Prayerful Exegesis

 

Article originally published in The African American Pulpit (Summer 2002).

Sermons originate from a variety of sources. That spark of inspiration, that “connection” between events experienced or words spoken and the Word of God are often the grist for the homiletic mill. The mind begins to churn. A particular passage or overarching theological truth grounded in the “whole counsel of God” presents itself. And another sermon is born. Or is it? How do we know if what we are saying is what “Thus saith the Lord”, what we want the Lord to be saying or what we were always told the Lord meant? How do we go about getting a “fresh” Word, whether it is every week or on special occasions? I suggest some “prayerful exegesis”.

Prayer is the bedrock of the ministry enterprise.   The Gospel writer Mark notes that when Jesus chose the twelve disciples, he chose them first “to be with him”, then “to be sent out to preach”.[1] In other words, there is no preaching without the discipline of prayer. A preacher must know first how to “be with” the Lord before s/he tries to proclaim the Lord. Gardner C. Taylor, while acknowledging the many factors that affect preaching notes, “preaching depends so much on the spiritual state of the preacher.”[2]

Ministry in general and preaching in particular is most effective when done out of the “overflow”. As preachers, it is important that we give out the abundance of what God has already poured into our lives. We must first be sated through communion with the Lord so that we have something to give to others. When the preacher ministers out of the abundance of his or her walk with the Lord, both pulpit and pew can leave the preaching moment full.

A strong prayer life teaches us the voice of God and helps us to perceive and interpret the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives. Prayer helps us to discern the difference between a word for us and a word for the people. Sometimes God must speak to the preacher before God can speak through the preacher. The preacher must be in a position to hear a word for and about him/herself lest we preach our stuff onto someone else. One of the many dangers of “going on empty” is that during a personal famine, one may give any word, even the wrong word, because one is grateful just to have something (anything) to say.

Just as prayer is essential for preaching, so also is the Bible. Prayer and the study of God’s Word are interconnected. It is never enough to simply know the Bible; one must know the God of the Bible. Dr. Proctor wrote, “Knowing the Bible is great and necessary, but knowing the God about whom the Book speaks and the Christ who is the center is the ultimate objective.”[3] The study of scripture, mixed with prayer, enables one to know not only the letter but also the spirit of the Word. Out of this crucible of prayer and preparation, supplication and study, a sermon is crafted. Therefore, Proctor defined a sermon as the “proclamation of the truth of God, through Jesus Christ, by a preacher endowed with spiritual discipline.”[4]

Sermon and scripture may interact in a variety of ways. A person may preach from a particular scripture or passage. In this way, the scriptures are foundational to the sermon. There presence is obvious and stated from beginning to end. One may also preach to the scriptures. One’s message may lead up to the scriptures, using the scripture as the central thought. Certain passages preach themselves. Narratives may be ready made sermons looking for a preacher who can “tell the story”. In this type of sermon, one is preaching through the scriptures. Then there are some sermons in which one does not rely on a particular passage or verse. A specific scripture may not be quoted, but the sermon is developed around the scriptures. In other words, the sermon may be more thematic, using as its basis some theological truth found in the Word of God but not grounded in one particular passage.[5] Regardless of how the sermon and scripture interact, there is no sermon apart from the scriptures. A sermon is proclamation that is “informed by the Scriptures.”[6] Thus, the scriptures must be properly interpreted or our sermons will be misinformed.

To properly interpret the scriptures is to engage in the activity of exegesis. Exegesis comes from the Greek verb exēgeomai, which means, “to lead out”.[7] When one exegetes a text, one seeks to provide an “explanation” or “interpretation” of what has been written.[8] One seeks to “lead out” the meaning of the text so that one can offer an explanation or interpretation of it. Exegesis, then, is a “systematic way of interpreting a text” with the goal of “reach[ing] an informed understanding of the text.”[9]

The purpose of exegesis is not to arrive at the interpretation, as if one human being can have the only definitive explication of the text, but to enter the text; to hear what is being said.[10] Exegesis humbles the preacher. It reminds us that we can never fully exhaust God’s Word. We learn, we grow but we never “master” God’s Word.[11] No matter how many times we have read it, there is still more.

Exegesis safeguards us from allowing what we “know” to prevent us from hearing what God may be saying at a particular moment. As interpreters and proclaimers of the sacred text, we sometimes forget that we stand within two thousand years of interpretive traditions[12]. Engaging in exegesis, interpreting the text for ourselves anew in this present generation, protects our thoughts from being co-opted by former generations. Exegesis is an act of faith in which one dares to believe that God is speaking and will speak to our current situations through God’s Word. It challenges us to not simply repeat what we have heard, but to examine its relevancy for today.   Exegesis is a reminder that “one’s encounter with and investigation of the text [is] at a given point in time”[13] not once for all.

Finally, exegesis keeps us honest. It forces us to examine whether the scripture is saying what we want it to say, think it is saying or if we are letting it speak on its own terms. The scriptures can mean many things; there are a variety of “legitimate” interpretations of one passage. If this were not the case, every preacher who preached the same text would be obligated to say and emphasize the same things. Instead, there is a marvelous dynamic between scripture, Spirit and preacher who brings his/her own experiences and particular lens to the text. Yet, the scriptures cannot mean anything we wish them to mean. There are limits to meaning due to factors such as vocabulary, culture, history, literary devices and social setting. Exegesis helps us to understand these limits and to construct an interpretation within the boundaries the text sets for itself so that armed with the Word, fueled by prayer we are equipped to proclaim God’s Word.

[1] Mark 3: 14-15

[2] Gardner C. Taylor, “Foreword” in The Certain Sound of the Trumpet: Crafting a Sermon of Authority by Samuel D. Proctor (Valley Ford: Judson Press, 1994) ix.

[3] Samuel D. Proctor, The Certain Sound of the Trumpet: Crafting a Sermon of Authority by Samuel D. Proctor (Valley Ford: Judson Press, 1994) 5.

 

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] William D. Watley, “Sir We Wish to See Jesus: The Text”, lecture given on June 2, 2001 at St. James AME Church, Newark, New Jersey for the Ministerial Staff Training Session.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lidell and Scott, An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, Seventh Edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 274.

[8] Exegesis is the noun form of exēgeomai, which means “explanation, interpretation”. Ibid.,

[9] John H. Hayes and Carl R. Holladay, Biblical Exegesis: A Beginner’s Handbook, Revised Edition (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987) 23.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 17-18.

[13] Ibid.

 

 

 

 

Raquel S. Lettsome, Ph.D.

"Equipping the saints for ministry"

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