witness, marriage, and the cross is the best example of sacrificial giving in the history of the world. See 2 Corinthians 8:9.

Remember that stewardship is broader than the offering plate. Every three or four years, I preach a series on stewardship. In January 2018, we had our adult Sunday School classes work through Art Rainer’s book, The Money Challenge. During worship, I preached a series that included sermons on God’s ownership, God’s provision, the idolatry of money, and one sermon on giving. A few years earlier we did a similar thing with Randy Alcorn’s book, The Treasure Principle. Sunday School and worship held hands to disciple our people in how they understand and handle what God has given them. Don’t be a “giving” only stewardship preacher. Preach broadly and theologically on the issue. Stewardship is broader than the offering plate.

Use both Old Testament and New Testament texts. Preach stewardship principles, stewardship parables, and people in the Bible who provide an example of stewardship, good or bad. Preach money wisdom from the Proverbs. Lots of variety possible in stewardship preaching. One of my favorite stewardship sermons is a sermon I call “Money Talks.” Since mammon was term in Jesus’ day that personified money, I introduced myself as Mammon and preached from his viewpoint. It wasn’t hard to get it to the gospel from that starting point. Lots of texts. Use them.

Smuggle stewardship nuggets into sermons if your text allows it. Are you preaching on greed? Smuggle in a stewardship nugget. Does the text address God’s providence? Smuggle in a stewardship nugget. You get the idea. If some part of your text raises its hand and asks to be used to plant a stewardship seed, plant it.

Use some humor. Some pastors are better than others at using humor in a sermon, but take a stab at it. Humor has a way of breaking tension, knocking down defenses, and opening ears. When we’re preaching about things like money and marriage and parenting, humor is a good friend to bring along.

Find and use good, legit stories that demonstrate God’s faithfulness. They’re not hard to find with a little digging. (I’ve got tons of them and would be glad to share them with you.) Stories put flesh and blood on theological bones and breathes life into them. Stories that rise out of the lives of your church family are powerful. Tell in a sermon how their offerings are making tangible kingdom impact in the world. Don’t be afraid to use personal testimony, to tell them something about your own journey in Christian stewardship. You’re not bragging. You’re doing something akin to what Paul told the Corinthians about his life: “Imitate me as I imitate Jesus.”

Challenge people to grow in this area of their discipleship. Don’t be bashful, be bold. Wouldn’t your people be better disciples for it? Wouldn’t it move the kingdom ball down the field? No matter how bold you are, you’ll never be more bold than Jesus who told the rich young man, “One thing you lack: sell everything you have and give it to the poor. That’ll change your bank account from earth to heaven. Then come, follow me.” Can’t get bolder than that!

Use the rhythm of your church’s life to touch on stewardship through the year like capital campaigns and seasonal mission offerings. Not a worship goes by when I don’t say a brief stewardship word of some kind (a Bible text, a word about how God used their offerings that week, a theological thought about financial stewardship, a quote of some sort). You can preach/teach stewardship without doing it through a sermon.

Practice what you preach. Maybe I should have put this first. It’s a bit hypocritical to challenge your people to do something you are not doing yourself. If not, why not?

We could say more, but I trust this gives you some grist for your mill, some mull for your muller. Pray about it. Think about it. Do it as God leads you. You’ll be a better pastor. Your church will grow deeper disciples. And the kingdom of God will benefit from extra resources.

Let’s Talk About Weddings

I rarely visit with a pastor who enjoys doing weddings. Just mention weddings to a group of pastors and you hear things like this:

  • “It takes the whole weekend: Friday rehearsal, Saturday wedding, and boom—Sunday is here.”
  • “Everybody wants a Princess Di wedding these days. Couples are more concerned with how things look than what it means.”
  • “Many of the couples don’t take premarital counseling seriously.”
  • “I feel like rent-a-preacher.”
  • “Weddings? I’d rather do a funeral any day.”
  • And “You never know about the mother of the bride.”

Enjoy them or not, they are part of our duties as pastors. They provide an opportunity to deepen relationships with a church family, provide leadership to help a couple build a better marriage, and offer a gospel opportunity in the wedding sermon/devotional. In short, weddings give a pastor another avenue to shepherd the people toward Jesus.

I have mixed emotions when it comes to doing weddings. The better I know the couple and the family, the more I enjoy doing their wedding. I’ve been pastor where I am long enough that I have married persons who I visited at the hospital on the day of their birth. Those weddings mean a little more. Lots of shared history and experience together. I feel like they are family. It helps me, too, because I will only marry persons with whom I have connection. I haven’t been rent-a-preacher in years. At least two or three times a year, I get a call at the office: “Hey, pastor, we’re going to be in Hot Springs two Saturdays from now, and we’re looking for a Baptist preacher to do our wedding. Will you do it?” I feel zero guilt and remorse when I say, “No thanks.” If a person is connected to the church, I am glad to be part of the wedding. If they are not, there are plenty of rent-a-preachers available.

That said, let me chart out some things to think in regard to pastors and weddings:

If the church doesn’t have a wedding policy, help the church formulate one. Policies protect both the church and the pastor. Policies detail who can be married in the church and who can perform weddings in the church, a requirement (or not) to use the church wedding coordinator, calendar considerations, costs, premarital counseling expectations, A/V and custodial requirements and costs. Some policies even spell out the kind of music that can be played. The key in any policy statement is detailed enough to provide clear direction on the things that matter most to a church but general enough to provide a little wiggle room.

Determine your personal positions on issues like these: interfaith weddings or where one of the couple is not a Christian; how you will respond to a couple that is already living together before marriage; how you think about things like doing the Lord’s Supper for the couple only during the ceremony; what you will do if after getting acquainted with the couple, you’re convinced the marriage is a bad idea.

Determine what you will expect of the couple in regard to premarital counseling. Some churches offer required classes. If you do the counseling, how many sessions and what is your plan? Will you use some kind of standardized testing? Will you require any outside reading or homework assignments between sessions?

Know your role in the wedding rehearsal. These days, many churches provide coordinators or the couple hires a coordinator. If a coordinator is employed, what is your role. Personally, I prefer to run the rehearsal. If the wedding is in the church, I do run the rehearsal. I know how to do it. I do it well. I get everybody ready for the wedding day. I’m efficient. But these days, more and more weddings are in non-church venues. In that case, I tell the coordinator that while she/he is in charge of the overall rehearsal, I will take charge once we get the wedding party in their places. It works well. As to the rehearsal dinner, sometimes I go, sometimes I don’t.

Develop a wedding day ritual. I like to get there at least 30 minutes before the wedding, check in with the coordinator, check on the wedding party, and refresh my thoughts for the sermon/devotional. I like to share an appropriate Scripture, keep my words brief and to the point (5-10 minutes), keep it as personal as I can, and insert the gospel in the process. For years, I rarely mentioned the gospel. I’ve tried to remedy that in my old age. A wedding is as much a gospel opportunity as a funeral. After the service, I ask the photographer if he/she can take my picture with the couple first. I’ve yet to encounter one who wouldn’t do that. When I was younger, I went to more receptions. Of course, most receptions in those days were in the church. Fewer and fewer receptions are in the church now. So I may or may not go to a reception. I’ve yet to have anyone complain if I didn’t show up.

Consider your attire: make sure you own a black suit (a marrying and burying suit, as one preacher called it). Black is always appropriate. Of course, some couples prefer more casual attire. Check with the couple about that. I learned from my wife to ask about the bridesmaids colors, so I can pick a tie that doesn’t clash.

And what about taking an honorarium for your work? My policy, as I tell the couple during premarital counseling, is that I don’t want to be paid to perform their wedding. I consider it part of my responsibility as their pastor. If I pastored a church that didn’t pay very well, I would rethink that policy. I’ve never charged a fee, but I have gratefully received whatever a family wants to give. These days, since families know my no-charge policy, they tend to give me a gift card of some kind. Most want to do something. Let them.

So there you go: a few thoughts about weddings. What have I missed? What would you add or change?

Some of My Favorite Books on Preaching

Like many of you, I’m an avid reader.  I try to read across disciplines with a few novels thrown in each year.  But I burrow down deeply in the disciplines I most enjoy—preaching and pastoral ministry.  Blogs that list the writer’s favorite books get a read from me almost every time.  I came of age as a pastor in an era when intentional mentoring wasn’t much of thing.  Pastors tended to be more suspicious of each other, competitors with each other.  Count me as one who is glad to see that era mostly gone.  All that to say that most of my mentors in my formative years as a pastor were authors.  So books mean a lot to me.

Could I tell you about my favorite books on preaching?  If you know much about these books, you’ll notice that they tend to reflect a more right-brained approach to preaching—image driven, use of imagination, narrative style, word-precision—more a running train of thought than a sequencing of points.  Please don’t misunderstand.  I am not criticizing traditional three-point preaching.  When the text calls for it, I preach that way too.  I don’t know exactly how I would describe my “style.”  Words like expository, text-driven, text-centered, theological, all describe preaching styles.  Not everyone interprets those words the same way, however.  I guess I would describe my preaching as “biblical”—a prayerful attempt to preach the meaning of the text in the genre and mood and tone that text.  As most preachers desire, no matter their style of preaching, I want the church to learn something, feel something, and do something as they engage with the text and the sermon.  Experience has taught me that when the head and the heart take hands, they can move the will in the right direction. 

Every preacher is familiar with Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching from his 1877 Lyman Beecher lectures on preaching at Yale: preaching is “truth through personality.”  As we learn to preach, we tend to mimic those preachers we like the best.  Over time, a preacher finds his/her voice.  My preaching reflects my voice.  That’s why people who know me would say I’m the same person in the pulpit and out.  I preach the Scriptures out of the personality God has formed in me, shaped by my internal wiring and by my experiences.  Most of my favorite books reflect preachers whose “voice” resonates with mine.  They speak to mind and heart and will.  But I suppose I need to say: I may not agree with everything in every book, but these are the preaching books that continue to visit me in my mind when I’m putting a sermon together.  Here are those books …

  • Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages by Haddon Robinson.  If I could only own one book on preaching, this would probably be it.  Published in 1980, it is now in its third edition.  I’ve tried to read everything Robinson wrote on preaching.
  • Preaching by Fred Craddock.  This is his “textbook” for preaching.  Craddock was unique among preachers.    He was much criticized for his book As One Without Authority for his inductive approach to the text.  But Fred could preach, and he could teach preaching with the best of them.  I have also tried to read everything Craddock wrote on preaching.
  • Homiletic: Moves and Structures by David Buttrick.  Buttrick greatly influenced the way I understand sermon structure.  This is a technical book not so well known as books by Robinson and Craddock, but it is worth wrestling with.  At least it was for me.
  • Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible by Thomas Long.  I try to read everything Long writes about preaching too.  His “textbook” on preaching is The Witness of Preaching, but I chose Literary Forms because Long got on this approach before everyone else.  Now it’s common for preaching profs to encourage a strong look at genre in structuring a sermon.  It wasn’t so common when Long wrote this book in 1989.  The concepts of this book are in my head every time I wrestle with a text for preaching.
  • Celebration and Experience in Preaching by Henry Mitchell.  African-American pastors know this book.  We white pastors need to know this book.  Mitchell helps us see how the sermon is not just a part of worship; it’s an act of worship.  We white preachers won’t be able to pull off celebration in preaching like our black brothers and sisters, but we can learn from Mitchell and appropriate what we can.
  • The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor.  Even those of you who don’t believe a woman should preach would benefit from Taylor’s experience and learn a little something from her preaching style (saying a lot with few words) in the sermons she includes in the last part of the book.
  • Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness by Jeffrey Arthurs.  You may not know of this recent book, but Arthurs explains and demonstrates the importance of vivid language, story, delivery, and ceremony to preach sermons that stir believers to live their faith.

For my more left-brained pastor friends, two indispensable books are …

  • John Stotts’ Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century
  • And Tim Keller’s Preaching: Communicating the Faith in an Age of Skepticism.

I’m suspecting that John Piper’s new book Expository Exaltation will be another strong book on preaching in a more left-brained style.  I plan to read that this year.

Finally, I would also recommend the following books to provide a wide range of preaching possibilities:

  • Spirit, Word, and Story: A Philosophy of Preaching by Calvin Miller.
  • Preaching as Reminding: Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness by Jeffrey Arthurs. 
  • Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon by Bryan Chapell.
  • On Preaching: Personal & Pastoral Insights for the Preparation and Practice of Preaching by H. B. Charles, Jr.
  • The Homiletical Plot by Eugene Lowry.
  • Preaching for the Rest of Us by Robby Gallaty and Steven Smith.
  • Peculiar Speech by Will Willimon.

So, what’s your next read as you seek to improve as a preacher?  These books provide a wide range of preaching insight.  Could I challenge you to read two books on preaching this year?

And because I’m always looking for good books on preaching, what would you add to this list?  What are your favorite books on preaching?  Feel free to comment below.

On Sleeping in Church

It’s been said that preachers are a group of people who talk in somebody else’s sleep. It happens—probably happens every Sunday most everywhere. Somebody in the congregation or the choir nods off to dreamland. This is nothing new. One of my favorite stories in Acts is the story from Troas in chapter 20, where Paul, planning on leaving the next day, and having still much to say, preached all night long. A young man named Eutychus moved during the preaching to sit in a window. Was he feeling sleepy? Maybe the smoky haze of burning lanterns called for some fresh air. Who knows? But we do know this: while sitting in the window listening to Paul drone on and on, Eutychus fell asleep and out the window—a three-story fall that killed him dead. But not to worry, the church rushed down to him, and Paul raised that boy from the dead. Some wonder if Luke included this story as comic relief, to prove Paul as a prophet in the vein of Elijah and Elisha, or to provide an example of judgment on those who neglect the word of God. Maybe it’s all of those. Being a preacher, I certainly find the comic relief in it—especially since Eutychus would live to sleep in church another day.

Every church has its sleepers. I remember a man in a congregation I served who kept his eyes closed for most of my sermon. He told me it helped him concentrate. I think he was catching a few winks. A friend of mine was in a church where a particular man fell asleep every Sunday. And one Sunday, the man was so deep in his sleep that he slept through the sermon and even the closing hymn. Fed up with it, the pastor called on this sleeper to close in prayer. Sound asleep, he didn’t hear the pastor call. So the pastor called on him again, and the man next to the sleeper grabbed his shoulder, shook him awake, and said, “You’re supposed to pray.” “What? Huh?” The man groggily stood and prayed, “Thank you, God, for the food we’re about to receive.” Thinking he was at lunch, he said a blessing. It happens. It’s never bothered me much when somebody falls asleep during my preaching. I figure that if the church can provide twenty minutes of rest to some worn out soul, then we’re still doing some good.

But not every preacher feels that way. I read a story about sleeping in church that happened in a Puritan church in Massachusetts in June, 1646. I found the story in On This Day in Christian History by Robert Morgan. The Puritans of colonial New England appointed “tithingmen” to stroll among the pews on Sunday mornings, alert for anyone nodding off during the long, often ponderous sermons. They carried long poles with feathers on one end and knobs or thorns on the other. Worshipers napped at their own peril, and the results were unpredictable. Obadiah Turner included this entry in his journal from a particular Sunday (I’m Americanizing the English a little bit):

Allen Bridges was chosen to wake the sleepers in worship. And being much proud of his place, he had a fox tail fixed to the end of a long staff with which he may brush the faces of them that nap during the sermon, likewise a sharp thorn whereby he may prick such as sleep most sound. On the last Lord’s day, as he strutted about the meetinghouse, he did spy Mr. Tomlins sleeping with much comfort, his head kept steady by being in the corner, and his hand grasping the rail. And so spying, Allen quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard and gave him a grievous prick upon the hand. Whereupon Mr. Tomlins sprang up much above the floor and, with terrible force, strike his hand against the wall; and also to the great wonder of all, profanely exclaim in a loud voice, “Curse ye, woodchuck!” He was dreaming ,so it seemed, that a woodchuck had seized and bit his hand. But on coming to know where he was, and the great scandal he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again go to sleep in worship.

