What makes preaching “biblical?” Isn’t all preaching “biblical” preaching?
What does a “non-biblical” sermon sound like and should it really matter? What is at stake when we claim the need for biblical preaching? What difference does biblical preaching make for our congregations, our communities and for the church in the world?
Of course, the compelling issues are also: Why do it? and What does it look like? We know biblical preaching when we hear it, but are we able to identify and articulate the necessary elements?
In answering the first question, Why do it?, perhaps the most obvious answer is that much preaching these days begs the response, “Was there a text in that sermon?” There is a willingness, even a perceivable contentment, to move quickly away from the text, never to return. As a result, the biblical text no longer provides the content of the sermon, no longer guides the sermon and there is little interest in having the sermon do what the text is doing.
In his book, “The Bible in the Pulpit: The Renewal of Biblical Preaching,” Leander Keck writes, “The actual content of the sermon is derived elsewhere and frequently could have been suggested just as well by a fortune cookie.” In this move, the text becomes irrelevant, unable to speak itself into the lives of congregations. In an effort to bridge the gap between text and sermon, the bridge is burned in the process.
Biblical preaching is also necessary because of the lack of biblical knowledge in our congregations. The ELCA’s Book of Faith Initiative is an important move toward helping people grow in biblical fluency. More and more, our sermons themselves need to be moments and opportunities for gaining biblical knowledge, literacy and fluency.
This is not an argument for a return to expository or pedagogical preaching but rather recognizes that our sermons need to attend to how we can help people of faith be better readers of the Bible.
The preaching triangle, that conversation between text, preacher and congregation, is not a linear dialogue where we mine the text for its nugget of meaning and then impart that to our listeners in the pews. It is truly a conversation where all participants have a voice, where we allow texts to talk back and that does not end with the sermon’s “Amen.”
So, what does biblical preaching look like? We should keep four elements in mind. First, biblical preaching is incarnational. The Word of God became flesh and needs to be enfleshed over and over again. The content of our sermon is never just words on a page–it is the very presence of the risen Christ who makes God known (John 1:18). In the Gospel of John, the word “grace” is never again used outside of the prologue to the Gospel. The “grace upon grace” that we are given in Jesus is not talked about in the rest of the Gospel.
Rather, the Gospel shows us what grace looks like. Biblical preaching shows grace. It is a “reincarnation” of God’s grace for us.
Second, biblical preaching is textual. That is, the sermon is attentive to the particularity, the specificity and the details of the text and does not try to make the text say what it doesn’t or make it sound like another. This means slowing down the process of reading, getting to know the text inside and out, listening for the specific ways that it is articulating itself, and being aware of how it does so. The content alone is not enough for finding meaning in biblical texts. We need to appreciate how that content is expressed. When the how is as important as the what, we begin to see that these writers do not just want us to know something, they want us to feel something and they expect their words to do something. And perhaps our preaching might follow suit.
Third, biblical preaching is contextual. In other words, the whole interprets the part and the part interprets the whole. If you are preaching on John, preach John and bring the entirety of John’s story to bear on the passage you are preaching. Our listeners do not need any more harmonization and the early church felt the same. There are four very different Gospels for a reason and each of them–each book in the Bible–needs to have its own voice. There is a reason why Paul does not talk about justification by faith in 1 Thessalonians. There is a reason why John locates Jesus’ arrest in a garden, not Gethsemane or the Mount of Olives. In the interplay of the part with the whole and the whole with the part, mutual interpretive and creative possibilities for preaching can happen.
Finally, biblical preaching is situational. “What the biblical writers found necessary to say was determined not by truth in general but needs in particular,” writes Keck. Preaching should not be about applying the situation of the text to, in or upon our lives but about helping us see and hear that the text is addressing us, too. Biblical preaching speaks a text into a community of faith so that the concrete ways in which God works in the lives of God’s people are not only recognized in the text but can be seen in our “everydayness” of life.