The Purpose of Preaching
Sabbath Day Sermon, Saturday 6 December 2003
Having more or less occupied the pulpit continuously for the last twenty years it's nice for a minister like myself to go and hear other ministers preach. So it was a real treat for me when I was in England in October to hear four sermons from three different ministers. It's very easy for people like myself to lose contact with the congregation or to otherwise become stuck in preaching habits which may not always be liked by those who are forced to listen. One of the ministers I listened too was very repetitive and said the same thing so many times that when I analysed what he had said, I found that he had said very little indeed. And yet there was no doubt that the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) was guiding him and ministering to his flock.
I well remember many years ago reading an account of a sermon given somewhere in the south of the United States which had started a major revival. It wasn't given by the regular minister but by one of the congregation who agreed to stand in for him because he was indisposed. The accounts given by those listening to the sermon were impressive - people's hearts were touched in such a way that they were standing forward, often weeping, and confessing their sins. Keen to learn from such preaching, I obtained a copy of the sermon which had been recorded by a stenographer - this was before the days of tape recorders and camcorders. The actual content was unimpressive. The grammar was awful, the flow was disjointed, he hopped from one topic to another without any sort of system, and it was very repetitive. As a piece of literature I would have given it 1%. But in terms of spiritual content, it deserved full marks. And though I am by no means saying that content is unimportant - because we are admonished by Yahweh to continually strive for excellence and accuracy - the important message that I got from this event was that the Ruach (Spirit) is always more important than the actual words. Always. I have heard sermons given by literary geniuses which were spiritually stony dead.
If this congregation is typical of congregations in churches around the world, then for some of you what I say will inspire, and for others it will so boring that you will want to get out of this room at the soonest possible opportunity. Attitudes are as different as there are people so I am not about to stereotype anyone here or put them into categories such as 'spiritual' or 'unspiritual'. The blame for dull sermons can often be put on the preacher because he has not adequately prepared or, more important still, he has not spent enough time walking face to face with Yahweh so that he comes to a service with the Ruach (Spirit) burning in him. It's possible, then, that I could give the same sermon at two different times, and the one will be inspired and the other will not.
Some years ago, the following letter appeared in a prestigious newspaper:
"Dear Sir: It seems ministers feel their sermons are very important and spend a great deal of time preparing them. I have been attending church quite regularly for 30 years and I have probably heard 3,000 of them. To my consternation, I discovered I cannot remember a single sermon. I wonder if a minister's time might be more profitably spent on something else?"
I expect some of you may find that rather amusing, and in a way it is. The writer, however, has missed the point. When the letter was first published it caused consternation, not to mention storms of protest. And yet he was right - I, as a preacher, can remember very few of my sermons, or anyone else's. But he was right for the wrong reason. One of those who wrote back to the newspaper made this observation:
This, surely, is the point of preaching. The purpose is not that you memorise what I say, but that your spirit is nourished. And the only way that can happen is if a resonant chord is struck with your spirit. When that happens, the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) is able to minister to you and to change you inside. And even if that is only a tiny ministration, it's how it adds up over time that's important. The well known adage that my mother taught me: "You take care of the pennies (cents) and the pounds (dollars) will take care of themselves" holds true in the spiritual realm too. The most important spiritual growth that takes place in our lives is not through sudden Pentecost-like outpourings of the Ruach (Spirit) but through the daily building up in small, and usually indiscernible, increments. That is why regular preaching is very important. Not any kind of preaching, but preaching with spiritual content. Thus Paul said to the Corinthians:
"Dear Sir: I have been married for 30 years. During that time I have eaten 32,850 meals -- mostly my wife's cooking. Suddenly I have discovered I cannot remember the menu of a single meal. And yet ... I have the distinct impression that without them, I would have starved to death long ago."
"And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of Yahweh. For I determined not to know anything among you except Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Ruach (Spirit) and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of Yahweh" (1 Cor.2:1-5, NKJV).
