Staying True to the Text
Staying True to the Text
While he was visiting the United States in the late 1930s, on Sundays the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer would choose a church service and listen carefully for words of gospel-hope in the sermon. He was often disappointed. In a journal entry dated Sunday, July 2,1939, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Church, Park Avenue. Rev. ____ on ‘Today is ours,’ no text, no echo of Christian proclamation. Rather a disappointment … The Americans speak so much about freedom [and community] in their sermons … [but] freedom for the church comes from the necessity of the Word of God … Only the Word makes a true community.” A short time later he commented on another sermon, “No text, no echo of the Christian proclamation. Rather, a disappointment.”
Here’s one of the most important and simplest lessons I’ve learned about preaching: Trust the text. Trust the Spirit of God to speak the message of the Word of God. Of course, organize simply, illustrate creatively, apply passionately, but make sure it all leads back to the biblical text. My preaching mentor Darrell Johnson once said that his preaching mentors grounded him in two questions: (1) Do you have the message of the text? (2) Are you trusting the text? Or are you trusting your own cleverness or personality? Johnson writes, “Both [of my] mentors keep driving me deep into the text. To the text! To the text!” He also adds that the preacher’s role is not so much to “get a message out of the text” as much as it is to help people “get into the text.”
So how do we do that week after week? How do we get into the text so we can walk our people into the text? Or as Ryan Welsh puts it, how do we put the hermeneutical horse (the text) before the homiletical cart (the sermon)? Those are the questions we explore in this preaching guide. The answers involve more than just barebones exegesis. As Romel Williams points out, we also must grapple with the text’s historical context and literary structure. Mark Buchanan argues that getting the text right also involves recreating the dynamics of the text. That is, Buchanan says, “shape your sermon around what the text is trying to do, not just what it’s trying to say.” Kenneth Quick trains us to look for the “emotional hermeneutics” of every text.
As you can see, getting the text right takes hard work. But it’s worth the effort. During the summer of 2018, I led our preaching team through a series on the Minor Prophets—one sermon for each book. As I prepped for my sermons on Obadiah and Zephaniah, I really wondered if these ancient texts could breathe life into people’s souls. But I decided to trust the text. I followed Darrell Johnson’s advice about helping people to “get into the text.” Talk about relevance! Those sermons connected with contemporary hearers based on one reality: “the Word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). That’s the power of the Living God to speak the Word of God to the people of God.