A good sermon is an elusive sermon. At least, this is what I’ve come to believe. I’ve never served as lead pastor in a church, so I suppose this statement may not apply to the majority of pastors out there. But I’ve stepped behind enough pulpits to know that the sermon (or “message,” for the hipper Christians out there … and, I guess, ”homilies,” for the more traditional) is one that doesn’t come easily. If it does, I believe it runs the risk of being merely the product of the preacher’s own opinions and selfish understanding of faith.
It is a surreal thing to stand in front of people and deliver a sermon. Perhaps the congregation assembled before you is collectively faithful and therefore intrigued and inspired by your musings on the things of God. Or, maybe like the majority of churches in America today, the people in the pews are there because, well, they’re almost always there, usually in the same seat, and arguably the most important thing running through their minds is where they will be doing lunch not long (hopefully) after your final “Amen.” Either way, I believe the sermon is no less of a holy thing. I sometimes suspect it is a sacramental thing, too, because a good sermon is breathed into by God (like Adam, the disciples, Scripture, and you and me), and that makes it a window into His mind, and that means that those who dare to truly look through it – the preacher and the hearers alike – take part in an act of allegiance unto the mind and heart of God.
I used to begin my preparation of sermons with the always popular proof-texting method. This is where you think of an idea you want to communicate (normally one coming out of your own innocent selfishness), and then you hunt down a few verses that back up your idea, which usually means you must take these verses out of context to a degree. The majority of the sermon, then, is like an argument presented in court. You are seeking to convince the audience as if they were a jury gathered to determine the quality of your topic. In my opinion, this is the most popular method of sermon preparation. These days, you can even visit some mega-churches where the Sunday morning worship budget is so fat that pastors can show flashy videos and bring props of all shapes and sizes on stage to make the proof-texting even more extravagant. Then again, this is often a necessity – when your sanctuary is the size of a basketball stadium, you have to do something extraordinary just to hold people’s attention week after week.
Of course, proof-texters rarely lose control of their sermons, because they have learned how to quell the movement of the Spirit while preparing, and then they simply pray for the Spirit to move in what they have created on their limited own. Granted, the flip side to this coin are those pastors (and I’ve known a few) who do not prepare at all and expect the Spirit to simply guide them in their presentation when it comes time to step behind the proverbial pulpit. And yet, even if they are skilled in impromptu speaking, this is just another form a proof-texting, only there is no glancing over the particular texts beforehand. You just land on them like the spinner in a game of Twister.
These days I try to avoid proof-texting of either kind. This can be somewhat difficult, but I believe that when the sermon focus begins to feel elusive, then the preacher is on the right track. When you begin to second guess yourself, I think this is actually a good thing. It means that whatever original idea might have been rolling around in my mind doesn’t seem worthwhile enough to expound upon to the congregation, and that is one of the first steps in getting over selfishness. Not the only step, but one of them.
When we come down to it, it is no easy thing to preach the Word of God. Sure, there are many out there today who make it look easy, but I’m willing to bet half of them aren’t preaching the Word of God so much as they are preaching advertisements for a noble life. There’s nothing wrong with this – there’s nothing wrong with self-improvement at all – but accomplishing an exposition of the things of God is easier done than said. Most churches are full of lessons on how to live noble, moral lives. What exists beyond the noble and the moral – well, that’s harder to come by.
So how do you know when you’ve done it – preached the Word of God, that is? Or, at least, how do you know when you’re on the right track? What do I mean when I write that the sermon becomes elusive? Mainly, I mean that the words you are striving to put together, the exegesis of the text, the application of the lesson (if indeed there is an actual cut-and-dried lesson in there somewhere) becomes haunting. Something that lingers in front of you, seemingly just out of reach. It almost taunts you. Reminds you that, yes, yes, this is the Truth, but oh, how delicate and beautiful a Truth it is, and if you would indeed come after it, you must comprehensively deny yourself – along with all your alliterative sub-points and poetic quotes and perfectly pitched punchlines – and take the heavy responsibility of speaking this Truth once again into being in the hearts and minds of your hearers.
Sure, in the end, you may indeed have three memorable talking points, a couple of winsome illustrations, and perhaps even a couple of chuckle bombs perfectly calibrated. After all, the beauty of preaching is that this elusive Truth – the Truth of the Power of God – is not meant to be preached devoid of personality. He has, after all, chosen you, a human with a hankering for skillful turns of phrases and well-rehearsed changes in voice tambour, to be the bearer of His message. But that’s the simple glory of it. There is no such thing as “dumbing down” in God’s mind. The Apostle Paul reminds us that He chooses “the foolish things” of the world to shame the wise.
He chooses you. He chooses me. So, when it comes to preparing a sermon, take joy in the journey. Take thrill in the chase.
This Sunday, I have been asked to preach … and so, the game’s afoot!