Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 3.

For the past two weeks, we've been thinking together about the "sermon moment," and our attention has been particularly directed toward the preacher. This week, we turn our attention to the listeners. What must they do in the sermon moment? Are there right and wrong ways to listen to a sermon being preached?

When I wrote about "What the Preacher Must Do," I made the argument that the sermon should be expository. That means that it should expose the truth of God's Word for people to hear and respond. I also wrote that the sermon should not be the preacher's ideas, with some "biblical backup" sprinkled in. The term for that is exegesis: the idea that the meaning is born from within the text of the Bible. The opposite of exegesis is eisegesis, the idea that the meaning is born somewhere else, and brought to the text of the Bible. Do you see the difference? Exegesis wants to know what the truth of the text meant to its writer and its original readers, and ultimately, to God Himself. Eisegesis wants to know if some other meaning or idea can be made to fit into the biblical text.

But why am I writing all this now, when we're supposed to be thinking about the listener rather than the preacher? I like to say that Christians must be exegetical and expository listeners. Or more accurately, the hearers must expect and listen for exegesis and exposition. What does that mean? Let's go back to 2 Timothy 4 and see why Paul gave Timothy such a weighty charge:

"Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths."
(2 Timothy 4:2-4, ESV)
Paul warns Timothy that people have a natural tendency to listen to what they like. That's pretty harmless if we're only thinking about what kind of music we enjoy, or what kind of topics we talk about with friends. But what about issues of great importance? Would we stop listening to a doctor because we don't like the test result he reported? That would be incredibly foolish. So our tendency to only listen to what we like to hear -coupled with our sin nature- becomes a recipe for disaster. 2 Timothy 4 asserts that we refuse to hear sound teaching: either because we disagree with it, are offended by it, or just find it too boring to give it our attention. Instead, if left to our own devices, we will accumulate teachers who tell us what we want to hear. The Greek for accumulate could be literally interpreted as piling up or heaping together. The idea is to get more and more. Paul's powerful imagery of "itching ears" that need to be tickled gives us even more insight: We have a need to keep on hearing what we like or want to believe is true. In an attempt to verify our wayward thoughts, we get more and more teachers to tell us what we already love to hear.

What is the solution? Being an exegetical, expositional listener.

First, change the way you listen to the sermons you hear by engaging your discernment. Godly men who preach and teach the Word will want you to do this. Have a Berean mindset (Acts 17:11). The Bereans were eager to hear Paul's message, but their eagerness didn't stop with "taking in a sermon." Instead, their eagerness lead them to verify what was being said against the Scriptures. They were exegetical listeners: if what was being preached was an idea foreign to the scriptures, they would have rejected it! Just think: the Bereans were verifying and checking up on the preaching of the Apostle Paul! They aren't rebuked for that. Instead, the praise of their attitude is forever memorialized in the Bible Itself! We would do well to imitate them. Just remember that Berean is not Bohemian. I'm not talking about an anti-authoritarian spirit, or playing "stump-the-preacher" with endless, unhelpful questioning. Engaging your discernment means rejecting what is false or misleading. It also means receiving, clinging to, and cherishing what is good and true and right:
"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9)
Second, change the way you listen to sermons by reforming your expectations. When you hear a sermon, you have the incredible opportunity to hear the truth of God's Word. Don't settle for something else!  Expect to hear the truth of a Biblical text put on display for all to hear, receive, and respond to in faith. Expect that the main point of the sermon should be the main point of the text. Don't seek to be entertained, or even just to hear something new. That desire is often cleverly masked in Christian circles by using the word "fresh." After Paul left the Bereans, he preached for the Athenians, even being brought up to the Areopagus. But most of the Athenians only wanted to hear Paul because they "spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:19-21). In contrast to the Bereans, this behavior was not praised, and isn't to be imitated. Think of it this way: when you change what you value, what interests you -and how much it interests you- will change. 

I hope this week's topic has been a welcome challenge. I encourage you to join me in praying that the Lord would show us how to be the sermon listeners He wants us to be. Next time, we will think about some practical ways we can carry out that ambition.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 2.

Last week, we began a series on the "sermon moment" - the time of preaching in our worship service. The first installment covered what the preacher must do. Today, we'll look at how the preacher goes about his task. 

Anyone who has ever read from the bible knows that there is lot you could say about any passage of scripture. There are contexts to consider, grammatical features to examine, historical backgrounds to understand, the biography of the bible book's author, the over-arching theme of the whole bible, the main idea of the text itself, and all the imaginable ways one might apply the meaning in their own life... and that's just some of what could be said. The preacher's job, then, is not so much figuring out what things can be said, but figuring out what things should be said. 

Last week, I wrote about expository preaching: putting the truth of a text on display. Let's imagine, for a moment, that the truth of the text is a precious stone. To show the stone, we could simply place it on a shelf, or maybe under a glass. But if we want to appreciate the stone's value more fully, we have to find a way to view it from different angles, to see it against different backgrounds. We would never change the stone, but we could see its worth more completely by examining it in different ways. Similarly, the preacher displays the truth of God's Word, turning it one way and another, so that everyone has the opportunity to experience its full worth and weight.  

