I wrote these words at the conclusion of an essay on preaching for ACU Press book, Preaching Romans, 2002. It's my take on the whole issue of relevance, and it begins with an assumption about the gospel. The gospel is fundamentally the announcement of a dramatic turn of the ages. As Paul says, Christians are those "upon whom the end of the ages has fallen" (1 Cor 10). Richard Hays suggests that "Paul believes himself, along with his churches, to stand in a privileged moment in which the clutter of past texts and experiences assumes a configuration of eschatological significance" (Echoes of Scripture in Paul, 161). Paul assumes a "nearness" in Scripture, an immediacy given the inauguration of a new age initiated by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One way to say this is that Paul doesn't read Scripture as addressed to a historically distant "them," but to an eschatologically privileged "us." Again, 1 Cor 10, "These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down for us, on whom the end of the ages has fallen." I try to think of the sermon in the same way. In the sermon, by virtue of the gospel, Romans is not a word primarily for a distant "them" that we overhear, but a word to us. My job, in other words, is to assume relevance, not to make the text relevant.
This would again make my former professors of preaching faint. We were taught to think of the sermon as a bridge that connected what the word meant to the original audience to what the word means to contemporary hearers. I understand this impulse. It keeps the text in a position of primacy before we let our current notions slip into the potion of the sermon. And I certainly value the work of historical critics who have illumined the setting of so much of Scripture. I don't want to do away with this sensibility. I want to temper it, put it within a larger theological context.
There are several deficits built into a bridge theory of the sermon. Again, the bridge assumes that the biggest thing to overcome in the sermon is a historical chasm between the world that produced the text and ours. The way to overcome this is to isolate the original intention of the author through exegetical method, distill the text into some universal point or principle, and walk the point across the bridge by way of analogy and make the point contemporary through illustration and application. I will mention just two weaknesses of this approach here (if I can restrain myself).
First, the historical gap is not the only one that stands between the reader and the text, and it may not be the most significant. Ancient preachers and theologians knew well the historical spread between them and the text, but felt that this gap paled in comparison to the spiritual one that exists between text and proclaimer. The historical-critical method when applied to preaching tends to bracket these matters or hold them only to the final, secondary matters of sermon preparation. It was never suggested to me that I approach the text with any other question than "what did this mean to the original audience." (Forget for a minute the hermeneutical nightmare associated with that question). No one ever suggested to me that lectio-divina or other readings strategies might address far more significant gaps than the historical one.
Second, the text gets left behind in the sermon. The text too often is treated in the sermon as a historical artifact to be explained. The preacher and the listeners stand at a far distance from the text and observe it as visitors. Like zoo patrons, we plug a quarter into the machine and listen to an explanation of the text's original habitat at a safe distance. The text is trapped in the past tense. I have had students track when they feel most engaged with a sermon. It nearly always relates to direct address, present tense speech. The bridge theory of the sermon keeps the text in sepia tones, while the contemporary illustrations and stories are in vivid color. This is a crying shame given the dynamic range of much of Scripture. We're trading inspired writ for football illustrations.
OK, so I'm trying to move past a bridge theory of the sermon, and this is a theological move for me (more on this later), but for now a few implications for the sermon.
I assume relevance. This text has something to say, even in all of its strangeness (perhaps because of it), to all of us upon whom the end of the ages has fallen.
I preach as much as possible in the present tense. I prefer "Paul says..." to "Paul said to the Corinthians..." This is an instinct, not a law.
I frame the sermon with the language and images of the text, and I nearly always begin with the text. I can't tell you how many sermons I hear these days that begin with something other than the text. And because sermons, good ones at least, seek a certain symmetry, they tend to end where they begin. The illustrations dominate the imagination of the sermon.
I blend worlds as often as possible. One of my favorite comments about my preaching came from a friend who observed that there's a certain seamlessness between text and occasion. The sermon doesn't jerk you back and forth from one world to another. Narrate the text with a contemporary allusion. Talk about our world in the language and cadences of the text. Because of this instinct, I prefer echoes and allusions to full-blown stories and illustrations. I'm trying to open the imaginative landscape of the sermon, not close it down with one or two dominating images.
I know this post has likely raised as many issues as settled them. Which is the great thing about a blog. More to come.