I confirm that this work is the result of my own independent work/investigation and that it has not been submitted towards any other academic award at Spurgeon's College or at any other institution.
|1.||The Sermon Text|
|1.1.||Crisis Centre Ministries|
|1.2.||Getting Our Priorities Right|
|2.2.||Interpreting the Congregation|
|2.3.||Comments on the Sermon Text|
|3.||Preparation and Delivery|
|3.3.||Relationship to the module|
Sermon Transcript and Commentary
Submit a tape and transcript of a sermon which you have recently preached, together with a 1500 to 2000-word commentary explaining and justifying its relation to what has been learned in the module. The commentary should include critical reflection on such issues as how you interpreted the text and the hearers; the focus, function and form of the sermon; the process of preparation; and the way the sermon was received.
[Note 1] It's a real pleasure to be here today with you.
I have been asked to say a few words about Crisis Centre Ministries, so with your permission, I will do so before we properly start on the sermon.
I have some pieces of paper here, and experience tells me that if I don't mention them now, I'll completely forget about them by the end.
Jill (please stand up!) can sell you books of meal vouchers, to give to people if you come across them begging in Bristol.
Please feel free to take copies of the coloured leaflet. Many of the details are out of date, but it still gives you a good feel for the sort of things we do. Several thousand copies of this were printed a few years ago, and I'd really like to use them all so we can produce something a bit more up to date.
If you would like to receive our quarterly newsletter, or our monthly email prayer letter, please add your contact details to this sheet.
We are very keen to send you news of what is happening because we want - we need! - your prayers. Behind all the activities we undertake there is a very real spiritual battle for the hearts and lives of the wounded and vulnerable people we are caring for. Without prayer, nothing else is going to make a significant difference.
The purpose of our work is to bring God's grace and healing love to people with life-disrupting problems. Most of our clients are homeless, and most are alcoholics or drugs addicts. We are working with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Some are, in theory at least, living on benefits; while others have fallen so far, they don't register on the official statistics any more. We are working to see their circumstances transformed, and their lives rebuilt.
This work is strategically important. A great deal of government money is going, in theory, to help these people. In practice, it is going into a lot of well-intentioned schemes that performance-driven, and our clients see very little benefit from these schemes for that reason. Our clients cannot access these schemes, they cannot comply with the conditions for a wide variety of reasons. They struggle to fill in the forms, they forget what day of the week it is and miss appointments, and most of the time they don't want to risk being let down and rejected yet again.
All these official projects are performance-driven, so they want to help the people who are easiest to help. They don't want to work with people who will not give them a cost-effective positive outcome. Nobody wants to work with the people who don't want to change - so it is very often left to the voluntary sector to care for the most needy, and for the most part, that means Christian groups like us. [Note 2]
I can talk with you after the service about the details of what we do, if you are interested. But more important than the details of our work is the fact that we work though volunteers.
We operate according to a few core principles. I don't want to talk about the most important of these right now - we will come back to it later. The other key principles are...
∑ We provide a client-centred service.
∑ We are pragmatic.
∑ We offer a holistic response to people. Amongst other things, this means that we explicitly aim to hold together evangelism and social action.
Before we start, I have one final plug: it is important to us that our evangelism is done in a very particular way: not pushing or forcing our views onto others, but instead, allowing them to discover what we believe in a way this is enjoyable for both them and us. There is a one day seminar coming up, and you are most welcome to join us.
I believe that everybody is good at something, and when you find out what you are good at, you should run with it. I found out early in life that I'm really good at annoying people, and I've been working on it ever since. [Note 3] It came naturally: at school, for example, when my friends or schoolmates were excited by the results of a football match, or upset about some minor injustice, I would really annoy them by asking: what difference will it make in a hundred years?
A hundred years from now, you and I will both be long dead. What difference will it make then whether some insignificant person was really rude to you one Winter afternoon, or whether a referee was biased in some long-forgotten football match? I might not have been very tactful, but still think it's a good question.
