Application and the Preacher

Today’s sermon was drawn from my PhD thesis. I have spent a lot of time reflecting  Judges 4. This blog draws on some on my reflections:

Judges 4 is a familiar tale, but in the process of translating and reading it, I found myself swept up into the story feeling the tension build.  I am not just trying to analyse the narrative and discern the author’s intentions I am also responding to the text. When a preacher reads the text, it can be useful for them to note their initial response.[1] Cousins, drawing from performance criticism, writes about the power of internalising a narrative. I have found this internalisation to be an important part of the sermonic process.[2] I read and delve into the story until I come to a place where I almost embody the message, I believe God is calling me to preach. Preaching has a performance aspect to it which as Cousins says can change ‘the way I think and speak about the text’, it is no longer a ‘static object’ but a ‘dynamic event’ in which I participate.[3] Part of that process involves memorisation and body movement. But it begins by recognising the initial response you have to the text.

I (somewhat not surprisingly) was drawn to Deborah. I found myself championing her. Long argues that one of the functions of a narrative is identification with a character; often, the Bible gives characters ‘worthy of emulation’.[4] Deborah’s presence feels striking and subversive. I love that God chooses to work through her. It made me realise how few female characters there are to identify within the Bible, and I wanted to identify with her. A preacher’s presuppositions matter. The question became: how much should I focus on her?

As I read through the evangelical commentaries, I felt a difference in our readings. They acknowledged the importance of Deborah, but they also seemed to downplay her. Block in his brief section on what this text means to us speaks about how God works through different people to fulfil his plan, he celebrates Deborah but also notes that she ‘does not displace men in officially established positions of leadership’.[5] Evans’ also seems to downplay the significance of Deborah appearing in the story. I wrote one draft sermon that was all about Deborah and Jael. But after listening to my evangelical dialogue partners, I tried to pull back my love for Deborah.

The danger of having such strong and interesting characters is that we can then lose sight of God. Way takes the principle approach when it comes to application stating the principle from Judges 4-5 is that each of us has ‘unique positions to play in God’s game plan’ but whatever our positions may be the focus should be on giving the ‘glory to God’.[6] This is a text that therefore calls people to have faith even when God calls us to unexpected positions.[7] I wanted to sit in this tension and focuses on the characters while also making sure I brought the sermon back to God. In my second draft, as I sat with the story, I decided to explore the partnership that exists between the characters and between God.

The relationship between women and men and the way they are portrayed became the motif that holds the sample sermon together. This sermon comes from a personal place. Sermons and application do not arise in neutral territory but are shaped by people. Craddock who favours an inductive approach to preaching speaks about the importance of grounding a sermon in ‘concrete experiences’.[8] When it came to first writing this sermon for the thesis, our church had just appointed a male associate pastor to join the team. I was navigating a new dynamic when I was a team leader, and where there was both another woman and a man on the team. I was wrestling with how this was going to work, and I realised how much baggage I carry and how it can negatively impact my interactions with the opposite gender. Underneath the bluster of my first sermon celebrating Deborah was insecurity. I doubt my leadership abilities and sometimes wonder if people like Block and Webb are right, and women are not meant to be official leaders. If I preach otherwise, maybe it will settle it within myself. It feels like I have been fighting for a long time to be accepted as a female leader, yet the cost can be that I forget that we are not called to do life and ministry alone. We need one another.[9] When I prepared to preach this sermon, things had changed again. I am no longer part of a pastoral team, and I realized how much I missed that. From that experience and my interaction with the text came the sermon.


Reference List

[1] Joseph Webb, Old Texts, New Sermons: The Quiet Revolution in Biblical Preaching (St Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 16.

[2] 184

[3] 201

[4] Long, Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible, 76.

[5] Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, (Nashville: B & H Pub. Group, 1999). 246.

[6] Kenneth C. Way, Judges and Ruth, Teach the Text: Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2016), 46.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Fred B Craddock, As One without Authority, 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979), 50.

[9] Curtis James takes a similar position to myself, celebrating Deborah, Barak and Jael for cooperating together to save Israel, see: Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom : Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 102.