A tale of two sermons
A fortnight ago I heard two sermons in the space of just a couple of hours. Well, I say, sermons, but one was on the radio and was a pretty poor attempt. Both quoted 1 Cor 15. The first was from the Bishop of Leicester. It drew heavily on the reburial of Richard III (what a lot of nonsense!). Death comes to us all, said the speaker. True enough. “For in Adam all die” he said. Brilliant, I thought, we’re going to get the rest of verse 22.
It was not to be. Instead, we just got the burial of Richard III as a reminder that we all die and that – launching straight to 2 Cor 12.9, “My grace is sufficient for you” – that when people we love do die, God gives us sufficient grace to get through.
Never mind the leap of logic (I did not love Richard III and so his death doesn’t make me too sad). It was a wilful omission. To say “For in Adam all die” and NOT to say “so in Christ all will be made alive” is more than carelessness. It is obfuscation.
How thankful I was, therefore, to sit in a quite different sermon just a few minutes on where 1 Cor 15 was also quoted, but fully, together with gospel appeal and gospel comfort.
For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
Amen and Amen.
The Spirit’s exegetical masterclass
I was reading John 21 this morning – appropriate stuff for Easter time. This is what I read:
22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”
It’s one of those places where the Spirit himself does some exegesis for us. What I like about this particular moment is that the inspired text encourages us not to make texts bear what they were never intended to do.
For sure, without verse 23, we would have interpreted verse 22 the same way – but because of history, not because of exegesis. We would have said something like, “Well, we know John lived to an old age and died, and that Jesus hasn’t returned” so we would not make Peter’s mistake and load the text up.
But if we had been first Century Christians, would we really have had that insight? I doubt it. So here is the Holy Spirit’s Exegetical Lesson – take care not to load onto texts weights that they cannot bear.
Mark 13.7 anyone. For starters?
‘Framework’ preaching, part 4
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. I’m reflecting on it in this little series of posts. So far I’ve pointed out that: (1) everyone has frameworks and systems that they bring to Scripture; (2) these frameworks are wonderful tools and also highly dangerous gifts for the preacher; (3) the best way to wield these frameworks as good tools for expository preaching is to get yourself as well tooled up with rich theology as you can.
In this final post I want to say this: sometimes deliberately preaching a framework is a good thing, but it’s a bad staple diet to offer.
If your church happens to have a confessional commitment that shapes its belief and life in particular ways, it is surely reasonable occasionally to make that the focus of a particular sermon or short series – effectively saying, “Here’s the biblical basis for why we believe and live as we do in this church/denomination” (although a 39-part series, say, is probably too long!). The point of our framework warning is not to say that a preacher ought never do that, but to post a strong warning against lazily sliding into that while kidding yourself that you’ve put in the hard slog required to expound faithfully the passage that’s been set.
The same is true of doctrinal preaching. Cornhill students often ask how much of a church’s preaching ought to be explicitly doctrinal. I try not to give a ‘party line’ answer to that, because there shouldn’t be one. All I can give is my own practice when I was a pastor. I wanted 80% of our diet (i.e. our staple) to be consecutive exposition, with occasional and deliberate doctrinal asides. The remaining 20% was thematic, divided into pastoral and doctrinal. I reckoned that pattern had a fighting chance of keeping me sharp on letting Scripture speak for itself to the people, while ensuring that they were also slowly educated in the right kinds of framework that would help them make sense of biblical truth as a whole.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 3
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. I’m reflecting on it in this little series of posts. So far I’ve pointed out that everyone has frameworks and systems that they bring to Scripture, and that these frameworks are wonderful tools and also highly dangerous gifts for the preacher.
Now I want to go a step further and zoom in a little on the two key kinds of framework: biblical theology and systematic theology. My simple point for today is this: the preacher has got to be well schooled in both. As a preacher, I want to go discerningly to both Sydney and Philadelphia (and not just for my holidays).
A good biblical theology effectively gives the preacher a proper understanding of the full biblical context in which his preaching passage is set. What is here that builds on key themes that have been developing so far? What is here that will be further unfolded in what comes later? That context is crucial is helping us see what the divine author intended us to be struck by in this particular passage.
Moreover, a good biblical theology is made up of good biblical theologies. The narrative of Scripture is very rich. It can be recounted and summarised in more than one faithful way. British evangelical circles learnt an enormous amount about biblical theology, from a particular perspective and to our huge benefit, from Sydney in recent years. That appears to be being broadened in some places now by a discovery of how that can be enriched by a covenantal account of Scripture, and that is all to the good. The title of a recent monster-work – Kingdom Through Covenant – to my mind brings the two perspectives together well.
A good systematic theology gives the preacher a proper understanding of how the content of his preaching passage relates conceptually and logically to other related themes in Scripture. It will also sometimes give him eyes to see links that the passage itself makes that he might otherwise have missed. A personal example: Reformed soteriology has a particular focus on the whole of Christ’s heavenly and earthly career as involved in his work of salvation. Learning of this and becoming convinced that it’s right there in Scripture helped me to see the OT as pointing forward to Christ in rather more profound ways than I might otherwise have done.
As with biblical theology, good systematic theology is really good systematic theologies. We should never allow our framework to set into a stone-hard monolith which ends up explaining a great deal of biblical material away.
These frameworks are necessary tools for the task of being the best expository preachers we can be. It’s a mistake to think we have done the job well when all we’ve really done is polish our tools, just as it’s a mistake to think we can do a good job without the right tools.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 2
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. I’m reflecting on it in this little series of posts. So far I’ve pointed out that everyone has frameworks and systems that they bring to Scripture, whether they acknowledge it or not.
Today I want to say that these frameworks are necessary and wonderful gifts to the preacher, and also highly dangerous for the preacher.
First, they are necessary and wonderful gifts for the preacher. A good framework allows what is really there in Scripture to be shown in its true biblical light. Most people who have read even a small amount of good theology, whether biblical or systematic, have had the experience of discovering a new theological topic which they then come to see for themselves really is there in Scripture. My two favourite examples from my own experience are the humanity of Christ and the union of the believer with Christ. Neither of these has loomed very large in the (otherwise excellent) expository preaching I’ve heard over the years. But through some theological reading I was persuaded that both actually loom pretty large in Scripture. Perhaps I sometimes get over-excited and am tempted to see them in Scripture in places they’re not really there. I must watch that. The point is, though: they are most certainly there a great deal, and it was through improving my framework that I came to see they are there. In doing so I was not imposing some alien framework on Scripture. I was listening in on the voices of previous generations of believers telling me what they saw in Scripture.
Second, frameworks are highly dangerous in the hands of a lazy preacher. The reason is simple: it’s much easier to preach what your framework says than to preach what any particular passage says. In other words, frameworks provide off-the-peg sermons for the lazy. This is the heart of our warning, “Don’t be a framework preacher”. Those who like systematic frameworks best will, if they’re lazy, usually produce sermons with headings that sound like systematic theology text-books. Those who like biblical-theological frameworks best will, if they’re lazy, produce sermons that constantly describe the patterns of salvation in the same ways.
Such preaching will often be orthodox in content. But it will often be predictable (here comes that doctrine again!) and it will often, over time, be superficial (why does he always describe that topic in exactly the same way?). It will usually fail to do the hard work of seeing the particular treasures that the Holy Spirit caused to be written in this particular text.
So my slightly wordy gloss on our framework warning is this: don’t be a lazy preacher who is content to preach those aspects of your framework that happen to come to mind when you read through the passage a few times.
‘Framework’ preaching, part 1
“Don’t be a framework preacher” is a warning often given round these parts. As with all pithy headlines, it’s important to set out clearly what we mean. I’ll try and do a bit of that in the next few posts here.
First, what do we mean by ‘framework’ in this phrase? We mean any kind of system through which Scripture is interpreted. There are two main kinds of such system. There are overarching theological systems (systematic theology), and there are models for understanding the shape of Scripture as a whole (biblical theology).
Now it’s impossible not to have both kinds of system operating in your mind every time you open the Bible. As is often pointed out, a preacher who says “I don’t have a system, I just preach the Bible” and seriously means it is fooling himself. Every time we open the Bible we interpret it through the lenses which our culture, historical location, personality, previous teaching, etc., have created for us. Anyone who can give an answer to the question “Now I’ve been converted why must I be godly?” has got some systematic theology at work, because they’ve got a view on how justification and sanctification relate. And anyone who can give a coherent answer to the question “What’s the Bible really about?” has got a biblical theology at work.
As is often said, there are two kinds of mistake we can make in this regard. The obvious and most serious mistake is consciously to have a framework which simply distorts Scripture.
Less serious, but still not good, is to deny that one has a framework that has any major effect on one’s interpretation of Scripture. What’s the danger of this? It makes it very hard to put the principle of sola Scriptura into practice. Every system must constantly be subject to correction by Scripture. And it’s very hard to have something in your head corrected by Scripture if you won’t acknowledge it’s there and then bring it out into the light of Scripture.
So point one for evangelical preachers who want to be expository: acknowledge that you’ve got interpretative systems running round everywhere in your mind. Fess up. Get them out there on display, either for confirmation or correction by God’s Word.
Lost art of Biblical meditation
Last week I was in the US which meant that I was up at the crack of dawn, literally. I’m not a late sleeper anyway: not for the want of trying but I simply am unable to lie in: I’m a lark not an owl. So, push me forward four hours (and thankfully it is only four hours at this time of year) and I was awake very early indeed.
I tried to use the time well: more time, in particular, to read and pray. Which got me thinking about biblical meditation. I think it’s a lost art. Our forefathers did it all the time. It’s taking a phrase or word and thinking it through from every angle; thinking of other Scriptures that inform or clarify it; praying it in; using it in prayers for others.
It is still an expository way to read the Scriptures because in order to be able to understand the word or phrase, you need to read it in context and so on. But it enables a depth that most of our Bible reading struggles to obtain. I’m not saying this should be the only kind of Bible reading and thinking, but it should certainly be in our armoury.
Take last week. As it happens, I have been using McCheyne’s reading plan which means I’m up to John 14. One phrase is astounding. “He [The Father] will give you another helper”. It is those last two words that got my mind racing: another paraclete (with all the meaning loaded into that word). What a promise! What a phrase! I spent some delightful time reflecting on it, worrying it around my mind like a dog with a bone, connecting it to other truths and understanding it in its context; praying it in and praying it for others.
I don’t think I’ve had such a sweet time for a long time. Don’t lose this art. Rediscover it. Or discover it.
Spring Senior Ministers
I’m just putting the final touches to the Spring Senior Ministers programme, looks like an exciting time with some excellent input, both from Peter Adam and from David Robertson on apologetics: stuff we really need. What’s more, we’ve planned some discussion teams for those in particular areas of ministry including turning around a non-evangelical church and keeping fresh in a long term ministry. I’ve got a privileged insight – and want to go to everything! There are still a few places. Book here for 27 to 30 April at Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire.
Preaching through distraction
Most preachers from time to time (and some all of the time) have to preach through distractions. My old church used to be in the Heathrow flightpath and at 11.15 every morning (just as the sermon was getting underway) Concorde would take off. Boy, was I glad when they scrapped that thing. I just stopped for a minute each week and we all chuckled together. There was no way I could compete.
In some ways those kinds of distractions are easier to deal with. They’re regular and the congregation all know what is going on. It’s the one off things that hit harder: someone wanders around; someone falls ill; the PA stops working; someone dies (it does happen!).
The preacher can’t really prepare for these kinds of things. They can’t all be legislated away. Sometimes a wrong reaction from the preacher actually destroys the work of the sermon: I remember one very gentle preacher raising his voice and telling his congregation that they should be less interested in what was going on at the back and more interested in him and what he was saying. True – but the way he said it made sure that everyone turned round!
On the whole, I think being up front about what is going on is fine. People understand that. We need to react to particular situations in different ways. I have – before now – said to people we’re going to pause and pray whilst the situation gets sorted out, then got someone to come and give me an update, because I know that’s what everyone is thinking about anyway.
One of the hardest things though is that we, as preachers, can lose our stride. There is something about the preaching monologue that means, once it is interrupted, makes us lose our train of thought or expression. It’s where a good set of notes helps. But there’s more to it than that.
I wonder if what we really need is to expect interruption. At one spiritual level, Satan longs to disrupt the preaching of the word. We should expect as preachers to face all kinds of spiritual attack and should be praying against them, but also unsurprised when they happen. For there is nothing worse than a startled preacher: his people are going to be startled too.
A good judge of character, part 2
How are we supposed to assess the behaviour of characters in OT narratives? It’s not always easy, but the preacher needs to made a judgment. Here’s the second of two test cases which I’ve come across recently in teaching the Joseph narrative to Cornhill students.
Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. This is a tough chapter, seemingly sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the story of Joseph. Let’s look at each of the two main characters.
The narrative is very clear about Judah. He has done wrong by withholding his son Shelah from Tamar (v.14). At the climax he acknowledges that he has not acted righteously in this (v.26).
What about Tamar, though? Judah says that she is more righteous than him (v.26). But wait a minute (as some Cornhill students said to me on this), surely we shouldn’t take the immoral Judah’s judgment on this. And other people says she’s immoral (v.24). Why shouldn’t we accept their judgment as the true one?
As always, the text alone must guide our judgments:
• It seems that in Hebrew narrative when a judgment is uttered at a key point in the narrative and then left hanging without further comment, it’s wise to presume that it’s likely to be the correct one, even if the person speaking isn’t entirely squeaky clean themselves. Therefore Judah in v.26 is getting it right. (For something similar, see Gen. 34:31.)
• The people’s judgment is v.24 is wrong because they don’t know how Tamar got pregnant; they’re making the wrong assumptions.
• The whole chapter is dominated by the theme of offspring being secured for Judah through his sons. We know from the covenant promises that that is a good thing. Judah doesn’t care about it, but Tamar does.
• The birth of her twin boys (vs.27-30) is presented as almost a re-run of Jacob and Esau. It was only by Tamar’s action that Judah was given such a blessing.
• Tamar’s name-check in Matthew 1:3 confirms this positive reading of her.
As one Cornhill student put it in the recent lecture on this, this wouldn’t the last time that God acted to fulfil his covenant promises and bless his people through actions which appeared to others to be scandalous (the cross), and which at the time risked accusations of sexual immorality (the virgin conception).
How we grapple with the details of the text, and the judgments that we make on these things, determine hugely the kind of applications that we will unfold to ourselves and our people. And the judgments that count are not those of our gut, but of God’s Word.