A Yale professor said, ‘A void has opened in the heart of western Christianity. Where the cross once stood, there is now a vacuum’.
Did you hear Christ and the cross exalted last Sunday in public worship? If not, the preacher needs to examine what his duty is. Paul said, ‘For I decided to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). You also need to consider what you’re hearing.
Sometimes people ask me my favourite text. I’m never sure how best to answer, but it calls to mind the answer a much respected friend gave. His name was Alex Maclennan, from Muir of Ord in northern Scotland. Several of his peers were discussing the question.
Alex took his large Bible in his hand, held it aloft and said, ‘I have to say that it’s not just one verse I’ve got. I’ve got the whole Bible. It’s laden with glorious promises and all directing us to Jesus Christ’.
However, I do have a verse I often return to. It is ‘Christ died for the ungodly’ (Romans 5:6). William Still from Aberdeen said the cross dealt with ‘the root, the fruit and the brute’ — our evil heart, our sin and Satan.
As I was preparing my very first sermon, an old family friend, Professor John Murray of Westminster, said to me, ‘William, there are three words beginning with the letter “p” that you need to remember. They make the difference between a sermon and a lecture’.
‘What are they?’ I said, ‘Prayer and preparation?’
He answered, ‘No, although you pray about everything and prepare for everything. I go round the world and I hear lectures and they are from books. I can tell you what book they are from, because I’ve read them.
‘Three words beginning with the letter “p” make the difference between a sermon and a lecture: a personal, passionate plea. “We pray you in Christ’s name: be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20)’.
My Uncle Hugh was a sailor for most of his life. When he retired at about 65, he started to work on the family farm for another 20 years. He had a bachelor’s wry sense of humour and relished time with his nephews and nieces.
At meal times or family worship, his quiet, heart-felt prayer was memorable. It invariably had in it the following words, ‘Teach us to remember what is before us’. This was solemn.
The Word of God makes it clear that ‘we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:10). It is clear too from James 3:1 that the preacher will be judged even more strictly.
This is a necessary emphasis. Some today might feel it is off-putting and negative, but that is not the issue. The issue is, ‘Is it true?’
Paul said, ‘Knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men’ (2 Corinthians 5:11). Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote, ‘As I was walking in the fields, the thought came over me with almost overwhelming power that every one of my flock must soon be in heaven or hell.
‘Oh, how I wished I had a tongue like thunder that I might make all hear, or that I had a frame like iron that I might visit everyone and say, “Escape for thy life. Ah, sinner, you little know how I fear that you will lay the blame of your damnation at my door”.’
We visited a church in the USA some years ago and met a group at the end of the service who declared, ‘We had a wonderful few days and were greatly refreshed at the Christian conference. So and so is such a wonderful speaker; we longed to listen to him’.
I showed interest and asked, ‘What was the subject?’ None of them could recall, but they confirmed, ‘He is so good to listen to’!
The influence of the celebrity culture ought to be a concern to us. Is Facebook helping or is it building up people in an unsuitable way? This is what we read on the Facebook page: ‘I so enjoyed the preaching at that wonderful conference. What a great congregation’.
Let us be more careful about what we say. Facebook makes the ordinary and mundane appear extraordinary.
But, ‘We have so many Facebook friends and we want them to know how significant our life is for them’. However, the reality is that there is Someone who did have a significant life for us, so that we don’t have to live a significant life!
Our significance is in and from Him. He is altogether lovely and we should therefore recognise with Paul, ‘I am less than the least of all saints’ (Ephesians 3:8).
Pride and gossip
There is, I fear, an increasing tendency to indulge in pride and gossip. Yes, it can be done in a way that seems to suggest we are burdened for the cause of Christ. But we must be careful about not taking up an ill report, avoiding ‘ill words’, being wise about how we deal with and speak about those with whom we disagree.
The Shorter Catechism refers to ‘covering their infirmities’. While there is an error in ‘maintaining undue silence in a just cause’ and we come short in this also, having a charitable spirit and thinking more highly of others than ourselves are things for which we need God’s help.
Rev. Neil Cameron, a minister in Glasgow, had someone visit him to complain about somebody else. Mr Cameron said, ‘Write it down and put your name to it’. The lady would not do that, so he said, ‘I have to treat that as if I never heard it, and you have never to say it again’.
The Bible tells us how great a matter a little fire can kindle, and we are reminded that every word shall be brought into judgment. There is a tendency, even in the best of communities, to despise others who do things a different way, and who, in our eyes and by our worldly measurements, do not seem successful.
Have you heard of John Rough? Well, he persuaded John Knox to enter the ministry. What about George Gould? He connected Spurgeon with Park Street Church.
Arthur Rust is another name we forget, but he was influential in the ministry of F. B. Meyer. William Pulsford was the man who encouraged George Matheson into ministry, and today we appreciate George Matheson’s hymn, ‘O, love that will not let me go’.
Let us avoid the Macdonald-isation of the church: the tendency to think it’s a business. We need to see that God has chosen the foolish things to confound the wise.
William Mackenzie is a founder of Christian Focus Publications in Scotland, and chairman of Evangelicals Now. He is husband to Carine — they have three daughters and eight grandchildren.