A couple of weeks ago I preached a sermon on election that provoked a fair number of questions. However, last Sunday evening’s sermon produced questions of a different sort. I included a long piece in it talking about the blessings that are ours in Christ. A few people asked me why I did that and to list precisely what I had said. So I thought I would take the opportunity to talk about the process of sermon writing and suggest an important item for prayer.
There is loads of stuff that I am still working out in terms of life as a pastor. But there are two disciplines that I try to keep that I have found immensely helpful. I am conscious, incidentally, that both are possible because I am a full time pastor and I have minimal family responsibilities. The first concerns sermon preparation. I always try to give myself four days to write a sermon- not using all of each of those days but certainly a part of them. Day one- often Tuesday- will feature my own work on the text trying to observe things like the flow of the argument, repeated phrases and main themes. I may turn to the commentaries where I am stuck. Day two- often Wednesday- will see me try to nail down the main theme of the passage and therefore the aim of the sermon along with possible introductions and headings. Day three- often Thursday- will see me write a longer outline of the sermon. I’ll also try to dig out notes that I have made on books linked to the theme of the sermon- so for Sunday evening I dug out my notes on God’s grace and how the New Testament makes sense of the Old Testament. That’s where some of my church history illustrations- which I confess I probably use too often- come in. Then on day four- often Saturday morning- I will write the sermon. I tend to use a fairly full script so I will write down most of what I am planning to say even if I don’t say it precisely as I have written it when I come to preach. The reason I use this process rather than do it all in one long day is that it means the sermon is in the back of my mind when I am driving, washing up and so on during the week- often ideas for introductions and applications will strike me at those times rather than when I am sitting at my desk.
The second discipline I have tried to stick to is to have a monthly day away where I take my day off away from Oxford. I try to find somewhere that is nice to walk around (in a gently meandering rather than strenuous way!) and where I can catch up with a Christian friend I have not seen for a while. I tend to use it as an opportunity to reflect, pray and consider any difficult issues the church may be facing. To be honest, I should do it more often- they are actually more refreshing than my other days off! I happened to be on one of these days last Thursday (my day off changed last week for reasons that are very boring…!)
By Thursday I had some clarity as to the main themes of Genesis 14:17-24. There is a contrast between the King of Sodom and Melchizedek, the King of Salem. Abram won’t receive from the King of Sodom but will receive blessing from Melchizedek. I also knew that Melchizedek as the king-priest points forward to Jesus. So a sermon along the lines of receiving from Christ not the world was beginning to form in my mind. However, it was as I was beginning to travel home on Thursday that my eyes were opened to the wonder of the picture in the story. If Melchizedek points forward to Jesus then surely Abram points forward to us for, by faith, we are children of Abraham. And so suddenly you have a picture of Jesus coming towards us, bearing bread and wine, and pronouncing the blessing of God over us.
I spent the next half hour or so just sitting down wondering at the astonishing fact that, through Christ, we constantly live under the blessing of God. He is for us and not against us. Why did this move me, fill me with joy and re-energise me for Christian living so much? It is not that it is a new thought- I’ve preached often enough on the fact that we have every spiritual blessing in Christ. There are probably four reasons. Firstly, despite having preached against it recently, my tendency is to read God off my circumstances. So when I feel tired and stressed I forget that God is good and is currently blessing me. Secondly, and again despite having preached against it, I drop into a works righteousness- I sort of assume that God’s blessing is dependent on me being a good Christian and/or pastor and that happens all too rarely. Thirdly, I think the fact that this was a picture rather than a propositional truth made it fresh- here is a picture of Christ coming to pronounce blessing. And fourthly, I would say that at that moment the Spirit simply opened the eyes of my heart to see something with new clarity and power.
Having spent the next two or three days living off the joy of knowing that we live under God’s blessing through Christ, I had to work out how to convey something of that in the sermon. I decided to use some rhetoric. I simply wanted to get into our heads the sheer wonder of Christ coming to bless us. I started off with general Gospel blessings and then turned to Hebrews (which I was in because of the Melchizedek link) to list the benefits of being a Christian in that letter. Hence this passage- which sounded better than it will read but anyway here it is:
“ Just imagine it for a moment. Just imagine Christ coming to feed you. Imagine him coming to pronounce God’s blessing over you. Think of what it involves.
He comes to bless you with His love. He comes to bless you with peace with Him. He comes to bless you with the forgiveness of all your sins. He comes to bless you with a clear conscience. He comes to bless you and says, ‘In my sight, you are made perfect forever.’ He comes to bless you with freedom from the fear of death. He comes to bless you with the presence of the Spirit in your life. He comes to bless you with free, bold access to the Father. He comes to bless you and says, ‘You are my brother, my sister.’ He comes to bless you with help in the midst of temptation. He comes to bless you with sympathy in your weakness. He comes to bless you with a new covenant by which you know God. He comes to bless with with His constant intercession for you. He comes to bless you with eternal redemption. He comes to bless you with adoption into God’s family. He comes to bless you with access to thousands of angels in joyful assembly. He comes to bless you with eternal rest where there will be no more suffering or sadness or tears. He comes to bless you and says ‘One day you will see me face to face.’ We have every spiritual blessing in Christ.
Do you see? We constantly live under the blessing of God. Christ pronounces it over us. And when you grasp that why would you want the King of Sodom to make you rich? Why would you want success or a career- or frankly anything else- to be the thing that makes you rich?”
I write this blog a bit hesitantly- I am not suggesting this as a model for preachers. But there are three things that I do want.
Firstly, I hope we will enjoy living under the blessing of God. Having a taste of that in our hearts is the kind of thing that will fuel us giving honour to Christ. Let that picture of Christ coming to bless be something that delights you.
Secondly, I was helped by the day away. I had just come away from chatting to a friend where we had spent a while talking about Jesus and His grace in our failures and weaknesses when this picture in Genesis 14 came home to me. Being able to talk to each other about Jesus greatly enriches our thoughts about Him.
But, most importantly, this was just an example of Paul’s prayer at the end of Ephesians 1 being answered. I pray that the “eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” I knew that I had every blessing in Christ but it was a great thing when the Spirit suddenly brought that home in an unexpected and vibrant way. I think that means praying for each other to have that eye opening experience is hugely important- so that the Gospel moves from being mundane to gloriously wonderful in our lives.