Signs Of The Times: 4 - Self Service And An Empty Vessel


His wife ushered us into the house and we sat for a while in the company of others from the congregation, six or seven of us in all. The pastor occupied an armchair by the fireside, one foot on the fender and one long leg stretched out in front of him. He was getting on in years now, but he was still physically impressive: a little overweight, but tall enough to carry it off. His profile was aquiline, his hair still long, dark and luxuriant, sweeping down to to touch his collar at the back.

Dinner was served, and we went into the front room to eat. I admired the array of books stacked on shelf after shelf, and the portraits of famous Protestants hanging in what was left of the space on the walls. It was a roast dinner, and the various vegetables were set down in the centre of the table, and then generous portions of beef were placed before us.

Grace was said. Suddenly, a large hand reached right in front of me and seized several roast potatoes from the serving dish, ignoring the serving spoons! Then it came straight back for several more! What was it that my mother had so often said? “Always allow your guests to get what they want before you serve yourself.” Well, at least he used the utensils provided as he helped himself to the other vegetables.

“Perhaps the man was desperately hungry! It’s a small thing, of no great significance in itself, surely?” True; but as time went by, it turned out to be a clue as to the man’s real character. It’s a pity: he was, in several senses, a preacher you would be pleased to hear in your own pulpit; but sadly, as so often, yesterday and today: “the gold, the girls, the glory”...

What made me think of him? I’m looking again at the foreword to John Ritchie’s “500 Gospel Sermon Outlines” (first published in 1910), at the point where he makes it clear that he’s not only addressing himself to people who preach regularly to a church congregation, but also to “all who go forth with the gospel, whatever the sphere may be”.

What can we do, to make sure we aren’t simply serving ourselves? “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17.9) (Shut up at the back there, you fundies: “‘anash’ - to be frail, feeble, or [figuratively] melancholy - desperate[-ly wicked], incurable, sick, woeful.”)

Here, in brief, are some of the suggestions that Mr Ritchie makes.

1 “The preacher must be right with God before he can have power with men.” What does he mean by “right with God”?

2 “The vessel must be clean and empty - clean from sin and empty of self - in order to be filled with the power of God.” How can this be accomplished, so as to have “no cloud between your soul and God, nothing to hinder the Spirit of God from operating in and through you”?

3 “…see God’s face before you see the people”…“a season alone with God in heart-searching, self-judgement, prayer, and intercession, before going out in service.” “That makes it sound like hard work, when all we really need is the Spirit’s anointing!” Mr Ritchie is insistent that hard workers are the ones who are wanted.

4 “And if the service is long continued, this should be repeated again and again.”

What strikes me yet again, working my way through all this, is the contrast between what we might call “the new ‘normal’” - the ordinary actions, attitudes and experiences of Christians today - and what Mr Ritchie would have expected of any believer just over one hundred years ago.

What was it Cicero so famously said? “O tempora o mores”: “Oh what times! Oh what customs!” Or: “Alas the times, and the manners.” It’s a question that is often on my own mind: “Who am I really serving? My Saviour - or is it, when all is said and done, just my self?” It matters.

Jeremiah 17.10: “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”