Preaching the Word

We, know our preaching should be Biblical—but how can we best use tine Bible in our sermons? The author suggests ways in which the Bible can shape our sermons, nurturing our congregations with God's thoughts and not merely our own. He calls for a balance in using both the Old and New Testaments, and indicates both the preparation and sermon types most fruitful with each.

William G. Johnsson, Ph. D., is editor of the Adventist Review, Washington, D.C.

A teacher of homiletics, himself a fine preacher, once said that the most powerful sermons spring from one of two sources. Either the pastor has passed through an experience himself and wishes to share it with the congregation or he has observed a spiritual need among his listeners and has struggled to find a remedy for it.

Those of us who have been preaching for years will realize the truth of this analysis. At the same time we can recall how we have sought to bring Scripture to bear on our presentations whether we were sharing our experience or addressing a perceived need. We remember searching for the most appropriate pas' sage, mentally turning the pages of the Bible as we reviewed its stories, cast of characters, and arguments in an endeavor to be true to our commission to preach the Word.

Such effort, at times to the point of wrestling with the text, is always well directed. For Biblical preaching preaching that makes the Word itself the controlling center of the presentation has built-in advantages.

Both preacher and hearers stand to benefit from Biblical preaching. He who preaches a Biblical sermon opens the door wider to the possibility that God's thoughts, rather than his own, will be conveyed and that, through the miracle of the Spirit, the centuries will be bridged allowing the ancient Word to whisper in contemporary tones. The text itself also helps to organize and shape the content; the preacher's role is that of one who carries and presents the sacred fire from afar, rather than one who strikes the flint to ignite it.

Biblical preaching also nurtures the congregation. The passage or passages under study focus the attention and aid in the understanding of the sermon and its development. These passages enhance recall of the sermon's message as church members come around to them again in their own reading and study. That is, the Word provides a network of associations for Christians into which sermons may naturally be integrated.

How to bring the ancient Word to life--that is the task of Biblical preaching. How to make it live in the experience of preacher and congregation, addressing their problems and calling them heavenward, avoiding making the sermon merely a Bible study, a lecture on the Bible, or an exposition--this is the challenge of Bible preaching.

Preaching is an art, and so every preacher will have his own approach to Biblical preaching. As I share with you my ideas, I will deal with the Old Testament separate from the New Testament. I will do so because, while many observations are true of Biblical preaching in general, the Old Testament usually is underutilized. For various reasons it intimidates preachers, with the result that rich veins of the Word remain unmined.

I have preached several times on "What God Requires," Micah 6:8 forms the basis of the sermon: "He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (R.S.V.).'*

Notice how verses 6 and 7 provide the setting, however. The question posed is as old as human striving after the eternal: '"With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?'" (verse 6, R.S.V.). What, after all, does God expect of me? What can I do to please Him? Isn't this question still a live one?

Think of the answers given in various times and places. Think of the outpouring of penance and pilgrimage, of flagellation and fasting. Think how devotees of religion have abused their bodies and cut ties with family and society, following the quest, seeking peace within. Think of Gautama who became the Buddha. Think of Mahavira, of the Jain religion.

People have sought to appease the Deity with gifts and sacrifices. They have offered beasts and birds--"thousands of rams" and "ten thousands of rivers of oil," as this passage describes. At times they even have offered up their own children, "the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul" (verse 7). The Ammonites, neighbors of Israel to the east, practiced child sacrifice, and occasionally even the kings of Israel fell into this incredibly misguided means of trying to please God.

But all these acts were in vain. What God requires is on a different level from ritual and asceticism. He looks for the moral life doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with Him. Together these three characteristics of the life, pleasing to God, form a trilogy that echoes the words of Jesus regarding the greatest commandment in the law (Matt. 22:35-40). Elaborating each forms the major part of the sermon.

This passage and its development for preaching illustrate several features of preaching from the Old Testament.

