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Preachers often talk about context. When learning to preach I was told to pay attention to the context. Preaching on a biblical text “out of context” was perceived to be an unhelpful thing.

This is clearly very helpful advice. It can be confusing when a preacher reads a biblical passage and then preaches a sermon that seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with what has been read. Such advice does keep the preacher focussed on what is said in

Scripture rather than the thoughts that emerge from the preacher’s head.

The problem with some forms of preaching in context is that it can reduce the Bible to a strict one message from every passage. The resulting sermons on these Bible passages can all sound the same.

I was talking to someone who is about to start a new pastorate about Bible books that have been preached in the past year in that congregation. It is usually good to avoid repeating the same Bible books too soon in a Church’s programme. Yet thinking about the season we are in at present appears to turn this accepted wisdom on its head.

A congregation might have recently heard a series of sermons on Luke’s Gospel or selected Psalms, but it has not heard them in the context of lockdown. Sometimes there is value in revisiting familiar texts at a different time to reflect on how the passing of time might have had an impact on our understanding of the text.

For most of my preaching ministry I have spoken on a motto text on the first Sunday of a New Year. I have found it helpful to have a focus that sets the tone for the year. After preaching the sermon an A5 card with the text printed on it was distributed to the congregation. During the year when visiting members of the congregation in their homes I would see the card in frames or stuck on their fridges.

As a congregation we lived with text for a year. Often towards the end of the year I would revisit the text by preaching on it again. On many occasions I spoke about how, when originally preaching on the motto text for the year, I had not begun to realise its significance for us as a congregation. At times the sermon I had preached in January had an almost “prophetic” edge to it. At other times its significance was like a slow release perfume that changed the atmosphere of the whole congregation. The text we chose one year was:

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)

If I was preaching a motto text this January, as we continue into a second year of Covid induced uncertainty, I think I might choose the same text. Paul’s wise combination of these three pieces of advice would be of use to any Christian or Church during 2021.

At the time I asked three questions:

1. What is your life centre?

On the first question it is important to realise that:

“For Paul, the task of a human life is learning to hope.” (Charles Cosgrove)

This relocates our life centre from ourselves to him.

2. What is your attitude to trouble?

On the second question it is salutary to note that:

“We are the first culture to be surprised by suffering.” (Tim Keller)

We assume that Christians are immune to the troubles that afflict others; but we are not. Patience is the settled reality that we are not in control. We can’t fix every problem in our lives, but God can. Sometimes our natural desire is to pray, “Lord get me out of this …” when in fact we need to ask, “Lord get me through this …”

3. On what does your life depend?

Such hope and patience are far above our strength.

At such moments we need faithful prayer to meet a faithful God.

There is something at the heart of our faith which alerts us to the importance of communicating with the living God.

There’s also almost a game of chicken we play with God — how close can we get to being practically prayer-less without noticing the difference?

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12)

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