The congregation waits expectantly as the preacher mounts the pulpit. Pens and notepads are out as people are eager to hear God’s word for the day. How things proceed from here on out is either a matter of convention or style. One thing however that is always said before the message begins is the title of the sermon.
I confess I am not much of a note writer in church. I marvel at how people are able to sometimes write pages upon pages of notes. Perhaps it is a habit that people in my part of the world have carried over from Sunday school (makes me wonder if I was really paying attention back then.) One thing I always wonder is whether people actually go over their notes. Whenever I take sidelong glances I never see anything new scribbled next to the previous weeks notes. (I am not trying to justify myself here by saying even those who do take notes don’t do anything with them.) As I was pondering over our modern homiletic I began to wonder what giving a sermon was like in Jesus’ day. I am no expert here but it is quite obvious rhetoric in the Bible is very different from what it is today.
When I read the sermons in the Book of Acts I was very much struck by how it doesn’t look like a sermon, or at least, our modern conception of one. They traced the history of the Hebrew people and referenced the Scriptures which made up the body of the address and they would draw some conclusion or lesson from it at the end. Even in speaking to a thoroughly Gentile audience the position of history in the message was central and certain techniques Paul used among his countrymen were present albeit altered to fit the audience. If we are going to have biblical Christianity is it not time we learnt from the master preachers themselves?
I am by no means saying that there is a one size fits all method of preaching. The Bible itself shows from Acts 17 and many other places you need to be able to communicate within the cultural paradigm. One of the reasons why we have difficulties with understanding the Bible today is that we translate words but we are unable to translate the culture.
Some will then say learning how to preach, even from the Bible, will stifle the work of the Holy Spirit in inspiring messages. For one we must not have a caricature of the leading of the Spirit as always some wild, weird, nonsensical act. The authors or (narrators as I like to think of them) of the Scriptures used the vocabulary and grammar available to them to communicate with their audience. (Your vocabulary didn’t expand because you were a prophet!) We do not deny they were led by the Spirit but God used what they had to speak to people in the same society. As Yahweh told Ezekiel, ‘I am not sending you to a foreign country, with a strange language but to your own people.’ (Ezekiel 3:4-6.)
Whether it is writing, speaking or even acting something out to an audience what is communicated is structured. Understanding how they delivered messages then, that is, the structure of the delivery, will help us better understand the nature of the message. For example when watching some drama of some kind, whether theatre or cinema, it is divided into acts by which the plot is executed. The opening act usually introduces the main character. Later acts will establish the dilemma or problem they have to resolve and in the final act we have the resolution of the problem. This way of telling stories is so hardwired into us (at least if you love Western cinema) that we automatically understand things in that way. If someone uses a different mode of storytelling from another culture it would be difficult to understand. I believe we all (myself included) need training to better understand the biblical text before we impose or unduly modify it to fit our cultural perspectives.
With all these things in mind there is one character in the Bible I would really love to get inside his head. As intriguing as Paul is the person who I’d love to interview from the Bible is Jesus. If there was one sermon I would love to hear live, in all the Bible, it is the sermon Jesus gave to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Luke records that Jesus explained everything in the Scriptures concerning himself to the two (Luke 24:25-27.) Wow! It has been my long term goal to have a comprehensive, holistic understanding of the Scriptures. That incident would have been a dream come true for me.
The person I have had most difficulty in understanding in the Bible is Jesus himself. I would sometimes just read a Gospel account like Luke’s or sometimes John’s, and I would leave the text quite confused. It all seemed like disjointed snapshots from Jesus’ life. He’ll heal here, utter a parable there, chide his disciples at another place, go to this town or to that person’s house. The only time the narrative seemed smooth and consistent is at the Passion. Things slowly began to change one day as I attempted Mark at a sitting. Something had caught my attention and I could not move beyond chapter one verse one.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God – Mark 1:1 ESV
I always had thought of the Gospel as the way people preached or explained it. The Gospel for me was the fairly short message you give to a sinner to get saved. Mark obviously had a different view of the Gospel (for one it isn’t short.) To him it seemed like the Gospel was a story that began at specific historical time and place, with historical people. Furthermore, according to him the Gospel was the story of Jesus. If that was the case the various events he recorded were not random but had a purpose. What Jesus said mattered as much as what he did. So what was this Gospel that Jesus preached?
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” – Mark 1:14-15 ESV
The Gospel Jesus preached was the Kingdom of God is near. As I began searching the Kingdom of God (Matthew prefers to use the Kingdom of Heaven but it’s the same thing) I realised it occupied a very important place in the Gospels, more obviously in the synoptic tradition. Even in John the Kingdom of God plays a very important role even though the explicit phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ is never used.
I began with sermon titles because they tell you what to expect to be addressed in the message. In biblical times I doubt they began with an explicit title, theme or topic to be addressed before they delivered the message. I have noticed in reading any book of the Bible the introduction is very important. Chapter one sets you up to appreciate everything else in the text. Similarly, Mark explains to us that everything that Jesus did and said, recorded in his book, concerned the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not really preach a series of sermons or different topics as we are used to from the pulpit nowadays. Jesus essentially preached and taught only one message: the Kingdom of God. I am not saying Jesus’ messages were uni-dimensional or lacked depth but rather it was focused on one thing, the coming Kingdom of God. If Jesus was a pastor at a your church, all you would hear him talk about, whether it is on Sunday morning, the Tuesday Bible study or the Friday prayer meeting, would be about the Kingdom. The scriptures tell us exactly that!
And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction – Matthew 9:35 ESV
Not only that, he told his apostles to do exactly the same thing.
And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere – Luke 9:1-2, 6 ESV
I do not know how a modern congregation would react to a pastor where you always knew the topic of his sermon before he even mounts the pulpit. People today like ‘dynamic’ preachers, we simply can’t stand repetition. Repetition is not something that the New Testament authors worried about at all. They believed essential truths need to be repeated (1 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Peter 3:1; Jude 5.) The biblical Gospels do mention other things but the focus is on the Good News of the Kingdom.
I am not fond of giving wholesale remarks to explain the current state of the Church. With this issue however I must point out, modern Christianity is not Kingdom focused or minded as the Bible portrays. The very name ‘dominion theology’ conjures up images of some very strange teachings with a political agenda and/or materialistic propaganda. Whatever abuses, excesses or even under emphases there have been it is not too late for us to get back on track. (God willing, I hope to explore this theme of the Kingdom much more in subsequent posts.)
Jesus taught his disciples to pray, ‘Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ This is the very heartbeat of Jesus. It’s time for the Church to rediscover this precious truth and be in harmony with the very will of God.