Moody Publishers created an Author’s Page to go with Say It! On the page, I answer a handful of questions, including, “What are some core values that are embodied in Black churches and preaching?” They also recently changed the page for Say It! to include the recognition of the book’s awards.
I listened to a sermon preached this weekend at a large evangelical church in the suburbs of Chicago. It was not my own church, nor was the speaker an elder or member of the pastoral staff of our church. The congregation and their edifice were much larger and much more suburban than my own assembly. I had high expectations based on the size of the church, for I hoped that the word of God was drawing people to the thousands of seats in this sanctuary. However, I could not have been more disappointed in what I heard. I will not mention the passage or church so as to hide the identity of the speaker in my brief review. First, the person preaching totally missed the Big Idea of the passage — the main idea, the central idea —and substituted his own. His own idea was clever and drew from the personal significance of the textual words in English rather than from the meaning of the combined words, structure, theology, and tone of the text.
That preacher’s struggle to find the central idea in this narrative passage reminded me of the great importance of my task in teaching hermeneutics to my students: We must discern what God has said through the human author and not communicate our own extrinsic idea as the main idea. We are not preaching God’s words if we are not communicating his main idea through the author, no matter how clever, creative, or cool our idea sounds.
Second, for a theological issue in the passage he did not understand, the preacher attempted to explain it by means of an analogy. It was a good attempt, but it showed little concern for his people’s need for a correct theological understanding. It would have been good for him to give more thought and study to the issue and present accurate theology to those he served. Who knows if his listeners ever will have this theological error corrected even as they attempt to build their lives and theological knowledge on the error?
Third, the preacher ignored the issue of nationalism that was part of the meaning of the passage. On a particular point of application, he expressed agreement with striving for “social justice” (even though what he described was not social justice but social service; the wrong identity reinforces false ideas about social justice). He followed his expression by saying that the gospel is a proclamation not simply a demonstration.
Was that false distinction even necessary?
Apparently, it was necessary based on his audience’s response, for he received a hearty “Amen!” from many people. He could not hide that he was playing to the sentiments of the membership rather than applying what the biblical text means.
Again, the preacher skipped the nationalistic thrust of the passage, misspoke about social justice, and then separated the so-called “gospel” from serving people socially. I was witnessing the soft reinforcing of Christian nationalism or at least the ignoring of it. It is no wonder so many evangelicals are not confronted on sins related to their preferred political ideologies if this preaching is representative of the typical evangelical pulpit, which I fear it is. I should not have been surprised, though, since there was an American flag posted in the sanctuary.
I was thankful that the preacher later explained the gospel in a succinct form. He preached the wrath of God as God’s just judgment against sin. He exalted Christ’s death and resurrection as God’s solution for sin and wrath. He challenged the listeners to repent and trust Christ. Christ was preached, and for this I rejoiced!
Still, I am sad for that congregation. I am sad over a preacher who substituted his own idea for God’s idea in the passage, over a congregation that received that message as the word of God, and over the missed opportunity to challenge believers to pursue God-glorifying life-change based on God’s meaning in the passage. There were several other misgivings in the preaching of this passage, including the building of a point of application from an admittedly speculative interpretation by some scholars. However, the three aforementioned concerns stood out as most significant.
Finally, may I encourage believers in the pews to remove any and all expectations for the preacher to make you feel good about your faith, to say what is familiar or agreeable, to affirm your values or political views, or to make sure you leave the worship service without critical spiritual and theological challenge? It is not the preacher’s job to do anything other than preach the word of God in love with a view toward calling all hearers to the obedience of faith. The preacher I heard gave the evangelical form of scratching itchy ears, making people laugh at jokes and nod at error cloaked as Theology Lite. As preachers, our calling is to herald the gospel and all of its implications for living life before our Savior and King. We have one grand opportunity to do so each week. We need to be the best stewards possible over that calling and not send people away in disobedience or ignorance but with smiles on their faces. The gospel also is education, not job-preservation.
Instead, members should expect to leave the preaching event with a robust sense of conviction, correction, instruction, humility, hope, anticipation, and celebration of Christ. We should walk away feeling the gravity, grace, and gladness of having met with God and heard his voice.
I had a brief social media exchange with people I do not know about a well known preacher’s expositions of Scripture. I remarked that the preacher in question is a highly competent expositor of NT Letters – which, if trained in evangelical academies that affirm inerrancy, is almost a given. (As Jonathan Pennington says, “For Protestants, especially evangelicals, especially Reformed, doctrine-oriented ones, we love Paul. Give us Romans and thirteen years to preach through it phrase by phrase, and we will be in heaven!” [Reading the Gospels Wisely, Baker Academic, 2012], 37.) However, I also mentioned that the same preacher is not a competent expositor of NT Gospels and Acts, or the OT. I made no comment on the person’s abilities with the book of Revelation because I did not want a debate over views of interpreting the Apocalypse.
The comments related to the NT Letters and the other biblical literature recognizes that many expositors use hermeneutics intended for NT Letters to interpret the Fourfold Gospel, Acts, Revelation, and the OT. When they do so, they yield sermons that do not respect the biblical writer’s combined theology, structure, tone, and argument even if they might respect the use of the original languages. Yet even that respect for the languages is only to a certain degree if one does not place the grammar and syntax of the language back into the structured theological content of the passage’s tone and flow of the argument of the words.
Expositional preaching takes the biblical author’s central idea in a passage and communicates that idea to a contemporary audience, while respecting the biblical author’s language, structure, theology, tone, and argument. To do otherwise in preaching is not exposition, even if one is a highly respected expositor of the NT Letters.
For example, the subject of Judges 13 is, “Manoah’s increasing understanding of the identity of the Angel of the Lord in the revelation of the child to be born to his barren wife.” While there are typology and echo related to the child to be born, the passage moves from Manoah’s ignorance related to the words of the Angel to Manaoah and his nameless wife bowing in worship before the Angel as the Angel reveals his divine identity. If one preaches a sermon on Judges 13 without the above subject being the central idea behind the homiletical idea, the sermon will not be an exposition of this passage no matter how well studied, crafted, and delivered.
A good adage to insert here might be the one that begins, “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck….” However, having moved to Chicago, I have noticed how many people identify Canadian Geese as ducks.
Although our methods differ ever so slightly, I highly respect the work of David Helm and what his team at Charles Simeon Trust is doing to train preachers to give expositions of Scripture in various genres according to the conventions of the genre. Tony Merida and his team of writers are doing the same in the Christ-Centered Exposition series; (see this resource too). Also, if one is looking to approach the exposition of 1 and 2 Chronicles, some helps are offered here, there, and there.
Calvary Memorial Church has posted three of my recent sermons on Acts 4-5, 9, and 10. The Big Idea of each of these passages is somewhat unexpected. I am grateful for the roles of the Cyprusian Levite and the tanner by the sea in the narratives. I look forward to rejoicing with them in Christ’s kingdom.
Congratulations to Drs. Eric Mason and Charlie Dates as they join the faculty for the Preaching Masterclass and are recognized by In Club Magazine as faith leaders to follow. Both contributed to Say It! Celebrating Expository Preaching in the African American Tradition (Moody Publishers). They are faithful preachers and pastors with significant words of truth and righteousness for our times.
 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The Meaning of Matthew 5:43-48:
Jesus’ authoritative teaching on love for one’s enemies corrects the disciples’ practice from reciprocation of sinners to imitation of the Father.
Why do I say this is the author’s intended meaning of this passage?
First, “Jesus’ authoritative teaching” reflects “But I say to you” (44). The content of what he says takes up the most space and unifies the passage, so it is the Subject of the passage. That content concerns “love for one’s enemies.” Jesus gives an imperative on loving enemies (44b), with a reasoning related to sonship before the Father (45), and two examples of wrongly reciprocating love and greetings (46-47).
Second, “corrects” reflects the contrast between what the disciples have been taught and believe to be right and what Jesus now teaches. “Corrects” is what Jesus is doing within the entire passage. His “authoritative teaching” is correcting.
Third, “the disciples’ practice from reciprocation of sinners to imitation of the Father” concerns the remainder of the passage. There were some in the listening crowd who were returning love only to those who demonstrated love toward them, and not toward those who did not. Similarly, there were those in the crowd of listeners who greeted only their fellow Jewish brethren and ignored the Gentiles with their greetings. Those are practices of reciprocation: I will give to you only if and what you give to me. Reciprocation concerns justice, i.e., “I will give you what is fair, what is equal, what you are deserving based on your treatment of me or status in life, and no more.” Any “tax collector” and any “Gentile” – both for whom the first century Jewish people had great disdain – could reciprocate, and did so. So any Jewish listener in the crowd was not being righteous by reciprocating, but was acting no better than any thieving tax-collector or any other non-Jew.
However, Jesus intends for citizens of the kingdom of God to be like our heavenly Father—to imitate his works and not the practices of sinners. Unlike the listeners, tax collectors, and Gentiles, the Father does something vastly different than reciprocating. He gives the sun (and all of its benefits) to people who are evil before him. If he gave the sun as reciprocation, no one would get sunlight, heat, or all of the other benefits of the sun! In the same way, the Lord gives rain to people unrighteous in his sight in the same measure that he gives it to people who stand righteous before him. When it comes to sun and rain, the Lord does not give better treatment to his followers than he does to his haters.
What do such actions by the Father show? They show love toward the sinful; his love toward the good and just is assumed.
So then what is “perfect?” To be perfect is to show love – the Father’s love – to those underserving of your love rather than responding to people on the basis of what a just treatment of their behavior or status toward you would deserve. To do so is to be a son of the Heavenly Father (and to do otherwise is to be like a first century Jewish tax collector and Gentile). To be perfect, is to prioritize love over justice in your personal treatment of people.
So this is a passage that calls us to act with mercy and grace toward all. Go pour out sun and rain on those you deem undeserving of such love, even as the Father is doing for each of us this very moment. The cross of Christ and his resurrection from the dead provide the Son and the reign of God for us, in mercy, at the cost of justice poured out on Christ instead of us.