Think for a moment about the things you and I did last week. What difference will any of it make in a hundred years time? In a thousand years? When you think about it, the really important question we need to ask ourselves is: what did we do last week that had eternal significance? In the long run, nothing else matters.
I would like to return to this question a bit later. [Note 4]
In the mean time, let us look at a New Testament passage where Paul is pointing us towards the long view: 1 Corinthians 15. I'm sure you are all familiar with it, but let's just read a few verses to get a feel for the message.
Paul has a lot to say in 1 Corinthians 15 about the resurrection: because Christ has been raised from the dead, we shall be raised; as with a grain of wheat, that which is sown and dies is not the same as that which comes to life; so our bodies too will be sown in weakness but raised in power, sown as a perishable body and raised an imperishable one.
The bottom line is this: we shall be raised from the dead, just like Jesus was, if we are joined to Him - if we are a part of Him. If we belong to Him. It's not a matter of being a nice person, or being sorry about what we have done, or believing the right doctrines. The question is - do you belong to Him? Is He your Lord and Master, your King and your God? Does He rule in your life, or is He just an advisor you sometimes listen to? If you are not sure of the answer, or not happy with it, then please talk with someone at the end of the service. [Note 5]
This chapter is full of wonderful truth, and we could spend all day exploring the various aspects Paul touches on. But we have to ask the question: so what? It is brilliant stuff, but what difference does it make to the way we live?
Perhaps I have been unfortunate, but when I hear people preaching from this chapter, or about resurrection, it is usually in the context of a funeral service. Because we believe in the resurrection, we can look forward to being reunited with our lost loved ones. Now, of course this is a good, appropriate and helpful message to give in the context of a funeral service. It's probably a helpful message to give every now and then in a normal service - Christians are the only people I know who are able to face the reality of death, and this is something that makes us really distinctive in the modern world.
But is Paul offering a message of hope to grieving relatives in this passage?
Paul is clearly giving a message of hope, a message which is vitally needed today.
Many people in the Western world are experiencing a deep and damaging sense of dissatisfaction. Today, we are in general, richer than ever before, healthier than at any time in history, and we have more leisure. On the material level, for us in the 'developed world', all the promises of the Industrial Revolution have come true, and we are living in conditions that any earlier generation would regard as paradise.
And yet, every survey undertaken, tells us that we are less happy than before, more depressed, more likely to get divorced, and we are finding ever more elaborate way to kill ourselves. According to Mind, suicides in young men aged 15-24 are now 67 per cent higher than they were in 1982. We know about the dreadful number of people killed each year on our roads, even if we don't want to think about it, but for every one person who dies in a road traffic accident in this country, two people die by committing suicide. We do not live in a healthy and happy society.
A simplistic response is to say that this is evidence of a spiritual hunger, and people just need to find Jesus. Unfortunately, almost all of the depressing statistics are equally true of Christians - even Evangelical, spirit-filled Christians. Something is wrong, and our faith and our church life does not seem to hold the answer.
We sometimes sing a song with the line: "I want to give my life to something that will last forever," but so many Christians I meet feel that they don't manage it. So many people have this problem: we want to invest our time and energy in something that will really matter, and yet we so often find ourselves doing things that seem to have little, if any, significance.
I don't have time to go into details, but I would like to suggest a root cause for this problem, and a cure.
Everything in our culture today is me-centred. The problem we have with Biblical Christianity is not that it isn't true, or that it doesn't work, but I am not at the centre of it - God is.
When we re-orient our lives around God and His truth, then we find the meaning we so desperately need - if we take on board what He has to say about two things: community and eternity. [Note 6] Remember - truth doesn't work unless you live it.
Returning to the passage, and reading to the end of the chapter, it appears that this teaching about the centrality of the resurrection to our Christian faith is not, for Paul, a message of hope in the face of personal loss. Hear what he actually says:
"Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."
What is the connection between resurrection and working for the Lord?
What, actually, does "working for the Lord" mean in this context? I assume you know Paul is not talking about going off to become a missionary or a minister. He must be talking about something every Christian can do, no matter what our circumstances or calling.
