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Celebration and Experience in Preaching
By Henry H. Mitchell
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2008 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Definition and Purpose of Experiences of the Word
Actually, God gives experiential encounters in the Spirit and with the Word. Yet, quite often, these experiences occur in apparent connection with the efforts of thoughtful servants of God. It is a fact that we are commanded to go into all the earth and preach and teach and witness as if it all depended on us, while trusting that it all is in the hands of God. For the homiletical studies outlined in this work, then, preaching is defined as follows:
To preach is so to be used by the Holy Spirit that the gospel is communicated, to the end that hearers are saved and then helped to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord. It is the hope of every preacher that every sermon will be used by the Spirit to move Christians to grow from point A to point B, in the direction of the life modeled by Jesus Christ. And every sermon should focus on one such behavioral goal as stated or implied by the biblical text.
The first element of meaningful experiential encounter is a biblical text, the basis of the authority that distinguishes the sermon from a secular essay. Texts should be chosen with careful thought, as well as divine guidance. In the thoughtful aspect, a text should be chosen for clarity of behavioral purpose and memorable brevity, as well as for helpful guidance in a specific human need. Some texts literally are behavioral purposes: "In every thing give thanks" (1 Thess. 5:18). Other texts imply or exemplify behavioral purposes (b.p.). In Romans 8:28, Paul exemplifies a b.p. of trust in all situations when he says, "We know that God works in everything for good (author's translation; emphasis mine)." Because so many texts imply trust, this b.p. should be more specific: "Regardless of fearful appearances, God works in everything!"
Jesus' Parables have implied b.p.s. For instance, there is no direct admonition to "be compassionate," but the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:33) says it all in a human example of compassion. This one-purpose focus is characteristic of all of Jesus' parables, and Matthew, Mark, and Luke all testify that this is how Jesus preached (Matt. 13:34; Mark 4:34; Luke 8:10). He employed concrete images that had parallels to spiritual meanings, otherwise expressible only in abstraction.
To attempt more than one purpose is likely to achieve neither or none, because of lack of focus. It is a great and sufficient blessing when the gospel concerning even one needed behavior is actually received and the hearer is motivated and empowered to obey. For example, "Blessed are the meek" (Matt. 5:5) is a great challenge. One hardly dares ask the Spirit for more in a single sermon. (Notice, Jesus didn't say, "You ought to be meek.")
One is not necessarily called to preach all of even one text verse if it contains more than one behavioral goal. Paul's great list of the fruits of the Spirit includes seven goals in Galatians 5:22, with two more in verse 23. I have been known to preach for two weeks, with introductory and concluding sermons and a different fruit from the text for a b.p. each night of a ten-night revival.
These guidelines of brevity and clarity are often challenged in class on the grounds that all of a verse ought to be treated. A long, Paul-type sentence (Ephesians 3:15-19 is just one sentence) offers many possible b.p.s. Students feel obligated to preach all of them, exhausting all possible meanings. Of course, even for one brief verse, this just simply may be impossible. But the most important response to the challenge to exhaust meaning is that the goal of one sermon is not comprehensive knowledge of so little as one whole verse; it is the faithful change of life in the direction of no more than one Christlike characteristic, as called for in the Word.
As stated before, there is a need to avoid confusing mental agreement or affirmation with living, obedient faith. In this vein of thought, students often submit sermon texts that seem to suggest as their b.p. a goal using verbs like "to know" or "to show." They want the hearer to "know" that God is provident—and this is good as far as it goes. Every b.p. requires some form of idea knowledge, but the bottom line is not just "knowing" and reciting a text. The bottom-line b.p. is trusting and obeying that text. One may agree that God is provident (Rom. 8:28), but the real test is whether or not the hearer can be calm and trust God's providence in times of hard trial. So to speak, this is a behavior at "gut level," a holistic confidence. About doctrines like God's providence, sermons on trust texts seek not so much theological knowledge as spiritual power that radiates from print and pulpit, out of the idea stage and into gut-level trusting under stress.
No less misleading than "to know" is the students' submitted b.p. "to show." The preacher, not the hearer, does the showing. It assumes intellectual processes and seeks agreement. Showing is what a lawyer does to convince a jury, from whom to win a decision. With a similar b.p., the preacher would be "showing" in a sermon while the audience or jury in the pew would listen passively and be expected to do no more "behavior" than a yes or no. The world needs good lawyers "to show," but not in the pulpit. Preaching is art, not argument. Spiritual encounters are not legislated or decreed; they are experienced.
THE LESSON AND LECTIONS IN WORSHIP
The usual Scripture lesson read in public worship is the one from which the text and b.p. have been drawn. However, there are occasional exceptions. These come from a text containing a well-stated b.p., but without supportive material in its biblical context. Such is the case with Romans 8:28, Paul's classic word about the providence of God. As will be stated in chapter 9, such a text may call for a lesson to be read from a different pericope that embodies this same b.p. In this case, Romans 8:28 calls for Genesis 50:14-21 as a lesson, with emphasis on verse 20, used in the sermon's celebration: "God meant it for good" (NKJV). This is not proof-texting; it is enriching an encounter by means of powerfully illustrating a similar and otherwise contextually isolated text about providence.
A widely utilized factor in the choice of sermon texts and lessons is the Revised Common Lectionary, offering preaching lections for a three-year cycle, including every week a reading from the Hebrew Bible, a psalm, an epistle, and a reading from the Gospels. Although some consider this restrictive, others, including whole denominations, see it as a safeguard against a temptation to stay on one theme and to overemphasize one part of the Bible. In any case, lectionaries have passages from all four parts of the Bible, each of which has verses from which the Spirit may guide a text to be found that fits a congregation's needs, and a given preacher's gifts and passionate convictions.
For those who resist the lectionary itself, lectionary-type options include the individual's own design of a year's preaching plan or a series of sermons on the life of Christ, the great prophets of the Old Testament, or exciting characters like David and Deborah, Priscilla and Paul. The main concern is to preach from a whole Bible in all its aspects, reaching the whole gamut of human need. This requires some form of Spirit-guided discipline with some continuity of flow and direction. Such planning seeks to equip members for the abundant life of faith and service, and avoids the virtual certainty of falling into a rut where one's texts are selected from too typical, week-to-week options presumably offered by the Spirit.
All of this concern for disciplined singleness of b.p. can be called focus. It is used to maintain audience attention, with the draw made possible by flow in one direction, for one positive purpose. Careful focus on text and b.p. has the literary purpose of keeping hearers aboard a single experience until it has landed. Every part of the sermon is subject to the test of whether it contributes to the experiential encounter with the text and inspires the acceptance of and trusting obedience to the text and b.p.
It should be noted, however, that all passages of Scripture are not amenable to use as sermonic texts. An extreme example of this is seen in the fact that no preacher would dare take Psalm 137:9 (or Isa. 16:13) as a text. It predicts: "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones." Many passages are potentially useful in context, including Psalm 137:9, but the main text should be a brief, memorable, positive guide for life, not a "what not to do." Indeed, the entire gospel is good news. Some may manipulate congregations with fear by using negative news, but perfect love casts out such fear (1 John 4:18).
When a negative text is the only one available for a worthy purpose, the positive counterpart of that purpose needs to be given twice as much emphasis or space. Jesus warned about the spiritual vacuum created by predominant negatives in the parable of the empty house (Matt. 12:43-45). His b.p. was, "Fill your house full with good things and leave no space for evil." In warning against negatives he created a positive, but this was a rare exception to the general rule against negative texts for main focus, and against sermons with more than a third of the space devoted to criticisms and vivid images of evil.
It should be understood that all this advice about choosing the b.p. is not born of an excessive ambition to gain full control of the results of the encounters discussed here. All of these results are still in the hands of God, but God does commission us (Matt. 28:19-20) to use our most thoughtful efforts to teach and preach. This emphasis on focus and b.p. is to help people stay gladly focused; because they will know they won't have to endure the too-common scene where the preacher "mounts his horse and rides off in all directions."
One other caution regarding the maintenance of focus deals with the temptation to insert irrelevant "pearls." The pastor or student has worked long and hard in research for the sermon, and has come up with some real jewels. When advised to delete some of these gifts from God as irrelevant, the student objects: "God must have wanted these jewels in this sermon, since they were given during preparation for this sermon. These jewels are also much too good to be wasted."
The answer to this challenge is simple: "Don't waste it; just don't use it here." It is good to keep on reserve a treasure trove or handy file of good ideas (God-given and otherwise) for those Fridays when the Spirit hasn't said a word all week and there is need for an inspired word for Sunday. You'll be glad you saved the jewels you couldn't use when received, and that you kept the original sermon focused on its text and b.p.
In reference to those moments of inspiration when ideas just pour in, it is wise to follow two rules. One is to capture the flow. Record all of it as it floods in, regardless of whether it fits for Sunday or not. Don't edit it for spelling, grammar, or anything else. Just record it while it is "hot," and before you let it slip into oblivion.
Rule two is later to sort through the flow, placing the items for immediate use in the flow of the tentative outline. Make sure the leftovers are legible and place them in a file that is organized by the books of the Bible, placing the jewels with whatever text they seem to fit. Another basis for organization of ideas may be a file of vital topics or burning contemporary issues. I am one of many preachers who testify that some of their best sermons were written under sudden emergency circumstances and using material from this file. This should be heard as advice that every preacher should have such an overflow file of material personally considered relevant and known to draw attention. Nevertheless, the blessing of the unprepared but effective use of such a file should be anticipated only in authentic, dire emergencies.
THE LIMITS OF RESPONSIBILITY
A final concern within this discussion of behavior is the fear of some that so much emphasis on human behavior seems to border on salvation by works. Shouldn't there be goals and purposes such as education about the Bible and the doctrines of the church? Shouldn't the pastor just do a teaching sermon from time to time? The answer is that all sermons should teach, but no sermon should be about history, geography, or doctrine that has no clear implications about behavior. Lessons of history and maps of Paul's journeys can be interesting and enlightening in classes, but not in a sermon, except as setting. The gospel was made for salvation and spiritual growth, not to create experts on Palestine. However, expert data from training-class sources can be used as details in sermons to make them come alive as encounter.
Meanwhile, whenever persons are saved and helped to live by faith, we will know it by their behavior and works (James 2:18). To preach the words of faith and not be used to move hearers to the works of that faith would be an exercise in futility.
Furthermore, it should be understood that focus on the b.p. is used to hold the sermon together as a work of art. Just as dramas and symphonies have a central theme throughout, so a sermon needs a center for artistic and attention-keeping reasons. Thus the b.p. is at the very heart of both the Bible text from which it comes and the artistry that brings to life the experiential encounter with the Word.
We move now from emphasis on the text and its behavioral purpose to emphasis on the encounter with the Word as experienced by the hearer.
Excerpted from Celebration and Experience in Preaching by Henry H. Mitchell Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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