Preaching Myths – Part 5

The first four posts have looked at issues of evaluation.  Let’s change direction.  What other preaching myths are out there?  How about this idea:

5. Only well-prepared sermons get blessed.

This is what we might call a “yes and no” type of myth.  There is truth to it, and there is myth too.

A. Ministry never depends on our ability, preparation, skill or learning.  For a life to be changed, be it through salvation or spiritual growth, the Spirit of God has to be at work in the lives of those listening.  It will never be based on what we bring to the situation, and yet we have no freedom to abdicate from our role, because…

B. Good stewardship expects proper preparation.  While we rely fully on Christ as we serve, we are stewards of the opportunity, stewards of the gifting, stewards of our learning, etc.  Therefore it makes sense that we will give full and proper preparation for the ministry opportunities that we are given.  However, this does not mean that our preparation has to be perfect, because…

C. God’s grace overcomes interrupted preparation. We all know that life has a habit of hitting us at inopportune moments.  Family problems, pastoral crises, distressing emails.  In a post-Genesis 3 world we will rarely have the perfect preparation for a sermon, just as any “gardening” in this world is now a sweaty business.  But instead of despairing, we can celebrate God’s grace.  He understands when life hits, and even when we struggle and fail.  There will be times when we preach at our weakest and God’s ministry seems to advance at its strongest.  Yet we do not abuse this grace, but instead, remember…

D. A good sermon is built on macro as well as micro preparation.  There is this coming Sunday’s message, and there are decades of messages.  How long does it take to prepare a message?  It takes a good number of hours this week, but it also takes years of cumulative study and preaching.  This means that when your preparation for Sunday is decimated by life’s circumstances, your sermon will rest on the strength of years in the Scriptures.

So the bottom line is that as a preacher you are being a good steward if you invest in preparation both for this next message, and for all your future ministry.  At the same time, your dependence is not on your preparation, but on God’s grace, because apart from Him we can do nothing.

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Preaching Myths – Part 4

So far in this series we have been looking at myths surrounding evaluating sermons.  Is it wrong to evaluate at allDoes good fruit act as guarantee of the sermonWhat about the “no-offense” rule?  Let’s take one more angle on the issue of evaluation:

4. If the sermon is true, all is well.

This is a slippery one.  The moment a question is raised about a message, some will jump to the defense of the preacher by asserting that what was said was true, even if it was not exactly the truth of the passage being preached.  Let’s knock around a few comments on this:

A. Most of us have mis-preached and should be grateful for God’s graciousness.  I would not want every old sermon scrutinized and held over me, and I suspect you would not either.  This is not about nitpicking through every word preached and being judge and jury of orthodoxy.  However, in balance with this first thought are those that follow.

B. What the Bible says matters.  While we do want to be gracious to one another, we also need to remember that we are handling the Word of God.  Every single word is given by inspiration and we will in no way be honouring God if we take matters of accurate text handling and interpretation lightly.

C. What the listener reads matters.  Here is the sticking point.  Just because what a preacher says is true does not mean that saying it from the wrong passage is acceptable.  Listeners may be looking at the biblical text as the sermon is proclaimed.  It does not matter that they are hearing truth, if that truth is falsely tied to another biblical text that does not mean what is being said.  The integrity of the messenger and message matter.  Even if the message spoken were biblically true, it matters if listeners are looking at their Bibles and scratching their heads.  We do not want to give the impression that the authority for the message is birthed out of the ingenuity of the preacher.  Are we comfortable with someone preaching biblical truth from an appliance instruction manual, or from a kid’s book of fairy tales?  Then we should not settle too easily for misappropriated biblical texts either.

Redirecting the Challenge

When we prepare to preach a passage we will find ourselves wrestling with the text, and often we will find the text wrestling with us.  This is good and it should be this way.  The Spirit of God should be doing a work in us through the text that we are studying.

But there is a complexity here.  As a preacher, you are probably, and hopefully, a relatively mature believer.  This means that you will more naturally find yourself challenged by the aspects of the passage that are applicational or doxological.  This will not be the case for some, or even for many, of your listeners.

When you preach in your church there will be some present who cannot see past the challenge of believing the text.  There may be some aspects of it that seem far-fetched or fanciful.  You may have overcome those obstacles years ago and no longer see them when you look at a text, but be sure to put yourself in the shoes of a contemporary unchurched listener.

Until a text does not seem fanciful or far-fetched, the applicational and doxological implications will only have minimal impact in the listener’s heart and life.  This is why we need to spot all the challenges and help our listeners be able to hear the ones that will really help them!

Exegesis and Exposition

What is the difference between exegesis and exposition? Haddon Robinson put it this way, “Exposition is drawing from your exegesis to give your people what they need to understand the passage.” This implies that the preacher will have a lot more material after the exegesis than they are able to present in the sermon.

Here are three implications for us to ponder:

1. Passage Study Before Message Formation – When you move too quickly from studying a passage to preparing the message you will not have much left over from the exegesis phase. This will result in preaching that lacks authority, that is biblically thin, and that is more an imposition of your ideas onto a passage than the message God intended from that passage.

2. Sermon Preparation Takes Time – If you start the sermon preparation on the Saturday, then Sunday is already looming and you are already looking for the sermon. You have to work your schedule so that the pressure of preaching is not squeezing out time for exegesis and meditation. It takes hours to prepare a message, over many days, built on top of many years. The years of biblical soaking feed into the times of biblical study that bubble up into sermons worth preaching.

3. You Have to Know Better Than You Preach – When you are grasping for a sermon you will be preaching a passage that you have not grasped and that has not grasped you. Aim to know a passage so well that an informed listener can engage you in an extended conversation about the nuances of the passage after they’ve heard your sermon. You may or may not choose to create a venue for that further exegetical presentation, but being able to do that means you are preaching within your range of study, not beyond it.

Subtlety – A Key in First-Person Preaching?

stones2Recently I enjoyed a first-person sermon from a student in class.  He preached as an observer of Jesus’ healing the paralytic in Mark 2.  What he did well made me think about effective first-person preaching.  Specifically, he managed to make the first person details subtle.

Let’s see this on a scale:

Zero “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but essentially it is just a grammatical change.  Instead of third person, now it is told in first person.  Imagine preparing a message normally, then switching to first person at the last minute.  Your mind can make the grammatical shift, but there is no added detail.  There is essentially nothing that makes this sermon have to be first person.  It may add some interest, but the listeners may end up wondering why you did it that way.

Excessive “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but ends up overdoing the added detail.  Suddenly we get quotes from all sorts of added characters, extra biblical elements abound, and the listeners are led merrily further and further away from the main point of the text into a fanciful demonstration of historical imagination.  This will be intriguing, but the listeners will hopefully end up wondering why you felt the Bible had nothing to say.

Subtle “Experienced” Detail – This is where the preacher tells the story from an eyewitness perspective, but carefully selects only limited experienced detail.  In the case of the student I heard, he made an early and late reference to his annoyance at the mud falling on his cloak as the roof was dismantled.  That was enough.  He didn’t need to pile up layer upon layer of complex imaginations.  This made the sermon engaging, and the listeners ended up gripped by the passage that was being preached.

I would suggest that we should aim for subtle rather than zero or excessive experienced detail in a first-person sermon.  This is the content equivalent to a similar dynamic in respect to “costume.”  If you are telling David’s story with Goliath, much better to have a stone in your hand than to be wearing authentic shepherding garb from 1000BC.  If you are telling the Christmas story as a shepherd, much better to just have a crook than to wear full curtains and false beard.

First-person or in character preaching takes a lot of extra effort.  It involves studying a passage fully, but then probing further into geographical and cultural background issues to make sure that you can speak of the biblical text with eyewitness accuracy.  Put that extra effort into your study for the message.  Don’t put that extra effort into fanciful and unrestrained imagination (or an all-out quest for total costume!)

Rigor and Response

hardwork2Last week I had the opportunity to interview John Piper.  At one point we were talking about the preacher’s emotional response to the text.  I appreciated John Piper’s perspective on this.

Gordon Fee, as well as others, have pointed out that we don’t want the people in our churches having devotional engagement with the Bible that is not exegetically on target.  And that our people don’t need preachers who are exegetical without being devotional as they study the Bible.  All true biblical interpretation should be devotional as well as exegetical.

But John Piper’s perspective was helpful to me.  Absolutely, the preacher should have their heart stirred in the study.  However, he said, there will be times when the exegetical rigor is not heart-stirring.  You may be wrestling with technicalities in the Greek construction of a sentence for a couple of hours.  You may be wading through technical commentaries weighing up interpretive options.  The exegetical rigor may not be heart-stirring during the process, but the fruit of it had better be heart-stirring!

