Two ways to read the Bible

Tim Keller writes:
Ed Clowney points out that if we ever tell a particular Bible story without putting it into the overall main Bible story (about Christ), we actually change the meaning of the particular event for us. It becomes a moralistic exhortation to 'try harder' rather than a call to live by faith in the work of Christ. There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? Example: If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). The Bible is not a collection of "Aesop's Fables", it is not a book of virtues. It is a story about how God saves us. Any exposition of a text that does not 'get to Christ' but just 'explains Biblical principles' will be a 'synagogue sermon' that merely exhorts people to exert their wills to live according to a particular pattern. Instead of the life-giving gospel, the sermon offers just one more ethical paradigm to crush the listeners.

Don't short circuit texts

From an interview with Graeme Goldsworthy, author of Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture:
Biblical theology shows us that all texts do not have the same relationship to the Christian believer. What happens when people are not shown this is a tendency to short circuit texts. In other words, evangelical piety can lead people to rush from reading a text straight into the question of what this says to us and about us. But, there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus and biblcial theology helps us to see how Jesus mediates the meaning of any text to us. The Christian is defined by his or her relationship to Christ, not to any other person or event. Thus all persons and events in the Bible must stand in a discernible relationship to Christ if they are to say something about us.

Time spent in the study

Fred Craddock on the importance of study in a pastor's ministry:
Time spent in study is never getting away from daily work but getting into daily work. The hours of study bear directly and immediately on who the minister is and the minister's influence by word and action. It is in the study that so much of the minister's formation of character and faith takes place. There are so many terms to describe this activity. Study is an act of obedience: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind." It is a time of worship: "An hour at study," said the rabbis, "is in the sight of the Holy One, Blessed be He, as an hour of prayer." What minister has not experienced a desk becoming an altar? It is a time of pastoral work; the whole congregation will benefit from the fruit of his labor. Study will protect the parishioners from the exclusive influence of the minister's own opinions, prejudices, and feelings. Study is getting a second and third opinion before diagnosis and treatment. No minister has to do the world's thinking over again, but every minister needs to spend time with the writings of those who have for a lifetime wrestled with matters of importance. Study gives distance on the minister's own life as well as the congregation's and there is health in that. Unrelieved intimacy smothers and distorts. (Preaching, p.70)

The sermon vs. the Word of God

Here's an interesting question. What gets more attention when we gather to worship: the sermon or the Word of God?Even in churches that emphasize the public reading of Scripture, I suspect that the sermon is seen as the main event. We read Scripture to prepare for the sermon.What if it is meant to be the opposite? Imagine the reading of Scripture as the main event. The preaching, then, becomes commentary in service of the text. "We've read God's Word today," the preacher says. "This is what it could mean for our church community today. I don't want to give you my thoughts. I simply want to reflect on today's Scripture reading as it relates to us."I don't know that we're supposed to pit the sermon vs. the Word of God, but I suspect it's happening. Perhaps our preaching needs to take a more subservient role to the text. "This is the Word of God," the preacher might say. "I simply offer commentary on what it means for us."

The Drama of Doctrine

In his excellent book The Drama of Doctrine, Kevin Vanhoozer argues that doctrine serves the church, which he calls "the theater of the gospel," by directing individuals and congregations to participate in the drama of what God is doing to renew all things in Jesus Christ. In other words, doctrine allows us to participate in the theo-drama in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are the principal players, but in which the audience is called to participate.The Bible functions “not as a book filled with propositional information,” he writes, but “as a script that calls for faithful yet creative performance."This is one of the best treatments of theocentric doctrine and preaching I've found. Vanhoozer is clear that the theo-drama is primarily about God, but that doctrine enables us to find our place in the drama of what God is doing. Theocentric preaching allows us to understand our place in the script.  Theologians help us live among the texts in our contemporary context, giving us practical wisdom so that we can “turn the gold of the gospel into the workaday stuff of ordinary life.” The task of every Christian is to perform the Scriptures “that attest to the covenant and its climax, the person and work of Jesus Christ.” Our goal is “not simply to play a role but to project the main idea of the play.”Vanhoozer reminds us of the importance of preaching:
What the pastor/director really needs to do is to take the congregation's imagination captive to the Scriptures so the theo-drama becomes the governing framework of the community's speech and action (2 Cor. 10:5). The pastor/director needs to instill confidence in a congregation that playing this script is the way to truth and abundant life. Such direction is largely through preaching, an obedient “listening to the text on behalf of the church.” Herman Melville's image of the pulpit as a ship's prow that leads the way through uncharted waters is strikingly apt:
“[T]he pulpit leads the world.”
For preachers who do this, the rewards are great:
The sermon, not some leadership philosophy or management scheme, remains the prime means of pastoral direction and hence the pastor's paramount responsibility. The good sermon contains both script analysis and situation analysis. It is in the sermon that the pastor weaves together theo-dramatic truth and local knowledge. The sermon is the best frontal assault on imaginations held captive by secular stories that promise other ways to the good life. Most important, the sermon envisions ways for the local congregation to become a parable of the kingdom of God. It is the pastor's/director's vocation to help congregations hear (understand) and do (perform) God's word in and for the present.
Only theocentric preaching can do what Vanhoozer describes. Preaching helps us understand our part in the theo-drama, and places our lives in the context of what God is doing. When done well, it's much more relevant than anthropocentric preaching. Preaching like this enables faithful performances of the gospel within particular settings. Not a bad way to preach at all.

