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 the Unique Circumstances Surrounding Samson’s Birth

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One of the highlights of preaching through the book of Judges is reaching the Samson narrative.

[If you haven’t seen Sight & Sound’s production of Samson, you would enjoy it thoroughly. Their imaginative exposition is always insightful.]

Two things are unique about the Samson birth narrative:

(1) God’s people are incapacitated. Judges 13:2 says, “And his wife was barren and had no children.” There was no courageous judge on the horizon. God’s plan for redeeming His world often included couples who could not conceive children. Think of these famous names: Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth. In his excellent little commentary, Davis writes,

“hopelessness…where there is no human energy or ability to serve as a starter.”

Samson is going to be a miracle baby. God would miraculously place him on history’s stage and use him to deliver His people from the Philistines. Our situation is so dire that we can never achieve deliverance in our own strength and ability.

(2) God demanded a special (read, holy) judge. Verses 4-7, 12-14, and 24-25 record instructions delivered to Samson’s mother about what she was to eat and drink during her pregnancy. All because Samson would “be a Nazarite to God from the womb” (v. 5). Those instructions are restated three times in the chapter to signal their importance.

Added to the miracle is a strong dose of holiness. The savior of God’s people would be set apart to God throughout his life, “a Nazarite to God from the womb to the day of his death” (v. 7).

This is the kind of savior God sent for His people; this is the kind of Savior, of course, that He ultimately provided in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s no surprise that when the angel arrives in another nativity scene such as Luke’s gospel, we have similar circumstances.

These prenatal instructions guide our worship. We don’t encourage, “Be like Samson,” or “Don’t be like Samson” in these early scenes. Maybe later in the chapter. For now it’s simply telling God how much we love Him for rescuing us from our tendency to leave Him for other loves.

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

Randal

Some Challenges of Using the Big Idea Method for Preaching

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This is the second of two posts devoted to encouraging readers to consider making the big idea hermeneutic/homiletic a part of their weekly study routine. The contents of the post come from the paper Jeff Arthurs (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary preaching prof) and I presented A couple of weeks ago at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Homiletics society held in Fort Worth, TX.

The paper was titled: The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching Robinson’s Big Idea Method.

Last week I wrote about the rewards; this week I’ll list some challenges. And, yes, the difficulties are well worth the effort.

  • It takes some time to learn and to be able to use the genre clues that lead to the subject of preaching portions. This starting point does not always comes easily. Would-be big ideas are coiled, ready to spring out like a Jack-in-the-Box. It takes discipline to let the Text dictate dominant meaning.
  • Not all brains are wired for this. Over the years we’ve discovered that some students learn this method very quickly while others struggle. It’s not because of intellect or training. Some simply don’t think in ways that lend themselves to this kind of analysis.
  • You will need to continue to work on your exegesis skills. The big idea method is hard work because it is the result of rigorous exegesis of ideas (how phrases and clauses form meaning), not fragments (e.g., word studies). We’re better at micro-exegesis than we are at macro-exegesis. We find there’s still a gap between hermeneutics classes and homiletics classes.
  • Prepare yourself for repetition. If you’re preaching through large portions of the Old Testament, you will encounter many preaching portions contain similar big ideas. That is true in the Joseph narrative in Genesis. You will find the same in Psalms and Proverbs. Resist the urge to find new ideas in every section. Only by doing your big idea analysis early on in your study can you map out a sermon series that takes into account such repetition/restatement.

But these challenges are well worth it. So I hope you will consider making the big idea method the focus of your Monday morning hours and add to God’s glory in the church and in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:21).

Randal

Why You Should Consider Using the Big Idea Method to Guide the First Hours of Each Week’s Study Time

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Michele and I just returned from attending the annual Evangelical Homiletics Society conference held on the beautiful facilities of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX. I had the privilege of co-authoring and presenting a paper with my Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary teaching colleague, Dr. Jeffrey D. Arthurs.  The paper was titled, The Rewards and Challenges of Teaching Robinson’s Big Idea Method.

Shameless promotion alert: our presentation won the Keith Willhite Award for best paper of the conference.

Here’s a summary of our work. I’m including this because I hope you will consider making the big idea method a part of your weekly sermon preparation. The summary might help move you in that direction if you aren’t already a disciple.