We see first the wealth of the Old Testament as a sermon resource. The Old Testament is studded with such passages as Micah 6:8--passages that lend themselves to exposition and application in a relatively straightforward manner. The Psalms, of course, are especially rich in material; they echo the searchings and strivings of the human spirit in timeless passages. But no part of the Old Testament--its history, poetry, wisdom, or prophecy should be over looked. After all, when Paul advised young Timothy to "preach the word," he had in view the Old Testament. The books of the prophets in particular bum with moral fervor. Micah is a little work tucked away among the "minor" prophets, a section of Scripture about which most Christians are abysmally ignorant. But Micah is ablaze with indignation against rapacious landlords, venal priests, and corrupt prophets. He calls the nation back to moral living because Yahweh is moral Arbiter of the universe and will not permit oppression and greed to go unnoticed or unpunished.

The preacher who draws only upon the New Testament, important as it is, will be weak in social ethics. For various reasons the New Testament emphasizes individual rather than corporate life; the Old Testament, however, tilts toward the concerns of the community. Together, the two provide balance; isolated, they lean to one-sided treatment.

Because the Old Testament tends to be neglected, however, preaching from it calls for particular preparation:

1. The preacher cannot assume a general familiarity with the material on the part of the congregation. Take the book of Micah, for instance. In preaching on "What God Requires," he should not simply jump into chapter 6, verses 6 to 8. He needs to help listeners find the passage in their Bibles and to adjust mentally to swimming in strange waters. For many people the unfamiliar is uncomfortable, if not threatening.

2. Considerations of context are even more important. I have in mind not only the immediate setting of the passage (in the case of "What God Requires," Micah 6:6-8) but also the questions of the introduction of the book itself: When was it written? By whom? For what audience? With what purpose in mind? Against what historical and social back ground?

In preparing to preach, the minister must refresh his knowledge in these areas to order to be true to the intent of the passage he will expound. This back ground information also will illuminate the passage itself, causing it to glow with meaning from its own day and thus point the way to that most delicate of homiletical tasks--the transition and application to the contemporary scene.

Sufficient of this background must be embodied in the sermon to bring an obscure passage of Scripture to life, but not so much that the tail wags the dog. Especially in preaching from the prophets will skillful handling of context awaken the congregation to the power of the text. For example, when the hearers catch glimpses of Micah's society--women and children turned out on the street, judges accepting bribes, rulers besotted with alcohol--they will be ready for the stark confrontation of the Word with their lives.

3. Preparing to preach from the Old Testament, therefore, calls for more extensive use of "tools"--commentaries, lexicons, dictionaries--than when one is working out of the New Testament. Because contextual considerations are vital to understanding and illumination of the passage in view, and because the literature of the Old Testament is vast and diverse, scholarly resource materials are indispensable.

Perhaps this very demand for careful preparation, for struggling to be true to the Old Testament text, deters many would-be preachers from this part of Scripture. But for him who makes the effort, taking seriously the commission to preach the Word--all of it--the rewards are great. The clarity of moral insight, the directness of appeal, the overpowering sense of Yahweh as Lord of history and Lord of His people--these are fire in the bones of the preacher.

The richness of the Old Testament literature lends itself to a variety of sermon types. I have shown already how a particular passage can be opened up for preaching, but sometimes a chapter or a whole book can form the springboard for the sermon. For example, I have preached on "The Goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living," based on Psalm 27--all of it. I also have spoken on "A Threefold Love Story," based on the book of Ruth in toto. (In case you are wondering about the makeup of the three love stories, they are Ruth and Naomi, Boaz and Ruth, and God and us.)

Ever try a biographical sermon? The Old Testament can supply a cast of characters that you will not soon exhaust. Some are familiar, some are not. Among others, I have preached on Jeremiah, God's revolutionary. This reluctant prophet, rejected and killed by his own people but later venerated and to whom Jesus was likened, is remarkably frank in sharing with us his flights of feeling. He was a revolutionary for God--a person socially, politically, spiritually far ahead of his times.

How about a narrative sermon? Again the Old Testament abounds in stories. We all know the tales of David, Saul, and Goliath; of Abraham and Isaac; of Daniel and his three friends. These stories sustained the people of God anciently, were grist for the spiritual mill of the New Testament, and still may speak to believers in these times.

