Sermon Introductions and Badly Stained Tablecloths

This blog post is a response to an informal poll on Facebook in which I asked:

Hey Reformed friends, I’ve wondered for a long time about the first part of a sermon. Which of these two do you prefer, and why?

Option A:
1. introduction/story
2. scripture
3. exegesis

Option B:
1. scripture
2. introduction/story
3. exegesis

The responses were great. On the whole, the majority opted for option B or something similar. Here is my response to the poll:

Thanks everyone for the fantastic conversation about sermon form. You all give me hope that Facebook can be a place for faithful Christian dialogue. I purposely didn’t respond to anyone so as not to tilt the conversation. But now that the responses have slowed down, allow me to push back pretty hard on those who argue for the traditional structure of [scripture > introduction > exegesis] or even more rigorously, [scripture > exegesis].

I totally agree with the theological reasoning for placing scripture first and insisting on the primacy of the word. I do think that starting with scripture should be the norm from which we deviate, not the exception. But I can’t say that starting with an introduction is off-limits. Here’s why:

First, to the charge that starting with an introduction necessarily leads to eisegesis, I tend to think that the line between exegesis and eisegesis is very fuzzy. It is a noble pursuit to try to avoid certain kinds of eisegesis, but it is impossible to eliminate it. It is a function of our human finitude and inherent perspectival apprehension of the world. Better to relentlessly study and name and baptize your perspectives than to pretend that they are not there.

Second, worrying about the temporal primacy of the word in the sermon strikes me as an overworrying. Don’t we believe in the ontological primacy of the Word? Doesn’t that trump our petty squabbles about our experience of a tiny slice of time? Theologically, we can say pretty confidently that the Word precedes us in the creation of the world, and the Word precedes us in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the gospels. If we preach these truths regularly, I don’t think we need to freak out about whether or not we start the sermon with the scripture or with an introduction. (Besides, if you start the entire worship service with a votum, you are already starting worship with a curious interweaving of human and divine speech. So calm down. God and we are already, in the power of the Spirit, in this together.)

Thirdly, insisting that we start with scripture assumes a level of Biblical literacy that our congregations simply do not have. When I think about the Reformers (or even the later Puritans) insisting on scripture first, I am reminded that Calvin (and later John Owen) preached every day. In a context with that high level of scriptural knowledge, it makes a lot of sense to not distract your congregation with introductions. Oddly, for all of the Reformation polemics against monasticism, this kind of daily preaching of the word in places like Geneva was actually much closer to a monastic daily spiritual ordering of life than our contemporary American Reformed context. I don’t say this lightly, but times have changed.

And here, metaphorically, is the meat of it: preaching a sermon without an introduction is like serving up the most delicious culinary creation by plopping it directly onto the tablecloth. People need a plate on which to hold the food. If people begin to admire the intricate design on the plate instead of the food itself, then the sermon introduction has gone too far. But it is an act of hospitality, an act of missional engagement, and an act of love for your people to hand them the plate before you hand them the food.

Having said this, I think we can make clear distinctions between more and less faithful sermon introductions. As others have already said, a sermon introduction is helpful to the extent that it provides helpful context to the scripture passage, or asks a key existential question which the text itself will also ask or sharpen or answer. A sermon introduction can be less helpful if its purpose is to emotionally hook (or manipulate) the congregation, or establish the brand of the preacher, or flirt with and warm up the congregation. Put more bluntly: intros that lead into the text are good. Intros that lead too deeply into the interior life of the preacher (or even the congregation) are less helpful.

Sermon form carries invisible theological weight. The form of the sermon subtly shapes the way we see the contours of the life of faith. A sermon which begins with subjectivity (and, most likely in the application phase ends with subjectivity) will shape your congregation to view their spiritual life as the work of God framed within the larger framework of their needs and wants. A sermon which begins and ends with the work of God will form people to see their lives as surrounded by the active grace of God.

This is by no means to eliminate your emotions and guts from preaching. There is totally a place for feelings and subjective experience and your needs and wants in a sermon. It’s just not what should open, define or drive the sermon.

However, for the sake of hospitality, mission, and love, I have to say that in some instances (but not all) an introduction to the sermon can be a very good thing. If I am preaching a narrative, I would prefer to lead with the story of scripture. If I am preaching deep in the middle of Romans, or Hebrews, or Ezekiel, I as the waiter might want to set the table before I serve the chef’s special.

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the pastoral love story and political violence

For the last couple decades scholars have argued as to what ways (if at all) Jane Austen’s novels have grappled with the political realities of her day. In particular, scholars have noted that at a time of international upheaval (including the brutal, violent, volatile French Revolution), Austen appears to write (at first glance) insular pastoral love stories that seem wholly unconcerned with the violent geopolitical realities of the outside world. The world around Jane Austen is changing rapidly, dangerously, and yet her novels seem to only deal with the often trite and petty social games of rural British aristocracy.

Perhaps this narrative technique is not without precedence, particularly in the Christian scriptural tradition in which Austen was steeped. I am reminded in particular of the book of Ruth. Like Austen’s novels, it too tells a [seemingly] simple pastoral love story, even as it is canonically bounded by unceasing political violence. It is preceded by the book of Judges, which ends in a bloodbath with genocidal intent and a mass sexual assault on the young women of the tribe of Benjamin. It is followed by the book of Samuel, in which the murky morality of political intrigue leaves no one unstained and the body count rises at an alarming rate. You could choose to read Ruth as just a nice little love story, but its canonical positioning forces us to read it as more than just a cute love story. Like Austen’s novels, it is a bold declaration of Christian love in the midst of a senselessly violent world.