What Do You Do to the Bible to Create a Sermon?

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After completing a very busy spring of teaching preaching at Lancaster Bible College’s Graduate School and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program (Preaching the Literary Forms of the Bible and From Study to Pulpit tracks), I came to the realization that I need to do a better job teaching how expository sermons are created. During one residency we created a slide that listed some of the things preachers do to the Bible to create sermons (elementary rhetorical analysis). Over the next several weeks, I’ll introduce some of these operations and maybe we can continue to expand the list.

First, preachers explain key terms and phrases. I’ve started with this one because explanation may take up more minutes in a sermon than anything else. It’s the bread and butter of expository preaching.  Here are some things to consider when you hit those places in your sermon development where you attempt to make Scripture clear.

  • Make sure you explain it to yourself. McGrath wrote of C. S. Lewis, “He was good at explaining complex ideas to others, because he had first explained them to himself” (C. S. Lewis: A Life, p. 166). I catch myself often knowing a word, but not really knowing it well. Can you think of some biblical terms congregants are familiar with, but probably don’t really know well?
  • Wear out your dictionary/thesaurus. Not a day goes by when I don’t rely on this tool to help me gain clarity. After I’m satisfied with Hebrew and Greek meaning, I usually go searching for synonyms that add clarity.
  • Try two explanations: one for the scholar and one for the layperson. I find this exercise helps me understand Scripture better, plus the two definitions potentially reach more listeners.
  • Reword commentator’s definitions. Even when you’re attempting the scholar’s explanation, you might still benefit from rewording what the world-class scholar provides.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

 

Preaching the Twenty-Five “one another’s” of the NT

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Even though I regularly preach through books of the Bible, I am always on the lookout for a good, topical/exposition preaching series. I recently completed a study of 25 “one another” instructions found in the New Testament. If you haven’t preached these “one another’s”, I highly recommend it to you.

Why? Because the “one another” instructions help us resist the gravitational pull of our society toward a disconnected or isolated spirituality. More and more I’m reading of professing Christians who believe in Jesus, but do not believe in being vitally connected to a local church. These “one another” instructions teach us why we need the Church and why the Church needs us. It is difficult–maybe even impossible at times–to obey the “one another” instructions without close association with a faith-family. If you plan on some pulpit time each year dealing with what it means to be a local church or with your church covenant, the “one another” study is a good option.

If you decide to preach all or some of the 25 “one another’s” (and the count may vary depending on what English translation you follow), here are a few things I learned. They affect virtually every individual instruction:

  • show the connection between “love one another” and many, if not all the other instructions. The much repeated/restated command seems to function as an umbrella under which all the other commands occur. Love is the first thing to go. If I don’t love you, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for me to pray for you.
  • spend time teaching the hurdles that must be overcome in order to put the “one another” instructions into practice. For instance, if you are preaching on “put up with one another” (my favorite, non-Christian sounding one!), what is it about the default setting of our hearts that make that difficult to do? Often, it is some form of selfishness or self-focus. Sometimes, however, the hurdle is the other person–what they’re like or how they act.
  • balance the imperative (the “one another” command) with the indicative (what God-in Christ-through the Spirit has done in us). The “one another” series tips the scales each weekend on the imperative side. It’s easy to forget that these instructions are organically linked to detailed indicative sections with which most NT epistles begin.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation.

Randal

Making Parishioners Wish The Word Was True

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While recently reading McGrath’s, C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, I was intrigued by this approach to apologetics:

“For [Blaise] Pascal (1623-1662), there was little point in trying to persuade anyone of the truth of religious belief. The important thing, he argued, was to make people wish that it were true, having caught sight of the rich and satisfying vision of reality it offered” (p. 134).

When I evaluated my own preaching, I quickly realized I wasn’t doing this. I hadn’t spent hardly any time thinking of ways to make people wish the Word was true. Whether Pascal was right or not, helping our congregants catch sight of the rich and satisfying vision of reality offered in our preaching portions is an important part of exposition.

I’m currently preaching through the Gospel of Luke. In Luke 13:22-30 Jesus commands, “Strive to enter through the narrow door” (v. 24) and prophesies, “And people will come…and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (v. 29). One thought-block in the sermon should be providing parishioners an explanation of the kingdom of God that makes them wish it were true. For instance, I’ll often say, “The best and brightest minds on the planet are working day and night to eliminate the damaging results of the curse.” Imagine a world minus disease and death, for instance. Even people who don’t believe the Bible (including those who believe in select portions of it), want such a world to be true.

Like Pascal, I’m arguing that helping congregants catch sight of God’s glorious new world is a vital part of expository preaching.

Does this Sunday’s preaching portion contain any slice of reality that everyone wishes were true? If so, show them how satisfying this world really is.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the church and in the world.

