1. Use it!
I would like to think it is unnecessary to encourage pastors to use the Bible in their preaching. But enough preachers these last few decades have let the Bible fall out of use that it is worth mentioning. Why wouldn’t pastors be using the Bible? Perhaps it is because the “how to” sermon is more easily understood and its relevance is more immediately obvious. The books of the Bible were, after all, first written to someone else and the relevance of Mephibosheth is rarely as clear as a sermon on how to raise your children.
But this is who we are and this is God’s primary place of speaking to us. The Bible is a sacrament of revelation, where ordinary words, indeed ancient words, become the very word of God to us today. These are our stories, the family stories we tell during dinner or around a campfire. They define us. They give us our sense of direction. We use them to wrestle with the issues the family is dealing with today. If we ignore them, we lose our sense of who we are.
2. Remember “The Rules” of Application
There are rules for applying the Bible today, just like there are rules to using language. We studied the English language in high school and college and sometimes those were hard courses. It’s much easier to use the rules than to learn them. The application rules that we as Christians have learned in church are complicated when you take them out and describe them. But we do follow rules.
Some of these application rules are more valid than others. Some of them, for example, are denominational rules. We “know” the text can’t mean something because the rules tell me it can’t. My traditions tell me what the “naughty verses” are that do not fit so easily into my paradigm and the ones that are my “key verses” and memory verses. While clearly many of these denominational rules are open to re-examination, these rules sometimes reflect God’s working with particular communities of faith. God has ministered and led particular faith families through these rules.
The key is never to split or get into destructive fights over these sorts of things. There’s nothing wrong with individual Christian traditions having their own unique identities as long as we don’t mistake our group for the true church and don’t become divisive. Indeed, we can hardly integrate biblical teaching together without making the kinds of choices that denominations represent. This side of eternity we have to live with some uncertainty to biblical meaning.
But at the core of the rules is pay dirt. At the same time that Martin Luther was crying, “Scripture only,” he was still interpreting the Bible according to the rules of common Christianity. These are the core beliefs that God unfolded in the church by the Spirit in the first few centuries after Christ. A person reading the Bible who doesn’t know these rules is just as likely to start a cult as lead people to hear the word of God.
Another dimension to the rules is a sense of when the Bible’s words are locked up in the ancient world and when they seem to leap off the page in direct relevance to today. When we read something and think, “Whaaat?” we are often reading something that our spiritual common sense is telling us does not apply directly to today. Clothing of mixed thread? Don’t trim the edges of your beard? Veil yourself while praying? We know “The Rules” and they steer us in application.
3. There’s always room for reformation.
Balancing the spiritual common sense that the Spirit unfolds is the prophetic voice. Sometimes our corporate common sense gets off track. Sometimes our current culture needs to be critiqued. This sort of critique tends to come from two directions.
First, it can come from the original meaning of the biblical texts. These texts did actually mean something when they were first written. That meaning was a function of how words were used when the books were written. Recovering the most likely meaning these words had is a science that studies things like grammar, history, and ancient literature. Few ministers are really competent interpreters of the original meaning. There is much room for improvement here. Every once and a while, God sends a Martin Luther along to remind the church where it has let its common sense stray from the fountain of our story and identity.
But reformation can also come from prophets who can sense that we have strayed from basic principles. Ironically, if one danger is to stop using the biblical text, the opposite danger is to get so close to the text that you forget the big picture. This is the danger of fundamentalism, the danger of becoming like the Matthean Pharisees who were good at the letter of the Scripture but quite incompetent followers of God. From time to time God sends prophets to help us see the heart of God once more and apply first principles to new situations.
4. The Spirit does just fine without us.
Perhaps most important is to realize that the Spirit does not need us as preachers. God is in no hurry, but He gets us where He wants us to go, slowly but surely. It’s like the person who tells the pastor after the sermon how much it helped them with such and such, but you realize you said nothing of the sort. So God leads his dear children along. Misinterpret boldly that the Spirit may come! Not intentionally, of course, but you will misinterpret the Bible from its original meaning and you will do it often. Try not to, but recognize that the Spirit will work with your words regardless.
And He doesn’t need an hour to do so. We have to wonder in our attention deficit age if any sermon over twenty minutes is anything but a preacher enjoying listening to him or herself talk. The people stopped listening ten minutes ago or more. Say what God has put on your heart as you have danced with Scripture. Then let God do the rest.