Two fundamental preaching mistakes (1)
There are many mistakes we can make in preaching – right from the moment we open our Bibles on a Monday morning through to the delivery of the sermon and what happens afterwards, there are many traps into which we could fall. But to those committed to expository preaching, there are two fundamental preaching mistakes, two wrong philosophies (if you like) that we can be tempted to embrace. During my preaching life I’ve committed both of these, although (almost certainly like you) one is more of a tendency than the other.
The first fundamental preaching mistake is to pursue style at the expense of substance. Frankly, this is the current worldly trend. We think that, in order to be engaging, style is everything and so we give everything to this cause with the result that our exposition becomes exposition-lite. In fact, it is so thin, it becomes a kind of jus de chausette: so weak, insipid and tasteless that it is no earthly good whatsoever.
Herein lies the great challenge. A sermon can sound great, look great, feel great (people might even say it is great) – but if it has no content, it is NOT great. It cannot be. Period. A sermon without substance is not a sermon. A preacher is not a great preacher if his preaching is without substance.
And there is always a danger that this is the kind of preacher we might become and the kind of preaching we might propagate. We are so keen to communicate to today’s generation in a vivid, engaging, contemporary, eye-catching and memorable way that style trumps substance every time. It’s a fundamental preaching mistake.
Preaching Noah, part 3: systematic theology
In the previous two posts I’ve outlined some exegesis of Genesis 6.9-7.24, and set it in a very little biblical theology. My aim in this little series of posts on Noah is to show that apparently fine decisions in the interplay of exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology will make for big differences in sermons on this text. Now to systematic theology for an example.
Back in Genesis we were told that Noah is righteous and blameless (6.9; 7.1). Genesis makes clear that it’s a righteousness set against the background of an evil world, summed up in the phrase ‘righteous in this generation’ (7.1).
An obvious bit of theology that immediately pops into the mind of every evangelical preacher who rightly does not want to downplay sin is that, in the words of Romans 3.10, ‘there is no one righteous, not even one’. A further bit of commonplace theology may then occur: saved people do perform righteous acts, but the point is that they can only ever do so by virtue of God’s grace coming to the sinner first.
If I allow these (true!) theological thoughts to control where my sermon will go, I am likely to commend Noah as an example of a sinner justified by grace and sanctified to trust in the Lord because of that. In other words, I will fit Genesis 6.8 into my ‘justification grid’ and 6.9 into my ‘sanctification grid’. I think it is also likely that a sermon that is shaped in this way by these bits of theology is likely to have little to say about the salvation of Noah’s family and of the animals – whereas the Genesis text has a lot to say about both of these things.
It’s already clear that I don’t want my sermon on Noah to go in these directions. Too much that the text majors on would be lost – Noah’s unqualified righteousness; his righteousness as the reason for him being saved; the salvation of others simply because they are his family or are with him. And the sermon would major on too much that is at most only implicit in Genesis: justification by faith; prevenient grace; Noah as a type of Christian the believer. I will note salvation by grace in my text, but I’ll see it in the grace extended to Noah’s family, by virtue of their belonging to the one righteous man. In the way Genesis is written Noah is primarily Christ and we are primarily Noah’s family.
Therefore, I think that the text itself leads me to set it in perhaps less frequented contexts, and these point the way to the points and applications that I will make:
– in biblical theology: people’s fate is often determined by the righteousness or otherwise of their head; this theme runs strongly through Israel’s history.
– in systematic theology: Christ was saved through the judgment of the cross because of his obedient righteousness (Phil 2.8-9), and in this he is of course unique. Our sole and sure way to be saved from coming judgment is to become members of his family.
Preaching Noah, part 2: biblical theology
We’ve done some exegesis on Genesis 6.9-7.24 (see previous post). Now let’s move to how the rest of Scripture will help us. I’ll stick to two texts where Noah comes up explicitly:
(1) In Ezekiel 14.14 (and similarly in v.20) God says that if a country sins and he plans to send famine to kill its people, ‘even if these three men – Noah, Daniel and Job – were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord.’
