For I will be like a lion to Ephraim
And like a young lion to the house of Judah
I, even I, will tear to pieces and go away,
I will carry away, and there will be none to deliver.
“The gospel is like a caged lion. It does not need to be defended, it just needs to be let out of its cage”
~Charles Spurgeon, as told by N. Pearcey in Total Truth
Charles Spurgeon was once asked why he didn’t defend the bible against its naysayers, critics, and skeptics. He supposedly responded, “I don’t defend a lion. I just let him out of the cage.” This might be a preacher’s story, maybe even fable. I cannot find a primary reference for the quote, nor its actual context. As a young preacher, now long ago, I quoted the story and pithy line, asserting John Calvin had said it. But, thanks to Google and some research, it seems that most agree that it was the great 19th century English preacher, Charles Spurgeon who actually made the comment describing the Bible like unto an lion needing only to be un-caged. The lion has nothing to prove, no necessity for debate on its lion-ness, its nature and ferocity, only to be allowed out of its cage and it would be what the lion was designed to be—a lion. The Bible, as the Word of God, need only the same opportunity and it will defend itself and accomplish its designed and desired end.
The problem is that we have caged the Bible—obviously figuratively speaking—through poor lack of preparation and homework (i.e., study), and as well the necessary study skills, exegetical disciplines, and training in homiletics. Simply put, I find, within the evangelical church, that a strong view on exegetical, sermon preparation and biblical theological reflection are sorely lacking. We accept sharing stories and personal antidotes as God’s Word, rather than letting God’s Word, the Bible, speak for itself. The people in the pews (or chairs) consider almost anything a pastor does from the pulpit or front of the church a sermon, the Word of God, and preaching. It is almost like anything goes and it’s called a sermon, preaching the Word of God. I have such trouble with this and find myself, really, in great despair for the health and survival of the Church, and in particular the evangelical North American Church. It is time to let the lion out of its cage—and let the Bible defend itself.
This thread, which I will attempt to post each Friday and/or Saturday, will seek to offer my meditations on preaching the Bible. In this first thread I intend to post an introduction, highlighting my concern on this vital topic in order to promote good biblical preaching. I believe if you do your homework and preach the text, the Bible will defend itself.
Squeezing bananas out of the Bible (mixing my metaphors)
When I was a young Christian, even before I had the desire to preach and teach, I frequented numerous Bible studies each week. I was a single young man in the Air Force, stationed in the barren, sagebrush flatlands of Mountain Home, Idaho. Sure there was fishing and the mountains of the Rockies a few hours away, but little to do in the late 70’s for a young Christian male. So, it was Bible study and food fellowship—a lot!
After these studies, my small entourage of Christian buddies and I would talk and talk and talk about what was taught, learned, and discussed. I was particularly interested in how some of the leaders and those who loved “to share” came up with their interpretations. I’d say, “Where did they get that from? I can’t see it in my text.” Our leader—well not really a leader, but the guy we considered the oldest and most mature Christian in the group—would often reply, “You can squeeze bananas out of the Bible if you want to.”
Obviously, this was his way of saying that people do what they want with the Bible, even Christians. Over the course of time and thankfully from within a good discipleship relationship, I learned that it was very important to hear the text of Scripture and find out what it says—not want I want it to say, or what individual words apart from their place in the text mean, or what might make me sound profound to others, or what might make others impressed with my “insight” or even what would get others to believe what I believe or do what I think they should do. “What does the Bible say?” and “What does the text say?” were the constant refrain I heard from the Christians who took the time to disciple me.
Letting the Bible loose in church
Spurgeon—if he actually said it—was right. The Bible needs only to defend itself. My concern is that we have “caged” the Bible through our lack of adequate study, shortchanging our own training in exegetical skills and understanding of biblical theology, and avoiding sound homiletics (the mastery of preaching). In caging the Bible, it cannot live up to its nature and fulfill its intended purpose. I am not so much worried about how “liberals” use the Bible, or how the Bible is used, abused, or discarded “in the world.” Nor am I bothered by unbelievers, agnostics, and atheist who abuse, mindlessly proof-text with spiteful intent, and malign the Bible. My chief concern and great burden is the place we are giving to the preaching of the text of Scripture within the framework of Christian worship, week after week, in our own conservative, evangelical, charismatic, and so-called Bible churches.
In fact, it is when the leaders and pastors “within” the church use the Bible for their own ends, abuse the text in making it say what it does not say, and disregard any sound exegesis in preparing for their messages—this bothers me. It troubles me and makes my heart ache. What makes it worse is the good Christians in the audience, who have come for worship, don’t know any better. They, for the most part, accept the shallow view of preaching that is being passed off in church these days, for they know no better. But in the end, it is not their responsibility to understand, nor do they, for the vast majority, have the capacity to measure of the soundness of a sermon. This is the responsibility of church leaders and in particular those who claim to be the pastor of the flock. It is the responsibility of the pastor, the preacher to let the lion out of its cage—and then the Bible will defend itself.
There is a great need for the Bible to be let loose in the church. I am not talking about three-point sermons, boorish rambling of Bible texts, or simply intellectual ramblings from the pulpit. Neither am I limiting every sermon to be a finely tuned oracle. And certainly I am not ruling our story-telling, narrative, drama, or other types of creative presentations. In fact, I used to write a monologue (a one-man script) for my “Christmas sermons,” with full costume and make-up included. I played the prophet Micah one year, an angel for another, and even the old man Simeon from Luke 2 as well. Each year I still did my exegetical homework, thought carefully how to explain the text or texts through my own the monolog, and capture the imagination so people could hear God’s Word to them from the Bible.
So, it’s not just about a formal sermon, but, no matter the style or presentation, its all about allowing the caged Word to be let loose in the church—your church. It is about preparation, doing your homework, knowing your Bible well, and letting the Bible speak for itself with minimal hindrance and interference from our humanness and personality.
Each week, posted on Fridays and/or Saturdays, I intend to post my rough drafts for a manuscript I am working on, Letting the Lion Out of Its Cage: Meditations on the Importance of the Sermon, I hope to publish some day. This thread is the introductory chapter, “Prologue: Letting the Lion Out of Its Cage.” Your comments are appreciated and would contribute, hopefully, to making the content better in the end. My hope is also to include some—not all—of the comments made on this site. So, obviously pithy, creative, and insightful (whether critiquing or adding or rebuking, and even the rare agreement) might be attractive to my future publisher—and to me. So let the journey begin…