There has never been a more important time to talk to preachers about preaching on mission.
The landscape of Old Christendom is like an abandoned strip mine, with huge, gaping, ugly craters, filling now with the most horrid debris and litter. These strip mines were once verdant pastures and lovely hills of Western Civilization, where Christian morals and a Biblical worldview nurtured the pleasant fields. Though not always perfectly landscaped, there was, nevertheless, a form of godliness that allowed for growth to return. Yet now we are witnessing a post apocalyptic moral wasteland. This past week the announcement of a U.S. president, coinciding with a new French Socialist president, to recognize same-sex marriage reminded us that the cultural and moral decay and destruction continues. Our people will soon become sick from the stench of the filthy standing water in the craters. In the East, there is fresh revival. The Global South and the Global East, the New Christendom , as Peter Jenkins has called it, grows green, but shallow. There is a need for leveraging the legacy of Old Christendom to support the revival in New Christendom. And a “Next Christendom” waits, perhaps in the Middle East, as Chinese believers raise the Cross and cry, “On to Jerusalem.” There has never been a more important time for every preacher to examine his heart and review his sermons and ask, “Am I preaching on missions?”
Today I will ask if there is really any other kind of preaching than preaching as an act of mission. But let me pause.
I am not only honored to be asked to bring the keynote address at the national preaching conference, I am humbled to be able to do so before my favorite kind of people: preachers! Let’s face it: fishermen really enjoyed talking to Fishermen. They can talk about fishing in a way that no one else can really understand. And farmers really enjoyed talking about pesticides and soil erosion and the price of pork belly and all the latest and greatest from John Deere. I think of a line from Walker Percy and his book, “The Last Gentleman,” where the great Southern novelist talked about his character:
“When he was with Ohioans, he found himself talking like an Ohioan and moving his shoulders around under his coat. When he was with Princetonians, he settled his chin in his throat and stuck his hands in his pockets in a certain way. Sometimes, too, he fell in love with fellow Southerners and in an instant took on the amiable and slightly ironic air which Southerners find natural away from home.”
Well, when I’m with preachers I find myself talking like a preacher. That can be a bad thing, but at least Walker Percy would understand. So I get to talk with you—my favorite people—preachers—about my favorite subject—preaching. It seems to me that when we talk about preaching we can talk about one of two things: we can talk about the grammar of preaching or we can talk about the glory of preaching. When I speak of “grammar” of preaching I’m talking about the components, the guts, the inner workings of preaching. Those are important things to talk about and important things to review. But today is not the time to give a discourse about the mechanisms or the grammar of preaching. It is not the time to speak of the fallen condition focus or the introductory chain or the proposition or the big idea or the interrogative question and the transitional sentence with key words or the conclusion that has a recap and a positive illustration to answer “so what?” and a final charge that brings the redemptive purpose. Those are critical. They form the mechanical components of the sermon. So, no, I do not believe I am called today to speak of the grammar of preaching, but rather the glory of preaching. And the glory of preaching is to be found in the theme of this conference—Preaching on Mission. Preaching on Mission is glorious because it transcends grammar. Preaching on mission takes us beneath the components of the sermon and takes us to the very operating system of the sermon—the tenderloin of the sermon—the heart of our work, and the reason for our work. For “Preaching on Mission” takes us into the sacred encounter of God in our souls and the divine calling of Christ on our lives.
When we approach this conference inquiring of the Holy Book about “Preaching on Mission” we are like native Pacific divers, stripped down to our skin, with no other equipment needed but our Spirit-soaked minds probing the very mind of the Lord’s Word. When we come with this vocation of finding pearls, then we dive deeply into the turquoise sea of Scripture to discover the choicest of pearls. We need not linger long in our dive, for the pearls of preaching are readily available to us. The good sea of the Word is bountiful with blessed beads of truth about preaching. Yet we must come up for air, sit on the side of our boats and break open this purpose in preaching and not only observe it, but crack it open, with prayer, and taste it—taste the salty brine that is the fluid that washes and refines the pearl of preaching which is not a component or a part, but the life within the shell that covers the pearl. Here is the pearl—the purpose of preaching. And the purpose of preaching is mission. The Bible tells us that Jesus came preaching. And we cannot separate the very mission of God and all of its glorious redemptive panoramic view from Genesis to Revelation from the simple yet powerful heaven-sent moment of preaching. Jesus Christ models that for us. Jesus came preaching and his preaching was God’s revelation of God’s mission. Today we are going to look in the Gospel according to St. Matthew and taste and see that the Lord is good—good to His preachers who will pause to ponder His ways and his wonder in advancing His mission and then pray that we will leave with His ways and our wonder for that mission in our own churches. That is my prayer for you and for God’s Word in you. We are preachers. Let’s talk preaching. Let’s learn from THE PREACHER OF PREACHERS, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let’s learn with Jesus in the Gospel according to St. Matthew, 4:12-17.
