[This is the second of two posts on my reflections on preaching. Part 1 can be found here.]
(4) I am convinced more than ever that preaching helps us ask the best questions of the text of Holy Scripture.
Interpretation is driven by and rooted in asking questions. The skill of interpretation of texts is learning how to ask questions of the text and to discern the answers well. There are many different kinds of questions we can and should ask about a text, including the texts of Holy Scripture. We can ask historical questions, grammatical ones, cultural queries; we can do literary analysis, ask about character development; we can ask about the history of the interpretation of a passage or its reception history; we can inquire about how one text connects to other canonical texts or ideas; we can ask what texts teach us about God, the Trinity, and scores of theological and ethical topics. (One unique hermeneutics book that explores a variety of such approaches is Dean Deppe’s All Roads Lead to the Text: Eight Methods of Inquiry into the Bible.)
All such questions can be helpfully asked about the texts of Scripture. Very importantly, the kind of questions we ask are the kind of answers we will get, whether they be historical, grammatical, theological, or personal. The key is to recognize that while all questions are good to ask, some questions are more important and beneficial than others. Every question we ask can help us grow in understanding and appreciation, but some questions are simply more fruitful, powerful, and more in accord with the overall purpose of Scripture.
A problem is that in the modern period, including for most of evangelical hermeneutics, we have put an overemphasis on historical and grammatical questions, either dismissing theological and personal/ethical questions or relegating them to some other stage or type of reading, calling it “application” and not “interpretation.”
But in the long tradition of the Church the texts of Holy Scripture have been approached with a variety of questions (including grammatical and historical) but with a clear recognition that the most important and most beneficial questions are the ones that ask what the texts reveal about the Triune God, how he operates in the world, what we learn about ourselves, and what humanity is called to individually and corporately. This explains why pre-modern preaching feels and sounds so different when read in comparison with the modern work of scholarly interpretation, even when done by evangelicals. The latter approach has narrowed its focus on a certain set of questions that do not easily enable one to make theological, canonical, ethical, and applicational moves.
Good preachers in the modern period are often better than their own limited modern hermeneutic, however, because if they are sensitive at all to the real life spiritual needs of their congregants then they are already accustomed to asking these best questions about how the text reveals God and how it speaks to our real lives. Thus, even though our modern hermeneutics has made us focus on the lower level questions, preaching will always draw us into the higher ones.
Although I am engaged in research, writing, and teaching on many topics and at many levels – literary, grammatical, theological, historical, history of interpretation, etc. – every time I go to preach I am reminded of and forced to ask the best kinds of questions of the texts, the questions that will preach and minister grace to my hearers. And whenever I ask these kinds of questions, Holy Scripture opens in even newer and more profound ways than by my otherwise helpful scholarly methods.
(5) The Word is living and active and there is much freedom in the homiletical work.
As I continue to study texts both as a scholar and as a preacher I am aware that there are many good readings of any text of Holy Scripture. There are plenty of bad and unhelpful readings as well, but the good readings of any text are manifold, dependent partly on which questions are being asked of the text. It is best to think of the meaning/readings of a text as a (bounded) circle not a point.
By extension, the good sermons that can be written from a text are manifold as well. There is not simply one right sermon to be crafted from a text, but many, based on the homiletical freedom that preachers have to emphasize different aspects of a text’s message and to apply it in different ways according to the needs of the season and time and place.
One helpful analogy is that of a megaphone. The bounded pluriform circle of good readings is at the entry end of the megaphone and as we move from textual analysis to homiletical performance the circle widens, representing the number of things that can be said in the sermon.
All of this is bounded by the “double love” of love for God and love for neighbor. In Augustine’s famous book, On Christian Teaching — the 1000-year best seller on hermeneutics and homiletics – he provides discussion of how to read and teach Holy Scripture well, all of which is governed by this double love. Augustine’s argument is that because Jesus clearly teaches that this is the ultimate calling and goal and good of humanity – loving God and neighbor (Matt 22:36-40) – therefore, the best readings of Scripture will inculcate and lead to the same.
(6) Every sermon should be a story, whether it is a narrative text or not.
Exegetical work on a text is NOT the same thing as the exposition and preaching of a text. A sermon is a homiletical event, not the downloading of stuff learned. Humans are story creatures and stories are built on plot, which entails tension and release. Therefore, every sermon as a homiletical and rhetorical event should contain a plotline of tension and release to be effective.
This intentionality of tension and release is one of the differences between teaching and preaching, between a lecture and a sermon. Both teaching and preaching can and should have thoughtful content. And a good lecture and good teaching may have a plotline of tension. In fact, great lectures do. But this is not necessary for teaching and lecturing. A good lecture can focus on communicating content and making connections.
