Preaching from the Old Testament is no easy task. It requires hours of study and a special effort at discovering the great truths found beyond the surface of the text. It requires the preacher to know the theology of the text and the theology in the text. But above all, good preaching from the Old Testament demands that the preacher be familiar with the history of Israel and the events that molded the preaching of the prophets and the circumstances that gave rise to the writing of the texts of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament as has been transmitted to us is a record of what the God of Israel has said and done in the history of his people. The study and interpretation of the Old Testament does not deal with a system of ideas or a collection of doctrines. Rather, the Old Testament is a collection of stories detailing what God has done in history, within the realm of time and space.
Since the Old Testament deals with God’s work in history, it follows then that, unless we know that history and communicate it to our people effectively, the history of God’s dealing with his people will be forgotten in time and the people who listen to us every week will be ignorant of the mighty work of God in the past and will be unable to understand the mighty work of God in the present.
Most sermons preached from our pulpits today do not present a sustained exposition of the texts found in Scriptures. Today’s sermons generally are exhortations to help our people live a better life or feel good. Elizabeth Achtemeier, in her book Preaching from the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989) said:
Most of the preaching that takes place in the United States is thematic preaching, preaching in which a theme or topic or moral lesson is distilled out of the text. The task of the sermon then becomes to prove that some thesis is true, or the task becomes one of convincing and exhorting our people to be good. We use all sorts of authorities to prove the truth of our statements, employing quotes of authorities to prove the truth of our statements, employing quotes from great thinkers or scientists or writers to back up our theses, appealing to reason and experience in all sorts of illustrations to support our theme. Sometimes we even appeal to fear, to greed for reward, or to self righteous Pharisaism to talk our people into trying to live up to some legalistic moral code. Yet all the while it is the sacred history of God’s word and acts that bear with them the gift and power of new life. And our people never know the truth and never become new creatures until they enter into that sacred history (p. 15).
This is the reason the Old Testament is neglected in our pulpits today. The proper understanding and proclamation of the Old Testament requires a knowledge of what God has done in the history of his people and an interpretation that is consistent with the historical event and divine relation.
We are preachers of the Word of God and as such we have been given a story to proclaim.
In the next few weeks I will provide some examples of texts that can be used effectively as the basis for good sermons from the Old Testament. These texts are all related to Advent. These passages, traditionally called “Messianic Prophecies,” will be studied in their proper historical context. I hope these studies will help all preachers to become better stewards of the stories God has given us.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Other studies in this series: