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In my previous post, I focused briefly on sermons that incorporate “wind-ups” that actually “wind-down” sermons. I asserted that one such wind-down occurs when the preacher begins the sermon by re-hashing the biblical text. I made it clear that by “re-hashing” I was referring to a non-interpretive, non-expository walk through the text – sort of a “tour-guide” approach, pointing out this over here, and that over there as we go, providing more background for this, identifying the original significance of that for the ancient community. The kind of thing one finds in a good non-thematic, verse-by-verse Bible commentary.

A shift toward exposition, however, will put the preacher into a slightly different posture – one that allows the text to interpret us. Theologian Karl Barth was a proponent of this approach. According to Barth:

“I have not to talk about scripture but from it. I have not to say something, but merely repeat something. If God alone wants to speak in a sermon, neither theme nor scopus should get in the way….Our task is simply to follow the distinctive movement of thought in the text, to stay with this, and not with a plan that arises out of it.”

Barth’s approach is not far from “re-hashing.” Those who know Barth’s theology will know that he’s worried about too much interpretive intervention by the preacher. He seems to want something fairly close to simply repeating the text. Notice, however, his reference to the ‘movement of thought’ in the text. This is crucial. The preacher doesn’t just “walk through” the text, but does so, over the course of the entire sermon, in a way that helps the listener discover how thought moves in the text, how the semantic motion within the text captures our thinking and re-shapes it in some way.

A shift toward interpretation (hermeneutic) will put the preacher in yet another posture – one that interprets the text by moving the listeners attention toward a particular aspect or dimension of the text in order to draw out a particular meaning for today. In this regard, I posted a few weeks back on five “places” to find a sermon in relation to biblical texts. Each approach assumes that sermon listeners are invited to take a particular perspective or angle of vision on the text. Is the preacher drawing my attention to some analogy to my life in the text (place 1), to a profound historical continuity between Matthew’s church and our church (place 2), to the way the language works and wants to shape us (place 3), to a timeless theological truth (place four), or to a hidden trajectory of meaning we could never have seen, if it weren’t for what’s happening right now in our church or world (place 5). No matter which of these interpretive models is at work, the biblical text will be heard in its fullness, but from a particular hermeneutical perspective.

Re-hashing gives the sermon listener little or nothing of either exposition or interpretation. Re-hashing is largely movement-of-thought-less, and perspective-less, and leaves the listener groping for an angle of vision on the text. When this occurs listeners will provide several of their own…or just check out altogether for lack of focus and direction from the preacher. From great biblical preachers you’ll always hear the text (its content, world, context), but from a particular perspective – one charged with theological meaning and energy.

Some of us are correctly concerned that our listeners don’t get to hear the biblical text often. In a biblically illiterate world, it is natural to feel that by repeating the text in slow motion, we create a better opportunity to hear Scripture and let it soak in.

I have two things to say to this. First, we need to counter the assumption that “front-loading” scripture is the best way to get the text heard. With most biblical texts there’s a lot going on – a lot to take in and process! For the sake of both memory and understanding, it is better to introduce the biblical text in dynamic ways throughout the sermon. Each movement of thought in a sermon can capture some aspect of the text and bring it to life – creating a picture of the whole. For the biblical preacher, there shouldn’t be a single thought communicated that can’t be pegged to something in, under, behind, or in front of the biblical text. We can allow our listeners to re-hear the text dynamically throughout the sermon, instead of at the beginning only. Here’s a picture of this:

Sequence 1 Sequence 2 Sequence 3 Sequence 4

In this model, each sequence of thought in a sermon contains four things (see The Four Codes of Preaching): 1) a biblical warrant (again, see the five places to get a sermon), 2) a message to our listeners, 3) theological shaping, and 4) some kind of experiential connection or illustration. In this way, scripture is heard strongly throughout the sermon.

Second, we need to work on interpretive reading. If a unit of scripture is read aloud in worship service each week, we can work hard to make it a dynamic, energized, and interpretive reading – one that accents and emphasizes those elements in the text that will be crucial for the sermon. If we are those who read the text aloud, we can provide clues regarding what to listen for and how to hear the text. If we use lay readers, we can work with them each week to insure that this is occurring. A good reading should stand alone, and will do far more than a tour of the text to bring the Bible alive in the hearing of listeners. Even an intervening children’s sermon or anthem between scripture reading and sermon will not dull the impact of Scripture well-read!