10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 2

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “This is a beautiful and compelling truth; now how does it apply to our everyday lives?” I would be a rich man.

Not that trying to figure that out is a bad thing. When, for instance, groups of friends get together to discuss the Bible or theology, one expects such questions to arise naturally–it’s all part and parcel of trying to understand how our lives are implicated by what the Scripture commends.

BUT.

When I hear preachers, especially in their sermons, ask that question: “Now how does this apply to our everyday lives?” I want to run out of the building screaming. I once told my staff that if they ever–EVER–heard me say such a thing in one of my messages, they should shoot me on the spot. An aggressive bit of hyperbolizing, no doubt, but my seriousness was sincere. And here’s why: to ask that question is to totally misunderstand the nature of God, the world he loves, and the good news the Church tirelessly proclaims.

For underneath that question is a sort of Enlightenment, dualistic mentality most aptly stated by the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, who several hundred years ago said this:

Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason…That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.

In other words: there is an uncrossable chasm between the vicissitudes of history and the so-called “necessary truths of reason”–the things that all people, everywhere, must necessarily believe.

I hear Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch” at work in the “how does this apply to our everyday lives” question–it seems that we also are operating under the assumption that what the Bible and theology are MAINLY doing are describing some ethereal, pure, spiritual world, which here and there, you know, sometimes touches our material, impure, unspiritual world, and that it is the job (and man, it is a hard job!) of the preacher to try to bridge the gap in their preaching.

HOGWASH I SAY!

The thing that one immediately notices when reading the biblical text is that it has almost no interest in disembodied “truths” about God. Instead, it thrusts us right from the outset into the welter of life–“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” This is no abstracting discussion about divine impassibility or omnipotence, but a narrative in which we will see how the glory of God, indeed the designs and purposes of God, are made manifest in space and time. This total lack of interest in abstractions is carried straight through the entirety of the narrative, where all of life is seen to be the arena of Yahweh’s interest and power. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing to note the level of interest Yahweh takes in human life. I laugh every time I read through Deuteronomy 23 and the instructions regarding what to do, for instance, with one’s excrement. A very routine and ordinary task is given a theological dimension: “so that Yahweh will not see anything indecent among you and be displeased…” HA. And on and on like this it goes… power, money, sexuality, joy, pain, children, disillusionment, eating and drinking… all of it is brought underneath the gaze of our loving God.

And of course, ever since the Everlasting One became a man, the Lessonian ditch has been completely destroyed. In the God-Man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature, ideas and history, have been indissolubly wed. The truth that is made manifest in Jesus our Lord is forever about the lives we all live, in all of their beauty and grit and complexity, before the face of our Lord and Maker. Nothing is excluded.

This talk of “applying truth to our everyday lives” can really only exist in an environment in which it is assumed that there is an ugly world of materiality that God has come to save us from and into a pure and blissful world of disembodied spirituality that we will live forever in. But man… seriously… the resurrected Christ, according to the Gospel, asked for a piece of fish and ate it in the presence of his disciples. This is what resurrected existence looks like–it includes and dignifies every bit of ordinary life, even as it transcends it, as the cube includes and transcends the square. It does not leave it behind. Neither should our preaching.

That is at the heart of my frustration. It is a misunderstanding of how this whole thing works, which thankfully scholars are beginning to see on all kinds of levels. I’m reminded of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” debates, in which questions of the venerable Reformation doctrine of justification by faith are set within the important socio-cultural questions of the 1st century, in which Jews and Gentiles in the church are trying to figure out who gets to have table fellowship, and under what circumstances. This is about life, folks!!!

Not, of course, that it’s always obvious just how our lives are implicated by this or that bit of biblical text. Some texts (one thinks immediately of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) make it easy. Others (like, say, the first chapter of Hebrews) take a bit of work. But if one starts with the assumption that this is about life, you usually won’t go too far astray, and your preaching will take on BOTH a theological/biblical depth AND a poignancy vis a vis “real life” that it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There are at least two implications I can think of that come out of this:

First, if you begin to think this way, you’ll approach your preparation differently. Instead of trying to figure out the theological meaning first and then going onto to its practical application (again, think Lessing here), you’ll probably find yourself asking about meaning and life concurrently. I remember years ago doing a series on an utterly ethereal book, Ecclesiastes, and during my study, every single time I felt like the passage in question threw light on something (anything) or reminded me of something (anything), I would write it down in the margin of my notes. A story, a memory, a quote, something that happened with my kids recently, something I saw in the news… I mean whatever. And the funny thing was, the more I wrote those things down, the more energy my biblical and theological study gained. Pretty soon, as I crossed effortlessly between the world of Scripture and my own world, I stopped seeing them as separate worlds altogether, and suddenly the connections started to flow. We weren’t talking about the Bible anymore, with “life” over here on the other side… we were talking about all of it, together, under the gaze of God.

