Preaching the Gospel to Yourself

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

Well, if you’re a pastor, you have been called not just to be a student of the faith, not just to be a communicator of the faith, but to live by faith. Now, here’s the rub. Faith isn’t natural to us. Doubt is natural. Worry is natural. Anxiety is natural. Wanting to have sovereignty over your ministry that if you had it, you couldn’t handle, is natural. Looking over the fence and envying the ministry and the life of someone else is natural. Putting that endless catalog of what-ifs through your brain is natural. Wondering if God is actually hearing your prayers is natural. Revisiting again, if in fact you are called, is natural, but faith isn’t natural for us.

So I want to consider with you this afternoon as we think about preaching the gospel to ourselves, how is it that God works to craft us into pastors of faith? What is it that he does? What does that process look like?

The Gospel of Mark

If you have a Bible with you, turn to Mark 6, or your iPhone or your iPad or some other weird off-brand that you’re carrying sadly. And before we look at it, I want to do a couple of things. First, I want to talk about the Gospel of Mark. I love the Gospel of Mark. I love the fact that Mark is fast-paced and hard-hitting. In that way, it’s a very modern Gospel. Mark has one intention, to demonstrate to you that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the Son of God, and he doesn’t leave you with any room for neutrality.

And there is, coursing alongside that, another theme in Mark. It’s that Jesus has collected these followers around him, disciples. And his intention is not just that they should be recipients of the work of his kingdom, but that they would be instruments of the work of his kingdom as well, and if they’re going to be instruments in the work of his kingdom, these men must become men of faith. And so Christ is working to craft faith in the disciples, and he does that by again and again introducing them to some form of difficulty in their lives in this fallen world, and in the midst of that difficulty, he reveals his glory.

There’s a bit of a gospel equation that courses its way through Mark. Here it is: divine power plus divine compassion equals everything you need. Divine power plus divine compassion equals everything you need. DP plus DC equals EYN, for you mathematicians in the room.

Amazement and Faith

Now, here’s a distinction that I want to make for you that will set up what we’re going to look at. There is a huge, yes, profound difference between amazement and faith. You can actually be amazed by things, moved by things, astounded by things that you don’t actually put your faith in.

Here’s a bit of a silly example. The habit of our family, because we live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, would be to go down to the Jersey Shore for a family vacation every year to pick medical waste up off the beach. For years, my kids thought hypodermic needles were shells of some kind, some weird animal must fit in there. And we would go to Ocean City, New Jersey, which is a very quiet family place, but the next community down was Wildwood, New Jersey, which is wild. And in Wildwood are these big piers, and on these big piers are these amusement parks, and that’s what my kids wanted to go to see and to participate in. And on one pier at one amusement park was this unbelievable ride. I guess you would call it a ride.

It was this big, about 50-foot high metal girder in an N-shape. From it were hanging elastic straps, and at the bottom of it was a pouch where they would strap some otherwise sane human being and pull him or her back and launch them over the Atlantic Ocean in the night. It’s one of those rides where you text somebody and say, “I paid $7 and almost died. Yeah.” Now, that ride amazed me. The first time I saw it, I just couldn’t believe what I was looking at, but I can tell you for sure you will not strap Paul Tripp into that huge human slingshot and launch him over the Atlantic Ocean in the night. There’s a profound difference between amazement and faith. Now look with me if you would at Mark 6:45–52:

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

Now, here’s the scene. The disciples find themselves in another situation of difficulty. They’re trying to ro their way across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida. They’re facing an impossible headwind. They’re facing angry seas. It’s a situation that is exhausting and futile and discouraging and potentially dangerous.

Sovereignly Ordained Difficulty

When you read your Bible, you should read your Bible interactively, and you should ask yourself the question, “How is it that the disciples got themselves in this mess?” Perhaps they were just foolish. Perhaps they were disobedient to the call of Christ. Perhaps they assigned to themselves more strength and ability than they actually had.

But if you look at Mark 6:45, these disciples are not there for any one of those reasons. They’re in this difficult moment precisely because they’ve been obedient to the call of Christ. You’ll never understand this passage and why it’s been retained for us unless you understand this mess is Christ’s mess. These disciples are exactly where he wants them to be. They’re experiencing exactly what he wants them to experience. This whole thing is done on the watch of the Messiah. These are future leaders that are exactly where the Messiah wants them to be.

Now, when you see that, you ought to ask yourself the question, “Why? I thought Jesus was full of grace and patience and love and tender mercy. Why would he ever choose for his disciples to be in this kind of mess? Why, why, why?” And if you can’t answer that question, you don’t have a clue what God is seeking to do in your life as a pastor. There, I said it.

