Daily Devotional 4-23-18

Five Ways to Make Sure that Your Sermon is Not Merely Your Ideas

Raphael (1483–1520), St Paul Preaching in Athens (1515). Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Identity theft is running rampant. Some orators are claiming to be Christian preachers, with a message from God. Upon forensic investigation of the homily, however, we suspect that some are not God’s thoughts or God’s messages at all. Rather, some are practicing ministerial mal-practice by using God’s name to cloak their cunning craftsmanship. These crypto-clerics are brazenly or (to be more charitable) unwittingly heralding their own ideas. If this phenomenon is left unchecked the People of God could become either spiritually malnourished or, worse, mendaciously misled. It is time—yes, it is always time—to conduct a self-evaluation lest we, too, become infected with this homiletical tapeworm. Let us begin our solemn if not somewhat abbreviated investigation. Give attention O preacher to your mandate:

“I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the quick and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1-2 ESV).

I write you as my beloved pastoral colleagues in the Gospel of Grace. I write these words to you because I so desperately need the charge myself!

Almighty God called you to preach. He called you to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ. He called you to do so by being faithful to his word. We really have no other message but the message that he has given us in his word. Yet, we face a barrage of incoming temptations that if yielded to could conflict, contort, and confuse the message of the biblical text. Here are some thoughts as I’ve observed those temptations in my own life and as I’ve seen them in the lives of other pastors and have talked about them together with other pastors.

1. Read the text.

This sounds simple enough. Indeed, the Apostle Paul left clear instructions with Timothy that he was to give attention to the public reading of the Scriptures. He was to be a faithful servant of God by rightly dividing the word. Yet, temptations to leave the Text undivided stalk the preacher like a cunning beast. To begin with, something other than the text might dangle its potential before us. Of course, you cannot have an expository sermon without beginning with the text. To begin with anything else, even the subject that you believe is systematized throughout the Scriptures is, to begin with just that: the subject, not the text. Read the text. Pray the text. Question the text. Let the text question you. Be still before the Word. Only in silence can you know how to utter the first sound in a sermon.

2. Create your initial homiletical form from your first encounter with the text.

First impressions are powerful. This is so in preparing to preach. Creating an initial homiletic sketch means identifying the central theme or thought arising from your exegetical study. Write it out. Go back to the Scrnipture. Text your statement. Write it another way. Go back to the Scripture. Write it again.

When I was teaching at the Army Chaplain School we used a method called the “Post-it-note test.” This was merely a way to force ourselves to write out the exegetical statement and the expository statement—also called the proposition on the big idea—to fit on a Post-it note. You can fine-tune the statements later with symmetry and other literary and homiletical devices that will aid in the delivery of God’s message. But in the beginning, the goal is simply to identify the message that God has given you from his word. Within this second step, you should also identify the presenting issue. My friend, Dr. Bryan Chapell, calls this “the fallen condition focus (FCF),” as did his teacher, the late Rev. Dr. Robert Rayburn. I do like and appreciate Dr. Chapell’s method. But I prefer to call the identification of the concern within the pericope, “the presenting issue.” Sometimes, the “presenting issue” may not be, explicitly, a fallen condition, but a philosophical question, or an existential conundrum, or even a picture of heaven or an attribute of God. Perhaps, you can say all of these must still unearth a fallen condition to “set up” the preaching. I urge you to wrestle with this. So, next, identify the presenting issue (the “PI”) (or FCF). Now you have identified not only the presenting issue, but also the exegetical statement, and the expository statement. Survey the text and divide the text naturally using an interrogatory statement following your expository statement. For instance, in John 3:16, the exegetical statement may be put: “Jesus Christ explains the love of God in contrast to a very unlovable and fallen world.” Your expository message may be, “God’s love is greater than all our sins.” Now you must ask the question that will lead to your “argument” (also called the body of the sermon). The question is a “who, what, how, when, where” type of question. So, for our example, I might respond to the expository statement by asking, “How does Jesus demonstrate that God’s love is greater than all our sins?” The answer to your interrogative statement, aided by a keyword, will unfold your argument. For instance, you may ask the question, once more, “How does Jesus demonstrate that God’s love is greater than all our sins?” Your answer is the necessary transitional statement that will bind the points of your argument. So, in our example, I might answer the interrogative statement this way: “Jesus demonstrates that God’s love is greater than all our sins with three remarkable revelations.” Then, survey the text and answer the question. Now, you have something to work with for the rest of the week. And that’s what I want to get to next.

3. Spend time in prayer.

Another way to put this is, “Take the rudimentary work that you have done in steps one and two and place them in the providential oven and let them bake.” This doesn’t mean, “Go on about your parish work and forget about the sermon until the end of the week.” What it does mean is this: “Go about your pastoral duties with the text in your mind, on your heart, and on your lips in prayer.” As you are making a hospital visit, meditate upon the text. As you are at a committee meeting, meditate upon the text. As you are in pastoral counseling, think about how the text applies in that situation. In your family devotions, remember the text. In other words, live with the text throughout the week. Then, return to your text on, for instance, a Thursday.