But there are many others. He who takes time to read the Old Testament on a recurring basis will find treasures, new and old, to be brought out of the storehouse and polished for display. Recently I preached for the first time on "The Lord Our Banner," based on the story of Exodus 17:8-16. I showed how the elements of desperate need, human weakness, and divine power, structure the passage. It's not difficult to point to the contemporary nature of these elements! Read the passage and see what you might do with it.

Then, of course, the Old Testament provides splendid opportunity for sermon series, if you care for them. "Preaching From the Prophets" (see how knowledge of and enthusiasm for the minor prophets will be sparked), "Jesus in the Old Testament," "God in History," "The Paradox of Pain" (on the book of Job)--the possibilities are immense.

Although in this article I have given more attention to the Old Testament than the New, I by no means wish to downplay the latter. I have placed the emphasis on the Old because it is the neglected area, not because it is more important than the New.

The New Testament, however, is the source of most Biblical preaching and should continue to be so. Without the New Testament, the Old is moving without arriving, promising but never realizing, hoping but never achieving. One God and one faith run throughout the Scriptures, but they reach their denouement in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

Obviously, the remarks above about preparing to preach from the Old Testament apply also to the New. Familiarizing the congregation with the material (increasingly necessary, with the diminution in Bible knowledge), considerations of immediate and larger context, use of homiletical and scholarly "tools"--all are necessary, if not quite to the same extent.

Likewise a variety of sermon types can be found: preaching from individual passages, preaching from chapters, preaching from books, biographies, narratives, series.

In three respects the New Testament offers possibilities of a distinct nature, however: in its portrayal of Jesus Christ, its greater accessibility for Biblical sermons of a topical nature, and its unique material.

Although Jesus is prefigured in the Old Testament, He is seen in His matchless charms only in the New. Because of this, sermons drawn from the New Testament find their center in His life and teachings with a clarity and directness that preaching from the Old Testament cannot provide. His person dominates the New Testament, so that all other biography is diminished and inevitably is developed in relation to Him, for example, a sermon based on the life of Peter does not deal with Peter per se, but rather with Peter in relation to Jesus.

The Carpenter-Teacher from Nazareth had a profound impact on the people of His day. Throughout the centuries this solitary figure whose brief career was cut short at high noon has disturbed the peace of men and women as they have pondered His claims, His life, and His death. And still today His question "But who do you say I am?" comes with surprising confrontational thrust. It is altogether fitting that Christian preaching continue to proclaim His person and work. Indeed, what is preaching if not this?

Because of the variety of Old Testament literature, written over a span of 1,000 years and requiring more attention to the background of each passage, topical sermons based on this material are awkward. Biblical preaching from the Old Testament best proceeds from the exposition of a particular passage, chapter, or book. With the New Testament the way is open for topical approaches as well as expository ones, however. The list of possible subjects is long: grace, faith, hope, the fruit of the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, Christian growth (2 Peter 1:5-7), and so on.

Finally, the New Testament contains unique material that may furnish splendid Biblical sermons. Take the parables of Jesus. These stories upset human logic and expectation, turning the tables on society and the ways of the world as they illustrate the nature of the kingdom of heaven with urgency and directness. Transposed to modern settings they still present Jesus' teachings with incisiveness. They can be preached singly or in a series. Likewise such resources as the Beatitudes, or the "I am" sayings of the Gospel of John, or the seven "words" from the Cross should not be neglected.

Sometimes young ministers worry that they can't find anything to preach about. The answer is: Preacher, open your eyes! Open your eyes and see the needs of your people. Get close to them and find where they are hurting. Open your eyes and read the newspaper. Find out what life is about in this late-twentieth-century world of ours. And especially open your eyes and read the Word. Read it daily, absorbing its information, letting its philosophy seep into your being.

He whose eyes are open will never lack subjects for sermons. He will not have to seek them, they will present themselves to him from a hundred sources. And he whose life is nurtured from the Bible, constantly imbibing its goodness, will qualify himself to be the man of Paul's admonition, a preacher of the Word.

* Scripture quotations in this article marked R.S.V. are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 1971, 1973.

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William G. Johnsson, Ph. D., is editor of the Adventist Review, Washington, D.C.

April 1984

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