[This is a continuation of my “Smoldering Wick” series, as I reflect on the process of an upcoming preaching event. I’m finding that it is a kind of outworking of my theology of Scripture, preaching and brokenness and how they relate.]
When preparing a sermon, it’s typical and helpful to think through these questions of the text:
1) what is the problem that the text poses?
2) how does the author go about solving that problem?
This is how I was trained to think, and there is definite value in it. By itself though, it is found wanting. What it assumes is that there is always a clear-cut process from point A to point B. In the case of 2 Corinthians, it would be as if the apostle Paul were saying something like this: “Brothers and sisters, you can avoid discouragement and loss of heart if you follow these three steps.” Such formulaic understandings of spirituality inevitably fail, and I don’t think the text of Scripture supports them.
What I would argue is that even if a text presents steps to follow or imperatives to obey, it is all in the context of the assumption that change only occurs in encounter with the living Christ. So, one of the things I think Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians is that there are clear pillars given us in the New Covenant that we can rely on to “not lose heart.” But it is simplistic to think and preach that that is all he is saying. There must be more; the text must usher into the presence of the Author, if the “spirituality of the text” is to find a home in our lives.
2 Cor 3:18 reminds us that change, healing and redemption occur in a relational gazing, or intimate conversational relating to God. The resources of the New Covenant make this relationship possible, but they are not the end; they are the means that get us there, so that we are free to open up to God in all our rawness, broken and surrendered before all the resources of God made available to us in Christ.
Building on this, I need to say that exegesis (exposition/explanation) of the text must be accompanied by an exegesis of the heart, both in the preacher and in the congregation. We don’t just need to know God, we need to grow in knowing ourselves. We don’t just need the text explained and applied to us; this is just one side of the conversation. We bring a particular “self” to the text in response. Thus, we need help exegeting what is in our hearts and souls, in order to respond to the Word of God from where we actually are, not from where someone else is, or where we “should” be. This is one of the biggest weaknesses in current evangelicalism (where I call home); we have focused intensely on proper exegesis of the text, and rightly so. We love God enough to get his words right. But it is dangerously ignorant to think that the “stuff” we bring to the text doesn’t affect how we read and apply it. Usually this stuff just flows like underground sewer pipes, controlling our viewpoint far more than we would be comfortable realizing. Religious false selves specialize in keeping this stuff hidden.
All that to say this, profound in it’s simplicity: only our actual selves can encounter the actual Jesus in the text of Scripture. Too often our reading or hearing of Scripture involves false selves relating to false gods, eg., our religious false self relates to the God who demands our performance above all else.
Lastly, I want to say that the act of coming before the text does not change us. Coming before the text is an intentional act of presenting ourselves before God (Rom 12:1-2) and trusting him to do what he wants, say what he wants. Even if we are not in an immediate specific situation where a “clear application” can be made, we can intend to become the kind of people that react that way from the heart, by the Spirit when the time comes.