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Recently my wife pointed out the constellation Orion to our kids as we were driving home one night. Well, they were having a bit of a hard time identifying it amidst all the other stars in the sky.

So, being the techy, cool dad that I am, I pulled out my smartphone when we got home and held it up to the night sky with the help of Google Sky Map. As soon as I did Orion came into clear focus. Or did it?

Though my kids were amazed, my wife was not. She came over, saw what we were looking at, and said, “That’s not Orion. It’s over there.” And, lo and behold, she was right. Just off to the right of my Orion was the real Orion. And once I turned the phone in that direction, it recalibrated and identified the true Orion.

Boy did I feel dumb (especially when Wikipedia says “Orion is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous and recognizable constellations in the night sky.” Ouch.)

But I learned a valuable lesson that night–beware of forcing forms.

Here’s what was so sad. Even though what I saw in the sky didn’t exactly fit what I saw on my phone, I made it fit. I naively assumed Google Sky Maps and my Samsung phone would never lead me astray. Therefore, what they were showing me trumped what I was actually seeing in the sky. Sad. There I am telling my kids, “Look. There’s Orion, right there. See that line over there? That’s his raised hand. And there’s his club. See it, guys?” “Yeah, yeah, I see it, Daddy.” Well, it wasn’t there at all. I was forcing the form and in the process distorting my kids’ view of astronomical reality.

Unfortunately what happened that night in my driveway also happens in the pulpit–preachers take a pre-constructed homiletical form and force it onto the text of Scripture and in the process distort their congregation’s view of scriptural reality.

So here’s the question I’d like to raise: are we ever guilty of forcing human structures onto holy scripture? Of taking prefabricated homiletical forms and pressing them down hard onto the text until the text comes out looking like the form?

And here’s what’s really sad–even though we might have this sense deep down that the text doesn’t fit this form, we make it fit. Because it has to fit.

One example will suffice. I was introduced early on to the key word approach to preaching. Here it is in a nutshell.

  • You establish the proposition of your sermon.
  • Then you craft a question (interrogative) that comes out of the proposition and is answered by what is called the “transition” sentence.
  • The transition sentence contains a “key word” that serves as the umbrella concept for each of the main points.

So, if I were preaching Romans 1:16-17 the key word approach might look something like this:

Proposition: We must be bold in our proclamation of the gospel.

Interrogative: Why must we be bold in our proclamation of the gospel?

Transition: We must be bold in our proclamation of the gospel for the following reasons.

Main point 1: Because the gospel is the power of God.

Main point 2: Because the gospel reveals the righteousness of God.

In this case the key word is “reasons.” And each of the main points is a reason. Now, I selected Romans 1:16-17 because I think this particular passage does fit the form rather well.  Paul says he’s not ashamed of the gospel. Then he follows up with two for’s providing the reasons for his unashamedness.

But here’s the danger. I may think to myself, “Well, that worked quite well. I like that form. It feels good to have everything so tightly and neatly structured. It’s easy to preach. It makes it easy for my listeners to follow the logic of the sermon and so on. I think I’ll use that form for my next sermon.” Okay, but what if the next sermon text isn’t Orion? What if I take the same key word approach and apply it to, let’s say, Romans 3:21-26. Well, the form may or may not fit in that case.

I’m certainly not against homiletical forms. I teach them to my students. I use them when I preach. Every sermon has some kind of form. What I am cautioning against is coming to a text of scripture and forcing a pre-constructed, predetermined form onto a passage without giving sufficient consideration to its true and actual configuration.

There are, of course, other factors involved in determining what shape your sermon should take. But that’s for another post. Here I’m simply making the point that the form of our text should heavily inform the form of our sermon. And if it does, then we will be less likely to subject holy Scripture to human structures and distort reality in the process.

 

The preacher must courageously and ferociously believe that transformation occurs through the interplay of God’s Word and Spirit. He is simply a vessel, a broken jar of clay, spilling out before the people the water of life. The Holy Spirit always uses the revealed Word of God to open the eyes of both the unbeliever and believer to the wonders of the gospel. The preacher should not feel as if he is carrying the burden of life change; he merely carries the burden of faithful exposition and the robust proclamation of the text at hand, trusting that God’s Word will never return void (Isa. 55:10–11). This is the wonder and weight of preaching.

