Author: Peter Somervell

Moralism vs. Jesus

I’m presently preaching through the book of Judges and loving every minute of it. I never imagined how such a dark and confusing book could be so gospel-rich. Last Sunday I covered the story of Samson – 4 chapters, in one hit. It wasn’t an easy thing to do but I sensed it was better way to handle the narrative and retain the big picture. And the big picture was clearly Samson points us to Jesus.

In fact all the Judges point to Jesus in one way or another, because they all show us how human deliverers are insufficient. Some are better than others of course (such as Othniel and Deborah), but all are weak and flawed, and all eventually die. Jesus is not weak or flawed. He is the perfect deliverer-judge. And he doesn’t die.

The most powerful connections to Jesus in the Samson story was his birth and his death (everything in between was an absolute disaster!). One entire chapter (Judges 13) is devoted to the birth narrative – something unequaled with any other judge in the book. But just note the parallels: Samson’s birth is announced by an angel; Jesus’ birth is announced to Mary by an angel. Sampson is miraculously conceived in a barren woman; Jesus is miraculously conceived in a virgin. Samson is consecrated to God from the womb; Jesus is consecrated to God from the womb. That’s more than a coincidence.

And then with regard to his death, the author of Judges tells us that those who died with Samson that day were more than all he had killed his entire life (Judges 16:3). This was in fulfilment of the promise the angel of the Lord gave to his mother, “he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (13:5). The next time the Philistines appear in the Bible is in 1 Samuel, but Israel is no longer ruled by them; Israel is at war with them. And that war continues for centuries all the way to king Hezekiah. But never again are the Israelites ruled by the Philistines as they are in the times of Samson. But note again the parallels with our Saviour: Both are betrayed, Samson by Delilah and Jesus by Judas. Both are handed over to Gentile oppressors. Both are chained, tortured, mocked, and put on public display. Both chose to sacrifice themselves. Both died with their arms outstretched. And both enabled God’s people to triumph over God’s enemies by their deaths.

The story is a wonderful pointer to the true deliverer-judge who defeated our two great enemies, sin and death. Jesus’ death freed us from sin’s rule just as Samson’s death freed Israel from the Philistine rule. That doesn’t mean that we don’t sin any more just like it didn’t mean that Israel’s problems with the Philistines ended with Samson. What changed is that we now have the power through Christ to say no to sin and to refuse to let it reign over us.

So what did I do with the middle; that is, the record of his life? I simply retold the story, reading the pertinent verses and showed how even a man like Samson, whose life was completely out of control and lived for self could be used by God when his purposes are at stake. This is made very plain to us in chapter 14 where Samson goes against his parents counsel and insists they “get” for him Timnite girl. We are told in the follow verse, “His father and mother did not know that it was from the LORD, for he was seeking an opportunity against the Philistines” (14:4). This is an interpretive key for the entire narrative. It informs us this was all in God’s plan. God was going to use Samson’s weakness to bring about a confrontation between the Israelites and the Philistines. They had become way too comfortable together. This was God’s way of prying them apart.

Well that sermon did open a few eyes! However at the end one faithful brother (whom I have a very good relationship with) came up and said, “Great Sermon Peter. That was a great connection you made between Samson and Christ. However, didn’t miss the obvious?” I said, “Go on.” “You had in the congregation a very large number of men, all of whom are tempted by lust on a daily basis. Samson’s life was ruined by his lust. You never made the connection.” He was right. I alluded to it of course, but I never pointed it out clearly. Nor did I take the time the time to drive it home.

The question is – should I have? There are two concerns I can see if I chose to go down that road.

1. I would likely obstruct or at least weaken my main point (the big idea) which was the entire story points us to our need for the Saviour. You can’t preach a message on the story of Samson, majoring on the dangers of lust and then add something at the end how this points to Jesus. I’ve tried it before. People wind up thinking most about what was stressed. They would go away thinking a lot about the dangers of the sin of lust and not a lot about Jesus.

2. I don’t think that was the main issue – even in Samson’s life. Samson’s biggest problem wasn’t a struggle with lust (in fact it doesn’t appear that he struggled with it at all!). It was unbelief. He lived for himself, not God. He lived to please himself, not the Lord. And as a result, his life spun completely out of control. He wanted freedom, but his way. What he got was bondage. He became a slave of his own sinful desires. And of course that is the point Paul makes very plain in Romans 6. Which is why we all need the gospel!

Perhaps if I preached that passage again, I might do things a bit differently – but not too much differently. I’ve heard enough moralizing sermons in my life (particularly in the Old Testament) that have put me off teaching about sin. I already know I sin. What I need is the answer to overcome it.

And that lies in Jesus.

