Bridge Building and Preaching
It has to be admitted that expository preaching is having a bit of a hard time at the moment. In his book Picking up the Pieces David Hilborn argues that expository preaching is a feature of Enlightenment modernity and quotes a number of evangelical ministers who believe that the age of expository preaching is coming to an end. This is mainly considered against the backcloth of what is known as ‘postmodern culture', a catchall phrase which has several characteristic features including the belief that words do not so much reflect reality as create it, that use of language is essentially a power game and that there is no overarching ‘story' which gives life meaning, so called ‘metanarratives', but rather we are free to gather whatever pieces we want in order to construct our own version of reality. Flowing from this comes the ‘tyrannical trinity' - pluralism, subjectivism and relativism.
Let me mention another book, Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which focuses on the changes in our society which have taken place in terms of the process of communication. He looks at the television age and its ability to turn everything into amusement and entertainment. What is particularly interesting is the way he describes the age that is past as the age of Exposition: ‘Exposition' he says, ‘ is a mode of thought, a method of learning, a means of expression.' He unpacks this further by characterising exposition as ‘the sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for a delayed response.' He notes how the age of exposition has given way to the age of show-business.
And I am sure that many of us would add their own observations on how this has entered the church. Last Sunday in Hull a well known evangelist spoke in the City Hall and the publicity sent out to the local churches described his style as being more of ‘ a stand up comedian than a preacher', and this was meant to be a positive selling point! In the age of sound-bites and spin it has to be acknowledged that, within the church, entertainment is in danger of drowning out exposition, and style triumphing over substance.
Now, the temptation to such negativity is to panic and overreact and this is when we need to be reminded of Paul's words to Timothy, ‘But as for you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry', which a few verses earlier included an injunction to preach the Word. (2 Tim. 4:5).
Just let me make a few preliminary remarks regarding our situation before going on to suggest how effective bridge building can help us.
The first thing to say is that it is simply untrue to claim that expository preaching is a product of Enlightenment modernism. If expository preaching is defined as a careful exposing of the biblical text in such a way that by the Spirit of God the hearers encounter the living God, then this itself goes back to the Bible. A strong case could be made for claiming that the letter to the Hebrews is one long exposition (a short exhortation the writer calls it in 13:22!), where a Word which was spoken in the past is a Word for today and what Scripture says is equally what God says and the Spirit says ( 3:7; 4:3; 4:7). The letter to the Romans is full of those qualities Postman describes, ‘thinking conceptually, deductively and sequentially.' And while it is true that Jesus did use parables, mainly when addressing outsiders, he also engaged in rigorous discourse, expounding Scripture for example in the Sermon on the Mount.
Secondly, we should not overplay the distinction between modernism and postmodernism as if everyone is now a thoroughgoing consistently inconsistent postmodernist and so we have to adjust our preaching accordingly. When it comes to putting a hi-fi together or flying a plane or even playing a football match, no one is an out-and-out postmodernist. Rational thought is used in following instructions, in believing in the consistency of scientific laws which we ignore at our peril, and that there are offside rules which apply and woe betide any referee who feels he can create his own reality when it comes to a Celtic-Rangers match!
Thirdly, it was C.S. Lewis who pointed out that the strength of the Church's apologetic lay in going against the spirit of the age. And so in the 18th century when deistic rationalism was in the ascendant, the evangelical revival occurred which, while having a strong doctrinal or conceptual element to its preaching, also had a strong experiential and practical element. Of course this should always be the characteristic of fully orbed biblical Christianity. The challenge for us then is not to play down the truth and the cognitive aspects of Christianity but to preach up those elements.
However, we must be wise as to how we do this. The image of the expository preacher pedantically labouring away point by point through his text, locked into the world of the 6th century BC with the occasional reference to 16th century Geneva may be a travesty but may have more than an grain of truth in it to warrant the charge that we are often perceived to be out of touch with the world in which most of our people inhabit. What is more, if we do not help our people to think and act Christianly in relation to their world this is how we will end up - the Great Evangelical Disaster. So we are not to overreact to irrationality and the subjective by becoming overly rationalistic and emotionally detached. Neither is the answer to be found in simply dipping into the modern world for a few illustrations for our sermons. They key word, I think, is engagement. It is in developing the skills required under God to enable the hearer to enter into the world of the Bible (which as we shall see is really their world too) and to allow the world of the Bible to critically impact the world of our hearers. When there is this coming together of the Word and the World, a tension is created because what in fact has been set up is a clash of world views and that is when engagement takes place. We will then not have to plead for the Bible's relevance, people will see it and indeed feel it for themselves, and so God's Word will be commended to believers and unbelievers alike.
What I want us to do now is to see how this works out in practice by outlining some principles and then illustrate this with part of a sermon.
Several years ago the famous economist E. F. Schumacher of the book, ‘Small is Beautiful' fame gave a talk in London which began with an account of his recent trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, which then was under communist wraps as Leningrad. Despite having a map in hand which he followed painstakingly, he realised that he was lost. What he saw on the paper didn't fit with what he saw right in front of his eyes, several huge Russian Orthodox churches. They weren't on the map and yet he was certain he knew which street he was on. ‘Ah' said an Inter tourist guide, trying to be helpful. ‘That's simple. We don't show churches on our maps.'
Schumacher then went on to say this: ‘It then occurred to me that this is not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life.' In other words, what he had been taught at school and college and picked up from the media missed out issues of faith which were so vital to him.
Now the plain fact is we all have these mental maps with which we operate, some are thought-out, others are simply picked up without much reflection at all. And what these maps are meant to do is to help us understand how the world works and how we fit into it. These mental maps are our ‘world views' Everybody has a world view - we assume certain things to be true - maybe about the value of human life or its lack of value, what the purpose of life is and so on, and the view we hold will affect the way we live. And as Francis Schaeffer pointed out so effectively the further we get away from the Bible the further we move away from reality. Or the more in tune we are with reality our world views will be seen to be the feeble fabrications they are.
But how do you know that the way you are thinking about life is one which corresponds best to the way things really are? Well, any world view has to satisfactorily answer four big questions: 1. Where do I come from? The question of origins; 2. Who am I? The question of significance; 3. Why is the world in such a mess? The question of evil; and 4 Is there a future? The question of purpose. It is no good having a world view or faith if you like, which misses out on any of these questions and ignores the hard bits of reality. Our map must have a good ‘fit' with our experience of the world. The map must be coherent, consistent, comprehensive, congruous with the world in which we live. The Bible as a whole provides that map, and of course much, much, more, as it is the means whereby we are addressed by the Creator himself and so are encountered by him in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Now, the engagement which takes place in preaching is, as I have already mentioned, when the biblical world view clashes with other world views on offer today. This means that whatever the passage we are expounding there will be elements in that passage which will question some elements of life in our society today. There will be other elements in the passage which provide an explanation for what is happening in our society or in the life of a listener which will be by far the best explanation and so will commend its truthfulness. Therefore, part of our task will negatively be to demonstrate the futility of other world views or explanations and positively to allow the Scriptures to speak with breathtaking clarity into our society both by way of critique and by way of showing that there is a better way, the Christian way. Not only in that this is intellectually satisfying - the biblical world view is coherent, consistent, comprehensive and congruous in a way no other faith or philosophy is, but that it is practically satisfying too, it actually works. This doesn't mean that Christianity is true because it works, but rather it works because it is true.
What we are in fact dealing with is what Dr John Stott calls, ‘double listening.' Listening to the Word and the World so that the two can be brought together in critical engagement.
What does listening to God's Word involve? Well, it means considering the biblical passage at the level of its different textual contexts.
First, there is the historical-linguistic context. Here we pay close attention to the historical and cultural situation of an author - Paul writing to Corinth for example, and the linguistic conventions employed. This helps to counter anachronistic readings, reading into the text, rather than reading out what was intended.
Secondly, there is the generic context. We respect the fact that the Bible is composed of many different literary forms, it is polygeneric. The different forms will, as it were, have their own rules of interpretation. Thus apocalyptic is read differently in order to ascertain its meaning from say, historical narrative. Parable is read differently to proverb, and proverb differently to case law. Confuse them and you have misunderstanding. Also, this enables us to be sensitive to what the human-divine author intends to achieve through what is written. For example, the so called parable of the prodigal son leaves the question open as to whether the elder son comes into the party or not. Given the historical context that this was not only part of Jesus defence against the Pharisees criticism that he ‘ate with tax collectors and sinners', it is also a challenge to their attitude and an invitation to them to change and join the party. This parable, like pretty well every other parable, is not just a package of information, it is an invitation. Wisdom literature functions differently again, it tends to provide a way of ‘seeing things' - a set of spiritual lenses if you will, and so enabling God's people to develop virtues, characters and skills which will enable them to live more effectively as God's people in God's world. So the meaning of Scripture is genre- bound and as such exposes the shortcomings of proof-texting. By these different and rich literary forms a Biblical word view is built up - so making us ‘wise unto salvation and fully equipped for every good work.'(2 Tim 3:15). This is another reason why we should vary our sermon material by expounding different biblical material.
