It’s okay to go off-piste when preaching … providing you signpost it clearly

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There’s been a few occasions when I’ve been preaching where something has struck me and I’ve felt it particularly relevant and helpful but it hasn’t been something that the passage specifically addresses. Rather, it’s been a question arising perhaps out of something the passage leaves unaddressed.  There have been other occasions where I’ve drawn an analogy from a bible passage and if we are talking about what the exegesis technically points to, it’s not necessarily been the primary point the Bible passage wants us to draw.

Let me give you two examples of the latter from my own usage. First, there was a point when we’d planted our second congregation and both congregations were finding it challenging. There were still some people asking if we couldn’t go back to one congregation.  We were at our monthly prayer meeting and I was struck by the account of the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 4:1-7  when he meets the widow and she is about to lose everything to her creditors. All she has is some oil. He encourages her to go get as many pots and pans as possible and start pouring the oil. The oil goes into each pot and it doesn’t run out until every pot is filled.  Now, if we were preaching the passage, we wouldn’t take that as a promise that we would never run out of anything but there are general points about faith and a sign of God’s power. 

In the prayer meeting I mentioned the story because it seemed apposite with what we were doing, instead of pots to fill with oil, we were multiplying on congregations.  I suggested there was an encouragement from the example in the story for us to keep seeking to multiply whilst trusting God to provide the resources we need.  Now, was that the neatest bit of exegesis and exposition? Probably not.  It would have possibly lost me a few marks at seminary preaching class. 

My second example is one you’ll see referenced in a couple of weeks when I talk about the parable of the sower.  I’ve sometimes done an exercise where I’ve asked people to look at a garden with weeds, a pathway etc and I’ve asked two questions “where would you plant?” and “What would you need to do to prepare the areas not suitable for planting yet?” Again, that’s not the most exact exposition of Matthew 4.

Recently I heard a sermon on the man let down through the roof whom Jesus heals and forgives. The preacher paused late on in their sermon and said “I wonder what happened about that hole in the roof. It was brilliant, they powerfully drew out the way in which we may at times feel like we’ve been left with an unrepaired hole when seeking to serve Christ.  It was exactly right for  me at the time!  Of course, none of the Gospels address what happened with the hole.  Their primary focus is down in the room on the conversation between Jesus and the forgiven paralytic.

I believe that it is perfectly okay to go a little off-piste from time to time and to pick up on something we find striking even if it isn’t the exact point that the Bible passage is making.  Here are a couple of tips about this.

  1. Make it rare.  I have been in some church contexts where the Bible passage if read at all offers little more than a hook on which the preacher can hang their own ideas.  That’s a poor spiritual diet. However, in the examples I mentioned above, the  comments came in the context of a diet of expository preaching and where the church new that the preacher was committed to careful exegesis.
  2. Make sure that you have made clear what the main teaching point of the passage is. Do this, even if it’s only a brief introductory comment.
  3. Signpost very clearly what you are doing. Explain that you are going to pick up on something that has struck you, even though it is not the main point of the passage.

So, for example, with the parable of the sower, I might say something like this.

“Here Jesus uses the example of seed and soils to show the different heart responses that there are to him. The focus is on the point that we want to see God’s Word bearing fruit. Now, that’s the main point, that’s what the parable is about but I just want to pick up on something that struck me when reading the passage.  Yes, the passage is about our response. No, the passage doesn’t point to us being able to pick or chose where God’s Word goes and no it doesn’t talk about anything we can do to better prepare the hearts of those hearing the Gospel. However, it does strike me that ….”

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