Those post-preaching blues (Peter Somervell)

In less than an hour after I finished preaching I was only a few steps out the door of the church when it hit. It’s hard to explain but I think those who suffer depression might relate. It’s a feeling (and yes I’ll have to use that word) of deep emptiness, hollowness and gloom. Doubts began to form in my mind:

‘That was a really bad sermon’, ‘You’ve been preaching this long and you still manage a fail-boat like that?’, ‘So you had two people who liked it; if only you knew what the others were thinking.’

It’s not just psychological. It’s physical. There’s a heaviness of spirit and it isn’t imaginary. I really felt like I weighed an extra 10 kg but with less strength. Everything was an effort. Even opening the car door seemed like work.

If you are in Christian ministry of any kind your spiritual antennae is no doubt starting to twitch – big time. You’re thinking, ‘That’s not just a simple case of the blues. That’s a spiritual battle.’ And you’d be right. Those thoughts of doubt and despair were not merely human in origin; they had another source – Satan. And I happened to be preaching about him – well not him directly, but the place where he is heading. And I was warning others not to follow him. Obviously that’s not going to go down all that well, with him or with any of his helpers. So it was not that surprising that he might show his displeasure with me. I was preparing for his attack in the days leading up to my sermon but not after. I was caught badly off guard.

Paul says in Ephesians 6:10-18,

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might.
11Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.
12For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.
14Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness,
15and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.
16In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;
17and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
18praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints

You may have heard it said, “You don’t have to fight any battle, the Lord fights for you.” That sounds all very spiritual but I don’t think it’s entirely accurate. Paul says we wrestle. He’s talking about believers. We are in a battle. We are facing off with the enemy.

So here I was an hour after preaching a very difficult message, afflicted with disappointment, doubt and great heaviness of spirit. I’m experiencing a spiritual battle and I’m receiving hits from the enemy. So what do I do? What should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

1. Be strong in the Lord, or seek strength from the Lord. You’re weak. You’re vulnerable. You need spiritual strength. And Jesus can supply it. So ask him for it. Later in the afternoon after I rested I started to do that. I should have started a lot earlier.

2. Put on the armour of God. Fasten the belt of truth, buckle on the breastplate of righteousness, lace up the gospel shoes, take up the shield of faith, put on the helmet of salvation and grab hold of the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God. I want to focus on one of these in particular – the shield of faith. What’s a shield for? Deflecting missiles – in the soldier’s case, arrows and spears. In the Christian soldier’s case – spiritual arrows and spears. Paul calls them “fiery darts.” Satan is continually shooting “fiery darts” at our hearts and minds – lies, impure thoughts, sinful thoughts about others, doubts, fears, suspicions, and misgivings. We need to deflect these darts and extinguish their flames. And we do that with the shield of faith. Faith by definition looks away from self to God alone for help. Faith locks on to God and his trustworthiness. Put your trust in him. Trust his strength, trust his promises, trust his character and trust his wisdom.

3. Stand firm. Don’t go chasing Satan and don’t run from him. Just stand your ground. Be firm in your faith. Hold on to Jesus and there’s not a lot he can do.

4. Pray, pray, pray. Pray yourself and get others praying for you. A friend sent me a text later in the afternoon. When I told him what was going on he replied straight away, “Praying for you.” And it made a difference. Spiritual battles need to be fought using spiritual means and prayer is one of the most (if not the most) powerful.

There are some other practical suggestions I would like to add to this that I have learned by way of experience:

· Share. Tell someone you trust what is going on. You need others looking out for you. That’s what the body of Christ is for. Tell your husband or your wife or a friend that you can confide in.

· Rest. Preaching and teaching is exhausting work. Your body needs some time to recharge. Find some where quiet and close your eyes.

· Eat. Preferably eat something healthy. A good, healthy meal well help replenish the energy that’s been released.

· Serve. Take an interest in the people around you. Ask how they are doing. Listen and respond. Help your wife. Do something for one of your kids. It will help you get your eyes off yourself and slipping into too much morbid introspection.

Postscript: Shortly after writing this (I penned it the same day) my head began to clear, the weight began to lift and my joy was restored. That’s the power of meditating on the Word of God. It really is a sword.

The Funeral Sermon (Peter Somervell)

I have a confession to make: I’ve never liked funerals. I’ve often thought about why; I think it goes back to my childhood experience. Death, along with sex and religion was one of the three subjects we never spoke about in my family. Even when my half-brother was tragically killed in a plane crash, there was no explanation, no grieving process – just deathly silence. And my father never mentioned his name again. Attending his funeral was the most horrible experience a 9 year-old could ever imagine.

Then I got saved. That changed everything. For the first time in my life, I was free from the fear of death. I had hope, I had eternal life – I had Jesus. Funerals became a whole lot easier for me. I now had a framework in which to fit them in. Funerals for unbelievers were incredibly sad, but funerals for believers became a time of rejoicing.

