Listen as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of preaching and teaching in this address from The Gospel Coalition Sermon Library.
We come to how to expound a biblical book. Most of what I have to say is intuitively obvious and doubtless already practiced by many of us, but by articulating the things many of us know intuitively, perhaps we will think more crisply about what we are doing and ideally bring additional focus to our common task.
I am not going to reflect here on how to choose a particular book to expound. That is an important question, but I’m not going to run down that rabbit trail now. Once the book has been chosen, here are some observations that may help, in no particular order of importance. I have an apostolic number of points.
1. Read and re-read and re-read and re-read the book.
It is a mistake to choose the book and then start reading commentaries. Read the book. Read it in English. Read it in Greek, or Hebrew, as the case may be. I’m quite flexible. Ideally, that means you should start the process of preparation in this regard a long time before. If you have time to read it only once before the first Sunday you’re going to preach it, you won’t have absorbed a great deal of it.
I knew a man in Toronto a number of years ago (he has long since gone to be with the Lord). His name was William Fitch. He was a Presbyterian minister and a very able expositor. It was his lifelong practice not to preach any part of the Word of God until he had read it in preparation for that sermon 100 times.
I’m not laying that on you as a burden or anything! Still, some of us I suspect have managed to preach on occasion from passages where we barely read it once! We’ve read the commentaries, of course.… But read the text. Read the text. Read, read, read, re-read the text.
2. Start the process early.
Give time to re-reading and, thus, to meditation, to turning it over in your mind, to thinking about it when you’re driving your car, to waking up in the middle of the night and dreaming about it. Partly, this is because a lot of your best insights come when you’re not trying, when you’ve just flooded your mind with the Word of God, and then you begin to see the connections and how it works. You can’t force that. It’s just re-reading plus time.
That also gives you time to start collecting illustrations and bits and pieces that fit into it just from your other reading, from reading the newspaper or reading a novel or talking with your kids or something in the church that happens. Suddenly, you’ll discover, because you have allowed a little extra time in preparation, you enrich the entire process.
Having said that, I have to tell you quite frankly that sometimes I have achieved that, and quite frankly, I often haven’t because I’m just as pressured as the next bloke. I can start my preparation the week before, the same as everybody else, but ideally … ideally.… I like to start a long time in advance. I try.
That also gives you time to pray over the text. That is, to incorporate the text into your personal prayers. In much the same way I incorporated some of the prayers of Paul into personal prayers, this can be done, of course, in one way or another with all kinds of texts.
3. Eschew the division of head and heart.
(This a more general observation but probably still worth making.) Some of us think when we are reading the Bible devotionally we are supposed to go all fluttery in the stomach and feel very spiritual and deeply meditative and highly reverent, and then when we’re doing our exegesis we can forget the reverence and just get on with the commentaries.
Fight that dichotomy like the plague. Make your detailed, analytic, careful, competent exegesis reverent and make your devotional life thoughtful and rigorous. Eschew like the plague this common division between head and heart. That means, then, so far as your sermon preparation goes, you will simultaneously be trying to do rigorous exegesis and biblical theology and so forth while also thinking reverently and offering up this work to the Lord and wondering how it will apply to people’s lives. It will be part of a unified vision of things that is going on all the time.
4. Early on, attain sufficient grasp of the book that you can succinctly state what the book is about, what this book contributes to the Canon that overlaps with what other books contribute to the Canon, and what distinctive things this book brings to the Canon.
All of those need to be thought about simultaneously. That’s what brings clarity and precision.
So you’re going to expound Matthew’s gospel. What is the book about? “It’s about Jesus.” Well, what a brilliant insight. You could say that’s also true of Mark, I assume, and Luke and John and Romans and, in some sense, Jeremiah. In some sense, you could say that about just about every book in the Bible, couldn’t you?
Even in some narrow sense, if you’re talking about the historical Jesus you have four of them in front of you, but if you are thinking about what Matthew contributes to the Canon that overlaps with what others contribute to the Canon, then clearly you are raising questions about how Matthew overlaps with Mark and Luke and John and theologically with other books as well, but you’re also going to ask what is distinctive about Matthean theology.
