November 2011


Today, I want to discuss a couple of issues. The first stems from a discussion started by Preacherman. I chimed in about the length of my sermons (which average in at about 45 minutes). The readers at the blog seemed to come to the consensus that anything longer than 20 minutes is too long. Of course this discounts great pulpiteers like Stephen Olford who was once quoted as saying that anyone “who can’t preach for an hour or longer is not worth his salt,” and Mark Dever who consistently feeds his church an hours’ worth of spiritual teaching in a given Sunday.

Then  as I was coming to the last few pages in Calvin Miller’s book called (conveniently) Preaching, I read this:

The issue of a given sermon is not how long or short it is; the issue of this sermon is that each of us have unfinished transactions with God. The altar will allow each listener the chance to complete this transaction. How long will all this take? The qustion is pointless. Will the roast burn if you tarry too long beyond noon? How superficial a question! In the meeting of a King and the receiving of his commission, such questions pale into insignificance. Just focus on your need and his sovereignty. The clock is set to measure many things, but not this. (p. 247)

This statement brings us to the second issue of today: the altar. The modern trend is to do away with an altar call at the end of the sermon. The argument is that such a practice is manipulative and non-biblical. Proponents of this omission suggest that the altar call (as we know it) is a product of the brush arbor camp meetings of the 19th century. I would suggest that so few people are responding that closing the sermon without an “invitation” (as it is called in Baptist circles) is a decision more out of convenience, embarrassment, or preference rather than historical, theological, or biblical foundation.

I extend an invitation (many churches still have a “closing hymn” but without the opportunity for response) and there are a number of reasons:

  1. I believe that the sermon should include a challenge that brings listeners to some kind of response. If there is no response there are two things going on, either I’m not really preaching a sermon or my listeners are either lethargic in their Spiritual lives and unwilling to respond or Spiritually dead and unable to respond.
  2. I see it as courtesy as well. What kind of ogre or villain would I be to call for response without giving the opportunity for response (it’s just bad manners not to extend an invitation).
  3. Historically, evangelicals have typically offered the opportunity at the climax of the sermon for the congregation to respond to the calling of God as He has extended it during the preaching of the sermon.
  4. I also believe that there is biblical precedent for such a call to the altar. Perhaps the biblical form does not look exactly as our “invitation hymn” of today, but still it was there–in the Old Testament (see Exodus 32–the story of the Golden Calf; Joshua 24–the call to choose between the gods of the land and God Almighty), and in the New Testament as the church is born (Acts 2) and daily people are being added to their number.

As lazy as I am, I still am of the opinion that it is a truly lazy preacher who will not offer an opportunity for response. Should this sometimes be followed up with more counseling? Of course. Are spur of the moment decisions made in the frenzied pitch of a manipulating evangelist real? Sometimes no. Does this excuse us from offering the opportunity? Certainly not. Let us open our altars once again, and let God do His work.

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“I hope it snows this Christmas.”

“This gift was just what I was hoping for.”

“When the baby comes, I hope it’s a boy.”

There is something amiss in all of these statements, even though they are the kinds of things that we might say or typically hear in a giving situation. “What,” you may ask, “is wrong with them?” Thanks for asking (I was going to tell you anyway).

The problem is the use of the word “hope.” In our society, we have re-defined this word to express a wish or a desire. Something that we are willing to happen, if it could. I am not opposed to dreaming and wishing, but I think that it is time that we reclaimed this word “hope” for what it really means.

Hope is not an ethereal desire for something good but a concrete expectation for that which is. The reason that we have so much difficulty with hopes is that we equate them with dreams. This is probably related to the abstractness of this concrete.

Dreams and wishes are good because they are the things that may be which give us the drive to do what is necessary to make them come true. Hope, on the other hand, is the assurance of what already is/will be. It is the assurance of what we do not know, although we know it will be. Hope is the rock upon which faith can stand. This is why the writer of Hebrews can say with all confidence:

17[W]hen God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6, ESV)

So, this year as you contemplate the coming of the Christ Child, and you consider that He is the Hope for the world, understand that the Hope that He is is one that cannot be denied. His miraculous birth, sinless life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection are all part of the Hope that will be complete in His Second Coming. And that is the gift of Hope that makes His Advent Yours.

Historically, the church has prepared for the celebration of Christ’s birth (which according to our calendar we celebrate on December 25th) with a season called Advent. This season begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day and concentrates on one notable characteristic accompanying Christ’s birth that make His Advent Yours (and mine), and leading up to the morning of His birth. Therefore, I will be posting a devotional thought each week relating to these Advent themes. My goal will be to complete this year’s Advent season on Christmas Morning with a post about Christ Himself and the gift that He is for us. You may want to consider listening to the sermon series AdventYours which I am preaching on Sunday mornings during this season. (Download or listen to the sermons here.)

May the Lord richly bless you this Advent season and make His Advent Yours.