Thirdly, there is the canonical context, understanding particular parts of Scripture in the light of the whole. This is tied in with the idea that God is not only providentially at work in producing and preserving the Scriptures we have, but that revelation is progressive. This doesn't imply that the meaning of certain passages in the OT changes in the light of the New, but rather than their full significance is brought out, for example, Psalm 2 was originally referring to the David King but its full significance is explained in relation to God's fulfilment in Jesus Christ. We may think of significance as extended meaning even though it was not the original intended meaning in the mind of the inspired author.
But then there is also a matter of listening to the world, hearing it if not necessarily heeding it. This involves us being culture watchers and keeping abreast of what is happening in terms of the news, books, the media, what it is that people are watching and thinking. In part this will come from ‘walking the factory floor' as we talk with our folk, especially the young. There are also authors who are helpful in providing material for us to do this, Os Guiness, Chuck Colson, Ravi Zacharias for example.
So double listening requires double the work- working hard at the text, working hard at understanding the world and working hard to relate the two in critical engagement.
What does this mean practically in terms of sermon preparation and presentation?
- I tend give over a disproportionate amount of time in preparing my introductions to engage the listener right at the outset. One may start with the passage or with an issue which arises out of the passage and this then sets the scene for the big idea for the rest of the sermon. This also acts as a ‘hook' creating a sense of anticipation as well as a certain amount of intrigue as to how the sermon is going to develop.
- It is also important to keep the engagement between text and world going on throughout the sermon rather than going for the ‘tag on' application at the end. This makes not only for sustaining a constant interest but also ensures that God's voice is heard as it were at every point along the way, not allowing us to keep it at a distance as a matter of academic interest but continually challenging, provoking and encouraging the hearer. This also enables the emotive element of the preaching to be reinforced.
- Another important aspect in preparation and presentation is in conveying the sense or ‘feel' of the passage so as to enable people to enter the world of the Bible imaginatively, to identify with that world and see how it is like ours in many ways. This is where narrative is in some ways the easiest material to work with. But this will also mean as C. S. Lewis points out, not short changing people by for example, simply describing God as ‘awesome' but somehow getting people to feel that he is awesome, or saying we should be humble but through the text applied by the Spirit creating the sense of humility.
So lets see how this works out over a fundamental issue which in vexing many today, the question of personal identity and worth- the second big question: Who am I?:
A few years ago the journalist Bernard Levin wrote these words: ‘To put it bluntly, have I time to discover why I was born before I die? I have not yet managed to answer that question yet, and however many years I have before me they are certainly not as many as there are behind. There is an obvious danger in leaving it too late. Why do I have to know why I was born? Because, I am unable to believe it was an accident, and if it wasn't one, it must have meaning.'
But of course there are many people who do believe that life is simply an accident and attempt to apply that belief to the moral complexities of living. One such man is Dr Peter Singer who teaches ethics at Princeton University and is one of the world most influential ethicists of today. In his book ‘Practical Ethics' he takes as his starting point what he calls ‘the principle of equal consideration of interests' - that is the view that the interests of all human beings must be taken into account when assessing the consequences of an action. This principle, he argues extends to other self-conscious beings who can suffer, and only such beings can be said to have ‘interests.' He puts forward the idea that human beings can be thought of in two ways-as belonging to the species Homo Sapiens, or being a person. He defines a person as a ‘self-conscious or rational being' who can therefore make decisions. He wants to maintain that some primates - monkeys and apes - are also self-conscious to some extent and so could be described as persons. Therefore, being a member of the species Homo Sapiens is not a sufficient reason for being thought of as a person. This has very far reaching implications. It means that adult primates are persons but an new born infant is not. It is therefore not intrinsically wrong to kill a newborn baby who is not self-conscious, whereas it would be wrong to kill an ape who is supposed to be self-conscious. Singer does not suggest that newborn children should be killed if they are healthy and wanted, but that they could be if they were unhealthy and unwanted. He says that strict conditions should be placed on permissible infanticide, but, that ‘these restrictions might owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.' Here, then, is the new King Herod.
Now this man is serious. And as the debate about euthanasia raises its head once more, this sort of view is going to be increasingly held. After all, it is consistent with the world view called secular materialism or WYSIWYG - ‘What Your See Is What You Get'- there is no God and so no ultimate source of value either.
