There is a principle of correlation at play in sermon preparation: what you put into sermon preparation, compares with the accuracy and quality of the sermon. Of this, there is no doubt. Accuracy and quality are the preacher’s responsibility. How affective and effective the sermon may be, of course, belongs to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. With that said, outside of silliness and heterodoxy, I cannot think of a more common obstacle a preacher can set in the path of the Spirit than unpreparedness.
Sadly, like Chris Rosebrough the host of “Fighting for the Faith” who screens sermon content on behalf of the faithful, I too have endured many so-called “sermons” which begin with the words, “On my way to church, I asked the Lord for a message this morning.” Or, “Last night I was thinking about a message for today.” When I hear words like these, I cringe. My sense of anticipation and confidence level for receiving Christ’s own proclamation drops like a stone. Such preachers, it seems, never fail to meet the lowest expectations. They offer all kinds of Biblical messages, but not so many Gospel sermons.
In contemporary preaching there appears to be a marked shift in terminology preference. The New Testament word for “message” (ἡ ἀγγελία) was once equated almost exclusively with the Gospel (e.g., Mark 16:20; Acts 13:26; 1 Corinthians 2:4; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 2 Timothy 4:15, 17; Hebrews 2:2). That is, the preacher’s message transmitted Christ’s message. Now it clearly connotes a broad spectrum of possibilities, one of which might be the Gospel. A pastor’s “message” is no longer synonymous with the preacher’s sermon.
Therefore, there may be another principle of correlation to note. Namely the degree to which an unprepared preacher lacks coherence and clarity, and/or doctrinal and gospel precision, is the degree to which he delivers a “message” and not a sermon. Perhaps this is why the phenomenon of replacing the moniker of sermon with message in bulletins and on websites is so widespread – sermons are increasingly seen as a restrictive, topic-specific thing of the past (the Bible permitting a fixed and narrow range for preaching the Word of Christ). A “message”, however, is much more adaptable to the varied lifestyles of twentieth-century auditors - an expansive range of topics and themes. Broadcasters have messages from their sponsors. Secretaries record messages for their supervisors. And congregants have messages from their pastors. It is now common parlance in the church to say, “Here comes the message,” and if he is unprepared it could come from anywhere.
On the other hand, a sermon is something quite specific. It is a kind of declaration so peculiar from a clearly identified authority - Jesus Christ - that the designation “message” in its current usage does not rightly fit anymore. Sermons come from a specific source: Holy Scripture. “Messages” associate with an indefinitely broad horizon by accommodating the widest possible spectrum of topics and sources. This seems to downgrade and depart from what the Lord commissioned His emissaries to do and say. Preachers preach sermons, and sermons herald the Lord’s Word, the Lord’s Gospel. That is quite specific. The Lord did not commission messengers to confect nondescript messages from unspecified sources.
To safeguard against messaging and to fortify coherence and clarity, as well as doctrinal and gospel precision, preachers prepare sermons. Without adequate preparation we fall back on what we know best, namely our own stories, our own experiences, and our own perspectives, be they ever so immersed in church-speak. The results remain predictable: auditors receive the minister’s message, rather than Christ’s royal proclamation. And so, our principle of correlation stands: what you put into preparation, compares with the accuracy and quality of the sermon.
Preparation requires time, ample time to exegete the Word of God, the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Therefore, time allotment for exegesis is extolled as a “first principle”. In a culture which prides itself on being “crazy busy”, preachers need to safeguard time - for the sake of their people and the integrity of their office - designated toward accurate and informed sermon preparation in the form of Scriptural exegesis. First exegesis, then composition. Preachers should be mindful that sermon preparation and composition usually require a full week’s work. It is one domain in Holy Ministry where you cannot, “fake it until you make it.” If you are “faking it”, please stop. Your unpreparedness is glaringly obvious and does a disservice to Christ and His people. In their rightful love and attachment to you (no doubt sacrificially earned), your congregation may be tolerating your messages. Remove the impediment of unpreparedness and allow the Holy Spirit to work with you and through your preparation, rather than in spite of you. Exegete the text as your Christ-commissioned responsibility.
