A Charge for a New Charge
Last month I was installed as the pastor of the Orlando Reformed Presbyterian Church. After 12 year of labor in Los Angeles and among the Pacific Coast Presbytery, the Lord pressed upon my heart a new congregation, city, and challenge. I look forward to seeing that unfold in his perfect timing. Among the joys of this transition was an installation service in which spoke some of the most important men in my life. Among the speakers was Rev. Ray B. Lanning, my pastor. Here's the charge that he gave to me from the 49th Psalm:
Psalm 49 is a sermon in song, on the deceitfulness of riches (Matt.13:22). We must resist the temptation to say more, because that topic, though perennially relevant and of great weight, is not germane to our work tonight. I call your attention rather to the prologue or introduction to the Psalm in verses 1-4, in which the author reflects on his mission and message as a minister of the Word of God:
Hear this, all ye people; give ear all ye inhabitants of the world:
Both low and high, rich and poor, together.
My mouth shall speak of wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.
I will incline mine ear to a parable: I will open my dark saying upon the harp.
We must remember that David was not only a warrior/king, and a poet/musician of world-class abilities; he is also numbered among the prophets of Jehovah, sent to speak God’s Word to God’s people, in his own time, and for all time to come. As such, he is to be numbered among the ministers of God’s Word. His medium of discourse was poetry, not prose; but he nonetheless speaks in God’s Name, and speaks God’s Word; and stands in the front rank of the prophets of Christ. So what can we learn about the ministry of the Word from this poet/preacher?
First: The character of the gospel entrusted to us entitles ministers of the Word to speak with authority, that is, to speak in the imperative mood. “Hear this, all ye people!” David commands the attention of his hearers, and so should we. For the message we have to deliver is not our own, but God’s Word to His people. “The LORD God hath spoken: who can but prophesy?” asks Amos (Amos 3:8); and we may add, “Who should not hear, believe, and obey?” The authority is not in the man, nor in his office, but in the message he delivers, as he preaches the Word of God.
Second: Ministers of the Word are sent to proclaim the same gospel to all nations, in all the world, to all sorts and conditions of men. “Hear this, all ye people, all ye inhabitants of the world: both low and high, rich and poor, together.” There is no time in history, no place in the world, no emerging circumstances in our experience, which oblige us to discard our gospel for another. We shall never find ourselves in a situation in which the gospel of Jesus Christ leaves us with nothing to say! There is no need for a “new gospel” for what we may think is a “new day.” Outward circumstances change, but the real problems of human life remain the same.
Third: The content of our preaching must have real substance and depth, a challenge to deliver, and a challenge to receive. “My mouth shall speak of wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.” David uses two words, both in the plural, to imply both variety and abundance: “wisdoms” and “understandings.” In sermon prep, we must search for the wisdom that is from God, and labor for the fullest and clearest understanding of His Word. What has God said, and what does He require of us? And then we must find the best way to bring that wisdom and understanding home to our people. We must instruct, not distract; we must clarify, not mystify; we must edify, not entertain.
How much easier it is, as one church member said to me, “to stick to the safe, the known, and the obvious.” It requires little preparation, does not tire us in its delivery, and no one will object, so long as we are done in 20 minutes or less. Throw in a joke, add a story or two, and quote a popular hymn. Few people will know that you have taken away the Word of life, and given them stones for bread.
Finally, we must hear the Word of God before we can proclaim it. Two double metonymies are employed to imply a host of necessary gifts and labors involved in the work of preaching. David first tells us how he prepares to preach: “I will incline my ear to a parable.” Our ears must hear God’s Word, our minds must grasp its meaning, our hearts must believe it, and our wills must bow to it. Parables or proverbs are only one of many literary forms in Scripture, but we know that parables challenge the ablest minds, and their interpretation demands faith, knowledge, intelligence, perception, and imagination. The same holds for everything else in the written Word of God.
He then tells us how he will deliver his sermon: “I will open my dark saying on the harp.” The text we “open” or expound, or the doctrine we raise from it, may seem to be only an enigma or “dark saying” to our hearers, until we have explained it and applied it for their benefit. The task requires all our gifts, both intellectual and creative. Both halves of the brain, as we say today. As a poet/musician, David “opens” his text or topic in a song, sung to the accompaniment of the harp. We who do not have such extraordinary gifts must nonetheless preach the Word in the power of the Spirit.
So, O man of God, I charge you this night to hold fast the Word of life, the unchanged and unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ. Demand a hearing for it in this place as you did in your previous charge. Speak with authority, as one sent here by the Lord and Head of the church. Preach the Word in season and out, the Word in all its fullness and all its depth, and only the Word. Feed the flock of God in this place with the rich, nourishing milk and meat of the Word. Apply all your powers to the study of God’s Word, hearing and heeding it, and applying it to your whole self, as Bengel directs. Then bring that Word home to your hearers, instructing their minds, reaching their hearts, probing their consciences, and leading them captive to the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the faith and comfort of His gospel. Amen.
The charge, and whole installation service, can also be seen on Youtube: https://youtu.be/HRRBp4Zoqck