I have an uneasy conscience, and I’m hoping you can help.
Let me give you some background. We are in the middle of a short series of sermons looking at the doctrine of scripture. We are taking key passages, and seeing how the bible says we should approach the bible.
My task was to tackle a passage that looks at what the bible does within us, more of the subjective, experiential side, if you like. So, rather than tell them to go and read some John Piper, we looked at a stanza of Psalm 119. Any stanza would have done, but we chose verses 97-104, because they start on the note of love, and end on the note of sweetness.
My conscience began to trouble me about halfway through Thursday; you know, that time of the week when the clouds begin to lift, and you begin to see the shape of what you’re going to say. Most of the pieces are in play, but you’re still sifting them and ordering the ideas.
I was going to try to model having a quiet time, and so we were going to have something like Piper’s ‘Look at the Book’ pattern, with the text on the screen, and me interacting with it, live. That wasn’t the issue.
It was what I was going to say. I had a neat series of ideas, all coming straight out of the text, which were designed to encourage us to read the bible properly. I think I was being fair to the text, encouraging to the church, and practical in application. People could go home, try it themselves, and see the bible come alive.
So what was the problem?
Well, where was Jesus? Where was the gospel?
Here’s my Thursday dilemma – was what I was preparing actually a sermon at all?
I’ve been mulling over preaching for a long time now, and John Chapman drilled into me years ago, that it’s supposed to be ‘evangelism every Sunday.’ I’ve taught in homiletics class many times, that if you’re preaching the Old Testament, and what you’re saying could have been said in a synagogue, hit reverse. Again, as Chappo said, ‘Of course you can teach the Old Testament without mentioning Jesus. But why would you want to?’ It’s a brilliantly insightful question.
“Of course you can teach the Old Testament without mentioning Jesus. But why would you want to?”
It’s a brilliantly disturbing question.
And yet here I was, again.
So what did I do? Two things.
First, I pulled in John 14, because of Jesus’ teaching about his words, the Holy Spirit, and how we know him. I echoed every one of the points from within Psalm 119, and showed how Jesus taught the same. I still let the Psalm give us the structure, but I took it explicitly to Jesus.
Second, I showed how the Psalm is Christocentric.
Bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which I find helpful, but where I haven’t found the tidy words yet. So this is important, but ugly. Usually when people say that the Psalms are Christocentric, they mean that they are ‘Objectively Christocentric’. That is, whether by direct prophecy, or more generally as a messianic pattern, the Psalms point to Jesus’ ministry, earthly and heavenly. But with this Psalm I wanted to show that they are also ‘Subjectively Christocentric’ (trust me, words like that did not cross my lips!). That is, they are an insight into the inner life of Jesus as we find them being prayed and sung perfectly by him. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that this is one of the main ways Jesus learned his identity and destiny, and it is extraordinary to almost overhear him praying. Try it with me:
As an overall approach to the scriptures: Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
As he encountered the scribes and Pharisees: Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.
As the teenager in the temple: I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
As he encountered the hypocrisy of the leadership: I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.
As he was tempted in the desert: I have kept my feet from every evil path, so that I might obey your word.
See what I mean? And then I encouraged people to take the second step, and pray the psalm for themselves too, because as we do so, we will grow more like Jesus.
So that’s how I solved it.
But my uneasy question remains. Did I just stick Jesus onto a Christ-less sermon, to make myself feel better?
Or did I actually preach Christ?
Because over coffee, afterwards, I met a young unbeliever who’d just wandered in for the first time, and I do hope he heard the gospel.
If you’d like to think more about preaching, you can buy my book, Cutting to the Heart here