Woven Threads of Meaning

Here’s a post from back in the early days of this site that I think is worthy of a review (and as in sermon preparation, I’ll find myself tweaking it as I look at it again!)

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Sometimes a passage may prove more complex than it initially appears.  This is almost always the case with stories in the Gospels.  Christians tend to view each story as a distinct unit that can be pulled out from the context in which it is placed.  In reality, each story or account in a Gospel is carefully woven together with others for a purpose.

For example, the stilling of the storm in Mark 4 is placed after, and linked to, the first part of the chapter where Jesus is teaching about the kingdom using parables.  The episode is connected to teaching on the small beginnings, but inevitable growth of the kingdom programme.  However, in Matthew the account is in a series of miracle stories, quite separate from those same parables (which appear later).  While someone might suggest this indicates that what comes before and after is irrelevant to the interpretation of the passage, actually the opposite is true.  The stories themselves, just like words, seem to get their meaning not only from within themselves, but also from the company they keep.

So while a story may appear simple to understand, as you study it in its context you often find greater clarity in its meaning and purpose.  Then as you consider the context and flow of thought more, the interpretation may become more involved and complex.  As a preacher your first priority is not to “find a sermon,” but to do everything you can to understand the passage.

Once you’ve done all that you can to understand the passage, you then have to form the sermon.  The temptation will be to dump every element of your study into the sermon.  Don’t.  What is necessary and helpful?  What must be explained, what can simply be stated, what parts of your presentation need proof?  How much time do you have to support what you say?  Sometimes you will discover that your understanding of a passage has multiple threads of complexity, stretching out through layer after layer of other stories and accounts within the Gospel.

Be thankful for the back-up support you have, but only give as much as is necessary and your listeners can handle.  They may be fine with one layer of contextual explanation, but overwhelmed if you present five.  Know the passage fully, but also know what your listeners need and are able to take onboard!

This principle applies in every genre – explain as much as necessary, and save as much time as possible for connecting the passage to the people in front of you!

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