On Enjoying Difficult Sermons
I recently hit the jackpot, being assigned the passage all preachers long for… Abraham pleading over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18! That’s one to tick off the bucket list!
When I knew I was down to deliver this talk, I admit to having mixed emotions. On the one hand, I thought ‘what on earth will I say about that?’ whilst on the other hand I felt excited about the challenge.
You see, there’s part of me that really enjoys preaching on difficult passages, and when we’re planning a sermon series and considering who will cover each passage, I often put myself forward for the most awkward ones.
So in the last couple of years I have preached on Sodom and Gomorrah, the peculiar laws about the City of Refuge in Joshua, Gethsemane, some of the OT warfare passages, Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters, and the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. Plus seminars on Revelation and tricky bits of Hebrews. Each has been challenging, but each has also helped me grow.
Following the Abraham talk, I had a number of conversations where people have been very complimentary, not only about the talk itself, but also about the fact that we didn’t dodge the difficult passages. It’s caused me to reflect on why it is that I enjoy preaching on difficult texts, and I think there are at least six reasons. The first is not commendable at all… and it’s a temptation I’m aware of and try to fight, but I include it for honesty and completeness. The other five I think are far better reasons, and reasons I’d encourage other preachers to embrace.
1) Preaching on difficult passages makes me look good!
As I said – this is not a good motivation! But I confess, I think there is part of me that enjoys presenting a seemingly impossible passage and then showing people how to get something valuable out of it. Like a magic trick. It feels good, because it makes me look clever, skilful, brave, insightful etc.
I think implicit in this is an assumption that the Bible needs my help to be made beautiful, attractive or compelling! Ridiculous…
Though if I were to spin this a more positive way, I think I would say that I am not bad at doing this. And I think that one of the beauties of being part of a preaching team is that we can play to our strengths and make up for one another’s weaknesses. So I can probably bless our preaching team – and the church – by taking some of these passages, and freeing up other preachers to deliver the sermons they can do way better than I can.
But that said – I don’t think any of us should avoid the tough passages, and palm them off to someone else. And in fact, there are at least five good reasons why I think all preachers should embrace – and enjoy – preaching on difficult passages:
2) Preaching on difficult passages forces me to go deep into the text
It’s easy to skim in preparation, particularly when you’re pressed for time. When you’re preaching a nice, safe, familiar passage, it’s easy just to consult one commentary and then feel you know what’s going on.
But with difficult passages you need to work more: look at a bunch of commentaries, think hard about how the passage has been interpreted through history, consider how it ties into other big or difficult themes, think deeply about the context and the details that help bridge the cultural gap between the original context and ours… etc. It’s a good discipline, because it forces me not just to rely on previous knowledge or a superficial reading, but to really put in the hours of prep and serious thought.
3) Preaching on difficult passages forces me to go deep into the gospel
The answers to the problems posed by difficult passages are not primarily intellectual – i.e. if we just know this, the problems go away. The answers to the problems are in the gospel. And with any difficult passage I want to not only help people understand why this isn’t a stumbling block to faith, but why it actually points to our need for Jesus.
Of course, I aim to expound something of the gospel in every sermon. But particularly with difficult texts, I want to work extra hard to make sure I connect the text to the person of Jesus. No matter how difficult it is. Since he is the one to whom all Scripture points.
4) Preaching on difficult passages gives me an opportunity to reaffirm the authority of Scripture
Both through the words I say, and the way in which I say them, difficult passages allow me to reaffirm for my listeners that,
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ (2 Tim 3:16-17)
If we avoid all the difficult texts, we communicate the opposite of these verses. We suggest that some texts are not so useful. Maybe we’re ashamed of them? Or we think there is no practical purpose to them. But 2 Timothy 3 suggests that if we ignore certain texts we may find ourselves less-than-fully equipped for every good work.
(This is not to say that the Sunday Sermon is the appropriate place to tackle every text. There are some texts that are best dealt with in a setting where you can go deeper, take longer, engage with questions etc…)
I personally try not to call such texts ‘problem passages’ since to do so suggests there is a problem in the God-inspired text rather than in my understanding. They are difficult texts that pose problems for our modern, western, individualistic, fallible understandings and worldviews. And as we wrestle with them, they bring us to a better way of thinking.
5) Preaching on difficult passages gives me an opportunity to model good hermeneutics
Part of what I hope to do in preaching is not only teach people what a text means but also how it means it. One of the dangers of preaching is that it creates a dependence on the preacher to instruct people on what to think. Whereas teaching people how to think is arguably far more beneficial.
In a sermon on a difficult text, I want to equip people with tools as well as knowledge. So they won’t only know how to read the passage in question, but read other similar passages for themselves, and come to gospel-centred conclusions.
6) Preaching on difficult passages gives me an opportunity for applied apologetics
Too often we only do apologetics in seminars, or the occasional series on ‘tough questions’. But the truth is, tough questions lurk in every Bible passage. And if we fail to include apologetics in our regular sermons, we give the impression that such questions are purely academic.
For example, if I did a talk on how a God of love allows suffering, I might be tempted to treat the talk like a seminar, engaging only loosely with Scripture, and treating the ideas in the abstract. But if I take a moment in a talk on a particularly bleak passage to acknowledge the elephant in the room and speak to it in the context of a sermon – which hopefully will also include exhortation, application and a gospel explanation – then I am immediately making the question relevant and giving an opportunity for people to engage with it personally, and hopefully respond in prayer and worship as well.
So, rather than being something to be scared of, I think difficult passages are things to be embraced. They benefit us, our congregations, and those seeking faith.