Advice to Preachers and Teachers (5)
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22.37-40
“The sum of all we have said since we began to speak of things comes to this: it is to be understood that the plenitude and end of all the Law and of all the sacred Scriptures is the love of a Being which is to be enjoyed and of a being that can share in that enjoyment with us, since there is no need for a precept that anyone should love himself. That we might know this and have the means to implement it, the whole temporal dispensation was made by divine Providence for our salvation. We should use it, not with an abiding but with a transitory love and delight like that in a road or in vehicles or in other instruments, or, if it may be expressed more accurately, so that we love those things by which we are carried along for the sake of that toward which we are carried.”
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine
Often, when I’m listening to a sermon, I will try to discern the direction of the sermon, where the sermon is flowing, and what its intended destination is.
Most often, sermons flow downward toward the people of God. Our pulpits are typically elevated above the congregation. The preacher’s gestures tend to be outward or downward or forward. And the sermon unfolds toward some application that ends up in the life of the hearers. It seems to me that preachers are trying to give the congregation some useful nugget from the Lord to sustain them through the coming week.
But I’m not sure this is how Jesus envisioned the direction of His sermons. Let’s look at one excerpt:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.3-10)
It strikes me that the direction of this sermon is decidedly upward. Jesus is not trying to give His hearers anything; rather, He is trying to bring them somewhere. He reaches down to people in their present place in life in order to lift them into a higher, more expansive life in the Presence of God.
This is Augustine’s point in On Christian Doctrine. Preaching should carry us along, out of our present wretchedness, beyond this “temporal dispensation”, into realms of glory and promise, into the Presence of Him in Whom we delight together. Preaching should expose and immerse us in things divine and glorious, so that we love to hear the Word preached because it takes us into the very Presence of the Word reigning in glory: We “love those things by which we are carried along for the sake of that toward which we are carried.”
Preaching is one of the facets of this “temporal dispensation” which God has given to the Church to carry their hearts and minds upwards to God. Everything in this life is designed to enlarge, expand, and enhance our salvation, that is, our knowledge of God and Christ. But so much preaching these days focuses on the people, their needs and concerns, and what will make them feel good about themselves, so that they can bear up in this “temporal dispensation”. Preachers and teachers want to apply a “Jesus patch” to their hearers, which, sadly, too soon loses its potency.
Meanwhile, in the Presence of the Lord, fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore await us. Should we not use the ministry of the Word to raise people into a fuller, richer, more glorious and transforming context?
Stan Gale says it best: “The preacher of the book of Ecclesiastes sets the tone for all preaching. He lifts our eyes from the confines and corruptions of life under the sun to the God who lives and reigns. Preaching speaks to faith and focuses faith on unseen realities. The thirst and hunger experienced in a fallen world are met by leading people to the Living Water and Bread of life, Jesus Christ. Preaching calls pilgrims not to go their own way or do what is right in their own eyes, but to listen to the living God, that their soul may delight in the richest of fare (Is. 55.1-3). In fact, God woos us to Himself by causing us to hunger so that we can learn that we do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Dt. 8.3).”
This is the kind of direction for preaching and teaching that we see in Jesus and the apostles.
Stretch them into His joy
I keep saying that this is the week I begin my stretching exercises again. Stretching takes time. It can be a little painful, and I always feel it the next day. But it’s good for me, so I’m continuing to hope that I’ll begin them again soon.
The people we serve need to have Jesus stretching out in them, so that they are transformed into the shape of Jesus in every aspect of their lives. Preaching and teaching the Word of God is the stretch by which God intends to make His people more than they are, always. Sure, it can be painful, but the joy that comes in the process is well worth the experience.
Jamie Cupschalk puts it this way: “It is important to always be moving people to that which is beyond, more holy, more marvelous, more beautiful than anything which can be experienced in creation in its present form. Paul indicates that creation is in a place of frustration and in bondage to decay. In other words, it is temporal; every beauty of this world eventually ends. If our preaching serves to only make our lives ‘better’ in this world, we only give ‘temporal’ hope. The Gospel is a message of eternal hope and eternal joy, and while there are good things that come to us in this life, they are a hazy reflection of that which is ultimately good, found only in Christ and His glorious inheritance (our true home). The truth of the Gospel invites us into a loving relationship with Abba Father, and only here, in His Presence, can we rejoice in both hardships as well as joys, realizing that our hardships are not worth comparing to the glory to be revealed in us, and that the greatest joy we experience in this temporal dispensation is only a taste or glimmer of the eternal inheritance and joy which will be ours. We must direct people to our true and eternal home for this.”
Only when we are brought into the Presence of the Lord and stretched beyond our present woeful condition can we be filled with the love of God that oozes through the pores of our being to touch the lives of those we see each day.
We need a Kingdom perspective, not a human perspective, for our preaching – a perspective that equips us to reach the world from our seat with Christ at the right hand of God. Jesse Slusher says, “Preaching with an eternal Kingdom perspective is always the challenge. We need an ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ perspective. Augustine’s quote reminds me of that; and in that light, wouldn’t our preaching goal also be to translate the ‘unseen’ things of Christ and His glory into the realm of the ‘seen?’”
Upwards, always upwards
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was roundly condemned by the liberal media in his Harvard commencement address when, looking toward the heavens, he told the assembled elites that our only hope is upward. That is indeed our only hope, that we may know the promise and power of the Lord from within His Presence, and not merely as a patch-on to our perceived maladies and ills.
Preach upward, brethren, and lead your congregation into the Presence of God with joy.
From the low and humble to the high and exalted places, the Lord, ready to instruct his disciples, went up the mountain—specifically to the Mount of Olives—so that according to the very meaning of this word, he might present the gift of his divine mercy. The Lord went up the mountain that he might give the precepts of the heavenly commandments to his disciples, leaving the earthly and seeking the sublime things as though already placed on high.
- Chromatius (fl. 400), Tractate on Matthew 17.1.1-2
1. How would you describe the direction of your preaching and teaching?
2. Preaching and teaching makes no one a better Christian. Only Christ and His Word and Spirit can do that. What are the implications of this for preaching and teaching?
3. How would you counsel a young preacher to make sure that his preaching and teaching was always upward?
T. M. Moore
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).