A Bible Scholar’s Guide to Preaching: Meditation

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Pastors of different types and in different contexts have varying levels of time for “sermon prep.” We all known 5 hours is not enough, but most do not have the luxury of 20+ hours. So, let’s say that we are working in a given week with 15 hours for sermon prep. Everyone approaches this differently, but I tend to try to have a few big chunks to really dig in (e.g., 3-hour block x2) and then some daily re-working, and then practicing the day before and/or the morning of.

Let’s say, then, that for me, the ideal would look something like this (week to week)

Monday: 4 hour block

Tuesday-Thursday: 2 hours each day

Friday: 3 hour block

Weekend: 2 hour practice

I have been teaching pastors and preachers for ten years. I know that there is a temptation to jump into books and look at websites to begin constructing and illustrating the sermon. But I would like to propose that the first and most crucial thing should be: meditation (for a helpful analogy from Eugene Peterson, click here). When I think about what it means to meditate on Scripture, I see it as sustained close attention to the text—like a staring contest. It is distraction-free, work-free, sermon-free, closed door, attunement to the text (or, more accurately, attunement to God through the text).

How do you meditate on Scripture for sermon preparation?

I have a few recommendations.

[Preface: it is assumed meditation is about praying and communing with God. I hope and trust that you do this. But also, I see the recommendations below as possible forms of prayer and communion. But perhaps it still needs to be said: PRAY!]

#1: WORD WALL: Print out the Scripture text in super-large font and plaster it on the wall. I use colored pencils and mark up the text with notes and thoughts, prayers, impressions, highlighting of important words, etc. I suggest keeping it “up” all week and spending time each day (maybe twice a day) marking it up more.

2: TRANSLATE: Another helpful meditation exercise is to translate the biblical text from Hebrew or Greek into English. I notice that when I do the translation myself, I am forced to slow down and study the text more carefully. If you do not know the biblical languages, I suggest reading the text in any other language (French, Spanish, Latin, etc.). If all else fails, just read it in several different English translations. Again, meditation is about slowing down, and focusing on the text as a form of listening to God.

3. LISTEN: Another way to practice meditation is to listen to the passage being read. There are many apps or websites for this. This also helps get you into the role of being a “hearer” of the text. What stood out to you? Did you catch wordplay or theme repetition?

4. DISCUSS: I assume many pastors do their sermon prep in isolation—out of convenience, but also because it can be a very personal experience. But I would suggest building in time to talk with a friend or co-worker about the text. This can happen over coffee, but perhaps it can be done over social media to open a dialogue with several confidants. I have a private FB group with a dozen pastor friends and students precisely so I can throw out questions and thoughts to them for feedback. The key is reflecting and “living with the text” and inviting someone else into the process to stimulate more thought.

5. WRITE: Everyone is different, so maybe this won’t help, but I like to do “free writing” early on in the process. They are not quite notes, but just “riffing” on the text. It is a form of engagement with Scripture. You could write prayers. Or even just doodle. The basic idea is to interact with the text is a free and open way.

I don’t expect pastors to do all these things, I do #1, #2, and #5 always. Sometimes I do #4, and occasionally #3.

But all of these are meant to facilitate meditation. Again, I find that pastors are too eager to start reading modern books and construct “the sermon.” But what I am recommending is an early and prolonged time of soaking in the text. Jumping right into modern books often limits how God can speak to you, since these voices will dominate your reading of the text. I am working with my hermeneutics students right now on inductive exegetical study for the precise reason that I believe they can learn so much from careful personal and meditation. Consulting academic secondary literature does come—later. But first things first, meditate!

A Bible Scholar’s Guide to Preaching: First Things

Preach Concept Watercolor and Ink PaintingDare I try to talk about the art of preaching when I am not a full-time preacher? I wondered about this before deciding to start a blog series on preaching. Perhaps it does seem a bit audacious. But what else are blogs for? My hope is simply to talk about my approach to preaching, and offer some tips on resources from a Bible scholar. Also, I have been preaching at area churches more and more as I settle down in Portland and connect with local pastors. And—my students tell me my lectures are “preachy” (that’s a compliment, right?)

