Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Preaching with the Grain

Most preachers know the experience well. You're chugging along, preaching your text, expounding and exulting (or trying to, anyway), and suddenly you hit the jet stream. Remember that scene in Finding Nemo when the searchers join the sea turtles and suddenly -- whooosh! -- they're swept into a current that sweeps them along surf-style? It's like that, isn't it? There are moments where the Spirit just sort of anoints the experience, and the trajectory of the sermon starts to move in unanticipated but ecstatically orderly ways.

My latest experience of this was this past Sunday. I was simply minding God's business in Ruth 2:1-13. In that text we find this verse: "Let your eyes be on the field that they are reaping, and go after them. Have I not charged the young men not to touch you? And when you are thirsty, go to the vessels and drink what the young men have drawn" (v.9).

I didn't think anything "special" of that verse. I highlighted it simply as Boaz's tender and protective concern for Ruth, his show of care and provision for her. But in a moment of gospel exultation near the end of the sermon, as I compared what Boaz the redeemer has done for this foreign widow to what Christ the Redeemer has done for we alien sinners, I was further comparing Ruth's faithful hard work and our obedience, making it clear that we obey in faith as she obeyed in faith, and when the Redeemer rewards us, he reckons our having taken refuge under the Lord (v.12) as our righteousness -- whooosh! -- I was swept up into the jet stream and said something along the lines of, "The Father calls us to rest from our striving, to drink the water drawn by somebody else."

That thought, that gospel angle on v.9, had not occurred to me prior to that moment. I wish I could say I saw that glaring up from the text in my prep. I did not. It hit me like lightning in that moment of gospel ecstasy. I stopped. I wanted the congregation to know it. So I noted it. "That wasn't in my outline, by the way. That water thing. It just hit me. Isn't that cool?" My congregation is not typically a very effusive one; we're in Vermont, don'tchaknow? One guy said, "Amen," a few gave murmurs of approval. I could see in many faces we were sharing a moment of awe in how the Spirit can illuminate a text to shine a light on Christ. It was super, for real.

I find that this happens most often when I am sticking to the text, not straying too far into my own thoughts or stories, and when I am showing both what the text immediately means and then secondarily how it might adorn the gospel. Finding the gospel spring in any text can be hard work, but once it's found, Christological goodness just starts bubbling over. It rarely happens when I'm superimposing some other homiletical agenda onto the text, inserting my predetermined points and principles, molding the text to fit them. Instead, gospel momentum is found when we preach with the grain of Scripture. Let it rule and let it roll.


Andrew Faris said...


Regarding the point of this post, I'm totally with you, both on the feeling, and on how you get there. No qualms whatsoever, and it's really a great feeling, isn't it?

A semi-related question: how legitimate is it really to go so typological in Ruth for your gospel turn? I guess my question is: do you think it is exegetically (or else biblical-theologically) reasonable to say that Boaz's character points us to Christ? Or is there a subtle way in which suddenly you are stripping the text of its original purpose- of the author's intended meaning- and using it instead basically as a giant illustration instead?

To put it a little more simply: is what you did with Boaz and Ruth any different than, say, using any other non-biblical story as an illustration of what Christ is like? And in that sense, are you actually preaching that text at all?

There are obviously a million hermeneutical, theological, and homiletical issues involved here. But I think it's an important question as we seek to be sensitive to a text's own meaning and its place in the salvation-historical story while we're in the pulpit.

It's an honest question, too. No disrespect meant.

Andrew Faris
Someone Tell Me the Story

Jared said...

Or is there a subtle way in which suddenly you are stripping the text of its original purpose

Andrew, please re-read the following lines from my post:

"I highlighted it simply as Boaz's tender and protective concern for Ruth, his show of care and provision for her."


"I am showing both what the text immediately means and then secondarily how it might adorn the gospel."

I did not say then and am not saying now that the author of the book of Ruth is consciously "making that up" to give us typography. He was narrating what the historical person of Boaz said and did. But the shadow of Christ is all over the book, here and elsewhere, and I don't think it's a stretch to see it.

Here is a previous post of mine that sort of outlines how I go about "finding Christ in the OT": http://gospeldrivenchurch.blogspot.com/2011/05/guidelines-for-finding-christ-in-old.html

Thanks for the questions.

Andrew Faris said...


Point taken. I did miss the first of those two quotes on first read. And I certainly didn't mean to be accusatory here. It's a real question for me still.

Anyway, I see where you're going with this and appreciate the clarification.


Jared said...

Andrew, thanks for understanding. And I didn't take your question as accusation but as questioning.

Also, in my previous comment, replace "typography" with "typology." :-)

Dubbahdee said...

I love the phrase "finding the gospel spring." I like thinking of refreshing water of life seeping out of every text. Helping your congregation to find and drink - that's preaching.

As to Andrews question, I can only say that I have been enormously helped in my ability to taste the gospel by preachers like Tim Keller and Tullian Tchividjian, who are masters of revealing the gospel patterns woven into the stories of the Bible. It's not about typology. And I would say that the stories and characters in scripture are specifically provided by God for us to use in illuminating the gospel. Not all believers have read Flannery O'Connor or listened to Tom Waits or Bob Dylan. The word of God, however, is the common wellspring from which we believers in Jesus are all called to drink.

Moreover, the scripture has been set apart for this specific purpose and is especially suited for it. By the Spirit these stories carry a weight and authority that other pictures cannot match. I think there is a difference when you use scripture to illuminate the gospel that takes it beyond merely playing with metaphor. Just as in the sacraments, the symbol holds the reality. When preacthing, the Holy Metaphor is the Real Deal.

Thanks Jared. Good stuff.