I think Mr. Tomlins could have avoided his embarrassing moment if he had owned a book I purchased years ago: 101 Things to Do During a Boring Sermon. In this book Tim Sims and Dan Pegoda offer a variety of games, diversions, musings, and the like to stay awake while the preacher waxes on and on and on.  Among them:

  • “Bird Brain” in which the bored worshiper lists as many state birds as he can and then matches the state birds he’s listed to church members who look like one of the birds.
  • There’s also a game called “Song of Solomon” in which the bored worshiper composes an oozing love letter to a prominent church member, then leaves it, unsigned, inside a hymnal or pew Bible. Not only will composing that letter keep you awake during the sermon, it’s bound to perk up the person who finds it the next Sunday.

Sleeping in church: it happens.  We preachers aren’t immune either. I remember reading this bit of preaching counsel: “Rule #1: don’t fall asleep during your own sermon.”  Perhaps, we preachers could work a little harder on being more engaging in our preaching.  But even the best preachers will preach a handful of people to sleep. 

I wonder if Eutychus realized what he was starting on that hazy Troas night. His tribe has increased. That’s just life; that’s just church. People are going to sleep in church from time to time. But my real concern is not for those that sleep through a sermon now and then but for those who are in a deeper spiritual slumber. They may wear the form of Christianity, but their faith is only skin deep, not heart deep. They are asleep to the presence of Christ around them, asleep to his promptings, asleep to the needs of their neighbors, asleep to God’s word and God’s will and God’s ways. Some of them may stay awake through every sermon and take good notes—notes that move from ear to page while bypassing the heart.

Those are the folks I worry about. But their situation is not hopeless. If God can raise the dead, he can surely wake the sleeping. I pray he will. There’s a life to be lived, a God to be worshiped, truths to be learned, and a world that needs God’s touch through you.  Sleeping in church won’t help.  Sleepwalking through the week won’t help either.

So, preachers, may God give us grace and unction to preach sleeping people awake, and awake people to vibrant worship and Christian living.

On Getting Feedback on Our Preaching

I don’t know about you, but I was not looking forward to preaching lab in seminary days.  I was not thrilled about preaching to my peers, looking into the eyes of fellow students, a sermon critique form on their desktop.  Some were sizing me up, some seemed disinterested, one blew the dust off his just sharpened pencil—the pencil he would use to critique my sermon.  I had to preach to that.  Still struggling with security issues, I was nervous.  I was as consumed with how they might critique my sermon as I was with preaching the sermon.  Sitting at the back of the room, the professor pointed his finger at me—the cue to preach my sermon.  Believe it or not, I still remember my text.  It was from Philippians 4 and the main idea was “we can find contentment in Christ.”

So I preached the sermon and received my first ever formal feedback.  I’d preached many times before that day, but I never received any feedback beyond, “Good sermon, preacher.”  “I enjoyed that, preacher.”  “God’s got big plans for you, preacher.”  Nobody I preached to had a critique form in front of them.  None of them were listening to find fault or to make me better.  They were praying for a word from the Lord through a young preacher like me.  But my classmates and professor had to critique me: What did I do well?  Where do I need work?  How did I explain, illustrate, and apply the text?  What annoying mannerisms did I employ in the delivery that were distracting to listeners?  Want to know the harshest critique I received?  “He was too polished.”  I needed to unpack that criticism, but I felt like I survived with barely a mark on me.  That was some 40 years ago, and I’ve received little formal feedback since then.

In the church I served in seminary, I was the Associate Pastor but did most of the preaching during an interim period.  One member, a friend and the father of a couple of kids in my youth group, offered me helpful critiques, asking me one time, “Do you know how many times you use the words uh and you know when you preach?”  I didn’t.  He told me.  He helped me.  Made me a better preacher.

During doctoral studies, my peer group spent one session critiquing a VHS copy of a sermon I had preached in the church I served.  We each had to take our turn.  That was helpful too.

But since then, formal feedback has been hard to come by.  I try to get it in staff meeting, but it’s not much different than what I get post-service on Sunday mornings.  I get it.  It’s not easy to evaluate your boss.  For one season, I invited people to join me in a group on Sunday night to dialogue about the morning sermon.  Few came.  Didn’t last long.  And I’ve done a church-wide written sermon evaluation form for any who wanted to participate.  That was interesting but not very helpful either with this exception: one person told me that I looked to my left way more than I looked to my right as I preached.  I took note of that helpful critique.

So where can we go to get good feedback?  Let me suggest some things.  I have not tried everything I suggest, but I’m thinking about it.

  • Don’t completely discount immediate feedback in the lobby of the church after the service.  If you know your people, you know which feedback is legit and which is perfunctory.  Take special note of those who rarely give feedback.  If they were moved enough to speak to you, you need to listen.  I still remember my all-time favorite post-service feedback.  It came from a man who had never given me feedback before.  He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I’ve never had my butt so thoroughly chewed and enjoyed it so much.”  That told me I struck a good balance between grace and truth on that day.
  • If your church has the capability to record or video your sermon, watch/listen to it once or twice a month.  It strikes me a bit self-indulgent to do that every week.  But now and then could be helpful.  What do you like?  What annoyed you?  Did you get to the gospel?  Did you transition well?  How was your vocal cadence and dynamics?  What could you have done better?
  • We don’t utilize a teaching team in our church, but if yours does, that’s a ready-made feedback group who can give feedback both before and after the sermon is preached.  This seems to me to be most helpful.
  • I’ve heard some preachers suggest using your spouse for feedback.  Wives (or husbands as the case may be) can be good.  I have a cartoon of a pastor and his wife in their car on their way home from church.  The pastor says to his wife, “You know, that sermon would have had a lot more impact if you hadn’t yelled ‘Ha!’ right in the middle of my second point.”  Some spouses feel equipped to give you solid content feedback.  But all spouses can provide feedback on your energy and passion level in your preaching.  They probably have a deeper sense than the average church member about how present you were in the preaching moment.
  • Another possible feedback source is to enlist a “preaching coach”—a seasoned preacher you respect and believe you can learn from who will give you periodic feedback on your preaching.  There are surely some out there who have the time to do this.
  • And still one more avenue of feedback is this: the health of the church you serve. Not every church has the capacity to grow much numerically, but churches grow in any number of ways: mission engagement, biblical literacy, generosity of individuals and the church body, evangelism, unity and fellowship, etc. If your church is healthy and showing signs of growth in some of these areas, that may be the best feedback on your preaching you need. You are feeding the flock. They are getting it. They are growing deeper in discipleship.