Before diving into whats and hows in later posts, we should begin with important first things.

What IS preaching?

When we look at the New Testament, “preaching” is all about publicly announcing and communicating to others the good news of Jesus Christ. Preaching isn’t about teaching doctrine per se, nor about Bible study per se. It is “gospel-ing”—an announcement that expects a response with one’s words, heart, and life. [see Acts 10:42]

For me, there are two fundamentals that must be there for preaching to take place:

-Scripture-centered communication (that’s why I recommend using a lectionary)

-Jesus-centered communication (this does not preclude the Holy Spirit, but the preacher prays for and invites the Holy Spirit to point to Jesus and change lives)

The Attitude and Mindset of the Preacher?

Sometimes we just ease into a habit of weekly preaching and we might lose sight of why we preach. Is it to relay information? It is more than that. Is it to entertain? No. Is it to teach life skills? No. Is it to help people with self-actualization? No. Some of these things might happen in a sermon, but they are not the core.

I find Paul’s words here evocative and captures the heart of preaching (even if Paul wasn’t necessarily thinking about sermons):

Let the Word of Christ dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col 3:16, NET)

Preaching is about inviting Christ to dwell within the people of God and do His ministry there, and Christians do this through preaching/teaching, singing, and prayer (among other things). Preaching is not about lessons and information, it is ultimately about Jesus present among His people to bless, challenge, and transform (I got this from Bonhoeffer, by the way).

This point is very important, because I hear a lot of sermons that are either overly explanatory (e.g., a Bible commentary), or political (“like these ideas, and hate these other ideas”), or vapidly non-religious (“this is how to become a better leader in twelve easy steps”). Preaching is about JesusNow, if you preach from the OT, for example, it can be a bit trickier, and we don’t just want to slap Jesus onto the end of every OT sermon. Conceptually, though, every sermon (OT or NT) should be given from a Christian perspective about what the triune God has done, is doing, and will do in the world. Put another way, a good OT sermon should still inspire people to turn to Jesus (even if Jesus is not explicitly talked about in the sermon).

That’s my take on the concept of preaching, what do you think? Leave a comment.

My Galatians Audio Course, Special Deal (Gupta)

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screenshot2019-01-31at10.57.32amLast summer I taught a course on the text and theology of Galatians at Regent College (Vancouver, BC). Regent Audio has now made that course available for purchase, and currently they are running a special sale: 50% off! (You must use the discount code: NEWJAN19) ($19.99)

Here is the description for the course:

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https://www.regentaudio.com/products/galatians-faith-in-christ-at-work-through-love

Paul believed the Galatians had been tempted to buy into a counterfeit gospel, one that led to fear, slavery, and division. Undertake an exegetical and theological study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, exploring his main point that the Christ-relation is the center of the ‘good news,’ which leads to true peace, empowering freedom, and generous love.

As a special bonus offer, for the first 50 people who order the course, I will send you my own paraphrase of Galatians that I give to my students (pdf form). After you order the course, leave a comment here on the blog. Make sure you register your personal email when you log in to comment, so I can send you the document via email.

The 50% off sale ends February 7, 2019. That is a great deal for a 12-hour course! I have listened to numerous Regent Audio courses by people such as Gordon Fee, Rikk Watts, and John Barclay. They are wonderful for learning while commuting!

 

The “Emotional” Paul and the Problem of Tribalism

This spring Mike Bird and I are finishing up a co-written commentary on Philippians (New Cambridge Bible, Cambridge University Press). Over the years, I have spent significant time in Philippians, but this month I have been getting deep into Phil 2:19-30, a passage I haven’t examined much before:

19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. 20 I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. 22 But Timothy’s[b worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel. 23 I hope therefore to send him as soon as I see how things go with me; 24 and I trust in the Lord that I will also come soon.

