I love preaching. It darn near kills me, but I love it.
In trying to be a better preacher, I am thinking more intently and prayerfully about the practice and theology of this curious, holy, frightful, and joyful discipline.
One of the temptations I have found in sermon preparation is that of providing a full explanation of the text (or topic) at hand. Most of my preaching is “expositional” (meaning that I am working with a specific passage of Scripture). This means that my material is helpfully confined within the set parameters of the text. If I preach a “topical” sermon, the parameters are usually much broader: if I am addressing the issue of “money and possessions,” for instance, I feel pressured to exhaust the “whole counsel of God” on the topic found in the Bible. An impossible demand for one preacher and one sermon.
It is also impossible to exhaust the richness and depth of just one text, no matter the set parameter of verses.
I think I used to operate under the idea that preaching is ultimately didactic, that exposition is ultimately explanation. My idea of a good sermon was that it had to exhaust the meaning of a text and supply a comprehensive explanation of its entire meaning.
Preaching is certainly didactic (meaning that a sermon teaches something). Preaching is certainly explanatory. But in a Christian framework, teaching and explanation never result in the intellectual mastering of the subject matter. This is because the Subject Matter of a Christian sermon is the Triune God. And our Triune God cannot be fully explained; he always exceeds our didactic (teaching) capabilities. He cannot and will not be mastered… intellectually, or in any other way.
A sermon must ultimately present the Triune God of the text. Preaching is a revelatory means of God’s self-presentation through a mortal voice. So it is okay if a sermon leads more readily into worship than into intellectual understanding. It is okay if the sermon mystifies more than it explains.
Now, if you know me at all or follow this blog even a little, you know I am not interested in promoting any sort of anti-intellectualism or encouraging a mystical, gnostic conception of faith absent of rigorous theological thinking and vigorous ethical living. Sermons should certainly explain and enrich intellectual understanding.
But with that disclaimer, let me say it again: it is okay if a sermon leads more readily into worship than into intellectual understanding; it is okay if the sermon mystifies more than it explains.
In fact, a sermon that fully exhausts and entirely explains a text (or at least presumes to do so) may actually be a failure.
This is because such preaching may give the congregation a false sense that they have now mastered a passage, that they can tick it off as “done” and then move on to master other texts. A sermon that presumes to explain an entire biblical passage (or topic, as the case may be) teaches something dangerous: that our sacred Scriptures are a repository of limited knowledge that can be sufficiently grasped and mastered by mortals.
What a disastrous idea.
And what an awful message for a sermon to convey.