David Bowie’s handwritten lyrics and the path to preaching with power

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David Bowie’s handwritten lyrics and the path to preaching with power

October 25, 2022 - Jim Denison, PhD

A man holds an open Bible in his hands. © By christianchan/stock.adobe.com

A man holds an open Bible in his hands

A man holds an open Bible in his hands. © By christianchan/stock.adobe.com

David Bowie’s handwritten lyrics to his 1972 song “Starman” sold recently for more than $334,000 at auction. In related news, an artist named Andres Valencia recently sold all thirty-five of his works displayed at a solo exhibition in New York, bringing in amounts between $50,000 and $125,000.

Brooke Shields, Channing Tatum, and Sofia Vergara are just some of the celebrities who own a Valencia original. Why is this headline news?

Because Andres Valencia is ten years old.

Why I mowed the grass

One of my great frustrations over my career as a speaker and writer is that I have so little visual evidence that my work has accomplished anything lasting. When I preach or teach, I speak words into the air, as it were, with no way to know if they make any difference in the lives of those who hear them. Similarly, when I write books or articles like this one, my words are distributed digitally to people around the world I’ll never see in person.

One reason I liked mowing my own lawn as a pastor (besides the fact that we needed to save money) was that I could see what I had done when I did it. Unlike my before-and-after grass, my words make no such visual difference in the world. No one would ever pay $334,000 for one of my manuscripts or consider my writing to be art worth collecting.

You may feel the same way about your ministry as a communicator of God’s word.

These sentiments were on my mind recently when I happened to be reading 2 Samuel 24, where we learn of God’s judgment on Israel as a consequence of David’s sinful census of the people. In verse 18, the prophet Gad came to David and said to him, “Go up, raise an altar to the Lᴏʀᴅ on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” David did as the prophet directed, which led to the end of the plague (v. 25). It was on this site that Solomon eventually built the temple (cf. 1 Chronicles 22:1). This location is considered the holiest in the world by Jews all over the world. Every time I lead a study tour to Israel, we visit it.

And all of this resulted from Gad’s words to David. Everyone has heard of David; how many people could identify Gad?

The only word God is obligated to bless

I used to tell my seminary students that the only word God is obligated to bless is his word. He uses our words to the degree that his Spirit inspires them and utilizes them to communicate his word to the people and needs of our day.

That’s why Jesus quoted this verse in response to Satan’s wilderness temptation to turn stones into bread: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4, quoting Deuteronomy 8:3). It is why the psalmist testified, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).

It is why Paul reminded us that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

And it is why God’s promise is so precious and powerful: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10–11, my emphases).

In short, when we communicate God’s word in the power of God’s Spirit, we may not be able to see the difference our words make, but those who hear or read them can never be the same.

Human words cannot change human hearts. You and I cannot convict a single sinner of a single sin or save a single soul. But “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:21).

One of my biggest mistakes

One of my biggest mistakes as a pastor was the degree to which my biblical study was a means to an end of professional preparation. This wasn’t intentional on my part, but it was nonetheless true. When I made time for personal Bible study, nearly always I turned what I learned immediately to preaching or teaching outcomes rather than focusing first and foremost on what God was saying to me.

I have learned over the years that my soul needs time in God’s word for no reason except to meet God in his word. J. I. Packer called the Bible “God preaching”; my soul needs this sermon every day.

Then, paradoxically, the more time I spend in God’s word for my sake, the more I am prepared to speak God’s word for those I am called to serve.

Jesus quoted Scripture in defeating Satan in the wilderness. When Paul sought to share the gospel with Jewish audiences, he nearly always began by citing and explaining Scripture. When Peter preached the Pentecost sermon, he quoted and applied Scripture with transforming effect.

These opportunities came in the moment without opportunity for preparation. If these communicators had not already learned God’s word, they could not have shared God’s word.

Such knowledge of God’s word is vital not only for our public ministries but also for our private souls. The psalmist testified, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11). Said positively, he prayed: “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (vv. 15–16).

The more we “meditate” on Scripture, the less we “forget” Scripture. Conversely, the more time we spend in God’s word, the more we will “delight” in God’s word.

John Claypool on preaching

As our culture continues its slide from biblical truth and morality, it is ever more vital that you and I redouble our commitment to immersing ourselves in God’s word. Then we will be able to say with the psalmist, “With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth” (Psalm 119:13).

In his masterful book, The Preaching Event, John Claypool makes the simple but important point that nothing can happen through us until it first happens to us. We must be the change we wish to see. In a postmodern culture that measures truth by relevance, when others see the difference God’s word makes in our lives, they are drawn to its relevance for their lives.

To repeat: the best way we can teach and preach God’s word with powerful effect is to first experience that power in our souls.

When last did you spend significant time in Scripture for no reason except to be with its Author?

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the ESV®️ Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®️), copyright ©️ 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The ESV text may not be quoted in any publication made available to the public by a Creative Commons license. The ESV may not be translated in whole or in part into any other language.

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