Working for the Lord has to be about the Christian life: doing good, praying for people, blessing them, prophesying, healing, delivering from demons...
We know the sort of things involved in working for the Lord, the trouble is: there are just so many possible things we could be doing. We can't do all of it. We need a set of priorities. Which is where our subject comes in - we desperately need to get our priorities right.
We must be absolutely clear about our priorities, because if we are not, we will find ourselves drawn into a way of living that wastes our time and energy on the unimportant and the irrelevant.
Before we continue to answer this question, I think we need to make one brief side-track.
I would guess that some of you, like me, were taught the acronym 'J-O-Y' in Sunday School. It is a reminder of how you can experience joy by getting your priorities right: Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. I have been a Christian around 30 years. I have lost count of the number of people Sue and I have talked with and counselled over the years, and I have to tell you this: it doesn't work.
If you consistently try to put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, you will not experience joy. You are guaranteed to experience misery, and if you work really hard at it, you will probably experience a nervous breakdown.
There is nothing wrong with putting Jesus first. In fact, Jesus can go first, second and third. Everything we do should be done as an act of worship to Jesus. Everything - whether it is building a car engine or washing the dishes, catching up on the filing at the office or going shopping, making love or watching TV - everything can be done in the presence of the Lord and as an act of worship to Him. If anything we do is not being done this way, we will have serious problems in our Christian life.
But if you consistently put your needs behind those of other people, you will fall to pieces. The needs of other people will swamp you. You won't have time to eat or sleep. Their grief and frustrations and petty concerns will drive you insane.
The Bible does not tell us to put others first. It tells us to love people, and to "seek first the kingdom of God." Yes, we are called to a sacrificial lifestyle. Jesus gave everything for us, and we are called to give everything in response to Him. Yes, that means sacrificial use of our time and money, but not sacrificial in a stupid way. It means sacrificial in a Spirit-filled, balanced way, like Jesus. In perfectly following His Father's will, there was time for rest and sustenance.
In following Jesus, we do have duties and obligations. I have a greater duty to care for my family than to address the problem of third world debt, a greater duty to bless the people in my church than to solve the problems of the NHS. This doesn't mean I spend no time on third world debt and the NHS - it is all a question of balance, of adjusting our priorities so that they come into line with God's.
Many years ago, I read a book by George Burton. I can remember next to nothing about the content, but the title has stayed with me ever since: 'People Matter More Than Things'. Of course, they do, you say. Of course.
But do we live as though that were the case? Do we treat every person we meet as if they were of infinite value? It seems to me that this is the connection between our work for the Lord, and the resurrection: we work to love and care for and bless other people because we are looking forward to the resurrection, and spending all eternity with them.
Jesus tells us to 'store up for ourselves treasure in Heaven' - but much of the time it is difficult to know exactly what that means, or how to do it. Look around your home: how much will come with you into Heaven? Not the favourite comfy chair or the latest food mixer. But the people you live with will have an eternal destiny.
I asked earlier what did we do last week that had eternal significance. It was almost a trick question. Most people will answer 'nothing' - and feel very guilty about it. But I want you to know that anything you did for another person had eternal significance. Every kind word, every act of forgiveness, every gentle response matters.
I firmly believe that nothing we do for other people is ever wasted.
What has made the greatest difference in your life? Other people. Your life is shaped by your family and friends and the other people you have met - the things they have done for you, and with you, and to you. For good or ill, it is other people who change our lives, and we have the opportunity every day to touch and change other peoples' lives.
We can live as though the people we meet are of infinite value. My eldest son broke a casserole dish last night. There are many ways to use such an event constructively - to help him think about what he stands dishes upon, to learn the value of clearing up after himself, and so on. Perhaps we didn't use the opportunity as well as we could have done, but at least we tried.
I have been with other families when something similar happened, and the consequences seemed deeply destructive - the value of the dish or ornament was stated and re-stated, and the stupidity of the child was loudly repeated. The impression given was that the broken object was more important, more highly valued than the child.