So if, for some strange reason, you preach from Matthew this year and from Mark in two years’ time, will your Matthew sermon sound like your Mark sermons? If so, why did God give us two books? It’s not just that there will be some independent bits. For example, the particular Immanuel prophecy, which is only in Matthew, or the particularly Matthean material which is found nowhere else, but even the ordering of things in certain ways.
For example, a lot of the miracles Mark has distributed throughout his book and which, therefore, thematically tie to their immediate context, Matthew pulls out and puts together in one big block in chapters 8 and 9. What does that do, then, to the flavor of the whole thing? The flavor of the thing thematically flows rather differently, precisely because, even where the miracles overlap as individual stories with what you find in other gospels, the way they are backed up beside each other means thematically they work a little differently.
Somewhere along the line it’s important to figure out what the book is about, not only in general terms but also in precisely what ways the book overlaps with other canonical materials and in what ways it brings something new, not only brand new as in the Immanuel prophecy but also new in terms of perspective or slant. To take a film analogy, you’re talking about a different camera angle. You’re talking about a different perspective, a different set of priorities.
That needs to be done fairly early on. It’s all revisable material, but it needs to be done fairly early on so you get a feel for the whole. In that connection, although this should be done in part by your own reading and re-reading and re-reading, this preparation can be usefully enriched by scanning some biblical theology books or the theological sections of the best commentary introductions, because the best commentary introductions will preserve some section that scans the book as a whole or tries to reflect on what the contribution is.
All of this is revisable, of course, when you start coming to the text itself and working through it verse by verse and paragraph by paragraph and so on, but that bird’s-eye view of the whole could be very orienting, very enriching. The aim is to think reasonably clearly about the big picture fairly early on.
5. At roughly the same time, determine the number of sermons you will devote to the exposition of this book and the large-scale outline of the book insofar as it impinges on your text boundaries for each sermon.
In other words, this outline is not necessarily a detailed, analytical outline of the entire book, every jot and tittle, but fairly early on you need to determine how many sermons and, then, what goes into them, what texts are being covered.
A couple of comments on these points. As to the number of sermons per book, there is no simple right or wrong answer. There are choices and entailments, and it’s important to understand what the entailments are.
The choices as to how many sermons you will use to expound a book are determined, in part, by what else you’re trying to cover, who the congregation is (what they know and what they don’t know), your own competence as a preacher, different literary genres (in other words, with discourse material you may have to go more slowly to unpack it and with narrative material you can go a lot faster, but with drama material like Job you really must go at a really good clip or you’ll get lost really fast and you won’t see what you’re on about), and whether or not in your exposition of the book you are, this time, planning on covering the whole book or merely select parts of it.
For example, there have been times when I have “preached the book of Revelation” when, in fact, I have really expounded the vision of chapter 1, I may or may not have included the seven churches in 2 and 3, chapters 4 and 5, chapter 12, perhaps chapters 13 and 14, perhaps chapter 19, and certainly, chapters 21 and 22. That’s not everything, but it’s enough to give a flavor of the book, to catch the movement of the book, to make the book comprehensible as a whole, and to hit down on some of the most important passages.
I have, in fact, taught the whole book on other occasions, but it’s possible to preach Revelation without trying to get through every single solitary chapter. That’s a decision you make, and you make it in connection with all of these questions about who your audience is, what else is on your agenda, how many things you’re trying to cover, and in conjunction with your reflections on the structure of the book, the large-scale structure of the book, insofar as it impinges on your text boundaries for each sermon.
That needs to be done fairly early on. If you don’t do it fairly early on, what happens is you start preaching and you get as far as so many verses this week and then next week, “Wonder how far I’ll go this time?” It gets to be determined not by a principle or a deep choice but how far you’ve managed to read in your preparation.
Then the question becomes, “Is that the best division, or does it mean that’s how far you got before you have to stop?” Is this going to give you problems later down the road in terms of merely repeating a theme that is actually better developed farther on? This overview, this global stance, ideally should be determined in advance.
