The question of which is more important, sermon or Scripture, seems like a no-brainer. But the way Scripture is handled before and during sermons tells the truth of the matter.
Are the Scriptures read first?
The place of priority communicates a lot. If passages from the Bible are tucked into a sermon, then they serve the sermon. If the reading of the Scriptures has its own place in worship and the sermon follows it, explaining it and inviting us to live within a world shaped by it, then the sermon serves the Scriptures (or at least it’s set up to do so).
Is there a prayer just for the reading and hearing of the Scriptures?
Too often, if there is a prayer before the sermon at all, preachers will pray for themselves and their hearers. It’ll include something like, “May I speak only what you, Lord, would have me speak. And may those who hear only hear what you would say to them, with everything else falling to the side.” Those aren’t bad words to pray, but they retain the centrality of the sermon over that of the Scriptures. They are focused on the preacher’s speaking, not on the Scriptures read (and entered into).
Perhaps my favorite pre-Bible reading prayer comes from the Book of Common Worship:
God of mercy,
Your faithfulness to your covenant
Frees us to live together
In the security of your powerful love.
Amid all the changing words of our generation,
Speak your eternal Word that does not change.
Then may we respond to your gracious promises
By living in faith and obedience;
Through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
This prayer pulls from theologian Karl Barth’s belief that when our Bibles sit on our shelves, they are just ink on paper. But when we read from the Scriptures, God is at that very moment speaking those words to us, his eternal, unchanging Word. The Scriptures, in this view, are not words on a pages, they are words spoken by the Living God to us at a moment in time. Scripture is an event that we take part in as the God of the universe communicates directly with us — God’s eternal Word speaking into a particular context.
This is why, along with millions of others, I say, “This is the Word of the Lord,” after reading from the Bible. And why my congregations have responded, “Thanks be to God!”
God has spoken. He hasn’t left us adrift in the world. He hasn’t abandoned us. He isn’t making us guess at who he is. He has revealed himself and continues to reveal himself through the reading of his Word. And not only does he reveal himself to us, but he reveals us to us. We come to know who God is, who we are, and what our place and purpose in the world is as he speaks through the Scriptures to us.
That is why those who hear the reading, reply with gusto and gratitude, “Thanks be to God!” Simply hearing the reading of the Scriptures is an unmeasurable gift.
Does the sermon support the Scriptures or do the scriptures support the sermon?
This is the crux of the matter.
What does the preacher want the listeners to hear: a sermon or the Scriptures?
Does the sermon open up the Scriptures and invite us to step into and inhabit the world of God the Scriptures unveil for us, like Lucy stepping through the wardrobe and into Narnia? Or does the sermon bend the Scriptures to its will, using them as proof texts and illustrations of the point(s) the preacher had in mind when setting out to prepare the sermon?
The sermon doesn’t need to quote a lot of passages from the Bible in order to be thoroughly biblical. In fact, I have heard sermons that rarely reference the Bible after the initial reading where I have come away with a far deeper understanding of the passage and a richer discipleship as that new understanding has shaped my praying and living in response to the passage.
Eugene Peterson is a master of this. His sermons aren’t the most exciting I’ve heard by any stretch. But he circles around and around the passage he’s preaching on like an airplane preparing to land. As he does so, we survey the entire countryside of the passage before coming to rest at its heart.
At the same time, I’ve heard sermons that were crammed with biblical passages but as I listened was very aware that they were slaves to the preacher, forced to serve his agenda instead of the other way around. I’ve experienced a sermon where the preacher went verse by verse, phrase by phrase, through a passage, believing he was being the most faithful expositor of God’s Word on the planet, and yet almost everything he said had no exegetical foundation. He used the words he revered on the page as launching points for his favorite topics. He was faithful to the words of the passage but not its meaning, manipulating the very Bible he adored.
I grew up memorizing verses from the Bible, for “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105 — Thank you, Amy Grant, for the song from it). And I believe there is huge value in “hiding” God’s Word in our hearts (Psalm 119:11). Those memorized passages have been hooks on which I was able to hang so much more of the Scriptures. But way too often, these memorized passages stand alone, divorced from the context in which they were written and used badly, like a hammer being used to open a jar. (As much as I love the conclusions Dallas Willard came to in The Divine Conspiracy, his use of the Scriptures in that book drives me nuts.)
Those who preach through books of the Bible or use a lectionary always start first with the Scriptures. What they do with them afterward determines who is servant and who is master, but at least they’re beginning with the Scriptures. Those who preach topically have a much harder task before them, for they begin with an idea or a circumstance in the world they believe needs to be addressed and must guard themselves from merely using the Scriptures to their own ends. This is why I have preached topically only infrequently, though I don’t avoid it, because there are times when it’s necessary.
Does the sermon take the lead or does it follow where the Scriptures lead?
The Scriptures don’t always go where I want them to. In fact, they often surprise me and take me places I would never expect them to go.
The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:2-12) baffle me every time I stop and consider them. Really. Every single time. The pairing of meekness with inheriting the earth never ceases to bring me up short with a jolt. I spend a lot of time in the Gospels, because Jesus is continually challenging my basic disposition and sending me where I didn’t want to do.
The Psalms lead me through the thick woods of prayer on paths I would never have expected. Where I would dip in and step right back out again, I get drawn deeper and deeper into the thickets and sometimes feel lost, not wanting to have engaged with certain emotions the psalmist walks me through.
Paul’s letter are absolutely brilliant. But I would never have written anything like them if I were addressing the situations he was dealing with. Not even close. Having grown up in our overly psychologized era, I would have tried a form of therapy in my letters rather than the concisely incisive theology he offers up. I hate to admit it, but I would have written more about myself and less about Jesus.
It’s these unexpected routes that are so essential for us. They force us to follow God, instead of demanding that God follow us. They tell us that our questions are of less importance than God’s story, God’s mission, God’s answer to what’s wrong in the world.
Reading the Scriptures and preaching them is a game of follow the leader. If I don’t pay the utmost attention, I mess it up and everyone who follows me gets it wrong as well. But if I follow the twists and turns faithfully, everyone who follows after me gets into the game as it ought to be.
The question is: Am I willing to follow where God is leading or do I want to be the leader myself?
In the Isenheim altarpiece, artist Matthias Grunewald paints John the baptizer in the right corner. He’s holding a Bible and pointing to Jesus.
This is the preacher’s job. To faithfully read the Scriptures and by them to point to Jesus.