49: Light & Darkness
A friend from Zimbabwe once told me this illustration of Jesus' words “Light has come into the world but people preferred darkness”.
He said: Back home in Zimbabwe I would sometimes go to the kitchen in the darkness to get a midnight snack. When I reached out in the dark for the light switch and flicked it on there was an instant flurry of activity. Two sorts of activity. From the floor came the sounds and sight of furious scuttling as the cockroaches raced across the floor to find dark crevices to hide in. In the air moths fluttered frantically as they headed towards the light bulb and crowded around it.
My “meat and three vegetable” sermons were shining the light of the scriptures into the congregation at St. Luke's. Of course they had heard sermons before, probably more polished ones at that. But my early diagnosis of this church had been as the spiritual equivalent of kids on a perpetual sugar high. Hence the nutritious if unexciting diet of biblical exposition. And it was working.
One could see that the bulk of the congregation, from the very mature Christians through to the “attenders” were growing real spiritual muscle.
But … the self-styled leadership group who thought that they were more spiritual than every one else began to hate my sermons with a passion.
My early diagnosis of them had been as fake “Charismatics”. They wanted spiritual power, they wanted spiritual “show” but they did not want the real Holy Spirit to train and transform them into people who lived like Jesus and lived for Jesus. As I said earlier, they had fallen for a false gospel:
Real Gospel: Jesus loves me so much that he died for me: so He must be the most wonderful person and I want to die to sin and live for him.
False Gospel: Jesus loves me so much that he died for me: so I must be the most wonderful person and I want to go on living for me.
So near and yet so far!
Once one has spotted their false gospel and its logical flaw (and yes it did take me a long time to spot!) then the behaviour of this group all becomes explicable. Wrong, but explicable!
Let me give you some examples of the effects of preaching.
I said earlier that God offered me a really wonderful gift where my preaching could be like speaking in tongues in English. I have heard of some preachers who had the same experience but it seems to be a very rare gift. But just to set the record straight: No, it is not in-errant! I have been painfully aware of times when I put my own spin on things! But it is a million percent better than anything I could do on my own.
As with all God's gifts, it goes hand in hand with sanctification. Before I got to preach on an aspect of Christian living The Holy Spirit made me deal with it in my own life! Sometimes we had sorted it out in the past. Other times I had only given in to the convicting voice of the Holy Spirit, confessed my own sins in this area and handed that aspect of my life over to the Lordship of the Spirit a day or two before the sermon!
One great advantage of this gift was that while God only took the things I said from the database I had acquired through study or experience, he did control (when I let him!) the selection and presentation. So I could preach on problems in proper innocence – I did not know if a particular member of the congregation had exactly that problem, or if my illustration exactly fitted their case. Obviously if any human knew those things they could not honestly preach. Yet looking around the congregation as I preached I frequently saw on people's faces that the Holy Spirit had got me to say words, and applied them to bring conviction to that person. It was scary, and to use a hackneyed word, humbling! But to be used in any degree by God in his work of carrying out his saving purposes is an immense satisfaction and joy.
One time I was walking across from the vicarage to the church for the second morning service. I said in a playful sort of way “well Lord, what are we going to preach on today.” I believe God answered in my mind: “You don't want to know!”. I thought that was strange, but carried on. I was sitting listening to one of the set Bible readings being read out by the person rostered for that service when one one verse hit me like a sledgehammer – I suddenly realised the implications if I expounded that verse. I said to God: “Oh no! I'm not preaching on that!” Again I truly believe God answered in my mind: “It's that or nothing. Take your pick.”. I preached on that verse!
Going back to the light and darkness theme, here is an example.
I think I only preached once in all my time at St. Luke's on the topic of abortion. Since I took the historic Christian line rather than the “Progressive” line of modern society so enthusiastically endorsed by many church leaders, this resulted in many letters of complaint to the Archbishop!
But the example I want to give is about two women:
Mrs A came to me for prayer after the service (we offered prayer after the services and had a prayer-counselling team with members on a roster) She wanted me to pray with her. She told me that as a young woman she had got pregnant but for economic reasons she had an abortion. My sermon had convicted her that she had killed her baby and she sought confession and absolution. That day she found a peace with God that had eluded her for decades. Mrs A continued as a committed member of the congregation, and as an example of faithfulness to Christ all the time we were there.
Mrs. X assailed me at a church meeting during the week. She was furious that I had dared to preach on abortion. She, as she loudly proclaimed, had in her youth (she was an older woman) been forced to have an abortion to save her life! I pointed out to her that I had very carefully and clearly spelt out in my sermon that an abortion to save the mother's life was a case of “justifiable homicide” and no guild whatsoever attached to it. Her rage was undiminished. Although she had previously been at odds with both Shirley and Nick, from that moment she joined them in lobbying to have me sacked. Interestingly I met her again some years after my time at Vermont. In place of the strident powerful and implacable figure of the past was a hollow deflated old woman actually trying to be friendly! It struck me forcefully then how if we let the devil use us, the power and passion with which he infuses us is both destructive and transient. When we are of no further use we are discarded like an old snakeskin! So different from the results of serving God in the power of the Holy Spirit!