Preaching seemingly irrelevant issues

Thu, 17/05/2018 - 10:30 -- James Oakley
Image Credit: Jackson Lewchuk

The other day I was asked why we spend time in church (during sermons) talking about issues that may not be relevant for us today.

Unpacking the Question

On the face of it, it's a good question.

If I look out at the church family here, I can think of many subjects that speak directly into needs we know and feel. Maybe there are issues about unemployment, family life, over-demanding employers, ageing and dementia, the housing market, and so on.

Then you look at the Bible, and there are parts of it that address many of those questions. There are other parts of it that address issues that simply don't seem to be today's issues. The most obvious example would be some of the detailed laws in Deuteronomy. Those were written for the people of Israel as they settled down to live in the land of Israel. Things have moved on, and it's hard to preach today on something like Deuteronomy 15:12-18 (laws about releasing a slave after 6 years).

There are other parts of Scripture where this issue is less stark. As a church, we've been preaching through the letter of 1 Corinthians. The first four chapters of that letter are about factions within their church around loyalty to individual human leaders (past and present) within their congregation. Is that an issue for us today? If not, why preach on it?

The answer lies in three convictions about pastoral ministry in general, and preaching in particular.

Conviction 1: All Scripture is relevant

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

There is no part of Scripture that is left out by the phrase "all Scripture".

Its character is that it is “God-breathed”. That's to say, it's carried on God's breath — it's his words. Therefore, it's all useful. We can be more specific: It's useful for shaping the way we think (teaching and correcting) and live (rebuking and training in righteousness). Because these are God's words, they're all useful for today.

To be sure, Paul refers to the Old Testament when he says "All Scripture". However, when people assert that some parts of the Bible are less relevant today, they are more likely to mean the Old Testament than the New. Given people believe the New Testament to be more relevant than the Old, and given Paul says that all of the Old Testament is relevant today, surely this can be extended to the New Testament.

When a preacher is faced with a Bible passage that addresses a different time or culture from today, we have to do some work to understand how it is relevant today. But note what we're doing. We know already, a priori, that it is relevant. So we are seeking to understand how it is relevant, not determine whether it is.

In fact, it's the same work we have to do even when a passage appears to be relevant on the surface. Just because we can see parallels with today, it does not follow that the message follows those. Whether a passage seems relevant or not, our task is the same: What was this passage saying to the first hearers? Given we're not them, what happens to that message as we hear it in our own day?

Let's go back to Deuteronomy 15:12-18 as a worked example. There are all kinds of principles that we desperately need today. People still need money, so they give us their time so that they can feed themselves. The institution of slavery may not be here, but we still need to see our duty to care and provide for those who serve us in this way, to remember that they're not ultimately our property, but that in an ideal world we'd take such good care that they'd be glad to be treated as if they were. Indeed, the seeds of overthrowing Victorian slavery may be found in just this passage.

We're not them, but this passage still speaks powerfully into today's world. Our task is to work out how.

Conviction 2: God sets the agenda

This next principle flows from the first, but it also relates to the core calling of the pastor-teacher.

Preaching isn't a modern invention. Within the pages of the New Testament, we see early examples of what we call preaching. There, we see that preaching entails opening up the Bible to unfold its message for us.

This means that our task is to make sure that what we say is the same as what the text says. I don't stand up to say what I want to say, and maybe use some biblical texts to lend support. Rather, I stand up to say what the text says (because what the Bible says is what God says). What God says in his word is the driving force of the sermon. The content, shape, tone and overall thrust of the sermon must come from the content, shape, tone and overall thrust of the Bible passage.

That's to say, God sets the agenda not me. As I study the text on which I will preach, the question is this: What does God wish to say to these people through this text? Then that is what I say.

If, instead, my task was to work out what I wanted to say, for me to set the agenda, things would be very different. I'd comb the newspapers and the web for contemporary issues, and develop an opinion on those. I'd then bring various Bible passages into play that might support what I want to say. If that were my method, I'd never end up in those passages that don't seem relevant at first sight.

But given my task is to start by asking what God has to say, I can start in any passage of Scripture. It's all relevant, after all (point 1). Then I study it until I can unfold it and help us all to hear what God is saying.

Dave Helm has a saying:

In our preaching, we mustn't use the Bible like a drunk uses a lamp-post — for support, rather than illumination.

For this reason, my preferred habit is to take a section of the Bible and to preach through it in roughly even-length sections. Sure, I still have to choose which book (or part of a book) we'll preach next, but once that's done the text is simply given to me. I'm not working out what I want to say, apart from my need to work out what God wants to say from this passage.

Conviction 3: Relevance must be shown

So far, I've said that any and every passage of Scripture is relevant, and that we want God to set the agenda. This almost answers the question. We preach through passages of Scripture that may not appear contemporarily relevant, because they are all relevant. The preaching diet of a church needs to include the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). So we simply work our way through a variety of parts of the Bible. We don't cherry pick, certainly not on the arbitrary criterion of how superficial the relevance may be.

There's one more thing that needs to be said: Application is extremely important in preaching.

When I was first taught to preach, I was told that a sermon had a number of points (usually three, for some reason), and that the structure of each point was to be:

  • State - give a heading to summarise the point
  • Explain - explain what it is you're trying to say, mainly using the main passage of Scripture for the day, but bringing in others as needed
  • Illustrate - find some way to help people get the point
  • Apply - show how this teaching point applies to contemporary life.

I don't at all wish to play that down. In fact, as advice for a preacher in their earliest years, it's excellent. When we move away from something simple and clear like that, it's very easy for the sermon to get muddled and for the structure to get lost. However:…

There is one drawback. If we're not careful, we develop the teaching content of each point quite apart from how it applies, and then try to think of some contemporary relevance we can bolt on as an after-thought. That's a caricature, except that if I think of some sermons I've preached sadly it's not wide of the mark.

We need to remember that the relevance, the application, is not something we need to add onto a text that would otherwise be irrelevant. The biblical text itself is relevant. Given our task is to shape the sermon around what the text is saying, and how it is saying it, our sermon should be relevant without us having to try. We simply need to unfold the relevance that's there.

When a Bible passage is not immediately and obviously relevant, there's a danger that a hearer might think the text (and therefore the sermon) is not relevant, and switch off. We've studied the passage, so we know it is relevant. So we need to show those listening that it's relevant right from the start, and not lose sight of that relevance as we do the four things that still need doing: state, explain, illustrate, apply. Done well like that, the application just drops out by itself.

The Question you don't want Asked

All of which means: I don't want people to be asking me this question. Here's why that last point, or conviction, is so important.

Don't get me wrong: I want people to question what I do, to discuss what I teach and preach. But if after a sermon someone comes up and says to me: "Why are we looking at that irrelevant passage of Scripture?", then I haven't done my job.

The intellectually correct answer would be: "Because all Scripture is relevant, so we're simply listening to what God wishes to say".

But existentially, the question itself shows that the sermon may not have done its job properly. The sermon's job is to make sure that the relevance of the biblical text, which is in the text and does not need adding on by me, just walks off the page and into people's lives.

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