Those who preach on a regular basis usually do so in a church or ministry setting that requires significantly more from them than mere sermon preparation. Consequently, the cries of the crowd and the crises of the moments, the hurdles and hitches of life, and the tumult of ministry may seem to impede consistent exegetical exertion and the homiletical labor necessary to preach well. Pastors often find themselves wistfully thinking that they could deliver better sermons if it weren’t for the problems of their people.
Prudent pastors, however, have learned to appreciate that the very things that drag them out of their studies also force them to their knees and then propel them into the pulpit with a seasoning and a sympathy that they could have no other way. In fact, the turbulence and troubles of life will not only shape and fashion their preaching, but also serve as the highlights and hallmarks that define their ministries.
Just as our own troubles open up the Scriptures to us, so does the turbulence in the Bible itself. After all, the Bible is a book about crises. The book of Judges, for example, is remarkable precisely because of all the calamities and catastrophes caused by the misguided morals of God’s people. Ruth is occasioned by famine and death. Esther’s story still compels us because she and her people are facing genocide. Paul and Silas singing hymns captivate us because they are doing it in jail and after a severe beating. God reveals meaning in trouble—and so do biblical authors.
Learning from Linguists
With all their crisis management and sermon preparation, few pastors have time for or interest in the world of linguistics. Unless one is committed to pioneer Bible translation, it’s not the usual intellectual fare for a busy preacher. Fewer still would think that linguistic studies hold a key to better understand and explain the Scriptures, but I have discovered a useful tool that deepens my engagement with the text.
During study for my dissertation I discovered and became intrigued with the work of Robert E. Longacre, an eminent linguist who has been working with the Summer Institute of Linguistics and pioneer Bible translation since the 1950’s. Though the author of over 150 books and articles, Longacre’s work that arrested my interest was his discussion of what he termed “peak” in a discourse, the part of the narrative or exposition where the text reaches a climax or main point of emphasis. Every discourse of Scripture—whether narrative, expository, or hortatory—has at least one peak in it, a climax of some kind that the author is pointing his readers toward. Longacre’s work advocates a more holistic way of understanding at the text, seeing it as a unified discourse with constituent parts serving a single rhetorical purpose.
Furthermore, he demonstrated that paragraphs and discourses have a hierarchical structure just like sentences. They have their own kind of “grammar” that unfolds levels of prominence and points the reader to significance within the text. Preachers are usually well trained to discern the grammar of a sentence by finding the subject, verb, complement, and any modifiers, but often miss the grammar of the discourse, the relationship the sentences have to one another within a paragraph or a pericope. Just as a sentence has a subject and modifiers, so does the paragraph and passage within which that sentence occurs. Failure to grasp that can result in emphasizing something other than what the author intended.
We wouldn’t think of preaching a sermon that emphasizes an adverb without taking note of the verb it modifies, but we often hear sermons that stress a sentence without connecting it to the discourse around it. Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” is regularly preached or quoted to reassure Christians who are few in number rather to embolden them to confront sin in the church, but that is its clear purpose in the surrounding context.
In the same way, in 1 Corinthians 2:9, Paul cites Isaiah, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” The point Paul makes is that the natural man cannot receive spiritual things unless the Spirit reveals them, but that is only evident from the adjoining context. Preachers and laity alike often divorce this verse from its usage in the passage and contort it to mean something like “We can’t imagine how wonderful heaven will be!” Though that may be true, that’s not what the apostle is saying here.
Standing in the Stream
I am obviously not the first one to lament taking verses out of context, and one certainly doesn’t require much knowledge of linguistics to understand that concept. Furthermore, these are simple, even cliché, examples of contextual issues. What about larger contexts? What about passages whose placement confounds us and makes us wonder why it’s there and what it has to do with the proximate text? Why does the Joseph narrative begin in Genesis 37, only to be rudely interrupted by the scandal of Judah and Tamar in chapter 38 and begin again in chapter 39? Why does Jesus fail to answer Philip and Andrew’s request that he speak with the Greeks who have come to see him (John 12:20-36)?
Perhaps a failure to see the overall discourse and to recognize the “peak” within it might be a significant contributing factor when, without regard to the surrounding context, some preach verses incorrectly or out of proportion to their author-intended emphasis. It also sometimes lies at the center of that nagging confusion about structure and placement. Preachers need not only to be comfortable interpreting at the level of the sentence, but to go on to the macro level and think in terms of the entire discourse. Only when we preach the Word in the way God intended it can we be confident that we have the anointing of the Holy Spirit on our message. The anointing is not established by mystical experience but by interpretive faithfulness and accuracy.
To illustrate this concept, think of the sensation of standing in a river. In the shallow water near the bank, your feet are wet, but you feel little current, certainly not enough to buoy you along. In fact, walking with only your feet submerged requires great effort and exertion. Wading further out, however, and finding the stream’s channel, you discover that the water carries you.
