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Obedience

But Samuel replied,

“What is more pleasing to the Lord:
    your burnt offerings and sacrifices
    or your obedience to his voice?
Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice,
    and submission is better than offering the fat of rams.

Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft,
    and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols.
So because you have rejected the command of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

— 1 Sam. 15:22,23 (NLT)

In my occasional review of sermons, one thing is paramount to keep in mind: whatever the minor shortcomings of the preacher and the sermon (and all of us fall short), this is no excuse NOT to obey the teaching of God’s Word communicated through the sermon. You may not like the style or some of the illustrations or may disagree or quibble with some of the fine points of the passage’s interpretation, but you are obligated to obey the message found in the passage, insofar as the teaching is true and biblical. Period.

In his book, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, the Puritan preacher and writer Thomas Brooks, in stating his reasons why he wrote the treatise, decries that “there was never more writing, and yet never less practicising”. And that is even more true today: we have a wealth of Christian teaching available to us at our fingertips and yet there is a lack of discernment as well as a lack of willingness to listen and obey. Some are trapped in dogma and tradition, and resist any teaching (however sound and biblical) that challenges these cherished “truths” so-called. Tradition, not truth, is what interests them. Others are never satisfied, always seeking novelty or what makes them “feel good” — i.e., teachings that smack of pop psychology and self-realization, reflecting the vacuous narcissism of our Me-generation society. Therapy, not theology is what interests them.

My dear fellow Christians, I implore you even as I remind myself: instead of nit-picking and criticizing, pray for the preacher. Listen attentively and “gather the manna” in the message so that you may be fed. Above all, pray that the Spirit may inscribe the teachings on your heart and empower you so that you may obey the message. We do not seek to be entertained by the sermon, but to exhorted and encouraged to live a life of obedience so that we may be “transformed into his image” (2 Cor. 3:18; NIV).

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Scripture Passage: Acts 5:12-42
Sermon Title: A Disciple of the Christ
Preacher: SG

TIMING
Introductory general remarks: 11:32 – 11:35 am
Sermon: 11:37 – 12:16 [39 minutes]
Closing Prayer: 12:16 – 12:18 [total pulpit time – 46 minutes]

OUTLINE

  1. The Fear (11, 13, 17, 28, 38, 39) [21 minutes]
  2. The Freedom (19, 20) [3 minutes]
  3. The Foundation (30 – 32) [5 minutes]
  4. The Forfeit (41) [8 minutes]
  5. Conclusion [2 minutes]    *** I am not certain where/when the conclusion began

OBSERVATIONS

  • As this was a lengthy passage, perhaps it might have been advisable to split it up; personally, I would have followed this division:
    • 5:1-16
    • 5:17-42
  • I felt the sermon title was rather broad; while I understand that it is a personal matter to a large degree (as long as it retains some connection with the passage), and that our creativity must not degenerate into “cutesy” or “catchy”, I felt that that the title could have been more specific
  • While I agree that scripture is the best interpreter (or illustrator) of scripture, I felt that there were a bit too many scripture references cited and read. My concern is twofold: firstly, too much interjection of other scripture references can distract from the present passage at hand; and secondly, there is always the risk that in citing one verse from another portion of scripture, it might be lifted out of context.
  • Judging from the time spent and the number of verses listed in support of his first point, it would seem to indicate that fear was the main motif of this passage, which I don’t personally agree. In addition, though all of his points of application were good and necessary (and, arguably, present or implied in the passage), from an audience “capacity” perspective, it would be more effective to limit the number of exhortations to just 2 or 3. Less is often more.
  • During the exposition of the last point, when it seemed SG was headed towards his concluding remarks, he went on (as he admitted right afterwards) a digression. My personal opinion is that this takes away from the force of the conclusion and should be avoided.
  • In expounding 5:17-42, I would have perhaps just focused on the themes of obedience and suffering—both of which modern Christians need to hear more of and be convicted of. As an illustration, I might have highlighted some examples from church history to punctuate the contrast between our comfortable Western church and the persecuted church.

SUGGESTIONS

As always, our brother SG is to be commended for his passion for the Word as well as his constant and consistent emphasis on the gospel and the church’s mission. As well, his earnestness desire to see the Word applied to our hearts (through the Spirit) for godly living is convicting and much-needed.

