Having gone to an SDA church all my life, I was no stranger to wow-preaching. However, it wasn't until I was in my twenties that I was introduced to certain preachers who took this to a whole new level. The wow-sermons I was used to certainly shared fresh ideas but somehow those ideas remained simple. It was as if, upon hearing them I would think Oh yeah! How’d I miss that? But these new sermons were way beyond “wow”. These were super deep and breathtaking expositions on the word of God. At times the sermons were on present truth, at other times they dealt with broader topics, but regardless of the theme one thing was guaranteed: I would hear something I had never heard before and see something I would never had thought of in a million years. Far from the simple newness of the wow-sermon, these sermons tended to be more complex in their newness, or dare I say, more sensational. I call this kind of sermon the toy-sermon (you will soon see why).
I was mesmerized. Amazed. Dumbfounded at times and downright intoxicated. Toy-sermons were the stuff of Bible gurus and because most of them were based on present truth I began to believe that Adventist preachers where the greatest preachers on earth. As a preacher, I too began to mimic their fresh and astonishing approach to Bible truth. When preparing sermons I would pray for new insight and pour through the text searching for something different and exciting that had never been seen before. I was no longer satisfied with the simple story of scripture. I wanted something new.
In case you are still confused allow me to give you an example of wow-sermon versus toy-sermon. A wow-sermon would look at the parable of the lost coin and, following Jesus own interpretation, would identify the lost coin as our lost world, or as individual people. One preacher I admire interpreted the lost coin as “those who are lost but don’t know they are lost”. He then proceeded to interpret the lost sheep as “those who know they are lost but don’t know the way home”, the lost (prodigal) son as “those who know they are lost and know the way home” and the elder brother as “those who are lost but think they are saved.” This is a perfect example of simple new. Now a toy-sermon is more like the sermon I heard which interpreted the lost coin as the Sabbath. There were 10 coins and the woman lost one, so she swept the whole house until she found it. There are 10 commandments and one has been lost but the woman (church) has found it. The first time I heard this sermon I was floored. "This guy is amazing!" I said to my wife. "How does he get this stuff?"
I continued to be amazed, that is, until my first day studying biblical exegesis. For those who don't know, Biblical exegesis is the process of studying to determine what the text meant to the original reader and writer before attempting to interpret it for today. The process requires a study of the literary, historical, and cultural context surrounding the text, among other things. Once the Bible student has determined what the text meant to the original audience he is then safe to apply the text to his own context provided none of the original meaning is lost or contradicted in the process. While I had already begun to question the veracity of the toy-sermon prior to this, it was then that the spell was broken. The toy-sermon was exciting, yes. It was fresh and invigorating. But it had one major flaw – it used the Bible as a toy to be played with instead of a holy text to be revered. Literary, historical, and cultural context were often ignored. It wasn’t what the Bible clearly said that was interesting; it was the obscure and mysterious. The goal was to find something new and exciting, something sensational and riveting. As a result textual integrity was sacrificed at the altar of innovation and the end result, while not necessarily heretical, was a sermon that played games with the Biblical text, misused the Hebrew and Greek, “word-smithed” the English translations,* made interpretations that bordered on allegorical drivel, linked verses together that were never meant to be linked, proof-texted flippantly, and drew new and exciting interpretations that impressed the audience but did little else.
I have studied a lot in life. I have learned a lot in life. And I have forgotten a lot in life. But if there is one thing I will never forget, it’s the words of my exegesis professor Dr. Martin Klingbeil. “Don’t preach sensational sermons that get people excited” he said, “preach the simple truth that changes lives.” Whether he knew it or not Dr. Klingbeil hit me hard that day. In fact, he echoed the words of Peter when he said,
Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Saviour through your apostles (2 Pet. 3:1-2).Peter uses two powerful words in this text: “remember” and “recall”. It wasn’t something new that his readers needed. It wasn’t something fresh or exciting. It was the same old truth. The same old sermon. The same old message. Peter’s goal was to influence their thinking. He wanted to lift their minds up and lead them to think balanced, healthy, and wholesome thoughts. And the tool he used to perform this transformational shift was not a sensational and exciting sermon – it was a simple admonition to remember. Somehow, the act of remembering the old truths that God has shared through the prophets and apostles is all his readers needed to be renewed in their minds.
I am not here to question the sincerity of those who preach or enjoy a good old toy-sermon. When I preached them I was sincere and was simply eager to share something new. But now I know that it’s not new that I need. All I need is to be reminded. Reminded of God’s love. Reminded of God’s grace. Reminded of God’s power. Reminded of his will for my life and of the soon return of Jesus. These simple reminders are all I need to be renewed.
Today I want to appeal to all the young-up-and-coming SDA preachers out there. Though the trend is increasingly fading, there still remain way too many Adventist preachers who use the Bible as a toy. This is the fallacy behind our preaching. People love them. People rave about them. People follow them. But at the end of the day they don't preach what the Bible says; they only preach what they want it to say. Don't fall into that trap. The Bible was not designed to give us paint for oratorical art nor was it written to provide a platform to show off our cleverness. It was designed to tell us a story – one that is meant to be repeated over and over again for with each repetition our hearts are changed. Don’t feel the need to be new and innovative. Don’t go wild trying to be exciting. Don't sacrifice sound Bible exposition just to make people say "wow". Instead, I challenge you to tell the ancient story over and over again. It is then, and only then, that broken lives will find healing and new birth.
photo credit: Bront Nolsen via photopin cc