Telling the Truth of the Ages, For the Ages
By Dr. Larry Baker
Sir, he said, “may I ask what you’re working so intently on?” The question came without notice and in an unpromising place. I did not recognize the voice. An interruption!
I was between planes, sitting in an airport terminal, dressed in jeans, a blue, pinpoint cotton shirt, and cowboy boots. Hardly any clue that I was a pastor with Sunday coming! I had some of the tools of my work with me – laptop leaning against my right leg, portfolio with a legal pad inside, an assortment of pens, and a printout of my sermon text. I had Sunday on my mind! Then came the interruption.
How would you respond? "Sure,” I said, “I'm scribbling some ideas about a sermon. I'm a pastor and Sunday's coming. I thought I would make the most of my time between flights."
An interruption? Yes, but it was more. It was also an opportunity, not only to do some teaching but also to refresh my thinking about my work as a preaching pastor. As the two of us talked, I remembered some Bible lines: "From that time on Jesus began to preach" (Matthew 4:17). Paul's question: "How can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Romans 10:14). And the apostle's instruction to Timothy: "devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching" (1 Timothy 4:13).
The preaching task is daunting. I, the preacher, am the middleman between the ancient book and contemporary people.1 Additionally, the cultural landscape is ever-shifting. Moreover, the composition of the congregation is complex and changes with each new member, each death, each change of life situation, and each move from the membership. Simply stated, the task of preaching is a matter of “telling the truth of the ages, for the ages.”
Telling the Truth of the Ages
When ministers step into the pulpit, they are “asking people to live out convictions that have been on the table for millennia,” observed William Tillman.2 The written authority for what the preacher says is the book we call The Holy Bible. “The pastor,” writes William Willimon, “is….primarily…a minister verbi divini, a servant of the Word of God.”3
Writer-preachers as diverse as Haddon Robinson,4 Leander Keck,5 Thomas Long,6 and Calvin Miller underscore the centrality of the Bible for the preaching task. Miller declares: “The Bible is indispensable for getting the God view into our sermons….Only this Book can offer our sermons the voice of God.”7
But talking about biblical preaching is far easier than doing it. When I examine varied examples of preaching, all called biblical, I observe widely different approaches. Some simply talk about the Bible or offer a running commentary on words and phrases in the text while others use the Bible to bolster religious arguments. Some use the Bible to mine principles for everyday living while others fill their sermons with Bible quotations. Some pluck a text or a story from the Bible and hang an illustration or two on it and call the sermon biblical while others simply enlist the Bible as a starting point for whatever topic they wish to address.
During the time I was writing this piece, a guest preacher spoke at our church one Sunday evening. Prior to his coming, our guest and I had discussed Sunday evening worship. I talked about the nature of the service and the usual attendance as well as the fact that our evening worshipers are typically senior adults. I talked about what I regularly do with the sermon and suggested he might do something pastoral in nature or a sermon dealing with some aspect of discipleship.
With his opening sentence, he looked at me and asked, “You haven’t preached on the floating axe head lately have you?” I said, “No,” and thought, “Never have. And probably won’t.” Then he directed us to 2 Kings 6:1-7 and launched into a sermon dealing with “Spiritual Dryness.” Before he completed his sermon, he had enumerated four actions, all of which he saw in the story, for dealing with spiritual dryness. He had not, however, shaped his sermon for his listeners and he had not dealt with the text except with passing references to words and sentences.
I report the event, not to belittle our guest but to frame our challenges and our temptations. Our challenge calls us to address real issues that hearers face; our temptation is to find a text we can “use” to say what we want to say. Our challenge is to bring the message of the Bible into contact with our hearers; our temptation is to use the Bible rather than allowing the Bible to speak to us. Our challenge is to tell the truth of the ages for the ages; our temptation is to focus on one age in the congregation, or generic listeners, and miss the range of ages in front of us.In order to preach biblically, we must hear the text. Exegesis is our first order of business. I start over with the text each time I come to it. Barbara Brown Taylor pinpointed part of the reason.
