James’s Blog: What Hosea Said.

James’s Blog:  What Hosea Said.

Here’s a twelve year old sermon that I’ve edited into a blog post. This one was on Hosea 6 & 7, and is a lot longer than the last sermon I revisited on these pages. It also required a lot more editing – I had to remove some especially dated references. Listen, it’s not that I’m too lazy to come up with something original – it’s rather that I don’t think I’ll ever preach this sermon again, so I’m putting it on the internet for posterity. Yes, that’s it.

I have a friend. Some of you will have a friend like this. He keeps making harmful decisions, because he’s…well, I don’t know why he does it. It’s not as bad now, thankfully, but back when we hung out it was crazy. It would be easier to understand if he wasn’t a Christian, but he is. He’s been a Christian since he was young, but he walks this fine line with his faith. It’s not that he’s not committed, or not sincere. To be honest, I just don’t know what it is.

He goes through up and downs, like most of us. Sometimes he’s passionate about God, sometimes he’s not. He knows his Bible. He knows it well, and he’s got a good grasp of theology.

But, well, it’s almost like he knows it, but he never lets the information make the journey from his head to his heart. It’s like he’s going through the motions a lot of the time, because he knows it’s what he should be doing, and thinking, and feeling, but it’s as though it’s not quite real for him. But again, he’s sincere. He knows who Jesus is, but he just doesn’t seem to be able to make the connection between that and living for God.

Take relationships, for example. He just makes bad choices when it comes to women. It’s not even that he goes out with non-Christians. He meets girls at church that are just as messed up as he is. In the two year period that I was closest to him, he had four girlfriends and none of them were good for him. It’s like these relationships seem to shut God out of his life. They never last, but I reckon that’s a good thing, because as damaging as these relationships are in the short term, I dread to think what he’d be like if he’d been going out with one of these girls for years rather than months.

He’s highly suggestible too. Easily swayed by outward appearances and advertising. Suckered in by any and every half-baked scheme; wasting his money on stuff that can’t help him. He knows that Christ alone offers satisfaction and health; he knows this. But like I said, he doesn’t know it. He was always showing me the stuff he’d bought. He was always showing me and telling me about his new toy and how it was the thing that he’d really been after – but he got through stuff pretty quickly. Some of my other friends did very well off him, waiting for him to get bored with his new purchase and then buying it off him on the cheap.

I remember one conversation we had outside Currys. We were waiting for a bus and he was talking to me about Jesus and God and stuff. He was saying all the right things, about how he’d just got out of one of those destructive relationships. He was telling me how he’d really drawn strength from his faith, and how he felt closer to God, and that he realised that God was all that he needed and the source of the hope that he’d been missing. He said that he needed to get that relationship back on track. But it was weird; he was saying all this, and I noticed that as he was talking his eyes were drifting, until it was obvious that he was looking elsewhere.

I followed his gaze to see that he was looking in the shop window, at a huge widescreen TV. There was no sound, but it was the adverts. He was there talking to me about God, but watching the adverts. That kind of sums him up really. Talks the talk, says the right things, and knows the right things, but is focused on something else. His mind is elsewhere. Talks about God, but watches the adverts.

It wouldn’t be so bad, but he really didn’t have a clue what he was like. He just didn’t get it. He knew something was wrong, but he didn’t understand what. He didn’t know that he was doing it to himself. I tried to tell him. Lots of people tried to tell him. I’m not the only one. He’s been very blessed, really, that God has sent a constant stream of people to try and show him and tell him that something’s got to change, but he never really makes the connection. Sometimes it gets close. Sometimes he says something that makes you think, “Wow, it’s finally sunk in,” but soon you realise that it was a moment of clarity and nothing else. Just part of the right language he knows, but isn’t sure what to do with.

Do you want to know his name? You might already know his name.

He goes by many names, but most of the time he’s simply called ‘Israel’. Sometimes Ephraim. Sometimes Judah. It’s all similar you know. One of his friends, a guy called Hosea, tried to make him see sense. Like I said, just one of many friends who say the same things, and it seems like he never listens.