My remarks above should taken in the spirit in which they are proffered, i.e., out of a desire to see my brother be an even more effective expositor of God’s Word and that the flock may be fed, encouraged and challenged by the messages. I need not add of course, that these are merely my observations and opinions (however carefully thought out and measured), and I trust they are presented with humility before God whom we both seek to serve. In no way should my observations be construed as criticism or presented with an air of superiority; sincere apologies if it comes across as this in any way.

As I am but at best a novice, perhaps we can all glean some wisdom from the “Prince of Preachers”; in his Lectures to My Students (Vol. 1), in a chapter entitled “Attention!”, Spurgeon counsels “HOW TO OBTAIN AND RETAIN THE ATTENTION OF OUR HEARERS”:

We need the earnest, candid, wakeful, continued attention of all those who are in the congregation. …

If I see anybody turning round, whispering, nodding, or looking at his watch, I judge that I am not up to the mark, and must by some means win these minds. …

There is no doubt whatever that many come into the house of God loaded heavily with the thoughts of their daily avocations. … You must have sufficient leverage in your discourse and its subject to lift them right up from the earth to which they cleave, and to elevate them a little nearer heaven. …

In order to get attention, the first golden rule is, always say something worth hearing … Congregations will not long attend to words, words, words, words, and nothing else. … Give them manna fresh from the skies; not the same thing over and over again, in the same form ad nauseam,

It is possible to heap up a vast mass of good things all in a muddle. … Put the truth before men in a logical, orderly manner, so that they can easily remember it, and they will the more readily receive it.

… as a rule do not read your sermons. … If you must read, mind that you do it to perfection.

In order to get attention, make your manner as pleasing as it can possibly be. Do not, for instance, indulge in monotones. Vary your voice continually. Vary your speed as well … Shift your accent, move your emphasis, and avoid sing-song. Vary the tone; … at other times speak as you ought to do generally — from the lips, and let your speech be conversational. Anything for a change. Human nature craves for variety … Manner is not everything. Still, if you have gathered good matter, it is a pity to convey it meanly; a king should not ride in a dust-cart; the glorious doctrines of grace should not be slovenly delivered. Right royal truths should ride in a chariot of gold. Bring forth the noblest of your milk-white steeds, and let the music sound forth melodiously from the silver trumpets, as truth rides through the streets. …

Yet further, do not repeat the same idea over and over again in other words. Let there be something fresh in each sentence. Be not for ever hammering away at the same nail: yours is a large Bible; permit the people to enjoy its length and breadth. …

In order to maintain attention, avoid being too long. … Brevity is a virtue within the reach of all of us … If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say. …

If you want to have the attention of your people — to have it thoroughly and always, it can only be accomplished by their being led by the Spirit of God into an elevated and devout state of mind. If your people are teachable, prayerful, active, earnest, devout, they will come up to the house of God on purpose to get a blessing. They will take their seats prayerfully, asking God to speak to them through you; they will remain on the watch for every word, and will not weary. …

Romaine used to say it was well to understand the art of preaching, but infinitely better to know the heart of preaching … The heart of preaching, the throwing of the soul into it, the earnestness which pleads as for life itself, is half the battle as to gaining attention. …

Do not say what everybody expected you would say. Keep your sentences out of ruts. … [Avoid] tame phrases, hackneyed expressions, and dreary monotones …

A very useful help in securing attention is a pause. … Know how to pause. Make a point of interjecting arousing parentheses of quietude. Speech is silver, but silence is golden when hearers are inattentive. Keep on, on, on, on, on, with commonplace matter and monotonous tone, and you are rocking the cradle, and deeper slumbers will result; give the cradle a jerk, and sleep will flee. …

Be yourself clothed with the Spirit of God … Come fresh from the closet and from communion with God, to speak to men for God with all your heart and soul … When God speaks men must listen; and though he may speak through a poor feeble man like themselves, the majesty of the truth will compel them to regard his voice. Supernatural power must be your reliance. … If you do not touch the heart you will soon weary the ear.

