You Need To Read (with caution!)

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The title of this sporadic blog series, You Need To Read, is a bit of an overstatement. I do think these books are worth reading, though. So, as I wrote in an earlier post, every once in a while I’ll be telling you about books that are helping me preach. My reviews will be fairly brief compared to some and will focus on how the book/author has helped me. I will not spend hardly any words on my disagreements with the book. I don’t read these books in order to be able to state my disagreements. I read them to profit and realize I won’t agree with everything (we hardly ever read a book like that, right?).

Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense by Francis Spufford (HarperOne, New York, 2013)

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

Okay, this is a helpful book, but for two reasons, it may not be a book for everyone. First, Spufford is nowhere near being what I would call a conservative evangelical of the US variety. Second, he swears like an unsanctified sailor. I grew up in an extended family that was adept at swearing in both English and French, so I’m used to hearing profanity. But, at times, thankfully, it still jars me; and Spufford did jar me at time.
Spufford explains his approach: “Why do I swear so much in what you are about to read? To make a tonal point: to suggest that religious sensibilities are not made of glass. do not need to hide themselves nervously from whole dimensions of human experience.” (p. xiii) So, you have been warned.
However, the book helped me like I was hoping it would: by giving me new ways to explain life and the Christian faith to un-Christian attendees.
Reacting to a sign on the atheist bus in London (yes, that’s a real thing! “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” p. 7). Spufford writes, “But enjoyment is one emotion. The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product…” (p. 8). That’s such a good way to challenge the goal of non-Christians. Or, concerning the subject of science versus Christianity: “This world believes that it has science on its side. Indeed, by an act of oblivious metaphorical digestion, it tends to believe that it is science…” (p. 70).
Spufford also made me think about the Christian faith in new ways. For instance, “…it is…a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas” (p. 19). I don’t know about you, but I never think about faith at the level of the affections. He actually frames his writing by saying, “This…is a defense of Christian emotions—of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity” (p. 23).
Spufford accurately captures the conundrum Jesus creates when He raises the morality bar extremely high in places like the Sermon on the Mount: “He talks as if virtue is almost unachievable, yet still compulsory” (p. 115).
I wished I would have read the book before preaching through all the “one another’s” in the NT. Spufford describes loving each other dearly as: “Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other” (p. 200).
I found the author’s definition of sin very insightful: “[sin] always refers to the pleasurable consumption of something….’indulgence’ or ‘enjoyable naughtiness’…. our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch” (pp. 25, 26, 27). (as a huge bonus, the last part of this definition highlights Spufford’s excellent writing style; you will enjoy reading his sentences when he’s not swearing).
And how about his description of our broken world: “We do entirely agree that there’s a crack in everything. (That’s how the light gets in? Oh yes; that most of all) The vision is of an intrinsically imperfect cosmos, hairlined through and through with flaws, chipped and battered and patched” (p. 46).
I especially profited from chapter 4,  Hello, Cruel World. Spufford writes: “Every one of our voyages ends in disaster. Every ship of ours is the Titanic” (p. 92).
And Spufford doesn’t pull punches as it relates to attempting to come to grips with a sovereign God’s part in it all. After seeing a church newsletter where the “Almighty” is thanked for fixing the minister’s car via a miraculously cheap quote from a garage, “For if God was willing to exert Himself over the minister’s sparkplugs, but wouldn’t get out of bed to stop the Holocaust, what sort of picture would that draw?” (p. 94).
Jesus and miracles were never intended to stop the brokenness completely: “One man doing miracles in West Asia doesn’t even move the leprosy statistics. The cruelty of the cruel world reproduces itself far faster than his slow hands can move. He brings sight to blind eyes, and all the causes of blindness rage on” (p. 131).
 And, then, I loved this statement: “We don’t have an argument that solves the problem of the cruel world, but we have a story” (p. 106). That’s what we preach each Sunday: the Story of how our God is redeeming His world through our Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit.
Preach the Story well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus.
Randal

Keeping the Sunday Goal in Mind on Monday Mornings

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Years ago The Mammas and the Papas sang,

“Monday, Monday….Every other day of the week is fine, yeah. But whenever Monday comes…you can find me crying all of the time….Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day….Monday, Monday…it’s here to stay.”