See, Jesus knows something about the boys in the boat. He knows how self-righteous they can be. He knows how confident and arrogant in their own strength and wisdom they can be. He knows how much they confuse the agenda of their little kingdoms with the grand and glorious agenda of his kingdom. So hear what I’m about to say. He will take them where they haven’t intended to go in order to produce in them what they could not achieve on their own. God, pastor, will take you where you had no intention to go in order to produce in you what you could not achieve on your own. God will take you and you and you and you where you do not want to go in order to produce in you what you could not achieve on your own.

Do you know what the Bible calls that? Fasten your seat belts: grace. I am around pastors all the time, and I mean this lovingly, I hear pastors moaning and groaning about their ministries, complaining about their difficulty. They are essentially saying to me, “Where is the grace of God?” And they’re getting it. But it’s not the grace of relief, and it’s not the grace of release. Oh, they get that in pieces, but largely, that’s to come. Now they’re getting the grace of refinement, because that’s the kind of grace that they need. If you’re a pastor right now and you’re going through difficulty of some kind, you must not name that difficulty as a sign of God’s unfaithfulness and inattention, because that difficulty is itself a sure sign of the zeal of his redemptive love. You aren’t being forsaken, you are being loved. Look up and say, “Glory.”

Enough of the complaining. It’s an anti-gospel that crushes your soul and sucks the life out of your ministry. Because the more you preach that anti-gospel to yourself, the less of a vibrant, passionate spokesman you will be to your people. It’s grace.

Which Gospel Will You Preach?

Now, here’s what you have to understand. When you’re in that moment, when you’re in the boat you didn’t want to be in, in the storm you didn’t want to be in, and the waves you don’t want to be in, you will preach some kind of gospel to yourself. It’s inescapably true. I say this all the time, and people sort of snicker or laugh when I say it, but I’m really quite serious. No one is more influential in your life than you are, because no one talks to you more than you do. You see, you laughed. Most of us have learned it’s best not to move your lips because they’ll think you’re crazy. And when you’re having that conversation with yourself, don’t change places. They’ll put you away.

But listen, the things you say to you are profoundly important. You are ever, always, in a deeply theological, paradigmatic conversation with yourself. You are actually in a hermeneutic conversation interpreting life all the time to you, and your hermeneutic for your experiences is either the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, or some kind of anti-gospel that actually forgets the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. But you are always interpreting life and ministry to you.

Now, I want you to do something in this holy moment that we have together. Ask yourself the question, in those moments, what kind of gospel do I preach to me? Open your heart, brothers and sisters, and let conviction roll in. I mean it. What is it that you say to you? Listen. Maybe that difficulty is not just the opposition of the enemy. Maybe that difficulty is not just the distaste that people tend to have for the gospel of Jesus Christ because it’s a hard message. Maybe it’s transforming grace that you’re actually experiencing. God will take you where you haven’t intended to go in order to produce in you what you could not achieve on your own. Your ministry will be marked by trouble precisely because Jesus loves you. He loves you.

He Walked on the Sea

Now, notice what happens next. Jesus is on the land. The future leader boys are in the boat, And Mark 6:48 says:

And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them . . .

Now, the fourth watch of the night tells you, if you look at the larger time clues in the past, these guys have been rowing for about eight hours. They have to be totally exhausted, totally discouraged. Jesus sees the difficulty that they’re in, and he gets up and he begins to walk across the water. He walks on the sea. You’re way too passive. I mean, how can we read these passages of Scripture and go, “Yeah, he walked on the sea.” What’s happened to us?

Now, when Jesus takes the walk, there are two things that you’re confronted with in this passage. These are literally the linchpins of understanding this passage. They begin to unfold what this passage is about in the life of Christ and the disciples, and why this passage was retained for our example and our instruction. The minute Jesus takes the walk, you know that this Jesus of Nazareth is in fact Lord, King, Creator, God Almighty, because the average dude can’t take that walk.

Brothers, don’t try this at home. This is the Lord Almighty. If what Mark wants to do in his Gospel is to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the Son of God, then it’s case closed, deal done, argument won. This is the Lord, and he can do anything he wants with his creation. This is awesome glory being demonstrated here. This little vignette alone should bring you to your knees and say, “Glory, glory, glory. How can this be? Who but the Lord can defy the laws of his creation if he wants to?”

I’m concerned that we’ve lost our awe. That we’re no longer moved by the vignettes of glory that are displayed for us in Scripture. That they’ve reached a level of normalcy and have become mundane to us. It doesn’t capture our hearts and bring us to our knees anymore. I’ll confess to you, as I get to travel around, I’m weary of hearing sermons that are exegetical lectures by homileticians who have long since lost their awe. I’m not surprised that some people fall asleep; I’m surprised that more don’t. This is the Lord Almighty who does glorious things. This is a glorious thing. This is your lord. This is your Savior. This is the one who has invaded your little universe by his grace. He’s awesome in glory.

