Details, Details!

There are details, and then there are details. There are textual details in your preparation. And there are textual details in your presentation. After all, every passage is made up of lots of details. There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, names, quotations, allusions, grammatical constructions, figures of speech, and on the list goes. Whatever kind of passage you are looking at, it is built with the basic building block of details.

1. Details in Sermon Preparation. We should begin the study process with an interest in every detail. To study a text is to try to figure out why each detail is present, what it is intended to do, and how they all combine to convey a message. It might also help to notice what is not included. Exegesis is more than the study of details, but it can never be less than that.

The Bible is not written with padding to reach a word count – it wasn’t written by procrastinating students! The Bible is not a cheap paperback, overly elaborating every incidental detail to give the impression of a complex plot. The Bible is sparing in detail, precise in its writing.

Our job as Bible students is to see and interpret every element of the text. We can’t springboard off a keyword and ignore the rest of the passage. We must make sure our understanding of every detail coheres. If one detail is left untouched, we can’t be confident that we have grasped the message as a whole. So we scour the text, moving back and forth between analysis of details and synthesis of the whole passage in its broader context. We alternate between microscope and binoculars.

As we study the text we start to recognize that some details serve a more significant role in communicating the message of the text. Some details are important in making our passage unique. Other details are “load-bearing walls” in this passage. Every detail matters, but not every detail carries equal weight in a passage. It is only through careful study that we can identify which is which.

2. Details in Sermon Presentation. When it comes time to deliver our sermon we are limited by time and motivated by purpose. What is our purpose when we preach? It is not to present every avenue of inquiry that we have pursued in our study. It is not to download all of our accumulated information to our listeners. Our purpose is tied to our main idea and its application in the lives of our listeners. Therefore we select which details to highlight in order to effectively communicate this passage to these people.

This selection process involves an evaluation of the passage. In light of the study, what are the critical “load-bearing” details in the passage? It also involves evaluating our listeners. Are there details that may distract our listeners, or would our failure to pay attention to a detail come across as evading it, or as a mistake on our part? Some details can be explained quickly and easily, others take more time, but we will never have enough time to explain every detail as much as we might like.

Preaching is not as simple as following a formula. It isn’t simply study a passage, write a message and deliver it. We need to be meticulous in our study, but selective in our sermon. We need to treat every detail like the treasure that it is – an inspired word in God’s Word. And we need to preach God’s Word in a way that honours the words, but always seeing them as part of the coherent message of the passage as a whole. We need to pray for wisdom to see the passage as the original author intended, and to hear the message as our congregation will hear it presented. May we all grow in the varied skills it takes to handle all these details!

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This resource may be helpful for you or others on the subject of studying Bible passages:

3 Likely Outcomes of Bible-Lite Preaching

You can save a lot of sermon time if you simply summarize the passage, or only briefly touch on the text.  It allows you so many more precious minutes for application and relevance.   But at what cost?  What is lost by eliminating any extended explanation or retelling of narratives?  What is the cost to listeners of not really entering into the world of the passage being preached?  Here are 3 likely outcomes of Bible-lite preaching:

1. Biblical immaturity.  People shaped by Bible-lite preaching will not grow towards the kind of biblical maturity that they will need to thrive in this complex and difficult world.  Knowing a few popular proof texts and surface truths liberally mixed with applicational anecdotes and motivational missives will not be enough to weather the storms of life in this world.  To be mature believers they need the soul-reinforcement that comes from deep biblical-rootedness.

2.  Anemic Devotions.  For half an hour on Sunday our people observe a “mature Christian” handling the Bible.  They will copy what they see.  If you skim the surface in order to share superficial suggestions for life that aren’t deeply rooted in the Word, then guess what they will learn for the rest of the week?  Superficial engagement with the Bible on a personal level.  In fact, they are more likely to make some good worship music on the way to work their daily devotional content and leave the Bible on the shelf.  Why? Because your sermons don’t demonstrate that the Bible has any real weight, personal significance, genuine relevance or divine authority.

3. Godless Christianity.  What is Godless Christianity?  I don’t know, it is an oxymoron.  But I do know, sadly.  It is the kind of christian culture that reinforces itself week after week in many churches – the kind of nice and encouraging sub-culture that has a thin veneer of christian labeling attached to a set of behaviours and attitudes like a set of post-its … that is, not very solid under the slightest wind of difficulty or purposeful inspection.  Bible-lite preaching may encourage people to try to live out the Christian life, but without drawing them deeper into the source of that life – relationship with the Trinity.