Randal

Honoring the Context from which OT Quotes Are Taken

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If you ever preach on 2 Corinthians 9:1-11 and the subject of giving to the Lord’s work, you’ll encounter a quote from Psalm 112:9 “He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (2 Corinthians 9:9). Whenever your preaching portion quotes Scripture, it helps to read the immediate context from which the quote was taken. What can you expect to gain? Usually a bit more than simply, “The NT author quotes from Psalm 112 in order to add credibility to his argument.”

In the case of Psalm 112, verse 1 tells us, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who greatly delights in his commandments!” Verse 7 says, “…his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.” And verse 10 contrasts him with the “wicked man.” So, when Paul addresses the Corinthian Believers about their giving habits, he’s addressing people who are like the God-fearing man described in the Psalm.

This is important because when Paul says in v. 8, “And God is able to make all grace abound to you…”, God is able to and does do so for the kind of person described in Psalm 112. The obedient Christian is like the righteous man in Psalm 112. The 2 Corinthian preaching portion assumes some readers will exhibit the kind of fear/saving faith described in Psalm 112. I find it very helpful to use the immediate context of Psalm 112:9 (e.g., verses 1, 7, and 10) to make a connection between faith in Christ and, in the case of 2 Corinthians 9:1-11, cheerful, bountiful giving.

Does your upcoming preaching portion contain any OT quotes? If so, honor the immediate context in which the quoted Scripture is found and reap the theological benefits.

Preach well for the sake of His reputation.

Randal

Preach Christ and Celebrate Communion on Non-Communion Sundays

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How often does your faith-family celebrate Communion? We take part in the Lord’s Table the first Sunday morning of every month. That means the Table is empty three and, sometimes, four Sundays each month. It’s decorated for worship, but devoid of bread and cups.

A week ago this past Saturday morning, I had the privilege of joining with our Elders and four guests to examine a young man, Jeff Kauffman, for the Gospel ministry. During the ordination council, Jeff talked about his desire for having communion more often than what they are currently doing in his church. What surprised me was what he said about what he had experienced during the years he worshiped with us.

He mentioned that, despite holding Communion only once a month, our church was hearing about Communion each Sunday. It was almost like Communion each Sunday because of my transition from the teaching time to the Cross. I had never thought about how my Christ-centered interpretation and application (faith-first) allowed us to celebrate Communion on non-Communion Sundays, despite the “empty” Table.

I guess that is one unexpected benefit of preaching Christ as the way to explain and apply all Scripture. Each non-Communion Sunday morning, our congregants see Christ crucified even though the Table is missing bread and cups. Do you ever wish your church would celebrate Communion more often? Think about how preaching Christ this Sunday can provide the next best thing. More than once I’ve said on one of those off Sundays, “If we were celebrating Communion this morning, we would…”

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

The Value of Linking Sin With Unbelief

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There is an organic connection between faith and obedience. That means there is also an organic link between unbelief and disobedience. I learned this from reading Hafemann’s book, The God of Promise and the Life of Faith.

So, if it’s true that every act of disobedience is first and foremost an act of unbelief, then we attack disobedience by attacking unbelief. For instance, in Luke 12:22-31 Jesus teaches us not to worry. The sin of worrying is a good example of this approach because in v. 28 Jesus addresses His worry-wart disciples as, “O you of little faith!” Our lack of faith in God’s ability to take care of us is the root cause of worrying. So, in order to repent of the sin of worrying, we need to link that sin to our unbelief.

When I worry, I’m saying to God, “God, I don’t trust you.” Doesn’t that sound worse than saying, “God, I worry about ________”? Imagine having to tell God face-to-face that you don’t trust Him.

Unlike the sin of greed, which is rarely, if ever, confessed, worrying appears to be the sin that is frequently admitted, but rarely conquered. It might help if, instead of giving five ways to be worry-free, we link worrying to unbelief and talk about reasons why we can trust our Heavenly Father.

Use this approach with other sins that are censured in your upcoming preaching portions. Ask how sin X links with unbelief. Explore with your congregants how a particular sin links with unbelief. If the sin is unrighteous anger, how does unbelief fuel that emotion? You want to repent of worrying? Increase your faith. You want to repent of anger? Increase your faith in what God has provided in Christ and His Spirit.

As you practice this approach each Sunday, you will help everyone attack the hidden sin behind the visible sin. Instead of only providing advice to keep anger in check (and that’s probably all our “five ways to curb anger” are), you will also get to the heart of one’s relationship with Christ.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Tyndale, 2013)

Some of my readers enjoy reading C. S. Lewis and biographies in general. If that’s you, you will enjoy Alister McGrath’s book, C. S. Lewis–A Life: Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet. I am not an avid reader of biographies, but I’m glad I read this one. As usual, Lewis’s own insights did not disappoint. However, I also found McGrath’s insights very helpful.

Here are a few things that captured my attention:

“An emotionally unintelligent father bade his emotionally neglected sons an emotionally inadequate farewell” (p. 24, describing the situation of Lewis and his brother as they were being shipped off to school only two weeks after their mother died! Like all of us, Lewis brought baggage with him when he went to work.)

