A good sermon rarely “just happens”. And when I mean “good”, I mean a sermon with Gospel clarity, sermon coherence, and delivery competency. Like all crafts, what skill you put into your sermon preparation is what you are likely to get out of it, all things being equal. Jot a few notes on a Post-It® sticky and you better have a shelf full of worn-out Bibles, a wall full of degrees evidencing theological competence and cabinets filled with sermons as resources from which to recall exegetical insights and pure doctrine. Even then, rarely, and I mean like maybe once or twice in my lifetime, have I heard a cogent sermon from someone “winging it”. When it did happen there were definitely moments where my wife and I glanced at each other and caught our eyes saying, “This is uncomfortable. He is unprepared. This could go anywhere or nowhere.” When no preparation is evident, auditors anticipate a train-wreck and, in my experience, usually get one too.
Sermon preparation is not an option or an afterthought. Sermon preparation is a way of life, a necessary discipline, and a serious mediation for the man of God, duly called and ordained to herald the royal proclamation of Jesus. When the King, Jesus, asks you to speak, you must know His message, know His audience, and know your vocation. That requires honing skills in the craft of preaching.
3. The Preacher of the Word Prepares His Sermon.
When I was under the tutelage of the Rev. Dr. Philip G. Ryken, one-time Senior Pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church and current President of Wheaton College, I would be permitted on occasion to be in his downtown Philadelphia study while he composed sermons. It was very much like watching a orchestral composer put together beautiful, stirring music.
While his desk and meeting table were strewn with books, there was method to what looked like Mozart’s madness. When I inquired about his method he delineated for me the following, which I scratched onto a legal pad (it has since been copied and recopied due to use and wear):
A. Reflect on your vocation. What is it that you do when you preach? Since it is not your message, but the King’s message, you are responsible to convey it with unmistakable, unaltered clarity in the King’s name. You are an ambassador, an emissary. It’s not about you and it’s not your message. The authority with which you are to speak in the stead and by the command of the Lord only goes so far as the commissioning itself. Recheck your ordination vows - there are limitations to the commission. The commissioning is this: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). Preach “Christ and Him crucified” and the corollaries of “the forgiveness of sins” and “the Kingdom for God.” How you set that up means addressing sin. How you extrapolate its implications means exhortation toward living in a way commensurate within the new creation, with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Everything else is window-dressing. Reflect on your vocation. Stop. Think. Repent. Pray. It’s not about you. It’s not your “message”. It’s His proclamation. You’re just an ambassador; a mere relay between the Lord and needy sinners.
B. Work from text to sermon. Having once again been humbled by your calling to facilitate the Lord’s message to His people, it’s time to work with the materials of your craft: the Word of God.
I first balked when Ryken said this twenty years ago — I mean, it’s a given, right? Wrong. Not so much a given then or now. In a recent survey of contemporary preaching methods, I found that more times than not there is little exposition of a Biblical text and even scant proof-texting to serve as a foil to one’s “message.” So, no, working from text to sermon cannot be taken for granted. But since it is neither your proclamation nor your word, then show integrity by using His holy Word and honestly herald His will. Preachers preach that which is not their own, but that which has been given them in spirit and in truth. The only repository for it is Holy Scripture. The only thing of lasting value is the Word of God, not one’s oratory skill. So, go to the well of Scripture — there’s the raw material of your craft, not the BuzzFeed question du jour, not the books on your nightstand, and not your Netflix® playlist.
What may help you to safeguard the practice of mining Scripture each week is the employment of a lectionary. Lectionaries are compendiums of Biblical texts appointed throughout the year. There are one-year and three-year lectionary series. Lectionaries greatly encourage working from text to sermon. Lectionaries have an in-built genius of coupling texts from the Old Testament, Psalms, and Epistles with the Gospel, in a generally chronological progression through the life of Christ and the Church. In this way they very much self-present the Gospel theme which binds the texts together saving the preacher from having to confect a point or meaning to the sermon. The Gospel is the point. The Gospel is the sermon.
The lectionary is a thing of beauty. It provides a balance of seasons and therefore a broader array of sermons, while at the same time safeguarding the necessary themes of Scripture and the sine qua non of preaching — the holy Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us face it, the lectionary safeguards against consumerist preaching, abject subjectivity (the pet themes, issues, and agenda of the pastor or congregation!), and boring repetition — like preaching though the same book for nine years (That actually happens). Indeed, lectionaries help keep “preaching” truly preaching.
C. Go to the Greek and Hebrew. Now that you have selected your text or, better, your text has been selection for you in the lectionary cycle, read it in Greek or Hebrew. Of course, this is exactly what is taught in a proper seminary: read it and diagram it (Dr. Ryken said this will allow you to see the text in high definition technicolor, rather than in monochrome English or Spanish or German). Latin provides some insights, to be sure, but it too is a step removed from the original languages and therefore interpretive liberties have been taken. The Greek and Hebrew will provide added and unfiltered depth and richness.
The assumption here is the preacher has been trained and examined for competency in the Biblical languages and has skills with the tools of Greek and Hebrew (vocabulary, lexicon, grammar, triglotta, etc.). If this is not the case, then it is time for school, pastor. There is little doubt you are impoverishing your parish without having the ability to adjudicate the opinions of the commentators. You may just be parroting partisan, perhaps erroneous, exegesis without the ability to do it yourself. Enroll in an online course or find a local cleric with abilities to train you how to read the Word of God in situ. For all translating entails interpretation. Upon whom, then, are you dependent for reading the text?
To be continued.