“Familiar passages accumulate meaning as I return to them again and again….I am always finding something new in them I never found before, something designed to meet me where I am at this particular moment in time.”8I start over for another reason. Although I received an excellent theological education, I now have resources that were unavailable then. Scholars have come faithfully to the Bible, explored it, and have unearthed understanding that can deepen our knowledge and enrich our preaching. I also come to the Scripture differently because life has changed me and the lenses through which I see the Bible and human experience. In 2009, I am different from who and what I was in 1979 or 1999 because the river of life has washed over me with its shaping and refining power.
I purchase new commentaries and biblical studies and read journals that help. I subscribe to ATLA Serials, an internet service of the American Theological Library Association that is designed especially for pastors and church leaders. I also use “The Text This Week,” a web site that identifies resources for the study of weekly Lectionary Texts.
Telling the Truth for the Ages
Preaching reaches back to the Bible, now millennia old. But preaching also brings what the preacher knows of “then” into the “now.” Our task, however, is more than getting from ancient times of the Old Testament or the first century of the New Testament to the twenty-first century. Our task is to get from the distant past to a particular group of twenty-first century people.
Hundreds of miles separate my first pastorate and the church I now serve. Then, I was a fledgling minister showing up on weekends in a tiny congregation housed in a modest weathered frame building in a hamlet planted in far Southwest Arkansas. Now, “my” church lives in a huge metropolitan area, has ample, modern buildings, a sizeable budget, and other ministers who serve with me. My congregation is not made up of people concerned about the price of cotton and cattle or whether they are facing crop failure. But they are concerned about the economy, paying the bills, instability and danger at home and worldwide, what’s happening with their children and grandchildren, personal health, and a long punch list of other problems. My parishioners come from thirty-two states in the USA and three countries beyond and they are multi-ethnic. The majority has come from diverse confessional backgrounds and some are new to faith even though senior adults. Those I see week by week in worship need and want the truth of the ages to help them at their particular ages and in the age which is ours.
There is more to the challenge. When we arrived, our members were senior adults, all more than fifty-five years old; today we are mostly seniors. When I look at the congregation now, I see some much younger: an 18-year-old, single mother, who cares for a two-year-old son while working and going to school; a couple in their early-twenties, he in the Air Force and she a recently certified medical technician whom I baptized; a Hispanic couple in their late 30s struggling financially while starting a business; a sprinkling of adults between the ages of forty and fifty-five, some with addictive behaviors. Children living much of the time with their grandparents are here. Other pre-seniors are here regularly. The changing face of the congregation brings additional challenges to the preaching task.
Additionally, I attempt to keep fresh the awareness that my hearers live in various stages of the human life cycle. Years ago, James Hightower, Jr., who was then working at the Baptist Sunday School Board, edited a little book with a helpful image. He entitled it Caring for Folks from Birth to Death 9 and reminded readers that people face developmental issues. When I preach, I attempt to remember that the people who join me in listening to the truth of the ages embody diverse developmental tasks. I seek to let an awareness of those issues shape what I do with the sermon.
Crafting the Timeless Timely Word
How, then, do I make the trek from start to sermon? My responses to my inquisitive fellow traveler may provide some perspective.
"How do you decide on what to preach?" he asked. I decided to use my legal pad and sketch out the answers: first, the nature of a sermon. Then, I listed some of the starting points for sermon inspiration. I showed him my Bible text and noted its central place in the sermon. I also ticked off a variety of objectives for sermons. Along with those, I identified three major ingredients of a sermon – treatment of the text, illustration, and application.
That exchange spurred other comments. "It must be hard to come up with sermons every week" – more a question than a statement. "Yes," I said, "Sunday comes every week and I'm never really away from the sermon."
When I thought he was through, he observed, “Demographics must be a part of it." "Yes, a sermon ought to take into account the congregation to which it is delivered." He wasn't through; he asked another question: "So, do you ever preach sermons you have preached before?" I answered, "Not entirely. I have to revise and rework. The two audiences are different and I must take that into account.
"Then, with a smile, he said, "Thanks!" First time I ever had a chance to ask a pastor about preaching. Interesting. Hope it goes well." And he was gone.
He left, I looked at the text again, and I returned to my sermon project. I quickly added notes. At home again, I put the pieces together – preparation I had completed before my travel, the legal pad-and-ballpoint pen process en route, additional mining once home, and the crafting of the sermon.