4. Exegesis begins with the utilization of the following seven items:
(a) The Tools for Translation. Using the original languages, make a translation of the Biblical text. Employ the scholarly implements from your pastoral toolbox (e.g., grammar, lexicon, concordance, dictionary, computer resources, etc.) from the familiar cast of eminent masters of the trade (Nestle-Aland, Black, Williams, Jongkind, Kubo, Metzger, and Martini). The point of this exercise is to familiarize yourself with not merely the Biblical text, that is the words, but to slowly enter the world of the Bible. Greek and Hebrew have a way of transporting the exegete to another time and place, thwarting the tendency to gloss and engendering contemplation. Having entered that world, you are now in a place to harvest insights.
(b) Textual context. Here we are talking about the discipline of isagogics; the introductory study, especially of the literary and external history of the Bible, prior to exegesis. In point (a) we considered how Greek and Hebrew help to bring us into the world of the Bible. Isagogics (b) is the actual identification of the material and documentary culture, locations, patterns, circumstances and behaviors of that world. Isagogic context significantly illuminates the text by widening the context to give it richer, thicker meaning. It helps us to appreciate how the great majority of the Bible is not merely a collection of timeless truths but most of its contents are time and location bound. Isagogics brings a specificity which recognizes the historicity, circumstances, and profundity of the text’s context. It tells us it matters that Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was written to and for the Galatians, not the Philippians. Indeed, it tells us it matters that it is Paul’s epistle and it was, in fact, an epistle. Imagine if Paul’s epistles to the Galatians and Philippians were accidentally put into the wrong envelopes and sent to the wrong churches. Isagogics tells you that matters. It tells you every historiographical, geographical, and situational detail matters because they convey meaning germane to the text.
(c) Liturgical Context. The church calendar and lectionary cycle commend the text particularly and demystify finding the “right” text for the week. You have four to choose from on the same gospel theme. Indeed, you can use all or any combination of the four as they regularly self-comment on the Gospel text (especially during festival seasons). Be mindful of passages like John 10 which stretch over 3-4 weeks. There is no need to rush through it. Take some time to mine its treasures. Likewise, with the Epistles. They operate on a lectio continua basis. You can preach through entire Epistles if you so desire. In addition, mindfulness of and deference to the liturgical season brings a Christocentric rhythm to time, inclining parishioners to anticipate major Gospel themes. Therefore, even the calendar aids in your favor by preparing your auditors for the Word of God from week to week.
(d) Word Studies. With the translation you have forged in-hand, you can check it against existing translations. There may be insights to phrases, word order, even punctuation noticed by others that may help illumine your translation. Employ a concordance for ascertaining the development of certain words and themes as the carry-over from the Hebrew Scriptures and Septuagint (LXX) into New Testament Greek. Vocabulary in the New Testament tends to grow and has a different feel from its use and place in the Hebrew Bible and Septuagint; texts that preceded the New Testament by hundreds of years. A lot can happen to a word over the centuries as it moves through different cultures and regions.
(e) Commentary and Other Helps. Commentaries can be cheaply purchased these days. There are also several reliable commentary series freely available online. Outstanding sets of the most up-to-date scholarship can be acquired quite reasonably over time. Churches would do well to have a book allowance for their pastor, so they may acquire adequate tools for their craft. However, beware: commentaries are usually theologically driven by the commentator’s own denominational commitments.
(f) Confessions. You would do well to consider how the text may have been employed within your confession of faith. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession of faith (1531) cites hundreds of passages, and editions may be found with a Scripture index. Be mindful that lengthy quotations can place an undue burden on your auditors, especially if the context for the confessional statement is not well developed. So, keep quotations short and to the point.
(g) Patristics. Will Herberg of Drew University once told Professor Thomas C. Oden how he should not consider himself a theologian, even if he was remunerated as one, if he had not read the fathers of the ancient church’s comments on Scripture and Christian Theology. For Oden, it marked a change in the direction of his life’s work, Christian devotion and, significantly, his theology. Reading Scripture with the fathers radically reoriented his liberal propensities and he became a champion of orthodoxy and ecumenism through doctrinal understanding and agreement. Consequently, for the pastor in the pulpit, you should not consider yourself a faithful transmitter of the tradition, confessor of the faith, or preacher of the Gospel, if you have not spent time considering the sermon content, Scripture commentary, and exegetical insights of the generations closest to Christ Jesus our Lord, and His Apostles. Good places to start include the following: Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (IVP, 1998); Thomas C. Oden, Ed., The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 29 Volumes (IVP Academic, 1999-2014); and John Willis, The Teaching of the Church Fathers (Ignatius Press, 2002).
Now you are ready for the next step in the First Principles of Preaching - developing the Gospel theme.