If you preach each Sunday, you can relate to the song. You know that Monday means starting all over again (or, Tuesday, if you take Monday’s off). I find it helpful to keep Sunday’s goal in mind each Monday morning. Since that goal is   corporate worship during the teaching time (Believers responding to the revelation of God), my goal for Monday morning’s study time is always more than initial exegesis.

I recently began rereading Kugel’s, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. In explaining the method of ancient interpreters, He writes, “Reading Scripture, and doing what it said, was now the very essence of Judaism–and in it’s wake, Christianity. But what did Scripture mean, and what was it telling people to do?” (p. xii).

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now

That’s my Monday morning study goal: Reading Scripture–in my case, I’m currently preaching through Luke’s Gospel–praying and studying to learn what it means and what it is telling God’s people to do.

So, on a Monday morning when I’m studying Luke 16:1-9 (Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager), I want my initial exegesis to yield something like this:

“Lord willing, we will worship on Sunday morning by being as shrewd with God’s money as that dishonest manager was with his master’s accounts.” (cf. vv. 8-9 “…make friends…by means of…wealth, so that…”)

Long before Sunday, look at your preaching portion with the goal towards understanding what it means and what it is telling God’s people to do.

Preach well for the sake of God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus,

Randal

P.S. If you’re interested in reading and preaching in the Old Testament, you will find Kugel’s insights helpful (that’s an understatement). I find myself saying, Why didn’t I see that?!, more often than I like to admit.

Understanding Why Luke 15 Is Misnamed, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son”

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In Luke 15 Luke puts two genres together to make meaning. The first piece of the puzzle, only two verses (vv. 1-2), is narrative; the second piece is a lengthy three-part parable (vv. 3-32). The short, narrative piece and the long, parable piece combine to make meaning.

The subject of the chapter is found in the narrative, the reaction of the religious leaders to Jesus receiving and eating with sinners. Their reaction is clearly wrong in light of God’s mission in the world. Their reaction results in Jesus telling about what happens when something/someone valuable is lost: people who consider the lost thing/person to be valuable search for it/them and when they find it/them they invite others to celebrate.

And the only person not celebrating at the end of the parable is the older brother. He’s the focus of the chapter, not the younger, prodigal son. The older son, as you know, corresponds to the religious leaders who grumbled at Jesus receiving and eating with sinners.

You probably already knew that the parable is misnamed. We’re indebted to the likes of Tim Keller (Prodigal God) for helping us read this parable correctly. I just wanted to help you see, if you hadn’t seen it already, that there is a hermeneutical reason why the parable is misnamed. The opening two verses of narrative force us to focus our attention on the older brother. And when the parable ends we never know whether the older brother joins the celebration.

So, that means that if we’re going to call anyone “home” at the end of the sermon on Luke 15, it’s going to be the older brother-type parishioners. We’re calling home all those good, moral attendees who rarely relate to sinners on faulty theological grounds (quoting verses like, “Abstain from all appearance of evil”, etc.). I suppose there’s a place after that to call all the prodigals home, but, like one of my students said last week, they’re usually not sitting in church.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus.

Randal

My Book, Preaching With Accuracy, Has Arrived!

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This is a post of shameless, self-promotion that may be of interest to you if you preach or teach Scripture. A few days ago a box of author’s copies of my book, Preaching With Accuracy (Kregel), arrived! I think it officially goes on sale this weekend.

The book contains my method of finding Christ-centered big ideas for biblical preaching. The method is the result of struggling to identify the big idea or main theme of a preaching portion, especially in Old and New Testament narratives. So, I observed how the major genres or types of literature in the Bible conveyed their meaning, created a working list of genre clues, and showed how to work from those clues to big ideas.

If you put into practice some form of Christ-centered preaching, you’ll benefit from the discussion in chapter 6. In that chapter I present a way to preach Christ while maintaining the integrity of the Text being preached (often the knock against Christ-centered preaching is that it eclipses the meaning of the Text being preached). My approach adds a new dimension to Canonical interpretation (how any preaching portion in Scripture means something in light of the rest of the Story).

Anyway, I wanted to let you know about the book. God has been gracious in allowing my studies and thinking to fill a gap in preaching theory and practice.