In connection with this, ideally, even though you haven’t developed them in detail, you should determine in general terms the contribution of each sermon to the whole. That is especially important for certain kinds of books. Let me give you two examples. It’s especially important for a book like John. The reason it’s important for a book like John is John has a relatively small number of theological themes he goes over again and again and again and looks at from different perspectives.
Unless you’re clear in your mind what each sermon is going to contribute, I think you will face the experience of many expositors of John that by the time they get to chapter 7, let alone 10 or 12, they’re finding and their congregations are finding every cotton-picking sermon sounds roughly like the last one.
What are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to believe. What are you supposed to do in the next passage? You’re supposed to believe. The one after that, what are you supposed to do? You’re supposed to believe. There’s no Sermon on the Mount with a whole lot of ethical stuff; you’re supposed to believe. There are only so many themes that come up in John’s gospel.
There are, in fact, great christological riches and all kinds of other things in John’s gospel. One of the reasons, however, for going fairly quickly through John’s gospel is precisely so you don’t get bogged down in vain repetition. Even then, ideally, you need to think through in general terms at least what each sermon is going to contribute to the whole.
The other kind of book in which that is helpful is a book like the Apocalypse precisely because it’s so difficult. That’s why it needs to be studied a bit in advance. I don’t know how many young preachers have begun with chapter 1 and they’ve begun to read the commentaries and the opening line, “The revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave to him to show the churches the things that must shortly come to pass,” and so on.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, I know this book intimidates so many of us, but this is the revelation of Jesus Christ. It’s not to be hidden. It’s to disclose Christ, so let us approach it with hope and confidence, for this book is about Jesus and the gospel and the revelation of Christ.”
“Boy! It sounds like good stuff. Our pastor is really going to let us have it, isn’t he?” By the time you get to chapter 7, you might want to go back and rethink just how humbly you’ll approach the first one, because there are all kinds of really difficult choices that have to be made somewhere along the line, and all of those choices impinge on a whole lot of other choices you make.
Are the 144,000 the same as the vast multitudes? Yes or no? Why or why not? Believe it or not, that one’s going to come back and bite you in chapter 14. Somewhere along the line, for a book that is integrated, that is whole, and that is complicated, it’s nice to do enough study that you have a pretty good idea of the decisions you’re going to make at some of these macro levels before you start, or you can stick your foot in it in some really embarrassing ways in the beginning.
There’s another way of beating that one, of course. If you’re first starting out in your ministry, don’t advertise you’re going to preach the whole thing. Preach chapters 2 and 3 or preach chapters 1 to 5. Most of us can handle that all right. Preach chapters 1 to 5 and 21 and 22. Start there. You don’t have to do the whole thing. There’s no rulebook in Homiletics that says, “Thou shalt preach the entire book or thou shalt be damned.”
By all means, if a book is too difficult at first, that’s all right. Back off and preach the bits you’re comfortable with. There’s time and energy to grow in grace. Nevertheless, that is all part of determining the number of sermons you will devote to the exposition of the book and the large-scale outline of the book insofar as it impinges on your text boundaries for each sermon.
6. Start working on individual sermon preparation, whether a long time in advance or week by week.
A) Ideally, work on the text yourself first.
Ideally. I know sometimes we’re so pressed for time that we don’t have a lot of time for that. Okay. Fair enough, but hold it up at least as an ideal that you work hard at the text first using primary sources and the like (dictionaries). Make sure you understand the original language and how it works together. Look for inclusios, structure, and the flow of the argument. Try to understand it on your own first.
Then, what most of us will do (I think, rightly) if we’re serious expositors at all is we’ll begin a series on a text resolved to read quite a lot of commentaries. We might initially lard ourselves up with six or eight or ten, or if our budgets permit and our spouses approve, 15 or 20 or 25. We’re going to read all of these. We get going, and we start taking our notes and so on. Then, reality kicks in about week three. You don’t have time read them all, and more importantly, about 19 of the 23 aren’t worth reading anyway.