25 Still, I think it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus—my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger and minister to my need; 26 for he has been longing for all of you, and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 He was indeed so ill that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, so that I would not have one sorrow after another. 28 I am the more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious. 29 Welcome him then in the Lord with all joy, and honor such people, 30 because he came close to death for the work of Christ,[e risking his life to make up for those services that you could not give me.

Many scholars have more or less treated this section as “newsy”—Paul’s plans and the sending of some of his ministry partners. The emphasis tends to fall on the sending (back) of Epaphroditus. What I was struck by, though, was the way the emotions of Paul and others (e.g., Timothy) are so nakedly on display. Paul wants to be “cheered” or “encouraged.” Timothy “genuinely” cares for the Philippians. Epaphroditus longs for them. Paul would be deeply saddened if Epaphroditus met a grim fate.

At first I thought—Was Paul in a sentimental mood when he wrote this? We don’t don’t tend to think of Paul as “emotional.” But in actuality he could express his feelings very openly, as he does in many of his letters (e.g., 1 Thess 3:1-2; Rom 1:11-12; 2 Cor 2:4). But I think Paul mentions all these deep emotions in Phil 2:19-30 for a reason (as part of his pastoral ministry).

It is hard to hate someone you care about.

Or, maybe it is more accurate to say: it is easier to hate someone you don’t care about. Part of what was going on in Philippians was “tribalism” – people and groups defending their personal interests and “camps,” and when that happens the unity of the body dissolves. Tribalism is about protecting an in-group, and the outsiders (whoever they may be) are either potential converts to my group, or enemies. Shunning or judgment of the other is a protective measure. This is part of what Paul means when he says “All of them are seeking their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (2:21).

Paul models for the Philippians a deep and intimate emotional investment in others, such that you share their joys and sorrows. Why? Because it is hard to hate someone you care about. That is why I cry during sad movies—or even sad commercials. I have (often inadvertently) identified with the character that I share their pain. Paul is saying, look at the circle of communion we share; there is so much to gain in joy (and even in shared sorrow), but you have to open yourself up to care for the other and enter into their emotional life.

Reading Philippians reminds me, Paul’s letters are not about theology per se, or ethics, or ritual, or church; they are about life—together.

Review: Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar, Part 2 (Gupta)

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In the first part, I summarized the book and talked about the positive features of this fascinating book. Here I offer critical comments.

I mentioned before that Winn’s book is a deductive study—applying a hypothesis to the text and pointing out proofs or evidence in favor of his theory (namely that Mark’s Gospel was written to counter Vespasian’s claims to supremacy). Winn assembles many different types of evidence in favor of his theory. But, in my opinion, this doesn’t raise the level of his theory to probability, only possibilty. Here are some of the obstacles as I see it.

More primary Vespasian material. The part of the book that captured my attention most was material that demonstrated “Vespasian’s claim to be the true fulfillment of Jewish messianic prophecies and expectations” (45). Here he quotes brief snippets from Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius (pp. 45-46). I think Winn needed to really expand this into perhaps even a whole chapter. The more he could tie all of this directly to Judaism and Jewish thought, the better he could establish his case.

Beyond connections/parallels. It is common in anti-imperial readings of the NT to point out parallels or connections to support the case. But the perennial issue is, why does Mark not speak more directly against Vespasian? It is easy to find all kinds of parallels and resonances with imperial ideology – where do you draw the line?

Methodology. This is often ground on which many arguments are broken. When connections are detected, the question is why such parallels are there and what they are meant to mean in terms of interpretation. Is Mark anti-imperial at the whole-composition level? That is, is it a main reason why the Gospel was written? How do you know? When it is on a passage-level, is it a clever rhetorical device, an intentional criticism that has a point, is it a non-political parody? And, again, how do you know?

I think, for me, this “anti-Caesar” approach to Mark must address convincingly why Mark is not more explicit about this. Just as Paul is not explicit about any of this either.

