The Case for an Exegetical Sermon Series
An interview with Hershael York.
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Preaching Today: We know you're a huge fan of expository sermons, but let's begin with a nod towards the topical sermon series. What percentage of your sermon series are topical? What are two of your favorite topical series?
Hershael York: I don't preach a topical series often, and when I do, they are still textual and expository. I confess that sometimes I need to preach something from the Bible's metanarrative and let my church see threads of connection and commonality that intersect across books and testaments. I probably do one topical series for every two book studies. Topical series are always shorter, normally six to twelve weeks, and my book series can go for a year, so it probably is only about 10 percent of the time. I recently completed a series called "A Man Like Us" about the life of Elijah, using James' statement about the prophet as the entry point to then walk through the different narratives about Elijah's life. Elijah did great things for God, but he was a man like us. He grew weary and despaired of life—because he was a man like us. He was a great man who needed God's grace and mercy—because he was a man like us.
I'm also excited about a series on what it means to call on the Lord in faith. Evangelicals have been debating what it means to call upon the name of the Lord. Everyone is either for or against "the sinner's prayer" and concerned about defining that initial act of faith. I plan to survey biblical professions of faith and what they teach us about the nature of faith, it's necessity and expression. I'm convinced God sees faith many times where we would not see it, or even discount it. Rahab's first act of faith was to tell a lie, and then profess to the spies simply, "Your God is God." Ruth grounded her faith in a human relationship: "Your God will be my God." The thief on the cross simply asked to be remembered, but he acknowledged that Jesus was a King who was going to inherit a kingdom even after his death. Though a fictional character, the prodigal's statement "I am not worthy …" shows a beautiful picture of genuine repentance.
Give us one reason why a preacher should (every once in a while) use a topical series.
A topical series that is still textual and expository can give a congregation the 40,000 foot view of the Bible, reminding them that it's really one story of redemption, not 66 unrelated books that say something nice about God. We can only understand the parts of the Bible in light of the whole, so we need to change lenses often enough to help us hone in on meaning because the part informs the whole even as the whole reveals the meaning of the parts.
What's your argument for an expository series? Why has this been your go-to series throughout your preaching and teaching career?
First, this is how the Holy Spirit gave us the Bible. It could have been arranged topically, chronologically, or proverbially, but it was arranged in books that address particular situations in specific contexts. So if I want to help my people get a strategic grasp of Scripture's meaning, to really know how to understand and apply it for themselves, I need to show them how the Holy Spirit put it together.
Second, you can't possibly get the emotion of the text topically. For instance, you can preach 2 Corinthians 12 about Paul's thorn in the flesh isolated from anything that precedes it and you will still get the basic meaning. Only when you see how it follows his heavily sarcastic and discordant appeal to his résumé in chapters 10 and 11, however, do you really understand what he's doing. Just when he goes on to "visions and revelations of the Lord," making us believe that he's going to use that as his final trump card and declare victory over his opponents, he brushes it completely aside telling us nothing about what heaven is like or what he saw and concentrates entirely on his weakness. The very thing that the Corinthians objected to is actually Paul's greatest qualification for ministry. His argument is breathtakingly beautiful, his destination completely unexpected, and his application unmistakable. But you can't possibly get the depth of his emotion if you just preach a sermon on weakness. Meaning is revealed through structure every bit as much as vocabulary. Topical preaching can't adequately deal with that.
Third, good expository preaching enjoys the inherent power of the text because it addresses the same or similar situations in church life today. When I use the Word of God in a way that the original author intended to address the real life spiritual needs of my church, the Spirit will use it. I don't have to manufacture it. I look for the purpose of the text and attempt to address the parallel needs of my congregation. Ultimately, however, I'm really discipling them to be self-feeders. The way I handle the text in the pulpit is how they well learn to use it in their homes and in their lives. If my preaching is always sensitive to context and structure, if I'm always asking "What's the main point?" and "How does the author apply this?" then they will, too. I don't believe that a steady diet of topical preaching really advances a congregation's understanding of the Bible.
Walk us through how you work with the Lord praying and thinking through what your congregation needs for an upcoming expository series.
Inherent in your question is the assumption that I know my congregation. I firmly believe that aside from the obvious need for personal dependence on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, the greatest factor in successful pastoring—real shepherding of souls—is longevity. I have entered my 13th year at Buck Run and I feel like I'm just now in my stride. We know each other, trust each other completely. They have figured out that I am sticking with them and I am convinced that they are going to stay with me. In the bonds of that affection and trust, great things happen. I can preach hard truths and they will take it. Additionally, I know what they know and what I have yet to teach them.
