Choosing the Right Lens

Last year, while far away from home in Manaus, Brazil, I made the mistake of trying to run across the busiest street in that city of 2 million people. While dashing wildly across five lanes of traffic to reach a tiny concrete median and pause before sprinting the opposite five lanes, I recognized I had joined a real-life game of Frogger (to date myself) and that I faced the distinct possibility of being squished.

When I finally made it across, the heart-pounding terror turned into triumphant exhilaration. As I entered the door of my destination and took off my sunglasses, I felt my shirt pocket for my very expensive no-line progressive trifocal prescription glasses so I could see indoors, but to no avail. They were gone. The short-lived elation gave way to the despair of realizing they had jostled out of my pocket and by now had been ground to dust under the weight of a hundred speeding cars.

A Brazilian friend, realizing my plight, offered to get me a pair of glasses that would suffice temporarily, but he only had three lens thicknesses from which to choose. He randomly chose the prescription that corrected my distant vision, so until I got home a week later, I felt handicapped. If someone waved to me from across the room, I could recognize them, but I couldn't recognize people 4 or 5 feet away; and when I preached, I constantly was taking glasses off or putting them on, sometimes alternating between reading glasses, my new stop-gap glasses and none at all. I only could see one distance, but life required more than that.

The congregation who only sees Scripture through one type of lens is missing something, too. Some pastors always look at Scripture with a wide-angle lens. They show their people the big picture of the book they're preaching, or perhaps the grand narrative of redemption history, yet fail to get the nuances, the warp and the woof, the grain of Scripture up close. On the other hand, some pastors are so oriented to a magnifying lens or microscope that their congregations never see the big picture.

Part of pastoral preaching not only is alternating texts between Old and New Testaments, between law and gospel, between different genres, but also switching lenses. While pastors should have a careful strategy to preach the whole counsel of God, that strategy should include different depths and fields of vision.

First, the Bible itself does this. God chose to reveal truth in different doses. Some passages such as Romans 8 are saturated with gospel content and require a closer look, a more deliberate pace. Others such as Joshua 13—21 (the allotment of the land to the tribes) don't require as much time and legitimately can be taken together without doing injustice to the text.

Similarly, congregations need to know the overall argument and application of entire sections or books, as well as the exegetical peculiarities and distinctions of individual verses or small passages. In other words, they need gospel trifocals. Pastors need to plan preaching that sometimes looks from a distance so it catches sight of the whole, other times from mid-range to grasp a smaller section, still other times exposing the text thoroughly and closely to provide an intimate look at an author's intended meaning.

So change the lens. Preach 12 overview sermons of the Minor Prophets that give the gist and application of each with a clear explanation of its place in the story of redemption. Follow that with a lengthy series in an epistle, carefully laying bare the meaning of each verse. Then preach a series of sermons in an extended Old Testament narrative such as the life of David, taking representative chapters of the great king's life to preach the story of redemption and to make your congregants long for the greater King.

If sameness and predictability are enemies of being interesting and engaging, changing the focal length of the lens through which we look at Scripture not only will make preaching more effective, but also more interesting.