Hosea said to him, “You’ve had four girlfriend in the past two years…” well, what Hosea actually said was, “You’ve had four kings in the past twenty years…” but it’s the same thing really. Hosea said, or rather God said through Hosea, “You’ve had four kings in the past twenty years – and each one of them was assassinated. You know what? Not one of them ever called out to me.”

What do you expect for Israel when he’s in those kind of relationships? And God said to him, “It’s not your ideas that are half-baked – it’s you! You’re like a half-baked cake. Mixed in with all the wrong ingredients and the final act, the act of turning back to Me, left undone.”

God said to him, “You invest your time and money and energy into these foreign powers, these idols, and they’re just robbing you. You’re paying tribute to foreign powers and smiling, unaware that you’re just draining yourself of your resources for no gain.”

God said to him “You’re like a bird that’s easily scared from branch to branch, flitting and flying here and there. Stupid, easily trapped and ensnared in something that’s no good for you.”

God said to him, “The worst thing is that you smile about it. You are totally unaware of what’s happening. You think that this is how it should be, how I want it to be! You just don’t seem to want to understand! Wake up and smell the coffee!”

That’s what Hosea used to tell him. He was much better at speaking to Israel than me.

Anyway, we drifted apart. I wasn’t too worried because, despite everything, he seemed to be one of those people that God had taken a special interest in, and seemed to be making a lot of effort for. I totally lost contact with him until very recently, when I bumped into him on a train – one of those chance encounters, you know. He looked really well. I didn’t recognise him at first. He spotted me. I said, “You look good.” He said, “Yeah, things are going well. I’ve changed a lot since you saw me last. Me and God, we’ve moved on to a new stage in our relationship. It’s great. It’s working very well.” He did seem to be different, in a good way, but I was a little concerned. I saw it in his eyes. I noticed the way his attention flicked to an attractive girl who entered the carriage and stayed just a little bit too long. I noticed that when we were waiting at a station there was a whole chunk of the conversation that he missed because he was mesmerised by an advertising billboard on the platform. On the whole he seemed much better, it’s just I was a little worried that the signs were still there, that he wouldn’t have to fall too far to totally slip back to where he was.

We reached his station and he got out. “Good to see you again, Israel,” I said. He smiled and said, “You too, James. But my name’s not Israel anymore. I changed it. My name is Church.”

Church. It seemed to suit him. But, well, you know. I hope that it lasts. I’d hate for a few years down the line his new friends to be saying exactly the same kind of things that Hosea used to say. I’d hate for it to be all as it was when I knew him, and that the only thing that had changed was that people were calling him Church instead of Israel.

James’s Blog: Acts 2:32-37 for the Modern Pulpit.

James’s Blog:  Acts 2:32-37 for the Modern Pulpit.

32 “…God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand 35 until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ 36 Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, a few said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, thank you. I enjoyed that.”

And a few said, “Oh, I love Psalm 110. Let me tell you what I like about it.”

And a few said, “I think I’ve heard that sermon before.”

And a few said, “That was too simple. I wish you’d go a bit deeper.”

And a few said, “It wasn’t as good as last week’s sermon.”

And a few said, “It was too short.”

And a few said, “No, it was too long.”

And a few said,”That was just what my friend needed to hear.”

And a few were cut to the heart and thought, “Brothers, what shall we do?” but they didn’t say it out loud, or to anybody else, and by the time they were sitting down to their Sunday lunch they were already thinking about what they were going to do that afternoon and didn’t give Peter’s words another thought.

James’s Blog: The Sermon as Art.

James’s Blog:  The Sermon as Art.

Over the years, the line between writing a story and preparing a sermon has become blurred. These days, I tend to take the same approach with both, which means that I spend longer editing a sermon than writing it in the first place. I revisit it frequently, toying with the order of paragraphs, or searching for exactly the right image or turn of phrase.

It’s not about ‘trying to be clever’.  The sermon – like every effort to communicate – is actually a work of art, and needs to be treated as such.

Art can be a spiritual experience for people. A poem, painting, story, film or sculpture has the power to give people a taste of what lies beyond themselves. This is one of the ways in which God has weaved revelation into the fabric of what it means to be human. The sermon is unique among art in that the explicit contract between artist and audience is that God is front and centre. Some people turn hostile if they suspect that you’re trying to sneak God into areas where He’s forbidden, but with the sermon you’re allowed to be blunt.

Because of this, I find myself squirming in the pew if I suspect that I’m listening to a preacher who takes more care over constructing e-mails than he does over sermons.

“It’s about God. It’s got nothing to do with me” is an excuse used by sometimes well-meaning, sometimes lazy preachers who think that God is a KitchenAid mixer – you just throw in the ingredients, and leave Him to it. This approach denies one of the fundamental concepts of the Bible, namely that God, as an act of love, freely delegates to us responsibility for His reputation and message.

It’s got nothing to do with human effort or creative manipulation, rather it recognises that art and communication have divinely-ordained rules. Don’t tell me that Jesus, who painted pictures of plank-eyed people, camels squeezing through needles, and angry vineyard workers didn’t take how he communicated at least as seriously as what he communicated.

I’m not saying that every preacher needs to be a poet, or that clever structure is an adequate substitute for a vibrant relationship with God. What I am saying is that every preacher needs to realise that things like language and format actually matter. A preacher doesn’t need to succeed in creating art, but a preacher needs to at least try.

James’s Blog: No Rest for the Righteous.

James’s Blog:  No Rest for the Righteous.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about spiritual warfare, it’s that Satan is no gentleman. He isn’t one to say, “Hey, James has had a really rough week. Let’s go easy on him for the moment.” Quite the opposite in fact. There may be times where the conflict is more overt, and I am more aware of it, but rarely do the guns actually stop.

As a preacher, I know that the build up to a sermon can be a time of conflict. The act of preparation, with the temptation to take shortcuts or play fast and loose with the truth, feels like a battle. When we’re working towards something specific, we can be conscious of the spiritual struggle, wrestling with motives and prayer, but it’s a mistake to think that after the event there’s a ceasefire. As soon as the seed has landed on the path is the best time for the birds to swoop. The moment the preacher sits down is as good a time as any to push him into pride or drag him into despair.

However, as relentless as the Enemy is, God is even more so. The truth doesn’t ever stop being true. There is not a moment where resisting the devil doesn’t cause him to flee from us. I don’t stop being a child of God because I’ve had a bad week. We are always vulnerable to attack but, equally, the Enemy is always vulnerable to the truth.

James’s Blog: My Philosophy of Communication.

James’s Blog:  My Philosophy of Communication.

Isn’t it nice when you discover that someone has put into words something that you already knew to be true on an instinctual level?  A few years ago I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my soul.  As a preacher/teacher, I sort of knew what I was trying to do – I wasn’t really so interested in ‘educating’ as I was in ‘inspiring’.  However, ‘Inspiring’ is not usually listed as a Learning Outcome on many course outlines, much to my disappointment. Read more

James’s Blog: Getting their Attention.

James’s Blog:  Getting their Attention.

An actor and a preacher were discussing their work.

What I don’t understand,” said the preacher, “is why my congregation will come to one of your performances and sit for hours, engaged and alert the whole time, while I can hardly get them to stay awake during one of my twenty minute sermons.”

Maybe,” said the actor, “it’s because I present fiction as though it were the truth, and you present the truth as though it were fiction.” Read more

James’s Blog: Fair Trade.

James’s Blog:  Fair Trade.

This is an edited version of a sermon I once preached (though I’ve not edited it much). It’s a true account, though the lesson I was taught took a while to formulate and wasn’t delivered to me in the divine monologue that I have written here. However, I knew that when I told this story I wanted to present it as something personal that took place between God and myself, because it was… Read more

James’s Blog: A Guest Blog from Rev. Ulysses Giblet.

James’s Blog:  A Guest Blog from Rev. Ulysses Giblet.

I’ve been told that every good blog needs a guest blogger now and then. Fortunately, I’ve been able to convince a long time friend, the Reverend Ulysses Giblet, to contribute to my page. Here’s some of his thoughts on preaching.

When James asked me if I’d write something for his blog, I was happy to help. I decided I should write a short article on a topic that James knows nothing about – preaching. Read more

James’s Blog: A Preaching Odyssey

James’s Blog:  A Preaching Odyssey

The only thing that I miss from when I was a minister is the preaching. I think it’s because it’s the only part of the role where I ever felt competent. It’s taken me many years to get to the point where I feel comfortable acknowledging that I am a good preacher. My reluctance to do so came from a combination of insecurity and that common Protestant brand of pride – false humility. I know now that if God has made you good at something, pretending that you’re not very good at it is just extremely disrespectful.

I preached my first sermon on Boxing Day 1993. I was just short of my 17th birthday and had been a Christian for about six months. I don’t know many churches that would have given someone like me a chance in the pulpit, and I will always be thankful to Peter Taylor for taking that risk. Every now and then, during my A-Level years, I would turn up at some village chapel to preach. The congregations were always kind, because I was something of a novelty. I don’t think anyone else in my school was investing their youth in that particular way. What it means is that, as I approach my 40th birthday, I have had nearly 25 years of preaching experience. That’s very helpful, because sometimes it can take you that long to figure out what, how and why you should be preaching what you’re preaching.

At some point I will probably share some of my thoughts on the art of preaching, probably on this very blog. Preaching is an art, and a responsibility. Those of us who are doing it should take the development of our skills seriously. I have very high standards for preachers, I’m afraid, but that’s OK. Now that I’ve finally managed to divest myself of false humility it frees me up to start working on developing the real deal.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

Fred Craddock.

I’m cheating a little bit here. Fred Craddock has influenced me not so much by what he has written, but rather by the way that he has said what he has said.

I hadn’t heard of the diminutive American pastor until my preaching classes at Spurgeon’s college, where we were exposed to one of his uniquely crafted sermons. For me, it was love at first sight…well, at first hearing anyway. He was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, and many of you have probably never even heard of him.

There’s a collection of his sermons (The Cherry Log Sermons), the style of which I slavishly attempted to emulate for my long-suffering congregation during my later years at Hayward’s Heath, but it’s the volume Craddock Stories that has shaped my own writing. The book is a collection of stories that Fred used in some of his sermons over the years, and they’re fantastic. Not just the stories, but the way that they are told and the truth that is drawn from them. Fantastic. He tells countless anecdotes from his rich life, but if he ever lacked a suitable story he would just make one up. I don’t mean “Did I ever tell you about the time I had dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury…” made-up, I mean a skilfully constructed parable of the imagination made-up . Let me give you an example:

I remember one night, sitting in a little rural church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, so it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on his favourite text, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building and stopped by the window and said, “Psst, psst.”

I said, “What is it? I’m listening to the sermon.”
He said, “Come with me.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
He said, “I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world.”
I said, “There’s no such thing.”
He said, “In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field.”
I said, “You’re kidding!”
He said, “Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table.”
I said, “That’s ridiculous.”
He said, “In fact, they give great big parties for prodigals who come home.”
I said, “That’s stupid.”

Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon.

He said, “Who was that?”
I said, “I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff.”
He said, “Well, was he getting anybody?”
And I said, “Well, none of our crowd went, but I noticed he had about twelve with him.”

I had never heard anything like this before, at least not in a sermon, and therein lies Craddock’s influence on me. Stories make good sermons all by themselves but imaginative stories make powerful sermons. Let us try harder than to just pull out the same tired old illustrations that have been doing the preaching rounds since year one. Let us let our imaginations run rampant. Why should the devil have all the good flights of fancy?

Of the four writers that I am mentioning in this blog series, Craddock has had the most blatant impact on The Listening Book. There would probably be no book if it weren’t for him. It contains more than one tale where I am self-consciously trying to ape his style of storytelling. Hopefully you won’t be able to spot them! I’m finding my own voice now, but I don’t want to ever forget the influence that Fred Craddock had on me.

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