Genesis is such a critical book! I suspect it simply isn’t preached enough. The rest of the Bible is built on the foundation of Genesis, and so preaching it enough and preaching it well are very important. Here are three mistakes to avoid, although many more could be added:
1. Atomistic Reading – This is where a text is snipped from the flow of the context and becomes a stand alone. Typically this leads to a Sunday School type of preaching that treats each narrative as complete in itself, and with its own “moral of the story.” Cain and Abel has to flow out of Genesis 3, and into the two genealogies of chapters 4 and 5. Abraham does not offer us a set of stand alone tales, but a sequence of growing faith, obedience and connection with God. Joseph’s brothers show consistency between snapshots, making them more than 11 faceless foils in the story of Joseph. Be careful to study and preach each unit in context.
2. Moralistic Reading – This is where a text is snipped from the artery of life that is God’s involvement in specific history, turning the text into a tale with a moral, a lesson for the day, a suggestion on how we can live better. So we should try to avoid infidelity like Joseph did, or not give away our wives like Abraham/Isaac did, or not get caught up in tempting conversations like Eve did. But actually the goal is not our independent successful functioning: that was what the serpent was pushing for. The goal is surely more God-centred than that. Eve didn’t trust God’s Word and God’s character, but God himself works the resolution to the sin problem and invites us to trust Him and His Word. Abraham was on a journey of faith as we are. Joseph lived as if God were with him, even though he had very little indication that he was!
3. Impositional Reading – This is where a text is seen, but not heard. It is where a text acts as a trigger to recall sermons heard and points previously stated. The preacher reads the text and looks for a sermon, instead of studying the text and looking for God. Impositional reading will always lead to superficial preaching. Probe, question, examine, query, ponder, mine, and wrestle with the text. Do that with God in conversation and see if the preaching of Genesis suddenly becomes a spring of living water instead of stale old picture book fables.
For the last couple of days I’ve been pondering issues of procrastination and preparation. But it is also important to consider anticipation.
Anticipating Future Preaching – The whole issue of preparation cycles is important. Robinson taught us that a five-day cycle was not long enough and he was right. This is only exacerbated by delays as you can end up with a message on Saturday night that has one night and one breakfast time to be embedded in your life as a preacher. That is hardly long enough to scratch the surface of personalizing experience of the message or forming any sort of conviction. You may know the material, but only in the head. A longer cycle allows for the Bible passage to do some work in you and on you, the preacher. But it could be argued that even a 10-day cycle is not really long enough if the goal is to let the message become part of your own life and experience.
This is why it is helpful to anticipate preaching for weeks or even months. Obviously you can’t be preparing months worth of sermons in any detail at all. However, knowing that a series is coming ahead of time does allow for an initial reading, some initial prayerful pondering, etc. I am considering preaching through Colossians later in the year. Awareness of that series, even without any sort of extensive study, can influence my life and thinking now. By the time the series comes, there should be some deeper rootedness in my heart and life.
Anticipating Future Interruption – Any talk of schedules and delays must also lead us to ponder the possibility of future interruption. Could there be a pastoral crisis, family illness, broken kitchen appliance, car trouble, unexpected guest or excessive administration between now and the sermon. I suspect there might be. That is why we need to build in margin to the schedule, rather than cramming things into every corner and relying on a smooth run through the week. This isn’t easy for most of us, especially when it means saying no to ministry invitations, but there is no other way to avoid seasons of overwhelming stress than to say no to things before the crisis emerges.
Yesterday I mentioned Robinson’s advice on moving from a five-day to a ten-day cycle simply by shifting the initial exegetical work back to the previous Thursday. I know that in my own experience most weeks are not consistent and so I have to be flexible on my preparation schedule (even if I have my own ideal). But I suspect that even many who have a standard weekly schedule still have to flex more than they would like. So what kinds of time go into a sermon preparation phase?
1. Blocks of concentration – Good sermons don’t get crafted in snatches between emails. Having significant blocks of concentration time is critical and need to be carved out of normal life. This can mean taking deliberate steps: turning off the phone, moving away from the computer or turning off the email notification, perhaps leaving the office and finding a “study” zone that allows for concentration. When we moved I left behind my favourite wooded area where I used to sit in the car and work without phone signal, but gained access to a church building that is quiet at key times.
2. Chunks of process progression – Some things don’t require being “in the zone,” but are needed to move the process forward. Perhaps researching a specific issue for an illustration, or chasing a quoted passage to gain familiarity. The key thing here is to know what needs to be done, and to have some days in which to get these chunks of work done. It doesn’t matter that it is only three times twenty minutes worth of work, if you are already at Saturday afternoon, these will get squeezed out.
3. Brief and extended moments for contemplation – Focused and planned prayer time is important. Taking prayer time when available also counts. Praying through a message in the car is better use of time than hearing the same cycle of news and chat on the car radio. I wouldn’t want to rely on car time for prayer. That makes it sound unimportant. But I wouldn’t want to be without those “non-traditional” times either. These times to think and pray are cumulative and valuable.
4. Focused prayer time – So as well as fitting in prayer and spilling out prayer as you soak in a message and anticipate preaching it, it is also worth scheduling and planning real prayer time. I like to spend some time praying in the church, focusing in on the people I associate with certain seats. Some like to pray and walk, others have a prayer closet. I don’t think God minds where.
5. Pre-delivery time – I value that time the night before and the morning of preaching to be able to run through the message. This is why I can’t just preach from old notes as if it were fresh. At this stage the work is done, but it is amazing how much can be improved when hearing the message through your own ears.
All of this time takes, well, it takes time. Hence starting the process earlier always allows opportunity for both the planned blocks and the smaller pieces in the whole puzzle to come together.
Yesterday we thought about the spaces in which we work – both office and study. One of the key issues that I think we need to face in this generation, even more than ever before, is the issue of noise. In a world filled with productivity gurus, we as preachers need to be more than productive.
1. It takes more than productivity to produce a profound ministry. It is great to have such quick and easy access to information. We can access so much online, some of it worth the minimal effort we put in. We can order books and have them delivered next day (at least some of us can). We can use software on our computers that instantly parses verbs, searches for the lexical root and finds all instances of whatever in wherever. We are so blessed. But profound ministry is not just about access to information. It isn’t even just about knowing what to do with it. We have educational opportunities like never before. But it takes more than that. Profound ministry also requires something that has become ever more difficult to find. You can’t buy it online and you can’t use software to get there. It is that old fashioned notion of spending time with the Lord, away from all the noise.
2. Noise may be the biggest threat to a substantial ministry. Noise takes many forms. It can be the ping of arriving emails, the tyranny of the urgent text message, the variable usefulness of social media updates streaming our way, the fascination of online bunny trails, the old fashioned but ever present junk mail, not to mention the important stuff of family life, church needs and a far more connected realm of extended friendships. Some of this is good. Too much of all this and you have a recipe for living in permanent noise. I suspect it is worse now than when sunset meant reading by candlelight, conversation with those immediately present and hours of quiet to spend with God.
3. A noisy world means we must be proactive in pursing “sunset.” The old idea of a prayer closet, an undistracted place for meeting with the Lord, shouldn’t be an old idea. I have had some great times of prayer while driving, but also easily fill that time with noise. I always find I pray better walking or pacing, but so easily fail to make the most of such simple insight. How can you be proactive in pursuing “sunset” – a time when the noise grows distant and you can pursue and enjoy intimacy with the Almighty? I fear that if we don’t do something, the profound ministry of those truly close to God might become a relic of history.