Anatomy of a sermon: Day 3
Today I hope the sermon starts to take shape. It does that in two ways. First I begin to see how the passage can be preached in terms of structure – in other words, what is the best way to tackle this passage? That may be about headings and divisions, or it may be more general thinking, particularly with narrative passages.
Second, I begin to think more about how it applies to us today. How does this passage land in this culture and age – and, more precisely, to the people to whom I will be preaching? This is the day when this thinking looms large and there is a switch in balance between detailed text work and detailed sermon work. Days 1 and 2 are the former, Days 3 onwards become the latter.
Still, at this stage, no particular thought to hook or introduction or illustrations. I want them to serve the whole and I personally find I can only maintain that discipline if I deliberately leave them to late in the day. I am too tempted to build around them. That may not be your temptation, but I’ve learnt to structure my preparation to deal with my proclamational sins.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 2
Day 2 I get working on the text. This is when my piece of paper is transformed from a blank sheet, to a colourful working board. I use different colours for different ideas – nothing as spectacular as a colour scheme, but when I look back at a sheet, I like to be able to see whole ideas separate from other whole ideas.
I start – or at least I try to – without help. This is the day when I start working on the text in detail. How do ideas flow? How do conjunctions work? Why is something said the way it is? Why is this word used? How do the various components of the text hang together – all those questions you would expect. And I let each of those amend and check my big idea.
If I get stuck, I try to wrestle with it a bit. If I’m still stuck, I get help. I’m not afraid to do that, my temptation is always to do it too early. I avoid books of sermons or devotional commentaries (too many other people have already heard John Stott’s sermons!). So Tyndale over BST, Pillar over Focus. This isn’t the stage for those kinds of commentaries.
By the end of Day 2 I want to know how the passage works and have both an amended big idea and have begun to ask the question – what’s the passage here for, i.e. original intent. That – inevitably – gets me thinking about my own heart and my own congregation. I don’t want to banish those thoughts completely – they need to start. But neither do I want those to take over just yet.
Anatomy of a sermon: Day 1
Today (Monday for the purposes of this blog, but normally for me Day 1 is Tuesday), I just want to let the text sink in. I print it out onto a piece of paper in two or three versions, Greek too if it’s NT (sorry, no Hebrew or Aramaic for this muppet). I then read it through again and again. My aim on Day 1 is to let the text speak without doing any detailed exegetical work. So, no commentaries. I try to discipline myself (not always successfully) to avoid thinking of headings and splits and bookends and all that stuff.
I might listen to it being read (using an Audio Bible) or even, if the passage is relatively short, try to memorise it. I might break the morning with a walk or some other activity and perhaps even take my sheet with me.
I am not so narrow that I don’t make notes. If things come to me or surprise me or excite me, I might note them on my sheet. But I try to keep these top level – I don’t get into the place of a particular preposition at this stage.
By the end of Day 1 I try to write down a big idea. I might be able to do that at this stage, I might not. But I want the passage to be in my bloodstream so that when Day 2 and the more detailed work begins, I have a context to work within. My temptation is always to get into the detail too quickly. For example I’m always tempted to start analysing sentence 1 before even reading the passage enough. So Day 1 is a disciplined introduction to the passage.
I try to pray it for me on this Day. I’m not at this stage working out illustrations, applications and so on. I’m simply trying to let the word of Christ dwell in me richly. I guess to most of us bookish people, this sounds a bit touchy feely. But it’s important, I believe, to preach a passage well, to get the sense of it well, tone, pace – all that sort of thing.
Anatomy of a sermon
Next week on the blog I’m going to walk through my sermon preparation process. I’m doing this simply because I often get asked how I go about it. There’s going to be nothing prescriptive in it – there are four of us on staff here who preach regularly, and as far as I know, we all follow different patterns. None is more correct than another. Nevertheless, it sometimes helps us to listen to how other people go about things.
In part, this helps us understand how best we can individually approach sermon preparation. For each of this needs to be different because we have different levels and skills and find some things easier than others. You may be better at original languages than me (I always think about them – but find it very hard). You have struggle with applications or illustrations more than I, and so on.
But there are two constants – one is the text in front of us. It does not change and it requires the preachers hard work to preach it faithfully. The other is a dependent spirit that is reflected in the preacher’s praying. I will not say a huge amount about this next week, but want to say up front that each of my five days is spent at least in part in prayer. Whether physically or metaphorically, each preacher must lay his sermon before the Lord as Hezekiah lay the letter before him (Is 37:14).
Republication and all that
You may have been following the republication debate in the US. Or not. Essentially this is a question of whether the Mosaic Covenant is a republication of the covenant of works with Adam or something entirely different. This is more than an academic exercise for preachers as it gets to the heart of the question of how we preach law books (not just “the Law” in its totality). I’ve been greatly helped by Michael Brown’s little book Christ and the Condition. It is an assessment of Samuel Petto (1624-1711) and his views on the subject. Garry Williams first put me onto Samuel Petto but I confess to finding him a bit impenetrable. This book is a great help, not least because it surveys many of the Reformers and Puritans with a paragraph on each and their views: a really useful overview.
