Preaching on Toxic Texts
You need to take your hearers to the 'no-go' areas in the Bible.
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Landmines have rendered vast areas of the world no-go areas. Sadly, it has mainly been civilians that have carried the brunt of casualties from landmines. As well as the horrific injuries and fatalities they have caused, many thousands more have been cut off from access to water, farmland, or communication routes. Thankfully there has been an international ban on the laying of minefields since 1999. But, it will still take many years to remove the ones that still exist and the fear people have of losing life or limb along certain routes.
The Bible's landmines
Thanks to a combination of militant atheism and general biblical illiteracy, for many Christians the Bible is a minefield for their faith. Out of fear, we are cut off from many of the resources that help us grow in our faith.
For some, the whole Bible is a no-go area because of what have been considered the toxic texts. For others, the Old Testament is off limits. We restrict our movements to the safe areas—the presentable texts that can, without risk, be tweeted, made into a refrigerator magnet, or sewn into a quilt. But the number of Bible texts that can be considered politically correct, sentimentally significant, and safe are being whittled down on a daily basis. How far should we go to avoid criticism blowing up in our faces?
The problem is that a biblically illiterate church is an ineffective church. Paul was clear in 2 Timothy that "All Scripture is God breathed and useful" and through it the servant of God can be "fully equipped for ever good work." So a church full of women and men who are robbed of the confidence to access the majority of Scripture is ill-equipped to rise to the challenges and opportunities that our culture provides for service to God. Sadly I have met many victims of this. When Greg went to study physics at Oxford University, he had what many would consider to be a good grounding in the essentials of the Christian faith. But the challenging combination of a new social context, questions raised about the credibility of Old Testament Bible stories, and the lack of friends and mentors equipped to help him respond, meant his faith did not last the first academic year.
Too often those of us called and charged to teach the Word of God remain comfortably situated in the parts of the Bible we feel most at ease to teach. We try short series in the Epistles, handle the easiest of Jesus' parables, and maybe dabble with a few Psalms. These passages will cause the least amount of angst and take the least amount of preparation. With the busyness of pastoral ministry, sermon preparation is so easily squeezed and so we stick to what we know.
But in this way we teach the wider church to stay stuck within their safe spaces in Scripture too. I want to encourage you to be brave and play the role of the minesweeper. Be willing to engage with the difficult parts so that you can unlock the power of the whole Bible for the people you serve. If we don't, our churches will gradually starve itself as God was very deliberate giving us the breadth and depth of all sixty-six books of the Bible. The difficult texts don't have to hem us in. Instead, if we can see the value of preaching the difficult parts of the Bible we can release the church to enjoy the whole Bible, serving the whole world with the whole gospel.