That Paul, the great Rabbinical scholar, would say such words may surprise you. He was one of the most educated Jews of his day. How could he say that he did not come with excellence of speech when his writing is so obviously brilliant? What he was saying was that he did not come as an orator. You've heard politicians speak. I was listening to some speeches in England in October and it was so obvious that they had been crafted by people who knew all about human psychology. They were artificial. And we all know about modern political spin, about elocution teachers, and how speakers are created into an image. The words of your political speaker are often not so important as the charisma that he radiates - confidence, boldness, and a balance of crafted aggression and humility. Paul knew that the Gospel could never be preached in this way. He knew that the skills of the Athenian orators would never win souls but only titillate the mind. To be a minister of the Gospel he understood that he had to reach mind, heart and spirit. And that to do that, he had to die to self and simply let Yahweh do the talking and become a mere instrument. Paul says he was fearful, weak, and that he trembled. He knew that only Yahweh could reach the hearts of his listeners through the Ruach (Spirit). And the true preacher of today knows the same.
Human wisdom - philosophy, flowery language, and such things - do not win the heart to the Truth. Only the Truth itself can do that, and then only through the Spirit of Truth. Thus Yah'shua (Jesus) said to His disciples:
"If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever-- the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you" (John 14:15-17, NKJV).
The worldly-minded can never receive the Spirit of Truth, which is why they will always reject those preachers who bring it. The spirit of truth testifies of only one thing, as Yah'shua (Jesus) goes on to explain:
"But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me" (John 15:26, NKJV).
All truth points back to Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ) and that, brethren and sisters, is the sole focus of the preacher. It can't be done with clever words but only by means of a relationship which the preacher has with the Saviour which he, by means of words, is inviting the congregation to share in. Such will be meaningless to the worldly-wise, but as Paul said:
"The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of Yahweh (God) ... For after that in the wisdom of Yahweh (God) the world by wisdom knew not Yahweh (God), it pleased Yahweh (God) by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of Yahweh (God), and the wisdom of Yahweh (God). Because the foolishness of Yahweh (God) is wiser than men; and the weakness of Yahweh (God) is stronger than men" (1 Cor.1:18,21-25, KJV).
If we who occupy pulpits do not have, as our goal, Christ crucified - if this is not our central message - then everything we say is in vain. My purpose is not to give you witty anecdotes or tell you entertaining stories, but to point you to the very source of life. If I have at any time stood here to make myself the centre of attention, or to win your approval, then I have failed in my task. I occupy this pulpit for one reason only: to witness the power of the resurrection in Christ which is the only way we, as humans, can have a future. Without faith in this central event, followed by a life of grateful obedience to Torah, by which we demonstrate that we love both Yahweh and our neighbour, our lives are in vain, even if we should build hospitals, feed the starving, shelter the homeless, and otherwise do good. Right though it is to do such things, these things do not in themselves save us; and if we appeal to Yahweh - after we have died - to admit us into His presence and eternal life on the basis of our good works, without having trusted in the Cross, we will be rejected! For to do this is to claim, in effect, that we can earn admission to heaven by our good works. That we absolutely cannot do! This is the whole message of the Gospel! That's like me completing university courses and earning credits without having been admitted to the university! You have to enter the university first before the credits have any effect. We cannot enjoy rewards for good works in heaven until we have first gained admission there, and there's not a thing we can do to gain admission except to confess our sin, fall before the Cross, and ask for the free gift of forgiveness and salvation. You cannot circumvent this requirement. There are no shortcuts into heaven, no back doors.
And yet this kind of false belief is so common - we so often try to fall back on our own strength, without often realising it, by appealing to our 'worthiness'. We so quickly run away from the Cross and to our own arm of flesh, especially when Yahweh doesn't deliver the goods on the time-schedule that we have set for Him. Pre-empting Him by racing ahead is so common. Learning to wait patiently, as Abraham learned, even after Sarah had tried to take a short-cut in having the promised seed through Hagar, is what it's all about.
