Chapter 4

Recreating the Dynamics of the Text

Shape your sermon around what the text is trying to do, not just what it's trying to say.

I once, as part of a series, preached Psalm 131. The psalm is so short I can reprint it here in its entirety:

My heart is not proud, LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

I labored with that text for almost 50 minutes. I had a lot to say. I schematized the verses. I trotted out Hebrew words and phrases, and cross-referenced those with other biblical verses. I did an extended digression on the theology of children. I found intricate literary patterns, and expounded on each at length. I told funny or poignant stories to illustrate all my points. I was quite pleased with the whole thing.

I had reduced the Bible's exquisite poetry to tedium. And I'd taken an insufferably long time to do it.

Later that week, I received a handwritten note in the mail. It was from a visitor named Dave. Dave had been in town on business, and though he hadn't been in church for years, he'd heard about our church and decided to check us out. He conveyed all that in his first brief paragraph.

The second paragraph began thus: "Your sermon is one of the reasons I stopped going to church: long-winded, boring preachers who reduce the Bible's exquisite poetry to tedium." And so on.

I was devastated. I showed it to the office administrator, who assured me the sermon was, indeed, a masterpiece of oration and exposition, and that this man was an ignorant and unregenerate Philistine.

But I knew. Dave was right. I had reduced the Bible's exquisite poetry to tedium. And I'd taken an insufferably long time to do it.

I teach preaching now, which is akin to parenting, if only in this: professors of homiletics, like parents, spend a good deal of time trying to prevent their offspring from making the same mistakes they did.

What is the text trying to do?

So what do I teach my students to keep them from falling? Simply, I teach them to recreate the dynamics of the text. Which is another way of saying, I teach them to shape their actual sermon around what the text is trying to do, not just what it's trying to say.

So Psalm 131. It's a song of ascents, meaning it's a song for the journey, a song in the mouths of pilgrims heading to worship. A preacher could say that. But a preacher aiming to recreate the dynamics of this psalm might actually sing it—if he or she had a passable voice. Certainly, they would attempt to preach it in a way that made people want to sing.

Maybe something like this:

When I was a child, my parents sang in the car on long road trips. It made the journey as memorable and enjoyable as the destination. The holidays began, not when we arrived, but when we hit open road and my mother in her sweet contralto began to sing, and my father in his rich baritone joined in, and my brother and I, like little chirping birds, joined, too. "A love to go a wandering along the mountain track, and as I go I love to sing with a knapsack on my back." Sing with me.
Imagine the people from Ephraim, from Gad, from Naphtali, piling into their cars, their carts, but most walking, all heading to Jerusalem. As soon as they head out, days before they arrive, mom starts singing, and dad joins in, and all the uncles and aunts and cousins and neighbors, and you—you—join, too. "My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty." Sing with me.
And the journey and the destination converge. Worship doesn't happen when we get there. Worship happens all along the way. Worship isn't what you do when you arrive. Worship is what carries you there. Sing with me.

Awaken wonder and humility

And Psalm 131 is also about child-like humility and wonder. In my tedious sermon, I squelched both. What I would do now, what I encourage my students to do now, is awaken both. Recreate the dynamics of the text. I'd preach, for instance, on things that bewilder me and yet that, when I notice them, amaze me.

Something like this:

I cut the lawn yesterday. I realized, stuffing my third garden bag of grass clippings, that I don't know the least thing about grass. I don't know how it grows. I don't know what makes it green. I don't know why it's so hardy. I trample it, shear it, neglect it. It sits unwatered beneath summer's heat. It endures the hardened ground of winter's grip. It turns dull as burlap from drought or cold. But a little moisture, a little sunshine, and look, look! It carpets the whole earth lushly again. Imagine - the thought is terrifying - imagine the world without grass. Bleak.
Look, look! Here's a picture of at a single blade of grass. I took this with my iPhone yesterday. See the artistry! The radiance. The intricacy of design. And this is just one blade. Billions of these, trillions, exist right under my feet. Under yours. Beneath our careless walking is a massive, beautiful, intricate, thriving, living world.
But I don't know the least thing about it, and I've lived with it all my life.
And God. I've studied God all my life. I've read hundreds, maybe thousands, of books about him. I've even written some. I've talked about God, and to him, since I could first speak. And I've preached about him. By my estimate, almost 4000 sermons.
But I hardly know the least thing about God. I don't know how he does what he does—makes this whole world run, knows everything going on in it. Knows every story of every person who's ever lived. Knows our names. My name. Your name. Mark. Cheryl. Karen. Bill. Stephanie. Kyle. Sarah.
I haven't a clue how he does that. But I could stay here all day, just letting him hold me, singing to me, saying my name over and over and over.

Express and invite trust

This Psalm, ultimately, is about trust. It expresses trust in God, and it invites others to trust him as well. So I would end the sermon on that note. But, again, I'd try to actually express and invite that trust. I'd try to recreate the dynamics of the text.

Something like this:

This is a psalm of David. Maybe someone wrote it for him, or about him. Or maybe—let's imagine—he wrote it himself. Maybe he was already king. Or maybe—let's imagine—he wrote it in a cave, running from Saul, scrounging his next meal, listening to the complaints of the men who were hiding and running and going hungry and crouching in caves with him.
Maybe David is stuck between God's promises to him and their fulfillment.
Do you know that place? It's a desert, a wasteland, that place between God saying, "This I will do for you," and God actually doing it.
Maybe David is there. Stuck there. And maybe he's losing faith. Maybe it's hard for him to trust a God who would leave him hungry in a cave.
He starts to sing. He starts to worship, even though he's a far away from church. He starts anyhow, here, now. He sings and sings. He sings about how big and good God is, big and good beyond anything he can understand. As he sings, he knows he doesn't need to understand. It's enough for him to be held by God. It's enough for him to have God sing over him. Enough to hear God say his name, over and over.
David sings and sings, and his faith rekindles. His hope comes back. His heart quiets. He is satisfied. The men in the cave stop arguing, fall silent, listen. And David says, "Sing with me." And they do.