Short seminar on theocentric preaching

I've been asked to speak to a local group of pastors today on theocentric preaching. I'll only have about an hour, so it's forced me to narrow what I want to say.My notes for the seminar are available for download (in PDF - requires the free Adobe Reader):

I'm looking forward to today's presentation. Should be fun.

Substantive sermons

Ray Van Neste writes that, contrary to what many think, people do indeed want substantive sermons:
Preachers are often told that people really are not interested in substantive content in sermons. I know of pastors who have been severely criticized for dealing with texts that people did not find easily digestible, or useful enough in drawing crowds. Shallow, generic “life-thoughts” will appeal to some, but there is an increasing number of people who are crying out for substantive teaching as they yearn to know God and to have something weighty enough to serve as an anchor for their souls...Let us give them real substance, explained and applied of course, but not diluted and dumbed down.

Beyond self-help chatter

David Neff describes what happens when preachers forget to connect a text to the bigger story and instead trivialize the text, as he discovered while visiting a church on vacation:
The Old Testament reading from Exodus 3 told the story of Moses at the burning bush. There God reveals to Moses how he plans to fulfill the pledge he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by using Moses to liberate their descendants from slavery. God not only renews his pledge in this story, he reveals his ineffable name. This is a pivot point in the Bible, a hinge on which the door of sacred history swings.But the preacher existentialized and trivialized it. He talked not about the doors of history but of life's stages. Moses was afraid to walk through the door set before him, the preacher said, but he walked through it anyway. We too face doors that we must walk through. End of message. No God. No divine plan revealed. No theophany. Just stages in the life cycle.The bulletin promised a different preacher for the next Sunday, so I came back.The next Sunday's Old Testament lesson recounted the voice of God speaking out of the whirlwind to Job. In Job 38, God asks Job if he knows who "shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb" and where he was when God "prescribed bounds for" the sea "and said, 'Thus far shall you come - and here shall your proud waves be stayed'?" The Gospel lesson was from Mark 4, in which Jesus stills a storm on the lake and the awe-struck disciples wonder aloud, "Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?"The Scripture leaflet in the church bulletin placed this title over the Gospel story: "Jesus stills the storm and shows that he is Lord of all creation." Mark took this event as a theophany. But the preacher took it as a story about our anxieties when we travel, and offered us a lame joke about a woman who was not comforted by knowing that three bishops were flying on her airplane. The sermon may have soothed some fears, but theologically it crashed and burned. I didn't come back the third Sunday.
There's a better way. "Not every sermon needs to rehearse this history," Neff writes, "but every preacher should keep in mind that each scriptural passage is a part of the whole, a whole that has a narrative shape and that moves toward the End."

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.