I'm sure this was not really the case, but that is what came across in the words. That is what was being lived. Do we live as though other people are of infinite value?
The new lounge suite, the car, the house - they are all just scrap, or soon will be. But what you do with and for other people will last forever. Do we believe this? Does the way we spend our time, and the way we spend our money reflect this?
How can we have the right priorities? By living according to our Father's priorities. "For God so loved the world..."
And when we say He loved the world, we don't mean the rocks and the stones. He created then and they are good, but He loves the people in the world - all the people. They are all made in His image, and Jesus died for every one of them.
Going back to our work at Crisis Centre Ministries for one minute - this is fundamentally what we are about. Loving people. We do a lot of different activities - we feed people, and help them find somewhere to sleep, and help them come off drugs and stay clean, and train them and help them find work, and write letters and go with them to court, and lots of other things. But these are all just details - what we are doing is showing God's love, and building relationships so that His love can be shared more deeply and more completely.
And, I can tell you, it works. Loving people is difficult, it is painful, it is time-consuming. We are faced with impossible demands and unreasonable expectations, and often it feels like it is a total waste of time. But in all the mess and the pain and the activity, God is present, touching people's lives, and changing them bit by bit.
And, sometimes, it is simply breathtaking to see the beauty He is creating in lives that were broken and wasted and empty. To see someone who has almost literally nothing giving to another who is even worse off; to see someone giving themselves in worship, when just a short while earlier they were only concerned about themselves and how to get their needs met - that is to see the hand of God at work.
You don't have to volunteer with us to see this happen, although we would love to have you. [Note 7] You can see it happen in your own home and shop and office and school. God so loved the world... that includes your family and friends, but also the bus driver and the shop assistant, and the noisy neighbours, and the kids round the corner who have never learned respect, and the beggar in the shop doorway. Somehow, God's Spirit within you will enable you to treat each one with dignity and respect, to show that they matter.
Maybe tomorrow, you will give a kind word to a stranger you will never see again in your life. And ten billion years from now, the blessing you communicated through that word will still be living on, because the resurrection means that every human life has infinite value, and nothing you do for someone else is ever wasted.
[Note 8] "Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain."
It was difficult to know what to submit for this assignment. The expectation was that we should submit a sermon preached to our usual congregation, but this was not straightforward. I have two 'home' congregations: a midweek congregation based on the project I run, and a Sunday congregation.
We do not give traditional sermons to the midweek congregation. I was very tempted to use one of my talks to them, but the issues raised would have been too far outside the material covered in the module: preparation for one of these talks is very different from the preparation of a normal sermon, and the delivery is a balancing act between keeping to the subject on the one hand and pursuing a dialogue with members of the congregation on the other.
I rarely preach at my own Sunday congregation, as I am so often visiting another church. The next planned opportunity was mid-August, and this would not have fitted into the module timetable.
In the circumstances, it seemed the most appropriate choice was to pick a fairly typical sermon from those I preach to other congregations, while avoiding sermons that were mainly repeating or re-working material I have used many times before (I am often asked to talk about my work or social action issues in general, which generally requires very little preparation). This particular sermon was chosen because I had been asked both to preach and to say something about my work, I knew something of the congregation already so I could prepare with them in mind, and they had recording facilities already in place.
The congregation is a fairly new one, some fifteen years old, enthusiastic and growing. They have had an effective leader who taught them well, so there was no need for me to worry about many of the issues facing other congregations I sometimes visit, such as a declining (and often nominal) membership.
Contact with some church leaders before the service indicated that the church is involved with a number of projects involving both evangelism and social action but, as is often the case, many members of the congregation were not directly involved in any of these projects. They are based in a 'nice' area, where most of the problems of modern urban living are not yet evident. The leaders wanted me to open up some of the issues we deal with in my work, relating them to our faith, and motivating people to live out their faith in practical ways.
I have a collection of sermons around the theme of putting our faith into practice that would have served adequately, but for the purpose of this assignment it was important to produce something new rather than re-work old material.