This is the inerrant, infallible Word of the living God.
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:12-17 ESV).
INTRODUCTION TO THE SERMON
I believe that we are addressing the most important aspect in our work as preachers. There are books on pastoral preaching, textual preaching, topical preaching, expository preaching and first person preaching. Yet these topics, as important and helpful as they may be for the work of the preacher, do not get at the heart of all preaching. It was Lesslie Newbigin who wrote in his pivotal work, The Household of God, “We must say bluntly that when the Church ceases to be a mission, she ceases to have any right to the titles by which she is adorned in the New Testament.” Thus, there is no bride of Christ without a self-identification with mission. There is no spiritual building. There is no “household of God.”
Because preachers are the servants of the Church, proclaiming the message of God in the Church, we can also say that when the preacher ceases to preach as an act of Gospel mission, the preacher has no right to the titles by which he is adorned in the Bible. Yet I feel the threat of this bluntness in my own heart. For I preach different texts and different topics and must be faithful to the text. Is it an act of mission to preach on the parables of Jesus in Matthew 13? Must my messages be missional when I preach on a text from, say, Leviticus, or the Minor Prophets?
The answer to the question is in the life of the Lord Himself. Jesus said that all the Scriptures were about Him, so we can see that as He is the very incarnation of God’s mission to redeem a fallen world and to glorify Himself in Christ. The message of the Scriptures are then essentially about that mission. This position is undeniably established in the central activity of Jesus leading to the Cross and the Empty Tomb: preaching. For Jesus came preaching mission.
In Mark, Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. Matthew, so important a link between the Old and New Covenant, alternatively, prefers the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven,” to the Kingdom of God (he does use that phrase four times). Yet it’s the same mission. Whatever your eschatological position, we can all agree with Herman Ridderbos, “The whole of the preaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles is concerned with the Kingdom of God.” Indeed, for Christ and the Apostles, the mission is comprehensive and clear: In Jesus Christ, the chaotic state of a fallen world would not remain forever. The renewal – a radical undoing of death, “the death of death in the death of Christ” as the Puritan John Owen entitled his famous book, was underway with the coming of Jesus. That one phrase, “the Kingdom of Heaven” or the “Kingdom of God” pointed to a sweeping redemptive plan of God that always forced the Church, whether the Ancient Hebrew people of God or the New Covenant saints, to focus on the world, not themselves. The Gospel is thus centrifugal. And this was his preaching. Shall it not, therefore, be ours? Can we possibly be witnesses to the Kingdom of God that has come (and, yes, will come in a fuller, glorious “in-breaking” when He comes again) without preaching as an act of mission? The words from Revelation come to me now as I think about “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ and He shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15 ESV). This was gloriously evident in the preaching ministry of Jesus as we see him in his public ministry appearing in Matthew chapter 4 verses 12 through 17. Embedded in that simple message of Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is the fullness of the redemptive plan of God in Christ. This mission in preaching is the Gospel. The passage is pregnant with redeeming love of God being born into the world. And how then shall we preach? It is clear that the Lord God calls preachers today to be ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven and to preach for mission. We bear a Word from another World that must be proclaimed in this world. This is our mission. This is missions in preaching. Such preaching brings powerful dynamics to your church and your life. From this passage, Let us focus on five Biblically revealed dynamics of Preaching on Mission. The first dynamic we might point to in the passage is this:
1. PREACHING ON MISSION CRAFTS IDENTITY
The preaching ministry of Jesus Christ begins after a grueling series of tests and trials in which he is baptized into his public ministry by his cousin, John the Baptist, and then, wet with his identity of mission, Jesus is driven into the wilderness (as Mark puts it) by the Holy Spirit. There he overcomes the devil in the wilderness and proves greater than Moses and the Hebrew children who wandered in sin. With John arrested, Christ begins to preach repentance and faith because the Kingdom has come. For the common people, there is an awareness of His identity: “He speaks as one having authority, not like the Pharisees.” His identity is clear in the hearts of the people because His identity is sealed in His own mind and heart. From this message at the beginning of this ministry until he says “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” the identity of Jesus created his understanding of Preaching on Mission. Examine the texts of the Word of God. There will not be one instance in which the preaching ministry Jesus is separated from the missional ministry of Jesus. I believe that every preacher has only one sermon: it is the mission of God in his own life.