So, what tools can the preacher use to better display the truth of God's Word? There are many, and the scholars and students of preaching have different ways to describe and categorize them. Here are a few that are simple and easy to remember.

1. Explanation.  In any sermon, there should be some explanation of the text. Hearers need to know what the text means. Obviously, some texts will require more explanation than others. Explanation is necessary, but doesn't make a complete sermon. If there is too much explanation, there may not be time -or the listeners may be too worn out- for much else. A sermon isn't just a lecture, so the preacher should try to use other tools to compliment his use of explanation.

2. Illustration. The use of stories, quotes, media, object lessons, etc., can all be used to illustrate the points or main truth of a sermon. Illustration provides a more creative or engaging way to think about a particular truth. It also helps the listener maintain interest. But preachers and listeners alike should be careful: listeners sometimes remember illustrations without remembering the meaning behind them. (As you listen, think of an illustration as a side-dish at a good meal. It adds flavor, but it isn't the main course. You are there to be fed, not entertained. Nourished, not impressed.)

3. Application. Every sermon must include application. Application takes the truth of the bible passage to the life of the listener. Often, there are dozens of potential applications. Application causes a change in the hearer's heart that overflows into his or her thinking, decision-making, and day-to-day living. The preacher can't leave the meaning of the passage in its own time; It has to live and work in our time and culture.

4. Compelling. A sermon is not a presentation of facts given by a neutral presenter, who doesn't care what decision hearers might make. A sermon is an argument! The preacher has "seen and savored" wonder and glory in the scripture - and he wants his hearers to see it and savor it too. The sermon is also tied to the greater narrative of the whole bible- the gospel. The gospel is the central, redemptive story that connects all the pages of scripture and all of history together. The preacher desperately wants his hearers to receive the truth of the sermon, and he desperately wants them to believe the gospel.

As you begin to recognize some of the "tools" used in preaching, I hope you will grow in your ability to listen and apply the truth of God's Word for yourself. Next week, we'll be looking at that very idea: that the hearer is the one best equipped to apply the truth of God's Word in his or her own life. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

Every. Single. Sermon. Part 1

In this brief series, I want to take a look at preaching. More specifically, I want to consider the sermon time in our worship service. I hope this will prompt you to think carefully about what really happens during that time- and maybe even get excited about it.

It may seem like there isn't much to think about: one person speaks while many listen. But that understanding makes the sermon little more than a speech or lecture. There is a lot more happening when a sermon is delivered; or at least, there should be. So, over the next few weeks, I'll be writing about the "sermon moment" in 4 parts: (1) What the preacher must do, (2) how he should go about doing it, (3) what the hearers of the sermon must do, and (4) how they should go about doing it.

What the Preacher Must Do

Possibly the most forceful command Paul left to Timothy was to "preach the Word" (2 Timothy 4:1-2). What qualifies as "the Word?" I think John Piper has summarized the idea in a very helpful way (see his sermon notes, here). Borrowing from Piper, we see that the context of 2 Timothy points us to the Word being "all scripture," as mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:16.  For Timothy, the writings of the Old Testament were the scripture, and he would certainly have been well-taught in Paul's method of using them to lead people to faith in Christ. Piper also points to the context immediately following verses 1-2, specifically verse 3's warning about "sound doctrine." Paul has already urged Timothy keep the pattern of sound doctrine that he had received from Paul (2 Timothy 1:13). The faithful teaching that was received by Timothy was, during this period, being recorded and slowly collected as the New Testament. So, when we receive Paul's command to "preach the Word," we receive a command to preach the Bible.

So, the preacher must preach the Bible. That's much more difficult than simply picking a scripture passage and talking about it. A faithful preacher strives to ensure the meaning of his sermon is the same as the meaning of the scripture passage. In fact, the preacher's main task is to put the passage on display for the hearers to listen to it, understand it, and apply it to their own lives. That kind of preaching is called "expository" because it exposes the truth of a particular scripture passage. The sermon is not the preacher's ideas with some biblical backup sprinkled in. It is God's idea, brought to the hearers' attention by the preacher. 

There are at least a few other things that good, biblical sermons must include. The central message of the whole Bible is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the theme that runs through the Scriptures, beginning to end. No sermon should leave out an explanation and appeal to respond to the gospel message. Individual sermons may give a more or less detailed explanation or appeal, but every sermon should compel its hearers to follow Christ.

A faithful preacher also ensures that the sermon gives hope and grace to hurting people. The English Congregationalist preacher, Joseph Parker, famously said, "Speak to the suffering, and you will never lack an audience. There is a broken heart in every crowd." Taken with Jesus' teachings about the meek, the lowly, the poor, suffering, and outcasts, Parker's advice should resonate with every preacher. If the gospel message isn't for the broken-hearted, it isn't for anyone. 

With these things in mind, I hope you can appreciate the weight of the preaching responsibility! Pray for the men of God in your life who labor to preach faithfully. One of the most encouraging things you can do to support them is to come prepared to hear, examine, and make application of the message. Next time, we'll think about some of the tools the preacher uses in the sermon. By recognizing them, you can grow in your understanding and application of the sermons you hear.