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The Relentless Challenger

I preached this sermon of apology at GPC in March of 1998. – Pastor Jack

I have some sin to confess. I need to ask your forgiveness. I don’t want to draw attention to myself, but this matter involves a more public and more regular manifestation of sin. Our duty is to repent of sin before the ones we’ve sinned against. And, in this case, that’s all of you, and others as well. The fact is that my sins have a greater impact on others than most people’s sins because of my position.

The Lord has used so many things to bring me to this place. In some other context at some other time maybe I can tell that story. But God has been working some wonderful upheavals in my life. I feel like I’m coming alive. I feel like lights are going on. I feel like He’s beginning to answer my prayers to change me, and to deal with things in my that have been a part of me since before I was a Christian. Waves of conviction and renewal keep crashing over me such that I don’t feel like I have time to fully adjust to the last one before the next one hits. I grieve over my sin, but please don’t feel sorry for me, I am really very happy and relieved.

I did have some reluctance to do this in sermon. You need the word of God, not my thoughts or even my experiences, no matter how wonderful or helpful they seem to me. Ordinarily, I would not take sermon time to share my own sins, except as illustrative of the word of God. But it is to this end that I preach this morning, because what I have to share is so illustrative of the word of God. And I hope that this is helpful to you, especially those who have fallen into this sin as well. (The sins of the preachers are often passed down to the parishioners to the third and the fourth generations.) In fact, I hope this inspires all of us who are in positions of authority to evaluate the way we treat those who are under us.

Read Matthew 23:1-4.

Let’s talk first about Matt. 23:4 “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.” The teachings of the Pharisees were laid as heavy burdens on people’s backs. This probably involved laying on burdens which were not from God (we certainly know that the Pharisees did that). But it must also have included the burden of the law of God, for Jesus says that the people should listen to what the Pharisees taught. The sin of the Pharisees here in verse 4 is a sin not of loving the law too much, but of loving the people too little. You can’t care too much about the law of God. There is no sin of overzealousness for the law — if there were, Psalm 119 would not be in the Bible. There are all kinds of sins that have to do with misusing God’s law. The sin of caring too little about people does not come from caring too much about the law, but actually from caring too little about the law, which commands us to care about people.

Let’s next ask: What does it mean to lift a finger to carry the loads of others? Jesus condemns the Pharisees for working hard to make it clear to people what all of their obligations are but doing nothing to help them fulfill those obligations. What kinds of things did Jesus have in mind? What could the Pharisees have done to help the people carry the burden of their obligations and duties? Well, they could have helped by being good examples, the very thing Jesus says the pharisees were not. They are all sorts of other ways they could have helped. They could have assisted with their prayers, with their encouragement, with their sympathy, with healthy doses of reminders regarding the promises of God, with plenty of Biblical assurances of God’s love, with reminders of the power of God who is with His people to help them.

It is wrong and unloving to load up the backs of God’s people with the challenges and the duties of the Bible and yet not help them with those burdens in these kinds of ways. And this is more incumbent upon those who are called to be shepherds of God’s people, as those who lay the burdens of God’s word on the people of God in the first place.

Well, this is where God has convicted me of failing. I have been big on laying on the burdens but small on these ways of supporting the people as they carried the burden of trying to live out the word of God.

I have been small on compassion and love. Paul’s tender example has been such a challenge to me, e.g. 1Thes.2:6-8,11 “...as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us...we were exhorting and encouraging and imploring each one of you as a father would his own children.” and 1Thes.5:14 “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” Rather, I think that my tendency has been to admonish the unruly, admonish the fainthearted, admonish the weak, admonish everyone. In many ways I have given the impression that I notice only your sins and not your burdens. And indeed, my sinful tendency is to notice sins more than I do burdens. (Some notice burdens and not sins. This isn’t right either.) In verses like Lk 7:34 and Mt.11:19 we read that Jesus was known as a friend of sinners. Few people think of me that way.

I have also been small on diligence. Paul testifies of his own earnestness in ministry in Acts 20:31 “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.” In Luke 15: 1-7 Jesus tells of the diligent shepherd who left the 99 in pursuit of the lost sheep. Things like this convict me of my own abdication: my failure to be involved, my failure to do everything I can to make sure the sheep are healthy. In many ways I have been more of a policeman than a shepherd. I haven’t been involved enough in your lives. It is a matter of time? Yes, but that’s only part of the story. Part of the problem is my sin. I’ve been lazy. I’ve been timid. But most of all I’ve been selfish and thoughtless.