To Him be all the glory in the Church.

Randal

P.S. Special thanks to all my students in the past who have helped refine my thinking and presentation of the method.

Ask Penetrating Questions Demanded By The Text (part 10 of what preachers do to the Bible to create sermons)

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One of the things that effective preachers do is ask penetrating questions. Studies have shown that one element that contributes to a sermon’s effectiveness is the number of questions asked. But the questions have to be good ones. They have to be questions that get to the heart of interpretation and application.

Over the years I’ve been trying to be on the lookout for those places in preaching portions that demand me to ask a question. Take, for instance, Luke 14:26 where Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

This statement screams at us to ask: “Why does being Jesus’ disciple demand the rejection of our closest earthly ties?” I argue that it is nearly impossible to teach this section well without raising and answering that question. Jesus doesn’t tell us why in the section (three other examples are given in the section). It’s one of those unasked questions that I’ve written about in an earlier post. I don’t think it’s a matter of exegesis; more a matter of theological thinking (again, something I’ve written about earlier).

Also, I think you’re further ahead if you ask your congregants such a question and ask it in a way that shows them you want them to answer. You might not actually want them to verbalize their answer, but you should ask the question in a way that shows you’re serious about the dialogue. Asking questions is a great way to…

  • interact with your listeners, more so than simply stating answers.
  • keep them thinking along with you throughout the teaching time.

Before Sunday, see if your preaching portion demands that you ask penetrating questions. See if it adds effectiveness to your communication.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church.

Randal

Transforming History Into Theology (part 9 of what preachers do to the Bible to create sermons)

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This series of posts contains a list of some of the things preachers do to the Bible to create sermons. We perform all kinds of operations on the Bible so that it functions for the Church. One important thing preachers do is  turn history into theology. In our hands, narrative scenes and dialogue from the Old or New Testament go through a metamorphosis. History is transformed into theology, what God is saying to the Church or how God wants the Church to respond to Him.

A couple of weeks ago I reread sections of Buttrick’s, Homiletic, to review his idea of preaching in the mode of immediacy. In the book he says, “What the minister plots, then, is not a story, but a sequence of responses to a story as the story progresses” (p. 362). The sequence of responses to a narrative is another way of thinking through how the story is functioning for the Church. We do not simply retell the plot, but show how the plot conveys theology.

This is one of the most difficult parts of studying the Bible for sermons. Not much has been written to help us move from Text to theology without sacrificing the integrity of the Text. In other words, not all our timeless principles are actually taught in Scripture.

In Luke 14:15-24 Jesus teaches a parable to help us make sure we’ve really accepted God’s gracious invitation to experience LifePlus. This all began with someone exclaiming with dangerous optimism, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” The parable adds a dose of sobering realism to such dangerous optimism. The sermon focuses on the theology in this dialogue: that many who have first heard the gospel will not experience eternal life. It’s possible that many of our congregants said “yes” to God once in the past, but are not following Him now (see all the excuses in vv. 18-20, “I have bought a field….I have bought…oxen….I have married…”).

Before Sunday, if your preaching portion contains a narrative, see if your sermon shows evidence of transforming the caterpillar of history into the butterfly of theology.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation.

Randal

Anticipate Push Back (part 8 of What We Do to the Bible to Create Sermons)

push-back

Our preaching portions routinely contain truth that causes an allergic reaction in some of our listeners. So preachers will spend some time during sermon preparation anticipating push back. During delivery of the sermon we will actually talk to our listeners who have this reaction.

For instance, in Luke 13:34 Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Jesus is describing how He feels when we don’t let Him save/sanctify us. But, it’s extremely difficult for us to think that we are as bad as the inhabitants of Jerusalem. In order for this teaching to have full impact, it’s important to anticipate and address this push back: “Surely, we’re not as evil as those people were!”

Another example of the same concept is in Luke 19:14 “But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.'” It’s tough to think that such an extreme emotion is a part of our carnality. Our blatant disobedience and, seemingly less offensive, delayed obedience is equal to the hatred that ultimately crucified our Savior.

If you read Buttrick’s massive, Homiletic, he refers to this as a contrapuntal. It describes those minutes in the sermon when we talk to our listeners about their disagreement with what God is saying. He argues that if we do not address the possible push back, those listeners stop listening. Talking to them about their thoughts is one way to keep them listening to God’s Word.

Before Sunday, see if you can anticipate potential push back that will occur as your congregants hear God’s Word.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

Highlighting God’s Assumptions (part 7 of what we do to the Bible to create sermons)

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Despite the conventional wisdom–never assume anything–expository preachers spend time highlighting major information God assumes in a preaching portion.

For instance, in 2 Timothy 2:25 Paul continues instructing Timothy: “correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” This paragraph provides instructions for one of the toughest parts of pastoral ministry: how we handle parishioners who are purposely or inadvertently causing trouble in church.

A major assumption in the instruction is that the parishioner is wrong and the pastor is right. That is not always the case. We’re not infallible (cf. 1 Timothy 5:19-20 for instruction on what to do when an elder sins). However, in order for this instruction to work, we have to assume that the parishioner in question is wrong and the pastor will be able to correct them. This is important because, if you’ve ever had to tangle with someone like this, you know they know they’re right. But, in this case, they’re wrong and need to be instructed. The instruction assumes this angle and it’s important to highlight the assumption.

You will discover that highlighting the assumption God is making will add tension to the teaching. The assumptions also help clarify and intensify the teaching, as is the case in the example above.

So, before Sunday, take a look at your preaching portion and see if there are any assumptions that need to be highlighted. When you locate the assumption, plan on a minute or so in the sermon to flesh it out. It will add a measure of depth to the theology your communicating.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the church/world.

Randal

Communicating Through Contrasts: Part 6 of What We Do to the Bible to Create Sermons

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This series of posts explores what preachers do to the Bible to create sermons. It’s my attempt to expand my own understanding of rhetorical analysis (what preachers do during the sermon to affect those that have ears to hear). If you read the initial post in this series you may recall my confession that this area is probably the weakest area of my teaching. So, I’m committed this year to getting better at helping preachers craft the guts of the sermon.

One thing preachers do is explain through the use of contrast. (You can see the overlap with the first blog post in the series: preachers explain Scripture). Take for instance, 2 Timothy 2:23 “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies…” After spending a minute making sure everyone’s clear on “have nothing to do with…”, try spending another minute or so talking about the opposite approach.

God knew that it would be very tempting for pastors to have a lot to do with these kinds of destructive conversations. God knew that our flesh would want to engage, that our sense of mission would push us to jump in. The next verses will teach us an appropriate response, but for a moment it’s important to note that we are being baited by our flesh, by our sense of mission, and by our opponent (see v. 25’s description, “correcting his opponents…”). So, it’s possible that, with good motives, we jump into the destructive debate and violate God’s will.

Before Sunday, see if segments of your preaching portion can be explored through contrasting or opposite attitudes or actions.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation.

Randal

One Sure Way To Communicate More Clearly

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This is the fifth post in a series that explores what we do to the Bible to create a sermon. When I listen to sermons I sometimes ask, “What’s that preacher doing at this moment? How is he preaching?”

If you listen to or read a sermon manuscript, you’ll probably see the preacher restating something. The preacher spends much time in the sermon saying the same thing with different words. Preachers will often repeat themselves too. So may this post should be retitled, Two Sure Ways To Communicate More Clearly. Those two ways would be repetition and restatement.

Repetition and restatement add clarity to any sermon when they are used at key…

  • terms
  • concepts
  • outline points
  • applications

So, for instance, while preaching on Luke 17:1-6, you might use repetition and restatement for the following:

“Temptations” (v. 1): enticements, lures

“Pay attention to yourselves” (v. 3): “Watch out for yourselves.” “Stay alert.”

“…you must forgive him” (v. 4): “…the issue is no longer an issue; you must let it go.”

Or, if point #2 in the sermon is: Handling someone else’s sin (vv. 3-6), you might want to restate the point with something like, “How are we supposed to act when someone else sins against us?”

I realize this concept of restatement is not difficult. But, before Sunday, locate the places in your sermon manuscript (you do write out your sermon, right?) where restatement can help you communicate more clearly. Then, your sermon will be as easy to understand as some destinations are to find: “You can’t miss it.”

Preach well for sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal