Pentecost: RSVP

The Story Luke TellsPentecost is near, which means many churches will turn their attention to the book of Acts.

A couple of Pentecosts ago I recommended Justo L. González’s excellent The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel.

González notes that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end per se: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”

(If you can never remember how Acts ends, rest assured! This may be why.)

Gonzalez goes on:

In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!

It’s neat to think about the church today as being a new sequel to Luke-Acts. Or, more accurately, the threequel to those two stories: Luke, Acts, the Church Today.

May God continue to empower with his Holy Spirit those of us who would RSVP faithfully to his invitation!

 

 

(Adapted from an earlier post on this blog.)

 

Bruce Waltke’s Epic Micah Commentary, Now in Accordance

waltke-micah

 

Bruce Waltke’s nearly 500-page commentary on Micah (Eerdmans, 2007) is the best treatment of Micah I know of. It might even be the best commentary on any prophet, and ranks right up there with R.T. France’s Mark commentary. Waltke’s Micah, however, is even more technical and examines just about every textual issue you could imagine. It was indispensable to me when I wrote a seminary exegesis paper on that blessed prophet. I don’t preach Micah without consulting it.

Accordance Bible Software has just released the volume, and even though I own the print edition, I made sure to get it into my Accordance library a.s.a.p. Check it out here (Accordance) and here (publisher’s page). The price is far lower than the value of the book.

In a Post-Truth World, Words Still Matter (Truth-Telling as “Extreme Sport”!)

In what I can’t believe is being deemed a “post-truth” world–post-truth is even 2016’s word of the year!–words still matter. So does truth, that which is real, or that which corresponds to reality. (For you philosophers reading, I’ve always favored a correspondence theory of truth.)

I wanted to share some words of wisdom from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. I know, great and timely title, right? (Here at Amazon, here at Eerdmans.)

She makes this brilliant observation:

We are all called to be responsible hearers, speakers, and doers of the word. Still, telling the truth is something like an extreme sport for the very committed.

As I’ve preached through the prophets this fall in church, I’ve been struck by what an important role truth-telling played in the prophetic ministry. I plan to write more about this. For now, here’s more from McEntrye. (Added emphasis is mine.)

caring-for-words-in-a-culture-of-liesWe have been talking about our responsibilities as stewards of language to use words carefully, precisely, and truthfully. I’d like now to consider a dimension of that responsibility that may be a little more challenging: the responsibility not to tolerate lies. It has become commonplace to observe, as I have several times in earlier chapters, that we live in a culture where various forms of deception are not only commonly practiced but commonly accepted. And most of us, at least some of the time, object — at least to the lies that vilify our party or candidate or misrepresent our causes, and at least to each other over coffee or Scotch — or we talk back to the talk-show host in the privacy of our cars. But I’d like to suggest that if we don’t take our complaints further than that, we’re part of the problem. Indeed, we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to. As Pascal pointed out long before the age of media spin, “We hate the truth, and people hide it from us; we want to be flattered, and people flatter us; we like being deceived, and we are deceived.” The deceptions we particularly seem to want are those that comfort, insulate, legitimate, and provide ready excuses for inaction.”

I have a little bit of a hard time with “we bear a heavy responsibility for allowing ourselves to be lied to.” I think this is not totally fair, insofar as it sounds like a blame-the-victim response. But I’m not sure that’s what McEntyre means. Her suggestion seems to be that if we are truly lovers of truth, we will seek to root out in ourselves our tendency to want to hear what sounds good, even if it’s not factual.

I greatly appreciate her exhortation that in a “culture of lies” (or “fake news”=propaganda), we still need to practice “caring for words.”

The Challenge of Preaching: John Stott, Abridged

The Challenge of Preaching is an abridged and updated version of John Stott’s Between Two Worlds. The book is clear in its aim:

This book sets out to encourage preachers by reminding them of the importance of their calling; to exhort them to spend time in careful and prayerful sermon preparation; and to remind them of the personal qualities that must characterize every faithful preacher of God’s word. (x)

It easily succeeds in this goal. I found myself bolstered in my sense of calling as a preacher. And the abridgment is compelling in its description of how the preacher should prepare (a) sermons and (b) himself or herself.

The book gets better as it progresses. I bristled at the first chapter where I thought there was both an overemphasis on the word in Christian communities, as well as only vague criticisms of the culture at large.

 

Words: The Church’s One Foundation?

 

Challenge of PreachingOf course I agree with Stott that “God chose to use words to reveal himself to humanity” (1), but I’m not sure we can rightly conclude that this is “the truth” which “Christianity is based on” (1). One might alternatively suggest a truth like, “God is love,” or the truth of John 3:16 as a more robust foundation than that of the written and spoken word as “the foundation on which all Christian preaching rests” (14). What I thought was an undue overemphasis on the word shows up elsewhere. The church, for example, is “the creation of God by his word” (21). That’s true as it goes, but leaves a lot out.