Sermons begin at various points for me. Usually, I begin with a biblical text, one specified by the Lectionary or one generated by a biblical book or a smaller segment through which I am preaching. On other occasions, the sermon begins with a concern generated outside the Bible.
A preacher has many tools that can help the sermon connect with the ages. A friend recently recalled one of Fred Craddock’s techniques. Every now and then Craddock would take out a blank sheet of paper and write at the top of it something like "14" or “single parent” or “just widowed” and then jot down the various images and feelings that such situations stirred in him. An exercise like this is a way of getting at preaching to the ages.
John McCallum, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas, also reminded me of two other important ways to connect with the ages. First: “The use of illustrations, images, and applications is a key to preaching to the ages.”10 Also, “We can preach to the ages as well by using specific texts for specific ages.”
McCallum is on target. Citation of authors, songs, and popular culture give evidence that we do know something of the world of the teenager or a child or a senior adult. In order to facilitate this process, I forage through a range of newspapers and magazines and I subscribe to a resource named Preaching Today. No single sermon can speak directly to every age in the congregation, but I attempt to incorporate a wide range of materials throughout the year even as I work with a wide range of texts.
We can preach to the ages as well by using specific texts for specific ages. Biographical sermons that focus on biblical characters of various ages offer one approach. Preaching to the ages might also be done through a series on the stages of life as John Claypool did first in Stages in 1977 and in Saga of Life: The Art of Living the Expected, Revised in 2003 . Additionally, special occasions such as Vacation Bible School, high school graduation, the beginning of a new school year, a series on family life, and the baptism of children offer superb opportunities for “preaching to the ages” in one’s congregation.
Preaching age-specific sermons invite folks of all ages to listen and make their own connections. With such sermons, the pastor signals understanding of and openness to all. Additionally, such sermons remind hearers that the congregation includes people of many ages who have diverse needs.
Every sermon needs a didactic element. Many hearers have limited Bible knowledge, even those with long-term involvement in the church. In order to facilitate biblical understanding, I incorporate four actions: (1) I typically separate reading of the sermon text from the sermon itself; (2) I enlist lay readers and often develop responsive readings from the text, thus involving the congregation in the reading of the text; (3) I print the location of the text in the Pew Bible and encourage hearers to follow as the text is read; and (4) I design part of the sermon to expand our biblical understanding.
A recent sermon on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 illustrates. I contended, “The word talent once did not mean what we mean when we say ‘talent.’ It simply meant a unit of measurement, the highest one that existed in the ancient world.”
I reported, “Along the way, people began to use the meaning of our word ‘talent’ to understand this story. We said ‘talents’ refer to non-monetary things given by God that we must use to God’s glory and not allow to waste away. We have said its message is akin to the message sounded in ‘Spiderman’ when Peter Parker’s uncle says, to him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I continued, “I believe that statement is true. But I also believe that is not what Jesus is saying.” I went on to say, “The master in the story entrusts his property to his servants. Don’t miss that detail! This parable is about how you and I are, or are not, investing ourselves in the gospel entrusted to us. The parable is about how you and I are to live until Christ’s return.”
Some years ago, I began to use a sermon worksheet from a now-unremembered source. With it, I work, either carefully or casually, through a process that touches on seven concerns. The worksheet is divided into the seven areas with space allotted for brief notes for each.
•Exposition: I look carefully at the text.
•Diagnosis. The sermon will do business with men and women like these. I think about people – some whom I see regularly in worship and others who are present occasionally. I think of people I have encountered throughout the week in shops, hospitals, restaurants, and recreational facilities. Although I do not walk the streets and observe people as Harry Emerson Fosdick did in New York, I do watch and listen to people between Sundays. While my parents taught me that eavesdropping is impolite, I find it almost impossible not to listen to conversations of others around me. And I make notes, sometimes written and often mental, about this range of people.
•Prescription. I identify something of what the gospel might bring these people. I will identify some facets of healing or growth that might emerge from the text for the hearers.•Experience: personal reflection. I ask, “How does the text speak to me? How does the text speak for me?” I believe I must face up to and wrestle with the Scripture personally if I am to present its message honestly to the hearers around me on Sunday. Sometimes, the sermon will include directly some of what I have identified in personal reflection.
