The Christmas some fellows got together and did a guy-thing

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the King, wise men from the east arrived unexpectedly in Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him’” (Matthew 2:1-2).

Only men would have done what the Magi did. Only a group of buddies, men friends all on the same page, all of them sharing the same drives and curiosities and interests, only such a band of brothers, would have gone to such lengths simply to see a Baby.

It’s a man thing.

If that sounds condescending to the women in the audience, I apologize, but it’s the truth.  Women talk about this all the time, how men do crazy things, disregarding the risk, seemingly not caring about the trouble they are causing for everyone who cares about them.

Women laugh about the typical male-epitaph which reads, “What’s the worst that can happen?” or “Hey, guys–watch this.”

First, why did they do it?

The greatest puzzle of the Magi story to me is not the star they followed (was it a comet or an unusual alignment of stars or something never seen before?), not their origin (were they from Persia? or somewhere else?), and not even the religious significance (did this really fulfill Numbers 24:17? were they astrologers? what does it mean?), but simply why they did what they did.

Why would a small group of men, albeit wealthy ones, put their lives on hold and travel at considerable expense across uncharted territory for a great distance when they were uncertain where they were headed, how far it was, or what they would see when they got there?  As I say, it was a man-thing.

It simply was not logical.  It didn’t make sense in a hundred ways.

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A great story can actually change your life

“And without parables (great stories!) Jesus did not teach” (Mark 4:34).

I once sat through a long session of a convention of realtors just to hear a motivational speaker.  The story with which he opened quickly became a mainstay in my arsenal of great illustrations and sermon-helpers.

Time well spent.

I’ve read entire books and come away with one paragraph that became a staple in my preaching thereafter.  It was time well used and money well spent.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling “Eat, Pray, Love” (which I do not recommend, by the way), attended a party and heard a story which became one of the defining principles of her writing career.  “Sometimes I think this man came into my life for the sole purpose of telling me this story, which has delighted and inspired me ever since.”

That’s how it works.  One story, a lifetime of benefit.

Gilbert says the man told of his younger brother who was an aspiring artist.  Living in Paris and struggling to get by, he seized every opportunity to get his name before people.  One day, in a cafe’ he met a group of people who invited him to a party that weekend at a castle in the Loire Valley.  This was big stuff and he eagerly accepted the opportunity to hobnob with people of wealth and influence.

This would be the party of the year, they said.  The rich and famous would be in attendance, as well as members of European royalty.  And, they said, it was to be a masquerade ball where everyone went all out on their costumes.  “Dress up, they said, and join us!”

All that week, the little brother worked on a costume he was sure would knock them dead.  His outfit would be the centerpiece of the ball, the one sure to generate the most interest and conversation.  When the day came, he rented a car and drove three hours to the castle.  He changed into his costume in the car and walked up to the castle, head held high, confidence and excitement exuding from the pores of his skin.

Entering the castle, he quickly realized his mistake.

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There’s something for everyone in the Christmas story

“Now, the birth of Jesus came about in this way….” (Matthew 1:18).

Do you like a true-life adventure story?  This one is the best. It’s found in only four chapters in the Bible: Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2.

You like genealogies?  Then check out the birth narratives about our Lord Jesus. See Matthew 1:1-14 and also Luke 3:21-38.

You like mysteries?  Try to figure out how those two lists of ancestors works out for the lineage of Jesus.  If you finally give up, then (and only then) go to a commentary written by a Bible-believing scholar. Your church library probably has several.

You are a history student?  Then check out Luke 2:1-3 where “the beloved physician” gives the historical setting for the birth of our Lord. Then, move up one chapter and see how Luke does the same thing for the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry some three decades later.

You love conspiracies?  (There’s a lot of that going around today.  Anything involving Hilary Clinton.  Was General Patton murdered? What about President Trump’s claims?) Then, check out King Herod in Matthew chapter 2 and notice his murderous rampage against anyone who appears to be a threat, even little babies. What a monster.  And notice how the Lord Jesus sent the Magi with funds (“gold”) to finance the trip of the little Holy Family to Egypt, just ahead of Herod’s legions. They slipped away just in time.

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The cure for the common sermon

“Now when they heard the preaching of Peter and John, they were marveling and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.”  (A free paraphrase of Acts 4:13)

Hey, pastor, next Sunday let’s hit one out of the park.

Let’s preach a sermon that will thrill your own soul, knock the dozing member out of his lethargy and onto his feet, and bless the hearts of your sweetest, finest people.  Let’s have a sermon that will stun your critics, surprise your mama, gladden the heart of God, and grab the undivided attention of the unsaved.

Let’s put an end to the common sermon.

You know what a common sermon is, I’m sure.

It’s uninspired in its conception, boring in its plan, and dull in its delivery.  In preparing it, you have to force yourself to stay awake.  When you preach it, the congregation takes a holiday. When it’s over, you wonder if you shouldn’t find some other line of work.

When common sermons follow common sermons like rail cars behind the locomotive, the preacher is probably in a rut.  And we all remember what a rut is–a grave with the ends knocked out.

In a “common sermon,” the outline is often uninspired and may look something like this: 1) The Power, 2) The Point, and 3) the Product.  Or, pehaps 1) The Application, 2) the Attraction, and 3) the Adoration. The introduction, the message, the conclusion.

Bo-ring.  But then, you knew that.

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When the pastor feels the sermon bombed

My friend’s story could be told by every preacher in the land.

“When I stepped off the platform Sunday morning, I knew I had laid an egg. The sermon seemed to have been still-born. It just didn’t work. I felt awful.”

“But the most amazing thing. People were down at the altar praying, and ever since a number of people have come up to me saying how it ministered to them.”

Just goes to show, I said.

Goes to show what?

I raised that question with friends on Facebook. I asked pastors who felt that their sermon bombed and then heard from church members saying how it blessed them, what they learned from the experience. The answers were all of one theme: “That God can use anything.” “God can speak through a donkey.” “How unimportant the messenger is.” “Christ is everything.”

A friend visiting in our home wanted to hear a certain pastor, so on Sunday morning I drove her there. That day, the sermon was not up to his usual standards, I felt. He is normally one of the finest expositors anywhere.

In the car, on the way to lunch, my friend said, “That was a wonderful sermon. Just what I needed to hear today.”

Goes to show.

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The pastor resigned because someone criticized him.

“Christ also suffered for us…when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him who judges righteously….” (I Peter 2:21-25).

Someone criticized me.  Whatever am I to do?

Well, for starters, you might grow up.

Quotes on enduring criticism can be found in the hundreds online.  Here are a few we found in a few minutes….

–The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without resentment.(Elbert Hubbard)    -You can’t let praise or criticism get to you.  It’s a sign of weakness to get caught up in either one. (John Wooden)   –A critic is a legless man who teaches running. (Channing Pollock)    –You are a glorious shining sword and criticism is the whetstone.  Do not run from the whetstone or you will become dull and useless. Stay sharp.  (Duane Alan Hahn)

No one enjoys being criticized, but we often benefit from it immensely.

I say to pastors and other church leaders, you do not want to live and work where there is an absence of criticism.

You think you do. But you don’t.  Only in the harshest of dictatorships is there no criticism.  But in a free society–like ours–criticism abounds.  If the society is indeed free, much of the criticism is fair, just, and well deserved.  Likewise, much of it will be unfair, unjust and unmerited. A leader who survives has to develop discernment in order to know what to ignore and what to treasure and learn from.

A friend texted:  “Joe, write something about criticism!  Some good pastors are resigning because not everyone in the church likes them!”

He and I both find that incredulous.  As though someone could do a great work for Jesus Christ in a hostile society without stirring up resentment and incurring the wrath of  some people.

Advice columnist Dear Abby used to say, “You throw a rock in among a bunch of dogs. The one that hollers is the one that got hit.”

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What you left out of your sermon, pastor

“Preach on sin, Pastor!”  When the old gentleman urged that bit of counsel upon me, I assumed he wanted me to harp on the ways of drug addicts and murderers and terrorists, sins no one in our congregation was committing.  But I think I know now what he meant.

And I think he was right.