You figure out which two or three commentaries really are, in fact, helpful. The rest, quite frankly, aren’t. They might be helpful for some purpose, but there are commentaries of different sorts. There are commentaries that are just so skeptical they go up your nose. There are commentaries like Boatman’s on John that …
I mean, if you’re fascinated by source criticism and by a very outdated kind of approach to the text, I’m sure it will interest somebody somewhere who is doing a PhD on the bloke, but 100 years from now nobody is going to be reading Boatman on John’s gospel. It was just locked into a certain period in early twentieth century technical study. People will still be reading Calvin because he’s trying to understand the text. They’re still going to be reading Westcott because he’s trying to understand the text, but nobody’s going to be reading Boatman in 100 years.
You start making choices. There are other books that are just loaded for bear with detailed, detailed philology and etymology and so on and so on. Well, skim that one. Don’t spend a lot of time. Just skim it lickety-split. At the end of the day you want texts that catch the flow of something. You want texts that are theologically rich. You want texts that are putting the whole thing together that actually talk about God now and then and not just talk about literary criticism or the like.
In some sense, therefore, you start weaning away the excess commentaries. If you have time to scan some of the duller ones or the irrelevant ones or the merely technical ones, fine, but your first priority is to read carefully and closely the best commentaries you can get. That means, ideally, you need to read commentaries at different speeds. In fact, you need to read all books at different speeds.
Some books are worth thinking over, pouring over, meditating on, and taking notes on, and other books you read as quickly as you can go, and other books you sort of drop in and hit them now and then in the odd paragraph to see if you’ve been there before. You can sort of knock off that book in half an hour without reading every page just because you’ve found out roughly the direction it’s going and you make a note in your files and keep going.
B) Ideally, develop note-taking techniques.
Here I’m speaking from my own habits and practice. When I was in full-time pastoral ministry, it was a busy growing church, and I had at least every week five preparations. On some weeks it got really ridiculous when we were trying to do too many things. At least five preparations. I was single, so I could put in 95-hour weeks, and I did.
What are you going to do if you have five preparations? Are you going to distribute your time evenly among the five? In my view, that’s a mistake. If you have one, two, or three preparations, choose one (ideally a series) where you will devote the bulk of your preparation time, and in that one take notes, work at the Greek and Hebrew text, use the tools and so on.
For example, when I expounded Matthew at one point, I would take a sheet of paper. At the top right-hand corner in big black ink: 1:1. The next sheet of paper: 1:2. The next sheet of paper: 1:3. All loose-leaf. Then I would start taking my detailed exegetical notes verse by verse. Occasionally, there would be a 1:1–13 because that would be talking about the structure of the whole thing. There might be at the back of all of this 1:1–17 (Summary).
Because it was a single sheet, I could keep adding sheets. It wasn’t in a bound book. I would develop little codes down the margin for relating something I got from this commentary on this particular phrase to what the same phrase conjured up in other commentaries a little further down on the second or third sheet.
I could look down my codes in the margin and pick out all the way through these first two or three sheets on chapter 2, verse 13, all I had read and so on and summarized it in these notes. This did not necessarily mean the resulting sermon was any better. It did mean I was keeping my tools sharp, so as a result, all my sermons were better.
I don’t care whether you’re married or single, however. You too have only 24 hours a day. You too have to wash your socks and get some sleep and feed once in a while plus all the other pastoral duties and so forth. You do not have time to do that degree of preparation for two to four preparations each week. You do not have time. Ideally, if you can be fairly detailed for at least one preparation a week, then in the long haul you’re keeping your skills sharp; you’re keeping your tools sharp.
So years later, after which I had done a PhD and I was pastoring part time and teaching part time, when somebody wanted me to do the Matthew commentary, in fact, I had hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes on Matthew long before I ever started doing a Matthew commentary which came out of pastoral ministry.
Likewise, I had hundreds of pages on Galatians and hundreds of pages on Genesis all that came out of pastoral ministry long, long before I started doing scholarly work. It wasn’t all that technical. It was a mix of stuff. At that point, I didn’t know any German. I wasn’t contributing that kind of stuff. In some sense, it wasn’t scholarly. It was just decent pastoral competent level of coping with Greek exegesis and biblical theology.
