The second in John Richardson’s series on contemporary homiletics

TOWARDS THE END of my title-post in the 1970s, I faced an interregnum in a parish of some seventeen thousand people. Even for a quite-cocky curate, this was a daunting prospect, and to prepare for it I went on a retreat. There, whilst reading the Bible for inspiration, I came across this verse in 1 Timothy: “Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching”? (4:13). At the time, this struck me as a direct word from God. And although today I might query the naïvety of my exegesis, it still remains excellent advice on how to prioritize my time. Whatever my weekday ministry might be, the heart of it is the public reading of scripture and preaching that accompanies it.

This verse also reassures me of the value of the preaching ministry. After all, preaching is an odd activity and one that is increasingly criticized as inappropriate in a world of mass visual media. Yet over against this trend, the Bible itself assures us that the word is God’s chosen medium of preference. In a post-modern television age, Jacques Ellul’s The Humiliation of the Word makes encouraging, if heavy, reading for the preacher:

In our present condition, in which we can no longer “see” truth, the word is the only locus of truth for us, and we cannot dispense with truth. The word is fragile and uncertain, but extremely precious. We are left only with the word. […] We will never live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the Father. (p 232)

The need for preaching

As Ellul indicates, the ‘insights’ of modern hermeneutics are not so profound as is sometimes claimed. Compared with sight, words have long been seen to have an inevitable ambiguity. Thus even the word of God, though it ‘means what it says’, is always and simultaneously open to greater or lesser understanding. If this were not the case we would have only Bible reading, not preaching. But the story of the Ethiopian eunuch provides a model for preacher and congregation alike:

So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” … Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. (Acts 8:30-31, 35)

The preacher’s task is always this telling of the good news of Jesus from scripture. But this itself requires a thorough grasp of how scripture works – specifically how scripture in general, and the Old Testament in particular, witness to Jesus. Hence, helping the disciples towards this understanding was a crucial part of Jesus’ own ministry:

Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”? Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures …” (Luke 24:44-45, RSV)

Personally I have found two books indispensable in this respect: Gospel and Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy (Exeter: Paternoster Press) and Preaching and Biblical Theology by Edmund Clowney (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.). The latter unfortunately appears to be out of print, so I would modestly suggest as a substitute my own book, Get Into the Bible (St Matthias Press), which came about from a desire to make the insights of these works available to a more ‘popular’ audience.

The parts and the whole

A proper grasp of the development of scripture in relation to the unfolding of God’s saving work enables us to preach each part of the Bible in its proper relationship to the other parts. An examination of the speeches to Jewish audiences in Acts shows that the early church had a sophisticated theology which allowed them to read the Old Testament Christianly. To aim at such a theology ourselves is therefore a biblically-sanctioned task. Moreover, a grasp of the Old Testament in relation to the New also enables a richer understanding and interpretation of the New Testament texts. The Gospels and Acts are seen logically to fulfil the ‘New Covenant’ hope of the Old Testament, the Epistles are seen as applying this hope to a newly-defined people of God, and Revelation is recognized as a compendium of biblical ideas and imagery applied to that people in its context of suffering and witnessing before Christ’s return.

Read this way, the Bible becomes the key to its own interpretation. Questions of the meaning or significance of particular passages are answered by relating them to the overall message of the scriptures which focuses on proclaiming Christ (cf John 5:39). Those who are familiar with this approach will know it is not simply a matter of ‘proof texting’ our way through the Old Testament to find those verses which are specifically prophetic of events in Jesus’ life. As has been pointed out, most of those are found in Handel’s Messiah and they don’t take up a lot of space! Rather, it is a matter of developing the Apostolic insight which could see that the gospel is being preached from the earliest chapters of Genesis through to the works of the four Evangelists and beyond (cf Galatians 3:8).

The context of the sermon

Yet even when the preacher is personally and theologically prepared, there is still the task of preparing the sermon itself. Here, there are few hard-and-fast rules. Nevertheless, a number of general principles still apply. First, the preacher needs a good grasp of the context in which a sermon is to be preached. This naturally includes the type of service or meeting within which the sermon occurs and the congregation to which the preacher will be preaching. But there is also the wider context of the service within the week or season, and, most crucially, within the developing life of the congregation.

Although there will always be people at different levels of understanding within a congregation, it is nevertheless to be hoped that some overall development will take place with time so that the preacher can assume a growing theological sophistication and biblical literacy. One of the problems with the ‘Family Service’ approach is that it inhibits congregational growth. When everything is geared to the comprehension and attention span of the under-twelves, the adults are reduced to onlookers. I have preached successfully in such contexts, but I would not normally choose to do so. The apostle Paul himself discovered that the edification of the many must sometimes risk the serious boredom of the few (Acts 20:7-9).

My own experience with adults (of all educational levels) is, however, that they are crying out for deeper teaching than they generally receive. The mistake of many preachers is to assume that with less ‘academic’ congregations we must preach simple truths, whereas in fact our aim should be to preach the truth simply. We may not be able to refer directly to ‘perichoretic relationships in the Trinity’, but there is no reason why we should not try to communicate what this means. After all, John’s Gospel communicates profound truths in language not much above the level of the average Sun reader. In preparing to preach, therefore, the preacher should resolve never speak down to a congregation.

The goal of development within the congregation also means that the preacher needs a program which extends not only across the year but through the years. In this respect, it is only possible to make do with the Lectionary if one is prepared both to omit large chunks of scripture and to have the preaching diet dictated by concerns unrelated to the individual congregation. However, the preacher who departs from the Lectionary must equally be ruthless in covering scripture generously, rather than sticking to favourite and well-worn paths. It is thus advisable to keep a record of past preaching and ensure that this provides a control on the future programme (just as keeping a record of hymns ensures that the same numbers don’t come up every third week!).

The type of sermon

Preachers also need to consider the vexed question of topical versus expository preaching. The topical sermon will take an issue and relate biblical material to this, whereas the expository sermon will proceed from a passage and deal with the subjects it raises. The advantage of topical preaching is that it often relates directly to the needs and interests of the congregation. In short, it scratches where they itch. Expository preaching, on the other, has the advantage of scratching where people don’t itch. It allows the passage to set the agenda, and thereby allows both preacher and congregation to be challenged in new ways. Unfortunately, done badly it is boring and repetitious. In preaching, comprehension is the servant of application. The preacher who aims merely at ‘teaching the Bible accurately’ has fallen far short of what is truly required – which is to teach the Bible accurately so that people may become more like Jesus.

Undoubtedly, a mixture of topical and expository preaching is best, with care being taken that the expository sermons draw on a variety of biblical material. Sometimes the greatest gems are to be found where the preacher most fears to tread.

In our final article, we will look at the practicalities of proceeding from text or concept to sermon and delivery.

John Richardson is Senior Assistant Minister to St John’s, Stratford Broadway, E15