So feedback is important and can make better preachers of us all.  Still, I do want to give just a little push back against getting too caught up in seeking feedback. 

First, there’s something sacred about the preaching moment.  It can’t be replicated in a video.  Being in the room in the moment can have a mystical component not caught on a replay.  In other words, a sermon can be much better in the moment than it appears when reviewed outside of the worship hour.

Second, God’s Spirit can use God’s word through God’s servant for God’s people in ways that cannot be analytically reviewed.  Haven’t you had the experience of stepping down from the pulpit feeling like you laid an egg only to have several people tell you how much God used that sermon to speak to them in deep places in their hearts?  And by the same token, haven’t you stepped down from the pulpit waiting for people to dump a bucket of Gatorade over your shoulders in celebration of a home run sermon only to discover in the heart of the church it was a weak grounder to the pitcher.  The Holy Spirit is the wild card here.  He can use us at our best.  He can use us at our worst.  Which is the fly in the ointment of feedback.  Too much fascination with feedback can get us too self-focused or too self-conscious or too concerned about how we are preaching to the point that we make it about us instead of Jesus, that we make it more about our affirmation than God’s declaration, that we make it more a job to accomplish than an act of worship.  May John the Baptist’s words be ours, “He must increase; I must decrease.”  The Holy Spirit’s role in the preaching moment can’t be evaluated by strictly human means, if at all.

And then, third, when it comes to getting “professional” feedback, every preacher has his/her own style.  Most preachers I know tend to think that their style is the “best” and the “right” style.  That means their feedback will be tempered by trying to fit you into their mold.  While the person giving feedback can be helpful on how you handled a text or the clarity of your main idea or delivery critiques, they may not be so helpful on “style” issues: exposition, narrative, point-driven outline, train of thought, manuscript, notes, no notes, etc.

Here’s the bottom line: get helpful feedback where you can as you can, learn from it, improve from it, but don’t become a feedback junkie.  As John Denver sang, “Some days are diamonds, some days are dust.”  As Tony Horton says about exercise, “Do your best and forget the rest.”  Pray hard.  Work hard.  Trust the Spirit.  And let it go, holding on to God’s promise that his word (no matter how well or poorly we preach it) doesn’t come back empty.

What do you think? And what is your best feedback story?

A Sample 4th of July Sermon

In the previous post, we discussed pastors and the 4th of July. Here is a sample sermon I preached on the July 4th weekend, 2015. I don’t always address the 4th. That year I did. Summer headlines: “ISIS murders Christians” and “Supreme Court legalizes same-sex marriage.” I’ve preached a number of July 4th sermons across the decades. This is just one example. If it stirs your thoughts as you preach on this American holiday, then I’ll be grateful.

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GOD BEFORE COUNTRY (Isaiah 40:10-15, 21-31)

For much of American history, churches have used the Sunday nearest the 4th of July to hold God and Country services.  And some of them have been real blowouts: an armed color guard presents the flag, the people are asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing the national anthem.  Sometimes on that Sunday churches will hang in the sanctuary an American flag big enough to make a car dealership jealous.  Of course, all the good old patriotic staples are sung in worship.  The church spends an hour or so celebrating the fact that we are Americans, and the preacher uses his or her time to speak in glowing terms of our great nation.

But some years ago, as America began distancing herself more and more from God, those services started changing a bit—a little less congratulations and little more criticism, a little less “Hooray for America” and a little more “Help us, Jesus,” a little less “God bless us” and a little more “Woe is us.”  And after last Thursday’s Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage the law of the land, I wonder what kind of services evangelical churches will be having today.

As you know, we don’t really do God and Country services in this church.  We may sing a couple of songs that are tied to American history, but we don’t wave the flag and try to make better patriots out of whoever shows up.  I’ve taken some flack for that over the years, but I’ve held steady.  I love God, and I love our country.  But I don’t like the phrase “God and country”—never have.  We can do better than that.  How about God before Country?  How about God first?  God before Country helps us get our heads right and our doctrine right and put first things first.  For a follower of Christ, God and country are not on equal levels.  In our hearts and in our actions, God must come before country every time.

