Reuben Bredenhof

Making Progress in the Pulpit

Every preacher is gifted by God in different ways, whether intellectually, or socially, or spiritually. We each bring our own weaknesses into the pulpit, too. But through diligent attention to this holy work—presenting sermons week by week, humbly receiving critique and listening to wise counsel, sharpening our abilities in exegesis and expression—we aim to grow and learn as we steward our gifts faithfully.

Probably every pastor recalls with a shudder his first attempt at a sermon.
My first sermon was in seminary back in 2001 when our homiletics professor assigned me Romans 2:12-16.
It’s a challenging passage about how those “who sin apart from the law will perish apart from the law,” and those who “sin under the law will be judged by the law.”
Paul goes on to say that even though the Gentiles do not have the law, they sometimes by nature do things required by it. In this way they show “that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.”
A taxing text. And I struggled mightily to understand this piece from Romans, let alone to explain it coherently or apply it winsomely, to say nothing of preaching Christ from a text that hardly mentions him.
I am sure that I did very poorly on all counts.
It was a long time ago, but I recall clearly the comments of a fellow student after I delivered my homiletic hash, “I think you tried to stick to the text, but I don’t see how the sermon connects at all to the Joe Plumber in the church pew…” It was a point well taken: my first attempt at a sermon was more of a dry exegetical essay than a lively proclamation of God’s Word.
What I experienced that day was an early introduction to the truth that for every minister, preaching is a task which is simultaneously perplexing and enriching, both a mighty struggle and a great joy.
Since my first (very bad) experience of preaching, God has let me continue to proclaim his Word. By now it’s been at least 1500 sermons over the last twenty years. 
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The Audacity of Our Marriage Vows

We live in a post-fall world, a reality which affects everything we do, including marriage. It’s the union of two people who both love each other very much, but who both have a very serious and chronic problem: sin. Marriage means that two selfish ‘me’s’ have to start learning to think like one unified ‘us.’ They seek to build a new life together. And that is hard work!

When we’re young and on the cusp of so many important life decisions, we are filled with this crazy blend of courage, self-confidence, idealism, and naivete.
Take having children, for example: Did my wife and I know what to do with this seven pound human being that we took home from the hospital? Where was the instruction manual? How could we teach this child to know and love and serve the Lord?
Another example of a massive commitment that I made long ago is marriage. One fine summer’s day in 2001, Rebecca and I made our commitment to each other. I promised to love and guide her, to care for her and live with her in holiness. She promised to love and obey me, to assist me, and to live with me in holiness.
Then toward the end of those marriage vows, we both agreed to do all these important things, “for as long as we both shall live.”
Had we really thought about that line, reflected on what it actually meant?
We knew, of course, that marriage is for life, that God designed it to be a permanent bond between us. But what did we know about all the implications for the coming years? We were young, confident, idealistic, naïve.
Facing the Future
Maybe it’s just me who did these things without a firm grasp on what it all meant. Or perhaps not. If you’re married, then one fine day, ten or forty years ago, you too, made your commitment to each other, saying you’d be a faithful husband or a faithful wife, “for as long as you both shall live.”
It’s a promise that we make in a passing moment, but then we have to work with that commitment every single day, for the rest of our life. Once all the guests have gone home, you and your spouse will be living with the consequences of what you’ve done for perhaps the next 50 years.
Now, perhaps it’s good that we don’t really know what we’re getting into when we get married. When we overthink something, we get worried about all the potential outcomes and disasters. There’s a good reason that Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 not to worry.
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Closest to God

Between the Lord and us, there is now beautiful peace. Through Jesus’s blood, our sins are completely wiped away and we have been made right with our Maker. And this is what we long for, to know—and to experience in a deeper way—that our God is near. We want to know that the Lord is with us and that He is for us.

When do you feel closest to God? When is his presence the most real to you?
The Lord is always with us, but we enjoy times when He gives a deeper and a truer sense of his nearness.
Perhaps it is when you pray to God in a spirit of humility and love.
Or the Lord’s presence seems very near when you’re hiking in the mountains or standing on the seashore, amazed by his glory and grandeur.
Or you read the Scriptures, and you’re reading them hungrily: eager to be encouraged, or guided, or reassured. Then it can be like the Lord is speaking to you directly, with words meant just for you.
This is the desire of every child of God: to be close to him, to enjoy his presence from morning ‘til evening, for our communion with Christ to be tangible.
But it doesn’t always happen this way. Because our faith is weak, and because our thoughts are distracted or troubled, we can feel far from God’s presence. But still we long to draw near. And God generously lets us come close for Jesus’s sake.
There’s an example of this grace in Exodus 24. It’s when Moses and seventy elders are given the privilege of experiencing the reality of communion with God. They climb Mount Sinai, and in verse 11 it says simply yet beautifully,
They saw God, and they ate and drank.
Up on that mountain, something amazing happens with God.
Exodus is telling the story of how God rescues his people from slavery in Egypt and brings them to the Promised Land. On the way, they make an important detour to Mount Sinai. Here God has made a tremendous display of his power, with thunder, lightning, and the blast of trumpets.
Amidst this uproar, God descended and caused the mountain to shake violently and the whole camp to tremble.
All this was too much for the Israelites. They beg for Moses to speak with them directly, not God. So the Lord meets with Moses and gives his holy will in laws and precepts. Then there is a ceremony of covenant renewal: an altar is set up, and twelve stone pillars, and burnt offerings and fellowship offerings are sacrificed. This is when Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders go up the mountain.
The leaders of Israel climb the terrifying heights of Mount Sinai, and “they see God” (v. 11). 
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Number Your Days

What if we don’t think about our limitations? What if we don’t consider the reality of our coming death and what comes afterwards? We’re probably going to be busy living for ourselves, plunging into pleasure and pursuing everything we can accomplish. We won’t think about God’s judgment or the consequences of what we do.

Psalm 90 isn’t very cheerful.
It is Moses’s meditation on the sinfulness and weakness of human life. Perhaps you can imagine an old Moses offering this prayer near the end of his time on earth.
The Psalm title calls him “the man of God.” That reminds us that Moses was the one chosen to lead God’s people out of bondage in Egypt and into the Promised Land. He had witnessed the terrible sufferings of God’s people. He’d experienced God’s mighty acts of deliverance. But Moses had also tasted the bitterness of Israel’s uprisings in the desert and the LORD’s just judgment on his people.
Over all those years, what had Moses learned? He’d learned about sin. About Israel’s sin, and about his own. That even when we have the best of intentions, our inherent weakness can hinder us in doing what’s right. And he had learned that every sinner deserves God’s holy wrath—Moses deserved it too.
In those years Moses also learned about the frailty of life. Think about the thousands of Israelites fallen in the desert: in battle, from snake bites, even consumed by God’s fire. Consider too, the forty years of wandering: God was just waiting for that sinful generation to die off. Wherever they went in the wilderness, the Israelites left graves behind them.
So compared to the everlasting God, Moses sees that mankind is almost nothing: “You carry them away like a flood; they are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers” (Ps 90:5-6).
Viewed from one angle, that’s the nature of our existence: nasty, brutish, and short. We are born weak, spend our life sinning, and then we die, each one.
Psalm 90 can seem a bit jarring, especially if we’re optimistic about our life and the prospects of a new year. There’s more here, of course, for there is good news in this psalm, even the gospel of Christ. And it’s in light of everything we know about this life that Moses teaches us to pray in verse 12:
Teach us to number our days.
What is numbering? In a way, it’s as simple as a kindergarten exercise in math. You number the apples, or count the blocks, and you write down the answer. Well, we also have to number our days! But unlike counting apples, this is something we need help with: “Teach us, O God!” We’re not asking God to reveal how long we’re going to live. We pray that God will help us contend with the fact that our days of life are short.
When you’re a kid, of course, time seems to stretch on forever. Two months of summer vacation seem endless! But when you get older, a decade passes by in a flash. Suddenly you’re the senior guy at the office, or all the kids have moved out, and you ask, “Where did the time go?”
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