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Scripture passage: Acts 4:1-22
Sermon Title: The Cornerstone
Preacher: SG

TIMING
Introductory general remarks: 11:25 – 11:28 am
Prayer and reading of passage: 11:28 – 11:29
Sermon: 11:29 – 12:10 [39 minutes]
Closing Prayer: 12:10 – 12:11 [total pulpit time – 46 minutes]

OUTLINE

  1. The Cornerstone (8 – 12)
    • The Truth
    • The Cornerstone
    • One Name
  2. The Close-Minded (14 – 18)
    • The Sanhedrin
    • The Pitfalls
  3. The Called (8-10, 13, 19 – 21)
    • The Danger
    • The Filling
    • The Urgency
    • The Recognition

SUMMARY

  • who or what is your “cornerstone”? If Jesus is not your cornerstone, your life will not be aligned and will not be stable, but “shifting”.  For example, if our cornerstone is money, we’ll always be comparing ourselves with others and coveting more
  • even good things can get misaligned if they replace Jesus as the cornerstone; e.g. “community” can degenerate into “social club”, growth can lead to obsession with just “numbers”, knowledge can make us “puffed up”, evangelizing the lost can lead to compromise (i.e., seeker-friendly) and justice can miss the mark by focusing only on caring for people in this life but neglecting their eternal destiny
  • the Sanhedrin realized the truth of what Peter and John were saying, but were unwilling to yield to the truth. What do we do when we are confronted with the truth? Do we rather maintain the status quo or are we willing to count the cost and surrender/submit to the truth?
  • we must be filled and empowered by the Spirit in order to be bold and effective witnesses for Jesus
  • “they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (13b; ESV) – do people sense that we spend time with our Lord?
  • Conclusion: we daily need to measure our lives against the plumb line (cornerstone) to ensure our lives are aligned with God’s will

MY PERSONAL REFLECTIONS

Historical narratives such as the Book of Acts pose challenges as we seek to respect the historical context and storyline while seeking to draw out “practical lessons”. Due to time and space considerations, I will offer just a few representative remarks:

  • it’s significant that Peter cites verse 22 (“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”; ISV) from Psalm 118 in his defense, which is the climax of the Hallel psalms. It is a processional psalm that begins outside the temple gates and then proceeds inside, very fitting given that Peter and John are inside the temple
  • the cornerstone is “the foundation stone at its farthest (foremost) corner, with which a building is begun—it firmly fixes its site and determines its direction.” (“γωνία,” EDNT, 1:268). Jesus is the cornerstone of God’s new (spiritual) temple, the Church (1 Peter 2:5) where God’s presence now dwells
  • the “builders” – the Jewish leaders in charge of “building” Israel had rejected Jesus as Messiah with contempt (BDAG, s.v. ἐξουθενέω 2, “to have no use for something as being beneath one’s consideration, reject disdainfully.”). One can think of other instances in history where the religious powers acted in opposition to God’s redemptive purposes
  • “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” (vs. 13; ESV) – the religious leaders were astonished at Peter and John’s boldness and eloquence since they were just laymen or “amateurs” (ἰδιῶται), cf. Luke 21:15.

The practical import of the above points should be readily apparent. In particular, we should be humbled that we are now “living stones” in the New Temple (John 2:21, 22) built on the foundation of Jesus the Messiah’s death and resurrection (1 Cor. 3:11).

There are many other interesting teachings that can be profitably gleaned from this passage, but in order to keep this post from getting too long, we leave it to the reader to dig further into the passage.

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Scripture passage: Acts 3:11-26
Sermon Title: Peter’s Second Message
Preacher: BB

TIMING
Introductory general remarks: 11:30 – 11:33 am
Prayer and reading of passage: 11:33 – 11:37
Sermon: 11:38 – 11:49 [11 minutes]
Closing Prayer: 11:49 – 11:50 [total pulpit time – 20 minutes]

OUTLINE

  1. The Inclination of Humanity (11, 14-15)
    • We cling to man (11a)
    • We run to a show (11b)
    • We (naturally) seek death over life (14-15)
  2. The Responsibility of His Servants (12-13, 16)
    • Direct attention and glory to God (12-13)
    • Exalt the name of Christ (16)
  3. The Desire and Activity of God (19, 20, 22-23)
    • To erase our guilt (19)
    • To refresh (free) our souls (20a)
    • To complete (fill) us with Himself (20b)
    • To weed His garden (22-23)

Note: our brother was constrained by time because of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper

Comments

Despite what the outline above may have led one to think, the sermon was “short and sweet”. I appreciated BB’s opening confession that he felt apprehensive standing before the congregation: not because he has never preached before (he has), but because of the gravity of proclaiming God’s Word. I really am thankful for his honesty and humility: may all of us handle the Word with such reverence!

