Dying to Preach
Same Kind of Boring as Me: Thoughts on Explaining a Text
So, in the spirit of sharpening our skills, here are some helps to keep in mind when explaining a text.
First, be off balance. The amount of explanation needed will vary from text to text. The book of James is interesting in this regard. James has some straightforward admonitions. James 2:1-7 is the explicit command to avoid partiality. The preacher can move fairly easily to illustration and application, because the explanation is so clear. In fact, the bulk of the text itself is an illustration.
However, James deftly uses this practical admonition to enter into one of the more difficult theological passages in the New Testament, in 2:14-26. Then he moves to another practical section on the tongue, complete with its own illustrations and applications in 3:1-12. On balance, it may seem that a sermon from James 2:1-7 and 3:1-12 will be heavy with illustration and application, and the sermons from James 2:14-26 will be heavy on explanation. However, this is demanded by the nature of the text. It must be this way to communicate what James is saying, the way he is saying it.
Second, deal with problems. The time we set aside in the sermon to explain the text is where we will surface tough issues in the scripture. James 2:14-26 is a good example here as well. A pattern of thorough explanation of the text will protect us from glossing an important theological issue.
The good news is that wrestling with tough texts always gives us more confidence when we preach. Tougher texts produce better sermons. We preach with more confidence and clarity due to the necessary grappling with the text.
Third, tighter is better. When explaining a text, the goal is to capture its essence with clarity and brevity. We don't want to slog the listener through an exegetical forest and demand that they admire the view. If we cannot explain what the text says in a few concise sentences, we probably don't understand it.
There are so many things that we learn in the preparation process that will never make the final cut into the sermon. We learn them because we want to know the text, and the exegetical nuances we unearth do influence what we say. However, they are the proverbial kitchen tools that are to be left in the kitchen so that others may enjoy the meal. Our fascination with how the meal is prepared will be good conversation for other contexts. For now, be tight. A few sentences to clearly communicate the meaning of the text are best.
Fourth, remember, this is your one chance to get the text right. There is the old joke about the two ladies who left church. One said, "Well, our preacher didn't really say anything." The other replied, "Well, yes, but didn't he imply a lot!"
Whatever else we do, we must get the text right. We are after more than clarity, but never less.
This whole idea of explaining a text may seem overly academic. "Why is the text so important?" The answer is purely theological. God has revealed Himself in Christ. Christ is revealed in the word. So, the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ reveals Jesus in scripture, and in turn Christ reveals the Father. God's design is for us to know Him through His word. Nothing less. If people do not know His word they do not know Him.
It is possible, even for those who hold the Bible high in their mind, heart, and hands when they preach, to so cloud the sermon with tertiary ambitions that we do not get to the point. And thus, our illustrations of the truth cloud the truth we want to illustrate.
Of course we do want to connect. This will be the subject of a future post. Indeed, there is much more to preaching, but there is no less. Whatever preaching is, it is at its foundation explaining a text of scripture. So, while we engage the emotions and the will, let's not trade one type of boredom for another. Let's not forget the mind.
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Steven W. Smith is a preacher and author who is attempting to die in the pulpit and call a generation to do the same. He is the Dean of the College, and Professor of Communication, at the College at Southwestern. Follow him on Twitter.