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By Craig Brian Larson
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THE SUPREMACY OF GOD IN PREACHING
The veteran preacher John Piper sets the tone for this book with a clarion call for a God-centered approach to inspirational preaching. Piper has followed this God-exalting focus for more than thirty years of pastoral ministry. As he observes in this chapter, in many ways we live in a God-neglecting, God-belittling, and God-despising age. Taking God for granted or belittling God's glory causes us to grasp for the trivial trinkets of this world. According to Piper, this shallow, God-ignoring outlook on life can seep into our churches and even our preaching.
Fortunately, as preachers we don't just have to throw our hands up in despair. For Piper, honoring God starts before we step into the pulpit and preach. It begins as we stand in awe before God, savoring, loving, and treasuring the glory of God. As we delight in God, we also have an incredible opportunity to challenge the world's outlook and exalt God: It's called preaching. Week after week people hunger for a God-exalting vision for their lives. Piper challenges every preacher by asking, "If you don't lift up the glory of God and wean them off the breast of [this] God-neglecting [world], who's going to do it?" What a high and holy calling! As you read this book, may that question stir your soul and inspire your preaching.
One of the great advantages of remaining at the same church for seventeen years is that your personal mission statement and your church's mission statement become one. Our mission statement says: "We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples." My personal passion to make God supreme took a tremendous leap forward several years ago when I read an excerpt from a journal called First Things. The excerpt came from a specialist in general relativity theory named Charles Meisner, a man who shared Albert Einstein's attitude toward organized religion about fifty years ago.
Here's the quotation:
I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business. It's very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt that they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined, and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he had run across did not have a proper respect for the Author of the universe.
Lessons from a scientist about God's supremacy
I was cut so deeply by this that I pledged to redouble my efforts so that no one would be able to say this about me. Likewise, I desire to cut preachers today so deeply that we all would want this never to be said of them. The quotation is still a fair statement concerning much preaching in the American pulpit. Though my sampling is limited, Einstein's concern is still valid.
The famous scientist said four things. First, preachers haven't seen as much of the majesty of God as he had, staring through a telescope or studying physics. Second, he said preachers just don't seem to be talking about the real thing. Third, he observed, there doesn't seem to be a proper respect for the Author of the universe. And fourth, he said preachers seem to be blaspheming.
The charge of blasphemy is meant to carry a wallop. Preachers claim to be talking about the eternal, infinite, unchanging Creator of the universe, but it doesn't feel like it. For those who are stunned by the indescribable magnitude of the universe, not to mention the infinitely greater Author of the universe, a steady diet of psychological, soothing, and practical how-to's seems inauthentic. It gives the impression that we preachers aren't talking about the real thing.
You may remember from high school physics that light travels about 5.87 trillion miles a year. The Milky Way galaxy, of which our solar system is a part, is about a hundred thousand light years across. That means our galaxy is about 587 thousand trillion miles in diameter. It is just one of a million such galaxies within optical range of our stronger telescopes.
In our galaxy there are about 100 billion stars. The sun is a modest-sized star with a temperature around the edges of 6,000 degrees centigrade. It travels at about 155 miles per second and therefore will make its first orbit around the galaxy in roughly two hundred thousand years.
Scientists are awed by these things. They instinctively conclude that if there is a personal God who spoke this into being and, who, as Hebrews 1:3 says, "upholds the universe by the word of his power," there ought to be a certain respect for and fear of such a God. The manifold greatness and glory of this God should be ever present in the life of his people. They should be stunned by the limitless things they could say about his magnificence.
Isaiah 40:25–26 concurs,
"To whom then will you compare me?
that I should be like him?" says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these [stars]?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name,
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.
Einstein felt some of this, and his response was that preachers were not talking about the real thing. If the God of the Bible exists, then what's wrong with our preaching? Surely the theme, spirit, and atmosphere of our preaching should be the majesty and supremacy of God. Everything else we talk about should be brought into relationship to this passion of our preaching and our lives. This raises two great questions.
