The sermon: a cultural oasis in a Christian’s week
This is from David Wells’ recently published God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love Reorients our World:
‘the rapidity with which the whole of the media-filtered, technology-delivered world is changing. It never stands still long enough for us to take our bearings on it. What is important and what is not, what is weighty and what is ephemeral, what is tragic and what is trivial, meet us with about the same intensity. It becomes hard, sometimes, to tell which is which. Our world blurs amid the rapid flow of facts, factoids, images, voices, laughter, entertainment, and vapid commentary. We slowly lose the capacity to see the connections between things. Life seems to have no shape. It looks like a sequence of fast-moving random experiences with no center and little meaning. Not only does a Christian worldview disappear; the very capacity for such a thing becomes tenuous. How then will we hear this other music from another place [i.e. the voice of God]? How will we hear the Drummer’s beat above the sounds of this world?’ (pp.184-85).
In this cultural context, simply to stand and proclaim Christ from the Scriptures every week uninterrupted for a stretch of time, relatively free of technological gimmick and change of image or topic every thirty seconds, will itself have a cultural impact. It will be an oasis in the week for the Christian, in which the blur of information-flow and entertainment-options is deliberately stopped, and in which that which is most significant in the world is relentlessly portrayed to them.
Indeed, if Wells is right that our world makes it especially difficult for people to give meaningful shape to their lives, then weekly preaching is likely also to be the crucial place in which, over the weeks and years, a coherent Christian worldview is built up in their minds and souls. And, at the risk of getting too grandiose, it may well increasingly be, as a result in part of such preaching, that young Christians find that they can articulate and defend a consistent worldview in a way that very few of their unconverted peers can.
It can still be expository preaching if….
…it’s not a sermon on in a series on a Bible book. It makes good and wise sense for a decent amount of a church’s preaching to consist of consecutive expository sermons through Bible books, whether whole or parts. Cornhill Director Christopher Ash has set some of these reasons out in his excellent booklet Listen Up. I think it also follows simply from the nature of verbal revelation as God has given it to us. The Holy Spirit inspired and has preserved for us not a set of unrelated theological and exhortatory bullet-points, but full literary pieces. Preaching that aims to be faithful to Scripture must reflect the form as well as the content, and consecutive exposition is a good way of doing that.
However… good tool, bad master. We are not first of all educationalists delivering programmes of instruction; we are first of all shepherds with a flock whom the Lord has entrusted to us, so we might shepherd them and feed them (you can see I was in 1 Peter 5 yesterday). So did three people in a church of seventy souls die in the last month? Their pastor might well scrap his planned series for a week to preach 1 Thess 4.13-18. Of course if he’s doing this kind of every other week, the agenda is probably being set by him, not the Word. But let’s not run away from that cliff-edge only to fall off the other side.
Every pastor will also decide how much of his planned preaching ministry ought to be consecutive, and how much not. Of course, even the topical and doctrinal sermons must at heart be expository: that is, the main point of the sermon must be the main point of one passage, or a couple. Expository preaching: not a detailed set of methods, but a deep conviction that preaching must be first and last Scripture-driven.
It can still be expository preaching if….
…the preacher doesn’t take us explicitly through every verse in the passage. Different preachers will take different views on how often they should say “now look with me at v.15”, or “did you notice the therefore in v.1?”, or “see how those three participle clauses all depend on the same main verb” (I threw that last one in as a joke).
Just how much of that the preacher actually says in the sermon seems to me to be entirely an area for freedom of choice. It will be determined partly by the preacher’s style; it should also be significantly determined by the audience he’s speaking to: what will genuinely help these particular people open themselves to what the Holy Spirit aims to do in them by means of this Word?
Of course there are limits. On the one hand, we rejoice in the Protestant heritage that put the Bible in everyone’s hands, so that people can literally see for themselves that the minister’s authority is derived only from the Word. Therefore we will want to show them clearly that our message comes from Scripture, not from ourselves. On the other hand, we are not there to give oral commentaries in which every interesting and supporting textual feature must be mentioned.
