Craft of Preaching

Mining Gold

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Last month I admitted, perhaps reluctantly, that sometimes the job of a sermon is nothing more than a tap on the shoulder, reminding people of the truths they have already been taught.

Unfortunately, many people outside the church, and too many who have grown up in the church, think that tapping on the shoulder is all that the church does. That the sermon's main function is to nag--to remind folks of the simple truths of our faith.

I call this the "All I Ever Really Needed to Know I Learned in Sunday School" syndrome.

Hebrews has much to say about the attitude that religious learning is as simple as ABC. Chapter 5 notes that infants live on milk until they can begin to handle solid food. People who are new in the faith go through the same process. They start out in Sunday school with milk, easily digested. In confirmation, you start to get some solid food: strained peas, cereal.

But if that is as far as we get, we are not going to have the kind of diet that leads to healthy adult growth.

Hebrews says that for healthy adult spiritual growth, we have to start eating solid food. If we are trying to live off the strained peas and cereal of our younger days, we are not going to grow. We are not going to become mature Christians.

         It's worth asking, "Where do my sermons fit in
         on the menu?"

To use a slightly different illustration, I have heard it said, regarding the tendency of young people to disappear from the church after confirmation, that modern religious instruction works like a vaccine for a virus. You give young people just enough weakened, watered down religion so that they never catch the real thing.

         Could the same be said of our sermons?

There are many passages in the Bible where the word of God is a deep vein of rich ore that requires digging. There are sections of the Bible, such as the Sermon on the Mount, and even entire books, such as John and Revelation, where the search for meaning takes us beneath the everyday world, deep into the caverns of wisdom.

We don't get anything out of these passages by going on a quick jog through the verses or by scratching around on the surface. We do that and we're likely to walk away with fool's gold that shows some glitter but in fact has little value.

In readings like these, we have to probe, and dig, and clear away rocks and debris, and wrestle the truth out of the ground and subject it to fire and see what emerges. We really have to struggle in deep conversation with God, with full concentration, and a sharp eye out for connections.

I often quote Joseph Sittler's remark that when you dig into the Word, you never hit bottom. There are many readings where the lode is so deep and so rich that we never get to the bottom of them:

The bread of life, the sufferings of Job, God's never-ending struggle to reconcile the twin necessities of love and justice, Paul's attempts to construct a coherent understanding of how God works, the dynamics of prayer, the theology of the cross.

There are great riches to be found in these Bible passages, tremendous insight to be gained. We will never mine all there is to be found here; we will never be able to say, "This is what this reading teaches us, nothing more, nothing less." But we find truth in these readings and it is always worth the effort of going after truth.

Shoulder taps are only a small part of what the Bible has to offer. More often it contains buried nuggets of wisdom. Which is good, because I didn't go to seminary to be a lunchroom monitor.

Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says Proverbs. The beginning. For the rest we're going to have to dig.

Next month: Wings.

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