Now when you think about it, this new view is really an old view. It is the old view of paganism. Infanticide was certainly taught be the Greeks like Plato. So what happened between the old paganism in which the ill and deformed could be left to die exposed on a hilltop and the new paganism which in some cases allows newborns to die deprived of water and nutrients in a hospital ward? What was it that gave rise to the view that human beings were unique, had dignity and therefore were to be cared for, that there was such a thing as the sanctity of life? Well, there was of course Christianity. This is what Singer who is an atheist has to say, ‘If we go back to the origins of Western civilisation, to Greek or Roman times, we find that membership of Homo Sapiens was not sufficient to guarantee that one's life would be protected. Greeks and Romans killed deformed or weak infants by exposing them to the elements on a hilltop. Plato and Aristotle thought that the state should enforce the killing of deformed infants. The change in Western attitudes to infanticide since Roman times is, like the doctrine of the sanctity of human life of which it is a part, a product of Christianity. Perhaps it is now possible to think about these issues without assuming the Christian moral framework that has, for so long, prevented any fundamental reassessment.' In other words, with Christianity out of the way as a serious intellectual option, let us think the unthinkable.
This world view of Singer's may sound radical but is it realistic? You see, while any belief however harebrained can be taught, not every belief can be lived. And that goes for Singer's because he pays large sums of money to support his own mother who has Alzheimer's. He justifies this by saying that it provides work for a lot of people and so does some good. Sure! Pull the other one. You see, he can't live with his view, there is something deep inside which makes him act as if his mother is valuable even though, sadly, she is less responsive than some other primates Singer thinks should have rights. Why is that? Why does his heart contradict his head? Well, the Bible tells us why - we are created significant by an all knowing, all personal God.
What is it that makes you different to say, an ape? Well, genetically there is very little difference at all. Humans and apes share 98.5% of the same genetic material. But it is that 1.5% difference which makes all the difference in the world - for what results is a creature unlike any other.
This is the way the book of Genesis puts it, 1:26-27: ‘Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.' What is the difference between us and the rest of the animal kingdom? Well, it is that we are in some way, ‘God- like'- made in the image of God. Now nowhere in the Bible is this ever defined for us but what it means for us is given to us right here in this passage. It operates at both the level of doing and being. What are humans meant to do under God? Well, they are meant to rule - ‘over the fish of the sea, birds of the air' and so on. That is, they are to reflect in some measure what God is doing as the loving ruler of the universe, they are to creatively care for that which he has made and owns and so they are ultimately accountable to him. But this image also shows itself in the way we are made to relate to one another at the level of our being - ‘in the image of God he created him- male and female he created them' So as in some way God within his own being is a community of love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit- notice v 26 ‘let us make man in our image' - the way we relate to each other in community, especially in marriage, should reflect that. In others words our true significance and worth are to be found when we act like God means us to act and relate as God intends us to relate.
Let's take the matter of relationships first. I am sure some of you will have seen the film ‘Cast Away' with Tom Hanks. It is about a businessman who finds himself stranded on a desert island. I can tell you it is a film which is enough to put you off flying and dentistry for life! This is no idyllic Robinson Crusoe stuff. It is harsh, it is dangerous and it is desperate. There is no human or even animal contact to be made. So what does he do? He imprints a face on a basketball which happened to be in a parcel carried by the crashed plane and calls it ‘Wilson'. For four years ‘Wilson' is the only company he has. He talks to him, he devises plans with him and even gets angry with him. This doesn't mean that he has lost it, on the contrary, having an imaginary friend in the form of a face on a basketball keeps the character sane. The point is we are only truly human in relationships with other humans so much so that in extreme circumstances we devise a substitute like Wilson. Let me ask, when does that tiny little baby first feel that he or she matters? When they look up and see the sweet smiling face of the mother and all the love it radiates. It is when he or she is lovingly held, fed and cared for, then they know they are of value.
It is not good for man to be alone, for we are made for community. Just take a look at that beautiful and picturesque account in chapter 2-v 18 ‘The LORD God said, "It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.' And so God brings to Adam a whole variety of animals which were not suitable for they were so unlike man. He needed someone like him yet different to him, someone who would complement him, a ‘better half' - someone with whom he would feel whole, a relationship which would complete the circle of significance. And therefore we read in v21 ‘ So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping ,he took one of the man's rib and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made woman from the rib he had taken, and he brought her to the man (like a Father presenting the bride to the groom) and the man said ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh, she shall be called woman for she was taken out of man.' For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.' Now, it is supremely in the marriage relationship that we see a reflection of this image of God. The loving protective care the husband is meant to show to his wife and the loving obedient, support the wife shows to her husband mirrors something of the relationship between the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit - so God the Father at the baptism of Jesus affirms him and sends the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove to strengthen and enable him, while the Son says in Gethsemane ‘Not my will but yours' and obediently goes to the cross to save the world.