Similarly, when a minister preaches without full regard for the intent of the text as revealed by its context and its placement in the discourse, his sermon may be biblical, or even theological, but not textual. Holding a proper systematic theology, he may be standing in the stream, but he’s not very deep in it. The current is not very strong, so he has to supply a lot of his own intellectual energy to propel the sermon.
When he embraces the purpose and aim of the passage, however—including it’s structure and rhetorical framework—he finds that the maximum “flow” of the Holy Spirit conveys the sermon with divine energy. As he shapes his sermon to reflect the objective and intent of the inspired author, the flow of the passage directs the sermon and its application to its mark, just as in its original setting.
That’s where Longacre enlightened me. His analysis of 1 John, for instance, explained a structure that has eluded many others (just see how many different ways various commentators outline the epistle). He exposed the woof and warp of the text, the contours and grain of the argument, the flow of the passage. Seeing the epistle in terms of discourses with varying degrees of emphasis, or peak, I immediately had a clearer understanding of the author’s intent, which is, after all, the goal of the hermeneutical process.
When we preach the text with the same intent as the author, addressing a similar situation or kind of situation, challenge, problem, or sin that he addressed, we are using the text in the way the Holy Spirit intended it as well. By noticing the overall structure, particularly the devices the author employs to draw attention to certain aspects of his argument or story, a preacher’s task shifts from merely preaching principles to preaching the text genuinely.
If discerning the author’s emphasis in a passage is essential for translators, is it not equally and fundamentally vital to the task of preaching? In many ways the two tasks are the same. Both the preacher and the Bible translator seek to convey, not their own message, but what God has said. We don’t preach because we can speak, but because God has spoken. If the constituent parts of God’s Word have emphasis and show prominence, if they exhibit a hierarchical structure that affects meaning and understanding, then the preacher, like the translator, must seek to convey that same deep structure and meaning.
The Revelation of Repetition
Writers have ways of conveying emphasis, of making some parts of the discourse more prominent than others. If a writer could not accentuate and underscore some things, moving certain aspects to the foreground and others to the background, readers could have no sense of proportion or importance. Everything written would be flat and relatively lifeless. It “would be like pointing to a piece of black cardboard and insisting that it was a picture of black camels crossing black sands at midnight.”
Biblical authors convey that emphasis and reveal the discourse peak in a variety of methods. One of the most common and obvious ways is repetition. The more an author says something, the more we understand its significance. Any mother sending her child to an overnight play date uses repetition for that same purpose.
Preachers instinctively know that recurring biblical truths are obviously crucial, the big-ticket matters of great importance commanding attention, obedience, and proclamation. At the level of the whole Bible, promise and fulfillment, for instance, is a thread that runs throughout the Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and warrants a prominence in our thinking, doctrine, and preaching. Justification by faith likewise factors from Abraham to Paul. God’s rule over His creation and Kingdom is hard to miss because so many passages emphasize it and highlight it by repeating it.
That’s not only true on the macro level, but also on the micro. In any given passage the phrases and concepts that reappear over and over clearly signify an author’s intention to highlight a particular truth or theme. Repetition connotes emphasis, and important bits of information merit repetition.
Repetition exposes the contours and shape of the text much like the grain of a piece of wood tells the craftsman how to cut it. Hebrews 11, for example, marks the individual sections and ties them together with the phrase “by faith.” Each successive character or group of characters in Hebrews 11 is set in the author’s rhetorical framework by his or her faith, and the repetition of that two-word phrase, occurring some nineteen times, clearly denotes the subject as well as the divisions of the chapter. One would be hard pressed to overemphasize repetition of that magnitude. Furthermore, to preach any portion of that chapter without preaching on faith would be homiletical malpractice. The recurrent highlighting of the theme and the phrase bludgeons even the most obtuse exegete into submission to its central topic.
But is anything more important than repetition? Does any device in a Scriptural passage merit notice still more than reiteration and recurrent phrases and themes?
The Value of Variety
Variation—particularly variation immediately after repetition—is even more important than recurrence and reiteration. Deviation from the established theme or from the reader’s expectation is an especially significant marker for the climax or rhetorical apex in the passage. If repetition often marks the peak in a discourse and merits emphasis in the sermon, then variation is even more significant. When the author duplicates a pattern or phrase to mark prominence, his introduction of a variation on the theme or deviation from the design he previously established denotes an extraordinary weight.
The parable triplet of Luke 15 supplies a superb illustration. The occasion and setting of the parables set the living stage for Jesus’ narrative response. When the Pharisees criticized him for spending time with sinners, Jesus did not engage them in theological debate or religious dialogue, nor did he defend Himself. Instead, with profound elegance and disarming simplicity, he told three stories. The parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, as devastating in their rebuke as they were engaging in their narrative composition.
The first two parables are almost identical in structure, length, and conclusion. The basic arrangement has three movements: something’s lost, then found, and then there’s rejoicing. Jesus follows each of the first two parables with a clear application and statement noting the high value that heaven places on the recovery and repentance of a lost sinner. This activity gladdens the heart of the Father more than ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Jesus is almost certainly mocking the Pharisees because that seems to be their self-assessment. By inserting that single line and repeating it at the conclusion of each parable, Jesus sets up his audience for the shockwave yet to come.