Most of us can do that if we’ve had a decent theological training, so that at least for one preparation, you try to take more detailed notes. The advantage, too, is that when you go back 20 years later and you’re now in another church and you think it’s important to preach on Matthew again, you’re not starting de novo. You’re not starting all over again. You have all that stuff already in hand. It’s already there. You can build on it, and because it’s loose-leaf, you can throw in more sheets and more sheets and more sheets. You can build it and build it and build it.
I have in my files huge chunks on Ezekiel and huge chunks on this or that and the other that has really come out, first and foremost, out of my preaching ministry. Then it can be integrated with scholarly activity or writing activity or evangelistic activity because the stuff is already done. I don’t have to go back to the commentaries on that one.
Or if there’s a brand new commentary that has come out that I haven’t seen, I can integrate that material pretty quickly because I’ve got the rest of it already there. I don’t have to go back to zero again. I don’t remember it all. The weakest ink is stronger than the strongest memory. If I were starting to do it all over again today, of course, I would do it on a computer instead. As long as you have a good backup system.
Ideally, use a good organizing system like Orbis and Nota Bene or something like that. On the other hand, when I was doing this thing desktop computers were not yet invented, and there’s no way I’m going to try and transfer all this stuff to a system at this juncture. If I were starting something fresh, I’d start something fresh on the computer. Otherwise, I still use the old system.
The form of it does not interest me very much. Nevertheless, the habit of taking notes, working hard at at least one text each week on the long haul contributes indelible richness in coping with texts, in building for the future, in growing confidence in understanding Scripture. From these detailed exegetical notes, make your sermon outlines and start actually writing the sermon.
C) Leave stuff out.
At this point, I have to tell you, especially if you’re a relatively young preacher, one of the most important things you need to do at this juncture is leave stuff out. More mature preachers begin to get that one pretty quickly, but in my experience it’s often the best-trained preachers who know how to do their exegesis and are trying to be faithful who often so stuff their sermons with stuff that they’re absolutely indigestible. The only other person who could possibly understand it is someone with a similar theological training who has also worked over the passage in advance.
It’s really important to remember to understand a text well and present it ably, you need to do the work, and then you need to know what to leave out. There’s a sense in which the sermon is the overflow from the cream of the crop. Ideally, you do all the work, and then you leave a lot of stuff out. What you produce, then, is the best of the material: the highlights, the structure, the movement of thought and so on, and its relationship to all of the Word of God. The aim is to think through what contributes to the burden of that sermon.
D) Develop the sermon structure.
Part of the writing up task here has to do with developing the sermon structure. Earlier we talked about the structure of the whole book insofar as the structure impinges on the text boundaries for each sermon, but now you have to work out the structure of the sermon, ideally reflecting the text at hand. That is hard work because you want to reflect the text at hand but you want to cast it in a way that is fresh and appealing. You want it to be memorable.
You don’t want long points, but at the same time, you don’t want it to be so cutesier and alliterative that at the end of the day the congregation says, “Three Ps this Sunday,” or “Four Ds last Sunday and three Bs this Sunday.” It’s easy to get very cynical about some kinds of patterns. Moreover, the nature of those structures will themselves vary quite a bit depending on the literary genre, but I’ll come back to that one in a moment.
7. Each sermon must simultaneously stand alone and constitute part of the series.
In other words, there will always be some people in our churches who only pick up that sermon (they only come that Sunday), and you don’t want that sermon so to be integrated into the series as a whole that nobody can make sense unless they’ve heard the previous three. There’s a sense in which each sermon must stand alone with its own message, its own coherence, its own beginning, its own ending, its own burden, its own focus, and its own application.
On the other hand, ideally, that sermon should so be contributing to the whole with elusive references back or elusive references forward that, as a result, people who do listen to the whole series won’t feel they’ve heard a lot of independent sermons like a lot of independent pearls on a string but feel they’ve come to grips with the book as a whole. That’s a hard balance. Work hard at that one.
8. Remember the different contributions of a Paul House biblical theology and of a Charles Scobie biblical theology.
Let me explain what I mean. I don’t know if you’ve read Paul House’s Old Testament Theology. It’s organized basically book by book or corpus by corpus so that you are taught to think through the contribution of Isaiah and you’re taught to think through the contribution of the Psalms and so on. It’s an engaging book and well worth reading.
