Its Thursday and so we kick off what I’ve called “Workman Watch.” This first sermon is from a preacher I very much admire, Tim Keller. The sermon is called “The Prodigal Sons” and was preached here in Scotland at the Tron in Glasgow.
Let me give one disclaimer before plunging in: this will not be a detailed sermon critique. Individuals like Keller have bags more preaching talent than I’ll ever have! What I do hope is to glean something from their examples of expository preaching.
Perhaps some of you might take time to listen to the talk and compare notes with me on what you found helpful. (Or if you’ve heard them elsewhere, do thrown in your tuppenceworth in the comments section.)
What was the opening sentence? “The parable that we’ve just read is very famous, and is almost always called the parable of the Prodigal son; but Jesus does not call it that.”
What was Keller’s introduction about? Drawing out the point that if you focus mainly on the younger brother you will sentimentalize the parable.
What was the structure of the sermon?
1) That there are two worldly approaches to God which are wrong
* Moralistic approach (elder brother):
* Relativistic approach (younger brother):
2) There are therefore two ways to be lost and alienated from God
* Trying to be very good
* Trying to be very bad
But in both cases, trying to be your own Saviour.
3) There is only one way home
The main point? The only way to approach God is on the basis of sheer grace.
Did he deal thoroughly with the text? Keller works hard to bring the original context to life. For example, he shows at length how the original hearers would not have heard this parable in a sentimental way: “this parable was not told to warm our hearts, but explode every human category of what it means to approach God.” He also carefully explains from the preceding section how Jesus was aiming this parable at a dual audience: thus the tax collectors equate to the younger brother, while the Pharisees correlate to the older. Furthermore, Keller eventually covers the scope of the text, without unpacking every detail.
What aspects of Keller’s style were helpful? The overarching thing that strikes me is Keller’s clarity. As I reflect on why this is so, I note a couple of things: 1) He puts his sermon signposts up front, even before his first point. This always aids to help with clarity. That said, the main points don’t reveal too much (the sermon is basically inductive) and therefore some suspense is retained. 2) Keller’s use of language is mainly plain and he is particularly adept at using terms which the unchurched person can understand. Nevertheless, he does use the odd big word. eg. “moralistic and relativistic approach” might not be understood by an uneducated person. And 3) Dr Keller frequently uses restatement: saying the same truth in different words to aid the listener’s comprehension.
What was the application? A challenge for the individual: “There’s more of the elder brother in us than we like to think, and less of Jesus in us than we like to think.” A challenge for the church: “Why are tax collector types not as attracted to our churches as they were to Jesus?” ‘Is it because we are like the Pharisees’, Keller asks? Keller’s ultimate remedy is that we need to understand grace – and for that, we have to focus on the true elder brother, Jesus Christ.
What was the closing sentence of the sermon? “We will never stop being elder brothers in our hearts, until we see the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ.”
If there’s one thing you could take from Keller into your own preaching, what would it be? Its hard to isolate one aspect, but I think Keller challenges me as to how well I connect the two worlds of the bible and contemporary culture. Keller’s ability to study the bible is, of course, foundational. But its his use of the bible in a sermon like this to diagnose the culture around him that makes him especially helpful to listen to.