What becomes clear is that even amongst the Westminster Divines, for example, there were a variety of views within Reformed thinking – interesting given that some of those views are now dismissed rather abruptly with pejorative names. Samuel Bolton does a good job of summarising the five views on the law of Moses:
- A covenant of works, yet not opposed to the covenant of grace
- A covenant of grace, more legally dispensed
- A mixed covenant, mixed of nature and of grace
- A subservient covenant given to Israel
- No covenant in itself but a republication of the covenant of works with Adam
I was away last week at a hugely encouraging Cornhill+ conference. I love these residential stays with 10 or so guys: really good conversations, prayers and so on. We did a session of book reviews and I thought it would be good to list the books that guys were reading:
Expositional preaching, David Helm
True Friendship, Vaughan Roberts
Whiter than snow, Paul Tripp
The good God, Mike Reeves
The greatest fight in the world, CH Spurgeon
What is the mission of the church, Kevin DeYoung & Greg Gilbert
The creative gift, Hans Rookmaaker
Serving without sinking, John Hindley
Streets paved with gold, Irene Howat
The Holy War, John Bunyan
One or two observations:
– These are all good books, and contain useful truths. I’ve read most (though have never tackled Rookmaaker, but would like to). I would commend any of higher happily
– They are all, for the most part, relatively simple books. There’s a place for those in ministry reading such books, but I’m a firm believer that we should read such books alongside those that stretch us. What are you reading that’s stretching you. Some of that stretching needs to be reading outside our comfort zone, even things we might disagree with. I find the discipline of reading something I don’t know if I will agree with more useful than the latest book from a conservative stable.
Go on! Let’s ignore history. Not.
When I’m studying a passage, I try to work things through on my own first of all. I don’t read a commentary before I’ve done any study. But I do read them. I am not certain enough of my own understanding and spirituality not to listen to other voices. I do so critically and thoughtfully. But to ignore the past is to ignore the giants God has given me.
The argument that something has been understood historically carries some weight with me. Some weight, I say. Just because something has been held, doesn’t mean it is right. The Reformation would never have happened otherwise. Such an approach is Catholicism which gives the Magisterium great authority. But even Calvin did not ignore the Scholastics – they are some help, he said.
I’m nervous of Evangelicals who don’t want to engage with the past. Let’s just see what the Bible says, is the mantra. Well, yes. I see that. I believe that – but to try to understand what the Bible says ignoring the interpretative past that God has given us seems to me to be the height of arrogance and a complete ignoring of God’s providential care of the church.
So, after studying the passage, I do open my commentaries – old and new. I want to know what they say precisely because I want to know what the text says.
Convictions about ministry
We’ve just finished our small Cornhill+ conference for Cornhillers who are in ministry and want to do some extra training, but for whom college is not appropriate or practicable. We had a great time in Ezekiel 1-2, 2 Cor 4-5 and 1 Thess. It was also good to have Trevor Archer with us, and we had a ‘fireside chat’ session where he shared some convictions about ministry that he said he wished he had learnt earlier in life. Here they are. Not rocket science. Nor Bible exposition, per se. But foundational and challenging nonetheless.
- Need for personal holiness. Character comes before gifting. 1 Tim 4.16.
- Personal relationships of care and accountability, including those within the church. Isolationalism is the seedbed of failure and scandal. Even Christ did not work alone. The NT is replete with ‘one anothers’.
- Personal attitude of servanthood, Mark 9.35. Leadership is not about me.
- Expectation and experience of weakness, 2 Cor 4.12. This is in the inescapable equation of Christian ministry.
- Resolve to invest in people. If we are to be faithful under-shepherds, following the Great Shepherd, we have to love the flock. But this also means investing in the next generation, 2 Tim 2.
- A personal responsibility to lead. Leaders are called to lead. That is the biblical pattern.
- A personal commitment to the teaching of the word of God. This is the lifeblood of ministry. It is not the only thing, but it is the main thing and the agenda setting thing.
Food for thought.
Not everyone is a preacher and that’s fine
This week has been the first week back for our Cornhill students. I love working with them – even though it’s not the main part of my job. I have the job of tutoring some, teaching a little, and leading a small preaching group. In the group, I regularly think that there are those whose ministry I would happily and healthily sit under. Thank God for raising up such preachers.
There are others who will serve the church well. But they’re not preachers. Sometimes, it’s only when you get going and try it out that you discover this. It’s part of the process we have. Some churches are so eager to raise up workers (perhaps this is their first) that they sometimes can’t see this. They haven’t had a worker off to college in 50 years: this guy must be the one! Not always.
We need to be able to say in our churches that God gives different gifts and that’s fine. What is more – our theology of equality says that serving God in some unseen way is no less valuable that serving God from the front. In other words, not everyone is a preacher and that’s just fine.
When the passage overwhelms
Last week I preached Luke 4.1-13 (the temptations of Jesus). I found it an overwhelming passage. There is immense truth in it: deep, deep things which search the very nature of salvation determined for all eternity. Here is the second Adam (hence the genealogy) rejecting the way of the first Adam, tempted in the same way, but standing firm. Here is the Son of God where every temptation threatens his very sonship loudly acclaimed by the first three chapters of Luke (and also hinted at in the genealogy). Here is our High Priest being tempted as we are, in every way, yet without sin.
I had 25 minutes.
What do you do with such a rich passage where words seem barely able to convey the depth and enormity of what is going on? What do you with such a rich passage where you have been moved to tears in your preparation and you worry that you will be totally unable to convey that intensity in an evening sermon at the end of a long weekend.
Here’s what you do: you do what you always do. You prepare faithfully. You pray diligently. And you trust that the Spirit who made the text live for you will make the text live for your hearers. You don’t try to artificially stimulate a reaction. Nor do you worry that your words will be insufficient. As with every other sermon, you realise that you can’t say everything about everything, and that is OK. You don’t – in other words – prepare the purple passage in any different way than the other passages. For, you see, they are all purple. They all proclaim Christ in a deep, significant way. Perhaps you see it here more than you did in Isaiah 55. But it is the Scripture, nonetheless.