Even how the word/Word is interpreted is narrowly construed: “Everything in the rest of the text must relate in some way to the main issue” (55). And again, “Every text has an overriding thrust” (58). It’s difficult to think of biblical passages that support the notion that a biblical passage must have one overriding thrust. Why think this? I was left unconvinced by an assumed claim that I hear often repeated in some evangelical preaching traditions.

I agree with Stott on the primacy of the biblical text in preaching preparation: “We have to be ready to pray and think ourselves deep into the text, until we become its humble and obedient servant” (59). But herein, I think, lies the rub: while I desire to willingly submit to Scripture, isn’t it better to say that we are first humble and obedient servants of the Lord who stands behind Scripture, who breathed it into being, and who breathes life into us even now so we can understand and follow his words? This may seem a subtle nuance—and Stott is clear in emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the process—but I think one has to be careful not to give too much weight to the written and spoken word. We don’t want to unwittingly fossilize it.

 

Challenges to Preaching

 

The first chapter is “Challenges to Preaching.” Here Stott mentions “Hostility to Authority” (2), “The Electronic Age” (5), and “The Church’s Loss of Confidence in the Gospel” (9). The criticisms are unfortunately broad and sweeping: “People have also become emotionally insensitive” (6). Which people? What constitutes “insensitive”? What is the basis for the assessment? Each of the challenges suffers from vagueness like this (“We must trust God, not our computers…” (8)). A better model for cultural criticisms is the depth and winsomeness so readily on display in David J. Lose’s Preaching at the Crossroads. I think this may just be a fault, however, of the book’s being abridged. The longer version includes more studies and citations to support the criticisms Stott makes.

Similarly, the second chapter (“Theological Foundations for Preaching”) includes assessments of the pastorate that wasn’t convinced were warranted. Bemoaning “today’s pastors” (which ones? in which denominations? according to which studies?) who don’t take the New Testament seriously (measured how?), Stott writes, “Instead, sadly, many pastors are more involved in administration” (25). Don’t get me wrong: I’ve read Acts 6, and I would love to spend 20 hours a week in sermon preparation, but I really do believe God has entrusted administrative aspects of church leadership to me (with others), whether it’s helping the leadership work toward a mission-driven budget, helping to organize Sunday school classes, etc. I appreciate Stott’s views, but I found them at times to be unmerited hermeneutical leaps.

(It’s worth pausing here to say: disagreements and frustrations with the first part of this book aside, if I could one day be half of half the pastor John Stott was, I would rejoice greatly.)

 

Metaphors for Preachers, and a Non-Neutral Pulpit

 

From the beginning of chapter 3 (“Preaching as Bridge-building”) and throughout the rest of the book, I found myself nodding in agreement and with conviction. Stott’s six metaphors the Bible uses to describe preachers is a compelling and really helpful way to frame the role of the preacher: heralds, farmers, stewards, shepherds, ambassadors, and workers. “In all of these New Testament images,” he says, “the preacher is a servant under someone else’s authority, the communicator of someone else’s word” (31). May God forgive me those moments when I take this truth for granted—it is at the heart of my preaching philosophy, and why I continue to get up into the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, seeking to communicate God’s love with God’s people. Seeing these specific ways to understand my role encourages me to continue to seek to be faithful in my calling.

Along these lines I found myself convicted by Stott’s line, “The pulpit cannot be neutral” (39) when it comes to social issues. Amen! He offers a set of examples that could make folks on all sides of the political spectrum (including centrists) squirm a little: “We also need to address issues of injustice, poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease; the pollution of the environment; failure to conserve natural resources; abortion, mercy-killing or euthanasia and capital punishment; inhumane technocracy, bureaucracy and unemployment…” (38-39). A good word, indeed.

He adds a wise caution only a seasoned leader can: “We need wisdom not to go beyond what is written in Scripture and to speak carefully where Scripture is not clear” (39). May God give us preachers wisdom to know the difference!

 

Study and Character

 

Chapter 4 suggests some (realistic) habits of study in sermon preparation. The 5th chapter goes more in depth, including this great question for preachers to ask: “What response does the Holy Spirit want to this text?” (55) He calls for both study and prayer in equal measure (57). His suggestions (even in this abridged version) are specific, practical, and ones that a preacher could implement this week. I was especially intrigued by his suggestions that the preacher write the body of the sermon out, then the conclusion, and (only) then the introduction! (65) He reasons, “Only after doing this, will we be sufficiently clear about what we are introducing” (66). I’m in the habit of writing the introduction first, once I have my outline. I plan to try Stott’s proposed order first chance I get.

