Presently I am in the process of moving a bunch of stuff around in my study, unloading other stuff from an old office I abandoned a few years back. An Atlanta church allowed me to keep some things there in an unused part of their facilities.
As I separated some things to store away, part of the stuff I tagged
for the attic included hundreds of pages of sermon notes I've kept
through the years. I don't know how I've kept them because a dozen
times, I've decided to throw them away. I just never got my round
'tuit' in order to get it done!
Well, I opened one of the folders and there were several pages of notes on the general epistle from James the Apostle. As I stood in the parlor reading through the folder, I have to say, I was moved afresh. The Word of God touched me again, similar to Jeremiah's fire he felt welling up in his bones. Thus, I thought I would throw out a few thoughts I penned many years ago concerning James.
Before I do, a caution is in order about my style of sermonizing, if for no other reason than the style I used for over twenty years in pulpit ministry is one hardly in good company today, even in many Southern Baptist pulpits. I learned early on to take my cues on what to address from the Scripture itself, not from culture nor even from my perceived needs of our church. I was unapologetically wed to the distinct conviction--and still remain so--that God's Word dictates to the messenger what the need of the hour is. We need not make the biblical message relevant; to the contrary, making the Bible relevant, to me, is like making water wet.
Many call the style I employ expository preaching. That is what I have known it to be; indeed, what I was taught it to be. And, I am grieved today that some deny biblical exposition a place at the head of the table. Oh, they do not do so outright. Rather, they speak of preaching like Jesus preached--through story. That sounds much more spiritual, do you not agree?
It's strange how the same ones who speak of preaching like Jesus preached do not also speak of praying like Jesus prayed--all night--or fasting like Jesus fasted--40 days. To me, that sounds pretty spiritual too, not to mention being way too cool. Yet, few of us pattern our personal lives after those fine qualities. Instead, we do the easy stuff. We tell stories!
And, the stories we tell so often are about ourselves and our lives. How many times I've heard the words "when I was growing up" is hard to estimate, but it has to be in the gazillions. A funny thing though. We have to listen really hard to hear our Lord telling stories about Himself, personal snippets of His own experiences in life.
Now someone may say, "If you knew your Bible, Peter, you'd know that most of the parables Jesus told about the Kingdom were about Him!" I fully concede such. But I'd have to insist that if Jesus told about the Kingdom at all, it necessitated Him telling about the King. After all, what is Kingdom without a King? But even more, aside from the Kingdomishness of Jesus' stories, where do we find Him piling up one personal experience after another when He told stories in His teaching? Yet those are the very types of stories many mean when they insist on preaching like Jesus preached.
So, what is expository preaching anyway? I could gather you many definitions from the thirty or so books I have on preaching boxed up, sitting in my parlor if I wanted to take the time. Consider me lazy. If you want a formal definition, I assure you, it's there; so, go to it. I will take the lazy approach.
When I personally speak of expository preaching, I speak more of a process than a singular task. But having said that, for the true expositor, at least the way I see it, there is one overarching, non-negotiable concern that is interwoven throughout the garment of an expository message.
This concern becomes almost an obsession, as it were, even a fixation for the messenger, a fixation upon one thing that cannot fail to happen. If this fails, he fails. If this is forfeited, he knows he's marked as giving God his second best, not his first. The preacher who possesses the expository heart, after descending the pulpit platform, will weep--if not outwardly, then certainly inwardly--if he missed connecting with his listeners at this crucial juncture.
The Holy Spirit is very forgiving. He can take some of the most botched language we can imagine and flawlessly transform the biblical truth into a person's life. He can overlook our rambling, our stuttering, our yelling when we should have remained silent and our silence when, frankly, we should have yelled...Yet still the anointing oil flows graciously from Him and the Word of God is successfully sown, a harvest soon awaits the reapers.
What the blessed Holy Spirit will not do, I have found, is magically pull rabbits out of our hats. He will not recreate His Word. Not that He could not, but that He will not. It's not lack of power; it's absence of promise. It's God's Word that does not return void, do you not recall?
Nor will He make the grandest, most touching story into His Word. That is, not only will He not recreate His Word from nothing, but neither will He transform your cleverness, your skill, your story--no matter how profound--into His Word. Regardless as to how much you enjoy sharing your story, the Holy Spirit is about anointing His story, not yours.
Where does that leave you and your story? Is there no place in exposition for your story? Indeed, there is. But always your story has a seat in coach, never First Class. Try to move to First Class and the Holy Spirit will meet you at the doorway and point you back to your seat in coach. Try it often enough and you may find yourself without a ticket. His anointing oil will cease to flow. You'll stand on your own.
You may have interesting stories to tell. People will listen because you are interesting. Readers Digest demonstrates the power of human interest stories. Nonetheless, while they may listen out of human enjoyment, they will not listen out of Holy anointing. The motivation will be pleasure, a tickled ear; it will not be power, a changed life. Anyone can learn to accomplish the former. The latter is unlearned and unlearnable. Only the Holy Spirit can do such. And He promises to do so when the Word is preached.
Back to this overarching, nonnegotiable concern about which the truly biblical expositor is fixated. What is it? As I see it, it can be captured in two words--then and there. The biblical expositor is obsessed with what the ancient inspired text meant then, to the people to whom it was first written, there in another context, another land, another day, another language, another age. I am convinced the more we neglect the then and there factor, the less impressed the Holy Spirit will be to open the valve, allowing the anointing oil to flow.
Does that mean we must get it perfect? Since when did our Lord demand perfection from us before He promised to bless us? Nor does it mean that we are finished with the task of exposition. Rather, the then and there is only the beginning. But it is a necessary beginning.
Indeed, from my view there is no expository preaching--no matter what type text is employed including historical narrative, parable, poetry, gospel, letter, prophecy, or apocalypse--without first going then and there. This is the foundation upon which the structure of any sermon, if it is a biblical sermon, a sermon the Holy Spirit anoints, is built. Without this foundation, the message, no matter how interesting, is nothing more than a house of stubble.
Granted, when we have the then and there, we have not constructed an expository message. We have thus far only a solid foundation upon which to craft our message--rather God's message--to His people.
We may now safely switch metaphors from laying a foundation to building a bridge. That is, for the message to be an expository message, we must build a bridge from the then and there to the now and here. Once we have determined what God said to them then--in another age--and there--another culture, a whole other world really--we are assigned, in this expository process, the necessary duty of closing the gap to that world. What is God saying to us in our culture, our age, our time? This too is no less necessary. For if we stopped with the then and there, leaving off the now and here, we have authority but we lack applicability, the aggravating little "So what?" True expository preaching is a process beginning with what God said and moving on until we've got a handle on what God says.
Exposition is excruciating, difficult work. An expository preacher will not be long on the golf course, going on extended fishing trips, loafing around the office, nor, quite frankly, blogging all day. The expositor knows he must lay the foundation first and nothing describes that like grunt work. Little wonder why many times it is dismissed outright.
It is that aspect of preaching I sense from many today that goes unappreciated. Some preachers think they can go straight to the now and here--the applicability, the "So what?"--of the Bible, skipping the then and there. And, many have done so successfully, some feel. Rather than allowing the text to guide them in their pursuit of the message from God, they turn to either "felt needs" or "pop culture" or "current issues" or "what's working in a blowin'-goin' church", and respond by running a concordance search of the subject in the Bible, select some cool verses that apply, get the appropriate technological gadgetry to illustrate it and stand up and speak.
The result is really cool, contemporary and applicable. The problem much too often is, it lacks authority. And why shouldn't it? The process pursued completely neglected the then and there. Ah, but wasn't it interesting?
With that, I am...