Is there meaning in the text? Has God actually spoken in Scripture?
These questions float around the academy, but they are more than academic. These questions frame a larger conversation in the culture about the nature of truth. While people have these questions, they probably don’t ask them that directly. And neither will the preacher. At least not each Sunday. Rather, we answer the question indirectly each time we preach by the way we explain Scripture.
People ask the question of truth indirectly by the way they live their lives. We answer the question of truth indirectly by the way we preach.
In the evangelical tradition we herald the truth that is Scripture. But the current trend in preaching is to engage the emotions more than, and sometimes to the exclusion of, the mind. This is to illustrate and apply something we have not explained. But if sermons illustrations serve to open a window to the truth, and application serves to give the truth “legs”, can either of those things be possible if we have not clearly explained the text? This is why the explanation of the text is the first order in preaching. Not the last, and certainly not the only, but the first.
Perhaps the current trend toward engaging the emotions exclusively is a fearful reaction to irrelevant, dry preaching. You know, the classic boring sermon: all information and no inspiration. The preacher walks through the text making observations that fill everyone’s 25 minutes but fills no one’s heart. I have heard those sermons. God help me, I’ve preached some of those sermons. And, they are boring. But if the curse of a generation ago was the dry informational sermon, perhaps today the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Today we have sermons that are passionate indeed. They make us laugh and they make us cry. They move us to the emotional nerve center and park there, loitering around in the deepest part of the feelings. The goal is to be connected emotionally. “That preacher knows how I feel” is a tremendous compliment. But remember, there are two types of boring: emotionally boring and intellectually boring. In a fear of “dry” preaching we have engaged the emotion without engaging the mind. So, as a consequence, we put a premium on how people feel above what they think.
Perhaps we have moved from sermons that bore the heart to sermons that bore the mind. Perhaps the reason why generations graduate from the church when the graduate from high school is that, while they have felt what we want them to feel, they have not learned to think about God and His word. We laugh and we cry but we do not think. We are trending toward boredom again, this time it is boredom of the mind.
The answer of course is not mental stimulation to the neglect of emotional stimulation. The answer is a dependence on the superiority of Scripture. We are text preachers. We explain texts. Then, in an effort to make the text compelling and attractive, we illustrate, argue, and apply. But all that comes after – after we have explained. The chronology is critical. What do we have to illustrate and apply unless we have explained it? We are moving people to engage emotionally but if that is not truth-directed are we not the arm chair sociologist making observations from life; all prognoses and no diagnosis? We loathe the popular self help psychology that is mass marketed to our people. Yet, this is my fate if I am not committed to explaining a text.
So, in the spirit of sharpening our skills, here are some helps to keep in mind when explaining a text.
Be off balance
The amount of explanation needed will vary from text to text. The book of James is interesting in this regard. James has some very straightforward admonitions. For example James 2:1-7 is the explicit command to avoid partiality. The preacher can move fairly easily to illustration and application because the explanation is so clear. In fact, the bulk of the text is an illustration itself.
However, James deftly uses this practical admonition to enter into one of the more difficult theological passage in the New Testament in 2:14-25. Then he moves to another practical section on the tongue, complete with its own illustrations and applications in 3:1-12. On balance it may seem that a sermon from James 2:1-7 and 3:1-12 will be heavy with illustration and application, and the sermons from James 2:14-26 will be heavy on explanation. However, this is demanded by the nature of the text. It must be this way to communicate what James is saying, the way he is saying it.
Deal with problems
The time we set aside in the sermon to explain the text is where we will surface tough issues in the Scripture. James 2:14-26 is a good example here as well. A pattern of thorough explanation of the text will protect us from glossing an important theological issue.
The good news is, wrestling with tough texts always gives us more confidence when we preach. Tougher texts produce better sermons. We preach with more confidence and clarity due to the necessary grappling with the text.
Tighter is better
When explaining a text, the goal is to capture its essence with clarity and brevity. We don’t want to slog the listener through an exegetical forest asking them to admire the view. The truth is, if we cannot say what the text says in a few concise sentences, then we probably don’t understand it.
There are so many things that we learn in the preparation process that will never make the final cut into the sermon. We learn them because we want to know the text and the exegetical nuances we unearth do influence what we say. However they are the proverbial kitchen tools that are to be left in the kitchen so that others may enjoy the meal. Our fascination with how the meal is prepared will be good conversation for other contexts. For now, be tight. A few sentences that clearly communicate the meaning of the text are best.
Remember, this is your one chance to get the text right.
There is the old joke about the two ladies who left church. One said,
“Well, our preacher didn’t really say anything.” The other replied,
“Well, yes, but didn’t he imply a lot!”
So, whatever else we do, we must get the text right. Again, we are after more than clarity, but no less.
This whole idea of explaining a text may seem overly academic. “Why is the text so important?” The answer is purely theological. God has revealed Himself in Christ. Christ is revealed in the word. So, the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ reveals Jesus in Scripture, and in turn Christ reveals the Father. God’s design is for us to know Him through His word. Nothing less. If people do not know His word they do not know Him.
It is possible, even for those who hold the Bible high in their mind, heart, and hands when they preach, to so cloud the sermon with tertiary ambitions that we do not get to the point. And thus, our illustrations of the truth cloud the truth we want to illustrate.
Of course we do want to connect. This will be the subject of a future post. Indeed, there is much more to preaching, but there is no less. Whatever preaching is, it is at its foundation explaining a text of Scripture. So, while we engage the emotions and the will, let’s not trade one type of boredom for another. Let’s not forget the mind.
This article first appeared on Patheos.com, March 24, 2011