Feed my sheep (2)
Jesus didn’t say to Simon Peter ‘expound my word’ (John 21). Rather, he said, ‘feed my sheep’. Of course, that is a false contrast, and yet worth making, because it puts the emphasis in the right place. Expounding the word of God is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. And if the end is not clearly in sight, it may not be reached.
Accurate exegesis of a Scripture passage is not enough by itself, and even exposition can fail to be nourishing and strengthening if not oriented to ‘feeding the sheep’. Even applying a passage can be done unsuitably if in a way that is irrelevant and inappropriate to the needs of the congregation. Nor is a string of applications at the end of a sermon the same as sensitively applying the Scripture during the course of the sermon.
There are two concerns which should always be at least in the back of the mind of the shepherd/preacher. The first is his primary responsibility to provide necessary and suitable spiritual food for his flock. The second is his responsibility to know, as far as possible, what the different needs of the individual members in his flock are.
It is comparatively easy to find out what a scriptural passage is saying, but much more difficult to turn it into a nourishing ‘meal’ for each member of the congregation. Simply to provide suitable ingredients is not enough.
Those who know little about cooking can take nourishing and satisfying ingredients and turn them into an unappetising mess. The sermon must be presented attractively and be full of spiritual vitamins.
Often the members of the flock will be very different from each other. Some will need milk, others are on to meat. Some have rather delicate digestive systems, while others can take a great deal more food. Some appear to be ready to swallow anything, while others are more fastidious.
There will be some who cannot take too much, whether in terms of doctrine or ‘meal size’. Others can listen for much longer. The point is this: in most cases it will be necessary to give a balanced diet; and there will be need for variety in sermons to suit the variety of knowledge, experience and insight within the congregation.
Each sermon needs a balance of teaching, direction and encouragement. Over the weeks, it is possible to provide this balance in all the necessary ingredients – warning, rebuke, guidance, moral and spiritual principles, comfort, urging, and much more besides; and to do all this in the context of a Christ-centred, God-honouring ministry.
Remember too that in most congregations there are unbelievers present, including unconverted members of Christian families. While distinctively evangelistic preaching is an important subject in itself, we make the point here that some evangelistic application should be part of any normal ‘diet’ given to a congregation.
If you go out for a meal, you are likely to begin with an hors d’oeuvre, a tasty appetiser intended to stimulate the taste buds and stir the appetite. This is surely what the introduction to a sermon is intended to do – to arouse interest, indicate the importance and relevance of what is coming, and make people realise that this sermon is a message they cannot afford to miss.
Preachers can often struggle with their introductions, but they are of crucial importance. Worthy sermons can lose much of their power because of a switch-off at the very beginning. The trouble is that while hungry sheep look up and desire to be fed, emaciated Christians somehow often do not have the hunger we might expect. Attention, and hard work, must go in to the introduction.
A balanced diet means the right proportion of protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and so on. What does that mean in terms of providing a nourishing, strengthening message from the Bible?
It certainly means that preachers, to change the picture, must not always be harping on the same string – ‘ten thousand, thousand are their texts, but all their sermons one!’ It is easy to fall into this trap. Just as the public prayers of some people can tend always to get on the same track, even if they start differently, so it is with some sermons.
Expository sequential preaching through Bible passages and books is one way to combat this, though even here it is necessary to ensure that the specific purposes of the texts are explained and applied.
However, some passages of Scripture follow much the same theme for several chapters, and this can mean much the same sort of sermon week after week. Where this is the case, it may be better to tackle such sections of the Bible in short series, with intervals of other sermon material in between.
Sermons must include doctrinal teaching. This is staple diet. But staple diets can become boring. Even heavenly manna day after day began to seem unappetising to the people of Israel.
Doctrine can become stodgy if not prepared and delivered carefully. Some sermons are like school dinners (as I remember them!) – half-cooked potatoes making up for the inadequacy of other ingredients.
But doctrine should be interesting and nourishing. After all, we are talking about the great truths of God, the Lord Jesus Christ and salvation by grace. It is often said that in Paul’s letters we have doctrine followed by practical Christian living. This may be true for two of the letters, but generally, in all Paul’s letters, doctrine and practice, teaching and application are woven together. Good sermons should aim to do the same.
You sometimes find people deploring what they call ‘moralistic sermons’, especially when these come from passages in the Old Testament. If, by this, they mean finding direct applications from OT narratives to our lives today at the expense of the over-arching purposes of the covenant God revealed in the OT and fulfilled in the New Testament, then there is some justification for their complaint. But Christian people today are living in a complex and increasingly antagonistic world and face all sorts of moral dilemmas. They need practical guidance and help, and this may often come through morally practical sermons.
‘Feeding the sheep’ must include plenty of help and direction for everyday life. The Christian world view which once prevailed in our country has been shattered; we are confronted with a fractured, hedonistic and individualistic society that makes great demands on the attitudes and actions of Christian people, especially those who are younger. Congregations do not need to be given lists of taboos, but require the thoughtful exposing and explicating of biblical principles; and also to be shown how these might work out in practice. It is all too easy to leave principles ‘up in the air’ and so fail to be of real help.
Along with this, must go both warning and encouragement; that is the strengthening and assuring which comes from Scripture promises, the recorded experiences of believers and the character of the triune God.
There is also a lot said today about ‘preaching Christ’. But this is an area that needs care too. All sermons should be Trinitarian in outlook and evangelical in the sense of being based on and infused with the truth of salvation by grace, through Christ. A sermon is, and must be, a Christian message, not one that could be delivered by a moralist or a general theist.
But simply to tell people that the answer to all their problems and dilemmas is ‘Christ’ is not to help them, but leave them more confused than ever. They must be shown how Christ is the answer, in what way he provides the answer and what that means for their lives – their priorities, mindset, actions, relationships, and so on.
In short, the pastor must remember that supremely he is a shepherd called to minister to the flock. Just as all the training a medical student undergoes is to enable him or her to diagnose patients accurately and treat them effectively, so the pastor is called to administer effectively the Word of God to those who have been sorely wounded by the Fall and sin.
If those he ministers to are believers, they are spiritually alive, but there will still be much to do to get them to heaven in any sort of reasonable shape.
Of course, believers can and should help and encourage one another; and, of course, there are many avenues by which the Chief Shepherd ministers to the sheep, but to pastors in particular he says, ‘Feed my sheep’. Woe to them if they fail in this high calling!