Several times lately, while reading my way through the Psalms, I was tripped by a little comment I’d read right past the previous hundred times I’ve traveled this landscape. Right in the middle of a discussion of some theological point, the Psalmist will say, “But as for me.”
When he does that, you know you’re getting something personal. This is not theoretical, not philosophical, and not “out there” somewhere. If you are like the rest of us, you perk up at this and get ready for something you can identify with.
Case in point. In the remarkable 73rd Psalm (there’s nothing else like it in all the Bible; if you’re unfamiliar with it, we encourage you to check it out), the writer brackets his discussion with that phrase.
After declaring that “God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart,” the psalmist says, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled.” What follows is a testimony of how he envied the wealthy wicked. He noticed that they seem to live long healthy lives, they enjoy their families, and nothing seems to bother them. This went completely against the grain of the typical Old Testament believer who, for the most part, believed that faithfulness to God resulted in material blessings, and material blessings were a sign of faithfulness to God. But this did not compute.
He struggled with that a while. Then he went to church. “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end” (73:17). Once he saw the final outcome (not just earthly, but after this life) of their wicked behavior, everything fell into place for him. He ends with a wonderful song of praise, and ends the psalm with:
But as for me, the nearness of God is my good. I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all thy works. (Ps. 73:28)
That personal touch is found throughout the psalms. (See Ps. 17:15; 59:16; and 75:9 for starters.)
Bible students will recall Joshua’s excellent testimony along the same line:
Now therefore, fear the Lord and serve Him in sincerity and truth; and put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. And if it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve….but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14-15).
It’s when the preacher makes it personal like this that he does his best work.
In researching this subject in Scripture, my initial thought was to point out that Jesus did this all through His ministry. But it’s not quite the same. In our Lord’s case, His ministry was all about Himself. He was and is the Messiah, the Incarnate Son of God. It was not only permissible for Him to preach Himself, His preaching would have been missing its center had He not. Again and again, He said things like “believe in Me” and “come unto Me” and informed His audience that at the last Judgement, He would be the One sitting on the throne.
We preachers point to Jesus. We do not point to ourselves.
Paul said, “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (II Corinthians 4:5).
Having laid down that caution–that we are not in the business of proclaiming ourselves–Paul nevertheless felt it necessary to speak of his situation from time to time. And we are immensely the better for it.
Staying in that same epistle, Second Corinthians, we can see what he did—
In chapter 1, he refers to the Lord’s ability to deliver him from captivity.
In chapter 2, he refers to a brother who was wounded by an earlier letter of his.
In chapter 3, he emphasizes he is not recommending himself, but the Corinthians are his testimony.
In chapter 4, the humbleness of our earthly situation contrasts with the glorious treasure we have in Christ.
In fact, this letter is riddled with personal references, all of them highlighting the glorious truth of the gospel. At no point does Paul get in the way of Jesus who is always front and center.
For my money, no modern pastor/teacher is better known than John MacArthur. The man is the very definition of an expositor. The typical sermon by him is mostly precepts and word studies and principles. However, once in a while, he allows himself to work in a personal story. When that happens, his audience and his readers sit up and take notice.
A friend forwarded to me something from one of MacArthur’s books in which he told of a preaching professor whom he admired so greatly giving him a failing grade on a sermon he preached in the school chapel. John talks about the sermon, tells what he did with it, and how he proclaimed it. It went over well and he knew it. He was rather pleased with himself that day.
As the faculty was exiting the auditorium, his mentor, the preaching professor, handled MacArthur a note with one sentence: “You completely missed the point of that scripture.”
That was many years ago, but Dr. John MacArthur says he has never forgotten that rebuke for his failure to get into the text and see what it’s saying without superimposing our own thoughts and convictions on it.
Readers will not soon forget how this great expositor paused in his teaching long enough to give us a personal word.
And this illustrates a great point.
The kind of personal reference in a sermon that works best is a lesson learned the hard way.
Try this scenario.
The pastor tells the congregation how as a teenager he set a goal to win a starting spot on the football team. He worked hard, disciplined himself, did everything the coach required, and made the team. The team went on to win the district championship.
Good story? Maybe. Not a bad one.
But what if he had told how he did all the work required and still did not make the team? And he came back next year and tried again, this time going to training camps and lifting weights and building his body–and still did not make the team. Only the last year of high school did he make it.
That’s a better story for several reasons.
–More people will be able to identify with failing again and again than with trying hard and becoming a winner.
–The first story sounds somewhat like bragging. Like a jogger who tells how he just ran a marathon and how proud he is of himself. Does he have a right to be pleased? Sure he does. I would. But there is less sermonic impact from such a story as from the kind that people identify with.
Haddon Robinson, that prince of preaching professors, has a burden to help pastors learn how a sermon or story will go over with their audience. In his book “Making a Difference Preaching,” he says,
I also try to show sympathy. When I quote from Malachi, “God hates divorce,” I know there are divorced people sitting in the congregation who may begin to feel that God and Haddon Robinson hate them. So I’ll follow up that verse with, “Those of you who are divorced know that better than anyone. You understand why God hates divorce. Not because He hates divorced people, but because of what divorce does to people. You have the scars. Your children have the scars. You can testify to what it does. God hates divorce because He loves you.”
Don’t overdo it, preacher. As with every other aspect of our ministry it’s possible to go to either extreme. In between is the path.
Today I listened to a sermon on the internet in which the pastor took the first 10 minutes (it seemed) of the message–the best part!–to tell how he and his wife worked in their garden. Then he segued into John 15 and a message on “The Vine and the Branches.” The only justification I can give for what he did is that he is young. I hope he continues to grow and learn. A little of that is good; a lot is too much.
Happy preaching, pastor. It’s still the best calling ever.