Between these two extremes is a freedom for the preacher to explore with wisdom, as he seeks to preach to his particular flock as well as he can. As with so many things, perhaps it’s good to break a habit deliberately sometimes. Do you love mentioning Greek connectives, especially if you think your English Bible foolishly missed one out? Lighten up. The main point will still be clear enough in the English words that are there. Could someone leave your sermon not entirely clear that it was Scripture you were preaching? Get their noses in the God-breathed words that are your authority.
It can still be expository preaching if….
…in a particular week in the rough-and-tumble of pastoral ministry the preacher hasn’t been able to put in the study hours to work out all the tough bits of his preaching-text. Take the end of 1 John ch.5. Verse 15 is tricky. People have probably written whole PhDs on vs.16-17. And I have serious doubts over whether the translation ‘continue to sin’ in v.18 is right (just a simple present tense in the Greek). Also there’s that (in)famous final verse: just how has this whole letter actually been about idolatry? It may well take up all my realistically available study time working all that out. Ah, but there’s then a sermon to construct and application to work through.
But if I look again I can see, after a few hours rather than whole days, that some things are clear: whatever vs.14-15 are exactly promising, it’s an example of the extremely clear v.13. In fact the praying in vs.16-17 looks like a further outworking of v.13. Moving towards the end, v.20 is a beautifully clear and profound verse that rounds off quite a few of the themes John set out in 1.1-4. So, in and around vs.13 and 20,I have plenty to say in my sermon that I have good reason for believing is at the heart of the main point of 5.13-21. Some of the tougher things can wait for another time, if need be.
Dever and Gilbert in their recent book Preach say that expository preaching is preaching that makes the main point of your sermon the same as the main point of your passage. It’s still expository preaching this Sunday if this week you haven’t worked out every tough detail in the text and aren’t going to confuse/bore your folks with half-baked exegetical musings, but having worked to get the main point of the passage you ruthlessly put the commentaries away and gave a good chunk of your prep hours to working on application and communication.
Watching over the flock
Chalke again (see here and here). And again today. Sad though it is, in a way I am glad that Steve’s statement is such a blatant expression of already existing liberal positions. Better to have openness than pretence.
We preachers have a key task, week by week, year by year, in making sure that our people aren’t swayed by attractively presented error when it happens to be promoted in their direction. The apostle Peter puts it in terms of watching over the flock that is under your care (1 Peter 5.2). A while ago I was helped by Timothy Witmer’s The Shepherd Leader to think through the elders’ vital task of protecting the flock from error through the right kind of regular preaching. (He did, though, fail to persuade me to turn Presbyterian.)
Some may fear that Chalke’s article will unsettle many believers. That is surely less likely to happen to those whose preachers have not just spoken the truth but have also denied the error. There are some who denounce others by name from the pulpit most Sundays, and their protective warnings probably lose impact according to the ‘boy who cried wolf’ principle. Others of us prefer not to be thought of as nasty name-callers, and by nature err on the side of too much just-saying-the-positive and too little pointing-out-of-the-negative. It’s vital for those who preach regularly to know our natural tendency and to keep working to correct it, so that the flock under our care develops the spiritual instinct to sense serious error when it comes their way, however famous and engaging its proponent.
As it happens, I am preaching this Sunday on 1 John 4.1-6: the ones who know God are those who bring their beliefs and conduct into line with the truth taught by the apostles who saw and heard the Truth himself. I think I will need to do some protecting.
And after the Bible reading…
…that’s where the sermon usually comes in our services, maybe with a hymn or song in between if you like that kind of thing. I wonder, though, whether the goal of comprehensible proclamation means we should sometimes tinker with this standard procedure, and allow the preacher a few minutes on his feet setting the scene for the reading of the passage, so that the congregation will better understand it when it’s read, before he then launches into the rest of the sermon.
This is something I have done occasionally, and I found myself wanting to do it again recently when preaching on chs.2 and 3 of Hosea (or rather Hosea 2:2-3:5, as I think that the natural break is after 2:1, as in the NIV, rather than at the end of ch.1, as in the ESV). I found myself looking at that passage, thinking: If this is read without introduction, I suspect that all but the keenest with the best memories will spend most of their time not so much taking the reading in but wondering who this ‘mother’ and ‘wife’ is 2:1, who the people with bizarre names are (2:23), and so on.