I have been small on encouragement as well. The gospel is good news after all. It should taste like good news. Too many times in my mouth it has not. To those who are perishing it should have the stench of death. But to those who are being saved, it should have the fragrance of life. (2Cor.2:15-16) Under my ministry God’s people have too often been found saying “Woe is me!” instead of “Glory to God!” Jesus said that His burden was light (Matt.11:28-30). John says that the commands of God are not burdensome (1John 5:3). But I’m afraid that, as a whole, my preaching has not made the burden seem light. Paul says to a Christian brother in Philemon 7 “the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, Brother.” I wish people said that about me, but honestly they don’t. One of my favorite songs in called The Great Storm is Over. It talks about how the church is singing the lullaby of the gospel to the children of God in the midst of the scary storm of this life. I want very much to have this kind of ministry, but I’m afraid that in the past I have not. I have been a relentless challenger. It has been challenge, challenge, challenge; conviction, conviction, conviction. I look back and cringe to think how fiercely challenging I have been and how little I have encouraged. My heart breaks over my lack of joy, my lack of affection, my lack of compassion, my lack of attentiveness. I have always prided myself at feeding the people meat and not just milk. But I realized that it was meat, meat, meat, but few vegetables, sauces, condiments, seasonings or spices, to make it easier to enjoy and digest.

I always comforted myself with the thought that so many seem to handle it fine. But then I thought: What if those who seem to handle it fine are the ones imitating it? What if the fathers who have absorbed my challenge-happy style of ministry were challenging but not encouraging their wives? What if the parents who have absorbed my challenge-happy style of ministry were challenging but not encouraging their children?

Now I know that part of all this is my personality. Part of it is my overreaction to the weaknesses of other churches. But I have no excuses. All of it is my sin. All of it is going by my own instincts, not the Bible. I can’t go back and undo what I’ve done. I can only beg you to forgive me and to not hold my past against me.

As for me, I know the blood of Christ covers my sin, for which I am exceedingly grateful. I am also thankful that He is at work in me, removing obstacles and barriers in my heart and life. I am grateful that He has brought this to the surface now as opposed to at the end of my life.

The elders of the church have talked to me about this over the years. I hope you have noticed a shifting in my preaching over the last few years. The Lord has been convicting me of this more and more deeply and I’ve been trying to change. Some of this is old sin that has been changing, but the seriousness of it has not gripped me until more recently.

In order to avoid giving any false impressions, I would like to say some things to prevent misunderstandings, in hopes that they won’t, in your minds, undo all these words of apology.

1- I am not throwing out everything I’ve taught. I’m actually not throwing out anything I’ve taught. But it’s how I’ve gone about teaching it that’s the problem. And it’s things I haven’t taught enough. 2- I’m not saying that the challenging has been wrong, just out of balance. 3- I’m not saying that this is my only sin. There’s much more where this came from. I am a sinner and sinners sin. As always, if there are sins you see in me, I welcome you to come to me and talk about it. 4- I’m not saying that I’ve been mean-spirited. I have just not been loving enough. 5- I am not confessing that I am a Pharisee (a hypocrite, a fake). The love I have shown has not been fake. It has just not been enough. 6- I am not saying that I have had no heart or that I’ve given no encouragement or had no compassion or preached no good news. I am saying it hasn’t been enough. 7- I am not saying that’s it’s going to be all happiness and encouragement from now on. First of all, it wouldn’t be right for me to go to the opposite extreme. Secondly, like you, my bad habits don’t change overnight. I’m sure there will be a battle for me at times in this. Please pray for me.

Finally, I would like to humbly give you some advice about how to — and how not to — respond to this apology. First, it would be wrong for you, having heard this, to gloat over my sin or even focus on my sin. It would be wrong to excuse a bad attitude toward me or my preaching. (The sin of the preacher is no excuse for not listening to the word of God.) Next, please don’t tell me that you don’t think I have this problem. You may not see it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And you don’t need to tell me that I have been an encouragement to you. Also, don’t feel sorry for me. Rejoice with me! Be encouraged! This is a good thing. Finally, use this occasion to examine yourself. Much of this might well apply to people in our congregation as well.