That being said, Winn has come closer than most in arguing in favor of an anti-imperial approach to Mark, thanks to his historical spade-work. Again, I think you can “enjoy” a book without finding it completely convincing. Read it!

Review: Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar, Part 1 (Gupta)

 

WinnI read lots of books, but I can’t say I enjoy many of them. Well, Adam Winn’s new book, Reading Mark’s Christology under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology is an absolute pleasure. In this 2-part review, I will take this first post to summarize the book and explain why I like it so much. In the next part I offer my critical feedback.

Summary

The application of postcolonial criticism and empire studies to the Synoptics has been going on for decades. In fact, it continues to be rather “trendy.” But most of the time it is done with rather vague thematic brushstrokes – an allusion or double-meaning here and there. Lots of speculation, no real purpose or historical grounding. In comes Winn. He applies a pretty impressive historical theory to the composition of Mark, and then lays out evidence within the text. Winn places the writing of Mark into the context of emperor Vespasian’s reign. In particular, Vespasian presented a certain imperial ideology of supremacy that included conquering of the Jewish people and destruction of the Jewish temple. Furthermore, there is some evidence that Vespasian claimed to fulfill Jewish messianic prophecies and expectations (or other claimed that about him)—Winn gives direct testimony about this from Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius (pp. 45-46). The implication of this for Christians would be the message that the “Jewish scriptures did not point to a Jewish Messiah but rather to the rise of the emperor Vespasian” (48). Winn argues that Mark wrote his Gospel in part to “set the record straight,” so to speak; thus, Mark’s Christology is central to his story, and one ought to read Mark within this wider political context.

With this backdrop in view, Winn gets to work showing how elements of Mark’s Gospel support his hypothesis – The Gospel as intentionally anti-Vespasian. Mark’s emphasis on the miracle-working wonders of Jesus would have a direct intention of one-upping the assumed miracles of Vespasian (see Winn’s ch. 3). Winn has a clever imperial-context solution to the Messianic Secret mystery as well. Like other kings and rulers of his time, Jesus was expected to resist excessive public honor, but he could (and did) accept public honor sometimes (see Winn’s ch. 5). And obviously the Temple incident is important to Winn’s theory. Why the Temple was destroyed was important for Flavian propoganda—and for Mark’s Gospel. Rather than this being a powerful act of Vespasian, Mark ensures Christians understand how this came about by the will of the one God who allowed Rome to sack the Temple “as a sign of divine favor on the Markan community, establishing it as the true dwelling place of God and divine power” (150).

Strengths

There are many strengths of Winn’s proposal. First and foremost he grounds it in history—especially the ancient testimonies of Vespasian’s supremacy. One can see how this might become central to Mark’s pastoral intentions. Secondly, Winn focuses this on the temple, a major feature of Jewish life, and a key symbol in early Christianity. Thirdly, Winn has done his Roman world homework and is able to find a number of fascinating connections between Jesus and Roman imperial ideology in continuity or contrast. And, perhaps most noticeably, Winn is a winsome and succinct writer offering clear information, helpful summaries, and explicating the relevance of connections he observes.

There are two types of academic studies – inductive and deductive. Most studies are inductive; they look at a theme or issue and draw out a variety of insights. Some studies are deductive – they develop a hypothetical solution to a problem and then amass evidence to support that theory. Winn’s book is deductive; he urges that Mark should be read as a response to imperial ideology, grounded in the ascension of Vespasian. He does a fine job of drawing together elements of imperial ethos and propaganda and then demonstrating how Mark’s Gospel, and specifically his Christology, is designed to counteract this. Again, he does not do this in a “hey aren’t these anti-imperial motifs interesting” sort of way; rather, he makes a case that Mark directly desired to subvert the emperor’s actual claims with his Gospel. This makes Winn’s book engaging and exciting!

When students ask me for good examples of deductive argumentation, Winn will serve as a great case study.

Having said all of that, I will also say that I am not sold on his theory (Yes, I can love a book without agreeing with its core thesis!). Be on the lookout for my next post to see why…