7 Reflections on Preaching through Genesis 1-11
We recently preached through Genesis 1-11 at Grace Church Barrow – over nine consecutive weeks. One of our convictions as a church is to be shaped by God’s word – and I think key to that is expositional preaching. To use David Helm’s definition, that is “empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text.” We don’t use the Bible to simply argue for our own hobby-horses or as proof-texts for our agendas, but we work hard to listen to and communicate and apply the meaning of each part of Scripture, convinced that the Spirit of God has given us each book of the Bible for a reason.
For me as a preacher of God’s word, it was a really formative experience. Obviously here’s hoping it was also spiritually fruitful for those listening and engaging with God’s word, but, as part of my own formation, I tried to jot down a few personal reflections that I wanted to hold on to. I hope they may be of some interest to others considering preaching this portion of God’s word:
Genesis 1-3 are fundamental for a reason.
In a nine-week series on Genesis 1-11, we took four weeks over chapters 1-3. I think part of the lesson with them is don’t try to be too clever. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. State the obvious, even if you’re working hard to find new ways to ‘pack the punch’. The Bible alludes to and quotes Genesis 1-3 all over the place for a reason. As preachers we’ll probably be overly-sensitive to feeling too familiar with these passages, but we shouldn’t assume that familiarity is necessarily shared. In other words, give these opening chapters their rightful place.
Trace the Seed, Cheer for the Seed, Long for the Seed.
I think I may have got this from Bruce Waltke’s brilliant commentary. The promise of an offspring of woman (3:16) who will crush the serpent has to be a big deal for Genesis’ overall story. It means that with every turn of the page and every new baby born in that line, there’s huge anticipation. Will this be the one? And it’s been amazing to show how this thread of promise runs all the way to Jesus, the God-given serpent-crusher. The author wants that sense of expectation and longing, so we need to feel that and follow that tension through Genesis as we preach it.
Don’t rush over the Genealogies.
Especially in chapter 5 and chapter 10, it can be tempting to hot-foot through the lists of names and generations in order to get to seemingly ‘meatier’ parts of the narrative that we think might ‘preach’ better. But these are a key part of the narrative. Showing that even these parts of Scripture have a Spirit-given purpose – and that actually they help to make the author’s overall argument – is crucial for the preacher’s task. The humbling reality of our mortality cries out to the reader throughout chapter 5, with Enoch’s ‘exception to the rule’ a glimpse of something more. Likewise, the repetition of division in chapter 10 shines a light on the devastating events of chapter 11.
Enjoy the unfamiliar as well as underlining the essentials.
For me as a preacher, Genesis 4-5 and 9-11 were unfamiliar ground, especially in contrast to 1-3 and the account of Noah in 6-9. Preaching these sections was therefore particularly invigorating for me – and hopefully that ‘freshness’ rubs off on others too (so long as it’s not so fresh that it’s just non-sensical, right). Seeing the contrast between Eve’s two ‘birth announcements’ at the book-ends of chapter 4 was personally fascinating for grasping the impact of that chapter. Similarly, reflecting on the contrast between humanity ‘building a name for themselves’ at Babel (and the way this summarises so much of Genesis 3-11) and then God graciously making Abraham’s name great in 12:1-3 was striking to see.
Flag up the obvious questions but don’t patronise the author.
You can’t walk through Genesis 1-11 without bumping into events that make you raise an eyebrow or two. A talking snake; people living for six hundred years; Cain having kids – but with who? So it would be odd not to acknowledge these, and it’s helpful to explore some potential explanations, as was said in this helpful training video. And yet I think we can sometimes forget these incidents would have sounded strange to Genesis’ first readers too (presumably first generation Israel being led by Moses to the promised land). Therefore, given that the narrator of Genesis doesn’t seem to bat an eyelid as he recounts them, it’s important not to assume with chronological arrogance that they must be more problematic to us than the first readers.
Harness the power of a long-running visual aid.
I guess this could work for all sorts of books of the Bible and teaching series, but finding a ‘sticky’ visual aid or illustration that relates to the key purposes of the passages can really help tie different sermons together. I think there was more work to do here, but even the title of a series can help do this. We called our series ‘Firm Foundations’, trying to articulate the sense that these chapters lay a solid framework, a trust-worthy perspective, on how we’re to view the world. Similarly, in the middle of our venue, a working mens’ club, a glitterball hangs from the ceiling. It seemed an apt way to capture humanity’s calling to ‘image’ God’s character to the world, and the tragic way this calling can be corrupted.
Just do it!
Finally, what would be one of my main lasting reflections from preaching through Genesis 1-11? Just to do it. What an outlook-shifting piece of literature! What a foundational portion of Scripture to walk through as a church family! As is often pointed out, these eleven chapters are effectively the opening act for the whole of Scripture. Without them very little in Genesis 12 – Malachi 4 (arguably the second act of Scripture) makes any sense. Without them we see a smaller Christ and a smaller gospel. Do it!