Do we make sure we are not transitioning into message preparation until we are not only thinking clearly of the passage, but also feeling deeply moved by it?

Mishandling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls3Yesterday we saw three big mistakes that are common in explaining OT material in the NT (click here to go there).  Here are some more to ponder:

4. Obliviousness to New Covenant allusions.  This is a huge problem in Christian preaching today.  Too many people read the New Testament and seem to miss the multiple New Covenant allusions that permeate practically every section of the New Testament. The work of the Spirit, intimacy with God, transformed hearts, life, and so on . . . there is so much more to the New Covenant than simply the forgiveness of sins.  Sadly, too many in our churches seem to think that Christianity is an offer of forgiveness combined with a repackaging of Old Covenant guidelines for living.  I suspect Paul would get sharp with some contemporary preaching!

5. Obliviousness to Old Testament portrayal of God.  Too easily we make a similar mistake with the Old Testament.  We can easily view it as largely a presentation of life under the rule of an angry and distant God.  When we read the New Testament as the arrival of gentle Jesus to rescue us from a hard-to-please God, then naturally we will fail to grasp the richness of the Old Testament background to the New.  It was not Law back then, but grace and truth now only.  John 1:14-18 is speaking of the LORD who pitches His tent near the people and whose glory can be beheld, whose character is abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (grace and truth).  The Jesus of the New Testament is not absent from the Old Testament – it was about Him, and He was there.  They did not simply trust in a good promise, but they also encountered the Promiser Himself . . . and now we can meet Him fully!  There are discontinuities between the Old and New Testament, but the character of God the Father revealed in God the Son is not one of them.

How else have you heard OT quotes and allusions mishandled in preaching the NT?

 

Mishandling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching

Two scrolls3Last week we thought about how to handle a New Testament passage that quotes from, or alludes to, an Old Testament passage.  Here are some examples of where mishandling the Old Testament quote or allusion can cause trouble:

1. The Son of Man quotes.  From our perspective it can seem like the references to Jesus as the Son of God are stronger claims than references to Jesus as the Son of Man. Not necessarily. The king of Israel is referred to as “son of God,” but typically the “Son of Man” language points to a very lofty title.  So while there may be occasions where “Son of Man” is referencing humility or lowliness of Jesus, often it points to Daniel 7 and the one standing next to the Ancient of Days who is given authority over everything. Recognising the weight of this title helps, for example, when Jesus uses the title of himself before the Sanhedrin in his trial.  Why does the High Priest react so strongly and assume their work is done? Because he felt the force of Daniel 7.

2. Hardened hearts quotes. There are various passages that quote from the end of Isaiah 6.  It can feel very harsh, even arbitrary.  After all, God was determining that the people would not respond to Isaiah’s ministry?  Before we dump in any theological assumptions and defend such a view, let’s be sure to read the passage in context.  Unusually the call of Isaiah has a five chapter prelude that lays out the state of the nation. They were rebellious and resistant to God.  By the time we get to chapter 6 it is clear that God does not want a “cheap responsiveness” from a people determined to be against Him.  Hence the hardening.  Earlier Pharoah’s heart was also hardened . . . after the three plagues where he hardened his heart against God.  God wants genuinely responsive hearts, and where that is not present, He may bake the rebellious determination to avoid false turns to God (as we see repeatedly in Judges).  Be sure to get the context before imposing a harsh theological overlay on these passages.

3. Where we sit in judgment on “inspired mishandling” of Scripture.  This is a dangerous short cut. It may appear that the New Testament writer is not handling the Old Testament passage appropriately in its context.  Don’t jump to that conclusion though. It is more likely that you haven’t understood the richness of that OT context quite as fully as you could yet.  Saying that the writers are inspired and so can make exegetical errors is a head in the sand option that causes more problems than it solves.  Keep working, it may become clearer in time.  (A classic example might be “out of Egypt I have called my Son…” in Hosea 11:1 which is obviously a backwards look to Israel, not an anticipation of Jesus’ travel as an infant…so Matthew didn’t handle Hosea well?  Or maybe Matthew traced the thematic richness of Hosea and brought that over to Matthew?  It is worth doing the work to find out!)

I will list some more tomorrow. Any OT mishandles that come to mind for you?

