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Avoiding Curved Balls

Recently I attended an event organised by Sussex Gospel Partnership where the speaker Tim Ward spoke about preaching with sensitivity to different groups within the congregation.

Part of the presentation dealt with how to deal with two different groups in the congregation: those doing well and those who are not doing well.

These two groups were further subdivided into those who knew they were not doing well or doing well and those who didn’t.

I was particularly stuck by the category of those who were doing well but did not know it.

The example given was a person who could not make it to face-to-face church very often because they were the main carer for their invalided spouse.

This person felt guilt about not attending church regularly, even though they generally joined up with the livestream of the service.

What this person needed to know (although they felt they were not doing well because they did not make it to face-face church) was that they were in fact doing well in honouring their vows to their spouse by taking seriously the commitment to stay with them “in sickness and in health.”

The tragic thing was that this person was doing well but they did not know it.

Throughout my preaching ministry I have tried to keep in mind two groups of people when I preach about sin.

The first group are those who tend toward being careless. Sermons that address sin are like water off a duck’s back. If the message does go home, it is immediately filed in the folder: ‘I know someone who needs this message’.

The second group are those who tend to be more conscientious. These are the people who, when they see the flashing blue lights of a police car in their rear-view mirror, immediately begin to feel guilty. These hearers file this message into the folder: ‘It must be about me’.

I have always been helped by the statement by the Apostle John in his first letter:

“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1–2)

John wants people to have a healthy attitude toward sin, which always leads to want to avoid sin, but also to recognise the welcome safety net of mercy.

The author Alan Noble writes helpfully about the impact conditions like OCD on scrupulousness concerning personal morality. I was struck by his comment:

“True conscience is not a hyper-individual inner experience, but a knowing with others, a cleaving to the wisdom of God’s Word and the witness of the church.”

The Apostle John says something about that:

“If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)

Preachers need to help us not beat ourselves up.

Light does expose sin, but it also leads us into the community of faith where we can be learn to be really clean, not through washing our hands until they bleed, but by trusting in one who bled and died for us.

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