This Adventure We Call Preaching

It is still several months away but one of the things that I am looking forward to this summer is taking place on July 25.  On that day, I will be joining Dr. Mike Walters of Houghton College in conversation about this adventure we call preaching.  Dr. Walters is an excellent instructor and influencer.  I have experienced this first hand as he is responsible for introducing me to New Testament Greek and to soccer in my early years of college and I can’t shake either habit.  So do not expect anything less than being influenced significantly for years to come.

The sessions will be held in Binghamton, New York on July 25 from 9am – 3pm.  Following is an early schedule of what to expect;

9:00am – Randy Saultz – “Follow the Text: The Different Paths of the Biblical Narrative”

10:15am – Mike Walters – “Preachers and Their Bibles: How Issues in the Study Follow Us into the Pulpit”

11:30am – lunch

12:45pm – Randy Saultz – “Every Sermon Needs a Deliverer: Exodus as a Paradigm of the Human Dilemma”

2:00pm – Mike Walters – “Working the Text: Tools for the Preacher’s Toolbox”

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Making a Sermon Move

Preachers are always looking to put words together in ways that make a sermon move.  We want to help listeners recognize themselves in the story and see themselves as part of a spiritual adventure.  I fear that we sometimes overlook the biblical text as a natural place to find movement.  Exploring structure, genre, and purpose are not simply academic exercises.  This is necessary work to discover narrative movement.  In our discovery we find that sometimes physical motion helps the text move.  Other times, emotion, behavior, or newly introduced characters or places move the narrative.  The fact is that the text has a pace and moves in a specific direction.  The text knows where it is going and the preacher should follow it.

For example each of the four Gospels may take us to Easter, but they pace themselves differently and highlight different things along the way.  In an effort to illustrate this I make the following simple statements (perhaps too simple) about the Gospels.

Mark is intentional about moving us to a fuller understanding about who this Jesus is, especially His relationship to a cross.

Matthew creates space for us to reflect by switching back and forth between narrative and teaching sections.

Luke pulls us forward by demonstrating how innumerable barriers to the Good News are overcome by the activity of God.

John carries us along with scene after scene (or sign after sign) toward the possibility that we might believe.

I am not suggesting that we get locked in on a particular path to the neglect of others.  I am suggesting that the text tends to take us along specific routes.  We hinder the text when we try to take it down paths it was not intended to travel.

Isaiah and a Counter Narrative

Walter Brueggemann grabs the context of exile as a “metaphor for the characteristic ‘human predicament.’” He briefly describes exile as “a situation of hopelessness and homelessness, a sense of impotence about being able to change circumstance.” The dominant voices are loud and at times, attractive. This results in a seemingly convincing narrative. But, he argues, it is convincing because people do not know of an alternative voice. He goes on to say that “if we make exile our characteristic context then we may take gospel as characteristic utterance in exile.”

I find this to be extremely interesting use of metaphor. The people of God are in exile. A word from God is seemingly overdue. The church is displaced from the support it had grown accustomed to over time. Instead, we find ourselves in the midst of Babylonian seduction, Babylonian economics, and Babylonian gods. We are strongly influenced by the dominant values of culture. On the surface, things appear to be operating just fine.

By appearances, Babylon had “well nigh driven Jewishness from the horizon; and with the elimination of Jewishness it had vetoed YHWH from the theological conversation.” Memory and hope of God had been eliminated by the dominant voices. The voices of the dominant narrative continue to try and silence the utterance of gospel.

Is there a text to make sense of this Babylonian arrangement? Enter Isaiah and his gospel. The prophet utters a message that is not self-evident or available by any other means. Chapter forty lets us know “that YHWH is back in play.” Verse nine announces – “Here is your God!”

In chapter forty six, the prophet mocks the gods of the empire. His intent seems to be to reveal the true colors of the dominant power. It turns out that the gods of the empire are a fraud. They are much noise and no substance. “Bel has bowed down; Nebo stoops over.” They “have themselves gone into captivity.” This is then matched by verse nine that tells us “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me.” A counter-narrative that claims YHWH is “the most reliable player in the struggle for the future.”

