Steven W. Smith is Dean of The College at Southwestern and author of Dying to Preach, winner of Preaching Today’s “Book of the Year” in 2009. He is married to Ashley. They have two daughters (Jewell and Sydney) and one son (Shepherd).
*Editor’s Note: This post is the third in Dr. Smith’s series, “Deep Preaching.”
If sinking to find the treasure is the translation of the text, surfacing is the communication of the text. We know we sank deep when we say, “I know what this text means.” We know we have surfaced when we can say, “Now I know how to say it.”
In the last post we discussed going deep enough that we know what a text means. This is the preacher’s work in the study with linguistic and exegetical tools. However, there is a danger in going deep, namely staying so long wrestling with the meaning that we never surface to find a way to say what the text means. When people hear preaching and say, “He was so deep, I didn’t understand a thing!” that is not a compliment. It probably means that the preacher did not understand the text himself. Or, perhaps he did understand it, but he stayed so long in the deep murky waters of the study, he did not surface. His problem is never being shallow, but being so deep others cannot understand him. However, when you understand something thoroughly, you are generally able to make it clear.
It goes without saying that we are not advocating shallow preaching. We are advocating going as deep as we can and then coming to the surface in time.
Preaching at its core is the translation and communication of the text. The translation works the text into our hearts; the communication works it out. There are times that we are called upon to say speak before God has spoken to us in His word. Yet there are other times that when God has spoken to us through His word, we understand it, but we have not done the necessary work to find a way to work out what God has worked in. We may gravitate toward the translation side of things because we like the time in the study. Or, we may gravitate toward the communication side of things because we enjoy the preaching moment, the thrill of engaging communication. We all have our strengths.
So when we sink deep enough to find out the meaning of the text, how do we surface in a way that people can understand the meaning?
OK, there are roughly one million things to say here which have been said in thousands of books. However, this list represents some things that I struggle with and things that I don’t think we cover well enough in formal training; so not exhaustive, just a few diving strategies that will help you surface on time.
If a preacher is not willing to bend his will to the text, then it will never live in the pulpit.This may be the hardest part of the process.When we arrive at a text of Scripture and it calls us to change something about our character, confess a sin, right a wrong, we must do so immediately.What is at stake, of course, is our own sanctification.However, what is also at stake is the sanctification of others.This is a heavy thing to bear, but it is no less true.Procrastinated repentance is the foundation on which unprepared sermons are built.Meditate on I Timothy 4:16.
2. Look for a clear structure borrowed from the text.
When we sink to see the treasure of Scripture, a structure will emerge.The structure will be based on the genre.An epistle will have the feel of a lecture or a lesson.It may even be filled with commands like the 50+ exhortations found in James.However, a sermon on an Old Testament narrative does not need points.They simply are not there.The narrative is built around the scenes of the story.A parable will have scenes that are sometimes followed with Christ commentary on the parable, so in one sermon you have narrative (the parable proper), and exhortation (Christ’s commentary on the parable).We don’t have to scramble for a structure for the sermon; we simple borrow the one provided for us by the text.The reason for this is simple: there is meaning at the structural level.So mirroring the structure is actually a part of finding the meaning.
3. Emerge with the spirit of the text in mind.
Every text of Scripture has an embedded emotional design.When we preach we are not just communicating the substance, and borrowing the structure, we are finding out what about the emotional design of the text has meaning as well.Was it the beauty of poetry, the sting of a rebuke, or the rising tension of a narrative?All of those are embedded to help us with the meaning of the text.
Phillips Brooks says that preaching is “truth through personality.”I agree with the spirit of this, but my job is not to front my personality.Rather, I can gladly borrow the personality of the Scripture that is imbedded in the genre.
4. Stop studying.
The best preachers know when to stop.They know when they are done with the exegetical process – what the text means, and can move to the communication process – how I say what it means.If God were to give you 100 hours to prepare, this would be a different sermon.But He hasn’t; you just have a few hours.In the few hours God has given you to steward, there comes a point when you are done – you just have to be wise enough to recognize when that is.
At some point you say, “I know what this text means to the best of my ability, now I have to spend time figuring out how to say it.”
One encouragement is that every text is different.Some texts demand more exegetical work and others more communication work. For example, if you are preaching the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15, you will find the meaning pretty close to the surface.You will need less time on the exegetical side.However, that parable is so well known that you will need more time trying to figure out how to say it in a fresh way.
If you are preaching the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16, you will need plenty of time on the exegetical side of things to read yourself clear in that text.The meaning of the text is not near the surface and it demands much more time in the study.
So, you sank deeply to find the treasure, you surfaced with a clear outline that reflects the structure and the spirit of the text. All that remains is to show its beauty, which is the subject of the next post.