Preaching through books of the Bible is my jam. I love to take months and work through a book, as I did recently in Hebrews over the course of 44 sermons. I am convinced and see persistent evidence that the best way Christians learn the Word of God is through the systematic and regular study of its books. Only careful exposition that builds line upon line, precept upon precept, truth upon truth, will give those in my care a strategic grasp of biblical truth over a span of years.
Since the Bible has 66 books and two testaments but I only have one life to preach it, I may change the lens from one book to another so that I’m looking more or less closely at its treasures. While I have to decide whether to take months or weeks in any one book, my standard method of preaching and teaching is systematic exposition.
But I am a shepherd who preaches, not a preacher who shepherds. In other words, I am not merely a Bible teacher exegeting the text, but a pastor walking through life with the people I serve and applying the texts I exegete. Every so often a life event occurs that requires—even demands—that I deviate from my schedule, that I park the plan for a while to preach to a specific need that occupies the minds and troubles the hearts of my people.
To ignore it would be spiritual malpractice.
A doctor might have a patient on a healthy diet and particular pharmaceutical regimen for a heart issue, but if a kidney stone suddenly lodges somewhere in the patient, the doctor has to treat that. Pastors, too, must keep their eyes on the acute as well as the chronic.
Seize the Moment
Imagine a pastor is preaching through Romans, and he’s preparing a message for the following Sunday from Romans 13:1–7 on submitting to government authorities. That Friday night at a church-sponsored soccer league, one of his members gets in his car to leave the game early and doesn’t see the toddler that has run away from her parents, and he tragically runs over and kills the little girl.
I can hardly imagine a greater heartbreak in a church family or one needing more skillful and loving attention. If that pastor stubbornly sticks to his schedule and preaches on the Christian’s responsibility to government, he will miss his people’s acute need to hear biblical truth and know God really is in control. He will fail to seize the unique teaching moment borne out of desperation and pain. Maintaining a preaching calendar can hardly be thought more virtuous than seizing a moment to glorify Christ in suffering.
Many times I’ve been preaching through a book when a massive event occurred in our community or nation and I found that, amazingly, the very passage I was scheduled to preach directly applied to the situation. I’ve often been stunned that a sovereign God planned my preaching schedule to work in confluence with particular incidents and experiences. Those moments encourage the pastor’s heart since they bear witness not only to the providence of the Lord but also to his leadership of the pastor.
At other times, however, there’s a need to address something in our corporate or national life that has no real relationship to my intended text. I neither want to twist the meaning of the text nor ignore the life event that stands like an elephant in the room. If what I had planned doesn’t address the questions tearing at everyone’s mind, I will step aside from my schedule and choose a text that provides a biblical perspective people need to hear.
Sunday After 9/11
No Sunday in my lifetime illustrates this point better than September 16, 2001—the Sunday after the Twin Towers crumbled. Planes had just begun to fly again. Airports were still empty. No one knew if another attack was imminent or how the United States might retaliate. Were we heading for war? How should Christians think about Muslims? How do we process the anger we feel? Why would God let this happen?
What should a faithful pastor do? John MacArthur preached “A Biblical Perspective on Death, Terrorism, and the Middle East” from James 4. John Piper preached “A Service of Sorrow, Self-Humbling, and Steady Hope in Our Savior and King, Jesus Christ” from Romans 8:35–39. Tim Keller, preaching in the city where the attacks occurred and to many who had lost friends and loved ones, preached “Truth, Tears, Anger, and Grace” from John 11.
These men are noted expositors, and though their sermons could certainly be considered faithful expositions of the text, none slavishly stuck with the original plan. Because they were all pastors first, they laid aside their plan in order to shepherd the hearts of their people who were hurting, angry, frightened, and searching for divine wisdom.
Shepherding Under the Shadow
My methodology is not my goal, but the tool by which I accomplish my goal. My great ambition is to see Christ formed in his people through his Word planted in their lives. And sometimes, when local, national, or world events break our hearts and captivate our consciences—when they seize our minds or rob our peace, when they threaten to divide us or to lead some astray— the most faithful thing I can do is preach a fitting Word from “another” text.
The people who weekly sit under my preaching are accustomed to the system I use. If I depart from it for a Sunday, the deviation itself both comforts and informs them. They know their pastor is living in their same world. I highlight the sufficiency of the Word not only by systematic study, but also by demonstrating its ability to speak to every situation. Not only do I teach them the content of the Word, but also its comfort of the Word.
I am committed to exposition every time I stand in the pulpit. I have nothing to give my listeners besides God’s Word. That is inviolate. But even though the best way to teach the Word is systematically and sequentially, life doesn’t always happen systematically and sequentially. The faithful shepherd knows when to step out of the routine because a large shadow has been cast across his flock, and he knows where to lead them to find the illumination and help they need.