He was a dedicated deer hunter, ever since the first time his daddy took him. Every year when deer season rolled around, he grabbed his gun aid headed for the woods. Then he met her and they married, and still, every year when deer season rolled around, he grabbed his gun and headed for the woods. Every year she asked to go along, and every year he responded, “no!”
One year he finally gave in, after a long and heated discussion. He gave her some safety lessons, they grabbed their guns and headed for the woods. As they quietly walked through the forest, she became separated from him. He did not notice that she was no longer with him until he heard a shot echo through the woods. He ran toward the sound of the shot, screaming her name. Finally he arrived at the scene and discovered her holding a forest ranger against a tree at gunpoint. The ranger was shaking and pleading with her, “All right lady! The deer is yours. You shot it fair and square. But please, all I want to do is get my saddle off of it.”
The lady went hunting, had her weapon, knew how to fire it, and apparently had pretty good aim, but she aimed at the wrong target. She did not know what she was hunting. This story has a message for us, for I fear that we have been guilty many times of grabbing our sermons, stalking through the sanctuary up to the pulpit, taking aim, firing, and having little or no idea what the target is, what the purpose is.
It also describes those to whom we preach, for many gather on Sunday morning seeking and searching, but they are unsure of what they need. They come before us from a world that is shallow of purpose and empty of meaning. A world that may be hard working, but not productive. Busy, but not happy. Ever running, but never reaching the destination.
The pursuit of the American dream has produced a spiritual nightmare, and God has been left in the dust of the chase. Questions are being raised like never before in our culture about life, death, and morality. The foundation of the family is crumbling. Our children are exposed to teachings and behavior from which we were protected. The homosexual community has not only come out of the closet, it has broken down the door and charged forth to wage war. Schools are passing out condoms like report cards. Johnny may get an “F” in math, but he will get an “A” in sex. The drug war continues in full fury, and rebellion, violence and immorality are preached by way of the music video. A recent study reveled that the average teen watches MTV at least two hours a day. We live in a society that grants more rights to animals and trees than to unborn babies. The list can go on and on, and it forces us to ask if it has ever been this bad before, and is there any hope?
So when the preacher and the people come together on Sunday mornings, and the people ask, “Is there a word from the Lord?”, and the preacher responds, “Yes, this is what the Lord says,” he had better know the target, she had better know the purpose.
I am intrigued with Paul’s preaching in Athens (Acts 17:22-31). He entered a culture similar to ours. They prided themselves on diversity, tolerance, and the acceptance of various systems. They were students and teachers of vain and hollow philosophies and theologies. They took aim, but they aimed at the wrong targets. They were committed, but to the wrong purpose. They were “very religious,” but to idols made in their own likeness. It was, to use a contemporary term, a pluralistic society. And the sermon Paul preached that day is a model for preaching today. It is, to appeal to P.T. Forsyth, “positive preaching” for the “modern mind.”
Craig Loscalzo describes preaching as “a particular message to a particular group of hearers at a particular time by a particular preacher.” (Preaching, Jan.-Feb., 1992, p. 30). At that particular moment in time, that particular preacher Paul, delivered a particular sermon to a particular group of hearers. What do we say to our particular group of hearers at our particular place in time and space?
It is tempting to attempt to impress our people with our verbal skills and visual art, but we know that is not true preaching. As Forsyth said, “The Christian preacher is not the successor of the Greek orator, but of the Hebrew prophet. The orator comes with but an inspiration, the prophet comes with a revelation” (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, p. 3).
We stand before our people with a revelation, a revelation that transcends time and culture, particular to every group of hearers. And we discover in Paul’s sermon in Athens the twin planks of God’s revelation. This is the message of the moment! This is what we are called to preach, and this is the platform upon which all preaching stands. It is not a political platform of ideas and promises, but a biblical platform of revelation and truth.
The first plank of the preacher’s platform is contained in verses 24-28:
We Live in a Sovereign Situation
Paul’s proclamation of God’s sovereignty is summed up in two poetic and prophetic statements: “He gives all men life and breath and everything else” (v. 25), and “In him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). With these revelations Paul preached the “unknown God.” To those who accepted everything in order to find something, he declared that life is a sovereign situation, and the Sovereign One is that “unknown God,” the maker of heaven and earth.
Sovereignty is a word we hear little about in our churches. We are unsure of its significance, uneasy with its implications. Yet we are not called by God to explain the specifics of His sovereignty, but to proclaim His sovereignty as a matter of revelation. “He gives all men life and breath and everything else,” and “in him we live and move and have our being.” By sovereign situation, I mean that Jesus is Lord of creation. The entire world lives under His Lordship, whether it confesses Him as Lord or not. He possesses all authority in heaven and on earth. He is before all things and in Him all things hold together (Col. 1:17). God has not removed Himself from His world, but expresses his power and purpose through the Lord Jesus.
It is, however, terribly presumptuous to try to analyze and explain the precise ways in which God “gives all men life and breath and everything else.” Paul proclaimed generalities, but we want specifics, and that is beyond our responsibility and capability.