I’m noting through these Noah posts how rather fine decisions make big differences in preaching this text. We come to one here:
(i) Does this Ezekiel reference tell me that Noah’s family could not have been saved just because they were related to a righteous man? If I think so, then I will probably assume that Noah’s family were righteous like him, and saved for that reason. I will consequently preach that the only way to be saved is to be righteous by trusting in the Lord’s word, just as Noah and his family were.
(ii) However I might decide that this Ezekiel verse assumes that the reader thinks that someone can be saved from God’s judgment because of another’s righteousness, and shocks them by saying that in this case they can’t be. If I go for this, I am more likely to preach that salvation is found by being a family member of the one man who is truly and uniquely righteous.
The first of these two options fits more naturally with much contemporary evangelical preaching. However I’m going to go with the second, because I think it fits best with the impact that Ezekiel 14 seems to be making, and also with what is explicitly said in Genesis 6-7 (only Noah is righteous).
(2) A second relevant verse: ‘By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with [or: comes by] faith’ (Heb. 11.7). Another issue faces us here:
(i) Is this verse telling us that the primary purpose of Gen 6-7 was to set out Noah as an example of faith in God’s word when God warned him of coming judgment? If I go for this option, I’m going to preach Noah as an example to be followed of trust in God’s warnings about judgment.
(ii) Or is Heb. 11.7 telling us that Noah can be seen in Gen 6-7 to be exercise faith, even though that may not be a main point of that narrative?
If I go for this option, my sermon on Genesis 6-7 may legitimately make a point of Noah as a man of faith, but it need not, if I think my text itself majors on other things.
I go for (ii). I note that Heb. 11.7, while stressing Noah’s exemplary faith, also speaks of his unique role: his obedience to God saved his family and condemned the world; mine doesn’t, but Christ’s did. These unique aspects of Noah were what stood out in my exegesis, so I’ll choose to keep those at the forefront, and not let the Hebrews focus on faith shift me somewhere else.
Preaching Noah, part 1: exegesis
I’ve come recently, not for the first time in the last year, to Noah and the flood. It so happens that I’ve just been teaching those chapters at Cornhill and am preaching soon on Genesis 6.9-7.24 in my own church.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the way a preacher ends up applying this text will be markedly affected by seemingly fine decisions he makes with regard to the interplay of exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology. I know that’s true of every sermon on any text. But I reckon that with Noah apparently small decisions, or assumptions not thought through, can lead to very significant different lines of application. Let me set out what I mean.
For today, exegesis. Two key features stand out in the text:
(1) Noah was saved because he was righteous and blameless. Genesis 6.8 ends the previous section with a cliffhanger: ‘But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.’ How this came about is immediately explained: Noah was righteous and blameless, and (or perhaps: in that) he obeyed God’s commandments about the ark (6.9, 22; 7.1, 5, 16). 7.1 makes most explicit that Noah is saved because he is righteous.
(2) The key to any other creature being saved is to be with Noah (6.18, 19, 20, 21; 7.1, 9, 15). If we ask of the narrative, ‘why are Noah’s family saved?’, the answer seems to be: because they are Noah’s family. Similarly, the animals that are saved are saved because they are said to come to Noah to be with Noah. The final line of 7.23 sums up the text’s most explicit repetitions: ‘Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark.’ It’s Noah who’s saved – oh, and those who happen to be his, and to be with him.
As a preacher I’ve now got some issues to face…
Part of my gut feels that I should be preaching that Noah was a sinner saved by grace through his faith in God’s word, but I honestly struggle to find that said explicitly of him here.
To put the same thing the other way round: a very large part of my gut feels that I don’t want to preach salvation by works – so what am I to do with all this stress on Noah’s righteousness and obedience?
At the very least what I mustn’t do is shape sermon points and applications which will lead me to airbrush out those features which are undeniably explicit in the text.
Next step: to move (in the next post) to biblical theology, to see how that will help.
Pastoral road trip
It may go a little quiet from me next week: it’s our UK school half-term which also coincides with the PT Cornhill half-term. I’m taking a few days off to take a friend on a Normandy D-Day landing road trip. This is visit 7 or 8 for me and I love it. Someone said to me last week that the idea of war stories (endlessly repeating the same anecdotes with ever increasing amounts of unlikely but truthful detail) was right up my street. I know, but I took it as a compliment! And he was right, anyway.