•Program. I identify some specific desired outcomes in the lives of the people – “handles on the truth” that listeners can take with them.•Purpose. I state the sermon objective: to instruct, to convince, or to appeal for specific action.
•Proposition. I state the whole sermon idea in a single sentence, in one central affirmation.
As we plan for a particular Sunday and its worship service, our minister of music and I plan largely in light of the sermon text and emphasis. We see the components of the service as partners in the worship experience.
Recently, during morning worship, I baptized the twenty-something medical technician whom I referenced earlier in this article. For that service, I chose to preach on the baptism of Jesus as reported in Matthew 3:13-17. In a segment of the service entitled “The Celebration of Christian Baptism,” we included a responsive reading that included the sermon text; Matthew 28:18-19; Acts 2:1, 14, 21, 41; Acts 8:12; and Romans 6:3-4.
I opened the sermon with the statement, “Some journeys are short, but powerfully significant.”
I continued, “We walk a few feet down an aisle, stand before a minister, and link our lives – for better or worse – with another. We ride a few hundred feet from a hospital room to an operating room for surgery; for good or ill, life is never the same again.”
Then I expanded the pictures: “A high school graduate drives from his neighborhood to the central city and enlists in the Air Force. A couple sells the condo they have lived in for two decades and moves into an assisted living unit a few miles away. Parents leave their firstborn in the hands of teachers on the first day of school. A family’s youngest daughter moves into a college dorm in a nearby city.” In some measure, all of us were included in those snapshots.
I continued, “Those are short journeys, in terms of distance, but they are significant in terms of life. Such short journeys are turning points in our stories. Because of them, life can never be the same again.”
Then I connected with the text: “Matthew lets us see such an event in Jesus’ life. Each of the three Gospels recount the event and, interestingly, they report rather matter-of-factly. ‘Then Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”’Near the end of the sermon, I said, “Jesus’ baptism and ours are both defining moments!” I continued, “Think of it! Our baptism is a witness to God’s grace. Our baptism is a sign of who we are. Our baptism is a witness to the life we are privileged to live. Defining moments like baptism have great power.”
I recounted that “Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, would mumble three words repeatedly when he faced a great temptation or a terrible challenge. Those around him would hear him say, ‘I am baptized. I am baptized. I am baptized.’ Those words helped him understand where he stood, who stood with him, and how to stand.”
I urged believers to “Reach back, now, to your baptism. Be renewed by the reminder of God’s grace. Be strengthened by the assurance of your identity as God’s child. Be challenged by the life you are privileged to live. Now, live your life like a baptized person – like a “child of the King.”
I spoke also to those who are not yet believers. “Some of you may need to let Jesus’ baptism and Andrea’s baptism speak to you. Do you remember my words following Andrea’s baptism? “The One who has called me to baptize Andrea has called me to announce to you that there is room in these waters for yet others. There is room in these waters for you’” Conclusion
Simply stated, “Preaching is the process of telling the truth of the ages, for the ages.” The statement, not the process, is simple. I know. I also remember some words of my preaching professor: “Larry, no one’s up to the task. But, when you’re called, you dare not shrink from it.” I know something else: God does use our words to help people hear God.Dr. Nathan Larry Baker lives in Sun City West, Arizona, where he has served as pastor of First Baptist Church since November 1997. Baker, a native of Louisiana, earned the ThD at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. In addition to seminary teaching and denominational leadership roles, Baker has also served as pastor of churches in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
1 Sidney Greidanus. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing House, 1988.
2 William Tillman, Personal Letter, August 28, 2008.
3 William H. Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 142.
4 Haddon W. Robinson. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980.
5 Leander E. Keck. The Bible in the Pulpit: The Renewal of Biblical Preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978.
6 Thomas Long. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.
7 Calvin Miller, Spirit, Word, and Story (Dallas: Word Publishing Company, 1989), 81.
8 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), 55.
9 James E. Hightower, Jr. Caring for Folks from Birth to Death. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985.
10 John Scott McCallum II, Personal Letter, November 24, 2008.