Have some of you read it? Are you familiar with it? More of you should be. It’s a useful book. Like all books, it has its limitations, but it’s a useful book to get into the particular contributions of Old Testament books. On the other hand, that whole approach, though it’s very fair to the individual books, is not so good at drawing the connections through the Canon.
There, Charles Scobie’s recent The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology works on slightly different principles. Have some of you seen that one? It’s fairly recent, so it may not be here yet, but doubtless it will be in due course. I don’t agree with everything in it either, but what he has tried to do instead is to track certain themes through the Canon. In that sense, he’s doing biblical theology but tracking these things across books, across corpora, through the Old Testament and the New. That, too, is called biblical theology.
Ideally, in your preaching of a book you want to do some Paul House and you want to do some Charles Scobie. I could have used other examples, but ideally you want to do some of both. When you’re thinking biblical book you tend to be thinking, wittingly or unwittingly, Paul House.
That is to say, you tend to be thinking in terms of the constraints of that particular book because, after all, what have I been asked to do in this particular lecture? To talk about how to preach a particular book. Yet, at the same time, ideally you want to help Christians in your congregation to understand how this book fits into the whole Canon and, ultimately, locks onto some of the inner-canonical connections I mentioned in conjunction with expository preaching that take you to Jesus Christ.
If that book, then, introduces somewhere the theme of rest or the notion of priesthood or exodus and exile or the temple or another 15 or 18 of the major strands that run through Scripture, then there may be a place somewhere in the series (maybe several times in the series) for tracking out those connections in a Scobie-style so you give a kind of rapid survey of where this comes from in the Canon and where it goes in the Canon so people can see, then, how the book as a whole is held together in the Canon by these tendons, these ligaments.
The book itself is not to be seen as a kind of individual pearl on a string. It’s more like a chunk of bone that is connected with other chunks of bone by these ligaments that make a structure, a skeleton, that really holds together and on which you can drape all the full apparatus of biblical theology.
As you track those things, then you help people to see how this book contributes to bringing you to Jesus Christ. If you don’t do that fairly often, people won’t do it automatically. An earlier generation knew their Bibles so well that they tended to do these things, but because we have an increasingly biblically illiterate generation, we have to do it for them. We have to spell out those connections.
Thus, in your attempt to be faithful to this particular biblical book, remember at the end of the day that biblical theology includes not only a study of the contribution of each book and corpus, but also of the lines of connection in the Canon itself that bring us forward to Christ and the consummation. I would love to spend a lot more time on that and how to do it. It’s one of the shticks I like to focus attention on, but I don’t have time at this juncture.
9. Recognize there may be special study and focus necessary for certain books.
That is, in certain books the question of date may be important. For certain books, understanding something of the cultural background may be important. For example, if you’re going to preach Galatians and keep it in its context in the New Testament, somewhere along the line you have to decide North and South Galatian theory without giving all the reasons, because that’s going to line up with whether you read this book after Acts 15 and the Jerusalem Council or in conjunction with Acts 11 and so on.
It will affect how you talk about how this book and its argument relates to the important theological explication of the Jerusalem Council. You can’t avoid that one. I do not think that means you have to spend a whole lot of time in the sermon giving all your reasons why you hold to the South Galatian theory. I don’t mean that. You may simply summarize by saying very quickly, “As far as I can see, this book was written about AD 49 just after Paul had done this or that and before the immense confrontation of the Jerusalem Council reported in Acts 15.”
As you’ve said that, that one sentence may have cost you hours of sweat if you’ve never thought about these things before, but you don’t give all of your hours of sweat in the sermon; you just give the conclusion because it will engender quite a lot of theological distinctions that will emerge out of your exegesis. You have to decide that one. You can’t duck it! If you come to a book like Hosea, somewhere along the line you’re going to have to decide whether Hosea married a woman who was already a harlot or she became a harlot afterwards. It affects quite a lot of judgments.