These kinds of trips do me (and I hope my companions) the world of good. In many ways, I find them better for forging friendships than stay-at-home read the Bible sessions. We do that whilst we’re away, of course. But there is so much more to talk about when you’re out and about and conversations develop naturally; we’re not just learning to read the Bible well (a good thing, of course), but we’re learning to apply the Bible well as we just talk about stuff, even stuff that happened 70 years ago. So, it’s a break, but it’s also a pastoral trip which will do me good and, I’m praying, my companion too. I commend it to you.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of our Cornhill Training Course, so-called not because it was sponsored by a large insurance conglomerate, but because it started in a church building in a road called Cornhill! We’re grateful to God for what we’ve been able to achieve under his sovereign hand. I myself have much to thank God for personally, having been greatly helped during the two years I spent here (I like to call the “Golden Years” though it has not yet caught on).
Maybe this is the time to think about 2016? Perhaps you have someone in your church who would benefit from a couple of days a week? This year, we’ve even had someone from Jersey, so you may not be as out of reach as you think. Or perhaps you are a reader who has been thinking about extra training and now the moment has come? We’d love to hear from you either way.
Please also be praying for us. This time of year is when the applications ramp up and, working with local churches (we don’t make all the decisions, some are surprised to hear), we want to take on men and women who will serve the church with faithfulness and godliness. So, please pray we would have discernment in the midst of the process. There’s more information here.
I had an interesting conversation this morning with someone about topical preaching. We had been listening to a talk at a pastor’s convention on race and ethnicity (a very good one, as it happens) which had gone all over the Bible. “A good sermon?” he asked. “A good talk” I replied – in fact, very good. But not a sermon, I don’t think, because (1) of the context (a conference not a church) and (2) because it not exposition. There was no control.
That’s the thing about good preaching. The Bible is in control. I do preach topical sermons, and in these sermons I do use other Bible passages, but I try always to have one passage as an anchor so there is constraint and the constraint comes from God’s word. People need to see that this is not me speaking, but God. And the danger with trawling references is that just because you include something, doesn’t mean there isn’t other stuff you should have put in too. It can work, but it’s a difficult thing.
Take one passage, however, and suddenly the sermon changes. You have a divinely inspired constraint which, I believe, God blesses. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for those other kind of talks in church (and one of modern problems is that we’ve eliminated all the traditional spots where they might have happened, a bug bear of mine). But the sermon should be constrained by the text and that is expositional preaching. Topical preaching should be a subset of it.
Of course, that means you won’t always be able to say everything you want to say about a subject: the passage in question might not be as comprehensive as it would be if you had inspired the Scriptures. But isn’t that rather the point?
The deadline looms
Sometimes, through no fault of our own, deadlines come upon us that put us under severe pressure. That’s the nature of the task. For the record, I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for pressures that come because we can’t organise ourselves very well (and you’re in ministry because….? Remember 1 Tim 3.4) nor pressures that arise because we’re lazy. Nevertheless, putting our sins aside, sometimes deadlines do pile up. This week I’ve got a very difficult funeral, a boss who needs to be absent, a senior pastor away just when some key pastoral stuff has arisen. It just happens that way sometimes.
Here’s what I’ve written in my journal as learning points (principally for my own benefit, but they may be helpful).
1. Don’t get into the habit of being a last minute junkie. I’ve quite enjoyed the positive stress that such pressing needs can bring. It could easily become habit forming. This is not normal –nor must I allow it to be so.
2. It’s OK to stretch the day once in a while. Today is a day of burning the candle at both ends. My loving Mrs R understands this and my kind daughter accommodates it. But, again, such stretching is OK sometimes, but must not become commonplace. Capacity is lower than today’s stretch.
3. Don’t sacrifice prayer time. Tempting though it is, it’s a false economy. I work in an office and we meet to pray every Monday. This week I made sure I still did, even though every fibre of my sinful being was crying out “you’ve too much to do…”
4. Be happy with less than perfection. I like to get things exactly right and I work very hard at sermons. But a good pastor needs to be able to leave things with the Lord, even when circumstances have meant that my normal eight hour sermon prep has been curtailed.
