Monologue on exegetical preaching

Digging up some old notes from a class I no longer teach, I found this little introduction to a lecture about exegesis. It is an exhortation to prospective preachers on the importance of their task and the necessity that they remember that they’re not celebrities.

The Preacher’s Profile

Dear Preacher,

I encourage you to look in the mirror each morning and tell yourself two things:

You are boring.

You are not funny.

If you were a philosopher, motivator or an entertainer, how many people would come willingly to hear you speak? For most of us: about zero. Given that this is true, how fair is it of you to imagine that the audience is there to hear you, when they are clearly only there because they feel they have to be? Because you have a captive audience who believes that it is God’s command that they are there, they will sit through almost any garbage you can throw at them, and they’ll appreciate it no end when you make your speech more tolerable for them through anecdotes and jokes. Their appreciation – the fact that they laugh so hard when you say something lame about sports – might delude you into thinking that you are a treat to listen to. No; you are boring and you are not funny, and the longer you remember that, the better. You are to resist the temptation to make yourself a minor Sunday-morning celebrity. The only thing that makes you valuable up front of the church on a Sunday is that you have been tasked with the awesome responsibility of speaking God’s words.

You are boring. The Bible is not.

I get so disappointed when I go to church, and the preacher never goes any deeper than what this or that verse very obviously says on the surface. The passage says something about God’s love, and so the preacher starts talking about four kinds of love, including an anecdote here, an illustration there, a neat application etc. Boring sermons are criminal, NOT because we should be interesting, but because the bible IS interesting. It’s deep and inspiring and challenging and surprising. It is God speaking to us. We believe that God has spoken in his Word, and that the text therefore says the most important things in the world. How can that be boring?

Exegesis is like digging a mine. Digging is hard work and it’s time-consuming. We don’t do it because we like holes, but because we expect to find gold. If you haven’t laboured to understand why God had a passage preserved for you for millennia, and if you haven’t seen the surprises and challenges in the text, and if you haven’t been excited by what God says, you can bet that almost no one else will be.

Being orthodox is extremely important, but not saying anything wrong is not the same as saying something right. You can be not wrong without ever preaching an expositional sermon. To exegete a text requires that you actually listen to what the text is saying. It means scratching beneath the surface. It means asking ‘why?’ all the time.

Consider James 3:14-15. You can preach that text unthinkingly: ‘Envy and bitterness are bad. Got it.’ And you’ll never need to ask yourself why James has to point out to his reader the massively obvious fact that envy and selfishness are not wisdom from heaven! Why am I not surprised by something that the author expects that I’ll find surprising?

I am certainly guilty of expecting the Bible to be all religious and austere, and so will your congregation. When we expect it to be boring and conservative, we don’t really notice that it contains humour and irony and hyperbole. You don’t notice that Paul is including a bad joke about Cretans in Titus, or that the story in Judges about Micah’s idols is supposed to be a farce. You notice those things when you ask ‘why?’.

So, all this hard labour aims at clarifying what God has said, so that when you stand up in front of your audience, you can speak God’s words — the most important words in the world — instead of trying to make your generic theologisms more interesting by being a Sunday morning entertainer.