How to Preach the End of a Series (part 4 of preaching the gospel of Ruth)

Preaching through Ruth provides a good test case for exploring how to preach the end of a series. That’s because it is so short. The space between the end of the book and the beginning of the book is small. It is relatively easy to conclude with a comparison or contrast to the beginning.

So, when you conclude a sermon series consider:

  • re-emphasizing the series theme (in Ruth: Discovering God as “the Restorer of life” conveniently found at the end in 4:15; chapter 4 provides tons of opportunities to re-explain facets of redemption, including our need to become mini-redeemers in our world)
  • showing how far we’ve come from the beginning of the series (especially important in a narrative like Ruth; we began at the end of the Judges with no king, in great need of one, and end Ruth with an announcement of King David in 4:22; plus in the middle Ruth and Boaz are two characters who do not do what is right in their own eyes)
  • teaching how the book contributes to the Canon of Scripture (in this case, what does Ruth add to the Story; this will overlap some with the first bullet point above; if you didn’t have Ruth, what would we miss?)
  • reminding congregants about what God has done in Christ (especially important if you are completing a series through a NT epistle of Paul; usually, the letters will begin with the indicative and move on to imperatives; the end of the series is a good time to remind us all of the indicatives which were the foundation of the more practical sections)
  • convey a sense of corporate accomplishment (“We’ve traveled a lot of biblical ground together during this series…”; ending a series is a bit emotional, bitter/sweet; I have found that congregations that experience such travels begin to anticipate the next journey with you)

Preach series well so God receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

P.S. If you’re preaching Ruth chapter 4, consider the following path:

  1. Two kinds of redemption (spiritual and material; a time to carefully define redemption in its various forms in the story)
  2. The redemption we’re responsible for (vv. 1-10 and how God’s laws create opportunities for us to be mini-redeemers for those in need)
  3. The blessing that came and comes through redemption (vv. 11-22; here we find the wonderful announcement of our selected theme and the trajectory created by Boaz and Ruth’s son)

Let the Main Character Determine Your Sermon Idea

If you’re preaching through Ruth’s Gospel and reach chapter 3, you’re wise to let Naomi determine the subject of your sermon. She does that through the first recorded words in v. 1,

“My daughter, should I not seek rest for you…?”

Read through the chapter quickly and when you arrive at the end of the chapter you’ll hear Naomi repeat your sermon idea,

“…the man will not rest but will settle the matter…”

In any narrative it’s wise to allow key speeches of main characters have a say in our sermon themes. In the case of Ruth chapter 3, staying focused on the theme of “rest” will prevent us from focusing too much attention on the planning (vv. 2-5) and executing the plan surrounding the risky–some would even say, risqué–threshing floor scene (vv. 6-15).

The narrative means something because (1) we desperately need the kind of rest this narrative highlights. In his commentary, Webb says it’s “rest…from spiritual emptiness and alienation from God….acceptance…provision, a future, and a life worth living.” Jesus taught us about it in Matthew 11:28-30 and Hebrews tells us that it’s still future (4:1-11).

The bulk of the story involves (2) our search for rest. It’s an interesting combination of working and waiting. Ruth displays incredible faith in Naomi’s zany, even dangerous plan (an unmarried woman walking around in the middle of the night!).

N.B. Don’t miss the great opportunity to highlight the description of Ruth in v. 11, “…for all my fellow townsmen know that you are a worthy woman.” It’s the same word used in Proverbs 31:10. In Ruth 3:11 it’s the reason Boaz gives for redeeming Ruth and Naomi. That reason will surely test your theological acumen!

Finally, (3) the source of our rest is still found in Boaz, the redeemer. This is repeated in vv. 2, 9, 12-13. Campbell defines him as “[the one who] takes responsibility for the unfortunate and stands as their supporter.”

And, if you’re looking for how Ruth and Boaz send us on a trajectory to Christ, like Ruth, Jesus becomes an alien/stranger on our behalf in order to bring us into true family status. Like Boaz, Christ brings us into His family so that we can enjoy the rest of God.

Preach well so God receives His due, in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

When Exemplars and Christ-Centered Combine: Preaching Ruth (part 3)

I know some pit Christ-centered preaching versus exemplar preaching (“go and do likewise” in the case of good examples or “go and do otherwise” in the case of bad examples). But it’s hard to deny that Ruth contains some narratives that provide good examples for Christians to follow (think, Boaz). But Ruth also functions for the Church by placing us in a narrative trajectory that leads to our Savior, the Source of God’s favor. It’s both/and, not either/or.

Boaz was the source of favor for Ruth and Naomi. Chapter 2 opens by drawing attention to him: “a worthy man…” He’s the kind of man God creates and is there for us to emulate. The narrative does more than provide an exemplar, but not less than.