The focus and passion of all of our preaching
The first one is this: Why should the supremacy of God be the passion and theme of our preaching?
I was once asked by a preaching journal, "Why do you make so much of the supremacy of God being the theme of preaching?" I replied, "Because the supremacy of God is the theme of redemptive history. In fact, the supremacy of God is the theme of God." God is ultimately what's supreme to God. If God is supreme in his own affections, then God should be supreme in our sermon planning.
A few years ago I was preaching at my alma mater. As I stood and looked over two thousand students, the first words out of my mouth were, "The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." My friends in the balcony did a collective double take. They told me afterward, "We thought you misquoted the Westminster Catechism, which says, 'The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.'" But having listened to the entire message, they knew it was no mistake. I meant it with all my heart. I believe it's the main point of the Bible. The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself forever.
Jonathan Edwards is a hero of mine. He made this life-changing point of which I speak in his book called Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. The thesis is as follows: "The great end of God's works which is so variously expressed in Scripture is indeed but one, and this one end is most properly and comprehensively called the glory of God."
Now let me read you one passage of Scripture so that you get the flavor of why I say God's supremacy is the main heartbeat of God, and therefore should be the main heartbeat of preaching about God. In Isaiah 48:9–11, God says,
"For my name's sake I defer my anger,
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you but not as silver;
I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another."
I think those three verses are the most densely concentrated, God-centered verses in the Bible. On six occasions in this passage God declares that he acts either for "my name's sake" or for "my glory."
God's glory is his passion. He created the world to go public with his glory. He created human minds to understand his glory. He created human hearts to delight in his glory. All my theology is summed up in this statement: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is the Good News, that God's quest to be glorified and your quest to be satisfied are not at odds. They are one in worship.
So why do we make God supreme in preaching? Because God is supreme in the heart of God, in redemptive history, in salvation, in the Bible, in missions, and in prayer.
The supremacy of God and our preaching
Now to the second great question: How then shall we preach?
The answer is highlighted in the most God-centered sermon in the Bible, found in Acts 13. Paul arrives at Antioch of Pisidia and goes into the synagogue. He's invited to address the people, so he preaches a survey of redemptive history. However, he does it in a manner that is foreign to us today.
I ask you, preachers: Do you preach like that? I ask you, lay people: Do you talk like that? When you talk about the world, do you say, "God did this," and, "God did that"; "God raised up this president," and, "God put this president down"? Do you say, "God ordained this sinful strategy," or, "God cut that thing when its purposes were finished"? Do you talk like that? Do you make him supreme?
We live in an unbelievably naïve and superficial age—though that is the last way most people would describe it. A. W. Tozer, however, thought to describe it this way. Something is superficial when the treatment of it involves everything except the main things. As a scholar you can say much intelligently about a great many things. Yet if you leave out the main connections, you're treating them superficially.
Therefore I conclude that the communication media in America is superficial. I conclude that the educational enterprises in our universities are superficial. I conclude virtually all history books are superficial, virtually all public education is superficial, and virtually all editorial news commentary is superficial for one simple reason: the incredible, unimaginable disregard for God in it all.
God is the main reality in the universe, the sustaining power of everything that is. Therefore any time you treat anything without relation to God, you are being superficial. The fact that this sounds odd to us shows how infected American evangelicals are in this God-neglecting, God-belittling, and increasingly God-despising age.
Therefore, pastors, I plead with you to make him supreme in your preaching. I pray for my sons and my daughter: "O God, in all of their learning, I pray that they would see you. May they see you in geometry, history, philosophy, and English. May they see you as they work on their spelling." I can hear the cynics say, "Right, Christian spelling! Give me a break, Pastor John!" But that's the way a superficial, God-neglecting cynic responds to talk about God-centered spelling.
