Speak to the Rock
Five signs a sermon doesn't take the text seriously
Moses was desperate. He was a preacher without a sermon, and it was Saturday night. There was no water and the people blamed him.
Leadership for this massive group of refugees was no picnic in the best of times. In the desert with nothing to drink, it was unbearable. With Miriam recently dead, Moses faced a mutinous crowd accompanied only by Aaron. He needed a word from God—a solution.
The brothers approached Yahweh as one should—prostrate. "Moses and Aaron went from the assembly to the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and fell facedown, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them" (Numbers 20:6).
Moses saw the glory. He heard the Word. He experienced the flash and the bang of the Divine. Moses came seeking an answer and God gave one. "Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes, and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink" (Numbers 20:8).
Moses chose not to preach that Word. Yes, he preached a word, but it was not the one given for the occasion. "So Moses took the staff from the Lord's presence, just as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together in front of the rock and Moses said to them, "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank" (Numbers 20:9–11).
Moses struck the rock when he was only to speak to it. He struck the rock because it worked so well last time (Exodus 17:1–7). He struck the rock because the rebels incited him to action. He struck the rock, because the community needed water. He struck the rock, and it worked. So what was wrong with the word Moses preached? It was more than the little detail of methodology. The great prophet did not take the text seriously. He followed a previous command. To strike the rock was to obey God—the first time. But this time he reacted, instead of listening to and communicating the truth.
Moses filled an obvious and urgent need but missed the objective. The main purpose was to honor Yahweh as holy. The point was to hear, obey, and communicate the divine Word as he received it. In that, Moses failed, and it cost him.
That should fill us with holy fear. We who claim to speak for God, we who announce good news, must take note. Yahweh's primary concern is not results, but obedience. Yahweh cares more about being quoted properly and having his Word applied correctly than about immediate effectiveness.
The staff was Moses' to use. That was the stick of authority. God told him to take it with him to the waiting assembly (20:8). He was to bring the staff into the pulpit. Moses obeyed in that (20:9). But it went from symbol to club. It changed from a divine instrument to a human weapon. Life-giving water resulted, but violence was done to the rock—and to the Word.
It is a simple thing to preach a sermon that is inspiring, but not inspired; effective, but not authentic. As we stand to speak for God, how certain we must be that we deliver the Word.
Here are five signs that a sermon does not take the text seriously.
We Give the Butter to the Baby
I watched, as the young mother left her husband in charge of their baby, and went to the restaurant restroom. "Now, don't let her get anything from the table," she said in parting.
With mom out of the room, the baby spied the nicely wrapped pats of butter and started reaching. Dad refused, and baby started to scream. A few ear-piercing seconds later, Dad handed over the butter. What wasn't eaten was squished between fingers and smeared on her hair, but things were quieter—at least until mom returned.
That is what Moses did. The people organized a resistance effort. Gathering in opposition, they "quarreled" with the leadership. This word is used in Exodus 21:18 to describe a fight that leads to a disabling injury. The crowd confronted and complained, and Moses was motivated to mollify. Their noisy demands created an urgency overriding the Word to be preached. Moses and Aaron listened to the clamor of the people over the voice of Yahweh. God's commentary on their actions was that "when the community rebelled … both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes" (Numbers 27:14).
Ben Patterson lists one of the temptations of a preacher as trying "to turn stones into bread, to give people what they want instead of what they need." The willingness to sacrifice accurate interpretation for numerical effectiveness, truth for trends, has dire consequences. When things get noisy, we must make certain we are not placating, but proclaiming. The sermon aimed at quelling the rebellion may not take seriously the real Word.
We MacGyver a Sermon
The Learning Channel is home to a show called "Junkyard Wars." Teams compete against each other in building a functional submarine or cannon or motorboat or whatever. They do it from parts they cannibalize from a junkyard. Ingeniously, teams may take the engine from a lawnmower and make an airplane.
It takes skill to use something in a way it was not intended. But it is not something to admire when it comes to preaching. It may be entertaining, even awe inspiring, but it endangers truth. Moses took a truth from one place and forced it into another. A tragic difference. God defined the misapplication as disobedience. In both Exodus 17 and Numbers 20, water was needed, and a rock was involved, but the purposes were slightly different. Exodus 17 answered the question, "Is the Lord among us or not?" This time, the issue is trusting Yahweh enough to honor him as holy in the sight of the Israelites (Numbers 20:12).
Textual misapplication is a danger in all preaching, but most especially when the preaching is topical. We can use words from Scripture but violate their meaning in context.
Don Sunukjian states that topical preaching can be truly biblical if the preacher doesn't make "a passage speak about a subject other than the one intended by the biblical writer." The only way to guard against that is to do the hard work necessary to know the context of all texts used. Otherwise, you may manipulate the text to fit your purpose.
