One of my early posts on this site was called “A Low Fence.” I have recalled that post many times, and since yesterday’s post related to the idea, I thought I’d give it a revamp:
When you have a single text for a sermon, you also need a fence. The fence is there to keep you from wandering too far away from your focus.
1. Erect a fence for the passage – If you are preaching John 3, put your fence around John (or maybe the section of John 1-4). If you are preaching Colossians 1, put a perimeter around Colossians. That fence means you try to keep your study, and your presentation, within John, or Colossians.
2. Study inside the fence – As you try to make sense of details within your passage, try not to spend all your time visiting other writers and other eras of biblical history. By staying within the writing of that author, or if possible, within this writing of that author, you will put your energy into the best evidence to find authorial intent within your passage. The fence marks off the best context for your study. Staying there will help you to spot the flow of thought within the passage, as well as the way the author is using a word or concept.
3. Preach inside the fence – As we thought about in the last post, it is often tempting to present a sermon in our own preferred terms (or preferred texts, cross-references, etc.) A couple of things can be said of cross-references. (1) Listeners don’t love a biblical “sword drill” and tend to switch off when a message becomes too textually complicated, and yet (2) Listeners seem to praise the preacher for being “deep” or some such non-compliment often misunderstood as endorsement. But it isn’t just about jumping around the canon. How easily we will preach a Resurrection passage in a Gospel using Paul’s terminology from 1 Corinthians 15. Or how easily our standard Christian terms get painted on every text so that the distinctive vocabulary of Luke or John or Hebrews or Peter is lost.
4. It only needs to be a low fence – I am not suggesting that you study, or preach, a biblical book in isolation from other inspired texts. I am suggesting that you honour the author of the book both in your study and in your preaching. With a low fence you can step back into the Old Testament to look at a passage that informs your preaching passage, or you can step over to other writings by the same author for a more complete word study. With a low fence you can choose to step beyond the book for a quick presentation of how this apparently unusual idea is actually very biblical. With a low fence you can choose to step forward to see the culmination of momentum found in your text.
These are the three reasons I tend to step over the fence –
A. For the informing texts that help me understand my preaching text,
B. For the supporting texts that help others accept my preaching text, or
C. For a culminating passage that helps to conclude a trajectory in my preaching text.
Otherwise, I’d say it is generally best to stay where you are. I certainly don’t think we should spend much time going elsewhere just because other passages have similar wording, nor to offer “illustration” for the truth of our passage, and definitely not to fill time. Dig in the text you have, honour the author by doing so, and give your listeners the best you can from this passage. Next week it will be a different one.
(To see the original post with worked example from Hebrews 13:20-21 – click here.)