Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Preaching the "Big Books," like Jeremiah

Last Sunday witnessed my 73rd and final sermon on Jeremiah. As the series began coming to a close the last few weeks, I experienced that familiar "preacher's sorrow" of saying goodbye to a close companion. Jeremiah has never been far from my heart and mind the last two years. I wanted to preach through his book over five years ago, but like a moth dancing with a flame, I found myself simultaenously drawn and repelled by its 52 chapters. The closer I came to making a final decision to put it into the preaching schedule the more intensely I felt the heat of entering into a world of a prophet whose deep suffering over a wayward people continued with little respite for the forty years of his ministry. His basic message of coming judgment on unrepentant sinners never changed. Neither did those who heard it.

By modern measurements of success in the ministry Jeremiah was a miserable failure. He was out of step with most of his contemporaries. Among the prophets and priests in Jerusalem he was a pariah. They preached "peace, peace" while he warned of looming judgment and pled for repentance. Even his friends and family opposed him and plotted to take his life. When grief overwhelmed him and he would have escaped to the quietness of the countryside, the Lord commanded him to keep preaching in the city (chapter 9). He experienced deep, dark depression, wishing he had never been born (chapter 20). He lived with unanswered prayers and unfulfilled desires and even accused God of deceiving him (chapter 15). By the end of his ministry he had very few converts to whom he could point as visible fruit from his long, faithful labors. In fact, some who had given lip service to the message that he preached later revealed that inwardly, their hearts had never turned from the idols he had condemned (chapter 44).

Yet, in the midst of all the failure, brokenness, rebellion and obstinacy of that fateful generation of Judah, God gave to Jeremiah the clearest message of the new covenant to be found anywhere in the old covenant Scriptures (chapter 31). The hope of this new day when God would undertake everything necessary to guarantee covenant blessings for His people sustained Jeremiah and enabled him to finish his course without failing. His message lives on today as an integral part of God's revelation of redemption in history.

This morning I came across an essay by Derek Thomas, Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Editorial Director of Reformation21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is entitled, "Preaching from Lengthy Books in the Old Testament." I wish I had read it three years ago. It is full of pastoral and theological wisdom for preachers. The "big books" of the Bible must not be avoided in our preaching agendas. But neither should they be taken up unwisely, without due consideration what the Larger Catechism calls the "necessities and capacities" of our hearers (Question 158). Failure to think carefully and plan intentionally about this can result in either congregational abuse or neglect. "All Scripture is profitable," but all Scripture should not always be preached in the same way or at the same pace.

As I reflect on this extended series of messages I can't help but wonder if it would have been more useful had I shortened it significantly. One thing is certain. As Thomas points out, it is only after preaching through a book of the Bible that a preacher feels really prepared to do so! But I doubt that I will ever have the opportunity to do so again. Jeremiah is incredibly relevant for our day. Francis Shaeffer realized this nearly 40 years ago when he relied heavily on the prophet in his book, Death in the City. Contemporary Christianity in America bears a striking resemblance to late 7th and early 6th century BC Judaism. Rituals remain, but substance is scarce. God's Name is still invoked, but His Law is largely neglected. As in Jeremiah's day, God through His Word is calling us to return to Him.
Thus says the LORD:
"Stand in the ways and see,
And ask for the old paths, where the good way is,
And walk in it;
Then you will find rest for your souls."
But too often today we--like those ancient Jews--respond to the Lord's calls with a steadfast refusal and say,
"'We will not walk in it.'" (Jer 6:16)
May the Lord be merciful to us and by His grace grant that we might live in repentance and faith.
****
Here are some books (in addition to Schaeffer) that I found particularly helpful during this study.
Calvin's lectures on Jeremiah and Lamentations in 5 volumes (Banner)
Palmer Robertson's The Christ of the Prophets (P and R)
J.A. Thompson's The Book of Jeremiah, (NICOT, Eerdmans)
Theo Laetsch's Jeremiah (Concordia)
Philip Ryken's Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope (Crossway)
R.K. Harrison's Jeremiah and Lamentations (TOTC, InterVarsity)
Derek Kidner's The Message of Jeremiah, (Intervarsity)
John Bright's Jeremiah (Anchor Bible, Doubleday)

16 comments:

allofgrace said...

I too love Jeremiah. Oh that God would raise up more like him who would hold fast to God's messaged delivered by God's methods. Thanks for sharing.

scripturesearcher said...

Dear Distinguished Doctor (DDD),

Like you I found that preaching through the book of Jeremiah (many years ago) to be one of the greatest growth experiences of my life and ministry.

