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Finding the Right Bench

I went for a walk with a friend yesterday.

It was the perfect day for doing the nine-mile circular walk around Thorney Island. It was a sunny day, and everything looked right for a few hours walking, until we reached a spot on the path which had been closed off for repairs since December 2023!

The thing I love about a circular walk is that every step is different and you end up where you have started. Due to the closure we had to walk as far as we could either side of the closure and then double back on ourselves. We had planned to stop to eat our packed lunch on the way because there are no eating places on the route. I think that we found the only bench on the nine-mile route and sat in the sunshine to enjoy our lunch.

We chatted about my recent trip to Perth in Western Australia, where there are a lot of benches in their beautiful parklands, but hardly any of them are in the sunshine. We had come from a country where there has hardly been a dry day all year and were keen to find a bench in a sunny spot; they, by contrast, had only had rain on one day this year and welcome a bench under the shade of a tree.

It is obvious, when you think of it, that people will see things differently in different cultures.

It got me thinking about how preachers go about relating to their congregations.

I have just finished reading the fifth volume of Jonathan Edwards’s sermons, which covers the period 1739–1742. This is the period of the Great Awakening in Britain and America in which Edwards was a key player. The volume contains the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. How times have changed. It is more likely now that the sermon would be entitled: God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.

Edwards was able to assume that there was a heightened sense of spiritual awareness in his congregation that could be addressed very specifically. Using the analogy of the bench, Edwards was using a bench that was in the full glare of the sun which allowed him to be very direct and specific. When heaven and hell seem all too real prospects preachers can encourage and warn with great freedom.

It may well be that 21st Century preachers find themselves preaching to a bench that is in the shade. It is a more comfortable place where people can hide. Such hearers can be interested but they might not be engaged; they hear our sermons, but they might not be listening.

Paul wrote to Timothy that he needed to “Preach the word in season and out of season.”

(2 Timothy 4:2–3).

Preachers need to know whether they are preaching to those sitting in the sun or in the shade.

This requires us to be attentive to the conditions and circumstances of the people we address.

We need to preach differently to those who are awake and to those who might be sleeping.

Photo by Metin Ozer on Unsplash

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