So my praying and thinking about what to preach involves thinking through where we are as a congregation, where we are going, what I have and have not preached. I also plan a rotation between Old and New Testaments, between Law and Gospel, between narrative and prophecy, between genre and forms, and things like that.
How do you prepare your own soul and mind for these longer series?
I just finished preaching through 1 John and it was a 24-week series. I saturate my mind with the book. I read through it multiple times. I more or less memorize it—not word perfect but in substance—because I read it in Greek, in every translation I have, even in Portuguese. I buy the most highly recommended commentaries on it. In this case I reread my 1993 dissertation on the structure of 1 John, so in many ways I was reacquainting myself with something I studied long ago, but now with two extra decades of experience as a pastor and a professor. It's fun to see how much richer and more meaningful the text has grown to me.
How do you decide how long a sermon series should be? For instance, we noticed you preached a really long series on Hebrews. Why did you decide to stay in that book for so long? What benefits do you think it gave your people?
The Hebrews series was 44 sermons and it was one of the most profitable series I have ever preached. I'm convinced you can't begin to understand Revelation unless you understand Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, the Gospels, and Hebrews. In many ways, Hebrews is the biblical metanarrative, the pivotal book that ties it all together. Hebrews is the Holy Spirit answering our questions about the Old Testament and showing us that it is and always was about Christ.
A modern western audience has an immediate challenge understanding an ancient system of blood-sacrifice, but if they don't, they'll never understand the Cross. Any preacher who won't preach about an innocent lamb being burned on an altar won't ever do justice to the innocent Son of God being crucified. So I took my time going through the book. My audience is different from the original audience of that epistle because they weren't brought up under the Old Testament laws. But they are every bit as tempted to turn back to their own works of righteousness as the basis of their relationship to God instead of truly resting in grace, in the finished work of Christ.
So because Hebrews is so theologically dense and because it ties so much of the Bible together, which requires additional explanation and exploration of the background, I wanted to give it adequate time. I do not say, "Oh, I think I'll give this 44 weeks, now let me chop it into 44 pieces." I begin the other way around. I discern what I call the preachable units—how many verses can I cover in one sermon in each section—and then make minor adjustments with one eye on the text and one on the calendar. I always have to make a decision about what "lens" I use. Do I want to look at this with a fish-eye lens and get the broad picture, a normal lens, or a magnifying glass and really slow it down?
I do indeed feel the burden of keeping it interesting. I have to make certain that I am not too redundant—though repetition is an important part of teaching—and that I maintain energy. But in all honesty, I don't struggle with excitement about preaching. I love it. I eat, sleep, breathe, and dream about preaching. So I think that excitement shows and is contagious.
This kind of preaching makes people leave with something. They begin to feel like they understand the Bible. They grasp its meaning. They aren't intimidated by it like they once were. Furthermore, our community groups meet and then discuss and apply the text that was preached that Sunday so it reinforces what they heard.
So as an experienced preacher and preaching professor, could you give our readers a few quick tips for planning and preaching an expository sermon series?
First, stay somewhere a while. When you plant your home and walk through life with people, you will not only have more credibility, you'll know what they have heard and what they still need to hear, where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and what specific applications of the Word are appropriate.
Second, alternate between Old and New Testament, between Law and Gospel, between OT prophecy and history, between NT narrative and Epistle. Paul told the Ephesian elders that he had declared to them the whole counsel of God. That should be our goal, too.
Third, plan well ahead. Decide what you are going to do next well in advance and start planning and thinking, formulating your "plan of attack" and deciding those preaching units even while you are preaching through something else.
Fourth, change lenses. It's good to use a magnifying glass and preach 44 sermons through Hebrews, but it's also good to use the wide angle lens and preach twelve overview sermons through the twelve Minor Prophets. Any sermon that exposes the authorial intent and makes appropriate application is an expository sermon, so that does not necessarily mean verse by verse. Dealing with larger sections of texts or even a whole book is ok.
Finally, love. Love the Lord, love the people to whom you preach, love the Word, and love preaching. You only get that through spending time with the Lord, with your people, with the Word, and with your sermons. I know it's tough—hey, I have two jobs and a family, so I get it. All the more reason you have to serve through love because if you don't love it, you won't stick.
Hershael York is pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, as well as Professor of Christian Preaching and Associate Dean of Ministry and Proclamation in the School of Theology of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.