I remember the day when my nonacademic, dyslexic son said to me, "Why should I care about spelling the way everybody else spells?" I countered, "Well, you won't be able to communicate as well if you don't learn how to spell the way everybody else spells." "I don't care about communicating well," he replied. "Why should I care about communicating well?"
The blasphemous, standard, contemporary answer to this question is, "If you don't learn how to spell and communicate, you won't succeed in business and make as much money." What a godless answer.
Here's another answer, the one I gave my son. "Ben, you should care about communicating and learning how to spell because you were created in the image of God. And God's a great communicator. You should want to communicate because you've got something infinitely important to communicate. You've got God to communicate. You've got salvation to communicate. You've got Jesus to communicate. You can't be indifferent, Ben, to communication. God is love, and we scorn his love when we are indifferent about communicating good news to our neighbors, when they desperately need to hear these things. You need to care about communicating because language was God's idea from the beginning. 'In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God.' It was God's idea. He is not a God of chaos and confusion. He's a God of beauty and order. He's not a God of anarchy, even spelling anarchy."
If you don't care about the supremacy of God in spelling, then you won't get my plea tonight. If we preachers don't lift up the supremacy of God week in and week out, showing a passion for it in all things, such as spelling, voting, sex, eating, and the stock market, who's going to do it? Apart from our God-exalting preaching, our people won't have anything that will consistently call them away from our God-belittling, God-neglecting, God-despising culture besides you. But one or two hours a week they'll listen to you. If you don't lift up the glory of God and try to wean them off the breast of God-neglecting America, who's going to do it?
Almighty God, our heart's desire is that you would be magnified in our pulpits, in our Sunday school classes, and in our living in such a way that we would awaken to your glory and supremacy, and so that others would see him who made the world and is redeeming the world through Jesus Christ. O Father, draw nearby your Spirit and seal these things to our hearts. Apply them in our churches and in our missionary movement, I pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
John Piper is pastor for preaching at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, radio speaker for Desiring God, and author of Desiring God.CHAPTER 2
THE BIGGEST IDEA IN PREACHING
Sometimes we assume that the average Christian won't get excited about doctrine. So some preachers avoid doctrinal preaching and focus on "how-to sermons" loaded with nice advice on helpful, "real-life" topics.
But in this chapter, master preacher and preaching professor Haddon Robinson argues that the Bible isn't just "a sprawling book ... for solving [our] problems." The Bible exalts God and weaves a beautiful story about a Savior who intervened to redeem us. As Robinson reminds us, the world doesn't need good advice; it needs the power, authority, and wisdom of God. Sharing that inspiring message with our people will lead us into doctrinal preaching. Every sermon has the opportunity to ask: What does this passage teach us about God?
For Robinson doctrinal preaching doesn't have to be dull and impractical. The twentieth-century British author Dorothy Sayers once wrote, "The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man.... The people who [killed] Christ never ... accused him of being a bore." Every preacher has the privilege of proclaiming the "exciting drama" focused on Christ. If we can connect the doctrine to everyday life (Robinson calls it asking the "so what?" question), it won't bore anyone. Instead, doctrinal preaching will offer life-changing inspiration to ordinary people.
In some ways, you could say all the ideas of the Bible make up doctrine. Usually when we think of doctrine, we think of the great affirmations in the Nicene Creed, the affirmations most Christians agree to and embrace. Different churches have doctrines that distinguish them from others, but on a basic level when you talk about the great doctrines of the Christian faith, you're thinking of those expressed in the ancient creeds.
Someone once asked me if I agree with the following statement: Doctrines are the most important ideas from the most important Book. I quickly agreed—although I would add that when you talk about the "most important" ideas, that begs for some definition. There are doctrines that most Christian groups agree with, and I would say they are the outstanding ideas from the Scriptures.
Excerpted from Inspirational Preaching by Craig Brian Larson. Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today International. Excerpted by permission of Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC.
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