Not so for a good sermon – it MUST take the hearers from one place to another, not just intellectually, but engaging the whole person, mind and heart. For a sermon to be more than a lecture it should be crafted in such a way that it creates a tension that is then released by the message of the text.
In my experience, for teaching texts that are non-narratives it is best to figure out what the text is getting at, what you want to say from this (the homiletical move), and then how to craft the message into a plotline that takes hearers from problem (that you may have to reveal to them first) to solution, engaging their whole person. I have long found that a good way to create this tension and release is to look for a Fallen Condition (some sin or brokenness or simply creatureliness that is part of the human experience), for which the gospel message of the text (something true about who God is for us) provides the Redemptive Solution. This is inspired by Bryan Chapell’s approach. Also see Zack Eswine’s thoughtful, Preaching to a Post-Everything World.
For preaching narrative texts (my favorite) I have found a very helpful approach is (1) set up the tension/question; (2) retell the narrative creatively and freshly; (3) emphasize varieties of applications.
Thus, for both narrative and non-narrative texts, a well-crafted sermon will itself be experienced as a story.
(7) Preaching is above all else a proclamation of God’s kindness in Christ = Gospel.
As I have grown and matured and deepened in my embracing of the gospel over the years, and as I have come to see my own brokenness more clearly and deeply, I have also seen that preaching must be driven by what drives the gospel itself – the proclamation of God’s kindness. It is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4).
Life-giving sermons will contain teaching, and this can be challenging at points and include calls to virtue and repentance. But we must never forget – and this is remarkably easy for preachers to forget – that the gospel is good news and that Jesus’ yoke is “easy and light” (see Matt 11:25-30). Whatever else may be said in a sermon, the main takeaway for the hearers must be a seeing of God’s smiling face in Christ and a lifting of burdens. If not, we run the risk of doing the opposite of the work of Christ, no matter how spiritual and biblical we may appear.
A good test of whether we are preaching Christ-centered and Christ-aligned sermons is whether our hearers would say that they have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8). Whatever changes they might be inspired to make from our applicational work must be rooted in the sense that God is for them in Christ, rooted in experiencing the beauty of who God is. If not, we will end up playing the role of the Pharisees who, while speaking of God, tie heavy burdens upon people all in the name of godliness (Matt 23:4). The woes Jesus pronounces upon such religious preachers and teachers should stand as continual guides as we prepare our sermons (Matt 23:13-39). The broad and easy way of preaching is that of moralism, condemnation, guilt-trips, and burden-laying. One can even build a large ministry and church on such preaching, but it is not the gospel.
(8) Preaching manuscript is still best for me.
Lastly, on a slightly more personal note, ever since I first began preaching I have written out a full manuscript and taken this into the pulpit. I realize I am probably in the minority here, but I am still convinced this is the best – at least for me.
Writing out a sermon manuscript is crucial for gaining clarity of what I want to say because, as I teach my doctoral students all the time, writing is not the end product of clear thinking, it is the way to get to clear thinking. Writing out my sermons fully is the only way I can tell if what I’m saying actually makes sense, flows well, and is personal and specific, not just general platitudes.
Many would agree with this but not recommend taking the manuscript into the pulpit. I still do so because I want to remain clear, focused, and directed in where I’m going all throughout the preaching moment. I do often leave my manuscript, adding or subtracting things in the preaching moment (especially in the second or third service once I’ve run through it!), but I still like to have the whole message laid out before me and with me in the pulpit. I admit this is somewhat of a Linus Van Pelt security blanket for me!
I think the key to actually preaching from a manuscript well is to have worked through it enough times and have it deeply ingrained enough in your psyche to be able to preach without reading it. I also go through it many times and mark and highlight sentences with a pen that I want to make sure I get right and not miss. I doubt anyone can tell that I have the whole manuscript in front of me because I certainly don’t have my face buried in it. But I use it as a reference point for my open speaking and also have times where I use it to say exactly what I’ve written. I suppose I should ask my hearers what their experience is, but it seems to work well for me to alternate between extemporaneous speaking (that is actually what I’ve already written mostly) and brief times of speaking right out of my manuscript. I recognize that there is personal preference here as well.
I hope these reflections have been helpful for my readers.
Here are the sermons I preached in the Meals with Jesus series:
- “Jesus and the Dinner Twist” (Luke 7:36-50) – Sojourn J-Town
- “Jesus and the Delicious Humble Pie” (Luke 14:7-24) – Sojourn East
- “Jesus and the Child of Abraham” (Luke 19:1-10) – Sojourn J-Town
- “Jesus and the Lord’s Last Supper” (Luke 22:7-20) – Sojourn J-Town