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 3

Two scrolls2So far we have thought about the need to read the Old Testament and to go back to study the source of a quotation. We looked at a specific example (Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34).  What do we do when we have limited time in the sermon?

1. Do the study yourself, even if you don’t plan to preach about it.  Taking the time to study an OT quote, reference, allusion or whatever will always benefit you. You need to be studying the Bible at a deeper level than you are communicating it to others. Too many preachers try to sound more informed than they are – that is dangerously thin ice to skate on.  Study deeper than you preach.

2. Evaluate how significant a full explanation of the quote will be in communicating the main idea of your preaching passage.  Perhaps you have a passage that is built on a single Old Testament quote and it would be worth taking the listeners back to the quote (you could project it so they don’t get lost flipping pages). It may be worth taking them through a simplified process of pondering the context, the meaning back there, how that carries over and informs the NT passage, etc.  It may be appropriate to be interactive in this process, inviting them to think out loud with you.  There are lots of possibilities, however, this will not be possible or helpful with every OT quote you preach.

3. Recognize that there are multiple levels of explanation.  Sometimes it is possible and helpful to go back and look at the quote in its context. Sometimes that would take too much time, or it would take away too much focus from the passage you are preaching.  It is possible to explain an Old Testament quote verbally in 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or two minutes, etc.  It is possible to give the bottom line of your study, such as, “if we were to take the time to go back and look at that quote, we would see that the whole section in Ezekiel is a rebuke of Israel’s failed leadership . . . which is what Jesus is critiquing here as he points to himself as the Good Shepherd, etc.”  (This is thinking more of early John 10 and the Ezekiel 34 background.)  You have lots of options, from not even noticing it is a quote or allusion, to doing the full process with your listeners.  Choose appropriately.

4. Remember that your listeners need encouragement to enjoy the Bible for themselves.  While you may not have the time to go back and look, it doesn’t hurt to suggest that people do that themselves. Too often listeners feel the Bible is out of their reach and only the preacher can dispense the goods.  Too often listeners feel there is some kind of subjectivity and magic worked when preachers explain passages.  Encourage your listeners to go digging.  Encouragement combined with some good examples may motivate them to go back into the Old Testament for themselves!

Handling Old Testament Quotes in Preaching – Part 2

Two scrolls2So when you find an OT quote or reference in your passage, what do you do? Yesterday we started with two basic, but important, points – read the Old Testament a lot, and go back to check the source of the quote (don’t just assume you get what is going on).  Let’s build on that with some exegetical thoughts for our benefit, then next time we can ponder how to preach these passages . . .

3. When you look at the source of the quote, take in the context.  For example, when Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6 to support his own claim to equality with the Father and the use of the term “Son of God” (see John 10:34), what is he doing?  A superficial look might suggest he is just being tricky with words. That is, since there is one obscure reference to humans being called “gods” by God, therefore Jesus could also get away with it.  Not very convincing.  But his argument made their poised throwing arms lower and the stones didn’t fly, so something about his use of this quote was more compelling than such an apparently weak argument might superficially suggest.  Check the whole Psalm.

4. Be aware of the wider Old Testament context, not just the specific section. Here is where Kaiser’s concept of “Informing Theology” is so helpful. What informed the writer of the original passage. That is, what was Asaph aware of that fed into his writing of Psalm 82?  For instance, is it obscure and unique to reference human kings as “sons of God”?  Not really, this is found elsewhere.

5. Grasp the meaning of the Old Testament passage in its context.  It is worth taking the time to understand the OT passage as well as you can. For example, Psalm 82 is a rebuke of unworthy leadership that culminates in anticipation of God himself stepping in to deal with the sin of the earth (specifically the failure of the human leaders).

6. Carry a sense of the whole passage forward to the New Testament quote and see how that fits.  Suddenly John 10:34-36 doesn’t seem like a random verse plucked and used poorly. Instead, it fits as part of the extended argument that has carried over from the end of chapter 9 (and really since the conflict of chapter 5). Jesus is not making a desperate loophole defence of his claim to divinity. He is undermining the leadership of the nation and making a claim to be God who has come to judge and claim the nations as his own!  They would likely have heard the force of the whole Psalm, rather than zeroing in on the short quote Jesus used – that was the link, but it was not full weight of his argument.

Bottom line: It is always worth taking time to study the Old Testament source of later quotations and references.  Always.