Weekly Edgework #91 - March 28, 2006

Biblical Preaching

I have taken enough homiletics courses to get in the way of my preaching. (Myron Augsburger)

In my books, Myron Augsburger is perhaps one of the best preachers I have ever heard. So I found it somewhat surprising when I heard him say in one of his classes what I have quoted above. He went on to say that no number of courses about preaching you may take can guarantee that you will be a good and effective preacher.

Now, after preaching for nearly a lifetime myself, I must admit that I agree with Augsburger. While I have had my share of affirmations about my preaching, there remains to this day a persistent critique on the part of some that my preaching is not biblical enough. I hope that this reply to that criticism is taken in the spirit with which it is given.

Already in my early days of preaching, I once shared a stage with a variety of other speakers at a major conference. I was preaching a series of sermons on “The Kingdom of God.” It was not long before I became aware that some of my listeners were disturbed about my preaching. One concerned brother brought to my attention what the buzz was all about. It was being said that I was not preaching biblically enough, something he agreed with. He pointed out how a speaker who had come after me had sprinkled dozens of Bible verses throughout his sermon. This, he noted, had given listeners the assurance that he was “grounded in the Word.”

When I asked him if he could tell me in summary what that message had been about, he said, “No. But at least we know that he was biblical.” When I then asked him whether he remembered anything that I had said, he admitted that in fact he did. He told me it was not so much a case of being in error but one of optics. My sermon, he said, would have been more palatable had I quoted more Bible verses during the sermon. I still wonder why it should be more acceptable to string Bible verses together in a pattern that no one remembers than to speak passionately about a major biblical theme that impacts life on the ground where we live.

Like Myron Augsburger, I have also taken a variety of homiletics courses over the years. While I have picked up some good ideas from these courses, I tend to agree with Augsburger that they have mostly tended to get in the way of my preaching. Preaching is a very personal thing to do, and it is never wise to try to mimic someone else’s notion of what preaching is. I always find it humorous, for example, when someone tries to preach like Billy Graham. Billy is Billy and you are you. If you try to be Billy you will end up being nobody. It is often said that Teachers College can not make a teacher out of you if you don’t have it in your bones. The same could be said about preaching. If you don’t feel it in your bones it might be best to do something else.

One thing emphasized in most homiletics courses is that exegetical preaching is really the only faithful way to go. Lazy preachers preach topical sermons. Diligent preachers mine the biblical text for what it’s worth. The assumption behind these maxims is that preachers must always start with the biblical text. Study the Bible, zero in on a text, find three or four points in it to make a natural outline, and then expound to the listeners what you have learned. While this approach may not be wrong, I have heard far too many sermons of this kind that have left me checking my watch frequently. Mostly this happens when preachers lay out before the people the homework they have done – checking dictionaries, lexicons and commentaries – then declaring what in fact the true interpretation of that text is. An application, if indeed there is one, is then offered in a sentence or two in the dying moments of the sermon.

I have sometimes heard it said that preachers expound the Word – the Holy Spirit makes the application! Again, I am not saying that that can not happen. But I am wondering if biblical preachers do not at least have a role in pointing in the direction of what the Spirit is saying to God’s people. It seems to me that the prophets of the Old Testament thought so. Can you imagine the prophets preaching well-rounded, three-point sermons on a chosen passage in Deuteronomy and leaving it at that?

Most biblical prophets I know of could not be described as lazy. Courageous, perhaps – but not lazy. And they knew their Bibles. But what gave them impetus to speak was the circumstances of the day – injustice, oppression, idolatry, arrogance, pride and unholy alliances. And perhaps more than anything else a profound sense that God had something specific to say to his people right there, right then!

Preachers who follow the prophetic tradition are usually not lazy. They make it their task to be aware of what is happening on the ground – in the lives of the members of their congregation, in the community, and on the global scene. And then, based on their understanding of the biblical narrative – which they are continually mining diligently – point in the direction to which they feel God is calling his people.

From my perspective, it is legitimate when preaching biblically, to begin with a deep awareness of our contemporary context. It takes more work, courage and faith to go to the Scriptures with the burning questions arising out of our contemporary context and then reflect in your sermon what you sense God is saying to us today through his Word, than to simply exegete publicly a given text. It is appropriate in my view to spend a major portion of one’s sermon exploring what faithfulness to God might look like on the ground – today.