So far in this series we have been looking at myths surrounding evaluating sermons. Is it wrong to evaluate at all? Does good fruit act as guarantee of the sermon? What 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.
Continuing the brief list of a dozen pointers from yesterday…here are four more:
5. Master the whole. Don’t just preach chunk by chunk through the epistle without getting to grips with the flow of the whole. You cannot accurately preach a portion of an epistle without a good grasp of how the whole is working together.
6. Get the author’s logic. Don’t read a section and look for three preachable parallel points. Instead wrestle with what the author is trying to do in this particular section. Sermon outlines can always adjust to fit the text, and they should do so. Don’t adjust the text to fit your outline.
7. Preach to today. Don’t just present a set of commentary labels and then try to apply “back then” truths to today. Instead, preach the text to today, and go “back then” to substantiate what you are saying. Wrestle with how that audience is similar to, and different from, your audience today.
8. Let truth be felt. Epistles can lull us into a false sense of abstraction. Don’t give theological theory, preach the gospel applied to real life (both then and now). Preach tangibly, use implicit imagery, be vivid, help images to form on the heart-screens of your listeners.
The final four tomorrow.
Epistles are often seen as the easiest texts to preach. After all, they tend to be logical, structured and, since they are written to churches, easy to apply. Here are some reminders that may be helpful for effectively preaching epistles:
1. Grasp the narrative. Hang on, I thought we were talking about epistles? Indeed. By exploring the historical setting, especially by paying close attention to the details in the epistle itself, plus any Acts context, we can start to get a sense of the narrative that lies behind the letter. The letter itself is one side of a conversation at one moment in time. “Narratives” can be preached with tension, with feeling, with imagery, etc.
2. Learn the background. Not just the specific occasion of the epistle, but whatever background understanding would help you. For instance, how much do you really know about slavery in the Roman Empire? What about proto-gnostic religions? And the geography? Take the chance to learn more, don’t just try to replenish what you once knew.
3. Familiarise like crazy. Don’t read a letter then preach it. Read it. Read it. Read it again. Each time through, the flow of thought will become clearer and clearer.
4. Focus on the frame. The “letter-frames” often get short shrift from expositors. They shouldn’t. Look at the beginning and end of the epistle: what is included, how conventions are followed or broken, each and every clue to the situation of author and readers.
Tomorrow I’ll share the next four…