While he was holding on to Peter and John (11a) – from this phrase, BB notes the tendency for us to worship the vessel, the messenger of God, rather than the God who the vessel proclaims. While this is a true observation, I would think it’s an exegetical leap to deduce that from the text. In all likelihood, the healed man simply held on to Peter and John out of gratitude and amazement. I mean, after all, he had been lame since birth!

all the people came running to them (11b) – our brother drew this application: it is easy enough to fill our worship services if we cater to people and provide “entertainment”. But we should only seek to attract people to Jesus and depend on the power of the Spirit in all we seek to do, for God’s glory and to exalt the name of Jesus. It was a nice reminder, since, given our small numbers, we may be tempted to compromise and adopt marketing approaches to grow our church.

You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer released to you, and you killed the source of life, whom God raised from the dead (14,15a)

From this passage, the application was drawn that humans seek death rather than life; that we are, so to speak, agents of destruction who do not seek preservation of life. As with my earlier comment, I do not see how he derived this from the text, although obviously, the latent nihilism and ontology of violence of modern society often results in disposable life.

I personally would have liked to see BB attend more to the redemptive-historical aspects of the text before proceeding to the practical applications.

However, in all fairness, BB was severely constrained by time and it would have been a challenge to cover such a lengthy passage adequately. However, despite the brevity, I appreciated the dignity in which he carried himself, as well as his natural, unpretentious speaking style and his very good vocal quality. I am looking forward to his next sermon when he will have more time to expound his message.

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Scripture passage: Acts 3:1-10
Sermon Title: Made Strong
Preacher: SG

TIMING
Introductory general remarks: 11:22 – 11:28 am
Prayer and reading of passage: 11:28 – 11:29
Sermon: 11:29 – 12 noon [31 minutes]
Closing Prayer: 12:00 – 12:01 [total pulpit time – 39 minutes]

OUTLINE

  1. The Broken (1-3)
  2. The Restoration (4-7)
  3. The Response (8-10)

SUMMARY / HIGHLIGHTS

  • commenting on Peter’s charge to the lame beggar to “look [up]”, SG reminded us that in our afflictions, we need to continue to look up to the one who was “lifted up” for our sins
  • on vs. 5, “expecting to receive something from them”: the beggar got something far more precious than what he expected!  What about us? What expectations do we have of others, and are we frustrated when they are not met? What about when it comes to church? Are we frustrated when we don’t get blessed by the sermon or the music? And what about our expectations of God? Do we get angry at God when He doesn’t “meet my needs?”
  • the beggar was instantly and completely healed
  • after being healed, the beggar began “walking and leaping and praising God” – there are no boring testimonies!
  • are we tempted to take glory, even just a little bit, for our service? We must instead have the mind of John the Bpatist: “He must increase, I must decrease”
  • conclusion:
    1. do we treat those in need as our pet project or as souls whom God loves?
    2. who does our own walk give glory to?

REVIEW, REFLECTIONS and RESPONSE

Miracle and Message: Wonder and Word

  • the sermon title didn’t seem to be really indicative of the sermon content
  • “they were filled with astonishment and amazement” (vs. 10; NET) – this links back to 2:7; in the apostolic age, miracles (“signs”) often accompanied the preaching of the gospel. What about today? Perhaps it would have been helpful for SG to briefly discuss healing in the post-apostolic age. In any case, the people’s response to what happened (astonished/amazed) doesn’t always lead to saving faith (cf. Luke 4:36; 5:9, 26; 7:16)
  • Peter and John look into the eyes of the beggar: we pass by broken people every day – do we “look into their eyes” and offer them the gift of healing? I recall listening to a Christian radio ministry shortly after I was saved, and they played a song that went something like this:

    In their eyes, see their pain
    Face to face with their tears
    We don’t see them at all
    Until we look into their eyes

  • “walking and leaping and praising God”: imagine how he must have felt and what words of praise must have come from his lips! Certainly some of the Jews at the temple must have recalled the passage in Isaiah: “then shall the lame man leap like a deer” (Isa. 35:6). How ecstatic are we in response to God’s blessings? How often do we praise Him? This beggar leapt for joy! Why are we so staid and reserved during our worship service? There is a lack of embodied and bodily expression of praise and worship in our church: why are we not more excited when we recall God’s redemptive Power “in the name (Person) of Jesus the Messiah” (vs. 6)? Some Christians are more excited, emotional and engaged at a rock concert or a sports event!

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Note: as one who has often struggled with traditional sermons (no matter how gifted the preacher delivering them), I confess that my mind often wanders.  Not wanting to be disrespectful, and wanting to be open to learning, I have decided to adopt a practice from Toastmasters: I will evaluate the sermon and also time it – not for the purpose of being critical, but to listen carefully, learn from it (and obey the biblical precepts in the passage!), but also analyze it to see how it could have been even more effective. Of course, my evaluation is purely subjective, based on my personal opinions.

The traditional sermon, as commonly understood and practiced, is undoubtedly a sacred cow, which, to criticize or question, is to certainly draw the ire of Christians everywhere. However, there are some good reasons to question its exalted place and effectiveness, and I count myself amongst those who feel that a calm and careful review of the theory and practice of preaching would be ultimately beneficial. That said, I am not expecting churches wholesale to suddenly abandon the practice, so, wanting to “work with the system” rather than throwing stones, I have decided to accept it and make the most of it.

So herewith, my inaugural review:


Scripture passage: Col. 3:12-17
Preacher: SG

TIMING
Introductory general remarks: 11:28 – 11:34 am
Prayer: 11:34
Prefatory remarks on the passage: 11:35 – 11:37 [total prelimaries – 8 minutes]
Sermon: 11:38 – 12:11 [33 minutes]
Closing Prayer: 12:11 – 12:12 [total pulpit time – 44 minutes]

OUTLINE

  1. Who you Are
    • Chosen, Holy, Beloved
  2. Why You Are
    • Christ on the Cross
  3. How You Are
    • Be Thankful

One thing I really appreciate about SG is that he loves the Word: he doesn’t indulge in cute anecdotes, clever quotes or long illustrations: he just sticks to the Bible for the most part. It makes me nostalgic for the good old days when I could sit and read the scriptures for hours at a time. <sigh> When I could study for a week on a just a few verses .. I do confess I miss those days …

Some representative highlights and positives:

  • I like how he mentioned how our identity can be tied to our job, our wealth and status, our significant relationships, etc., but instead, as believers, our identity should be “God’s chosen people” in Christ
  • He rightly challenged us to pursue the virtues in verse 12 to the extent that Jesus would (and did): how forgiving was Jesus? how patient was Jesus? etc.
  • I appreciated SG’s comments on “admonishing one another”: (1) we like to do the admonishing, but how well do we receive admonishments? (2) are we going  beyond biblical bounds when we impose our preferences on others under the pretense of admonishing them?  (Perhaps, some specific examples here, to help drive home the point would ne helpful)
  • overall, it was a very timely, practical and much-needed message given all the recent upheavals and changes these past few months

Some suggestions:

  • Given the connection of the passage to the preceding verses (“therefore”, vs. 12), SG was limited by time and could not draw some of the parallels and arguments from 3:1-11 (esp. 3:9,10)
  • A very brief excursus on the background of Colossians might have been helpful, instead of the time spent making general remarks; in particular, I would have painted the picture of the early Christian community as a countercultural and subversive polis in the context of Caesar’s empire (see, e.g., Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire). This would lend even greater force to the virtues of the “new man” vs. the “old man”
  • there was a lot of practical material to focus on in the passage, and at times, I felt SG was spreading himself too thin; it would have been perhaps better to just highlight 3 things to focus on instead (I recall the first time I preached when I was a member of a Brethren assembly; I must have had 12 points and went 15 minutes overtime!  An older brother came alongside me afterwards and said something to the effect that you only need 2 or 3 good blows on a nail to hang a picture frame. I got the point and adjusted my preaching accordingly)

In summary, I felt the passage was prayerfully chosen and pastorally preached in love for the sheep. May we respond in obedience!

Oh, and I also liked how he included 3 questions in the bulletin for us to mediate on and discuss during the week. Great idea!

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