As preachers we have a double-duty, or even a double delight: to enable people to encounter the God of the Bible as they enter into His Word, and to be changed by that encounter.  These two go together.  But don’t short-change the first by skipping to the second.  As the world seems to spin further and further away from the anchors of Biblical truth, people need to be more biblically literate and mature, not less.  Today, people need to have more exposure to God’s self-revelation in the Bible, not less.

Feeling Flat?

When the Covid-19 crisis rolled across Europe in March, everything changed.  Maybe you found the experience overwhelming, or challenging, or perhaps even invigorating.  Somehow, when crisis hits and our adrenaline surges, we tend to lean on the Lord and find ways through the situation.  But after adrenaline there is always a settling period, when it is the most normal thing in the world to feel emotionally flat.  Maybe by now you have arrived there too?

Two Types of Feeling Flat

When we feel flat we tend to have lowered motivation and energy.  We may be doing less, but somehow feeling more tired.  We feel a loss of creativity and initiative.  Flatness is not a new feeling, but having so many of us experience it at the same time is slightly unusual.

“I’m feeling flat” is something I’ve heard a lot recently.  But there is another type of flatness that is perhaps more concerning.  It is the unconscious flatness that we don’t tend to recognize in ourselves – we don’t spot it in the mirror.

Unconscious flatness could be called spiritual coasting.  Coasting is where you disengage the motor of the car you are driving and allow past momentum and present circumstances to roll the car forwards.  This kind of driving is dangerous.  It changes the braking and steering in the car, but perhaps most concerning is that it can give a false sense of security.  After all, the engine noise reduces and the car keeps moving forwards.

We need to respond when we are feeling flat, especially when we become aware of this unconscious flatness, or spiritual coasting.

Responding to Feeling Flat

The typical human response to feeling flat will not be spiritually healthy.  We may default to distraction, to self-recrimination, or to laziness.  That is, we can fill the void with busy work, new pursuits, or entertainment.  We can beat ourselves up with the “I need to try harder!” kind of self-coaching.  Or we can settle into our flat state and get comfortable.  Typical human responses will tend to be self-oriented and spiritually unhealthy.

What should we do when we understandably feel flat or discover we have drifted into a state of flatness?  Our emotions are great indicators of deeper realities in our hearts, and they should be prompts to connect relationally – with others, and with God.

When we feel flat, we tend to pull back from others.  Living through a pandemic only reinforces that possibility – it is a government-mandated withdrawal!  But spiritually we need to connect and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in whatever way we can (even if that means using Zoom!)

Most of all, we need to re-connect with Christ.  We need to spend time with Him, because only Christ can invigorate our hearts and stir life in us.  And yet our default fleshly response will be to pull in the opposite direction.

Let me share one thing about Christ that may encourage you to bring your tired and emotionally flat heart to Him in these days.  I want to point to two passages and focus particularly on what they teach about how Christ cares for the weak and vulnerable.  Does going to Christ mean accessing the ultimate personal trainer who can shout the loudest?  Not at all.

Motivation for Connection

Isaiah 42:1-4 is the first of Isaiah’s famous “Servant songs.”  At first glance it could look intimidating.  After all, three times it declares that this servant of the LORD will establish justice on the earth.  Surely one who is tough on crime will be overwhelmingly powerful and intimidating?  But not so.  Verse 2 tells us that he is not full of himself, nor does he demand everyone’s attention.  And verse 3 describes his way of dealing with the weak:

                         “a bruised reed he will not break,

                                         And a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”

That is the kind of God that motivates me to lift a bruised and tired heart up toward him.  Feeling flat?  Connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.

That truth is painted in narrative colour in John 21.  The adrenaline of the first Easter has faded and seven of the disciples are back in Galilee, heading out to fish for the night.  Whatever their motivation, I am sure that part of the issue was that they felt flat.  Read the chapter and watch Jesus care for them.  He could have criticized, shouted, corrected, berated, or chastised them.  He didn’t.

Instead, Jesus gently reminds them of their calling to ministry by miraculously filling their nets with fish, again.  He gently reminds them that he will continue to provide for them by lovingly preparing a barbecued breakfast, a God-given meal of fish and bread, again.  He gently re-established Peter’s position within the group by re-affirming his shepherding role.  In this chapter he reminds them of their calling to evangelism and edification ministries, he reminds them of his ability to continue to provide for them, and he even grants Peter his desire to die for Jesus – only this time with a 30+ year warning.  The content of his teaching is powerful and challenging, but his manner is gentle and tender.

This is the kind of God that can motivate us to lift our flattened hearts up toward him.  Dare to connect with the only one who can be fully trusted with your heart.

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I have recently been adding highlights from John’s Gospel to my YouTube channel: