Warning: if you accept this premise, it will destroy a lot of sermons you may have preached.
Every preacher I know wants to preach sermons that connect with the needs of real people. This is good and necessary if you want to be an effective preacher. There’s a danger, though: to make the sermon primarily about us rather than God, and to miss the bigger picture.
So far I’ve said that preaching gets wonky when we think the Bible is about us, and all we have to do is apply it. Instead, we need to place Scripture within its larger context or story line.
This leads me to my third premise: the text has a point. So, if I’m preaching from a text, then my point had better be pretty close to the point of the text. This means that I read patiently and try to understand the purpose of the text, while recognizing my propensity to read preconceived notions and my existing worldview (more on this later) into the text. My preaching of that text has to tie in somehow with the purpose of the author in writing the text as best as possible.
A few assumptions here:
The authors had intent – They weren’t just writing randomly. Fokkelman argues that there is no detail in the narratives that is not relevant to the story. The The authors arranged their material, so that story builds upon story. The more you read the Bible, the more you realize that the writers had a purpose in what they said and were skillful in how they said it. It takes patience to listen to Scripture on its own terms and let it speak, instead of coming with my preconceived notions.
The intent is clear enough – I don’t want to open an epistemological can of worms here, but there is a lot of debate about whether we can ever know authorial intent, or if we should even try to. I’d say that we can never know perfectly, but we can come to an adequate but incomplete understanding with a lot of work, and that it is an important issue. Also, we can come to a pretty good idea of what the intent was not. So I’m pretty sure that when I preach on David and Goliath, it wasn’t the author’s intent to teach me to slay my personal debt or my difficult boss. I’m much closer if I think the text is about how to live obediently as God’s people even when obedience is potentially costly. Some attempts at understanding authorial intent are better than others.
David Fitch’s chapter on preaching in The Great Giveaway questions whether we come as close to understanding authorial intent as we think we do. It’s worth reading because I think it reminds us of the difficulty in doing this well. Kevin Vanhoozer’s book Is There a Meaning In This Text? also tackles this issue.
My intent in preaching needs to honor the intent of the author – In other words, my sermon’s purpose should line up somehow with the intent of the text.
So here’s where a lot of sermons will get destroyed. Sorry to do this to you, but it’s only fair since a lot of mine have been wrecked too.
Unless I think the intent of the author of Nehemiah was to teach leadership principles, then I need to question whether my sermons on leadership from Nehemiah really line up with the intent of the author. I probably need to throw most of them out.
Unless I think the point of a passage is to tell us what a great guy Moses (or David or anyone) was, and that I should be just like him, then I ought to put away my sermons that say, “Here’s what Moses was like. Be like that too.” (Note: there are some passages that call us to follow someone’s example, but some of our biographical preaching misses that the author’s point wasn’t to make the character the hero. God is usually the hero of the story.)
In fact, there are lots of sermons I’ll never preach again, because I had my own agenda when I prepared them. It may have even been a good agenda, but it had nothing to do with why the text I was preaching was written.
This is also why good preaching is hard. More of that in my next premise.