The third parable, the Prodigal Son, initially contains the same basic elements, though Jesus expands the parable greatly adding a lot of detail, especially emotional features, which is the first variation. If the first two parables are quick vignettes, the third is slow motion. Additionally, the point of view shifts significantly from one who is searching to the one who is lost.
In spite of the protracted story line, one clearly discerns the basic pattern already employed in the first two parables: something’s lost, then found, and then there’s rejoicing. This time, however, a new and unexpected element appears that jars the reader just as it must have the original audience: something’s lost, then found, then there’s rejoicing, and then someone’s TICKED! That’s shockingly different—the variation that marks the point—the peak, the climax—not only of this parable, but also of all three stories. The staccato measures of sheep and coins build to a crescendo of lush symphonic chords that envelop a returning son.
The story of the Prodigal Son is rich precisely because Jesus incorporates so much vivid emotional detail. If the first two parables point to joy in heaven, the climax of the older brother’s response points to resentment on earth—and that is Jesus’ main point. One can learn much about repentance, a longing Father, and the need for celebration in salvation from this parable, but none of those are Jesus’ main point. The rebuke of the Pharisees is.
Truth in Turbulence
Variation after repetition is an example of what Longacre called a “zone of turbulence,” a strategic marker of peak that draws the reader’s attention to the author’s point in an especially powerful way. Preachers can find several different kinds of zones of turbulence in biblical discourses that help them preach the author’s intent. The author may introduce something completely unexpected, even out of character or place in a text. Jesus’ lack of response to the Greeks who wanted to see Him in John 12:20-26 is a good example because no one expects Jesus to totally ignore people who came to see Him. The presence of four women in Matthew’s genealogy, likewise, comes as a surprise. When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, He brought the story to a climactic pinnacle with this technique. After a priest and a Levite pass by the unfortunate victim of a robbery, a despised Samaritan shows himself to be the true neighbor, even going so far as to make future provision. That’s clearly the point of the story and clearly unexpected by his Jewish audience.
Sometimes the reason an event is unexpected and serves as a zone of turbulence is because it seems contradictory to all previous instruction and ethical teaching. Ruth was a Moabite, a people cursed by God, but Boaz redeemed and married her in spite of the law that commanded the Jews not to associate with Moabites. Rahab’s salvation from the destruction of Jericho would still be significant if she were a the most moral woman in the city, but the inclusion of her profession and the act of her lie to the king about the spies’ whereabouts heighten the tension and impact of the narrative. Jesus’ forgiveness extended to a woman guilty of adultery in John 8 is the peak of that story precisely because the law has no category for outright forgiveness. Jesus’ reaction to her accusers and to her is startling.
The author might employ a change in the pace of the text, either moving from a fast pace in which time passes quickly to a “slowing the camera” technique that focuses carefully and deliberately on events. The flood narrative in Genesis 6-9 is a prime example, especially reaching a peak in 7:17-24. Similarly, the Gospel of John spans three years of Jesus’ ministry in the first 10 chapters, but 11:1-20:23 covers only a week or two. He may, however, do the opposite. Hebrews 11, on the other hand, quickens the pace toward the end of the chapter and shortens the accounts of what the heroes of faith accomplished, pulling the camera back and looking at events from a greater distance.
In that same instance, the author employs variation after repetition of a theme or a pattern, one of the highest markers of a peak zone of turbulence, by grouping heroes of faith together in verse 32. Few discourse techniques provide so stark an emphasis as this, probably because it combines many of the other methods into a single powerful. A “same, same, same, different” pattern is unexpected, often seems contradictory or conflicted in some way, and sometimes may signal a change in the pace as well.
The Power of Preaching the Turbulence
Preaching zones of turbulence should come naturally to any preacher once he learns to look for them. Not only do they abound throughout the discourses and narratives of the Bible, they actually demonstrate and illustrate the motif of redemptive history itself. The Gospel is the greatest zone of turbulence in the Scriptures. Its unexpected, shocking, scandalous truths trumpet a persistent call to our attention, highlighting the highest peak and most prominent feature of God’s revelation. What could be more bewildering than a holy God prodigally loving sinful people, or more unexpected than a King of Kings born in a manger, or more startling than a Lamb who is a Lion?
God’s promises that were made during the Old Covenant were finally and perfectly fulfilled, yet in the most astonishing ways. When the time of fulfillment finally came, the Divine Author of redemption’s narrative focused tightly on the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, slowing down the events and narrative to draw attention and to establish the cross as the climax of all His revelation.
We preach the cross because it stands as the greatest zone of turbulence—spiritual, emotional, mental, literal—in the Bible. What could be more conflicting or more astounding than a God who dies on a cross fashioned by His own creatures? What could be more unanticipated and a greater variation than a tomb that births the Firstborn of the dead? What could be a greater variation on the repetition of the laws of Moses than the sudden appearance of the grace of Christ?
Find the trouble in the text, then dig. You’ll find gospel gold there.
This post originally appeared at Preaching.com