Secondly, if you begin to think this way, you will probably stop privileging “propositional” content over “narrative” or “personal” content in your messages. Again, such a privileging is Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” at work. I am under the impression that most of our formal training for preachers, especially that given in traditions committed to the authority of Scripture, operates under the assumption that the most important thing for the preacher to do is simply explain or announce the disembodied “truth” at work in the passage, and then use a personal story here and there to “apply” the truth or make it more personal. I understand that, but also think it’s bad form insofar as it obscures the truth that, again, the gospel is already-always, first-and-foremost, about the actual lives we live before the face of God. So a steady dose of narrative is not mere adornment. It is in fact the place where the glory of God shines through in great depth and clarity. When we begin to talk about our marriages, our kids, our neighbors, our jobs, relationships, ISIS, police brutality, hunting, fishing, coffee, and country music… we are talking about the very things that God in Christ came to save from eternal degradation. We SHOULD be talking about these things, stringing them together in tiny narratives that open windows to eternity. After all, by and large the Scripture itself is a narrative. Not a disembodied announcement of God’s love, but a gracious and soul-stirring “Once upon a time” that invites our little lives into the grandeur of God’s story, dignifying and transforming every little “once upon a time” that gets pulled up into its sweep.

All of this helps address, I believe, the concern raised by one reader last week who said:

I ideally desire practical application from the passages I pick/am asked to preach on. Sometimes [I find myself] running into incredible frustrations when the applications don’t seem very life changing to me, but more so a biblical lecture increasing head knowledge.

If you approach preaching in the way I’m recommending, this frustration will start to dissipate. For there will be less and less “how does this apply?” going on in your preparation–a question, again, assuming that there is “truth over there” and “our lives over here” that only meet once in a great while. Such an assumption is totally false. We are not trying to “fit” God or his truth into our lives. For when God became man, we were forever barred from trying to figure out how we are going to fit God into our lives. God has “fit us” into his life. Every bit of our finitude is radiant with divine splendor, if we have eyes to see it.

(If you’re in the Boulder, Denver, or COS area, you should join me for this–http://www.denverseminary.edu/resources/initiatives/preaching-cluster-groups/. I’ll be leading one. Really reasonable rates. Let’s learn to preach better, together!)

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3 thoughts on “10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 2

  1. Andrew, I have to say I don’t really get it. Are you saying that we don’t need to ask the question, “how does this apply” because all of scripture applies to our lives? So that if we’re going about our preaching correctly this whole “application thing” its going to happen anyway?

    I mean, don’t you think that the people asking those questions already agree with you? Don’t they agree that, all of scripture is about us, that all of scripture opens our eyes to the truth?

    The problem is that the average person who picks up the bible will very often struggle to see that new reality you’re speaking to. The bible is tough man! I hate to be critical, but do you think you might be suffering from a kind of “expert blindness?” Your so close to the text all the time as a preacher you see this resurrection truth in neon letters wherever you go. But for the average person the bible doesn’t do that. And so as preachers we need to ask: “what does this mean for them.”

    I don’t know, like I said, maybe I’m not getting it.

    That aside, I love the series. I’ll finish them all. (also I know I’m a bit late on this, so I may never hear back from you)

    Thanks!
    Robby Cella

    • Hey Robby! Thanks for chiming in… I agree with all you are saying… the thing to keep in mind is that this post is not written for the layperson but for the preacher… if the preacher is constantly struggling with the question of “how does this apply to everyday life”, then I am suggesting that the PREACHER understands the Bible and his/her task wrongly… and chances are their preaching is going to reflect it… a lot of Biblical or theological theorizing followed up by a somewhat mechanical “application” on the end… I think it can be better than that… if we see the Bible as already always speaking not to the ethereal realm above our heads but to the glory made manifest in our midst… of course, the point of this is that if the preacher does a good job with showing how “this is about life”, it will go a long long long way towards helping the layperson see the Bible in the same way. Tell me if that makes sense.

      • Actually, yeah, that does make more sense. And I think I see where you’re coming from. The bible isn’t just some dry tome full of propositions and rules for life waiting to be extrapolated, instead, its living, active and revelatory. I just think you and the person asking, “how does this apply” are both wanting the same thing. I don’t know. But, a mechanical approach is no bueno, so I’ll agree with you on that one without hesitation.

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