We need more than mere explanation

I wonder what aspect of sermon preparation and/or preaching you tend to find the hardest? I wonder what most preachers find the most difficult bit? Assuming you have prayed about it beforehand, you pick up your Bible to read the allotted passage – what is the hardest bit from there for you?

In my experience (and I think, based on conversations I’ve had with other ministers, many feel similarly), the hardest part is not really understanding what a passage means. After all, we believe in the perspicuity of scripture and reckon that there is an understandability to what is written there. I appreciate this isn’t absolutely always the case, but more often than not, even where we may have questions about the details, the broad brushstrokes aren’t so hard to discern. Give most pastors a passage to read and then ask them broadly what is going on, they could give you a reasonable stab at it fairly quickly. And, of course, we can all check our working with the plethora of commentaries available to us and see if someone, somewhere has recognised that what we think it’s saying is at least a potentially credible understanding.

Understanding what is going on in the text is not generally the most difficult issue. I think for many of us, there are two (related) things that are far harder. First, taking our understanding of the text and making our understanding understood by, and interesting to, those listening. Second, applying our understanding of the the text to the lives of those listening. We might lump both those things together as taking our understanding of the text and making it preachable; that is, understandable, cogently structured, interesting and well applied. That is what I think is hard. The main thrust of much of the Bible is clear enough, but taking what we understand it to be saying and turning it into something preachable – something that will be understood by our people and well applied to their lives – is much harder.

I am minded to believe that the main thrust of most passages of the Bible is readily understandable. Granted, some portions are more complicated than others. But if you read a whole Psalm, or a few chapters of narrative, or a section of a NT letter, I’m not suggesting you won’t have questions about the details, but you probably will discern the overall thrust. If that is true, I am minded to believe that the Holy Spirit dwelling in the hearts of our church members probably makes that broadly true for them too.

Which begs another question? If we believe in the perspicuity of scripture, and we find the main thrust of a passage to be the easier part of sermon preparation, why do so many of us still persist with 25-minutes of Bible explanation and tag on 5-minutes of application at the end of the sermon? If we get the gist of a passage quickly enough, shouldn’t we spend more time applying the passage specifically to the lives of the people in front of us?

Let me put it this way. If you spend 25-minutes explaining the passage you have just read to people who have read it along with you, what have you given them that they couldn’t get from any entry-level commentary (some of which they probably have and you more than likely consulted in order to write your sermon)? What have you uniquely done for those who have come to listen to you preach? You may have explained the passage to them, though many of them would read the passage and alight on your explanation themselves. If they didn’t, as I say, they could read a few books and commentaries and come to it that way. Assuming that they won’t do that, you might possibly have squared off some of the details that they might not have considered. But is that the ultimate task of the pastor-teacher? What are we doing there that a commentary or seminary professor couldn’t do for them?

Where more of us struggle is in knowing how to apply those truths – that are often clear enough – to our lives. Where we struggle is in challenging ourselves because we are creatures who like to avoid being challenged to change – we are self-justifiers by nature. Which surely means that the explanation of the passage – necessary as it is – ought not to dominate every moment of the sermon but should give way to meaningful, specific application to the lives of the people listening. Essentially, our task is not to merely ‘explain the Bible’ but to apply it to the lives of our listeners. We don’t just give people counsel, but counsel them through the Word. We don’t just explain to people what the Bible says, but through our teaching, we apply it to them and call them to change and grow up to maturity in Christ.

That, of course, isn’t to say we shouldn’t explain the passage. Application without any explanation of where it came from is just good advice, isn’t it? We ultimately need to show what the passage says, so that we can show what it means for us. But so often we just don’t move beyond explanation. We restate what has already been read out and we expect the Holy Spirit to apply it entirely apart from our doing that work. Exposition is really important, but it needs to be applied.

But, of course, doing that takes work. We have to think through the situations our people are facing. We have to think how the truths of the passage we have open affect the lives of the people listening. I am minded to think that the reason we so often get 25-minute explanations of what we have already read, with a tiny (and broad) gospel application tacked onto the end, is because that is really the easy bit. We can restate the text without too much work. Turning it into something that people will both understand and know what to do with as they head to work, the job centre, on a Monday morning is an altogether different issue.