Consider the story of William Cowper, who at the age of 32 tried to kill himself four times. He was so miserable that he took poison, but did not die. He then intended to jump into a river, but some power seemed to restrain him. The next day he fell on a knife, but the blade broke. Then he tried to hang himself, but was discovered and cut down, unconscious but still alive. One morning, in a moment he later described as “strange cheerfulness,” he began reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, and this started him on a new path. He found the love and grace of God, and during his walk with the Lord he wrote many hymns, including the beautiful, “There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood.” In an effort to sum up his belief in the providence of God he penned the now familiar words…
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform:
He plants his footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs, And works his sovereign will.
I cannot say with absolute certainty that God intervened and kept William Cowper from killing himself, but it is a marvelous thing to consider, for “he gives all men life and breath and everything else,” and “in him we live and move and have our being.” We would like to be able to give exact answers to tough questions about the ways of God, but some things are too wonderful for us to know.
Stephen Olford tells about his father who served as a missionary in Angola, West Africa. He studied under an evangelist who took his students out on the field with him. Olford was puzzled again and again by the lack of response to the preaching of the Word. He approached his teacher one night and said, “I do not understand it. The place was packed with people. The power of God was present to save, and yet so few answered the call to repentance and faith.” The older and wiser preacher paused for a moment and said, “Young man, the salvation in human lives is the sovereign work of God. We must leave the results to Him. Our task is to preach Christ and Him crucified.” And then he added, “And remember this; God is always pleased to hear His Son well-spoken of” (The Preacher, May-Aug., 1990).
When the humble and the meek, the troubled and the weak, the cheerful and the grateful gather on Sunday morning, they want to sense the closeness of God. They need to hear that He moves in their lives, and that in Him they live and move and have their being. They rejoice in the truth that He “gives all men life and breath and everything else. They understand that we cannot explain God, but they do expect us to proclaim God. Hopefully, when we stand to preach, it is realized that there is a majesty and a mystery about God, and because of who He is, life is indeed a sovereign situation. And they want to hear Him well-spoken of.
The second plank of the preacher’s platform is:
Life is Moving Toward a Just Judgment
In verses 29-31, Paul is extremely specific. To those who sat in judgment of him, he declared that the sovereign God has “set a day when he will judge the world with justice.” Notice his words. They are careful, precise words, razor sharp. God “commands all people everywhere to repent.” He will judge the world “by the man he has appointed.”
Paul would have been negligent and irresponsible if he had not proclaimed this truth of God’s revelation. There is a judgment filled with justice coming, and God “has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” (v. 31). Did you hear that? The proof of the judgment that is to happen in the future is the resurrection of Jesus that took place in the past!
We have no trouble preaching the resurrection to our people, but it seems a little awkward to address the judgment when we gather with them. Preaching judgment to pagans is one thing, but preaching it to Christians? Yes! It is a part of God’s revelation. It will be a part of God’s sovereignty. And the just judgment that is to come stands solidly, like all Christian truth, upon the resurrection of the Judge.
So, without apology and without shame, Paul brought his proclamation to an end with the sure and certain promise of a just judgment, implying that accountability and responsibility are natural parts of life, and super-naturally expected. Life is moving toward a just judgment, and Christians need to hear that. It gives hope. God’s justice will prevail and in a world where justice seems so elusive, it is a message not to be neglected. The unrepentant and unforgiven will stand before the Judgment Seat in fear, but Christians will stand before the Judgment Seat in faith, covered by the blood of the Judge. God’s justice!
When we proclaim judgment, we do not ignore grace or mock mercy, we celebrate it. For, as James Earl Massey puts it, “the ultimate goal in preaching is to connect the hearer with the grace of God” (Designing the Sermon: Order and Movement in Preaching, p. 18). When we preach God’s just judgment, we do exactly that. What better way to connect with God’s grace than to appreciate God’s judgment.
J. Randall Nichols writes; “The purpose of preaching is to extend an invitation” (Building the Word, p. 2). What did Paul invite his particular group of hearers to do? What do we invite our particular group of hearers to do?
In the movie, “Peter and Paul,” there is a touching scene between Dr. Luke and preacher Paul. It is not recorded in Acts, but nevertheless, it sounds like Paul. They are on the shore of Malta following the shipwreck. They are tired, wet and hungry. Luke is sharing his feelings with Paul, admitting that he struggles to believe the Good News Paul proclaims so confidently. Luke says, “It was different for you. He spoke to you. You saw him. What do I look for? What sign is there for me?” To which Paul replies, “It’s not a sign … it’s a surrender.”
Paul invited them to surrender. When we preach, we are invited to surrender, and we invite them to surrender. To wave the white flag, and to be connected with the grace of God, for life is a sovereign situation which leads to a just judgment.
What an honor we have, what a privilege, what a responsibility. May God bless the preaching, and the preachers, of His Word. And remember: “God is always pleased to hear His Son well spoken of.”

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