Tuesday, May 28, 2013


November 2011

This is our first look at Unity Baptist. We listened by podcast.

Mr. McLaren, Unity Baptist Church, August 21st, 2011, Trusting while Trying.

Summary: (The preliminary remarks concern an upcoming festival that this church is either involved in or responsible for.) If this is going to work, there must be trying and trusting. The image for the sermon is the trapeze artist. One is a flyer; the other is a catcher. The flyer must try really hard to get the right momentum and timing, but he must put his arms up, close his eyes, and trust the catcher to catch him. If the flyer tries to catch the catcher, it never works. You have to try and trust. You have done all you can do with a test or buying a house; then you have to trust. God is the only one who can bring it to pass. Psalm 20 gives us an example of trying and trusting. Israel would have made a plan before going to war.  But Psalm 20 was read just before their armies went out to battle. Rather than pull their troops together for a motivational talk, Israel would go to church. When Israel went out trusting in God, Israel always won. This is a good Psalm when we’re planning to do a festival or something like that. (The Psalm is read in responsive reading fashion.) Verse 6 is pretty powerful. ‘Save’ is in the perfect tense, as if it’s already completed. ‘Now I know that the Lord will save’: future tense, but already accomplished. Now I want to share two observations. (A): the name of the game. The name of God is the name of the game. His name brackets the Psalm. Verse 1: ‘May the God of Jacob protect you.’ Then verse 7: ‘We trust in the name of the LORD.’ Why do we bless a name? The name is Jehovah: I am that I am, or I will be what I will be. When we trust in his name, we trust in his character, his commitment to us, and remember his promises kept in the past. We trust in him to be powerful, loving, and just. Also, his name means to accept that he is sovereign, that he is God and we are not. It means that we do not try to manipulate him. We trust in more than our perceptions. We accept whatever he chooses to do. So we pray in Jesus’ name, for the baby we want, for the job, for that healing, or for the mission. We trust in him, in his character, as if it’s already done. (B): the heart of the matter. Verse 4: ‘May he give you the desire of your heart, and may all your plans succeed.’ Would it not be terrifying if that actually came true? What would follow is frustration, chaos, and anger. When we pray, we want our heart’s desire to come true. But we must acknowledge that we don’t always know what is best. Verse 3 does not mean that after you have given your offerings, God is obligated to give you the desires of your heart. What it is saying is that when you’ve recognized that God is God, and made your heart right with him, then you are in God’s will, and he’ll want to bless you. May he give you ‘according’ to your heart. So according to the ‘nature of your heart.’ Are you right with him? Are you obeying him? Whatever we do, we need to try our best and ultimately trust God. We pray that God would answer our prayers according to his name, based on his character and promises. And we can say, ‘Lord, may it be done according to our hearts.’ (He finishes with a brief prayer.) 

Remarks: Mr. McLaren is easy to listen to. The sermon is delivered with sincerity. An outline is followed. Some actual teaching takes place. The sovereignty of God is acknowledged as the overarching factor to be kept in mind while petitioning. The word, in its particular parts, at least, is not irreverently treated when touched upon. And though a movie is mentioned, this is not done in levity.

Typically, a Red Deer sermon deserves more censure than praise. This one is typical, though it is far from the worst one that we’ve heard. We’ll drop our censorious remarks under the following heads: What is taught? And then: How does the superficial teaching come about?