~ Chandler, Geiger, and Patterson

The Wonder and Weight of Preaching

It’s all too easy to become academic and cerebral in our approach to the ministry of the Word. If we’re not careful, our preaching can become nothing more than a highly informative but personally detached discourse on an ancient text.

That’s why John Stott’s words in The Preacher’s Portrait are important for us to hear and heed:

In our preaching, we do not just expound words which have been committed to our stewardship. Nor do we only proclaim as heralds a mighty deed of redemption which has been done. But, in addition, we expound these words and proclaim this deed as witnesses, as those who have come to a vital experience of this Word and Deed of God. We have heard His still, small voice through His Word. We have seen His redeeming Deed as having been done for us, and we have entered by faith into the immeasurable benefits of it. Our task is not to lecture about Jesus with philosophical detachment. We have become personally involved in Him. His revelation and redemption have changed our lives. Our eyes have been opened to see Him, and our ears unstopped to hear Him, as our Saviour and our Lord. We are witnesses; so we must bear witness.

So, how do we view ourselves as preachers? As expositors? Or as witnesses? Well, it’s not an either-or proposition, is it?

As preachers we expound the Word as those who have experienced the Word. And we do this in order to bring others into a right understanding and vital experience of that same Word.

Question: What are some of the benefits of viewing ourselves as witnesses in our preaching?

 

While God spoke directly to innnocent and sinless humans in Eden, the pattern that emerges once sin enters is that of humanly mediated word. The prophetic word prepares the way for the incarnate Word of God. After his ascension the ministry of preaching is the appointed means for the continuance of this saving principle. But since Christ is the creating word, proclamation that fulfills God’s purpose is only ever the word about Christ. How does our preaching testify to Christ? That is a solemn and challenging question that we cannot avoid.

~ Graeme Goldsworthy

How Does Our Preaching Testify to Christ?

Never attempt to proclaim what you can not explain! The one most important of the functional elements of preaching is explanation. The arrangement, the illustration, the application, and the exhortation are of little value apart from responsible exposition of the truth of the passage. Homiletics is a helpless sham apart from accurate hermeneutics.

~ Scott Tatum

Homiletics Minus Accurate Hermeneutics Equals “Helpless Sham”

I was amused and encouraged by these words from Tim Keller. Evidently I’m not the only one who has these conversations with my wife.

I remember, some years ago, to when I sat down with my wife. You know what that’s like – on the way home – after the sermon. First you are hoping she will say: “Great sermon, honey.” But if she doesn’t say anything, you fear the worst. I remember one day we really got into it. I said “let me ask you, how often do you think it was a great sermon? How many weeks out of the month?” And she said “no more than one in every four or five weeks.” So, we sat down and here’s what she said: “For a good part of your sermon, your sermons are great. They are rational and biblical, and they are exegetical. They show me how I should live, and what I should believe. But every so often – suddenly at the end – Jesus shows up. And when Jesus shows up, it suddenly becomes not a lecture but a sermon for me, because when you say this is what you ought to do, I think to myself, ‘I know, I know, okay. Now I am a little clearer about it and I am a little more guilty about it. Fine.’ But sometimes you get to the place where you say, ‘This is what you ought to do, though you really probably can’t do it; but there is one who did. And because He did it on our behalf, and because He did it in our place, we believe in Him. We will begin to be able to do it.’” This is true only to the degree that we understand what He did for us. And she says: “That’s different. One time out of four or five, your lecture becomes a sermon when Jesus shows up and I want to do that. I have hope. And I begin to see how I can do it.” (Gospel-Centered Ministry: 1 Peter 1:1-12 and 1:22-2:12)

Is it silent in the car on the way home from church? Perhaps it’s time to get some honest feedback from your wife. It may sting a bit. But it may also change your preaching for the better.

Question: Do you ever have these kinds of talks with your wife? If so, what have you learned about preaching from your wife?