Most of the relevant sermons I have preached in the past have been based in the Gospels or Acts: looking at the ministry of Jesus and the early church, and linking back to the Old Testament principles and traditions they drew upon. To be more confident that this sermon would be genuinely new and not just applying old themes to different texts, I decided to base the text in the Epistles.
I have heard many sermons where the underlying message is 'this is what the Bible says, so you ought to do it.' I am not a fan of this approach, feeling that it tends to veer either towards complacency ("I'm sure you are living this way") or confrontation ("You are not living as you should"), neither of which is attractive or life-giving.
I have argued elsewhere for the general principle of starting the sermon from where people are [Hazelden, 2004: 9]. By adopting a position of 'we are all wrestling with the Bible, to understand and apply it,' I chose something that evangelicals can agree and identify with - and thus gain their interest, and underline the relevance of the material to them. I often try to subvert the normal expectations of a sermon, and decided in this case that setting them up to expect a 'you ought to be doing this' message and then turning it into a 'you are doing better than you thought' message could provide enough of a twist to make it memorable without placing too much emphasis on the structure.
Because I wanted in part to surprise and unsettle the congregation, I decided to choose a Bible passage that could both introduce the subject at the start and also close and summarise the message at the end: closing with something familiar is comforting at an emotional level. It counters the stress caused in the middle, while reinforcing the message.
[Note 1] I always ad-lib the opening sentence or two, especially in an unfamiliar church where I want to make some personal connection with the people and the context, so this opening sentence is just a 'marker' for some equivalent introduction. I actually made some reference to wearing a tie which connected with the culture of the church. It seemed to work in context, but was difficult for me as it naturally led in to a story about a related experience I had a short while earlier, which I have related on several occasions and was sure they would enjoy, but would have made the introduction too long and taken us too far from the theme.
[Note 2] I am doing two things at this point: identifying an issue that helps people understand what we do in our work at CCM, and flagging up a couple of key concepts that I will return to in the sermon: 'people matter more than things' and the necessity of focussing on the long term when everybody around us is looking for short-term results. While preparing, I made several explicit links between the ministry update and the sermon, but when reviewing the sermon later I removed them because it blurred the distinction between the two sections, and implicitly made a claim that CCM is implementing Biblical truth in a way that other churches and Christian organisations are not (see also note 7 below). While I may sometimes feel this, it is not my job to preach it! I repeatedly find myself struggling with this issue when preparing a sermon. In this case, the congregation may spot the connections anyway, but it was not necessary for people to see those links in order for the sermon to work.
[Note 3] I know many of the books advise against humour, and some say never to make personal references. But, while I would rarely tell a joke, I often present some part of the sermon in a lighter, semi-humorous way, to provide some relief and counterpoint to the serious subject matter. And when personal references are prohibited in the textbooks, this sort of usage does not seem to be in view.
[Note 4] This is the second "I'll come back this later" - a technique I often use in the absence of a clear structure explicitly identified to the congregation. The intention is partly to create interest through a degree of suspense, and partly to reassure people that I have some plan in mind: the sermon is going somewhere, even if I'm not going to explicitly talk about the structure. I am aware that this is not a technique that seems to be used in the example sermons we heard, or talked about in the books I have read so far.
[Note 5] While I have numerous problems with the approach taught by Wilson, I fully agree with his concern about the "lack of good news in so many sermons" [Eslinger, 2002: 218, referring to Wilson, 1999: 159-165]. However, I need to go further: as well as identifying "what God is doing to lighten the burden," [Wilson, 1999: 159] I try to ensure that every sermon contains at least some brief pointer to how you access God's grace in the first place. We cannot assume that everyone present is already saved.
[Note 6] This is a mistake: the reference to community and eternity picked up on sermon strands I had been working on in the early stages of sermon preparation, and cut out towards the end because there was too much material and that part did not contribute enough to the main focus.
[Note 7] Another point I try to make every time I am talking about our ministry. Perhaps I am over-sensitive on this point, but I do not want anyone leaving the service with the impression that they ought to be involved with Crisis Centre Ministries if they really want to serve God fully. I have heard this message from far too many organisations.
[Note 8] At this point, I picked up my Bible and read the verse from that. The slight theatricality about this (as opposed to quoting from memory or reading from my prepared notes) underlines the message that this is God's Word you are hearing now, and I wanted to leave people with the Bible, knowing it was the Bible, and having the image of me holding the Bible as well as the words.
I have described much of the early preparation under 'Interpreting the Congregation'. I have always found it easy to move from a text to a clearly-structured sermon, and over the years have worked hard to ensure that it is not only Biblical but relevant and accessible. These days, what concerns me most is whether it is the right sermon for these people at this time.
Consequently, the early stages of preparation are often largely taken up with considering what I know of the congregation, praying for them, asking for the right message for this occasion, and considering questions of style, structure and attitude. Only later do I arrive at a text and the detail of the message.
As an experiment and contrary to my usual practice, I drew up the following table at the point when I began to work on the text of the sermon. I was not aware of it significantly altering what came later.
|Text||1 Corinthians 15|
|Theme||Because of the resurrection, people matter more than things|
|Subject||Caring for other people|
|Title||Getting Our Priorities Right|
The service was relaxed and informal. During the early part, there was some confusion over microphones being lost and not working, which was resolved as I stood up to speak.
It is some time since I last heard myself speak, and the experience has reminded me to be careful of drawing out words when speaking slowly, and to vary the pitch and speed of delivery to a greater extent.
Afterwards, numerous people indicated that the sermon had been well received. Possibly more significantly, when I met one of the leaders at a ministers' fraternal some three weeks later, he spoke enthusiastically about the sermon and summarised the key points; I have since been invited back.
It is hard to say precisely what was different about this sermon as a result of studying this module - partly because there is such a variety of approaches advocated by the various authors, and partly because I have experienced a wide variety of sermon styles over the years.
One difference is that I now have labels to describe aspects of the sermon (such as 'the Lowry Loop') which previously I could only recognise. Consequently, it is easier to undertake consideration of sermon elements, such as form, at a conscious level. Similarly, much of the good advice in the books makes explicit many of the principles that were implicit in good sermons, so these principles are now clearer and more readily considered: it is easier to evaluate their relevance in a given context and judge their relative priority.
In summary, I now have more useful categories and concepts (such as 'weaving a sermon' [Proctor, 1998: 4]): sermon preparation is no easier than it was before, but the time given to it is almost certainly more productive.
These works were all consulted, and have been referenced in either this assignment or the previous one on 'A Theology of Preaching'.
Barth, Karl, Homiletics (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1991)
Beukema, John, 'The Sermon that Got My Goat' in Leadership (Vol. XXV Number 3, Summer 2004) pp. 61-63
Brown, Colin (Ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume 3 (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978)
Craddock, Fred B, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985)
Eslinger, Richard L, The Web of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Goldingay, John, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995)
Greidanus, Sidney, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Leicester: IVP, 1988)
Hazelden, Paul, A Theology of Preaching (Student assignment, 2004). Available from http://www.hazelden.org.uk/pt04/art_pt177_theology_preaching.htm [accessed 1 September 2004].
Long, Thomas G, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989)
Lowry, Eugene L, The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980)
Murray, Stuart, Interactive Preaching (Unpublished paper available from London: Spurgeon's College, 2004?)
Proctor, John, The Christmas Stories in Faith and Preaching (Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 1998)
Searle, JR, 'What is a Speech Act?' in The Philosophy of Language, ed. Searle, JR (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)
Stott, John, I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982)
Ulmer, Ken, 'My Words in Your Mouth' in Leadership (Vol. XXIV Number 1, Winter 2003) pp. 85-88
Wilson, Paul Scott, The Four Pages of the Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
Woodruff, Mike and Moore, Steve, 'An Honest Sermon' in Leadership (Vol. XXIV Number 1, Winter 2003) pp. 32-36
Wright, NT, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992)