February 9, 2012

Relevance

I've been reading Finally Alive by John Piper.  Basically, I want to quote the entire book to you.  Nearly every page has been a bit of reading joy.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone, even though I haven't completed it yet.  I've owned it since last Christmas, and just now started it after a year.  I would like to share a tidbit with you, here is a portion of chapter eight that has to do with relevance in preaching:
Just before writing this book, I read the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather's Son: A Memoir.  He had been raised a Roman Catholic and attended Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts.  But while there, he parted ways with the church, though not forever.  Here is what he said: 
"During my second week on campus, I went to Mass for the first and last time at Holy Cross. I don't know why I bothered -- probably habit, or guilt -- but whatever the reasons, I got up and walked out midway through the homily. It was all about Church dogma, not the social problems with which I was obsessed, and seemed to me hopelessly irrelevant." 
As a preacher, I think a lot about relevance. Why should anyone listen to what i have to say? Why should anybody care?  Relevance is an ambiguous word. It might mean that a sermon is relevant if it feels to the listeners that it will make a significant difference in their lives. Or it might mean that a sermon is relevant if it will make a significant difference in their lives whether they feel it or not. 
That second kind of relevance is what guides my sermons and my writing. In other words, I want to say things that are really significant for your life whether you know they are or not. My way of doing that is to stay as close as I can to what God says is important in his word, not what we think is important apart from God's word. 
So, in any given worship service a dozen young, idealistic Clarence Thomases might be present, full of anger about racism, or global warming, or abortion, or limited health care for children, or homelessness, or poverty, or the war in Iraq, or white-collar crime, or human trafficking, or the global AIDS crisis, or rampant fatherlessness, or the greed behind the subprime mortgage crisis, or the treatment of illegal aliens, or the plight of Christians just coming out of prison.  And then they hear me announce that today we are going to talk about the way a person can be born again.  And they might react like Clarence Thomas did and simply walk out and say, "That has nothing to do with the real problems this world is facing." 

They would be wrong -- doubly wrong.  They would be wrong, in the first place, in failing to see that what Jesus meant by the new birth is supremely relevant for racism and global warming and abortion and health care and all the other issues of our day.  We will see in the coming chapters what the necessary fruit of the new birth looks like. 
And they would be wrong, secondly in thinking that those issues are the most important issues in life.  They aren't.  They are life-and-death issues.  But they are not the most important, because they deal with the relief of suffering during this brief earthly life, not the relief of suffering during eternity that follows. Or to put it positively, they deal with how to maximize well-being now for eighty years or so, but not with how to maximize well-being in the presence of God for eighty trillion years and more. 
My job as a pastor is to deal in what matters most, and to stay close to the revealed will of God in the Bible (so you can see it for yourselves), and to pray that, by God's grace, the young, idealistic, angry Clarence Thomases in the crowd, and everyone else, will see and feel the magnitude of what God says is important. 
Consider purchasing Finally Alive by John Piper.  I'll offer a full review of the book once I have completed it.