5. Don’t tell people how hard you’re working. I realise the irony of this point, given that I’m telling you, but don’t dare offer me any pity. I feed on self-pity and yours will not help one bit. I do have a temptation to make something of my self-sacrifice from the pulpit, but this is one sin that must be mastered.
6. Seek more grace. Always.
What will you do with the word of God?
Sometimes, my own preaching convicts me deeply. There is always challenge of course, but sometimes the application seems so pointed and precise that it almost has my name on it. So it was with 1 Kings 13 last Sunday, one of the more bizarre parts of 1 Kings: a great story, carefully told, but inpenetrable to some.
It’s essentially the story of two men who defy the word of God. Jeroboam is obvious. He has already heard God’s word and continues to set himself against it. Judgement and destruction await. This is about outright rejection of God’s word.
But there is a more subtle danger. The “man of God” – the young, clear, courageous, direct, bold prophet who speaks to Jeroboam, himself “defies” the word of the Lord as he goes against what God has said and gives in to the lying prophet. There are many questions here, but the lesson is clear – even the most orthodox and assured preacher is at risk of (in this case) going against God’s word. What he is in public is not what he turns out to be in private.
And his fate is equally certain. Death. For the record, I think there are many clues that he is not thrown out of the covenant people. He continues to be known by the important title “man of God” (20 of its 80 occurrences in the OT are here in this one chapter). The lion who kills him then appears to stand guard over him! He is spoken of highly by the older prophet. This is not, in other words, about losing your salvation. Rather this is about (precisely) preachers of the word of God staying faithful and true to the word of God and not turning to the right or the left.
And it is in this precision that I find the challenge. Don’t you, Mr Preacher? What will you do with the word of God? Not just in public, in the pulpit, but every moment. For us, of course, that is a deeper question. It is not about a relationship to a book, but a relationship to a King. What will you do with the word of God? is actually What will you do with the Son of God?
There’s something to be thinking about on a Monday morning.
Make the most of a quieter week
I’ve lots of books on preaching on my shelves, but one of the most unusual is undoubtedly “The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have To Preach” – a collection of two dozen or so sermons preached at hard moments – deaths, national tragedies, suicides and so on. The sermons are a bit of a mixed bag, to be honest, but each is accompanied by a few pages of pastoral notes outlining the preachers’ approach, why he chose this passage, some pastoral wisdom and so on. It’s a very helpful book.
Especially because next week I will have to preach one of the hardest sermons I’ve ever had to preach. One of our students’ baby died at term and I’m taking the funeral next Friday. It’s a tough assignment, all the more so because these situations require pastoral time in an already squeezed week. I generally spend about 8 hours on a sermon, so, all other things being equal, I’ve got to find at least that over the next few days to prepare this hard, and also important sermon. (So, John/Mike/Olu if I don’t reply to your emails you now know why!)
Most of us who are preachers don’t preach absolutely every week, or have slightly lighter loads at times. I hope you use this down time (or reduced time) wisely – reading, praying, resting, thinking and so on. But here’s another thing that I would add to the list: at least do some thinking and preparing for some of these hard moments. If you’re a pastor (and you are, Mr Preacher), then these moments will come at some point. The chances are you will be needed straight away to counsel and comfort. You’ve got to – if you can excuse the frivolity – have something up your sleeve.
I don’t mean that you just preach the pre-packaged funeral sermon. You’re not the journeyman funeral guy. But you need to be able to hit the ground running. I’ve done a lot of funerals, but this is the first of this type, and I wished I had given it more thought before it happened.
For the record, I’m preaching Psalm 139 which gives us the all-knowing God’s creating in the womb alongside the numbering of our days. It is honest about the struggles of life (“If only you would slay the wicked”) and calls us to self examination (“Search me, God”). It also points us towards another who was knit together in his mother’s womb and for whom his days were numbered – another whose life was cut short: but who conquered death and gives the same hope to all who trust in him.