Moments Crafted for Our Gospel Reception

But there’s something else here that’s very important. The minute Jesus takes the walk, you now know what he has in mind for this moment. Let me say that again. The minute Jesus takes the walk, you are clued in to what he has in mind for this moment. Now, stay with me, because if all Jesus wanted to do was remove the difficulty, he wouldn’t have had to take the walk, right? All he would’ve had to do is say, “Peace, be still,” from the shore. The wind would’ve died down, the waves would’ve calmed, and the boys in the boat would have traveled the rest of the way to Bethsaida. The minute Jesus takes the walk — you have to get this — you then know he’s not after the difficulty. He’s after the men who are in the middle of the difficulty. He wants to do something in the hearts and lives of the men who are in the difficulty. That’s the plan and the purpose.

Can we talk here? Pastor, when you’re going through difficulty, what do you pray for? More of redemption? You’re going through a difficult moment in your ministry, and you’re singing, “Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it.” Maybe not. Maybe you’re even tempted to judge the nearness, the loving faithfulness of the Redeemer by his willingness to remove the difficulty. And maybe you’re tempted to wonder why that guy next to you seems to have been able to escape difficulty and you haven’t. This is remarkable. It’s remarkable that this is the response of Jesus. It’s instruction for us.

Now, when it says that “he meant to pass by them,” it doesn’t mean he was trying to sneak around the boat, or that he needed GPS. What it’s saying is that he wanted to take a big enough arc so that all of the disciples would see him. Now, you have to get in your brain the scene that is being depicted in Mark 6. Here it is. Nothing has changed. The wind is still blowing. The waves are still crashing. The boat is still bobbing up and down. The difficulty remains, but now Jesus has physically injected himself into the scene. He’s now standing next to the boat in the storm, and that moment is crafted by Christ to preach the gospel to the disciples.

It’s crafted to alter everything they think about themselves, everything they think about life, everything they think about meaning and purpose, everything they think about their identity. It’s meant to be a transformational moment. This is grace operating and sanctification operating. This is Christ seeking to transform the hearts of the people that he intends to use in ministry. Jesus is after your heart, pastor. You’re watching the process of transformation take place in this historical moment.

Anxiety on Repeat

Now, back to your Bibles. Mark 6:49–50 says:

but when they saw him walking on the sea they immediately stood and sang the doxology.

Is that what your Bible says? It says:

When they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified.

Rather than being heartened by this moment where Jesus is seeking, by injecting himself into the scene, to alter everything they think about who they are, everything they think about ministry, everything they think about life and meaning and purpose and identity, these guys are in panic all over again. They seem utterly unprepared for what Christ would do in this moment.

Now, they had watched awesome displays of messianic glory. They had seen miracle lap upon miracle. They had watched Jesus raise a little girl from the dead. She was dead, dead, dead. They had watched him calm another storm, feed a multitude with a little boy’s lunch. They had seen things of stunning glory. Yet here they are, in difficulty again, and they’re in panic as if they’d learned nothing, as if they’re totally unprepared.

Pastor, don’t be too nasty on the disciples, what happens to you when you go through difficulty once again? Are you given to worry all over again, to unspoken ministry anxiety? To wondering if it would be better to sell Apple computers? Have you learned your lessons? Or does situational difficulty produce the same old panic all over again? What happens to you when those storms come?

The Grace of the Great I Am

Look at your Bibles. What happens next is a gorgeous picture of the grace of the Messiah. Jesus doesn’t stand next to the boat and say, screaming at the disciples, “I’ve had it. I’ve demonstrated glory upon glory upon glory. You’ll never get it. Get out of the boat. I’m choosing new disciples.” Here is a picture of the zeal and the patience of Christ, the faithfulness of his grace. He speaks gorgeous words of grace to the disciples. He says:

Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.

He tenderly says, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it? It is impossible for you to be in the storm separate from me, because your life has been invaded by my grace. You’re never, ever alone.” And I believe, in this passage, Jesus is saying more than, “Hey, it’s me. Take heart.” I believe that Jesus is taking one of the names of God. He’s saying, “Don’t you understand? The I AM is with you. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the Lord Creator, the sovereign one, the one on whose shoulders all the covenant promises rest, the one who will give himself as the lamb of sacrifice. The I AM is here. The I AM is here. The I AM is here. Nothing will ever again be the same, because your life has been invaded by the grace of the I AM.”

And that moment where those words are spoken, they’re spoken while the wind is still blowing, they’re spoken while the waves are still crashing, and they’re spoken while the boat is still bobbing up and down. Why? Because sometimes you need the storm in order to see the glory. That’s grace. Because in those moments when you’re confronted with your weakness, when you’re confronted with the phenomenal lack of control you have over the situations of life, in those moments when you’re feeling small and unable, when you cannot alter things you’d like to alter, the glory of the Messiah is seen in its most beautiful relief. That’s grace.

And maybe in that moment, that glory that you’ve walked by day after day after day, that you’ve walked by because you’ve lost your awe, maybe that glory hits you afresh and anew. You needed the storm to see the glory. He’s after your heart. Don’t complain. Don’t moan and groan. Bow down and worship. Who is a God like our God? Who has mercy rich and free like our God? Why would he care? Why would he ever care to manufacture such transformational moments for you? Why, why, why? Because he’s a God of glorious grace. He’s a God of eternal love.

Living by Faith

Now, back to your Bibles. Finally, Mark 6:51 says:

And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded . . .

It’s not a compliment. This is one of the few places where Mark makes an editorial explanatory comment:

For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:52).

You see, this situation should not have been for them a situation of amazement. Amazement is sort of being taken beyond the normal categories that I have to understand or explain something. It was clearly not a moment of faith for them. It was a moment of terror and panic. And Mark explains to us why, wanting us to understand the distinction between amazement and faith. You can be amazed by the labyrinthine theology of Scripture and not be living by faith, pastors.

Let’s talk. You can be amazed by the grand sweep of the redemptive story and not be living by faith. You can be amazed at God’s gorgeous design for his church and not be living by faith. You can be amazed by the wonderful resources that are now available to all of us in the body of Christ and not be living by faith. You can be amazed by wonderful worship music and not be living by faith. There is a profound, even significant, difference between amazement and faith. Amazement is something you do with your brain. Faith is an investment of your heart that alters the way that you live. There’s a huge difference between amazement and faith.

And then it says this: “For they did not understand about the loaves” (Mark 6:52). We already talked about that. They didn’t learn their lesson. And then this is the humbling capstone. It says, “because their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52). There’s a reason. It’s the picture of a stony heart. Imagine that I had a rock in my hands right now, and imagine I was squeezing this rock with all of my might. What would you think was going to happen? Well, look at the size of my arms. The answer’s easy, I will confess. Absolutely nothing would happen, because that rock, that stone is resistant to change. That hardheartedness is a picture of resistance to change. And why would a chosen leader, a follower of Christ, be resistant to change? I’ll tell you. Because you’re all too satisfied with where you are.

The Zeal of Our Savior

So what you have in this passage depicted are two great dangers for anyone in ministry. I want to give them to you in case you didn’t notice it. The first is the danger of losing your awe, because awe is meant to be the reason you do everything in your life, and it is meant to be the mission of your ministry. “One generation,” Psalm 145:4, “shall commend your works to another.” You’re meant to give people back their awe again. It’s very hard to do if you’ve lost yours. Awe of God is a significant ingredient to ministry.

The second danger is the danger of arrival. It’s the danger that things like theological knowledge and biblical literacy and ministry experience and ministry success will begin to depict to you that you’re a grace graduate. Can I say this? While I don’t know why I’m asking permission, I’m going to. There’s not a grace graduate in this room — not one, including me. There are pastors in this room. I’m going to say it, you are given to dissatisfaction and envy and complaint precisely because you’re resisting the gracious work of the Redeemer in your own life. You have a hard heart, and you don’t like his hands on you. You don’t see those as hands of love and mercy and grace. And if you are honest, you would say, “Just leave me alone and let my ministry be easy.” That’s hardness of heart.

When you have been taken where you have not chosen to go, what is it that you say to you? Do you rehearse to you one more time the awesome glory of your Savior, so life is not evaluated just on the basis of its ease or its difficulty, but on the basis of his presence? When you’re going through those moments, do you say to yourself, “Aha, I know why this has come. Because I am in deep need of rescuing grace”? Listen, the zeal of your Redeemer is not first to rescue you from ministry difficulty. Hear what I’m about to say: the zeal of your Redeemer is to rescue you from you. Praise him.

Because I can run from a hard church, I can run from a difficult ministry, I can run from contentious leaders, but I cannot run from me. I have found, when I try to run from me, I always show up with me at the end of the run. So I need rescuing grace. I need a Savior who will take me where I haven’t wanted to go, to produce in me what I could not achieve on my own, so that awe would live again and arrival would die, so that I would not just be able to exegete the faith, but I would progressively become a man of faith. That is the zeal of your Savior.