I’ve known some churches that have encouraged the person reading the Scripture in the service to give a sentence or two of introduction before the reading, either composed themselves (having rightly appointed to that task only people with a decent knowledge of Scripture), or else given to them by the preacher. I’d prefer to take this to its logical conclusion at let the preacher do it his way.
You might be able to bring some deep principles to bear on this seemingly small issue: shouldn’t Protestant principles lead us to have Scripture simply read publicly, before someone steps up to interpret and proclaim it? Should Scripture appear ‘wrapped up’ in commentary like this, rather than in a sense appearing in its own right in our worship?
But my concern is pragmatic: to promote the greatest possible comprehension of and engagement with the word of God in public worship. And that is a great Protestant theological principle too.
And now….. introducing the preacher
How do you, the preacher, want the service-leader to announce that the sermon is coming next? Many of us will have thought that through. Many will have tried to educate our leaders to move beyond describing the sermon like it’s a Sunday lecture (“Brian will now teach/explain that passage to us”), and certainly not to downplay its authority as a declaration of the gospel (“Brian will come and share with us from that passage”).
What is said at that key point in the service says a lot, even unthinkingly, about what we actually believe the sermon is really for. There’s no single ideal phrase, but at the moment I like this: “Brian will be proclaiming Christ to us from the Scriptures”. At least this nails three crucial things:
1. The sermon is a proclamation. It’s not a discussion-by-monologue, and it’s not the reading out of an exegetical essay with some implications tacked on.
2. It’s core ought to be Christ himself. This obviously says something about preaching the OT (i.e. would your sermon be applauded in the synagogue?) But here I mean something in addition, which needs saying carefully. I mean: Christ himself and not just his benefits. Paul did not tell the Corinthians that he resolved to know nothing among them except the cross. He resolved to know only ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor 2.2) – the message of a crucified Christ being an especially important corrective in Corinth.
3. It’s from the Scriptures – normally what’s just been read to us. It’s not the passage in front of us a launch-pad into something else, but an exposition of God’s Word.
Proclamation of Christ himself from God’s Word. And if Brian’s not properly geared up for all three parts of that, maybe he’ll rightly be too nervous to get to his feet.
What has Hilary of Poitiers got to do with PT? Quite a lot as it turns out.
‘We look to Thee to give us the fellowship of that Spirit who guided the prophets and apostles, that we may take their words in the sense in which they spoke and assign its right shade of meaning to every utterance.’
That is from Hilary of Poitiers’ De Trinitate (c. AD 350). I came across it this week, quoted by Douglas Kelly, learned Patristic scholar and Professor at RTS in Charlotte, in vol.1 of his Systematic Theology. It comes early on in Kelly’s book (p.50 – this is a book where p.50 really is early on). It’s in the middle of a beautiful section of ten pages or so on ‘Faith and Prayer’, setting out the centrality of prayer for all knowledge of God from a sample of godly men in Scripture and Christian history.
- It did my soul some good, and perhaps a this list of the different things it made me think of may do you some good too:
- I came across this in a learned book of systematic theology, and the focus on prayer was a surprise. Why was I reading this book? So I would have opportunities to drop some of its learning into future conversations and teaching and thereby feel good? Or was I at some level reading with a desire to be drawn to praise God more deeply?
- What PT aims to focus on is an ancient and thoroughly orthodox thing. Here’s part of our aim, Hilary-style: to assign the right shade of meaning to every utterance of Scripture, and to do so by taking the words in the sense in which they were first spoken.
- Wherever that task becomes merely the accumulation of techniques, and is not prayer-full from start to finish, it has become a horrible aberration.
- Expository preaching is a thoroughly Holy Spirit-dependent task. He spoke through those who wrote the Bible, and we as preachers need him now. Every expository preacher is doing no more (and no less!) than putting his energies in line with the consistency of the Holy Spirit’s past and present actions.
