Unashamed Workmen 7: David Meredith

March 24, 2015 | by: Bob Schilling | 0 comments

Posted in: Preaching Tags: Preaching, Book Review, Sermon Prep, David Meredith

I'm plugging away week by week through the book, 

"Unashamed Workmen: How Expositors Prepare and Preach"
edited by Rhett Dodson

Bryan Chapell, author of one of best overall books ever written on expository preaching, "Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon" writes in a book blurb about this title, "Unashamed Workmen", 

"I love touring the workshops of craftsmen, examining the tools, the sights, the sounds, the materials, and the procedures that result in works of beauty and utility. Dodson gives us just such a tour of the workshops of talented preachers, enabling us to look over the shoulders of these master craftsmen of proclaimed truth in order to learn how we might produce messages reflecting the beauty and utility of their sermons."

This book is exactly that - an over-the-shoulder view into the study and thinking of some proven and seasoned expository preachers. Every chapter has been a blessing to my soul. Here again is an overview of the ten practitioners (and links to the previous blogs):

- Peter Adam, St. Jude's Carlton in Melbourne Australia
- Rhett Dodson, Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Hudson, Ohio
- Iain Duguid, Christ Presbyterian Church (ARP) in Grove City, Pennsylvania
- Ajith Fernando, serves as Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka
- David Jackman, former President of the Proclamation Trust, retired, London
- Simon Manchester, St Thomas in North Sydney, Australia
- Today, David Meredith, Smithton Church, Iverness, Scotland
- Josh Moody, College Church in Wheaton, Illinois
- Douglas Sean O’Donnell, Senior Lecturer at Queensland Theological College, Brisbane, Australia
- Richard D. Phillips, Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina

Section 7: David Meredith: The Jeweler's Window


David Meredith is senior minister at Smithton Church, Iverness, Scotland, a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland where he has served for over thirty years. He served as Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland in 2010 and is a frequent preacher at churches and conferences on both sides of the Atlantic. He names among his interests: motorcycles, travel, visiting graveyards (kindred spirit) and SEC football! 

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David divides his discussion into five areas:

     I. Planning (171)
     II. The Technical Process (173)
     III. Outlining the Message (175)
     IV. Applying the Truth (177)
     V. Notes (178)

I. Planning

He basically here speaks of his recommendation for preachers to make their steady diet in the pulpit consecutive expositions through books and sections of the Bible. He also sensibly recognizes that with that established norm, it is both necessary an good to mix in some topical messages here and there. 

"Of course, each sermon should be bathed in prayer before, during, and after the writing process. The ministry of prayer is a large part of the calling of the pastor-teacher...preaching is an act of worship, and we enter our preparation with shoes off our feet, like Moses, as we meet with the living God. There are some elements of preaching which cannot be prepared for except by prayer...The canon of Scripture is closed, but the supernatural activity of God speaking through it is not." (172)

II. The Technical Process

He starts his hands-on sermon prep by printing out the passage he'll be preaching on and this becomes his worksheet as he begins with markers in his hands to interrogate the text. He studies the text in the original languages, as he's able, utilizing study helps and Bible software. He reads through five or six commentaries writing notes as he goes along. The key, he says, is thoroughly sifting through the gathered material, and allowing the time for that to bake into one's mind and heart for an adequate amount of time - so that your thinking on the passage is not half-worked, incomplete or hurried. 

I agree with his comment about a good mix with commentaries, old and new. Too many in our day gravitate more to one side or the other, both are useful, both are needed. Just because it's old or even in the Puritan-Reformed tradition doesn't make it profitable or helpful. And on the other side, too many guys are unaware of or ignore the standard classics. There's a reason Calvin's Commentaries have been in print for virtually four hundred and fifty years. Matthew Henry, J.C. Ryle, The Banner of Truth "Geneva Series" or the Klock and Klock reprints or the Zondervan "Classic Commentary" titles - there are so, so many. And yes, right along with them we want D.A. Carson and Tom Schreiner and Dale Ralph Davis, etc., etc., etc.

Two other notes David Meredith makes under this heading that I also agree with: Read the Puritans, and the masters of the past, but don't preach like them. Meredith says that we should "think like [them] but we must never speak like [them]."

"...When formulating a sermon, language is important. The use of words is larger than vocabulary...We should avoid using intentionally [or unintentionally] antiquarian language, as if that gave our message a superior spirituality, and we ought also avoid crass street language. Our source material must be filtered..." (174)

This also,

"The books that I find least useful are books of sermons. They are fine for devotional and general reading but unhelpful for immediate sermon preparation. I read Lloyd-Jones on Romans and Ephesians early on in my Christian life, but I would rarely consult them now for sermon preparation." (175)

I agree, though some printed sermons can be better than others to glean from. Maybe it's a little ironic, but one of the things Pastor Meredith says a couple of pages later is that as part of his ongoing general preparation, he frequently listens to other preachers on the radio, or CD or podcast. In fact five to six messages a week, he says, "usually during spare time in the car." Essentially, he makes the same use of them that others do with printed sermons - they're devotional and general, but he also listens specifically to sermons on the text he's studying.  Other pastors I know, rarely listen to sermons unless they're at a conference or when someone else is preaching in their pulpit. We are free.  Written, audio, video or none. 

