As I am reading through the Bible I am currently in the Psalms – what a great book! Sadly, for some, Psalms seems to be preached only as filler material in the summer holidays. There is so much potential for preaching in the book of Psalms. Let me offer three possibilities opened up by preaching from this book:
1. You can introduce new treasure to people. People tend to be familiar with some Psalms. Probably 23. Perhaps 24, 1, 110, 121, 127, 51, 8, 73, 37, 27. But what about Psalm 36? Or 33? There is a whole host of Psalms that tend to get ignored in the annual audition for three filler sermons. And don’t just stick to the filler sermon approach. Why not preach Psalm 34 at the start of a series on 1Peter? It certainly was in the mind of the apostle as he wrote his epistle. Why not preach Psalm 118 in connection with Easter? It might add a new set of thoughts to the Easter considerations since Jesus would very likely have sung that with his disciples at the last supper.
2. You can connect with a different group of people. It may be a stereotype, but some have suggested that engineers enjoy epistles. They like the truth statements, logical flow, direct discourse. So if that is the case, who might appreciate the Psalms? Artists? Sure, and there are more of them than we tend to realise in every congregation. How about the suffering? Certainly. Psalms connects with different people at different times in the complexities of each personal biography.
3. You can offer a more vulnerable sermon. When David wrestles with spiritual realities, why not be more open that we do too? Personal sin struggles, doubting God’s goodness, tendency to trust in ourselves, feelings of extreme fatigue, etc. We don’t preach to preach ourselves, but we ourselves do preach. The Psalms opens up the possibility of greater vulnerability from the preacher, and hopefully stirs vulnerability in the congregation. The Psalm writers didn’t treat God as delicate or fragile, they blasted their prayers at Him. Perhaps we can stir greater prayer in churches that tend to pray religiously, and Psalms would be a worthwhile workshop for that kind of goal.
Last time I wrote about biblical girders, the superstructure of the Bible that folks in churches tend to hear very little about. While not seeking to diminish the well-known passages, let’s consider whether we can help people know their Bibles better by bringing to their attention the existence and importance of some of the biblical girder passages.
Biblical Covenant Passages – A strong case can be made for seeing the biblical covenants as a skeleton on which the Bible is built. God’s promise and subsequent covenant with Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12, then 13, 15, 17 is critical. Then there’s the Mosaic content in Deuteronomy 27-30 (how often do we stumble across “who will ascend?” or “who has descended?” allusions in the New Testament?) Then God’s covenant with David in 2Samuel 7 and 1Chronicles 17. And, of course, the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36 and the latter part of Isaiah. Being unaware of these covenants is crippling if someone is wanting to grasp the Old Testament, or the development in the New Testament.
Biblically Quoted Passages – Some passages are quoted with a significant frequency. Sometimes the quote is actually just an allusion, but that doesn’t diminish its significance. Sometimes it proves the writer assumed hearers would spot it more easily. God’s spoken self-revelation in Exodus 34 runs like a refrain through the Old Testament. Psalms 2, 69 and 110 get their fair share of airtime once you get to the New Testament, as does Psalm 118 in reference to Jesus and Psalm 8 plays a key role in Hebrews. Genesis 15:6 comes out three significant times, as does Habakkuk 2:4. The lesser known part of Isaiah 6 does some heavy lifting, as does the allusion to Daniel 7. And in the passion of Christ, where you might expect lots of references to Genesis 22 (Abraham & Isaac), instead you find lots of Davidic Psalms and Zechariah quotes.
Structurally Significant Passages – Some passages seem to serve a key purpose in the structure of a book or a section. Joshua 1 serves a key transitional function between the Torah and the Kethubim. Psalm 73 seems to provide the hinge for the turn in the flow of the whole collection. John 11-12 offer a significant transition in John’s Gospel.
There are many more that could be listed. The point is that many of these are less familiar to most people in the church than David’s slaying Goliath, or Naaman dipping in the Jordan, or Daniel in the den of lions, or Jesus calming the storm, or Paul in prison in Philippi. All important, but in terms of grasping the flow and message of the whole Bible, perhaps there are too many gaps at critical points.
Yesterday I started a three-week series where I am trying to give folks a sense of how accessible and thrilling the Old Testament is. I am using three mornings for a landmark highlight tour to get a sense of the flow of the history. And in the evenings I am wanting to give a more in-depth look at some of the critical passages that are so easily overlooked.
Why are some critical passages overlooked? Let’s start with identifying the reasons before considering some of the girders in the architecture of the Bible.
1. Sunday School teaching. Naturally Sunday School teachers tend to focus on narratives that are accessible to children. Perhaps less wisely, they can also tend toward narratives that offer moralistic “lessons” (this can serve to obscure the gospel, but that is a post for another day). So for those growing up going to Sunday school, there will be a bank of familiar stories.
