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But What Do They Hear?

Preachers can spend weeks immersed in the passages of Scripture they plan to teach, but applying hours of work into minutes of sermons is a challenge. Adrian Reynolds reflects on the importance of putting yourself in the listeners’ shoes as you prepare.

But What Do They Hear? primary image

We’re just embarking on a short series on Joseph at church. So I’ve been studying and preparing this rich section of the Old Testament in Genesis 37-50, even though I’m only preaching a couple of the sermons.

It’s struck me afresh how glorious the detail is, rich beyond my expectations. I’ve also seen things I’ve never really landed on before, despite knowing this section of Scripture pretty well, I thought.

Old Testament narrative is – on the whole – beautifully crafted and put together and one of the great challenges for leaders who preach and teach is how to retain this beauty and wonder. To be honest, much of what passes for solid preaching flattens the stories and robs them of their colour and inspired creativity.

Put yourself in the Pew

However, what struck me most this time around is the danger of refusing to sit in the pew. Let me explain.

When I preach in church (or, say, lead a Bible study) it’s pretty straightforward to preach or teach it to myself. This is a good starting point – it’s better, say, than a sermon which bears no resemblance to real life whatsoever (and we’ve all heard a few of those).

But the problem is that I’m not a normal listener.

For one thing, I’ve studied the text more thoroughly than anyone I’m speaking to: I’ve prayed and wrestled over this passage for some considerable time. That’s why, at one level, I’m in the pulpit. And preaching, therefore, that addresses me is the height of arrogance. In order to be able to teach well I need to be able to put myself in the shoes of those who are listening.

Textually, that means I need to think about the questions they are asking. I need to consider the problems they will have with any particular doctrine that is in view. In terms of application I need to be thinking about their week ahead, not just mine.

Applying Joseph’s story

Let me explain what I mean by reference to a particular well known text.

The story of Joseph (or, to be more accurate, the story of Jacob’s line – see Gen 37:2) is often reduced down to Gen 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

Taken in its entirety that’s a reasonable summary of the story, but only if the last clause is included. However, even then, it’s worth thinking about what people actually hear.

My guess is that most people hear just the first part: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” As such, the whole story now becomes a kind of practical worked example of Romans 8:28.

Now clearly it is that at one level, but that is not the entirety of the story in any way and if people go away from a sermon series thinking that the story of Joseph is all about God bringing good out of evil and, hey, we can face our troubled times, we’re rather missing the point.

So what do we do?

Well, I think Gen 45:7 is a better summary of the story, though considerably less well used at a popular level. “But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”

Does it matter? Yes, it does. For the art of good preaching and teaching is not only in content, nor just in delivery, it’s in connecting with those whom God has given us to shepherd, and that means knowing how they will receive what God gives us to say.

That is godly leadership.