The final two chapters focus on the character of the preacher (chapter 6, “Sincerity and Earnestness” and chapter 7, “Courage and Humility”). The first appendix is an abbreviated (though still fairly robust) overview of the history of preaching. I thought it was wise to make this an appendix, though it serves as the first chapter in the longer Between Two Worlds.

 

Conclusion and Where to Get It

 

In the end, even if I didn’t agree with all of Stott’s approach, I found this book refreshing and inspiring. He quotes Spurgeon, who said to his students, “Our preaching must not be articulate snoring” (82). Stott’s passion for Scripture and wisdom in preaching are clear. Reading even this abridged version of his classic book serves as yet another reminder of a life well lived, and a ministry faithfully carried out. We preachers are fortunate to be able to access Stott’s hard-earned wisdom.

You can find the book at Amazon here. The publisher’s page is here.

 


 

Thanks to Eerdmans for thinking to send me a copy of the book.

The Preacher’s Formidable Task, and One Way to Tackle It

Reading for PreachingI almost always read non-fiction when I sit down with a book. What drives this is, in part, my insatiable (and sometimes over-active) desire to learn something new about the world. But of course it is untrue that only non-fiction can teach. The best poets and storytellers can offer as true insight into human nature as the best psychology text.

It is this former group of writers that Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. wants preachers to read, in his Reading for Preaching: The Preacher in Conversation with Storytellers, Biographers, Poets, and Journalists (Eerdmans, 2013). After all, preachers have a formidable task each weekend, which Plantinga articulates with not one ounce of exaggeration:

Where else in life does a person have to stand weekly before a mixed audience and speak to them engagingly on the mightiest topics known to humankind–God, life, death, sin, grace, love, hatred, hope, despair, and the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Who is even close to being adequate for this challenge? (xi)

Plantinga immediately engaged me in this way. He both reassured me as a preacher and convinced me from the beginning of Reading for Preaching that I ought to have my nose in fiction more often–and to add biographies to my non-fiction reading. The Holy Spirit “sows truth promiscuously” (ix, via Calvin), so we who presume to be preachers do well to read widely and “get wisdom” on all of life. From here we can employ our insights to more effectively shape our language–just like poets do, saying “a lot in a few words” (xii)–since language is the preacher’s “first tool” (x).

Based on lectures and workshops around the same themes, Reading for Preaching divides into six short and highly readable chapters:

  1. Introduction to the Conversation
  2. Attentive Illustrations
  3. Tuning the Preacher’s Ear
  4. Whatever You Get, Get Wisdom
  5. Wisdom on the Variousness of Life
  6. Wisdom on Sin and Grace

 

What Preaching Is, What Reading Is

 

Preaching for Plantinga is “the presentation of God’s Word at a particular time to particular people by someone the church authorizes to do it” (1). The preacher’s job is to “not just repeat a text, but also to outfit it for the hearing of a congregation.” (Sometimes more challenging than it sounds.) In order to do this, Plantinga suggests that preachers “get into the interrogative mood and stay there a while” (vii-ix). He calls on them to ask about biblical texts “everything you can think of, including about the tone of voice of the speakers in the text” (102).

And he gives copious examples of how to both ask questions of biblical texts and use wisdom found from non-biblical texts to do it. One of the book’s great strengths is its use of stories, characters, and motifs from works like Grapes of Wrath, Les Miserables, Tolstoy short stories, a biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and much more. In every case Plantinga shows the reader (a) how wisdom may be found in the text and hand and (b) how to apply it from the pulpit.

This doesn’t mean Plantinga wants preachers to read fiction just for the sake of finding good illustrations. That would cheat both literature and preacher. But the preacher can find wisdom everywhere, if she or he is looking for it. Plantinga shows how even a conversation with a long-winded neighbor helped one attentive preacher understand humanity more fully. To that end the book concludes with a few words on having a good system for storing and retrieving illustrations. Many future sermon illustrations will come up in unexpected moments and need to be filed and saved for later.

It is out of his own wealth of illustrations that Plantinga has drawn–he says as much. Especially in later chapters I had the feeling of reading illustration upon illustration, but this is offset by the masterful way in which Plantinga links complicated fictional characters, for example, to abiding truths about life in Christ. He shows more than he tells. He is a gifted illustrator and writer, which makes the book a joy to read.

The book would have been greatly enhanced by a Scripture and especially Subject Index, since there are so many illustrations I will want to return to.

Plantinga offers some good cautions, too. The goal of a sermon should be doxological, helping train the congregation’s eyes on Jesus. Overly poetic sermons with the goal of being “pretty” won’t do.