My two-bit footnote to the Puritan Commentary note above is that some of the Puritan reprints would be far too cumbersome to be helpful and in cases, far too isogetical (reading ideas into the text, rather than "exegetical: drawing truth out of the text). The Puritan are famous for often preaching right truth from a wrong text. And, they are even more renowned for preaching a virtual 'body of divinity' from any book in the Bible. Have you looked through the massive tome by Jeremiah Burroughs on Hosea? Could you really use the twelve-volume commentary on Job by Jeremiah Burroughs or John Owen's seven volume set on Hebrews if you were preaching consecutive expositional sermons through those books? I'm sure these questions are anathema to some of fellow bibliophiles, and again - I plead your freedom to do as you wish. But I add this counsel as a brother, master John Brown on Hebrews and match him with Tom Schriener. I've not studied Job enough to know the best commentaries, but I'd start with someone like David Atkinson or Hywel Jones and also remember the old classic by William Henley Green. (see also the preceptaustin.org website for some free starters. 

A final note of his under this heading is a crucial point needed by my soul:

The material must be sifted through my own mind and become applicable to the specific and very personal context of my congregation. This is where the hard work comes in, because I sense that so many sermons fail at this point. They are half-worked and the ingredients remain raw because they have not been thoroughly baked in the mind and heart of the preacher." (175)

Amen. Give me ears to hear and hands to do, O' God.

III. Outlining the Message 

Having culled your notes from commentaries and personal reflections, now is the time to start framing your outline and message. As all these authors enjoin, "The key here is that the outline must be formed by the contours of the text not the other way around" (175). It's good to have structure and a clear outline - but don't be a slave to uniformitarianism every week. Let the text drive your outline, not an imposed favorite formula (three points, etc.). As well, 'never let the sermon stray into being a dispassionate lecture."

These words on the strange compulsion of some for alliteration (each main point or subpoint beginning with the same letter in the alphabet) in every sermon needs to be heeded:

"Alliteration always annoys some listeners, so be very careful when using it. Almost without exception soem irrelevant word is used simply because it starts with a particular letter. My people deserve more than three 'Ps' and a poem [or a story]. If I can get balance in the headings, that is a real bonus, but most alliteration is forced, and listening to it is akin to witnessing a train wreck in slow motion." (176)

I love his frankness. I wish others would love his point.

David Meredith is refreshing in his realness and plainness. He models the beauty that makes this kind of a volume so profitable. There is no one way to do this thing called preaching, nor one way to prepare for it. We've seen in each of the chapters, very common commitments and many repeated perspectives. But more striking, and actually, I think where some of the best help comes is the great diversity among these seasoned practioners. In this next paragraph David Meredith highlights an important point that many others would also make and yet displays a practice related to it that is not ordinary - but probably more real to life than most preachers openly admit:

"A key element in presentation is illustration and anecdote. Some people have the bizarre notion that illustrations and stories tend toward superficiality. This is wrong. It is said that Jesus spoke most often using parables and illustrations but that Paul was more objective in his style. If you read even a few lines of Paul you will notice that allusions and illustrations are everywhere - from bodies to buildings and athletics to anchors. I am unusual in that I don't keep a file or store of illustrations. I find that if I write things down, though they seem to be powerful at the time, like the manna of the Exodus they grow old rather quickly. I read widely and this gives me an unending supply of fresh and current material." (177)

Amen to the need for illustrations and word pictures, and God bless him for his refreshing honesty about not keeping a file of illustrations. I'm a mix. I'm a big reader - but I fail to utilize things I've read to amplify and illustrate the things I'm preaching, as well as I should. I do file some things and write down some things - and contrary to David's experience, I don't find them old or unuseful typically, but I'm not very efficient at capturing and utilizing things. This is truly a weakness that I need to grow in and forge my way into a pattern that will work for me. His comments here freed me up a bit and they actually prodded me in a good way to readdress this repetitive glitch in my practice, by the help of God. 

It's here that he mentions his practice of listening to the sermons of other preachers. He finds them to be a well of illustrations (giving credit where it is due), and as a disciple-preacher, in his commitment to grow and develop in his craft, "one of the best ways to do this," he says, "is to watch how the master-craftsmen do it." And then he adds another one of his characteristically discerning comments, 

"I acknowledge that a celebrity circuit of the famous preachers exists, a group of men who are especially gifted. I think we ought to be relaxed about that and realize that God has given some men more talents than others."