Topical sermons may not be bad sermons, nor unbiblical. But many are MacGyvered together to accomplish what the preacher saw as true.
We Show Ears, But No Elephant
In critiquing one sermon, author Kent Edwards wrote, "The sermon is biblical in that it is true to Scripture in general. But it is not biblical in that it does not express the original scriptural author's (Paul's) main idea." This is where sermons easily go wrong. They make a point, or several, and what is said is true. But the sermon is not authentic and authoritative if that is not the point of the text. Fragments of a text can be put forward, without generating a biblical sermon, if those fragments are not true to the context. There is an ear here, or a tail there, but the elephant never makes it into the picture.
The big idea must flow demonstrably from the sermon text. Unless the authority of any point, or sermon theme, comes from the text given in support, the authority comes only from the preacher. If the word preached does not truly arise from that text, it is not the Word. The average congregant might never know the difference, but the preacher must.
In this text, Moses subtly presents himself as the authority in front of the people. He rebukes them as rebels, and says, "must we bring you water out of this rock" (Numbers 20:10)? This word for "bring" or "fetch" is causative. Moses says, "Do we have to deliver again?" "Shall we bring another rabbit out of the hat for you?"
In the 400-year-old classic book on preaching, William Perkins writes, "Interpretation is the opening up of the words and statements of Scripture in order to bring out its single, full and natural sense." An ear will not do. Our sermons carry a weightier authority when they show the whole elephant.
We Carve Away Everything That Is Not a Duck
I tried carving as a hobby—for a while. I found it increasingly difficult to carve because of the bandages. My tools were sharp and my skills dull, resulting in a plethora of incidental incisions. I looked at one log and envisioned a goose masterpiece. I created the pattern, affixed it to the block, and began to chisel. I began removing everything that didn't fit the pattern. Trapped inside was a goose longing for freedom. Then I lopped off too much. A whole goose was no longer possible. Now I saw a duck. He's still in there somewhere.
There are certain approaches to Scripture reading that make me smile and cringe simultaneously. For example, "Our text this morning is from Psalm 68, verses 1–5; 19–20; 28; 32–35." What is missing are most of the hard words. "Surely God will crush the heads of his enemies." "Plunge your feet in the blood of your foes, while the tongues of your dogs have their share." There are many pleasant words in that chapter, but they are mingled with brutal ones.
To extract the perceived nuggets from the "slag," leaves you with a different word. We cannot go to a text and strip away everything that does not fit what we want to say or feel good saying. If we present a text with no seeds, with all warts airbrushed out, sanitized for a modern congregation, then we have not taken the text seriously.
A sermon that takes a text seriously at least acknowledges elements in the text that do not fit the theme of the sermon. It accounts for, and/or deals with, all the verses in the sermon text. If we approach the text with that intent, with that openness, it will say things that we never see otherwise. Those things become uniquely powerful.
A sermon takes the text seriously when it does not come to the text with a duck pattern in hand. It is too easy for us to whittle away whatever does not fit our preconception and our nagging need. When that happens, we make the word instead of the Word making us.
We Pay Too Little Attention to the One Behind the Curtain
Scripture is God's revelation of himself, his gospel, and his will for our lives. In preaching, we pull aside the curtain to show more of him through his Word. Sermons that are all about us and little about God do not take the text seriously.
At the least, be very suspicious if week after week the big idea of your sermons don't have God in them. The preacher's task is to ask, "What does this text say to us about God?" and "How does this text impact the lives of my people?" Sometimes those two questions are not only related, they are also the same thing. But we must address them both. Moses did not. In this sermon, he failed on the God thing.
Most preachers do a good job of self-mutilation after giving a sermon. Most feel the sharp sting of people's criticism from time to time. Yet, how bad would it be to have God attack your sermon? Yahweh said, "You blew it, Moses." That must have produced the worst Monday-morning-after ever.
The failure was for the worst of all reasons. We get balled up over a poor illustration, a misspoken word, or an uninspired delivery. Moses received the most horrific of homiletic censures: "You did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites." All other failings pale in comparison. What else matters? How many times have I done the same? The sermon was effective; stuff happened; the delivery was passionate and powerful; but it wasn't the Word. God must show himself holy through the preaching. We must take the text seriously for that to happen.
Taking the Bible seriously requires that we trust God. Trust that the truth will be revealed through hard work and obedience. Trust that our courage to speak it will bring the results he desires. Trust that the Word will be relevant to the hearer, even more than the word we could construct ourselves. As Haddon Robinson says, "Something can always happen when a preacher takes God's Word seriously."
John Henry Beukema is pastor of King Street Church in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and author of Stories from God's Heart (Moody). He served as associate editor of PreachingToday.com.