 

Needing to See the Risen Lord

 

Sunday morning comes without fail, each week–“right about the same time, too,” as one of my minister friends says. Again, here is Plantinga on the preacher’s challenge and call (and invitation!):

A preacher needs to be a sage to speak responsibly from the pulpit week by week. She has to have something worth listening to on some of the mightiest subjects in the world, including how the universe looks to a Christian, who human beings are, the human predicament, God’s gracious address to the predicament in Jesus Christ, the resulting prognosis for our world, and, along the way, much else. Fortunately she has our community’s book to draw from, which is wonderful except that she now has to bridge from Scripture, which is a multiplex ancient literature, to her own particular context and engage an audience there that is certain to be mixed in some formidable ways. (107)

Phew!

The preacher has to be a little crazy to tackle all this. Or else, like the Apostle Paul, she needs to have seen the risen Lord. In either case, once embarked, the preacher will need to get wisdom with all deliberate speed. (107)

Plantinga cautions: “Naïve preaching is a kind of malpractice” (102). Reading widely–and paying attention to life!–is a good antidote for this. So is prayer and that encounter with “the risen Lord.” Sometimes sermons really do write themselves. And–reading aside–it’s for one primary reason, at least that I can figure: if the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is the same Holy Spirit that Jesus breathed onto the disciples and gives to us… does not that same Holy Spirit breath through us, and even speak through us preachers?

All I can say is Thanks be to God!, because I could never be (and would never dare to even try) a preacher if that were not true. Plantinga, I think, would agree.

 

Where to Get It

 

Here is the book trailer:

 

 

Read more about the book at the publisher’s product page. You can get it in print (publisher // Amazon) or electronic editions (Kindle // Logos).

 


 

Thanks to Eerdmans for the review copy. You can find the book’s product page here. It is on Amazon here.

NIGTC Romans: A Look Inside


 

Does the Church need another commentary on Romans?

Time will tell. But Richard N. Longenecker’s Romans volume in the NIGTC series is about to be released.

Today Eerdmans announced a sneak peek PDF with Table of Contents and Preface, which you can find here.

I like Longenecker’s turn of phrase when he says Romans “has been, in very large measure, the heartland of Christian thought, life, and proclamation.”

He also notes:

Indeed, 2 Pet 3:16 bears eloquent testimony to the church’s mingled attitudes of (1) deep respect for Paul’s letters generally (and Romans in particular), yet also (2) real difficulties in trying to understand them, and (3) a realization of possibilities for serious misinterpretation, when it says of Paul’s letters that they “contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” In fact, despite all its appearances of being straightforward and clear, no other NT writing presents greater difficulties with respect to “style,” “stance,” and “audience” (to recall Erasmus’s three categories of difficulty) than does Romans.

You can pre-order the book on Amazon here.

After Luke and Acts: Part 3 of Luke’s Trilogy

As I’ve been working on the Book of Acts for my last few sermons, Acts has been working right back on me. I’m still thinking about my encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. This last week, as the lectionary moved from Acts 8 and Acts 10 back to Acts 1 (for the Sunday after Ascension Day), I found myself thinking in terms of Acts 1:8 as a prequel for what had been happening so far.

Just before he ascends, Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

He says:

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

They had wanted to know when the kingdom would be restored, but Jesus points them to a different when: the when of the Holy Spirit.

One implication of Jesus’ response, I think, is that we don’t have to know when or have life’s tensions resolved to be a witness right now to what we have seen in Jesus.

We don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the kingdom of God–we may even think of its consummation as being a loooong ways away–to be able to make a contribution to it today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

There’s an African proverb that says, “That which is good is never finished.”

The Book of Acts is like this. It’s not finished. If Acts 1 serves as a prequel for the whole narrative, Acts’s sequel is being written by men, women, boys, and girls who make up the church today.

The Story Luke TellsJusto Gonzalez comes at this another way in his excellent new book,The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel (Eerdmans, 2015).

He points out that Luke’s story in Luke-Acts doesn’t really end: “Paul has suffered countless vicissitudes. He has been shipwrecked. He has finally made it to Rome. He is awaiting trial before Caesar. And then—nothing!”

(This helps explain why after a recent read-through of Acts, I was at a loss to remember what happened to Paul at the end!)

Gonzalez goes on:

In telling his story and leaving it unfinished, Luke is inviting his readers to be part of it, to join the throng. ….But since the story is unfinished, it is more appropriate to conclude it with “RSVP,” like an invitation that awaits a response. This is what Luke demand from us: not satisfied curiosity about the past, but a response here and now. RSVP!

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

We are the sequel to the two-part combo of Luke and Acts–the threequel, if you like. The story of the church in the world now becomes the third part in Luke’s trilogy. Luke-Acts-Us.