Rewards…

  • Pre-exegesis. The method helps guide my study time at the beginning of every week. I don’t start with micro-exegesis (word studies), but with macro-exegesis or pre-exegesis (learning how meaning is being made through the relationship of ideas within the preaching portion).
  • Discovering the interrelationship between ideas. The method excels at identifying how various sized ideas create meaning in a pericope. Not to mention, this is the time to locate dominant and subordinate thoughts in the passage.
  • Preserves Authorial Intention. This method helps me learn what the writer of Scripture meant and keeps me from reading into or over what he has written. If you preach or teach the Bible then you use some method. I really like this one.
  • Sermon Structure. While you are doing your pre-exegesis according to this fashion, you are beginning to see the author’s structure emerge. The process of finding the big idea leads to the identification of the main points or logical moves of the author and this leads to initial sermon form.
  • Big Idea By-Products. If your analysis is correct within the first few hours of study, you have gained significant sermon by-products. You have your theme or big idea. That means you have direction for both your introduction and conclusions. You also have a sense of what the sermon is supposed to do to the listeners (sermonic purpose).
  • Aids Listener Comprehension and Retention. As your sermon stays locked into the big idea, sermon unity and clarity will help listeners  understand and remember the sermon.

That’s the rewards you can expect if you try the method. If you’re not sure how to put this method into practice, please read or reread my book, Preaching With Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching (Kregel, 2014).

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

Randal

P.S. Next time I’ll list some of the challenges that go along with the method.

Preaching Gideon Vs. Midian As A Paradigm For Salvation

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If and when you preach through Judges, you will discover that God spent a lot of biblical real estate on the Gideon narrative. God gives tons of detail on Gideon versus Midian, probably because that contest functions as a paradigm for our salvation. Gideon is a highly unlikely military leader; his victory over the Midianites was a highly unlikely victory. That’s the point.

You’re familiar with how unsure Gideon was about God’s plan and how he asked God more than once to confirm the plan with a miracle (“the fleece”). Where’s his faith anyway?! It’s comforting to see how God did not chastise Gideon for his doubts. No lecturing; just confirming. Of course, Gideon’s example is not instruction for us to “go and do likewise.”

But the key to the narrative and its theology is God’s instruction to Gideon to whittle down his army, “lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.'” (cf. Judges 7:2). This is one of those examples of how the narrative provides a huge clue to meaning.

And be careful how you explain the Lord’s way of decreasing the size of Gideon’s army. God doesn’t tell us why the “lappers” are chosen, but not the “kneelers.” Whatever God’s reason, His intention was to take away any cause for Israel to boast in their strength. So contrary to many preachers’ explanations, the 300 who are selected are a sign of weakness, not strength. Plus, note that they take “trumpets” (v. 8, 22), not spears or bows. The soldiers were turned into fierce instrumentalists!

But God gives His people the victory over the Midianites. And it’s a great reminder of the fact that our salvation is all of God and none of us. We have a strong Savior who continually delivers us from overpowering forces that threaten to undue us. He graciously saves and sanctifies us. He does it all by Himself so we can only boast in the cross of Christ.

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

Randal

Preaching What’s Definitely Wrong in the Narrative (part 8 of preaching Daniel)

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Daniel 5:1-31 presents a challenge due to its size. But it only takes the first four verses to see that something’s definitely wrong. The something that’s wrong the ultimate act of idolatry. Verse 4 concludes the party scene with: “They drank wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone.” It’s a slap to God’s face.

The writer of Daniel let’s us know that this is wrong by recording Daniel’s speech to the idolatrous king in verse 23: “but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven….And you have praised the gods of silver and gold….but the God in whose hand is your breath, and whose are all your ways, you have not honored.”

So, in verse 23 God provides us with the problem and solution. Our sermon is a time to urge all the faith-family to “go and do otherwise.” Genuine Christians do not follow the king’s example. We keep ourselves from idolatry of all kinds, especially the American idols. We praise “the God in whose hand is [our] breath.” We honor Him and Him alone.

The famous scene of the divine handwriting on the wall and Daniel’s interpretation of that pen-on-plaster describe God’s reaction to the king’s arrogant idolatry. It also advances our application and links us to the Gospel.

First, each one of us at the judgment will be weighed in the balances. Apart from the righteousness Christ, all of us will be “found wanting” (v. 27). But the cross shows us a Savior, the only human ever to live a perfect life, found wanting because of our sins. Because God found Him wanting due to our sins, we have the assurance of facing the judgment without fear. Genuine Christians live a life that reflects the fact that we praise and honor God alone.

For anyone who wonders whether this decision is the right one, give them a good look at how Daniel fares in this chapter.

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

Randal

 

How to Avoid “Coruscating” Communication

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Somewhere in my readings last year, I learned a new word. “Coruscating” means the fragmentation of light. It means to give forth flashes of light (as opposed to one beam).