2. Preacher Passage Picks. Whether it is selection of passages for preaching, or choice of biblical allusions and illustrations, preachers also can do the same as Sunday school teachers (perhaps justifiably so in many cases – no point referring to something people don’t know). So for an example, the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in Genesis 22 will be reinforced repeatedly, while the Genesis 15 account of the covenant ceremony remains largely unknown.
3. Devotional Reading. Whether people use guiding notes or read the Bible for themselves, they will tend to be directed toward the familiar passages. So there is a reinforcing of passages that may or may not be as “load-bearing” as others. Isaiah 6:1-8 is well known, the rest of the chapter is often overlooked. But which part functions as a girder for the building of the biblical macro-structure?
I’m sure there are other reasons to add to this list, but hopefully this gives a sense of the situation. People are more familiar with Psalm 23 than Psalms 2 or 110, even though the biblical reliance on the latter examples is greater than the more familiar 23rd Psalm. This is not about diminishing the wonderful passages that are more familiar. A large part of why they are taught and preached and read and known is because they have made such a difference in peoples’ lives. But perhaps we do need to think about helping folks know some other critical passages more than they typically do.
This week I’ve been pondering space, which seems to be increasingly hard to find. Our world seems to be getting noisier and busier, but also ministry demands tend to increase over time for preachers too (presumably demand drops off eventually!) In the midst of the busy schedule of the immediate, we need to get time to dream and to plan.
1. Planning future preaching. Somewhere in the schedule it is worth making time to think through ideas for preaching beyond the present series or preferred sections. It is easy to get repetitive, or even stuck, when there is no space to pull back, look up and look ahead. Some preachers take a week out each year and sketch out a rough plan for a year’s worth of preaching. For others it might not be so organised, but there is still benefit to thinking through where you might do well to go in your preaching. Obviously circumstances change, the needs of the church change, there has to be room for change. But it isn’t good leadership to always be in a purely reactive mode. What sections of the canon have you not touched for a while, or ever? What types of preaching have you not used in a while, or ever? What subjects would stretch you, and others?
2. Planning future ministry. There is more to ministry than preaching. But if we live in the cycle of deadlines, we can easily fall into just preaching. But what about training others? That doesn’t happen accidentally. You won’t mentor and launch others, or mentor to replace yourself, if you don’t put some planning into it. What about writing? Some should stop trying. Others should create time to make it happen. What about training I should be getting now for ministry in the future? That could be as informal as reading on a subject, or as formal as pursuing a degree in an area. None of this happens by accident.
3. Dreaming future ministry. Somehow planning isn’t enough. God is able to do abundantly more than we ask or even imagine. Do we dare to dream? For some of us, God doesn’t have much to do to surpass our imaginations! We need to create space to dream of what could be, what should be, what might be. I know this seems crazy, but imagine if . . . and if God would . . . then maybe . . . It is hard to quantify what might happen if we all took time to pray and dream, chasing the desires of our hearts with a God who delights to give in line with the yearning He has birthed in us.
Over the past few days we have been rearranging bedrooms in our house. This has meant that I have a new study. What a blessing! It also means I have been thinking about the kind of space needed for preachers. Some thoughts:
1. Space does not have to be literal. Over the past few years I have worked in the corner of our bedroom, in a tiny room, in a larger room, on my netbook in my car parked in the Surrey hills (think Gladiator opening scene, only without the war raging), in a cold church room with a fire pumping out heat, and so on. Often we don’t have the physical space we need, but it is still worth thinking through the space we need to create for different aspects of ministry.
2. There is a difference between an office and a study. A while back I read the comment that pastor’s have replaced their study with an office. This weekend a good friend of mine noted the difference between a study in the home and an office in the church – largely in terms of interruptions that tend to come in the church, but can be avoided at home (people there understand the need for space!) He told me how he’d put his phone in a cupboard. It can ring, but it doesn’t always feel immediate and urgent. Nice approach. Anyway, the fact remains that there is a difference between an office and a study. Whether they are in the same space or not, they serve different functions. My experience of combining the two is that the office tends to win. I’ve had to leave the office to get to the study, if you see what I mean?
3. Don’t let the business of life and ministry drown out the eternal work that occurs in the study. Emails and phone calls and administration and distractions abound in the office. If we aren’t careful, the prayer and reading and thinking and study that takes place in a study can be forfeited. I now have a bigger study. Solution? I’d pondered a separate desk for study purposes. Instead I’ve gone with a huge leather chair from a second-hand store. I love it. At least, I will, once I get the room organized enough to reach it! And if I don’t? Then it will be a daily reminder that the office work at this computer and filing cabinet are stealing me away from what I claim to be most important.