Commenting on chapter fifty two, Brueggemann suggests “in the contest for domination, the gods of the empire have been defeated and the God of Israel is now the dominant force in creation.” It is a counter-narrative that rings out in verse seven “How lovely on the mountains, Are the feet of him who brings gospel, Who announces peace, And brings gospel of happiness, Who announces salvation, And says to Zion, Your God reigns!”

Brueggemann believes that honestly facing exile as our situation generates urgency for preachers to communicate gospel. We are saturated by definitions of reality that are counter to the gospel. Enter the preacher. If the preacher is faithful, the listener is invited to make a decision. Will it be the old noisy narrative of the empire? Or the new gospel narrative announced by the prophet?

Read the Old Testament Laws for Life

Our congregation is currently in conversation with Read the Bible For Life by George Guthrie. Guthrie has structured the book as a series of conversations between he and scholars who have invested themselves in scripture. In the conversation between he and J. Daniel Hays, several things stand out about reading and applying the Old Testament Laws. We are hoping that listening in on this conversation will prompt us to join in. The following paragraphs share some highlights.

The people of God faced strong pagan influences. The people who were already residing in the Promised Land worshiped idols and would have a powerful, negative influence on Israel. Leviticus is aware that these influences can draw people away from God. The Old Testament Laws suggest that God’s people should not mess with unhealthy spiritual influences from culture.

The presence of the Lord changes everything. Leviticus highlights these changes and explains how Israel was to live with Holy God in their midst. They had to keep numerous mundane commands that stressed separation. They couldn’t mix two kinds of seeds. They couldn’t mix two kinds of cloths. These everyday reminders were to help them remember that there were demands to keep them separate from unholy things.

Read the Old Testament Law. Read it remembering that we are still the people of God and still live in community with others. Read it asking what the laws teach us about God and human nature. Read it as coming from out of a narrative story. The Law is connected to deliverance from Egypt, the establishment of covenant, and the life in the Promised Land.

We do not want to read the Old Testament laws as specific, literal laws. We want to read them as inspired revelation about God, and how we should respond to Him. God has written His law on our hearts. God is serious about holy living. It is no coincidence that the New Testament quotes from Leviticus 19 that we ought to “be holy, because I am holy.”

A Text to Deal With

I fear that many sermons today attempt to answer questions that we may be curious about instead of questions that the text may be asking. While a sermon might comfort the listener, I fear that some are intended to make the hearer comfortable. I fear that some preaching tames the text until it becomes something usable for the listener. Something that adds value to what the listener is already doing. And while some sermons may be seeking conversion, I fear that it is the text that is being converted instead of the listener.

In Telling God’s Story, John W. Wright forms a contrast between sermons that simply reinforce the worldview of the hearer vs. those that introduce the worldview of the text.

In the first, Wright claims that the text is used to reassure rather than disturb. The convictions of the hearer remain intact and are even reinforced. The sermon is delivered as an answer to a question that already exists in the mind of the hearer. In contrast, Wright proposes that preaching should be an invitation to the biblical worldview. Preaching invites hearers into a different narrative in which they can live their lives. Into something different from the standard story. Something different from the story of an autonomous individual searching for their own happiness.

Wright calls for preaching that presents a new experience. Something unsettling. Something we do not choose. Something that happens to us. Something that must be dealt with. In this way, the text comes on us like weather. We do not ask for the weather. We simply receive the weather that is in store. The same with the biblical text. Here it is – deal with it.

Instead of reassuring or reinforcing our lives as they are, the text challenges us and demands that we leave the narrative of society and join this new narrative. Preaching calls our present lifestyle into question. Preaching asks the question “what are you going to do with this?”

