Several weeks ago, I completed a verse-by-verse exposition of the Epistle of James for my congregation at the Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church. My faith was enriched by this personal study. And I trust my congregation was built up in their faith, as a result of hearing these messages.
I have been thinking about this series over the past several days – not necessarily the spiritual experience of studying James, but the practicalities of preaching through it. Here are some of my reflections.
Why James? I love the Epistle of James. I think it is James’ “in your face” style of writing that endeavors me to this letter. I have read it countless times devotionally. I have memorized sections of it. And I have preached several messages from it over the years, mostly from chapter 1. But I had never done a complete study of James. Likewise, I find portions of James challenging – both spiritually and homiletically. So I wanted to take up the challenge. And, above all, I believe that it would be a good study for our congregation. That belief proved true.
Preaching long sermon series. I was recently in a setting where the argument was being made that people will not listen to long sermon series anymore. When the discussion got to me, I admitted that I was preparing to preach my final sermon in James. It would be twenty-second sermon!
The prevailing notion is that a sermon series should be between 4-6 messages, no longer than 8. But many of my preaching heroes are men who preach long series, consecutively through books of the Bible. Rather treating this idea of short series as an inviolable law, I think it should be emphasized people adapt to what you feed them. I am grateful to serve a church that is willing to endure long series through Bible books.
Stop-and-go through James. If I had followed my schedule, I would have completed James months ago. But toward the end of 2010 and in the beginning of 2011 I found myself facing congregational pressures. With God’s help, I was able to preach each week. But, admittedly, it was all I could do to drag myself to the pulpit. Some weeks I pulled a file of sermon I had preached before. Other weeks I preached from passages that I found encouraging. But many of those weeks I just did not feel like talking about faith without works is dead. Or the power of the tongue. Of whatever was next in James. So I worked through James in fits and starts. But the congregation was very patient and understanding through this. Only once did anyone say anything to me about abandoning James. I was preaching through a storm. And the congregation did not mind what I was preaching, as long as it was the word of God. Praise God!
Technical difficulties. I read several solid introductions to James before I began my studies. But they did not prepare me for the textual difficulties I encountered. Many weeks, I would be faced with challenges in the Greek over which the scholars sharply disagreed. And I would have to make an interpretative judgment call. This forced me to prayerfully work through the texts with my thinking cap pulled down tightly on my head. Of course, I tried not to bring these matters to the pulpit. I believe that the sermon should reflect the fruit of your studies more than the process of it. So I did not share most of these challenges with the congregation. But being forced to consider them stretched me. Difficult texts make strong preachers!
My favorite commentaries on James. I have collected quite of few commentaries on James over the years. And I picked up a few more before I started my study. And a few more over the course of my study. My favorite, above all, is D. Edmond Hiebert’s commentary on James (Moody). It is everything a commentary should be. I also appreciated Peter’s David’s commentary. I surprised myself by using the NIV Application Commentary by David P. Nystrom throughout the study. I consulted Ralph Martin’s well-respected commentary on James. But it was not one of my favorites.
I read the Holman NT Commentary religiously each week. And, of course, I read John MacArthur and R Kent Hughes and Warren Wiersbe every week. They are old friends. I had to consider what they thought about the text. I likewise listened to audio messages by Kent Hughes, John MacArthur, Gary Inrig, and Alistair Begg each week. I also read some popular works on James by O.S. Hawkins, David Jeremiah, Tony Evans, and Joel Gregory. I found them all useful in seeing how preachers handled the texts of James.
A lot of weeks I kept reading late into the week, when I should have stopped and started writing the sermon. And it put me behind in my sermon preparation. I think this hurt the quality of some of the sermons. But at least I knew the text well.
Texts I enjoyed preaching. I enjoyed studying and preaching every text of James. Really. By the time I got out of chapter 1, I was convinced that no matter how difficult the text seemed at first glance, it would yield great treasures. I was not disappointed once. And it just got better as the study progressed. I praise the Lord for James and for the privilege of spending months immersing myself in its message.
The Lord be praised for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ!