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Archive for the ‘Isaiah’ Category

2-254

A pastor pointed out to me some time ago a rising trend in the pulpit of preaching that puts the hearer ‘on the couch’. The tone is cool, reflective, sophisticated, non-confrontational. The content is psychological and analytical, a diagnosis of the workings of your heart and mind.

I want to suggest some concerns with this approach but also an insight worth holding onto and a way to do it which might mitigate many of the dangers.

Some concerns

  • Individual rather than corporate. Preaching should normally be inclined towards a corporate address. The preacher is speaking to the whole church as a church. Like most of the NT epistles, there should be far more plural (“Sisi” na “Nyinyi”) than singular (“Mimi” na “Wewe”). It is so easy to slip into making all the applications to the individual rather than thinking how a particular Bible text should move us as a church. The ‘on the couch’ style of preaching tends to be directed to the individual.
  • Therapy culture rather than repentance call. The seated/recumbent posture just looks wrong. Preaching is supposed to be a heralding of salvation, beseeching sinners to come to Christ, a publishing of the command of God to all men to repent (Acts 17:30). There is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching loses entirely that tone of urgency, boldness and ‘speaking the very words of God’ and instead buys into a consumerist, me-centred, victim culture that wants God only so far as he affirms and soothes and helps me feel better about myself.
  • Knowing rather than doing. The theme of obedience is massive in the Bible (I don’t know how I never noticed it till recently!). Adam and Eve failed to obey. In Genesis 22 we are told nothing of Abraham’s psychology as he climbs Mt Moriah but what is emphasised is that he did it. Gospel ministry aims at bringing the nations to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). James tells us not to deceive ourselves that listening to the Word is a substitute for doing it (James 1:22). Of course we need to avoid moralistic ‘just do it’ exhortations but there is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching is descriptive without being prescriptive; giving us the intellectual stimulation and catharsis of knowing ourselves better without ever getting to the confrontational gospel imperatives.
  • Looking within rather than looking to Christ. The great news of the gospel is of salvation coming from outside, an alien righteousness, wisdom we would never have guessed, a God who stoops down, breaks in, rescues us. The call of the NT is “Behold the Lamb!” “Fix your eyes on Christ.” The danger with ‘on the couch’ preaching is that it can pander to an overly introspective, obsessive, narcissistic navel gazing. Even if it doesn’t do that it can start to make us think that just as the problem lies in us (idolatry, disordered loves) so the solution lies in us (rooting out idols, purifying worship) rather than looking to Jesus.

An insight worth holding onto

Having said all this, the practitioners of ‘on the couch’ preaching have got something very right and alerted us to something very important. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. We are passion-driven more than purpose-driven. Idolatry and the waywardness of the human heart is an enormous issue in the Bible. And it is helpful to think through how exactly sin and idolatry and sanctification work at the level of our heads and hearts. Rather than simply knowing what we must do and having a very vague idea that ‘God changes us’, perhaps it is rather important to see how exactly ‘the grace of God teaches us to say No to ungodliness.’ How do we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ? How does a good thing become a god-thing in our lives? How best can we counsel people going through the complexities of grief? How do we best motivate ourselves to obedience? How do our hearts work? We do we preach in a way that opens and engages hearts? The puritans, at their best, were masters of this kind of care of souls.

A way forward: let the Bible speak

How can we take that major insight of heart focus and heart analysis without slipping into the dangers mentioned above? I wonder whether, as it often the case, the best way forward is simply to preach the Word. Preach through the Bible. Preach what is in the passage you have this week. Preach with the tone of the passage. With the balance of the passage. With the cutting edge of the passage.

This sort of preaching will keep us from hobby horses, keep us from being dull, keep us from getting locked into a particular style or structure or mood or approach. We take our cue each time from the Bible passage itself. And, most importantly, preaching through the Bible, feeling the changing atmosphere, staying very close to the detail and flow of the texts will keep us from getting me-centred because we’ll be constantly pushed back up against the Lord of Glory himself.

By way of example here are some rough study notes on Isaiah 57:8-13.

Verse 8 – deserting me you have uncovered your bed… Forsaking the LORD leads to opening our hearts wide to any other lovers (idols) that will have us. We are beings desperate for love and yet we perversely, bizarrely, run from the love of our soul. you have looked on… We are visual beings and our hearts are captured by what we see.

Verse 10 – You wearied yourself by such going about… The pursuit of idols is a lengthy, stressful, strenuous, tiring pursuit. But you would not say, “It is hopeless.” Despite the high physical, emotional and financial costs of running after idols, we refuse to give up the chase. Idolators may be without true hope but they are not necessarily hopeless, depressed individuals. They may actually be very hopeful people, constantly expecting their idol to come through for them or to find a better world round the corner. You found renewal of your strength… We know that the LORD renews the strength of those who hope in him (Isa. 40:31), He revives the contrite (Isa. 57:15), but it is possible for idolators to find renewal of strength in their idolatry. Idolatry is hope-creating and energising. Look at the world without Christ and you see a huge amount of energy and industry.

Verse 11 – Whom have you so dreaded and feared do not fear me? One of the drivers of spiritual unfaithfulness is a fear of things and people greater than our fear of the LORD. Such fears are often vague and unconscious, we don’t face them directly, but we are challenged here to identify them.

Verse 12 – your righteousness and your deedswill not profit you… The answer does not come from within us. We cannot work our own salvation. Our religiosity is filthy rags. We tend to think like the ancient Egyptians that our good will outweigh our bad and save us but we are wrong.

Verse 13 – let your collection of idols save you… We gather not just one or two idols but a collection, putting our eggs in many baskets. But the strategy will not work, idols cannot save. As we mock the LORD (v4) he will mock us (v13a). But he who takes refuge in me… There is salvation outside of us. There is refuge in the very One we have forsaken and insulted. In Him we are safe on the day of judgment and are (astonishingly) turned from sons of the sorceress (v3) into heirs of the living God (v13b).

What we see in these verses is that there is quite a lot about the workings of the human heart but it is not a cool discourse – it is a passionate, confrontational declaration. It is a prophetic condemnation so there is quite a lot about ‘You’ (N.B. plural), describing the ways in which God’s people have forsaken him and analyzing the reasons for their betrayal. But it is not leading us to an introspective dead end. We are given the big gospel truth that there is no salvation in us and we need instead to run to hide ourselves in the LORD himself.

  • Have you heard good examples recently of preaching which brings out the heart analysis of the passage while turning us as a people to the Lord? How can we get better at this?

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As a landscape can look quite different at different times of day or in different weather as the varying angles and hues of light on a terrain make different parts of that landscape stand out in sharp relief, so reading the Bible in a different cultural setting can highlight and bring out things you’d never seen before. I mentioned a few examples of this in an earlier post and here are a few more features of the Bible landscape that the preaching of Kenyan brothers has helped me see and appreciate in a new way.

Shame

It is sometimes said that African and Asian cultures are shame cultures (concerned about issues of public face and community rejection) whereas Western culture is a guilt culture (concerned about individual objective transgression of the law). Perhaps there is some truth in that but actually I think Western culture is a shame culture too just in a different way. Some things that would not be shameful in Kenya are shameful in the UK and vice versa. I’ll try to explore that more in another post. But what is certainly true is that when you are away from your home culture you notice the shame issue more.

When Ken Irungu was giving us an overview of 2 Timothy and preaching through the first chapter, one of the things that really struck me was how he brought out the theme of shame and being unashamed. In his time of trial Paul has been deserted (2 Tim. 4:16) and he calls Timothy ‘not to be ashamed of the gospel or of me his prisoner’ (1:8) but rather to be like Onesiphorus who was ‘not ashamed of my chains’ (1:16).

Challenging convention, being different, being outspoken can often be taken as shameful in a communal culture. To undergo arrest or punishment by the authorities, even when undeserved, will be seen as shameful. Even to suffer through illness, bereavement or some calamity can suggest that you under some sort of cloud of curse of misfortune. So for Paul to be suffering, and particularly suffering institutional persecution for the sake of his preaching, is a shameful thing and people will naturally respond by dissociating themselves and distancing themselves from him so as not to share the shame or pick the contagion. He will be rejected by the community, in itself a shameful thing, making him even more a figure of shame.

Being shown this theme has made the letter of 2 Timothy stand out in sharper relief for me. And I have also started to notice it all over the New Testament – the words ‘shame’ or ‘ashamed’ coming about 40 times. The death of Christ was a shameful thing (Heb. 12:2). The call of Jesus is to take up our cross (i.e. be willing to be shamed) and not be ashamed of me or my words else the Son of Man will be ashamed of him (Mk. 8:34-38). “Let us then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore” (Heb. 13:13).

Elder brother

In African cultures the role of the firstborn is well understood. I remember being in a Bible study in the Gambia looking at Colossians 1:15 and the African brothers there had no problem understanding the significance of Jesus being the ‘firstborn’. They didn’t get distracted by the JW misunderstanding that this means that Jesus is a created being, they understood that just as the firstborn in a house is next to the father and has all the rights and authority and status of the father (particularly when the father is away), so Jesus is next to the Father and has delegated to him all the functions and power of the Father.

Then Stanley Wandeto was preaching on Luke 15 – the parable of the two sons – and he showed me something that I had never seen about the elder brother there. It’s a parable full of shocking (shameful) behaviour (e.g. the younger son asking for his inheritance, the old man running, the father begging his son) but the one I hadn’t seen was that the elder brother is shocking in that he doesn’t go looking for the younger son. Traditionally a responsibility of the firstborn is to look after his younger siblings, to keep watch over them, to care for them and keep them in line. When the younger son insults his father and goes off into a life of recklessness, it is the job of the firstborn (not the father) to run after his brother and plead with him to come back.

Now I think of it, I realise that this is the godly concern that many of my Kenyan friends and colleagues have within their own families, particularly those who are firstborns, to pursue and win back straying siblings.

This gives another level and depth to the characterisation of the elder brother in the parable. His hatred towards his younger brother does not start when he comes home and a party is thrown for him, it starts much earlier in his failure to search for him. The self-righteous Pharisees (who are the target of the parable) are at fault not only for their failure to welcome sinners but their failure to go out looking for sinners (cf. Jesus who welcomes and seeks the lost).

Dead dog

Before I came to Kenya I’m not sure I’d seen a dead dog before. Now I see one almost every time I go to the office, lying in the road. Africa is full of stray dogs. Mostly a yellow-brown colour, small to medium size, thin, feral, searching for scraps. They have a hard pathetic life and then they get hit by a truck or starve.

In most African cultures, for a person to be compared to a dog is an extremely insulting and shameful thing. For one thing the distinction between animals and humans is much sharper than in the West (where pets are part of the family and people get very upset over a gorilla being shot) and for another thing dogs are a particularly dirty and ignoble animal (in contrast to something more noble like a lion or a rhino).

So when Fidel Nyikuri preached Mark 7:27 to us and also reminded us of Mephibosheth in 2 Kings 9, it came home very powerfully what it means for us to be a dead dog – pathetic, despised, dirty, base, in the lowest place. And yet – the wonder of the gospel – we who are not entitled to anything are invited to eat at the king’s table and share the children’s bread (Mk. 8:1-9).

Water and milk

In parts of the world where water comes clean, clear, pure and cold straight from the tap and is basically never cut off, it is difficult to appreciate the preciousness of water. In parts of the world where milk is delivered to the door and is always there when you open the fridge, alongside three or four other beverages and fifteen food items, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of milk.

However in places where the climate is hot and dry and water is scarce, where it has to be searched for or brought up from the ground with effort, then there is much more impact when we read in Isaiah of drawing ‘water from the wells of salvation’ (Isa. 12:3), a ruler and renewal which is ‘like streams of water in the desert’ (Isa. 32:2; 35:6; 41:18; 43:20; 44:3), a shepherd God who leads his people ‘beside springs of water’ (Isa. 49:10). Similarly, in a community where milk (drawn by hand from your own animals) is a key part of the diet (in some pastoralist communities people survive purely on milk for days a time and even down-country in many villages the one animal you will own is a cow), then the land flowing with milk and honey is very meaningful picture.

Preaching from Isaiah 55 Gerald Mwangi helped us imagine working all morning on the farm, digging in the sun, drinking nothing, and then finishing your work in the early afternoon desperate for… water. Then to think of what we take from childhood onwards to make us strong, to give us energy, to build us up… milk.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.”

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In 2 Chronicles 26 at the last First Priority prayer meeting we saw King Uzziah’s reign go through a very clear trajectory:

Slide1

It had been exactly the same with his father Amaziah (2 Chron. 25) and his father Joash (2 Chron. 22-24). A wonderful rise and then a terrible fall. Throughout history it’s been the shape of world empires and nations, of companies and organisations, sadly of churches and revivals, and of countless politicians and personalities. Why?

Surely the deep answer is that it’s the shape of Adam. The first word of the book(s) of Chronicles signals that search for a second Adam –  the one who will reverse the fall, bring blessing, crush evil, restore all things. And in Uzziah it looks like we may have found him: restorer (v2), crusher of evil (v6, 11-15), a great ‘name’ and spreading dominion (v8, 15 cf. Gen. 12:2; 15:18), the builder of Jerusalem (v9), a gardener (v10). But then, like Adam he breaks faith (v16), enters into a living death (v19 cf. Num. 12:12), and is separated from God’s presence (v21).

This is the pattern of Adam and it happens again and again at every level of society because we are all born in Adam. My real problem is not that I have an ‘Uzziah’ in my life (e.g. pride) that I need to kill. The problem is that I am Uzziah – I’m born in the man of death and decay and I deserve to die eternally.

What I need is the true King whom Isaiah saw the year Uzziah died (Isa. 6); the second Adam who would bring in a new Eden (Isa. 11). What was the shape of his life? Look at Isaiah 52:13-53:12:

Slide2

Instead of a meteoric rise and a terrible fall, this King starts in exalted glory, descends to take human flesh, descends to a humiliating execution and then is exalted to the throne above all thrones (Phil. 2; John 13).

That is the shape of our salvation. That is what absorbs and reverses the shape of our Adamic curse. And it is also the shape of those who are in Christ Jesus. It is the shape of servant leadership. A few of the OT greats were clearly conformed to this U-shape – e.g. Joseph, Job, Daniel. And it is for us to whom Paul says: “have this mind” (Phil. 2:5).

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1 cor 2 v9

1 Corinthians 2:9 is usually applied either a) to heaven / the New Creation – i.e. it’s going to be unimaginably wonderful when we enter the pearly gates – or b) to a fresh move of the Spirit / second blessing / breakthrough / revival – i.e. tomorrow is going to be unimaginably better than today. I’ve not done extensive research on this but I suspect the first interpretation is more common in the UK and the US while the second more common in our East African context.

But what if we look back into the context (it’s the C-word again) both of Paul’s letter and Isaiah?

19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.

In Isaiah 29, quoted here, the LORD is saying that he will again do something wonderful, unimaginable, such that the wise men and their wisdom will look completely foolish. Later in Isaiah (41:21-29) the LORD mocks the idols just as he did the wise men:

23     tell us what the future holds,
so we may know that you are gods.

24 But you are less than nothing
and your works are utterly worthless;

In contrast, the LORD declares the “new things before they spring forth” (Isaiah 42:9). In Isaiah 43:19 (a famous verse) the “new thing” seems to be a new Exodus, a return from Exile. Isaiah 45:21 sums up the thought that the LORD is doing a new saving act that no-one foretold. In fact the whole section from Isaiah 41-46 emphasises again and again the uniqueness of the LORD God as the only speaking, revealing, saving God. Then you finally get to Isaiah 52-53 and we find the “astonishing”, unbelievable (“who has believed”) salvation – the one who is crushed instead of us.

Back in 1 Corinthians 1 it’s very clear that the un-foretold, unexpected salvation which has taken the world by surprise is the “word of the cross” (v18). Paul continues on this theme from 1:18-2:5, developing his argument mainly in terms of the paradoxical categories of wisdom/foolishness,  and then you get to these amazing words:

we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

These verses are amazing:

  • The “wisdom” here must be what Paul has just been talking about – Christ crucified (1:23-24, 30).
  • This wisdom has been “hidden”. The rulers (like the wise men of 1:19-21) were clueless to this wisdom.
  • Because they were ignorant of this hidden plan they – irony of ironies – fulfilled it – they “crucified the Lord of glory”.
  • Notice when God planned this wisdom of the Cross: “before time began”. So before Creation – when there was only Father, Son and Spirit – what were they doing? Loving one another, serving one another, glorifying one another, speaking to one another – what were they speaking about? The Cross of Christ – It was decreed, within the Trinity, before time!
  • FOR OUR GLORY!  Before Creation the Trinity was planning how to save you, how to shower you with love, how to glorify you.

Then we get to our verse:

But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”

Just as in 1:19 and 1:31 Paul is proving his point – not making a new point: “As it is written…”  And what’s he talking about? Surely the Cross of Christ again. This is what the wise men failed to see or hear (1:19-20). This is what was hidden from the rulers of the age (2:6-7a). This is what God prepared before time for those who love him (2:7b).

If we go back to Isaiah 64 we find Paul is not twisting Scripture:

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to yourenemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

The tone of the passage is Hakuna Mungu kama wewe (as it was in Isaiah 41-46). And notice particularly the unexpectedness comes in again – “we did not expect… no ear… no eye…”. And then notice what that unexpectedness consists in – a God who comes down, a God who takes the initiative to save: who acts on our behalf.

You would never dream up a God like this. That’s the big point. A God who rips open the heavens and comes down, comes down and takes flesh, who is despised and rejected, who goes like a sheep to death on a Cross to be cursed and crushed instead of us.

That is the unimaginable gospel.

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