On March 6-7 I had the opportunity to preach at First Evangelical Free Church in Rockford, IL for the spring missions conference. The title of the sermon is “In the Mi(d)st of Reality” and is from Isaiah 46 (same as in Davis a few weeks ago). I was able to get an audio file from Rockford and have embedded the sermon presentation with the sermon audio below.
You can also right click on this sermon link and select “save link as…” to download just the audio (mp3) file.
Just for fun: In the text below see if you can find a section where there’s an A-B-C-D-E-E’-D’-C’-B’-A’ chiasm. That is, sentence A is parallel to (it’s formed like) sentence A’, sentence B is formed like B’, etc. If you get it, let me know in the comments.
Homiletics is what they call the classes you take in seminary that are supposed to teach you how to preach. The worst grade I got in my seminary experience came in one of my preaching courses. It was a completely different letter than any other grade I’d received in seminary. Unfortunately, of the three preaching courses I took that grade was the one that most reflected my actual preaching ability.
In a different preaching class I remember the time of evaluation after I delivered my Old Testament sermon. Classmates offered their comments and then the professor got up from his seat in the back of the room and moved to the front to offer his comments. As he was walking to the front he said, “Todd, what kind of ministry do you think you’ll be doing when you finish seminary?” I replied, “My wife and I are missionaries in Slovakia and I hope to eventually teach at the seminary there.” To which he enthusiastically responded, “That’s great. Wonderful. It’s obvious, Todd, that you’re a very gifted teacher.”
Figure and Ground
When you look at a picture the first thing you notice is naturally the figures that are drawn or painted. What you rarely notice is the space between those figures. That space is called the ground. Every picture has both figure and ground. Usually there’s nothing in the ground. In a way, though, it’s the outline of the ground that creates the figure. And sometimes the outline of the figure creates not just ground, but another figure. M. C. Escher is especially well known for these kinds of drawings and there are some optical illusions that use a similar motif. In the picture below called “Sun and Moon” it’s difficult to tell which is figure and which is ground. Is this a picture of blue birds flying in a bright, sunlit sky or white birds flying in a dark, moonlit sky? In this picture the figure creates the outline for the ground, which itself is a figure, which creates the outline for its ground, which is the first figure.
When my professor said to me, “You’re obviously a gifted teacher,” the outline of his message shaped a second, more important message–“You’ve got a ways to go before you become a great (or even good) preacher.”
There’s a big difference between preaching and teaching. I love teaching, but it’s really hard for me to preach. I’ve taken his unspoken words as a challenge that if I want to teach pastors at a seminary I really need to be at least a decent preacher if for no other reason than to help my students see that what they learn in my classes (OT background, Critical Introduction to the OT, etc.) is important and relevant to the ministry they do every day. If my sermons are dry and academic then they will be able to say, “see, it’s great to know all that stuff, but it doesn’t have anything to do with what people face in life every day.”
Content and Form
In teaching the emphasis is on the content. It has to be true, it has to be backed up by research, it has to be presented in a clear and logical way. In teaching we lecture, we interact with discussion, we convey facts and arguments. In teaching we present the different views on a single topic in a way that’s fair to every side and then we present our arguments as to why the view we support has the most backing in the facts. Teaching should engage the mind. Teaching is a picture that has a figure but whose ground is just the left over space. Teaching is like prose.
Preaching is like poetry. Preaching is a picture whose figure (the content) is shaped by the ground, and whose ground (the medium or form) is shaped by the figure. Preaching should engage the whole person; the mind, the heart, and the will. It has to be true, it has to be backed up by the authority of God’s word, it has to be presented in a way that interacts with the hearts and minds of people where they live—they have to see not just the logic, but the force and relevance of the message. In preaching we don’t just lecture, we show, we paint a picture. In preaching the emphasis cannot be just on the content but on the form as well.
Work in Progress
Still, even for teaching I have to realize that who I am and how I teach has as much to do with my ministry as what I teach. So that’s one reason I’m committed to always working towards being a better preacher. If you listen to the sermon, I’d appreciate your feedback.