Take another look at the image above. What happens to your eyes when you look at it? I found my eyes quickly moving to each individual light. I wasn’t focusing on any one light.

Think about this in  light of our sermons and what our sermons do to our listeners. If our sermons engage in coruscating communication, our listeners’ attention will be easily diverted to all those individual flashes of concepts or ideas. Throughout the sermon we shine a bright light on various exegetical fragments and draw listener attention there for a few minutes before moving on to the next one. We are not communicating the cohesiveness that’s built into the structure of the preaching portion.

I am entering my second week of teaching Advanced Homiletics for Lancaster Bible College’s Graduate School. Soon I will be listening to student sermons. If history repeats itself, one comment I will make repeatedly in my evaluations is:

“The sermon contained too many unconnected ideas.”

Before Sunday, check to see if you are doing the following to help your parishioners focus on God’s Word:

1. Use your outline to display conceptual unity. Check your major points to see if they communicate the unity of the passage.

2. Use the intention of the passage to display unity. Throughout the sermon, keep everyone focused on how your preaching portion functions for the Church (what listeners are to do as a result of hearing God’s Word).

3. Finally, keep everything connected to the big idea of the preaching portion so that all those individual beams of light point back to their source.

All three demand the use of clear, logical transitions, every step of the way. I suggest that you write your sermon manuscript with these transitions in mind so that your listeners always see how the ideas in the passage combine to create meaning and intention.

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

Randal

P.S. Preach a good sermon, will ya!?!

Surprising Help from a Critical and Historical Commentary!

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It is not often that a critical and historical commentary delivers consistent help to preachers beyond technical, exegetical fragments. That’s why I was surprised to see the Daniel commentary in the Hermeneia Series contain a segment called, Structure and Unity.

As Collins goes through each large segment in Daniel’s gospel, along with the brilliant technical stuff, he includes a brief treatment of the segment’s structure and unity:

Major points are listed (I, II, III, etc.)

Verse parameters (I. 3:1-7, for instance)

Summary statement (I. 3:1-7. Introduction)

Summary of the section (two or three sentences describing the content of the section)

For the past few years, I’ve been assigning a similar assignment to my students. I call it, Major Thought Blocks. I believe it to be the most important aspect of developing genuine expository sermons. It’s the first phase of my own study every Monday morning. Here’s why…

Theology is conveyed through the structure of your preaching portion. Unity of thought is also conveyed through the structure. Disregard or break from the structure and, chances are good (within the realm of the sovereignty of God, of course!), that you will stray from the theology and unity of the preaching portion.

So, I add only one more thing to the list above. Along with major points, verse parameters, summary statement, and summary of the section’s content, add logical transitions between the major points. That allows you to track the Author’s/author’s flow of thought. It’s that flow that communicates the theology (whether narrative or epistle).

Before Sunday, see if you have identified these components in your preaching portion. See if your sermon idea matches what is being communicated. If your sermon’s structure and unity is different from the preaching portion’s, check to see how different your message is from the message of the Text.

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

Randal

Remembering the “Narrative” in the Birth Narratives of the Gospels

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I have to force myself to enjoy preaching at Christmas time. One of the many difficulties of preaching the birth narratives of the Synoptic Gospels is remembering that they are narratives. That means the subject of the sermon will come from the rising action (initial plot development) of, let’s say, Luke’s Gospel.

So, the description of the birth of Jesus functions within the larger storyline Luke is developing. Luke only gives us this much: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). That’s it.

But Luke has already told us his big idea: “it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account for you…that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4). This means that the event of the birth of Jesus and all surrounding events (births of John and Jesus foretold, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, Mary’s Song, the birth of John, Zechariah’s prophecy, Caesar’s decree, the shepherd’s vision, etc.) contribute to Luke’s idea.

It’s easy to focus only on the little narrative–the birth narrative–and miss Luke’s larger narrative. But Luke’s larger narrative contains the purpose for which all smaller narratives in his Gospel exist. That purpose is most important for our congregants. If you’re interested in learning how to allow genres, such as narrative, to signal dominant meaning, take a look at chapter 4 in my new book, Preaching With Accuracy (Kregel, 2014).

Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching

So, if you’re like me and you’re finished with the birth narratives for this year, Lord willing, remember the narrative part of the birth narratives for next year. If you are planning to preach from one of the early narratives in the Gospels this coming Sunday, before Sunday, check to see how the ideas in your mini-narrative fit into the larger idea of the Gospel writer. Allow that larger idea and purpose to drive your sermon.

Preach well for His glory in the church and in Christ Jesus.

Randal

P.S. Enjoy a blessed Christmas!

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.