Amen. Rather than all this hypercriticism of the church and the godly men that lead so many of our conferences, under the sweeping charge of "celebritism" - let's, to use Meredith's words, just "relax" and thank God for the gifted preachers that He continues to raise up. Oh, yes, the Kingdom has its thousands upon thousands of faithful preachers that are little known and we show partiality to no man, but we also rejoice and give thanks to God for the men like "Apollos, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures" (Acts 18:24). [Yes, yes, I'm well aware of error in these things - 1 Cor. 1:12, 3:4-9; but the existence of error does not impugn everything with error. And even where it exists, learn something from the apostle Paul - Philippians 1:15-18, rejoice that Christ is proclaimed]

IV. Applying the Truth

"The sermon will not be preached in a vacuum. There is a context in which the message will be heard, and it demands an application to that specific context. When I think about application, a key issue I keep in mind is this: the application must derive naturally from the text...In many ways, it's the application which turns the sermon away from being a mere lecture. We must avoid being mere commentators. Application occurs when I press home the teaching of the passage into the hearts and lives of my hearers. And for application to be truly authentic, I must drill in into my own heart at the same time." (178)

"The key question at the end is always, 'How shall we then live?"

V. Notes 

David transports his word processor document into a PDF document and preaches from his iPad. He prepares summary notes, never a full manuscript, "unless I am doing something more academic or formal."

As to the amount of time he takes to write a sermon, he's refreshingly frank here also. "Sermon preparation can never be measured in terms of hours but years." Every message is a cumulative project. But, if we reduce "preparation" to the specific amount of time spent that week with paper and pens, books and computer, "then I probably take about six hours to prepare one sermon."

It amazes him, he says when he hears reports of pastors taking thirty hours to prepare single messages. As he preaches two different sermons each week and is engaged in "house to house" ministry as well as official teaching duties, there's no way he could spend thirty hours on a single message. 

For my part, I have learned that though I would like to have endless hours to study and prepare, the nature of the task, I have concluded, is better served by limited time given to it as we seek to balance the many demands we all have with ministry, family, service, recreation, relationships, second jobs, etc. I think often of the words in Psalm 127, 

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for He gives to his beloved sleep."
(verses 1-2)

David Meredith ends the chapter with these poignant words, 

Then, at that moment, when what is called ‘the romance of preaching’ may kick in,
I, as a preacher stand as a prophet.
I open my mouth, and hopefully the breath of God fills the room.
If the reaction is, ‘What a great sermon!’ the whole enterprise is damaged.
I look for another reaction,
one where the preacher is forgotten,
and the cry goes out,
Surely God is in this place.’”

Amen

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David’s sermon was on John 19:38-42

Three Men at a Funeral

“After these things Joseph of Arimathea,
     who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews,
          asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus,
     and Pilate gave him permission.
          So he came and took away his body.

(39) Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night,
          came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes,
               about seventy-five pounds in weight.
40) So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices,
          as is the burial custom of the Jews.

(41) Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden,
          and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.
(42) So because of the Jewish day of Preparation,
          since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.”

I appreciated this message. It highlighted a few things in a unique way and caused me to marvel at the ways of God. In fact, as I preach on texts of my choosing once a month when we have the Lord’s Supper (otherwise I am usually continuing in a current series, Ecclesiastes at the moment), this text has settled in my soul as a passage to preach on a week from Sunday. Let me mix a few of my thoughts with David’s message to start, and then I’ll mention a couple of specific things about his message afterward.

The sermon opened with a good introduction explaining both the prominence of Christ’s death in the teaching of the apostles and the Jewish practice of burial. I would have introduced earlier something that he mentions a little later in the sermon, because it’s such an attention grabber. Yes, start, as he does with the reality that Christ’s burial gets overshadowed by His trial, His crucifixion, His death, and His resurrection – though it is a prominent element in the apostolic gospel (1 Cor. 15:4). But then, highlight the fact that he was buried – unexpectedly.

     - “The culture of the day frowned on handling a dead body. That task was reserved for ‘Gentile dogs.’
     - “Those crucified for seditious acts were not buried. They were left to the elements and to the birds and beasts.”

David Meredith Outlines the passage under three headings: 

     I. A Previously Unknown Man (Joseph, v. 38)
     II. A Developing Man (Nicodemus, v. 39)
     III. A Dead Man (Jesus, v. 40-42)

Since I’ll be doing a short message, 20 minutes or so (my goal when we have the Lord’s Supper is go 20-25), I plan to limit my focus to Joseph of Arimathea and Christ’s burial. I plan to develop, as David Meredith does under his first point – that Jesus’ death and burial were brought to pass “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). In fact, His burial by Joseph of Arimathea was a direct fulfillment of prophecy. How amazing the unlikely ways of God. “Although He died a criminal, He is buried as a monarch.”

And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death…”
(Isa. 53:9a)

Crucified with criminals and buried in a rich man’s tomb. “It is significant that even to the end Jesus owns nothing of His own: He said He had nowhere to lay his head; He borrowed a boat to preach from; He borrowed a donkey to ride into Jerusalem; His clothes were stripped off Him in His crucifixion, and now He’s buried in a borrowed tomb.”

Meredith rightly spends a bit of time with Joseph’s ‘secret discipleship.’ That’s an issue I want to think through, because the text seems to indicate that he is a genuine disciple, albeit, fearful of confessing Jesus openly. Yet, even in his weak faith, here he is, when all the apostles have fled, caring for the body of his dead Savior.

Certainly we have to grapple with the tension of Jesus’ plain teaching, in many other places,

So everyone who acknowledges me before men,
I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven,
but whoever denies me before men,
I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
(Matthew 10:32–33)

Strangely, David Meredith doesn’t mention any of these kinds of texts. I’m all for getting to where he gets – if warranted by an honest study of Scripture, but you have to know that brothers and sisters in the audience are going to be asking themselves about this dilemma. And they need to be shown from the Scriptures why we may have hope that he genuinely knew Christ. I think that case can be made – but David’s explanation wasn’t strong and left me as a hearer still wondering. He mentioned part of the parallel text in Luke 23 – but for a strange reason, in my mind left part of it unreferenced:

Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea.
He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man,
who had not consented to their decision and action;
and he was looking for the kingdom of God.”
(Luke 23:50–51)

David does refer to the “looking for the kingdom of God” line – but certainly all that is said there is relevant to this pressing question in the text.

The twin-point that David seeks to camp on under this first heading is that weak faith is still real faith and the rest of us should not be quick to judge such fretful believers. His comments are good, they just need the weightier fire-power of a solid, scriptural case:

     - “He had his weaknesses. The fear of the Jews kept him from being open about his faith. Let’s be honest about this, we have all been there.”

     - “…Some would say that Joseph is a coward…The wonderful thing is that God often uses cowards.”

     - “The Lord has many weak children in His family, many dull pupils in His school, many raw soldiers in His army, and many lame sheep in His flock.”

     - “There is the glaring lesson that there are many hidden disciples who have not yet declared their allegiance to Jesus. In Elijah’s day there were 7,000 who did not ‘bow the knee’ to Baal.” I’m not persuaded that that is a good parallel.

Under point II, “A Developing Man” he largely assumes that the Scriptures portray a developing faith in the pilgrimage of Nicodemus. He quotes Matthew Henry and J. C. Ryle,

“[That] grace which is at first like a bruised reed may afterwards become like a strong cedar and the trembling lamb bold as a lion.” (Henry)

“We must not condemn others as graceless and godless, because they do not see the whole truth at once, and only reach Christianity by slow degrees.” (Ryle)

But beyond some comments on his large contribution of burial spices, he doesn’t make a strong case for Nicodemus’ conversion. I refer to the reader to two sermons of mine when I was preaching through the early chapters of the Gospel of John (Born of the Spirit Part 1; Born of the Spirit Part 2). It’s a difficult question, but I don’t think that there is a strong case that can be made for Nicodemus’ conversion. I leave that to your judgment, but I encourage you to search the Scriptures well in making that determination.

The final point of David Meredith’s sermon is appropriately on III. A Dead Man, Jesus. His words are good.

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Let me just mention two small critical things.

(1) Under his second point about Nicodemus he said this – which I do not think is an intention of the text:

“Look at verse 40: ‘So they took the body of Jesus and bound it.’ We see here the principle that in the kingdom of God the person who works alone is rare…”

That's a nice enough principle and other texts could be used to validate it, but is that a point of this text? No. Preach the text, not your little point you wanted to get in that Sunday.

(2) Under his last point about Jesus he throws in this aside,

“It is probably of no significance that we see a Joseph at His death as well as at His birth [His earthly father], but there is significance in that two unknowns are catapulted by God into the very heart of redemptive history.”

Even though he prefaces the point about two "Josephs" - one at his birth and one at his death - by saying, “it is probably of no significance” – he still slipped it in. It’s some cleverness with no foundation – thus, it would’ve been better to not mention it. We preachers are sometimes notorious for such small foibles, and no doubt it is easier to point out the speck in his sermon than the log in my own – but that’s not my heart. I’m simply pointing out the kind of thing I would want pointed out in my messages. I pray for help to see them while I’m preparing.

A profitable chapter, and a profitable sermon. The sermon did what any good sermon should do – it got me engaging the Scriptures and stirred my heart in profitable ways.

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Next up: Josh Moody, “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat”

 

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