Going Deep with the Bible in Preaching

May 1st, 2014

Most Sundays, I am the one who listens to sermons, not the one who delivers them. Listening is definitely the easier job! Of the thousands of sermons I’ve heard over the years, only a few are imprinted in my long-term memory: a handful for being stellar, a few more than that for being horrible. The vast majority were apparently fair to middlin’ because they are now completely unmemorable.

Since I am ordained and a Bible professor, perhaps I am not a typical listener, but I suspect most churchgoers would agree: We remember a precious few sermons, forgetting the rest. I have some suspicions on why this is the case, and they have to do with the place of in-depth Bible study in preaching and teaching; or, perhaps more accurately, the absence of such in-depth study.

Before going any further, we should face the facts: In-depth Bible study scares many people, clergy included. There are various reasons for this, but much of it comes down to lack of familiarity with scripture. We all know that the Bible is an important book, or is supposed to be an important book, but, for most of us, that has become a kind of lip-service position—the Bible is no longer a living and breathing reality that shapes our lives. And when people finally get down to reading scripture for themselves, they are often baffled by what they find there, even offended.

It gets worse: The very claim that the Bible could shape our lives makes some people nervous. But it shouldn’t. We all live our lives by something, or rather, by many different things: books, music, movies, TV shows, political pundits, and so on. These are all “scriptures” of a sort, if we mean by that word “something we live life by.” The question, then, is not if there are such “scriptures”—there always are!—but only if the “scripture” in question is “Holy Scripture,” which is to say “something we live our lives by before God, given to us in the Bible.”

So, since we all live our lives by various “authorities,” wherever they come from, there’s no reason why the Bible couldn’t do the same. But should the Bible play such a role—and preeminently so? The Christian church has long answered that question in the affirmative. Among other things, Christianity is a book religion. The Bible is our book.

These factors make the in-depth preaching and teaching of the Bible absolutely essential. What is a book religion without a deep acquaintance with the book? But, again, in-depth study scares some people. The Bible is so different from their other “scriptures”—it is often at odds with them. At still other times, people are so ignorant of Holy Scripture that they think it is coterminous with those other, less holy scriptures. Un­tangling the two can be very tricky, even costly.

But it must be done. The church confesses to find God speaking in the Bible in ways that are irreplaceable and unparalleled. That’s why Wesley wanted to be “a man of one book.” “O give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God,” he wrote, which is—to be frank—what I find myself whispering every Sunday when I sit in the pew.

Here’s why: If the Bible is (or should be) as important as we say it is, then much of what passes for preaching and teaching will have to change. Google searches for witty jokes or inspiring anecdotes will have to go. Preachers and teachers will have to do harder work with the Bible itself, the only Holy Scripture the church recognizes. Catchy series or kitschy themes designed to hook a congregation may do more harm than good if they don’t lead us into a deeper, more sustained knowledge of scripture, “the Book of God,” the one we should live our lives by. Less sermon illustrations from camp or the grocery store are in order, and more exegesis of the text called for—if, that is, we care about creating Christians who are fluent in what should be their native tongue, who know what to say when they are “on stage,” as it were, because they’ve memorized their script(ure).

Once again, that’s easier said than done. In-depth biblical preaching and teaching will make many uncomfortable. These days, we prefer our food fast and mostly unhealthy. Sitting people down for a slow meal at the table of Holy Scripture will take some getting used to. It will take planning, time, training—not only for those who partake of the meal, but also for those who are cooking all week in preparation for Sunday’s meal. But as Carolyn J. Sharp has put it, “The spiritual process of wrestling with God’s Holy Word is one crucial way that we grow up into the full stature of Christ” (Old Testament Prophets for Today [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009], 20).

At the end of the day, sermons that wrestle deeply with Holy Scripture may not be any more memorable than others. But maybe memorability is not the point. Who cares if someone remembers your sermon or lesson? It matters that they remember Mark and Deuteron­omy, John and the Psalms, Romans and Exodus—yes, even Leviticus and Jude. Those things comprise the full counsel of God, not our jokes or illustrations. Those things have proven to be useful across the centuries for producing people of God who do God’s work in God’s world. Our own personal stories, as compelling as they may be, lack the same gravitas, authority, longevity. They also lack the same complexity and power of transformation, if only because they are not God’s book but ultimately just our own. If we are not careful, surface-skimming approaches to preaching and teaching will produce thin Christians: under­nourished and ill-equipped. The full counsel of God can produce people on their way to full maturity, “fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13 CEB).

Our preaching and teaching is in service to one thing and one thing only: to usher God’s people into God’s presence via these God-given texts so as to become God’s people. To rephrase Wesley, “Give them that book!” God help us to do so. God forbid that we don’t.

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