The same was true when I preached through Isaiah.

Nothing has spiritually blessed me like preaching through all the books of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.

Sallymag said...

When you started preaching through Jeremiah I didn't realize just how long it would take. However, after so many lessons learned from this "big book", I too am a little bit sad to have finished our study. Thanks for faithfully preaching through this book, your messages have given me a lot to think on. Love you!

Stone IV said...

I was kind of worried that we were going to hear the same message every week from Jeremiah, and in a way they were close. But I hope we continue to go through entire books of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament. I am certain that the Old Testament is not taught enough, and I'm sad to admit that I couldn't give any order of things that were happening in the Old Testament, especially an order of prophets.

DoGLover said...

I spent a year in Romans and was ready to pat myself on the back until I learned how long Dr. Piper had spent in it. I've been convicted of just skimming the surface in order to keep the pace moving. Now, I'm working to slow the pace in order to sound the depths of each book. I'm blessed to have a brother in the church who keeps asking me to pass the meat for another helping. May God give us more people who want to hunger for the glories of God.

Tom, you are an inspiration.

Thanks.

Joe Specht said...

Brother Tom,
As you preached this past Sunday I too felt like I was going to miss the great time we have had in this powerful Old Testament book. Of course I look forward to what is ahead for us. I thank God for your diligence in study and right division of God's Holy Word!
By the way I can't help but notice how few comments there are to today's blog.

Noah D. Lee said...

Could you post how you broke the text down into the 73 parts (just the theme and scripture references)? And if you were to shorten the length, how would you do it?

TWK said...

I would like to second Noah's recomendation. Your scripture reference to "Old Paths" has been a theme to my life for some time. I am starting to realize lately that it is also a call to repentence for me.
God Bless, Tony

peter lumpkins said...

Dr. Ascol,

Emphasizing as do you preaching through whole books of God's Word is all but lost today..."so 'out of place' in our postmodern world", we are repeatedly reminded.

Yet, from this preaching our greatest spiritual nourishment stems and that, despite any postmodern perception we may embrace.

Thank you.

Grace today. With that, I am...

Peter

jmattingly said...

Tom,

I appreciate your summary of Jeremiah's ministry. The notes of despair and depression that you mention seemed to have been incredibly intense for him.

How thankful we should be that God has chosen to put most of us in situations where this is not the case. We have a fellowship of believers surrounding us. Also, the preaching of the gospel ought to be expected (generally, by God's grace) to result in some converts, whereas Jeremiah's message was one intended partially to heap up judgment on the already rebellious Israelites, and little fruit was to be expected.

How awesome to be a part of the New Covenant where God has written His law on our hearts so that we love to keep it, and where we can also trust Him to do so to many other sinners as well!

By His Grace,
Jeremiah (not the prophet)

Lloyd on old path said...

Tom, Thanks for such a refreshing word.

Lloyd

Tom said...

Noah:

You can access the Jeremiah sermons from our church's website. The text and title for each is listed. Also, Ryken's book is based on his sermons through Jeremiah. His chapter titles and texts are in the table of contents. Sometimes Amazon will let you view the TOC of a book they sell.

Were I to preach through Jeremiah again, I would try to limit myself (I think) to around 50 messages. Some of the pronouncements of coming judgment could be grouped together more conveniently than I did. The book is not arranged chronologically, looking at sections that obviously belong together either in time or thematically could facilitate this. By the way, Calvin gave 193 lectures on Jeremiah!

Blessings,
tom

beardedbaptist said...

One of the things that our church did is that we read 3 chapters from the Bible aloud as a congregation. The "Lector" would also make a few comments concerning the passages BEFORE we read them. We covered 1/2 of the New Testament and about 25% of the Old Testament in about 3 years

J.D. Rector said...

Tom: Thank you for being one of the pastors of our day that preaches the "whole counsel of God"! I am disturbed by the number of popular pastors who preach verses out of context to appease the ears listening about the subjects they are skimming. However, I know there are times a pastor needs to address topics/subjects according to the culture that encompasses their fellowship. Nonetheless, we need more expository preaching today. Now, more than ever!

"The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever." Isaiah 40:8

To all my brothers... preach the word!

Thanks again Tom!
J.D. Rector

vox reformata said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elias said...

Thank you Tom for sharing that, I too have just completed preaching through an Old Testament book (Genesis). I started almost two years ago and the "preacher's sorrow" you describe is exactly how I felt when I preached my last sermon two weeks ago - I just never knew there was a name for it. Thank you (also) for sharing a little bit about Jeremiah, lately I’ve been praying about which book to read through for my quiet time - thanks!