When I was courting my wife a long time ago, she came from a middle-class Midlands Anglican family that never went to church. At university my wife got converted, and we were living in Cambridge at the time we were engaged. The mother came down to visit Joy, and although she never darkened the door of a church at home except for Christmas, maybe, and the odd funeral, she came with us to church, which was Eden Baptist in Cambridge at the time. The pastor was David Smith.
The Sunday she came, lo and behold, David was just embarking on a series on Hosea. Well, we had 55 minutes on adultery and background and whether or not Hosea’s Gomer was a whore when he married her. On and on and on.… It was just a bit heavy. It went on and on and on. I was like, “What on earth is my future mother-in-law thinking about this?”
We got out, and the two women (my future wife and her mother) were walking out ahead of me, and I was behind. My future mother-in-law turned to her daughter and said, “Um, is this Hosea business in the Anglican Bible?” The fact that you have had to make this decision does not necessarily mean you have to give all your reasons for the decision. You may be doing damage to someone’s future mother-in-law.
Likewise, there are different literary genres that demand a special kind of study. If you’ve never worked with apocalyptic before, it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of reading on the background of apocalyptic. If you’ve never really handled Wisdom Literature, you need to do some reading on the nature of Wisdom Literature and so forth.
10. Ideally, try to make your sermon material reflect in some way the genre of the book you are treating.
I tried to deal with that briefly yesterday in a kind of special off-the-record seminar for 40 preachers on preaching from different literary genres. Many of us brought up in the linear habits of Western thought are inclined to make almost all sermons sound roughly the same, whether you are preaching from Proverbs or the Apocalypse.
When you stop to think of the glorious diversity of Scripture, doesn’t it challenge you to think, “How can I make a sermon on some chunk of the Apocalypse sound apocalyptic? How can I make a sermon on Ecclesiastes or on Proverbs sound as if it’s born and bred and reared and shaped by wisdom itself?”
Similarly, with narrative. You’re so used to expounding Romans that you come to a great big chunk of narrative text and then you reduce it all to dull discourse. Tell a story, for goodness’ sake. There may be different ways of shaping the thing, of structuring it and so forth, so as to reflect the fact it is narrative material. That demands another whole reflection, but I don’t have time to track that one out here.
11. Remember constantly this is not an exercise in artistic creation.
The sermon is never an end in itself; it is a means to the end, namely God’s re-revelation to human beings. That means as you prepare you ought constantly to be thinking of the people to whom you are ministering. That is one of the joys of local church ministry.
It’s one of the harder things I as an itinerant have to cope with. You get to know your people. You know where they are, what level they’re at, what they’ve read, what they assume, what their vocabulary is, what their interests are, how many of them are interested in sports and how many can’t stand sports, and so on and so on and so on.
This is important, therefore, not only for the level at which it is pitched but how you do your questions of application. By application I don’t necessarily mean that chunk at the end of the sermon that brings the sermon to completion. The application may be interwoven with one-liners or the analogies you use and that sort of thing.
About halfway through Ray Galea this morning, I started jotting down every time he said something analogically or in application or the like that in some ways was away from the text but was always clarifying the text. Each one was fair, but each one was a reflection of who he is or his assessment of who we are or something like this.
For example, a bit like when we win another Ashes, and so forth. I prefer the story my wife told in PNG. Or I remember that dinner I had with a Greek Orthodox priest. In each case, the reflection of who he is and who he thinks we are and in each case it is illuminating something in the text.
It wasn’t that this was a great big chunk of special application (“Now I’ve expounded the text and I come to the application”), but even for those who are suspicious of application, if you’re not deathly dull as a preacher you’re integrating application all the way through it, and that means you ought to be thinking in terms of the people you’re addressing.
You watch somebody who is really keen on sports and about 55 to 75 percent of their one-liners and their quick applications will have something to do with sports. You owe it to your congregation to ask how many people are turned off by that, because I guarantee there are some unless you just have a whole generation of hunks. Most of our churches have their share, but they’re not all hunks!
