I heard two great sermons at Streaming this past weekend. And it occurred to me that both qualify under my definition of biblical preaching.
Jen Christy and Ben Ries both preached texts from Hebrews (in keeping with the theme of the conference). They latched onto their respective texts and refused to form a rapport with their audience on terms other than the text’s performance.
Before I describe their sermons more precisely, let me say a few things about what “biblical preaching” is not for me.
Biblical preaching is not just preaching ideas from the Bible. I’m not saying this is bad preaching or illegitimate preaching. Too often, however, the Bible is treated as a strip mine, excavating away all the “extraneous” details of the text to find the a nugget in the form of a universal idea or principle. Usually, this means for the resulting sermon swapping the rhetorical setting of the text for a more contemporary rhetorical setting. For example, the exhortation in Hebrews to not “give up meeting together” might be lifted from the surrounding language of our “hearts being sprinkled clean” and our “bodies being washed with pure water” in favor of information about how church attendance correlates with happiness or having faithful children, etc. This sermon might be very good, and faithful to a biblical idea, but falls short of what I mean by biblical preaching.
Tom Long is really helpful at this point. The shape and form of a text is not just a vehicle for carrying the point of a text. The form is meaningful and often being faithful to the form of the text is more “biblical” than being faithful to a point extracted from a text.
By biblical preaching, I also do not mean explaining a text point-by-point, verse-by-verse. While I think having a thorough exegetical understanding of the text is necessary for good biblical preaching, the sermon should not be a dry explanation of the text verse-by-verse. Again, alongside the “ideas” or “points” a text is making is the way a text moves. Texts don’t just say things, they do things. They perform. And biblical preaching, for my money, focuses on the performance of the text. What does the text want to do? What in the text wants to perform? How might this text perform in a fresh way in this contemporary setting?
Jen and Ben were great at this. First, both read the full text to us at the beginning of the sermon. And they didn’t just fly through the reading: they took their time and provided emphasis. They interpreted as they read. They signaled to us very early that they had nothing better or more interesting than the text they were assigned. So many sermons avoid a full reading the text at all, or rush through it so fast in a monotone rat-a-tat that listeners would be forgiven for thinking that the really important stuff lies someplace other than the text. Their patience with the text allowed me to hear it in a way I had never before.
But then they kept the language of the text pulsing and performing through the rest of the sermon. When Jen talked about enduring the suffering of child birth for the joy set before her, she brought the language of Hebrews into our lives. When Ben compared the list of exhortations at the end of Hebrews to the list of exhortations his mom delivered before he left the house as a teenager, we were experiencing the actual form-fulness of the text. I could give several other examples of places where the language and/or form of the text were being deliberately and artfully called forth to perform in our own lives. They weren’t simply giving us their exegesis, though clearly they had done their homework. Instead, they were letting the world imagined by the text perform in our hearing.
From stem to stern, the language of their entire text permeated their sermons. (Jen is particularly adept at bringing echoes and allusions of other texts into play so that what is delivered is a biblical world of associations and meanings). Through the art of preaching, they had coaxed a text to get up and walk around among us, pulling us deeply into its rhythms and images. They established a rapport with their listeners, not primarily through stories or jokes, but through the artful use of their text. And we were spellbound and deeply moved.