Picture yourself rock climbing. The sun shines and sweat drips from your forehead. You’re fifty feet above the ground on the side of a rockface. Your arms burn. You keep dipping your sweaty hands in the bag of chalk that hangs from your belt as though that will make climbing easier. Of course, you expect some measure of difficulty — you’re rock climbing after all. But when your pulse begins to climb too high, you pause for a moment to catch your breath. For the first time you glance down. Woah — it’s a long way to the bottom.
But then, as you reach for the next handhold, your right hand slips off the rock. Oops, you think.
Suddenly your right foot slips too. Double oops!
Now you cling with only your left hand and left foot; your body swings out from the rockface like a barn door on hinges. 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?
CLIMBING AS A METAPHOR FOR LIFE
This situation is a lot like life. You are working hard and go about your days with some sweat on your forehead, or at least under your arms. The kids get the flu, work requires overtime, and drama flares up with your in-laws. But you expect these sorts of difficulties and take them in stride.
Then the CFO of your company announces a plan to “re-organize.” Your job, your income, your livelihood slips away. It’s fine, you think. I can deal. I’m still holding strong. But then your wife says, “Honey, I think I found a lump on my breast.” Now both a foot and hand have slipped off the rockface, and you barely hold it together. Your body swings like a door on hinges dangling above danger. Woah, it’s a long way down.
As a teaching pastor, I think about these types of situations often. And not only has rock climbing become a helpful metaphor for the way I consider life, it’s become a helpful metaphor for something I try to accomplish in my preaching.
But let me back up for a moment.
LEAD ROPE VS. TOP ROPE CLIMBING
There are two main ways to rock climb. Well, I suppose there is a third way, the way of Alex Honnold free soloing up El Capitan, but let’s not count that as a “way” others should imitate. The first way I have in mind requires using “Spring Loaded Camming Devices,” or just “cams” for short. When you climb with cams, you wedge your own anchors in the rock as you climb up the rockface, or you use anchors previously placed by others. 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. However, when you climb using cams (lead rope climbing), there’s no anchor fixed at the top of the climb; there are only the cams placed in the rock as you climb.
Therefore, in the event of a fall while lead rope climbing with cams, you don’t need a dozen superficial anchors. Each anchor must count. Each anchor must be firm and deep into the rock. A chintzy fastener placed casually won’t do the job; it won’t take the force of an unexpected fall. Anchors improperly set, even if you have a dozen placed every two feet, will pop under the weight of your fall. Instead, you need just one quality cam wedged into a crevice. Just one cam will hold you when you fall, that is, if it’s properly set.
DEEP ANCHORS AND THE EXPOSITORY SERMON
For me, rock climbing with cams is a metaphor for preaching. Too often in sermon preparation I feel the pressure to say everything about everything. But there is only so much time in any given sermon, and a dozen random comments — all true enough — are like chintzy fasteners. They simply won’t hold when hardships cause our faith to slip.
Instead, I want my preaching each week to set just one anchor deep into some aspect of who God is and what He has done, is doing, and will do for us in Christ. People on the face of a rock — people who could lose their grip at any moment — need the stability offered in gospel preaching. I need this in my life too.
Don’t misunderstand me, though. I know sermons do not save people or keep us 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. Stability and joy and life are offered to those securely attached to the rock.
WHY THE EXPOSITORY SERMON?
Implications of this metaphor extend to how we organize our worship services, attempting to link the themes of sermons and the themes of our liturgy and song. Additionally, consider how this metaphor might challenge Christians to attend church with greater frequency; if you miss chances to insert anchors, you might fall a dozen or two dozen feet before you stop, which breaks bones.
But I want to zero in on preaching. This metaphor is a large part of why I favor the type of sermons we call “expository.” Expository is a term preachers use from time to time, but we rarely explain what we mean by this term. At The Gospel Coalition’s 2011 National 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 succinctly described expository sermons like this: “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 comes from the same one main point of the Scripture passage. To me, that definition sounds remarkably similar to what I mean when I say that each week’s sermon should put just one anchor in The Rock—deeply and properly.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying a topical sermon is inherently a chintzy anchor. If you ask me, when done well, a topical sermon has the potential to affix our hearts more deeply to an aspect of the Gospel than an average expository sermon. But to also be candid, I don’t have the ability to preach deep topical messages week in and week out. I find preaching good topical sermons overwhelming, and I also find them disconnected from the way most Christians read their Bibles.
I realize that many people who read this blog are not preaching pastors. However, perhaps you occasionally have the opportunity to lead a Bible study of one kind or another. I’d encourage you to consider how “making the main idea of the Bible passage, the main idea of your lesson” might strengthen your lesson by giving your lesson focus.
This article isn’t the place for describing all of the tools pastors use to find the main point of a passage. How to find the main point of a passage in light of what God has done for us in Christ would require another article. But once I find the main point of a passage, my next steps in sermon preparation attempt to mold every aspect of the sermon—the outline, the explanations, the illustrations, the applications, and so on—to serve this one end, that is, serve the main Gospel point of the passage. When you and I do that as we teach, I think we can rightly call our lessons and sermons “expository.”
And when we teach the Gospel like this week in and week out, we will provide our people with firm and deep anchors to the only Rock who can save us.
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