“Lewis is a failed poet who found greatness in other spheres of writing” (p. 64. I didn’t expect that! I guess I figured someone like Lewis succeeded at everything. It gave me some hope.)

“His maiden lecture, given on Tuesday, 14 October at University College, was attended by a mere four people” (p. 108. Wow! What a way to start your professorial duties!).

One of the more interesting features of the book was information about Lewis’s relationship with Tolkien: “Tolkien was a niggling perfectionist, and he knew it. Indeed, his late story, ‘Leaf by Niggle’–which deals with a painter who can never finish his painting of a tree because of his constant desire to expand and improve it–can be seen as a self-parodying critique of Tolkien’s own difficulties in writing. Someone had to help him conquer his perfectionism. And what Tolkien needed he found in Lewis….it is no exaggeration to say that Lewis would become the chief midwife to one of the great works of twentieth-century literature–Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings” (p. 130).

You’ll also enjoy reading about Lewis’s arriving at saving faith: “In Surprised by Joy, Lewis sets out the series of moves which led him to faith in God, using a chessboard analogy. None of these is logically or philosophically decisive; all are at best suggestive. Yet their force lies not in their individual importance, but in their cumulative weight. Lewis portrays these, not as moves which he made, but moves which were made against him. The narrative of Surprised by Joy is not that of Lewis’s discovery of God, but of God’s patient approach to Lewis…. ‘Amiable agnostics will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat’” (pp. 136, 138).

Read well. Preach well.

Randal

How Many Minutes In Your Sermon Are Actually Spent Preaching?

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My mentor, Dr. Haddon Robinson, used to talk about two angles on preaching. One, the preacher talks to people about the Bible. He functions much like a history teacher. Two, the preacher talks to people about them from the Bible. He functions as a theologian for the church. The first angle is heavy on explaining the ancient, biblical world. Congregants learn lots of interesting information, if they happen to like history. The second angle is heavy on applying that ancient, biblical Word. Congregants learn how to enter God’s world being portrayed by that ancient, sermonic history.

In his book, A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Lischer writes, “After several years in an academic environment, theological students and teachers start preaching about the text rather than letting God preach through the text” (p. 46).

As I wrestle with preaching portions and develop sermons each week, I catch myself sounding too much like a history teacher. As I listen to sermons, I hear the vast majority of minutes devoted to teaching history. I fear that many people are listening to the History Channel each Sunday.

Think about your own preaching style. How many minutes in your sermon are actually spent preaching? How many minutes are spent giving a history lesson? Now, it’s true, biblical theology is conveyed through biblical history. So, part of preaching is telling parishioners what God did back then. The question is do we retell the history from the stance of the theologian who shows how Scripture functions for the Church. Ortlund said of one of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, ”Eighty percent of the sermon is application…” (A New Inner Relish, p. 53). 80%!

Here’s some ways I avoid contributing to the History Channel each Sunday:

  • My introductions include a brief statement about what the preaching portion is intended to do to the Church (the shape or form worship takes when life is applied to that Scripture).
  • My perspective is always on us and our lives, even when I’m retelling the fruits of exegesis.
  • After minutes delivering biblical history, I remind us again how it’s shaping us.

Preach well for the sake of God’s reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal

Pastor, Scholar, or Both?

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How do you see yourself? More of a pastor or more of a scholar?

I’m fortunate each year to study with pastors from all over the world who are both pastors and scholars. They are pursuing advanced degrees partly because they enjoy studying hard. But I also rub shoulders with pastors who do not see themselves as the scholarly type. If you see yourself like that, you need to read John Piper’s segment of the little paperback, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor. Professors will enjoy Carson’s take on how the professor functions for the Church.

Piper writes, “[God] did not have to give the church a book….So the very existence of the Bible as a book signals that the pastor is called to read carefully and accurately and thoroughly and honestly. That is, he is called to be a ‘scholar’….If I am scholarly, it is not…because I try to stay on the cutting edge in the discipline of biblical and theological studies. I am far too limited for that [Piper is very open about his limitations in his, largely autobiographical chapter]. What ‘scholarly’ would mean for me is that the greatest object of knowledge is God and that he has revealed himself authoritatively in a book; and that I should work with all my might and all my heart and all my soul and all my mind to know and enjoy him and to make him known for the joy of others. Surely this is the goal of every pastor” (pp. 66-67).

When you put it like that, surely this is our goal. Let me give you two ways to move in that direction if you don’t see yourself functioning as the scholarly type:

  • Subscribe to a scholarly journal, read at least two articles and the book review section in each issue. I enjoy BibSac, JEHS, and Preaching journals, but there are many good ones to choose from .
  • Make reading in biblical and theology studies a regular part of your week. There is a lot of pressure on us to read only church growth or practical ministry material. Find authors that will stretch your ability to think theologically.

Study hard and preach well for the sake of His reputation in the Church and in the world.

Randal