Now I am a Pastor and I see funerals as a wonderful opportunity for the gospel. No ‘sermon hook’ is needed for this occasion. Everyone is looking at it in the middle of the room.

Preparing for a funeral sermon however, is not an easy thing. I look back at some of the funerals I took in my early ministry and I’m aghast at what I got up and said. I was too clinical, too impersonal and too formal. And my message didn’t always relate to the life of the individual concerned. So I have worked hard to try to change things. I started paying close attention to other, more seasoned ministers – even if I didn’t agree with what they said. They had a warmth about them that I lacked. And they seemed to touch the souls of people, not just their heads. I also started reading any funeral sermons I could find online. This was immensely helpful and I’m thankful to those pastors who posted them.

I’m sure there are a number of young ministers out there who are still finding their way in this area. What does make for a good funeral message? Here are a few tips that might help you:

· It should be true to the person. Your audience will be looking at the casket and thinking about the life of that person. You’re not going to be able to pull the wool over their eyes. Do your homework. Find out everything you can about the person from as many different people (including non-Christians) as you can.

· It should be fitting for the audience. Start feeling the ‘pulse’ of the family and the kind of people they tell you will be coming. Are they Christian or non-Christian, religious or irreligious, antagonistic to the faith or open? This will affect both the tone and content of what you will say. At a recent funeral learned that there was going to be a number of people there who would call themselves Christian but are not living it. They have made some kind of commitment when they were young but have not followed through. My message was largely directed toward these very people.

· It must be honouring to God. At the end of it all, you get to stand before God and give and answer for everything you have said, not to your audience. So strive to please God, not man.

· It must be gospel-centered. If what you have to say isn’t about Jesus and what he came to do, you shouldn’t be getting up and saying anything. You are a servant of Christ and a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1). A funeral is a wonderful and fitting opportunity for the gospel – that Jesus has overcome death, opened heaven’s doors and offers eternal life to all who will repent and believe in Him.

· It must be sharp and to the point. My usual experience is enough has been said by the time you get up. People will be looking at their watches. So get up, speak up and shut up. Hit home base as quickly as you can, without appearing to be rushing.

· It must offer hope. People must be able to walk out thinking, “There is a way to heaven for me; there is still hope.” If they aren’t able to say that, you haven’t shown them the way.

Enough said there. A couple of weeks back I took a funeral for a wonderful man of God who gave his life to serving Jesus and helping others come to know and walk with him. I posted that message on my personal blog. If you are interested, you can have a read here: http://petersomervell.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/a-feneral-sermon/

No More Hurting People: the Boston Bombing (Peter Somervell)

It was designed for maximum impact and maximum casualty – and, as with 9/11 when people were least expecting it. It’s Patriot’s Day (perhaps that was a warning), the New England winter has loosed its icy grasp and spring is in the air. Trees are starting to blossom and the sun is warming the place up. The Red Sox are playing their home game at Fenway Park, but it ends before the end of the race and the numbers in the crowd in downtown Boston begin to swell. Then just as the runners are making their way across the finish line the bombs go off. Explosions. Chaos. Smoke. Screams. Blood. Carnage. Panic. Sirens. Fear. Death. In all, 183 people need treatment, 23 are hospitalized, 40 receive serious injuries, and 3 are dead.

One of those killed was a young boy called Martin. He was there to hug his dad as he crossed the finished line. Just he returned to the sidewalk, a bomb went off. He was only 8 years old. There’s a photograph of him almost a year ago at his school holding up a blue sign decorated with hearts with the words “Peace.” He had also written on another sign, “No more hurting people.”

It’s all that many people in the world really want isn’t it? They want peace. They want people to stop hurting and killing each other. But the problem is there is no peace. And people just can’t seem to stop hurting and killing each other. Why is this? Why must little boys like Martin die?

What I have to say next has to be taken in the context of one who is far removed from this tragedy. I would never say these things to people who were close to or personally involved in what happened (at least, not immediately). That would call for a different response – one of compassion, love, and service to those who are suffering. The answers to the “why” of this tragedy – as with all tragedies cannot be found in the media, commentators (especially not commentators), social analysts, or the President. That is because the answers are profoundly theological. Outside the framework of the Bible the Boston bombing makes no sense. Inside the framework of the Bible it makes all the sense in the world. Bottom line: little boys die because we live in a world that is in active rebellion against its Creator. And that’s got to have consequences. While people are choosing to live without God, while everyone is doing what is right in their own eyes, and while Satan is roaming to and fro throughout the world instigating every kind of evil, there are bound to be adverse effects. And don’t blame it all on the terrorists or the evil dictators or the extremists. We are all to blame – the whole lot of us. A little yeast affects the whole lump (1 Cor. 5:6). Whatever sin is in your heart right now, as you are reading this post, contributes to the whole. If it were not for the restraining hand of God, it would have disastrous consequences.