- We ought not to be shy of telling people that that’s why we’re doing what doing. We ought not to be thought of as those who speak much less about the Spirit in relation to our preaching than others do; differently maybe, but certainly not less.
The theology of preaching
At a theological conference last week I asked a very knowledgeable theologian and church minister what book he would recommend on the theology of preaching. He wasn’t exactly brimming over with suggestions. The topic is on my mind because it’s an area in which we are attempting to beef up what we teach at Cornhill. Of course we will continue to teach preaching to a large extent through thorough study of books of Scripture and intensive practice, but we who teach at Cornhill also reckon that we need to strengthen our theology of preaching. By that I don’t mean the principles and practices of biblical exposition themselves, but a rich biblical and theological understanding of why we are right to do what we do when we preach, and of what preaching is in relation to other aspects of Word ministry.
So this week I have turned back to one reliable book that purports to address this topic head-on: Peter Adam’s Speaking God’s Word: A Practical Theology of Preaching. I’ve partly found what I’m looking for there, but (if I’m honest) not entirely. Yet there are many good things in the book. In one lovely section he sets out some of the reasons that Calvin gave for why God established the ministry of preaching. Here’s a taste:
- God is invisible, so he uses the mouths of preachers as his delegates.
- He shows his regard for humanity, by deigning to use some of them as his ambassadors.
- It teaches Christians humility: ‘when a puny man risen from the dust speaks in God’s name, at this point we best evidence our piety and obedience toward God if we show ourselves teachable towards his minister although he excels us in nothing’ (a great line to remember the next time someone in church intimates that they think you’re ‘puny’ – or if I’m tempted to look down on other faithful preachers as not ‘up to my level’).
- It fosters mutual love. We all have to sit there on the same level listening to the same message.
- It is not enough to preach ‘as though a man should teach in a school’. ‘We must moreover be quickened up with good and vehement exhortations; we must be rebuked as if a man should search a wound’. Peter Adam himself gives some excellent tips on how to put the latter into practice; not least: spend at least as much prep-time thinking and praying through how to apply your exposition profoundly the body of people you’ll be speaking to, as you do working on the text. Not, of course, an excuse to reduce my text-work time! Very tough to do, as we all know – and as all really valuable things are.
What is marriage?
That’s the title of a book I’m reading at the moment, written by three American academics (Girgis, Anderson and George, pub. by Encounter Books, subtitle: Man and Woman: A Defense). It’s my current ‘train book’ on my commute home. They defend the traditional view of marriage from an entirely secular viewpoint. Christians will therefore conclude that there is a lot more about marriage that can and should be said from Scripture. Nevertheless I’ve found it helpful. In particular it’s helped me get clearer on one particular question: exactly why is it that legislating for same-sex marriage will change marriage for everyone else? That point has been made by C4M and others, and I’ve felt myself agreeing with it without exactly being certain why. Maybe you have been ahead of me on this, but I couldn’t quite answer to my own satisfaction those who retorted: how does granting marriage to a few thousand gay couples in reality threaten what marriage is for the heterosexual majority?
The authors helped me on this by spelling out that legislation for same-sex marriage will likely lead in due course to the definition of marriage being settled by that which opposite-sex and same-sex marriages have in common. And that cannot amount to anything more than emotional union with the presumption of some (undefined) sexual activity. The key thing that this removes from both the legal and commonly assumed definitions from marriage is any remaining trace of the fundamental and organic relationship of marriage to children.
Here’s what this made me think about preaching and pastoring on marriage. I wonder if in the past I have focused my preaching and pastoring too much on marriage as ‘emotional union with sexual activity’ and too little on marriage as fundamentally and organically about children and their socialisation and (supremely) their upbringing in the faith? If that’s right then perhaps I was unwittingly influenced too much by our secular society’s undue focus, which has been growing over decades, on the ‘personal fulfilment/satisfaction’ aspects of marriage. The Lord can use even our society’s drifts into foolishness and sin to bring us new light on his good gifts and how to teach them in proper biblical proportion.