Just in case you ever get this confused, let me remind you that …

Barak Obama is not Lord.  Congress and the Supreme Court are not the heavenly host.  The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are not infallible guides to Christian faith and practice.  The “original intent” of America’s founders does not guarantee national righteousness.  The American flag is not the cross.  The Pledge of Allegiance is not the creed.  And the song God Bless America is not the Doxology.[1]

Not God and Country but God before Country.  And I don’t say this to rag on America.  Across our 239 year history, America has been in so many ways a gift to the world.  It’s safe to say that many, if not most, of America’s founding fathers and mothers believed God’s hand was at work in the formation of this nation.  Noted historian David McCullough concluded his book, 1776, with these words:

Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning—how often circumstances, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference—the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.[2] 

God has blessed America and made America a blessing to the world.  America has provided a haven of religious freedom, a harbor for immigrants and political refugees, food for the world, and care for her needy and poor.  America has sent more missionaries into the world than any other nation.  America is usually first on the scene with an open hand when earthquakes rumble and tsunamis roll anywhere in the world.  With the blood of many of our best and brightest sons and daughters, America has fought tyranny and fascism and helped liberate millions of people who lived under an iron fist.  America has done many things well.  We’re quite a nation! 

But we’re not perfect, we’re not innocent, and never have been.  We’ve got some blood on our hands.  Just ask the American Indian.  Just ask the families of African-Americans who were segregated and lynched because of the color of their skin and who are still fighting for an equal playing field.  Just ask the millions of unborn babies whose mother’s womb became their tomb through the atrocity of abortion on demand.  And now this latest Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.  We’ve got plenty of national sins and a few skeletons in our closet.  And even though we’ve made great progress in race relations in the last fifty years, the racial divide in America seems more pronounced now than in some time.

So while there is much in America that is good, America is not God, and Americans are not God’s chosen people.  It’s not God and Country.  It’s God before Country.  Always has been. 

And the prophet Isaiah helps us keep our heads straight on this matter.  In Isaiah 40 the prophet was speaking to a group of people in exile—strangers in a strange land.  And they were in exile precisely because as a nation they got too big for their britches.  They were Judah of Israel —children of Father Abraham, recipients of the magnificent Law of Moses, ruled by descendants of the great King David, God’s chosen people and the apple of His eye.  They thought they were invincible, bullet-proof, unconquerable.  “God is on our side!” was their boast. 

Problem was—they weren’t on God’s side.  God gave them the law; they disobeyed it.  God sent them prophets; they ignored most, killed some.  God called them to repentance; they persisted in their arrogance and sin and worshiped any number of idols alongside their lifeless, lip-service worship of God (Isa. 29:13).  And when God’s longsuffering patience was finally exhausted, He lowered the boom on His own people.  Their land was ransacked, their temple looted and burned to the ground, their ablest people carted off to Babylon.  Now in exile, they had their doubts.  Would they ever go home again?  Would they ever become a nation again?  How could this defeated people stand up in the face of Babylon and other nations who were so much stronger and greater than they?

And that’s where Isaiah set them straight.  It’s not really about nations, he said; it’s about God.  A sovereign nation is not the issue; a sovereign God is the issue.  It’s not God and country; it’s God before country—any country and every country.  Get your eyes on God.  Isaiah uses this chapter not to rag on his country but to brag on his God.  And that’s a good word for us too.  Hear the word of the Lord through Isaiah … (read the text)

These are some powerful words—God before country, God above country, God in a whole other realm from every country on the face of the earth.

I

What are nations to God anyway?  They are nothing.  They are like a drop in the bucket, like dust on the scales.  And what about the rulers of those nations—how do they measure up to God—these pompous, larger than life, intimidating, powerful kings, prime ministers, and presidents?  How do they measure up to God?  They’re not much either.  Compared to God they’re about the size of a grasshopper.  They come to power, they shore up their power, they work to protect and extend their power.  And just when they feel like they’re secure and in control, God blows on them and they wither; God sends a whirlwind and they are swept away like a West Texas tumbleweed.  In the greater scheme of things, nations and rulers don’t amount to much—they fret and strut their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more.  They are full of sound and fury, signifying … not much.  They do some good, they do some bad, and sooner or later they wither into dust and become little more than a page or two in a history book.  That’s been the case for every nation and ruler that has ever existed. 

At one time, Egypt was the deal—the strongest, largest, most powerful nation on the earth.  But look at them now—just another little country in the Arab world with some really cool pyramids—but no great player on the world’s stage.  Their greatest days are in the past.    

And what about Israel?  Under King David and King Solomon, Israel’s territory stretched for miles in every direction.  They were the kings of the middle-eastern hill.  They were the wealthiest and most feared nation on the earth.  But after Solomon’s death they split into two countries and in due time, because of their rebellion against God, both of those countries were invaded and destroyed, their people scattered.  And even though Israel returned to their homeland, they were little more than a puppet state, an occupied country.  Eventually the nation of Israel ceased to exist altogether until they were given back some of their land in 1948.  That’s Israel.

Then there was Assyria—the biggest, baddest bully on the block for two or three centuries.  They were ruthless, heartless, and violent.  Assyria had everybody shaking in their sandals.  But once the Babylonians destroyed them there has never been an Assyria anymore.

Nor is there a Babylon anymore.  Nor is there a great Greek or Roman Empire anymore.  The French and British empires had there day and are but a shell of what they once were.  Hitler’s Third Reich, which he predicted would last a thousand years, was destroyed after a tyrannical run of just over a decade or so.  The Soviet Union, once a major player and superpower, imploded after only 71 years of history.  And many observers would say that the good old USA is not what she once was and never will be again.

Nations come and nations go.  Some have their day in the sun and even become major players on the world stage for a time.  But sooner or later, nations decline and fall from their heights of glory.  Just read a history book and you’ll see.  Nations come and nations go.

II

But God is here forever.  And that’s what Isaiah is trying to make clear in our text.

Do you not know?
Have you not heard
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth
was founded?

God is here forever.  In the beginning … God.  Isaiah describes God in majestic, glorious terms.  We only read a few verses, but Isaiah uses this whole chapter to tell us about God.

  • God is the Sovereign Lord who comes with power and whose arm rules for Him (v. 10).
  • But God is not some maniac tyrant.  God is the shepherd who tends His flock and gathers the lambs in His arms, carrying them close to His heart (v.11).
  • God is the Creator who measured the waters in the hollow of His hand (v. 12).  “I’ll put the Pacific Ocean here, the Atlantic over there.  And the Indian Ocean in this spot right here.”  When we cup our hand we hold just enough water to get a sip or two.  When God cups His hand he holds enough water to make an ocean.  That’s a big hand!
  • And when God measured the breadth of the heavens, which scientists tell us are a bazillion light years deep, God used His hand to mark off its boundaries (v. 12).
  • God holds the dust of the earth in a basket and weighs the mountains and hills on the scales (v. 12).  Did you know that our God is this large, this vast?
  • And smart too (vv. 13-14).  Madame Curie was brilliant.  Einstein was a genius.  But even smart folks like that had to be taught to read and write.  They had to learn their way along.  But not God.  God needs no instructor or counselor since He knows everything there is to know and all true knowledge has its source in Him.
  • And God sits on a throne (v. 22).  But not some pipsqueak earthly throne—no matter how large or ritzy it may be.  No earthly throne is big enough for God.  He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, said Isaiah.  He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them like a tent to live in.  You go camping, you pitch a little tent.  God goes camping, He pitches a universe.  This is some God, huh?
  • This is the God who brings out the starry host one by one and calls them by name (v. 26).
  • This is the God who is everlasting—no birth date for this God and you’ll find no tombstone for Him either—never will (v. 28).  He is everlasting.
  • This is the God who does not grow weary and tired, the God who never needs a nap or a vacation, who never has to sit down and catch His breath, the God who never even needs a coffee break (v. 28).
  • This is the God whose understanding no one can fathom, the God who gives strength to the weary and power to the weak, the God who lifts up those who trust in Him (vv. 28-31).
  • This is the God of Isaiah 40, the God of the Scriptures, the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.

And Isaiah lifts up this God against nations and rulers and reminds God’s people like you and me that no nation has ever measured up to God.  Could these qualities of God that Isaiah described ever be used to describe a nation?  Do you know any nations who create?  Any nations who are everlasting?  Any nations with perfect understanding?  Any nation that never grows weary or tired?  Of course you don’t.  Only God can be described in such glowing, glorious terms.  “‘To whom will you compare me?  Or who is my equal,’ says the Holy One” (v. 25).  And the answer is obvious: no one—no nation, no ruler, or none of the many idols we manufacture in our hearts and minds.  No one compares to God.  That’s why God is always first, always deserves more from us than even our beloved nation. 

God deserves our highest allegiance—higher than the state, higher than our political parties, and higher than our rulers. 

  • That’s why when kings and the people told Jeremiah to quit preaching, he said, “No—God has put a fire in my bones and I have to preach it out.”   
  • That’s why when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were told to worship the king’s idol or be pitched in a fiery furnace, they said, “Pitch us in.  Our God can save us but even if He doesn’t, we’ll worship the one true and living God, not your stupid, lifeless idol.”
  • That’s why when Daniel was told, “Quit praying for thirty days or get tossed in the lions’ den,” Daniel replied, “I love God more than I fear lions.  I’m going to keep praying like I always have.”
  • That’s why when Jewish authorities told the disciples to quit preaching Jesus in Jerusalem, they replied, “Not a chance.  We must obey God before man.”
  • That’s why when many Christians in the first three centuries were told to say, “Caesar is Lord” or be killed, they were martyred because they said, “Jesus is Lord.”  They caught a glimpse of the Eternal City, bought for them through the blood of Jesus Christ who died for their sins and rose from the dead, who knows the way to heaven, and who can get his martyrs all the way home.
  • That’s why when many Christians in the Middle-East and in Africa were told by Islamic jihadists, “We’re in charge now.  Convert to Allah or off with your head,” they chose to lose their head rather than lose their faith in Christ.  They believed Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.  He that lives and believes in me will never die.”  So swing your swords, and shoot your bullets.  You can take our life, but you can’t have it.  Jesus has defeated death and he will have us forever. 

Our highest allegiance belongs to God and God alone.  Believers hold citizenship in a larger kingdom than America—a kingdom that includes persons from every tribe and nation and tongue.  And believers submit to a higher authority than a king or a president or a dictator.  We submit to the one before whom someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:10-11).  That’s our God.

III

And that’s who we worship.  That’s why we don’t make a big deal out of God and Country services.  The church’s mission is not to make patriots but to make Christian disciples.  There are plenty of other venues in our culture to create patriots.  The church needs to point to that higher kingdom and higher authority of the Sovereign God before whom all nations (even our own) are like a drop in the bucket, and all rulers (even our own) are like grasshoppers.  And on the holiday where we celebrate our Declaration of Independence, the church needs to celebrate a declaration of dependence upon God and His grace and His righteousness and His word and His ways.  The church needs to worship the true and living God—not our country, not our forefathers, and not our heritage.  The church needs to worship God and join Isaiah in saying that it’s not about God and Country; it’s about God before country.