Remember: A sermon that has been bathed in prayer will sparkle with power.

Now you’re ready to move to number four.

4. Put some meat on the bone.

The foundational work that you have done in identifying the expository statement arising from the exegetical statement and flowing from the presenting issue has allowed you to create a transitional sentence formed from an interrogative statement. Let us suppose that you scratched out three certain “movements” in your argument. Now you need to pay attention to the introduction. Introductions can often wander. They can go astray. They can introduce ideas that, in fact, cause the people’s minds to run away from the Presenting Issue or a heading in the Argument. You must be very careful to compose an Introduction based on those key elements that you discovered in your reading and prayerful reflections upon the biblical text. So, the first word out of your mouth after reading the Holy Scriptures and praying for the illumination of the Holy Spirit on the Text is this: state the presenting issue. Then move to an illustration that properly opens up the presenting issue. From there, personalize it: with yourself and with your congregation. That leads you to the next link in the introductory chain and that is God’s answer or response in his word to the presenting issue (this part of the Introduction has been called the sequence of “I, thee, and Thou,” or (“me, you, God”). Now, you are ready to move into the exegetical statement. You have written that out on a Post-it note. Now it is time to tie a surgeon’s knot (a string knot, indeed) in this paragraph. You need not go into all of the details because that is going to be part of your argument. Right now, you are introducing the congregation to the great exegetical statement which is necessary for you to proclaim the universal truth of Almighty God: the expository or the homiletical statement. Remember that you cannot move to the expository statement (i.e., the proposition or big idea) until you have clearly stated the exegetical truth. That is the reason for the surgeons not. The exegetical statement must be so tightly bound to the expository statement that none can doubt that this is “the Word of the Lord.” Once you have done secured that knot, then you are able to transition, with one clear, clean sentence, into the expository statement. Moving from the expository statement, the interrogative statement, the transitional statement with keyword, you can now make your argument. You have already “roughed-out” the division of your argument derived from the text. Of course, you didn’t make this up! You asked the question of the text. “How did Jesus show that God’s love is greater than all our sins?” You investigated the answers from the Scripture, you “ate the Text,” inwardly digesting the truths therein through prayer and meditation. So, this “product” is what you will preach. Each heading or “movement” (as George Buttrick referred to rhetorical steps in a the homily) is supported by its own exegetical statement, its own illustration, and its own application. This is the preaching of the word of God. A sermon is not your idea as long as it is grounded in and proclaiming, with urgency and conviction, the text, context, and universal truths of the inerrant and infallible Scriptural text before you. And the people themselves must know this is not your word but it is the word of the Lord. Only then can a sinner be saved, or a Christian be formed according to the message of a respective text in the Holy Bible.

5. Make your conclusion a closing argument.

Your conclusion should not merely be a moving story or a threat or an invitation. It may be all of those things. It must be each of those things and yet it must be grounded in the word of the Lord. An untethered illustration is like an astronaut disconnected from his lifeline, floating aimlessly out into space, enjoying the ride, but likely to be sucked into Jupiter.

As an experienced and expert trial attorney gives his compelling and decisive “closing argument” before a fixated jury, so you are offering the concluding case of God’s Word before the congregation. All are on trial before the Word of the living God, the preacher having been First to face the Great Judge of the heart as he received the Message for the doxological appointment with destiny.

“How will you respond?” “What will you do with this Christ and His Gospel?”

Like so many other homiletical teachers, I advise our seminary students to employ the trinitarian conclusion: (1) summarize; (2)  illustrate; and (3) lay down the closing charge. The summary is not, however, merely a recapitulation of your points in the argument but rather it should be a conversational restatement of the presenting issue and God’s resolution of the issue. The illustration must be designed to not only present a positive picture of what life looks like when we obey, receive, or follow God’s word in the text. The illustration must be tethered to the summary and to closing charge that follows. In this way, the closing illustration is a “positive picture of life in the kingdom” (in the context of the exposition) that is urgently, though perhaps quietly or climactically, seeking a response. Call for that response. No, demand it! Call for the jury to receive the truth of God and to act upon it now.

“Behold, now is ‘the acceptable time,’ behold, now is ‘the day of salvation’” (2 Corinthians 6:2 NASB).

So much more should be stated about the glorious topic of ensuring that we who are called to preach are, in fact, preaching the very word of God. These five thoughts may help you in your week-to-week work of preparing sermons. Always remember that if God’s word goes forward, as you faithfully proclaim it each Lord’s Day, God’s mission in the world will be realized. The kingdom of God will come. Souls will be saved. Lives will be transformed. Satan’s dark dominion raided. You will bring “joy to the city” (Acts 8:8). And the People can say, “Truly, we have heard from God.”


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———-. Christ-Centered Sermons: Models of Redemptive Preaching, 2013.

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