Adhering Tightly to the Biblical Text

I suspect, unfortunately, that more than just a few working preachers spend only a rather brief period of time in the Scriptures, usually in a single English translation.

More time is devoted to commentaries about what the Scriptures say as seen through the commentators’ eyes. Still more time is spent searching for an illustration or “hook” that will somehow make such esoteric, intellectual, exegetical pursuits relevant to today’s hearers.

In this article, I offer an alternative approach in which the preacher spends the bulk of sermon-preparation time in the Scripture readings themselves, discerning God’s deed. This approach not only produces a relevant sermon but also informs the pastor’s larger ministry among God’s people, whether it be leading Bible studies, teaching, visiting, or bringing God’s Word of grace into life’s circumstances.

The preacher moves through the texts intentionally and deliberately, beginning with the Gospel reading assigned for the day and then proceeding to its paired Old Testament reading in that order. Even though the order of worship often has the Scripture reading sequence of Old Testament, psalm, epistle and Gospel readings, immersing oneself first in the Gospel reading and then in the Old Testament reading offers focused insights.

Key to this alternative approach is answering two questions: What is God doing in this particular reading? and What is God’s unconditional promise in this particular reading? Answering these two specific questions for both readings, while listening carefully to the scriptural readings in the context of the pastor’s ministry among God’s people, successfully spans the chasm separating today’s hearers from our ancient text of another culture.

The first question focuses the preacher on discerning what God is doing in the reading. In answering this question, the preacher discovers the scriptural authority for the sermon. This is called the preacher’s task. In the sermon, the preacher uniquely does the doing as informed by Scripture and the pastoral connection of a lived context; it offers a stroke of relevancy unavailable through a commentary.

The second question focuses the preacher on discerning God’s unconditional promise in this particular reading. Its answer becomes the gospel message of the sermon. God’s unconditional promise trumps the promise(s) under which hearers presently live; proclaiming God’s unconditional promise also works repentance by juxtaposing the two such that hearers perceive the enormous and unmistakable differences between them.

In review, the preacher’s first task is to answer these two questions on behalf of the faith community who has called the preacher to speak for God. Then, after having discerned the connection between the two readings, the preacher is prepared to consult what others might have to say about the readings. This way, the preacher is less reliant upon a commentator’s remarks. The preacher now chooses one of the two readings to be the scriptural basis for the sermon and articulates the preacher’s task and God’s unconditional promise for the sermon.

Condensing the answers to the above questions into statements of four to eight words each clarifies in the mind of the preacher the sermon’s movement and promise. With the preacher’s task and God’s unconditional promise in hand, the preacher reads (yet again) the chosen pericope, testing these two statements against the Scriptures themselves. The preacher then creates the sermon. Throughout the sermon-creation process the preacher evaluates the sermon’s current status in light of the preacher’s task and God’s unconditional promise, assuring the sermon’s proper focus by performing necessary correctives. Finally, the preacher compares the sermon to these two statements and to the Scripture reading.

Regularly returning to the scriptural reading throughout the sermon-creation process keeps the sermon firmly grounded in the Scriptures. Someone once observed that listening critically to the Scriptures results more in what one cannot say than in what one can say. Finally, while the preacher skilled in working with Greek and Hebrew enjoys a perspective unavailable to one limited to a translated reading (because numerous lexical and grammatical implications and nuances fail to arrive in the destination language translation), all preachers do indeed benefit by examining the notes recorded in the margins of the Nestlé-Aland Greek New Testament text. These notes assist all preachers in discerning the larger biblical context and establishing relevant scriptural connections; likewise, exploring the entire literary unit in which the pericope resides keeps all biblical preachers firmly grounded.