What is taught? Not much is taught. And so the analysis should be one of our shortest. Psalm 20 is used by this pastor to prop up his pep talk. The pep talk is for the purpose of stimulating the congregation to do well at the upcoming festival. A cursory reading of Psalm 20 yields a theme of trusting God, not while trying, like the pastor says, but in time of trouble. The ‘trying’ focus comes in because the pastor would pump his people up for the festival. Trusting in God’s name is to trust in his attributes to perform his promises. The pastor lays that down okay. But when he comes to what he calls ‘the heart of the matter’ (by which he means the granting of our petitions), the subject rises no higher than our earthly wants: the job, the baby, the passed test. Psalm 20 is a prayer in prospect of warfare. Should the obvious application not be, then, our prayer in prospect of spiritual warfare? And what are the eminent petitions to be won against our enemy? Is it not holiness to overcome flesh and sin? Is it not modesty and peace in the face of an extravagant, violent world? Is it not steadfast faith and the whole armor of God to ricochet all the tempting darts of Satan? It is by petitioning for these greater, more important things that we come most unselfishly to Jesus Christ, by whose life, death, and resurrection the Christian’s victory is assured against our greatest foes. Serious Commentaries can see Jesus in this Psalm somewhere; this sermon does not. Serious Commentaries do not apply this Psalm to petitions for earthly desires; this sermon does. What helps us to trust God for the right job or a future baby? Being told to trust him for these things? No, there is a better, more spiritual way. We are better helped when Jesus’ victory is preached to us, through which all things, by faith, are possible. It is by having our eyes elevated above our earthly petitions that we come up to accept, without repining, the outcome whatever it be. The sovereignty of God over our petitions is the proviso we praise the sermon for including. But because the petitions preached on by the pastor are limited to things that will pass away instead of things that carry into eternity, like holiness and love, he who is the same yesterday, today, and forever is not given a place of prominence in this sermon. This sermon is not devilish, but it is somewhat earthly. (See James 3.15.) And because the listeners are urged to participate in this festival in order to have fun and be ‘relational’ with the community, we have reason to assert that it is a little sensual as well. ‘Relating’ to our neighbors usually comes down to participating in small talk about sports and movies, the result of which is a show to the world that Christians are not a different species at all, when, in fact, in the Bible they are called a holy, royal priesthood and other similar, distinguishing names. If this festival was your typical Christian outreach effort, then we know that we’re not exaggerating our pessimism. The current belief is to get your witness in by showing the world that you are no different and no better. The biblical witness, in contrast, will assert and demonstrate that there is a difference. There is a difference of hobbies and habits, lifestyles and interests. Once we were no different, “when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins…did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (Romans 7.5.) And “now we are delivered from the law…that we should serve in newness of spirit” (verse 6.) Did conversations at the festival get to this uncomfortable level of explicating the dichotomy between the unregenerate and the Christian? If not, then this sermon proved a failure. But maybe the festival was meant just as a means of building bridges, nothing more. Many Christians speak hopefully and affectionately of building bridges. But have any of these festival bridges been crossed, we wonder? The content of Romans 7 would be an uneasy and perhaps dishonest dialogue for the Christian to engage in with the worldling if the motions of sin are indeed still operating in that Christian through the television set and the local theater. How can a Christian appear sincere in his testimony if the motions of sin he should have left behind are his point of contact with the one he is supposedly witnessing to? Maybe the Christian is not giving his assent to the sins and lifestyles that he watches on the screen. That will be his argument. But the watching world does not translate his participation like that. The watching world knows that the Christian watches sin for entertainment, that he watches because he likes it, and that this watching is de facto assent to what he’s looking at.        

How does the superficial teaching come about? It seems clear that the pastor began with an idea for a sermon in support of his festival venture. He wants his congregation to trust while they try in order to the desired result at this festival. Hence his title, ‘Trusting while Trying.’ A sermon is bound to fall apart when we begin with self instead of Scripture. Psalm 20 is not foundational here, but the festival. The Psalm is tacked on as a desperate resort to hold up an idea, an idea that the Psalm is not intended to support. The sermon begins with remarks on a festival, which remarks are then shod with wheels from a carnival illustration, and then the whole idea is supposed to roll when Psalm 20 is plugged into it for generation. This is to treat Scripture very terribly, as the power we want to drive our circus car with. It should remind us of the carnal use of God’s ark, for which the children of Israel were punished. The first point in the sermon is called ‘the name of the game.’ Why? Because of the trapeze artist, of course, not because of what’s in the Psalm. The trapeze artist hangs way up in the sermon where Psalm 20 belongs. He, not the Psalm, is relied on to carry the first point. Psalm 20 is just the trapping brought in to help catch the trapeze artist and the festival. It is not the main thing. Is something wrong when the Scripture text is forced down to an inferior place and made nothing but the pep for a people on their way to a festival? This Psalm is about trusting God in our warfare. It should not be made the handmaiden of our little enterprise. It is there to speak out truth to us, not for us to speak ideas into it. ‘The name of the game’—how does that follow from ‘trusting and trying?’ It does not. How does ‘the heart of the matter’ follow, either from the first point, ‘the name of the game,’ or from ‘trusting while trying,’ which is the title? There is no harmony in any of this. The points do not follow the title; the second point does not follow from the first point. The sermon is a weak fabrication, with a Psalm gratuitously thrown in to give some pep to people the pastor suspects might slouch. The title, the points, and the Psalm, are like disconnected cars designed to pull this festival along. It doesn’t work. It can’t work, for the sacred engine, the Psalm, is not in front and not hooked up to the rest.

Conclusion: When the pastor alludes to Israel using Psalm 20 in their worship before going to war, he emphasizes this good practice of theirs by contrasting it with what they did not do: pull the troops together for a motivational talk. That’s very interesting, for instead of preaching the Psalm as a text of worship for holy warfare, the pastor makes it serve his motivational speech for the festival affair! The truth of how to properly handle this text is right in the research he did, and yet he goes on to do the very thing that he says Israel knew better than to rely on! This treatment of Psalm 20 is textual malpractice. When it becomes understood how reverently the content of God’s word is supposed to be touched, handled, and delivered, the inevitable question that gets begged from this pastor’s treatment of the sacred word is his calling. To question a ministerial calling (just to raise the inkling of a doubt about it!) is unacceptable these days. But if you do not doubt a man’s calling who handles the word of God in this way, then there is something wrong, not only with him, but with you too. The question should naturally pose itself to your mind if or once you realize that the text of God’s word is not being allowed to teach, but instead made to serve as an addendum in support of a pastor’s pet project. The question that should drift through your mind when you see this done (if you have eyes, the mental vision, to see it) is this: Does God call men to fill pulpits who treat his word in this way? Is that a shepherd who coaxes his sheep to jump a fence to who knows where when he should be occupied in feeding them? We’re not saying the man is not called to minister. We say that his treatment of the word naturally raises a doubt in the mind of an attentive listener. It’s not something that can be helped. And it’s not something that has to be kept secret. If all pastors were made to consider their callings once in awhile, sermons would be better, and better results would surely follow. It is no surprise that from treating the word of God in his pragmatic manner, no conviction of anything is brought to our heart by the address. This talk is thin, but it’s not sharp like the word that slices through joints and marrow. It is because the idea of man is wielded here, not the substance of the word. If the word were wielded, sin and guilt would fly out from the cut, and the people would be made to feel, react, and repair to Jesus Christ for salvation or consolation. This sermon carries no disturbance to anyone; and therefore little comfort will be sought on account of it. It is a routine, terrestrial performance that, unless renovated to its core, no amount of trusting and trying can fix.    

Mr. McLaren, because we have had no occasion to communicate with you, let the following copy of our analysis be our first encounter. Maybe you have sometimes wondered what that would look like if some persons took one of your sermons, without partisan favor influencing their effort, and subjected it to Scripture scrutiny. This analysis can be much more useful to you than the pats on the back that you receive on Sunday, if you take it to heart in prayer. If you would like to talk about our findings, or if you would like to receive our upcoming second analysis of your work, we welcome you to contact us. If you choose to ignore us, we will not hound you. At some future date, the analyses of your sermons, God permitting, will be featured on our blogsite. In the meantime, you may scour this blog to read similar analyses of sermons preached by many of your colleagues. We have been so pleased to find ourselves reaping the increase of spiritual discernment through the obedience of such texts as 1 John 4.1 and 1 Thessalonians 5.21! We should not be surprised that obedience yields at least a little insight. Praise God with us, for this idea that dropped down from heaven, to do this Bible-Based Sermon-Group! May the scrutiny of your own sermons, and that of your colleagues too, yield the same blessings to your soul! Things can get better when we face our faults full on and endeavor to improve, even though the passage to success may be hurtful, hard, and grim. We believe in the reverent treatment of God’s holy word!

Blessings, M. H. Gaboury.

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