I just had an email when I turned on the computer this morning from someone in England who had been at church that Sunday and, because it was Father’s Day there, there were these prayers for our families and for our fathers and so on and so on. All the prayers seemed to be predicated apparently on the assumption that every family has 2.4 children and they’re all nice daddies and fine mummies and people are happily married. “Lord, preserve us.”
You just look around in any of our churches and that’s not the way it is. How many of the women and some of the men have come from abused backgrounds? How many of them don’t have a clue what a nice daddy is? How many of them are single? How many of them are divorced? How many of the kids don’t know who the father is? And so on.
In our prayers and applications and structures and so on, that should all be figured in. Just because we have come from a nice family doesn’t mean everybody in our congregation has. Just because I am interested in the Ashes doesn’t mean the widow who just lost her husband is. Somewhere along the line, part of pastoral.… Did I say something bad? Oh!
One of the funniest meals I ever ate was a number of years ago when a group of us (maybe 30 of us from the faculty, because we weren’t all there, by a long shot) were sitting around at lunch and somewhere along the line somebody said, “What’s your most embarrassing moment in Christian ministry?” The stories started to come.
We were rolling on the floor with tears streaming. Some of the stories were so awful you couldn’t possibly repeat them, and I wish.… I wish.… I had a tape recorder. It would make a fantastic book except you’d have to edit quite a lot of the chapters out. I hesitate to tell you two or three of my most embarrassing moments. That was not an embarrassing one. That was just funny. I could tell you some embarrassing ones that would curl your hair if you have any remaining. You wouldn’t by the end of the story.
Well, there may be a woman in the congregation who is interested in a different set of ashes. In any case, it’s part of good pastoral application to think through these sorts of issues very carefully as part of the integrated preparation of the text.
12. Ideally, keep revising, praying, and preparing so it is not so much that you have mastered the material as that it has mastered you.
There is a way of preaching in which you project an image of being an expert. There is a way of preaching in which you project an image of having been captured.
The latter is gained partly by continually revising, thinking through, and how you express yourself. It’s also attained by where your heart is, how greatly you think of God and of Christ and of the gospel and how little you think of your preparation even though you’ve been so diligent at it. Let’s bow in prayer.
In truth, merciful God, we discover to our shame that we are not very consistent and we often slip and slide and become intoxicated by peripheral things. O Lord God, in the pressure on our time help us to make choices that are wise, honoring to you, for our people’s good. In the midst of counseling and caring and basic administration, remind us again and again that we are called to the ministry of the Word and prayer.
With all that means for study and preparation as well as for delivery, with all that it means for explaining the Bible to a single person, bringing the comfort of the Word to someone who is ill in the hospital or in an evangelistic group explaining your most Holy Word to people who don’t have a clue, with all that it means for sermon preparation, we confess humbly that we are, at best, unprofitable servants and that what we achieve we achieve by your grace.
Make us, we beg of you, as holy as pardoned sinners can be this side of the consummation. Make us workers who do not need to be ashamed, rightly interpreting the Word of God. Help us so to grow in life and doctrine that others will see our progress and glorify you. Whether our charge is large or small, whether it is viewed as strategic or in some way removed from the hubbub of life, grant that our deepest concern will be for the well-being of the men and women over whom you have placed us as under-shepherds.
Grant to us the deepest desire to keep our eyes fixed on Christ Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has now sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. We bless you, Lord God, for the immense privilege of Christian ministry, and in its sorrows and hurts, give us a forbearing, forgiving spirit, a persevering grace that lives with eternity’s values in view.
In its moments of triumph and joy, help us to understand that as we work out our salvation, it is you working in us both to will and to do of your good pleasure. As we grow in love for one another, help us to eschew every hint of the green-eyed monster so we start comparing service records and sizes of church.
Help us rather to be faithful to the One who has called us to live with eternity’s values in view, to delight in faithfulness in small things, to look forward to the approval of the Master himself on the last day: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in a few matters; I will make you ruler over many things.”
Have mercy on us, your people. Teach us not only understanding but tears. Help us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to weep with those who weep, and so to show ourselves mastered by the text that our very blood will be Bibline, prick us and we bleed Scripture. This for Christ’s sake, amen.
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