The problem in these things you see is not lack of answers. The problem is people’s blindness and refusal to accept the answers that are given. This in turn opens up a marvelous opportunity for the children of light – for those who do see and do understand, to help lead others to the truth that can set them free. But first we must enlarge our understanding of what it means to live in a fallen world, so that when disaster does strike, we are not surprised or devastated because of false expectations. As D.A. Carson puts it, “The Bible does not tell us that life in this world will be fair. Evil and sin are not Victorian gentlemen; they do not play fair” (How Long O Lord? 2nd ed., p. 57).

Of course it can’t stop there. When 8 year old boys are blown apart we can’t simply say, “Sin brings death. Get used to it.” We must push to the remedy. We must offer hope. We must talk about the one who experienced unimaginable suffering; the one who knew no sin and became sin on our behalf, who suffered and died that we might live, and will one day come again to restore all things in a new heavens and a new earth.

That’s good news for a world gone bad. And we must never, ever, tire of sharing it.

Treasuring God’s Word in the New Year (Peter Somervell)

Out of all the games I got to play as a kid my all-time favourite was the Treasure Hunt. It starts off slow but then as clues are discovered the pace quickens and it builds in intensity until you get to the last clue and kids are going absolutely wild – lifting up bricks, opening letterboxes, over-turning grass-clippings while someone calls out “warmer,” “colder,” “hotter… boiling!”

Treasure Hunting isn’t just something for kids; grown men have been doing it for thousands of years. They might start with a map or a clue and they would abandon their homes and families to travel the world in search of gold, silver, and precious jewels. It was risky business and many lives were lost along the way. Such was the lure for wealth and prosperity and the promise of a better life.

God tells us about another kind of treasure that is greater than any the world can offer. Unlike gold and silver and precious stones, its benefits are not temporary and short-lived, they are long-lasting and eternal. Unlike earthly treasure this treasure makes good on its promises. I’m speaking here about the Word of God. The Psalmist has this to say about it:

“The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces” (Ps. 119:72)

Have a think about that. What would you get more excited about – finding gold in your backyard or discovering something new about God or Jesus or heaven in His Word? How you answer that will directly reflect on the amount of time and effort you give to it.

Little time in the Word = little discovery, little joy, and little reward

Much time in the Word = much discovery, much joy and much reward

Psalm 119 has a lot to say about the value of God’s Word in the believer’s life. And almost every verses relates directly to its author, which means it’s is not just about valuing the bible but valuing GOD. The Psalmist loves God’s Word because He loves God. He longs for God’s Word because his soul longs for God. He rises early and stays up late to be in God’s Word because He desires to be with God. This psalm is wholly and thoroughly God-centered. Matthew Henry recalls how his father advised his children to take one verse of this Psalm every morning and meditate on it which would get you through it twice in one year. Do this his father said, “And it will bring you to be in love with all the rest of the Scriptures.”

It will also bring you closer to Christ. This psalm is often criticized for being too Word centred and not Christ-centred. What? How could anyone say that? Consider these lines:

With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! (v.10)

Who seeks God with their whole heart – consistently? I don’t. But Jesus does. He said, “I always do what is pleasing to Him” (Jn 8:29).

I will keep your law continually, forever and ever (v.44)

Who has perfectly kept God’s law and never broken it? Only Jesus.

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation (v.99)

Luke tells us “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (2:47) – at 12 years of age. And when he had finished his parables they said, “Where did this man get this wisdom?” (Matt 13:54).

My zeal consumes me, because my foes forget your words (v.139)

What did Jesus say as he was driving out the money changers from the temple? “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Jn. 2:17).

Of course there are many lines in this Psalm that could never be true of Christ – sorrow over sin committed, confessions of failure, inconsistency, and anxiety, but these are very true of us, who unlike Jesus, struggle with our own sinful flesh.

Hopefully by now I’ve whetted your appetite. I’ve got your interest. There is plentiful treasure here! But what are you going to do about it? Will you press (or should I say “dig”) further? Will you give your time and energy to God’s Word this year – not just for your ministry, but for your own soul?

If so here are 5 practical suggestions for staying committed in the New Year:

1. Make sure you own a Bible that you really like. It ought to be the best looking book on your shelf. And try to avoid small type. If you are going to meditate on it, you need to be able to read it!

2. Find a bible reading plan that works for you. One helpful source is www.YouVersion.com

3. Read prayerfully. Don’t read to gain knowledge. Read to find Christ. The Word takes you to God. He’s the destination.

4. Be persistent. If you miss a day or two in your daily readings, don’t quit. 3 days a week is better than 0 days a week. And 5 is better than 3.

5. Be practical. The bible is meant to be obeyed, not admired.

God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (119:105). Lamps aren’t much good if they are stuffed under the bed or left under a pile of books. They need to be held and switched on. Then they will show us the way.