Look at Paul. Whether he was writing to Timothy or presenting Jesus to philosophers, he was always talking about the mission of God in Christ. And all theology was personal for Paul. You only have one sermon: it is what God did in your life. You are to be faithful to the texts from which you preach, but that one sermon will always come through. That is your identity in Christ. It is always related to Christ’s mission in you. When God’s mission has reached us and we preach out of that mission at work in our own lives, a new identity is created that will bring authority. The common people will hear you gladly. And souls will be saved and lives will be transformed.
There is second dynamic that I would bring out in this passage.
2. PREACHING ON MISSION CRIES URGENCY
Both the Gospel of Matthew and Mark moved the scene from the victory in the wilderness over the Devil to the fact that Jesus was confronted with the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist. Jesus began his ministry in conflict and crisis. Being fully God and fully man, something that we talk about in our theology classes and repeat throughout our ministries, he must have felt the emotional impact of the fast-moving spiritual attacks and strange events. But we often default to understanding his divinity without appreciating his humanity. We must recognize the humanity of Jesus as He’s dealing with the imprisonment of his cousin, the last great prophet to announce His coming. It’s not just that John has been taken away but that the diabolical activity of Satan was not confined to the wilderness experience. The Devil and his demonic band were working in the hearts and minds and hands of unwitting agents of Hell. Thus, our Lord left Nazareth, went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. And out of the crises of spiritual warfare, human pain, reverent awe, and a palpable opposition, He began preaching repentance. For the kingdom had come. Preaching on Mission contains urgency.
This is seen not only in the preaching of Jesus, but in the preaching of His apostles. Paul wrote in Romans that, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12 ESV).
Read Bonhoeffer. Listen to Henry Luke Orombi from Uganda today. Listen to the Chinese House Church preachers. You will hear a message of urgency. The opium of banality and inevitability has not drugged these preachers. They believe that their years are numbered and that souls are before them who need Christ. Believers must be deployed. The lines of life are never long when seen from end to end and shall we ever approach our pulpits without this urgency? It is the dynamic that gives strength to our sermons and power in our preaching. I draw your attention to a third dynamic:
3. PREACHING ON MISSION CREATES TENSION
The preaching of Jesus – preaching his mission – intentionally provoked the status quo. His message “to repent and believe because the kingdom of heaven is at hand” provoked individuals personally. His call for repentance signified the presence of sin in their lives and in their culture. Jesus was then and is now, an affront to humanity, which gratifies itself in its own supposed achievements and abilities. But the preaching of Jesus Christ’s assaults the pride of man and establishes Him as a fallen creature in need of divine salvation. Such preaching also provokes the powers that be. To declare that one must repent for the kingdom is at hand implies that the present kingdom is being done away with. The kings and rulers of this world, whether political or religious rulers of this world, all come under the indictment of God in Christ. There could be no other way for the kingdom to come in except by such preaching; yet such preaching led Christ to the cross. It has led more than one preacher to follow Him to places they never wanted to go. But to preach the mission of God in the world guarantees tension. To be blunt: preaching is not for wimps. I once had a professor, Dr. Robert L. Reymond, who said that if you are not taking any hits because of your preaching, you’re probably not preaching the Gospel according to Paul. I would only add to that by saying you’re probably not preaching the message of Jesus. You’re not preaching as an act of Gospel mission, for such preaching is provocative. It is neither safe nor wise according to the world’s ways. Preaching for repentance and calling men and women and boys and girls to surrender to the rule of a new kingdom is to issue a Divine fiat to abandon the systems of this world because they’re crumbling. Calling people into a new kingdom can cost a great price. And yet, where else do we go? What else should we preach? We’re not lecturers on the circuit. We are called to preach this missionary message to God’s come down to live the life we could never live and die the death that should’ve been ours. We are called to preach that the redemptive purposes of God are being fulfilled through the coming of Jesus, His life, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit in the empowering and the sending of the church into the world.
When tension comes we must hear the words of Jesus to Paul at Corinth (in Acts 18) when tension was like a black pall over the ministry of the Apostle:
“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”
Preach for mission. Tension will both precede and follow your message. But Christ is with you and that is enough. There is a fourth dynamic of preaching for mission that gives great joy:
4. PREACHING ON MISSION COMFORTS THE BROKEN
What’s so amazing about this kind of preaching by Jesus is that while it brings provocation, it also brings the light that Isaiah prophesied. From the time of the fall until this time, darkness and Satan oppression covered the earth. In Jesus and in His preaching the darkness began to recede—the darkness of ignorance, the darkness of diabolical oppression, and the darkness of disease and backwardness. As you note in Matthew 4.23, “He went throughout all Galilee …proclaiming the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.” Preaching on Mission obviously fulfills the redemptive plan of God to release human beings from the bondage of sin. Now there is a sometimes irritable but absolutely unmovable paradox in such preaching. The paradox is that if we seek to be compassionate by withholding preaching the mission—that is, we are sinners in need of salvation and Jesus is the only Savior—we end up preaching to the prisoners without setting them free. We speak beautiful words, interesting stories, but there if there is no Gospel mission, there is no light and the people are left in darkness. To preach like Jesus is to preach a missions message that brings the light of Heaven to the darkness of earth.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon was critiquing the preachers of his day, in the late 19th century, when so many of them thought it rude in society to bring up the matter of hell. Some felt that Hell was not a fit subject for the pulpit. Charles Spurgeon replied that Jesus Christ knew no such supposed compassion.
“None used stronger language or more alarming language than our dear Redeemer concerning the future of ungodly men. He knew nothing of that pretend sympathy which will rather let men perish than warn them against perishing.”
He showed real compassion by talking about hell more than anyone else in the Bible. He talked about hell so much because he offered a way out and he declared that he was the way. In a similar way, we must not be tricked by the peddlers of preaching methodologies today who would call us away from the plain preaching of the Word because it is too stark for postmodern man. Such paddlers are not only wrong but naïve. They forget that at the core of humanity we are all the same, whatever our generation or nationality or culture. We all ask the same great existential questions – “who am I? Why am I here? Is there life after death? What is the purpose of living?” I have preached in India, northern and southern. I have preached in Albania. I have preached to different generations and groups in Great Britain, Europe, and America. I have attended Lausanne Conferences and spent deep and meaningful times of dialogue with people from around the world. Languages and customs notwithstanding, I’ve seen no difference in any of these people. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of the mission, transcends language and culture and every barrier because it is conceived by the Almighty God who created us and knows us better than we know ourselves. So let us avoid the cultural carnies that entice us to spend our pastoral currency on phony tricks that never pay off. Stick to the supernatural means that only can realize a supernatural goal. Stick to the message. Stick to preaching the mission. Jesus did and people were healed. When we do people will also be healed and set free in this life and the next.
5. PREACHING ON MISSION CALLS FOR RESPONSE
Finally, we need to see that the preaching of Jesus Christ was not only announcing that the kingdom had come, but was commanding the people to respond to the message. Such preaching is not just the giving of helpful information. It’s not just a transfer of data. It is not just telling stories to scratch the itching years of an audience. Such preaching demands a response.
Think about the ministry and preaching of Jesus. And think about Jesus’ ministry at the funeral, if you will, of his friend Lazarus in John 11. Jesus receives a mournful rebuke from Martha: “If only Jesus to been here then our brother would not die.” Martha’s statement called for a new response. So Jesus asked her, “Martha, do you believe in the resurrection?” She replied that she did. But the response Jesus required was a deep personal answer based on the kingdom of God, the mission of God, had come to Martha. Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life whoever believes in me though he dies yet he shall live.” There is no room for subtlety or irony. It is a stark statement requiring an absolute surrender.
A few weeks ago I had the great joy and privilege to meet with Dr. Billy Graham. We all remember in the biography of Billy Graham that there came a time when he had to make a response to God over the truthfulness of his word. He went up on a mountain and had a time of prayer with the Lord. He could not go on preaching until he settled the matter of the word of God. He trusted His Word the way He trusted Jesus Christ. As I shook hands with Dr. Graham and knelt beside his wheelchair to talk, I remembered that his decision to trust in the Word of God changed his life and the lives of millions and millions of human beings. His response to God led to many other responses to God. We must not succumb to any movement in preaching that would tell us to essentially let people off the hook.
There are movements afoot in homiletics which would say that the message best comes to the postmodern man by respecting the intellect of the audience and allowing them to “get it” without having to say it. In other words, the purveyors of a preaching without proposition say, “preach and they will fill in the blank with their own understanding of the text.” That all sounds rather clever and gives quite a bit of credence to the spirit of postmodern man, but here’s only one problem: Mankind is in sin and cannot save himself. He’s fallen and all of his faculties are infected by Original Sin.
The Word of God must be preached clearly. Then the Holy Spirit will open the soul, work repentance and faith and apply the benefits of Christ’s redemption to the soul. The Word of God will not return void, but there is a truth clearly seen in that promise that the preacher must preach the Word of God and not hope that it bubbles up from within sinful man. The Bible knows no such sort of preaching. We cannot let any man get away from the truth of Jesus Christ when we have the opportunity to proclaim the truth. Call people to repentance. Call them to see that Jesus Christ is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Call them out in the name of the Lord and command by the authority of God that they must bow their minds and hearts to the resurrected and living Jesus Christ now before it is too late. The kingdom has come. It is coming in a fuller, more glorious way, but it is also here now in the person of the resurrected Christ. There must be a response. “Now is the time. Today is the day.”
Preaching on mission finally, after all else, lifts up Jesus Christ as the God of unstoppable love who will not be denied. The Kingdom of Heaven marched through the dusty roads of Israel from Galilee to Jerusalem, and came to human beings. Jesus called ordinary men to be preachers and they were sent to preach the kingdom. Read Acts. “Repent and believe” is everywhere. You and I stand in a spiritual apostolic line that reaches all the way back to Jesus Christ the greatest preacher. And you and I stand in our pulpits, whether that pulpit is a cathedral, a chapel, an itinerant evangelistic ministry, a seminary, a college, or an inner city rescue house, and we preach for mission— the mission of God in Christ to save humanity and to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. We are part of the sweeping epic of redemption. Such preaching on mission crafts identity. Such preaching cries out for urgency. Such preaching creates tension. Such preaching comforts the broken. Such preaching calls for a response. There is no other way to preach but to preach with mission. But there is one thing that is necessary in preaching for mission: that the preacher has experienced the mission of God in his own life.
In post-Reformation England, there are two great preachers often noted in that time between James and Charles 1 and before the Puritan ascendancy. There was Lancelot Andrews (1555 – 25 September 1626) whom TS Elliott called the greatest preacher of his time. The other noted preacher who lived in the same era was John Donne (between 24 January and 19 June 1572 – 31 March 1631), the pastor-poet and Dean of St. Paul’s. Donne remains a much more compelling figure even according to T.S. Eliot who preferred Andrews. I have read both. One is very erudite and contemplative. The other seems to be on fire with the God of grace who saved him and transformed him so that “every season is a season of His grace.” Lancelot Andrewes preached and taught with great skill. But John Donne was a man who knew the personal reality of God’s mission to Him in Christ. He had been a most sinful young man and his sins haunted him. Yet he was converted by the appeal of Jesus’ life lived for him and Jesus’ death on his behalf. Just read “A Hymn to God the Father” written as he thought he lay dying and you catch the robust spirit of the man as he sought the justification of God in Christ for his own soul. Yes, Donne knew God’s mission personally. He preached out of that mission to his own flock. And I have to agree with the English literature critic, F.P. Wilson, who wrote that
“For every reader of Andrewes, there are a hundred of Donne…one reason why one is much more read than the other may be that John Donne used to be Jack Donne, whereas Andrewes was always Lancelot.”
Preaching for repentance; preaching that the kingdom of heaven has come requires a preacher who is on fire. He is on fire with the glory of God’s grace in his own life. Then will others gather to watch you burn alive; some will catch on fire themselves. This is how churches are planted, churches are revitalized, and ministries advance with vision and courage. And this is how the Lord will bless your preaching. Remember His mission when it came to you. Out of the fullness of that personal mission proclaim—preach—the mission of God.
What will be your response?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
- The beauty of concealed scholarship (Jeremy Walker) (reformation21.org)