I was struggling with a personal challenge. I was perplexed. There were very few options. What was I to do? The more I asked that question, the more discouraged I became. All my solutions seemed to take me to the end of a dead-end street.
That was my state of mind as, robot-like, after a recent move I set up my study, emptying boxes of books. With out enthusiasm I arranged the books according to subject. In spite of my lack of enthusiasm for the project, I noticed a book written by Thomas H. Troeger, a former teacher of mine. Years ago I took a graduate preaching seminar from him at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. The book was Rage! Reflect. Rejoice!* I opened it to the chapter entitled "Trust" and began reading. It was a devotional reflection based on Psalm 131:2. "But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother's breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul" (RS V)1".
Reading Tom Troeger's sermon was helpful, but reading the passage from Psalm 131 brought me assurance as I faced my dilemma. What was it about these words from Scripture that gave me comfort and hope? What is it that makes words from an ancient book so relevant to the issues you and I face today? And how can we pastors preach from Scripture with relevance?
Preachers must realize that they do not make the Scriptures relevant. There is an inherent relevance to the Bible that we cannot increase or diminish. It is relevant because God takes responsibility for its message. It is relevant because it speaks to human experiences such as love, fear, trust, uncertainty, and hope. These experiences are known to young and old, to female and male. The Bible itself reaches across the ages and speaks to us with relevance. The quieted and calmed soul to which the psalmist refers is not just a soul who lived in some past age. These words of Scripture speak to the living, disquieted souls of today. Therefore, whenever we faith fully present Scripture in our preaching, by its very nature Scripture will speak with relevance to our audience.
Inasmuch as the Scripture is relevant by itself, can the preacher do anything to increase its relevance? Yes, the preacher can provide valuable assistance. The preacher can help the hearer to enter into the experience described in Scripture. This can be done by an understanding of the biblical world, the experiences described in the passage under study, and by creating contemporary images that the hearer understands and with which he or she can identify.
My wife and I have been blessed by Clyde Newmyer's sermon "The Valley of Weeping." He preached this sermon in the 1980s while he was our pastor in central New York. The text of the sermon, Psalm 84:5-7, is a powerful passage that dramatically describes human dilemmas and offers hope. It speaks of blessings and journeys through the valley of Baca, or weeping. Newmyer brings the passage to life by sharing biblical images of those who have traveled through valleys of weeping. He then shares the story of a contemporary individual who experienced and survived firsthand a journey through unimaginable difficulties. But throughout the sermon there are signals that he himself has also traveled through valleys of weeping, yet his faith has not been destroyed. In the midst of disaster there is hope. And that is why my wife and I have received a blessing by rereading this sermon.
Preaching meaningfully from the Bible will be enhanced if the preacher is faithful to biblical themes. Relevancy is achieved by resisting the temptation to turn our personal theological detours into main highways. How can this happen? There are those who accept the Scripture as authoritative, but who wish to go beyond that which the Scripture addresses. Some preachers attempt to force Scripture to deal with certain issues in great detail even though very little is said about these matters in the Bible. On the other hand, there are those who ignore the authority and specificity of Scripture and treat the Bible as a consultant rather than as God's Word. Faithfulness to biblical themes and emphases and adherence to the rightful role of Scripture enable us to preach from Scripture with relevance.
Did I find a solution to the challenge I was facing? No--the challenge itself is still in front of me--but since reading the Psalms I have experienced a sense of peace I did not have before. The words from the Bible brought me the assurance I needed, and the two preachers whose sermons I read enhanced the psalms for me and bathed them with a particularly helpful meaning.
* Thomas H. Troeger, Rage! Reflect. Rejoice!
Praying With the Psalmists (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 75ff.
+ Bible texts credited to RSV are from the
Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright
1946, 1952, 1971, by the Division of Christian
Education of the National Council of the Churches
of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.