Most Sunday sermons we hear involve themes, either on various virtues or on the common challenges of everyday life.
Often, these thematic sermons do not fully explain the Gospel reading of the day.
Sometimes only one or two verses are emphasised, occasionally out of context.
At other times, only part of the reading is explained.
I could not help but think of the Laetare Sunday sermon I heard on March 6, where the vicar explained the Parable of the Prodigal Son without discussing the Prodigal Son’s brother — the faithful one. The Prodigal Son is a difficult parable to understand, and I would posit that it makes former churchgoers hate the Bible, the Church — and very possibly — our Lord. The reason is that these former churchgoers are struggling with family obligations to parents. Said parents are ungrateful or demanding of these sons and daughters, but never of the black sheep in the family who seem to receive all their kindly, compassionate attention. When I find a good explanation of the parable, I’ll write about it. But I digress.
It seems that clergy avoid expository preaching because it will make people uncomfortable. Modern-day thinking — and seminary training — tell us that everyone must leave church happy.
We should leave church comforted as well as convicted of our sin and our lack of faith. Only by understanding the entire reading can we come to understand Christ’s intentions for us.
GotQuestions.org discusses expository preaching versus topical and textual preaching. Expository preaching is (emphases mine):
the exposition, or comprehensive explanation, of the Scripture; that is, expository preaching presents the meaning and intent of a biblical text, providing commentary and examples to make the passage clear and understandable. The word exposition is related to the word expose — the expository preacher’s goal is simply to expose the meaning of the Bible, verse by verse …
In expository sermons, the Bible passage is the topic, and support materials are used to explain and clarify it.
To prepare an expository sermon, the preacher starts with a passage of Scripture and then studies the grammar, the context, and the historical setting of that passage in order to understand the author’s intent. In other words, the expositor is also an exegete—one who analyzes the text carefully and objectively.
Contrast that with topical preaching, which more often than not, involves prooftexting:
To prepare a topical sermon, the preacher starts with a topic and then finds a passage in the Bible that addresses that topic. For example, for the chosen topic of “Laziness,” the preacher might refer to Proverbs 15:19 and 18:9 and touch on Romans 12:11 and 2 Thessalonians 3:10. None of the passages is studied in depth; instead, each is used to support the theme of laziness.
Textual preaching offers little improvement:
the preacher uses a particular text to make a point without examining the original intent of that text. For example, someone could use Isaiah 66:7-13 to preach on motherhood, although motherhood is only peripheral in that text, being merely an illustration of the true theme, which is the restoration of Israel during the Millennial Kingdom.
George Campbell Morgan, an expository preacher, was the pastor at Westminster Chapel of London between 1904-1919 and 1933-1943. During the intervening years, he conducted an itinerant ministry throughout the United States and Canada. By preaching solely on the Bible, he attracted thousands of people, not only on Sundays but also, in London, for his Friday evening Bible classes.
GotQuestions.org mentions this great preacher, the son of a Baptist minister, who was:
known as “the prince of expositors,” taught that a sermon is limited by the text it is covering. Every word from the pulpit should amplify, elaborate on, or illustrate the text at hand, with a view towards clarity. He wrote, “The sermon is the text repeated more fully.” A sermon’s primary function is to present the text.
I couldn’t agree more. It is a pity that not only do most Catholic and Protestant churches follow the Lectionary schedule with all its omitted verses but their congregations have to put up with topical or textual sermons that leave people none the wiser about the actual Bible readings heard just minutes before. All of it, sermon included, goes in one ear and out the other.
By contrast, expository preachers such as G Campbell Morgan and, in our time, John MacArthur, attract thousands of people at every service. This is because they are explaining Holy Scripture one verse at a time.
Although I prefer following readings relevant to the Church calendar, it would be better if clergy adopted the expository method so we walked out of Sunday services or Mass with a proper understanding of Scripture.
preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is the most reasonable way to teach the whole counsel of God …
Also, the only effective way of seeing the significance of a passage is in its context.
Each [book in the Bible] was designed by the Holy Spirit so that you have the Holy Spirit communicating something powerfully and clearly in the whole letter: you dare not miss a single part!
If I received five letters in the mail one day, it would make no sense to read a sentence or two out of one, skip two, read a few sentences out of another, and go to the next one and read a few out of that, and on and on. If I really want to comprehend the letter—what is going on, the tone, the spirit, the attitude, and the purpose—I must start from the beginning and go to the end of each one. If that is true of personal correspondence, I believe it is even more important when interpreting divine revelation.
Matthew Henry is the other prominent verse-by-verse expositor I know of whose writings are available to the public online. Although he died in the early 18th century, his messages are still valid today.
This is why I use Henry and MacArthur as my go-to men for making Scripture come alive.
My thanks to all readers who have been reading my near-weekly posts on the four gospels. After I complete Matthew’s gospel, I will continue with the New Testament, specifically, the Book of Acts.