One of the most valuable pieces of advice about preaching I ever got is this. If there’s anything in the text you’d like to skip, major on it. That is where the gospel is found.
Or, as David Day put it in his Preaching Workbook (a fine primer):
‘looking for trouble’… If you read a passage carefully, imaginatively and prayerfully, the text will often ‘pop’ – that is, some aspect of the passage will surprise you or scandalize you or puzzle you. This is the feature which it is most tempting to overlook, and this is the bump in the terrain which will tell you where to dig for buried treasure.
In practice, approaching the text ‘looking for trouble’ involves a bit of discipline.
- Take your time. Time to pray, time to meditate, time to ponder, time to let the text sink in, and simply time to give God space doing business with you. I personally need to do a Jacob and spend the night wrestling with God before discovering where the good news is in striking Uzzah dead on the threshing floor of Nacon for the crime of saving the ark of God from falling (2 Sam 6:5-8).
- Dig, don’t dodge. The text will offer surface gems (or there’s a second reading) readily available to craft a fine sermon. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, and if the Spirit leads that way, follow faithfully. But, as a rule, get your exegetical spade out and start digging deep. When given Luke 6:27-31 (‘Love your enemies’) and Psalm 137 to preach on, you may just need to start with the closing line of the Psalm. Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
- Underline, don’t apologise. If the good news is in the knotty bits, the last thing you want to do is to diminish the gospel. When Jesus tells us to hate our own father and mother and wife and children (Luke 14:26), then yes, there’s a discussion to be had about the thrust of the Aramaic underlying the word ‘hate’ (µισεω). But don’t use such linguistic, textual or exegetical work to reduce the offense unless the evidence clearly demands it. In Luke 14, Jesus’ allusion to Deuteronomy 33:9 and Exodus 32:26-28 does in any case not admit a comfortable reading.
- Beware the lectionary. And if your church doesn’t use a lectionary, beware your own instincts. Readings tend to stop where judgement starts, or violence, or offense. In the Church of England, Isaiah 25 is read every year, but never beyond verse 9. The promised blessing never connects with judgement. Also, awkward bits are sometimes blatantly skipped. Omitting verses 22-23 from Matthew 7:21-27 neuters Jesus’ deliberate shock into a tidy Sunday school story. Omitting verses 5-17 arguably turns Psalm 72 into something else entirely. Finally, the lectionary quietly edits cultural discomfort away. 1 Timothy 2:1-6 is read twice in the three-year cycle, but 2:8-15 not at all.
Brothers and sisters, never shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God. The gospel that never offends is a product of the neutered, anodyne, safe and toothless “love” of the God of good intentions and cheap grace. The God of scripture is a whole lot bigger, holier, more loving and more dangerous than that, and the gospel more glorious. Dig for treasure. Preach it.