This doesn’t mean we can’t love our county.  I love our country, and I suspect you do too.  I have a deep appreciation for those who serve our country in the military and for many in politics.  As Christian citizens in a democracy we have a moral obligation to engage at some level in our country’s political arena.  Who knows?  We could make some difference along the way.  Many have.  So at the very least vote, and some of us need to speak up and run for office if God leads you to do so.  Just don’t put all your eggs in that basket.  And don’t base your hope for America upon our political process, or your hope for the church and the world upon America.  God is our hope.  Our Creator, Sovereign, powerful, all-knowing God is in control so we don’t have to be.  He’s in charge so we don’t have to worry.  Our hope is not in America and not in our rulers; our hope is in God.  Lord, please send a revival!

And lest you think this sermon is a reaction to the Supreme Court decision last Thursday, I want you to know that I preached pretty much this same sermon (with minor changes) in this church on July 3, 2005, ten years ago.  This is not reactionary; this is foundational.  This is not emotion; this is historic Christian doctrine.  We who call Jesus Lord better get our heads and heart right about this because I believe it’s going to grow more difficult in coming years for Christians in America who won’t spout the party-line.   But I’m not preaching this to rag on America; I’m preaching this to brag on God—our Creator, our Savior, our Lord, our hope, our peace, our present, our future, our God! 

So it’s fine and good for us to share our stance on issues in the hopes of changing some minds, but let’s do something more that could change both hearts and minds: as Christians and the church, let’s humble ourselves, seek God’s face, repent of our sins, get our own house in order, pray like never before for our nation, cry out for revival, and proclaim in word and deed and love any way we can, anywhere we can, to anyone we can, the glory of our great God who in His Son Jesus Christ and by the power of His Holy Spirit continues to save sinners, spare nations, mend broken lives, sanctify His children, and build His kingdom—the only kingdom in history that cannot be shaken and the only kingdom that will last forever.


[1]This is my paraphrase of part of an editorial titled, “Worship as Higher Politics,” www.christianitytoday.com, (June 23, 2005).

[2]David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 294.

The Pastor and the 4th of July

It’s on the calendar every year.  And most churches expect some kind of acknowledgement in the worship service prior to the 4th.  Some churches expect a blowout celebration complete with an American flag large enough for a car dealership to envy, patriotic songs, and either a rousing patriotic sermon or an angry “prophetic” sermon railing against political progressives and liberals.  Churches have traditions about such things.  Some churches are known for their annual passion play at Easter or singing Christmas tree during Advent.  Some churches are known for their annual “God bless America” rally.  What are we pastors supposed to do with the 4th of July?

We need to pray this through and figure it out for ourselves.  But I can tell you what I do.  I don’t like patriotic services.  And I’ve taken some flack for it across the decades.  I haven’t made everybody happy.  Still don’t, but one of the blessings of tenure is that over time, my approach has become “normal” for our congregation.

Some Context and a Confession

I am a Baby Boomer and came of age during Viet Nam, the fight for Civil Rights, and Watergate.  Maybe I’ve grown a bit too cynical about our nation and our politics.  Maybe I always have been.  Not becoming, I know, but not much has happened since my youth to alleviate my cynicism.  I’m not blind to that. 

But my views on how the church engages politics and celebrates the 4th of July is born out of my theology rather than my cynicism.  The church is to be a home for the gospel and a house of prayer for the nations, not an institution to promote Americanism.  This is why our church doesn’t place an American flag in the sanctuary.  We’re not against the flag.  We love the flag, and we love America.  But we put the flag in the foyer—a space designed for mingling rather than worship.  Though this seems subtle, symbols matter.  We love our nation and are grateful to be a church in America, but we don’t want to identify as an “American” church.  We take our cues from the Scripture not the constitution.  We get our marching orders from God not the President.  Our forefathers and mothers in the church are not George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; they are, among others, Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, and Mary (and I don’t mean the singing group).  In a country full of immigrants, we want to demonstrate hospitality to people from every land.  We want our people to understand the universality of the gospel and grow a love for the nations.  While we encourage our people to be good citizens in the U.S.A, our best energies are given to helping us cultivate our citizenship in heaven.  I love America.  I pray for America.  But Jesus did not commission us to make patriots or Democrats or Republicans.  Jesus commissioned us to make disciples … of all nations.

Practice

So what do we do on the Sunday before the 4th of July?  We won’t wave a flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance, but we will have a brief segment where we sing, “America”—a hymn.  And during our greeting time, we’ll sing “God Bless America”—a prayer.  In bringing these hymns and prayers to worship, I’m trying to give a little concession to our folks who would like a more patriotic service.  We will also spend time in prayer for our nation and our leaders.  And I will preach a sermon from Amos 4 I’m calling “O Say, Can You Repent.”  We don’t ignore the national dimensions of the holiday, but we try to bring the gospel to bear and elevate Jesus.  As people leave our worship this Sunday, I don’t want them to say, “America is great”; I want them to say, “God is great!”  And I don’t want them to say, “I’m going to be a better American”; I want them to say, “I want Jesus to make me a better Christian.”

As to preaching on the 4th of July Sunday, sometimes I preach a theme connected to the holiday; sometimes I don’t (especially if we’re in a summer sermon series).  In the next post, I’m including a sermon I’ve preached a couple of times in the last twenty years, updated to fit the current historical context.  Hopefully, it will illustrate what I’m getting at in the previous paragraph.

What do you think?

I doubt we all agree on these matters.  Pastor, how do you approach a national holiday like the 4th of July in worship and preaching?  Weigh in.