Campbell suggests, “the Ruth story is basically about extraordinary caring and concern, kindness that is above and beyond the call of duty.” In the overall message of Ruth (discovering God as “the restorer of life”), what happens to Ruth and Naomi provide a picture of how God restores life by extending kindness.

The theme of the narrative is located in Ruth’s statement about her spiritual instincts: that she would “find favor” in someone’s field (cf. 2:2, 10). Often the statement of a main character contains the seeds of the big idea for a narrative scene or series of scenes.

To make sense of the chapter, focus on the concept of “favor.” You could outline it this way:

The source of favor (vv. 1, 4-5, 8-9, 14-16, 19-20) is Boaz and the laws God put in place to care for those in need.

The need for favor (vv. 2-3, 6-7, 13, 17-18, 21-23; these two main points could switch places, even though the source of favor occurs in v. 1) is a picture of every one of us spiritual unfortunates.

The reason for receiving favor (vv. 10-12; if you like theological challenges, you’ll love the reason provided in v. 12, “The Lord repay you for what you have done…”) is the faith Ruth had in the “system” God put in place.

As I said above, Ruth’s Gospel does more than provide Boaz as an example to follow. Naomi describes him in v. 20, “The man is a close relative of ours, one of our redeemers.” It’s a great opportunity to remind everyone how God extended favor to us in the person of His Son, to restore life.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching Ruth’s Christo-centric Narrative (part 2)

If you’re planning on preaching any Old or New Testament narratives these days or in the near future, my approach to Ruth may help.

For instance, (1) the entire narrative begins with a sovereign God allowing (bringing?) a famine, multiple male deaths in the family, but also good news that food was now available (vv. 1-7). It’s an example of the judgment God’s people could expect if they disobeyed Him (cf. Lev. 26:19-20).

Remember that all OT narratives meaning something within the context of the blessings and curses announced in the Covenant.

(2) Ruth’s decision to follow Naomi and her God is crucial to the story (vv. 8-18, 22). Our congregants need to hear that only the God revealed in Christ is the source of all truly good things in this life. That’s especially important in a time when an estimated two-thirds of Christians believe that many religions can lead to eternal life and half of all Christians believe some non-Christian religions can lead to life eternal. Of course, our parishioners are probably not trying to be Christian and Hindu, let’s say. More than likely they, like us, try to be Christian and still allow our affections to land on more sophisticated idols.

(3) Finally, we read this candid reaction of Naomi to all the “bitterness” the Lord brought into her life (vv. 19-21). So many tidbits. Naomi’s not recognizable (v. 19). She knows exactly what God has done to her (v. 20 “…the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me”). A great opportunity for us to explain a theology of trouble/discipline (cf. Heb. 12:3-11), the purpose of the “bitter.”

And, if you’re wondering about how to get from Ruth 1 to the Gospel, you might think: on the cross, the Almighty dealt very bitterly with Jesus (v. 20) and the Lord testified against Jesus and brought calamity upon Him (v. 21) because of our sins.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching Through the Gospel According to Ruth

After preaching through Judges, more than one parishioner asked if I would consider preaching through Ruth. Judges was so depressing, despite my best efforts to practice a form of Christ-centered interpretation each weekend. They needed a narrative that focused more on good news.

Even if you choose not to preach Judges/Ruth back-to-back, preaching through the gospel according to Ruth is an excellent short series. It does present its challenges.

First, select a theme for the series. Select a theme:

  • from the wording of Ruth.
  • that captures the good news of Ruth.

I’m extremely picky when it comes to selecting a theme and image that will be my first slide every Sunday. I’m usually not satisfied with my commentator friends’ choice of theme/title for the book. I greatly appreciate their work and benefit from it each week. But the choice of theme/title is very personal, pastoral.

I found my theme, of all places, on the lips of the townswomen who said to Naomi about Ruth’s son: “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age…”

You could just as easily word something from their statement in the previous verse 14, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a redeemer…”

I love the way the book ends as a contrast to how it began: loss of food and even more tragic loss of life. Upon returning to Bethlehem Ruth said, “I went away full, and the Lord has brought me back empty…” (cf. 1:21). So, the Lord really did restore her life through the birth of a special son. Cross-eyed readers will quickly see parallels to the Son born way down Ruth and Boaz’s line.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching Christ While Preaching Through an Old Testament Book of the Bible

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I am a huge fan of consistently preaching Christ from the Old Testament. If you are planning to preach through an OT book of the Bible this year, you might be interested in what my former professor, Pete Enns, says about the task:

