This coming Sunday I am preaching my final sermon at Christ Church London. It’s already pre-recorded for our online service, and I’ll get to preach it live at two of our services. Having worked for this church for twelve years, it’s a strange experience full of mixed emotions. Helen and I feel full of excitement that God has rather dramatically and unexpectedly called us to move on. We don’t think He would do that without a good reason (although it’s daunting knowing I won’t have a job in 10 days time, and I still don’t know what’s next!) and we are learning so much about faith and trust. But it’s also sad leaving a city we love, a church we love, and people we love. So I’m anticipating an emotional Sunday.
But my final sermon is not exactly what I would have chosen… we’re currently working through Romans 12 and I’m preaching the next few verses that have fallen to me. So my parting text is:
‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’Romans 12:19
When I was preparing, I couldn’t help but think about the Apostle Paul’s parting sermon to a church he loved in the city of Ephesus. You can read about it in Acts 20. It was an emotional moment for him and the church. A lot of tears and kissing. I suspect there will be far less of that in our socially-distanced services this week. And Paul also had a lot to say to warn the church for its future, to guard themselves against false teachers and people who would corrupt the church. I also don’t anticipate that being part of my final farewell!
But the reason it came to mind was because of Paul’s statements about his preaching ministry. He said:
‘You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house… I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.’Acts 20:20, 27
As a preacher, I found these words challenging.
On the one hand, Paul says that he preached what would be helpful to the Ephesians. This suggests he picked themes he knew they needed to hear about, perhaps ones that were particularly relevant to their needs or challenges they faced. But in being selective, he didn’t shy away from difficult topics; indeed he proclaimed the whole will of God.
I see in these verses warrant for preaching exegetically, book by book, through the whole of Scripture, but also preaching thematically in ways that are relevant for your church at a particular moment.
Different preachers and church traditions tend to lean more into one approach or the other, and I definitely have my own personal preference. But overall I think a healthy balance of both is helpful. If you just preach book by book, there are some themes you won’t get to frequently enough, which are crucial for our day and age. And there are some books you will spend ages in whose immediate relevance to our context is frankly slim! But on the other hand, if you only preach thematically, you will find yourself easily able to skip the difficult topics that only come up because you’re forced to address them when working through a section in detail. The ‘preach book by book’ tribe sometimes miss the topics that may be helpful, and the ‘preach thematically’ tribe are sometimes in danger of not proclaiming the whole will of God. I believe we need a combined approach.
But more than causing me to think about preaching in general, these verses have made me reflect on my own preaching over 12 years here. Can I say what Paul did in his parting message? Have I unhesitatingly preached both what is helpful and the whole will of God? And could I say to my church, “You know that I have not hesitated…”?
There are certainly some topics I haven’t covered. Some have simply not come up because of the books we’ve preached on; some have come up but I’ve not been the one with the opportunity to address them; others I’ve not felt equipped to cover, or am still working out what I think, or see differently to others in our Leadership Team, so have chosen to allow them to cover the topics instead; other topics I would love to talk about, but suspect the Sunday sermon may not be the best place, and others still I may have covered but on reflection think I did poorly. There have definitely been some things I should have said clearer, but out of timidity I softened. There are some themes I’ve underemphasised, which I wonder if I should have made more of, and some favourite themes I’ve gone to at the expense of more difficult ones. I’ve not shied away from a complex passage – in fact, when dividing up a series I’ve often volunteered for them because I enjoy the challenge of showing people 2 Timothy 3:16 in action. There is gold to be found in the toughest of texts, otherwise God wouldn’t have put them in the book.
On balance, I’m happy but humbled. Preaching is always an immense privilege, and I’m still growing. And unlike Paul who said, “I know that none of you… will ever see my face again!” (Acts 20:25), I hope I may get to come back as a guest from time to time. Though I also hope that when I do I won’t be assigned all the toughest topics that nobody else wants to do!! But it’s given me pause for thought, and it’s a good exercise to stop and check yourself from time to time: is the range of my preaching both helpful and whole?
So although I wouldn’t have chosen Romans 12:19 as my parting text, I’m gonna embrace it as a gift and give it my best shot.