A layman's advice to preachers

Tim Ellsworth has some great advice for preachers, including this:
Talk less about yourself and more about God. Too many times after I’ve listened to a sermon, I could tell you quite a bit about the preacher, but precious little about God. There’s nothing wrong with using personal examples from time to time, but keep it to a minimum.As an I example, I can cite a sermon I heard about a year ago from Vance Pitman, pastor of Hope Baptist Church in Las Vegas. Vance was preaching at a conference I attended. I’d never heard him before and didn’t know anything about him. After the first time I heard him preach, I still didn’t know anything about him – but I knew more about God. He exalted the Lord in his message, and not himself. Follow this pattern, and your listeners will benefit.
more (via)

Missing Jesus

I confess to what has to be one of my greatest mistakes ever:
Four or five years ago I was unhappy with my own preaching. I knew something was missing, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It was a highly frustrating time for me.This past Saturday, one of our church leaders told me that a friend visited the church during that time. "Your pastor doesn't talk about Jesus a lot in his sermons," the friend observed. The church leader who told me this argued at first, but then listened for a few sermons and concluded that the visitor was right.Something was missing. Someone, actually. Jesus.

The knowledge of God is practical

People long for preaching that is practical, as they should. Sometimes, though, preachers move away from theocentric preaching in an effort to be practical.A.W. Tozer (quoted in Dallas Willard's book Renovation of the Heart), argues that right thinking about God is intensely practical. In face, we can trace many failures in living back to wrong thoughts about God. Tozer says:
A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.
Willard writes:
Failure to know what God is really like and what his law requires destroys the soul, ruins society, and leaves people to eternal ruin. "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6 NRSV),  and "A people without understanding comes to ruin" (4:14, NRSV). This is the tragic condition of Western culture today, which has put away the information about God that God himself has made available.Accordingly, the first task of Jesus in his earthly ministry was to proclaim God: to inform those around him of the availability of eternal life from God through himself...This is basic information for human life. It was then and is now.
Theocentric preaching is not impractical preaching.  Tozer, Willard, Packer and others establish that knowing God is one of the most important issues for practical living at any time.

Preaching the historical books

Expository Thoughts has a good post reflecting on a chapter in Preaching from the Old Testament. This has a lot to do with preaching in a way that honors God as the subject of the text.

From her perspective, these books should be preached from a theological and historical perspective, over against personalizing, moralizing, and/or allegorizing them. Let's take these one at a time...

First, I could not agree with Kaminski more when she states that "these books are not simply narrating history - they are telling a theological story that is communicated through narrative" (59). Thus, our sermons should not simply be recounting historical events within an outline designed to bring moral principles to our 21st-century audience. I have in mind here the multiple series of sermons I have heard throughout my life about leadership and building the walls from Nehemiah, not to mention abuses of such stories as David and Goliath. In light of such abuses, Kaminski is right to call for preaching that is careful to place the narrative within the "redemptive story" of the Bible.

As a helpful example of this, Kaminski uses the story of Jericho, of which she correctly surmises that the intent of the story is not that God has promised that the "walls" of our life will fall down. As she points out, to preach the story that way could possibly give false hope to those who hear it: What happens if their "walls" don't fall down? Are they not having enough faith? She rightly concludes:

While the story of Jericho clearly underscores the importance of faith, it is ultimately a story about God and his faithfulness. We can affirm that the God who was faithful to Joshua . . . is our God. (61)

We've all heard (or preached) messages like she describes: leadership lessons from Nehemiah, or how to handle the giants of life from David and Goliath. Kaminski shows a much better way.