Preachers who love the Word and are committed to the Lord’s people–well, a goodly number of them–have found that it is pleasant to the hearers and strengthening to his job security to leave out the sin business.

I’ve noticed this a lot.  And it’s not just one or two preachers.

Here’s what happens.

You preach a great text and share some wonderful insights you’ve gleaned. And they are good.  You end your sermon, satisfied that you have fulfilled your assignment from the Lord.   Little old ladies–God bless ’em!–brag on you at the exit, and you go home pleased with yourself.

But not so fast.

You left us wanting, Pastor.

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Dear Pastor: Our search committee liked you. However….

There is no scriptural precedent for pastor search committees that I know of.  Yet, they are a necessary evil, if I may be permitted to say.  The alternative seems to be bishops appointing pastors or church bosses hiring them.  Both methods have been tried and found wanting.  But so has the search committee system been found to be flawed. There is no foolproof method.

“We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

These days, some churches are hiring firms to conduct the initial searching and culling for them.  If they have found this system to be an improvement over the spontaneous-committee-of-the-untrained, I haven’t heard.

Pastors eventually conclude that search committees come in all shapes and sizes, all theologies and philosophies and agendas.  Ministers learn to take what they say with quite a few grains of salt.  Committees often function like the local chamber of commerce, giving their community and church the glamour treatment to the point that even their own members wouldn’t recognize it.  They make promises they never follow through on, and ask all kinds of ridiculous questions they ignore once the questionnaire is returned.

Not all, of course.  Once in a while, a pastor discovers a gem of a committee.  I once told such a team, “The Lord is not leading me to your church, but I want all six of you in my church forever!”

Alas, those are the exceptions.

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How the preacher can sound really smart (and fool people)

“I speak as a fool” (2 Corinthians 11:23).</strong

Now, the solid born-again, God-called messenger of the Lord has no wish to sound particularly smart.  True, he does not want to come across as ignorant, but he is not insecure, has nothing to prove, and is not there to impress.  He is a messenger, delivering the word of God, then getting out of the way.*

However, a less than solid preacher just might want to impress his hearers.  An insecure, insincere preacher–one working for the paycheck and seeking the prestige some people bestow on a pastor–might want to bolster his image by dressing up his presentation in some way, and could use some assistance. That’s where we come in.  We can help.

Herewith then is our list of tricks which a poor preacher might want to employ.

Tongue in cheek, of course.

One. Insert the occasional Hebrew or Greek word into your sermon.  This is not hard to do, now that we have the internet.  If you really want to sound smart, after saying, “Now, in the original, the Greek word is” whatever, then you will want to say something like “in the pluperfect aorist tense, of course.”  No one will know you have no clue what you’ve just said, but it doesn’t matter. It sounds good, and that’s the point.

Two. At least once in every sermon, say “As my seminary professor used to say…”  You’ll find great quotes on the internet to attribute to the anonymous teacher.

Three. Google Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, and find something good he said.  (He said a lot of quotable stuff, so this won’t be hard.)  In quoting him, be sure to pronounce his name correctly, otherwise the one person in the congregation who knows who he was will badmouth you and your efforts will be for nothing.

This also works for the German preachers Helmut Thelicke and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Unfortunately, it does not work for Joel Osteen or John Hagee.

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How to change the culture of a church

“I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18).

It’s His church and He will build it.

Keep saying that to yourself.

I received a note from a young pastor in another state, along with his resume’. He said, “I’d be interested in coming to your city to pastor. However, I do not want to waste my time on a congregation of self-focused, carnal and complacent church members. I feel led to pastor a church poised for growth, where the people want to reach the lost for Jesus.”

I wrote back, “If we ever have such a church, you’ll have to get in line, friend.  Every pastor in the country will be clamoring to go there.”

It would be nice to serve no one but spiritually mature and responsive believers.  It would be heavenly not to have to lead troublesome business meetings where the deacons want to go one direction, the personnel committee another, and the congregation wanting nothing to do with either.

Most churches I know are not “poised for growth,” but are dealing with issues of one kind or other.

That’s why God has to “call”  (and “send”) pastors to these churches. No one would voluntarily go to many of them.

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