You are rock climbing. It is a sunny day, and you are sweating. You are 50 feet above the ground on the side of a rock face. Of course things are difficult—you’re rock climbing—but more or less, it’s going okay. So you pause for a moment to catch your breath. Then you glance down. Woah. It’s a long way to the bottom. Then, as you reach for the next handhold, your right hand slips. Oops.
But then your right foot slips too. Double oops!
Holding on with only your left foot and left hand, your body swings out from the rock face like a door on hinges. Now your thoughts flash to the last anchor you set in the rock. How well did I place it? Will it hold me if I fall?
This situation is a lot like life, isn’t it? You are working hard, going about your days, and sure, there are a few difficult things. Sure, you have to stop to catch your breath now and then, but on the whole, life is okay.
But then the company you work for announces it is “re-organizing.” Your job, your income, your livelihood could slip away. “It’s fine; I can deal with this. I’m still holding on with two hands and a foot.”
But then your wife says, “Honey, I think I found a lump on my breast.”
Now your hand has slipped off the rock too, and you are only holding on with one hand, one foot. Now your body swings out from the rock face like a door on hinges. Woah, it’s a long way down.
As a preacher, I think about these types of situations often. Rock climbing has become for me a helpful metaphor for something I try to do in my preaching. But first, let me back up.
Lead Rope vs. Top Rope Climbing
There are several ways to rock climb. One way involves using “Spring Loaded Camming Devices,” or “cams” for short. When you climb with cams, you wedge your own anchors in the rock as you climb up the rock face. They call this type of climbing “lead rope” climbing, as opposed to “top rope” climbing. In top rope climbing, your harness is attached to a rope that is looped through an anchor at the top of the climb, hence the name top rope. However, when lead rope climbing (with cams), there is no anchor at the top. In lead rope climbing there is no one on the ground to catch you if you start to fall; there are only the cams you placed in the rock.
Therefore, in the event of a fall, what a lead rope climber does not need are a dozen superficial anchors. Lead rope climbers need just one anchor—deeply and properly set. A dozen chincy fasteners won’t do; they won’t take the force of an unexpected fall. They’ll pop right out. Instead, you need just one quality cam that is jammed into a crevice. Just one will hold you when you fall, that is, if it’s properly set.
Deep Anchors and The Expository Sermon
For me, this is a metaphor for preaching. Too often I want to say everything about everything. But there is only so much time in any give sermon and a dozen random comments—all true enough—are like chincy fasteners. They simply won’t do when the hardships cause us to fall.
What I want to do in my preaching is set just one anchor, and set that one anchor deep into to some aspect of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ. People on the face of a rock—people that could lose their grip at any moment—need this. I need this.
Now, to be clear, I’m well aware that my sermons, or anyone’s sermons for that matter, do not save people or keep them saved any more than a cam by itself keeps climbers safe. But what that anchor can do, and what a sermon should do, is keep people firmly attached to the rock, or in my metaphor, The Rock. There is safety for those attached to the rock.
What’s an Expository Sermon?
This is why I lean towards the type of sermons that are called “expository.”
But what exactly are expository sermons? It’s a term preachers use from time to time, but rarely do we explain what we mean by this term. At The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 Nation Conference, in one of the panel discussions there was a great conversation about preaching generally, and the expository sermon specifically (here). In that discussion, Pastor Mark Dever described expository sermons in this helpful way:
In expository sermons, the main point of the scripture passage is the main point of the sermon.
That’s simple enough. I like that definition: the one, main point of the sermon is the same one, main point of the passage. And to me, that definition sounds a awful lot like what I mean when I say that each week’s sermon should be a way of putting just one anchor in The Rock—deeply and properly.
I realize that many people who read this blog are not preachers. But if you are a Christian who occasionally gets the opportunity to lead a study (of any kind), consider how “making the main idea of the passage, the main idea of your lesson” might strengthen your lesson.
This post isn’t the place for describing all of the tools that can be used to find the main point of a passage. But once you do find it, in my own preaching what I try to do next is to let every aspect of the teaching (the illustrations, explanations, applications, outline, etc.) serve this one end, that is, serve the main point of the passage. When you and I do that—assuming we have identified properly the main point of the passage—I think we can rightly call our lessons and sermons “expository.”
And if you and I teach like this, we will provide a strong and steady anchor to the only Rock that can save us.