In our weakness, we do so many foolish things. And in our pride, we often fail to get back on track again when we know we should. I am sure that many of you have, at different times, regarded yourselves as failures and quite simply decided to give up. It has often felt better to run away and hide than to "face the music" and start again.
I want to end today by doing a short character study on Mark to encourage those of you who may have felt like giving up because you are ashamed of past behaviour. I am sure you all know who Mark was. He records in His Gospel a little incident about a young man. When Yah'shua (Jesus) was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, an incident took place which Marks records:
"Now a certain young man followed Him, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body. And the young men laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked" (Mark 14:51-52, NKJV).
A curious little detail, isn't it, and no doubt you're wondering why the author bothered to record it? I feel sure that youth who fled naked from the Garden was Mark himself. There are two possible explanations for this peculiar incident. One possibility is that the young Mark was disturbed in his sleep when the disciples sneaked out in the middle of the night to the Garden; in his curiosity and eagerness not to be left out of the critical events that were taking place, he may have hurriedly wrapped his bed sheet around himself and followed Yah'shua (Jesus) into the night. Or perhaps Judas and the Roman soldiers had dropped by on a search for Yah'shua (Jesus), and after they had departed, he slipped out to warn them as quickly as he could to pre-empt an arrest. For whatever reason, the inquisitive youth was there, someone had grabbed him, he dropped his sheet, and ran off naked.
But this was not the first time the young Mark would run away. The second time he really disgraced himself. He was later converted under the ministry of the Apostle Peter, joined his uncle Barnabas at Antioch in Syria, and became his assistant on the first missionary tour described in Acts (13:1-13). When the going got tough he ran home to his widowed mother. Paul later refused to use him in the mission field (Ac.15:38) because of this act of cowardice. However, his uncle, at great personal sacrifice, took him under his wing and restored him to priestly service. Even Paul later acknowledged his restoration to favour and welcomed his ministry (2 Tim.4:11).
Mark is not at all unlike us, and his runaway weakness teaches us two things. First, the best way to overcome trouble is to face it. Second, if we fail - and we often do - Yahweh will give us another chance to prove ourselves. And that is what I want to encourage everyone here today. It doesn't matter what your background is, or what mistakes you have made, or what failures there have been in your life, there's always another chance to prove your faithfulness. Peter was one of the most emotionally unstable, obstinate, and reckless of the early disciples but Yahweh transformed him. He became the voice of Satan in trying to prevent Yah'shua (Jesus) from going up to Jerusalem to his death, and denied His Master three times, which to him must have seemed the most awful failures possible. Yet Yahweh gave him another chance to prove himself, and he did, with honour and glory. His later deeds and the two surviving epistles that he penned fill us with inspiration. Failure was turned into success.
Peter, like Mark, was a runner too. He fled the battlefield, but returned to serve with distinction. He died, like His Master, on a cross, upside down because of the unworthiness he felt. I am grateful for the testimony of that man. I, too, have run in my life. I have fled callings I did not want, but returned with my tail between my legs, and started again. I have had to be corrected and disciplined. We all must be.
So I am appealing today to those who have run away, and are presently hiding, or are planning to run, to think again, and return to the ministry. In the upheavals we have had over the years, many have turned tail, but I have never lost confidence that some would return. The mission field is ripe and ready for the harvest, but the labourers are few. We need their help. There is no shame to admit that one was wrong and to start humbly again. We, who have also been disciplined, do not bear a harsh rebuke for them, for we are all cut from the same human cloth. Whether it is in the pulpit, in the mission field, or serving the local congregation, raising funds, or writing, or being a prayer warrior, everyone is wanted and needed. There is a mountain load of work to do as we race now to the conclusion of this evil dispensation with the message of deliverance from the devil and of sanctuary from the evil works of men. And those of you who have staid true and been a constant support in so many ways, I want to take this opportunity so say a big 'Thank You'.May the Name of Yahweh be praised and may His Kingdom not be long delayed in the coming. Amen.
This page was created on 17 November 2003
Last updated on 17 November 2003
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