So in the community of the family and the wider community of society and especially the new community of the church we are meant to display our God-like image. The image of God then is not so much something within us, but something expressed between us. So when we see a helpless but terminally ill newborn infant, what is the God-like thing to do? How do you show your image of God there? Isn't it to show some care and affection for that baby during its last few hours, as God the giver of life, shows care and affection for us, rather than quickly disposing of it as a worthless commodity? What about our business dealings with each other? At the moment there is a serious crisis of confidence on Wall Street following the collapse of Enron. Why? Because people feel no one can be trusted anymore, for people are willing to lie and cheat to make a quick buck. But if this life is all there is and we are just a collection of meaningless atoms then why not? But if we are made in God's image, then we are being most true to our nature when we are honest and faithful with each other as God is with us. So if we cheat on our wife, or boyfriend or lie to get our way, then not only are we eroding the significance and dignity of the other person -and hurting them - we are demeaning ourselves into the bargain, becoming less and less human.
Just turn with me to Colossians 3:9ff to see what reason Paul gives for the way we should and should not be relating as Christians. He says, ‘Do not lie to each other since you have put off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.' And the he goes on to describe how that new self is expressed in how we relate, v12ff compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience.' When you are being patient with someone you are being God-like, when you are compassionate, you are being God-like. To be like God is not an ego trip, power grabbing - that is devilish - it is being self-sacrificing and kind, because that is what our God is like.
But what of that image being shown in how we rule? Take a look at chapter 2:15ff of Genesis, ‘The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.' Now already in Chapter 1:28, mankind has received God's blessing with the God-given purpose of ‘subduing the earth.' That is, while the world has been created by God and designated ‘good'- just right for the purposes he intends, human beings are to be, as it were, God's fellow workers in taming that world, harnessing its energies and resources in a responsible way for other people's benefit and God's glory. This picture is developed in chapter 2 with the man being placed in a park, which the Kings of the ancient Near East invariably had, and as a priestly monarch he is meant to ‘care' for it and work it. And this caring and working is also an expression of his Godlike image. That is why work in principle is a good thing, why we should find value and significance in what we do, whether it is paid employment or unpaid- there is dignity in both of these things. But when that creativity is taken away from us, that is when we feel so devalued and that is why unemployment is such a devastating thing. Creative work is essential to our nature as human beings.
Let me tell you something. During the Second World War a commandant of a German concentration camp hit upon a most sadistic idea. He took a group of inmates, gave them shovels and sacks and made them shift a pile of sand from one spot to another. And when they had done that, they had to put it back again and this went on back and forth, day after day, week after week, month after month. Most went mad as a result, some choosing to throw themselves onto the barb wire and be killed rather than go on. Why? It wasn't because the work was harder than what some others in the camp had to do. It was because it was meaningless, futile, having no purpose. As such it smashed the God-give image we all have. The fact is when we are in a position where you can write an essay, or read a book, or dig a garden, or make a piece of furniture, or play some music, we are experiencing a fantastic divine blessing - for in some measure we are being Godlike.
And of course all of these things we see perfectly expressed in Jesus who in Colossians 1:15 is described as the ‘image of the invisible God' - How? First, it is shown by how the Son relates to the Father in humble obedience and service so in John 5:19 we read ‘The Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing'. He is not going to do his own thing, he loves his Father, he knows his ways are good, true and for our best so he loves doing them. Secondly, Jesus relates to others in serving-through his teaching and healing and supremely his death ‘I am among you as one who serves' he says. The image of God in Christ is also expressed through how he relates to the rest of creation as its ruler - hence the stilling of the storm. What Adam, God's son, was meant to be-relating properly to God, the world and other people Jesus the second Adam, the Son of God, does perfectly.
The question: ‘Who am I?' is one which is eating away at the hearts of many in our society today. They may have been badly let down and hurt, maybe by their parents, maybe by their husband or wife, or even by the church. And for some reason they feel a self-loathing, desperate to receive approval and worth. They want to feel fulfilled but if the truth be known they feel so empty. And secular materialism simply adds to that burden. Here then is some very good news indeed for them. In God's sight they form the pinnacle of his creation and are precious. He invests them with a value that even the angels do not share, for unlike them they made in his image. Certainly that image has been marred by sin, that is why they feel as they do and why people have behaved as they have, but what God has done in his Son by his death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit is to provide a way whereby that image can slowly be pieced back together and that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
This paper was originally given at the Scottish Ministry Assembly in 2003.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature