Full-bodied, Three-dimensional Preaching

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I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  (Galatians 5:21)

Grady Cook, a wonderful Mississippi artist, told me how he had improved his technique. “The picture you bought from me last time,” he said, “was all right. But I still had a lot to learn.” I assured him Margaret and I thought it was fine and that it was hanging in our living room.

“Since then, I’ve studied under a wonderful teacher,” he explained, “and have learned how to add darkness to my work.” He said, “Here. Look at this.” Pointing at the picture I would buy from him a few minutes later, he showed the shadows and the blackness of the undergrowth of the forest. It made the picture far more three-dimensional than the earlier one. The trees stood out. It looked like someplace I’d like to explore.

We still have both pieces of art on display in our home, but since he explained the difference, I’ve enjoyed the last one far more.

“There’s something missing in this sermon,” I said to myself. On the surface, it seemed to work just fine. The “fruit of the Spirit” passage of Galatians 5:22-23 is a familiar and well-loved one. I’d studied it numerous times over the years and had preached it on several occasions. I like what it says about the effect of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer who abides in the Lord, that as he/she grows in Christ, they will grow all nine qualities of this “fruit” in his life. The nine qualities are the “fruit,” not “fruits,” and we do not specialize on one or two, but the indwelling Spirit will be producing all of them. Full-bodied believers, I suppose we could say.

And yet, trying to put myself in the place of my people and listen to my own delivery of the message, it felt rather blah. It just lay there, boring me–and if I was bored, how much more the poor hearers would be.  Something was wrong.

Then I realized what it was.

“The dark side is what’s missing,” I said to myself. Or was that the Holy Spirit speaking?

So–what would be the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit? Immediately before, in the preceding three verses of Galatians 5, there they were. Paul had not studied art like Grady Cook, but he knew that a well-rounded message needed to present both sides of the subject, the light, yes, but also the dark.

But the works of the flesh are evident.  Paul gives his list: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and such.  We get the impression that the works of the flesh–in contrast to the fruit of the Spirit–are endless. While the nine godly qualities will shine forth from the life of the Spirit-filled believer, the carnal person’s life may be any of a thousand versions.

Someone once said that all happy homes are alike, but unhappy homes are each unhappy in their own way. Same point, in a way.

Once we present the contrast between the flesh and the Spirit, between the works and the fruit, and between the kinds of results each produces, we have a better picture.

I suppose I had thought of this as positive preaching, the way I omitted the dark side of the message for many years. I would bring a message on faith, for instance–the source of faith, illustrations of it, examples of it, reasons for it, proofs of it, the blessings of it–but never once touch on the other side: what is its opposite, what lack of faith means, what failing to believe produces in people’s lives, how it insults the Savior, and why some people never seem to have faith.

This is why most memoirs are so boring.

The person writes about growing up, tells about his/her family, and accounts for places they have lived and served over the decades.  I’ve read a lot of them.  People present them to you as a gift, and you dare not attempt to read them..

Memoirs are usually dull to anyone but the author’s closest relatives.  And there is a reason for this: there’s no conflict.

The writer tells of walking miles to the rural three-room schoolhouse, describes the simple desks and stern-faced teacher and lively classmates, tells of studying grammar and penmanship and the 3 R’s, and such. After ten pages of this, the reader is crying, “So, what happens?”  Answer: nothing. The writer is just telling about her childhood, a subject of interest to a dozen people, all of them related to her.

A novelist reveals her technique for adding zest to novels. Above her computer, she has written on an index card: Things get worse.

Write a book about a person who went from success to success without a stumble, without encountering opposition, just one unbroken line of jackpots and windfalls and accolades, and no one will buy it. It’s boring. But tell about a person who tried and got knocked down, who got back up and tried again, who kept learning and growing but kept encountering opposition, but who eventually comes out on top and you’ve got yourself a winner.

There is a reason Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are considered the greatest presidents in our country’s history. All three faced incredible conflicts, were knocked down repeatedly by life and circumstances and yet came out on top victoriously. Other chief executives may have been just as brilliant and equally dedicated, but without great conflict to test them, they were never proven.

That’s why people who read the biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower are fascinated by his leadership of the Allied victory in the European portion of World War II but are bored by the account of his presidency in the 1950s. Conflict makes the difference.

Look at the conflict all through the narratives of Scripture. In Genesis, Adam and Eve faced the serpent and God. Abraham tried to carve out a life of faith in a hostile, pagan world. Joseph was beset by cruel brothers and an unfair slave-owner who spent years in prison before being elevated to the throne, and eventually confronted his brothers in one of the great scenes in Scripture. In Exodus, we have Moses and the challenge of leading 2 million Israelis from Egypt to Canaan. Samson and the Philistines. David and Goliath.

In the New Testament, the life of Jesus is filled with conflict, beginning at His birth when King Herod slays the babies of Bethlehem and ending with His crucifixion on a Roman cross. The story of the spreading of the Gospel is about overcoming opposition.

In fact, I dare the reader to find one boring story in Scripture.

And the writers had never even heard of Grady Cook and his lesson about painting the dark side.  (a little silliness there)

The darkness has always been there; Scripture simply records it.

It’s the preaching of some of us–I speak as an offender here–that leaves it out, that deals with life as all lightness and fluff.

One more area comes to mind.

Sit in the living room sharing the good news of Christ’s salvation with the average man but leave out the dark side and he wants no part of it. You’ve told him the good news–God loves you, Jesus wants to be your Lord, He’ll come into your life and give you salvation and a home in Heaven and all you have to do is open your heart and pray to him the prayer I’m about to show you–but he’s bored.

You left out something vital.

You never told him why the Gospel is good news.

Sir, you are a sinner. Here is God’s law. (We might turn to Exodus 20, and the Ten Commandments, for instance.) You’ve broken it. You’ve broken it here and here and here. Now, Scripture says, “All have sinned.” Romans 3:23. Then we read, “The wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23. You sir, are in a lot of trouble.

Now and only now is he ready to hear the good news of the gospel.

Preacher, it’s not just that we’re boring our people by failing to tell them the whole story. It’s worse than that.  We’re betraying our Lord and dishonoring God’s Word and abandoning the very people we’re trying to help.

Years ago, when my children were young, we build a birdhouse and hung it on the tree in the backyard. The next Spring we were all excited when the birds built a nest there. Every afternoon when they got in from school, the kids tore through the house and out the back door to check on the little family in our birdhouse.

It was such fun that I told the congregation about that in a sermon on “This Is My Father’s World,” celebrating the wonders of the Lord’s creation.

One evening that very week, as I arrived home, my son Neil met me at the door. “Bad news, Dad.” He told how he had come in from school and gone out to check on the baby birds.

“I was staring into the nest and it was so dark in there. I couldn’t figure out why I was not able to see the baby birds. That’s when I realized what I was actually looking at.”

He was seeing the scaly hide of a black snake that had climbed the tree, entered the birdhouse, and feasted on the birds. Our entire family was heart-broken, even though we knew this was real life.

I went back into the pulpit the next Sunday and preached a message entitled, “I Forgot to Tell You About the Snake.” The dark side of this world. The serpent in the Garden.

Scripture tells the whole story. Only when we do also does our message have the impact God intended.

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