Preaching a Grand Story

Preaching through the biblical narrative may be a daunting task.  But perhaps it becomes less daunting if we frame it as a grand story.  At the very least it would help lend a potential structure.  Eugene Peterson tells us that all stories have basic elements.  I like what he says and the questions he prompts enough that from this point on, I follow his lead.  In order to assist with the recognition of the narrative shape of Scripture, he punctuates the following elements.

First, there is a beginning and an ending.  “All stories take place in time and are bounded by a past and a future.”  Peterson proposes that the bible (as well as other good stories) has both an original and a final goodness.  Eden.  Heaven.

Second, Peterson says that there is a catastrophe.  The good beginning hits a bump.  There is a barrier.  Something stands in the way.  A disaster occurs.  And then, “we are, in other words, in the middle of a mess.”

Third, salvation enters the plot.  Peterson says that “some faint memory reminds us that we were made for something better than this .”  This creates a tension.  We find ourselves in between the original good and the present evil.  And a plan develops to get us out of our trouble – salvation.  I rather like the way that Peterson frames our situation.  He suggests that we are facing opposing forces while we fight “our way through difficult and unfamiliar territory to our true home.”

Fourth, characters develop.  The actions of people are important.  Personalities develop in the course of conflict and journey.  Character and circumstance are in dynamic interplay with each other.  Some people become better, some become worse.  Nobody stays the same.

And finally, “everything has significance.”  Peterson places emphasis on the fact that story implies an author.  Nothing happens by chance.  “Every word connects with every other word in the author’s mind, and so every detail, regardless of how it strikes us at first, belongs.”

He goes on to say that “all the world’s stories have these characteristics.”  Whether implied or explicit these elements are there.  And “they develop into tragedies, comedies, epics, confessions, murder mysteries, and gothic romances.  Poets, dramatists, novelists, children, and parents have developed millions of variations on these elements.”

Peterson calls the bible a “huge, sprawling account that contains subject matter from several cultures, languages, and centuries.”  He points out that Northrup Fry distinguishes the bible from other sacred books on account of its emphasis on narrative.  He highlights how the narrative even shows itself in the arrangement of the Hebrew canon.

The Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) gives us the basic story.  The Prophets (Joshua through Malachi) take the basic story and introduce it into new situations across centuries “insisting that it be believed and obeyed in the present, not merely recited out of the past.”  The Writings reflect on the story, assimilating them into wisdom (Job and Proverbs) and worship (Psalms).

The New Testament then takes on a parallel shape.  The Gospels tell the basic story in a new Torah.  The Epistles serve similarly to the Prophets as the story is told in an expanding world, preached over multiple journeys and conflicts across multiple geographical and cultural settings.  Peterson even adds that Luke expands the four Gospels into a five-volume Torah (Acts) at the same time that he introduces the prophetical lives of Peter and Paul.  James and Revelation are equivalent to the Writings, summing up in wisdom and worship the response of a people whose lives are shaped by story.

While I think that Peterson might allow some difference of opinion in the details, I think he would insist that scripture be read in this narrative framework where all the parts (proverbs, commandments, letters, visions, law, songs, prayer, genealogies) are included into a unified story.  In fact, he goes so far as to say that “it is fatal to exegesis when this narrative sense is lost.”

Peterson becomes helpful for us as we attempt to preach through the bible.  He helps us to see that every word fits into the larger context.  This becomes especially important when we recognize that a great deal of context gets lost when words are written down.  We lose “the tone of voice, the smell in the air, the wind on the cheek.”  But the thing we do not lose is the basic narrative – language shaped into story.

Since this is the one part of context that we do have, it becomes important to be attentive to it.  The Genesis to Revelation context.  The basic story laid down in Torah and Gospel.  The intrusion of story into history by Prophets and Epistles.  The gathering response of Psalms and Revelation.

No matter when we preach, what text, or where, we want to remember  that “God’s decision to use words as a means for revealing himself and shaping us means that we must pay attention both to what he says and to how he says it.”