Thursday, February 01, 2018

Preaching with precision

One for the preachers today.  A thing I've noticed as I've been preaching more regularly is that it's easy to get a bit sloppy in certain areas, and one of those areas is precision.  "Broad brushstrokes" preaching becomes more common, every sermon prefaced with 'we won't be going into all the details today...'  Giving the gist of it rather than getting to the heart of it.

I think maybe it happens in a couple of different ways.

You're reading the text.  You read it a few different times, and although you think you've got the broad outline, there are some prickly bits that don't seem to fit.  You turn to a couple of commentaries; they are less helpful than you might like.  You read the text again.  But time is ticking, and at some point you're going to have to stand up and say something.  So you take heart in the fact that you understand the main point, and you go into the pulpit to preach that main point, brushing the tricky parts of the text under the carpet.

But can you really be confident you've understood the main point if the point you've grasped doesn't make sense of the details of the text?

You're reading the text.  At first reading, the point the inspired author is trying to make seems blindingly obvious.  You follow the argument, understand the imagery.  The text makes sense.  But as you think about standing up to preach, you can't immediately see any connection between this text and the people you need to address.  The problems of first century Galatia are not their problems; the sins of 7th century (BC!) Judah seem irrelevant to them.  But then something strikes you: this in the test is a little bit like that in the world of today.  Here is the hook.  Paul's words, or the prophecy of Isaiah, can be applied to the present day through this channel.

But are they really the same thing?  Are you confident that you're hitting the targets that the text was intended to hit?

You're reading the text.  The more you read it, the more it reminds you of something you read in your devotions this morning.  They're not about exactly the same thing, but there are definite links.  In fact, that text really spoke to you this morning, in ways that this text which you have to exegete probably wouldn't have done by itself.  Thankfully, with the devotional text in your mind, the preaching text seems to make much more sense.  Perhaps that's the way into the sermon - to illuminate the one text by the other.

But which text are you really preaching, now?  Are you sure the point of the original text hasn't been lost?

I don't think there's any easy answer to these problems, but I note that they mostly relate to the need for more time.  More time in the text to be preached, listening to the distinctive witness to Christ which it brings; more time wrestling in thought and prayer over and for the congregation, trying to understand the deep roots of their situations.  More time doing the stuff that isn't immediately productive - and that's the challenge.

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