“…pastors have the privilege and challenge, in a variety of creative and engaging ways, to teach their people what the OT is about. It may take time to earn the further privilege of bringing these Christians to appreciate more fully how Israel’s story is transformed in Christ. And this is not a quick fix, but a process of reunderstanding God’s Word, modeled after the NT writers, that may well take considerable time to implement.” (p. 216 in, Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Berding and Lunde; emphasis added; I found Enn’s and Bock’s views very helpful)
Let me add to that italicized phrase: bringing these Christians to also appreciate more fully how Israel’s story is transformed in Christ to become our story. That last part is critical for a truly Christ-centered hermeneutic/homiletic.
If you do devote that kind of time, your parishioners will rise up and call you blessed. You, of course, will have to navigate the OT carefully, avoiding the minefields of endless historical data–even minutia–that doesn’t preach well (I’m convinced God never intended it to preach). This keeps the sermon running on theological tracks (how it’s functioning for the Church, what you probably think of best as principlizing). Most importantly, you will have to employ the skill of moving from the OT to Christ-crucified, preferably from the vocabulary and images of your preaching portion.
If you want some help and enjoy listening to sermons, listen to as many Tim Keller sermons on the Old Testament. If you like reading, you will profit from a book I just completed last week, Heralds of the King.

The variety of preachers who contributed sermons in the book resulted in a variety of ways to move from the Scriptures to the Savior.
Preach Christ well from the OT for God’s glory in the church… (Ephesians 3:21).
Randal

Four Ways To Exegete Your Text: Following Jonathan Edwards’ Practices

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A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Douglas A. Sweeney’s, Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment (Oxford).

One of the take aways from this book for those of us who preach or teach the Bible is the four different ways Edwards regularly approached studying the Bible. The four ways are Canonical, Christological, Redemptive-Historical, and Pedagogical exegesis. Think of them as supplements you take to boost your daily nutrient intake. Do you take any or any combination of them each week during sermon preparation?

These four approaches supplement what we normally think of as exegesis: historical-grammatical-literary. Edwards helps us remember why we need to move beyond the realms of word, historical, and literary studies. Here’s what we gain and how our congregation profits from the results of the following four exegetical practices:

Canonical Exegesis: This shows how your preaching portion fits with other Scriptures. Look for times when other Scripture provide vital additional information for the interpretation of your preaching portion.  Your congregants will appreciate seeing how God’s revelation works together to create meaning.I don’t recommend the common practice of showing listeners other Scripture that say the same thing as your preaching portion.

Christological Exegesis: This shows how your preaching portion functions for the Church because of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and dispatching His Spirit on those who believe. Your listeners will appreciate learning how all Scripture points to the grace of God in Christ. This will keep all sanctification efforts faith-based and help avoid the dreaded moralistic, self-help sermon application. And remember that when you remind the saints about the Gospel, any non-Christians in attendance get to hear the Good News too.

Redemptive-Historical Exegesis: This shows how your preaching portion is part of the meta-narrative flowing throughout Scripture. Your parishioners will profit from the times when you locate your passage in the Story of Redemption (creation, un-creation, recreation, new creation). They will begin to appreciate that salvation is something much larger than the personal, saved-to-go-to-heaven variety.
Pedagogical Exegesis: showing how Scripture guides faith and the Christian life; here we gain precepts for living life as a Christian. One of the great quotes from the book came from this section. It reminded me of my primary responsibility as a soul-watcher. Sweeney writes of Edwards:
“At the end of the day, however, he was a clergyman and teacher paid to unpack the text in a pedagogical way, with the formation of disciples at the forefront of his mind.” (p. 188)

Before Sunday I hope you will supplement your normal exegesis with one or more of these four approaches, all for God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching Through Books of the Bible This Year?

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If you haven’t already, I hope you will consider preaching through books of the Bible this year. Your congregation will thank you for it.

If you’re already making this a practice, may your tribe increase. You may find my approach something to think about when planning your new year. If you have never regularly practiced preaching through books of the Bible, you may find some of this post helpful.

First, years ago I was captivated by reading and listening to old W. A. Criswell of First Baptist, Dallas, TX explain his plan to preach through the entire Bible during his tenure. If you knew the kind of preaching the church was used to before Criswell arrived, then you know how bold a move this was. Hearing him tell the effects that this approach had on him and his congregation moved me to tears (I think he was addressing an Evangelical Theology Society meeting?). I knew I needed to practice some variation of that approach to preaching in church.

So, here’s what I did:

  • I started with a book I thought I could “handle” as a young preacher (in my case, James).
  • I tried to avoid books of the Bible that previous pastors had covered recently (even though I know congregants rarely remember a sermon from Sunday to the next Sunday!).
  • I wanted to vary the diet by making sure I switched back and forth between the testaments and also between genres (e.g., if I began in James, an epistle, then my next book would be in an OT narrative or prophecy or apocalypse).
  • Even though I did not want to cater to the culture, I still knew I did not want to take forever in any one book (I love Piper to death, but knew I didn’t want to follow his approach to spending a millennium on Romans).
  • That meant planning to break up a series in, let’s say, Isaiah in order to keep myself and my listeners from committing spiritual suicide. When I left the dear folks at The People’s Church in NB, Canada, I was preaching through the Gospel of John. I stopped in the beginning of chapter 17. When I arrived to the dear folk at Calvary Bible Church, I did a kind of John Calvin and picked up where I left off and finished the book with my new flock.
  • In the middle of long series such as Isaiah, or in between book studies, or during special events in the church calendar or special holidays, I consider straying away from a series, confess my sins and preach topical exposition.

Both my congregations have often thanked me for this approach. I wouldn’t do anything else. It certainly stretches me (I continue to work through books I haven’t covered yet) and I know it helps the faith-family see how God’s revelation fits together to tell a most wonderful Story.

Happy New Year to you. Preach books of the Bible or at least large segments of books of the Bible to get your feet wet in 2017 and all for His glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Introducing My Second Most Important Resource

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Since I just completed the blog series on preaching through Judges, I thought it was time for a lighter kind of post. Let’s face it. Preaching through Judges is tough sledding.

So, this week let me take a moment to encourage you to spend some time in sermon prep using some kind of thesaurus. Yes, it’s shallow, untheological advice.

My Reader’s Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder gets used hard every week. Next to Logos Bible Software, the Wordfinder is the resource I use the most.

And, I should tell you that I use it all week-long, not just at the end of the week. You might think that the end of the week is the time for refining my sermon manuscript. My approach is slightly different.

The end of the week is the time when I am refining my thinking about the details of the sermon and the way in which I am communicating them. But all week-long–beginning Monday morning–I am continually working on my wording.

That’s where something like the RD Wordfinder comes into play. Even after doing my own word studies in Hebrew and Greek and after scanning my favorite commentators, there are times when I still don’t have a clear understanding of a concept. When that happens I turn to my RDW. Inevitably, the still-fuzzy concept clears up when I survey synonym options.

The selected synonym becomes an important part of that sermon segment. It helps me communicate the theology of the passage more clearly.

So, while some kind of thesaurus will help you massage your manuscript, it will also help you master the material in the early stages of sermon preparation.

Before Sunday, see if your thesaurus can help you gain clarity about your passage’s main theological concept.

Preach well this new year so God continues to receive glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Preaching the Theology in Judges’ Civil War

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In these posts I am trying to provide strategies for preaching difficult narratives found in the book of Judges. What makes them difficult, you might ask? Well, they’re long Old Testament Narratives. But, if you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know you can trust the genre. That could be your New Year’s resolution:

In 2017 I will trust the genre.

Trusting the genre in Judges 20:1–21:25 means identifying the major rise in the story’s action. The tribes of Israel send men through all the tribe of Benjamin saying: “…give up the men, the worthless fellows in Gibeah, that we may put them to death and purge evil from Israel” (v. 13a).

You may recall that the worthless fellows performed Sodom-like sins in the previous chapter.

When Benjamin refuses, the civil war begins. The narrative takes it time to describe how the civil war unfolded and how the “good guys” suffered multiple defeats before the victory.

Don’t allow yourself to get bogged down in all the detail. The theology is conveyed by the narrative structure, but not in all the detail. Allow the broad strokes of the narrative to preach to the church:

There is a tragic, but necessary kind of unity as God’s people combine to discipline their brothers (20:1, 8, 11).

There is also a tragic, but necessary kind of discipline (20:12-13, 18, 23, 26-28, 35). When God’s people decide to remain in sin, God instructs His non-sinning-at-the-moment people to act on His behalf. You can make canonical connections to God’s judgment on sinners (such as Matt. 11:20-24 or Romans 1:24, 26, 28) and also to God’s judgment on professing Christians who refuse to stop sinning (such as in 1 Corinthians 5 and Matt. 18).

A welcomed, yet messy expression of compassion occurs in 21:1-23a. The judgment on their brothers did not create ongoing animosity.

Finally, there is hope for future spiritual success in 21:23b-25 when rebuilding takes place and things almost seem to be normal again. The emphasis on “inheritance” points to future spiritual success that we enjoy in Christ.

This section is one of the best places to teach the church about the holiness of God and the need for discipline.

Preach well so He receives glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

P.S. If you are interested in how Judges is put together, you might like to know that the book is ending where it began. It begins and ends with Israel asking God, “Who will go up” to fight against____? The problem is the first question addresses going up against God’s enemies. By the end of the book the question addresses going up against their own people! An entire tribe has morphed into the morality of the culture.