Sermons are Easy; the Hard Part is Having a Word From God.
“Is there a word from God?” (Jeremiah 37:17)
Any one can “get up a sermon.”
When you are first beginning in the ministry, the “art”–if you want to call it that–of finding, creating, and building sermons seems mysterious and difficult. In time, however, you work out the formula for sermons and your life becomes less stressful, sermon-building easier.
“What is the formula for sermons?” someone asks.
There’s no one formula, but each preacher works out his own according to his own style.
It goes something like this…
Take a random verse of scripture: “Some of the scribes answered and said, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.” (Luke 20:29) Can we build a sermon on that? You bet. Nothing to it, if all we want is a sermon.
Start with the scribes. They are scriptural authorities, experts on the law as a result of their history of copying manuscripts for use by individuals and congregations. Because they had hand-written everything the Scriptures had to say, people came asking what the Word says about this or that. If anyone knew, they would. So, when the scribes heard Jesus teaching, they recognized He was right on target with His teaching, and they said so. So, we have (our first point) The testimony of the scribes.
Then, there is the matter of what our Lord was saying to them that evoked this compliment. Jesus is addressing the matter of the resurrection to the Sadducees, a religious group that took only the first 5 books of the Old Testament as their Bible and were smugly convinced that no teachings, nada, zero, about Heaven and hell were to be found there. Jesus gave them two things: a teaching right out of Heaven itself for which there were no scriptures and He alone was the only Source, and an insight from their own Scriptures that was so perfect even the scribes applauded Him. So, second point, we have Truth from the Lord.
And finally, because every sermon needs at least three points, we can ask, “What more needs to be done?” because the very next verse says, “They did not have courage to ask Him anything else.” So, perhaps the third point could be: The courage to go forward, that is, to act on what He has said.
That was strictly a randomly selected verse. And, with a few more hours of study, prayer, and reflection, we could end up with a fairly decent sermon.
If that’s all we’re looking for.
Or, here’s another very quick take on the verse right before that one, Luke 20:38 “Now, He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to Him.” Three possibilities are: 1) a common misconception–the dead are dead and that’s that; 2) a scriptural revelation–God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and 3) an incredible interpretation–He is not the God of the dead but of the living.
It’s simple once you get the hang of it.
Is that the Word from God your congregation needs to hear and which you need to deliver?
Just because it’s from Scripture does not mean it’s God’s word for the moment.
That, incidentally, is the problem I personally have with preachers deciding to “preach through the Bible.” It assumes that any sermon you bring from any text is God’s Word for your flock for that Sunday. And that, I venture to say, my friend, is sheer foolishness.
Spending years preaching verse-by-verse through the entire Bible will keep you in the Old Testament far longer than you will want to stay. You will struggle to find pegs on which to hang the gospel. You will be tempted to strain at metaphors and types and images and to spiritualize stories in order to bring in Jesus. And–strictly my opinion here, now–you will forever burn your people out on a large portion of Holy Scriptures. Some of those stories and prophecies and teachings they will never want to see again because you simply could not handle them.
Don’t be insulted, please. It’s a rare preacher who can preach an interesting sermon from certain chapters in Leviticus or Judges or Isaiah. Put another way, not all preachers can preach everything in the Word. Some of it requires far more in-depth study and mental skills than most of us have.
Having gone out on a limb here in urging preachers not to “preach through the Bible” as though each part’s preaching values were equal to all other parts, I might as well go the rest of the way….
The reason many preachers decide to preach through the entire Bible on a verse-by-verse basis is strictly ego. They want to say they have done it. They want to stand before a gathering of other preachers and orate about the power of God’s Word and announce that they themselves spent a full five years (or more!) preaching through the Word, and that God blessed their church in unusual ways as a result. Personally, I’d want to get the testimony of some of his deacons as to the truth of the last statement.
I cannot find anywhere in Scripture where we are commanded to preach everything else in Scripture. We certainly do not see Paul preaching Esther or Song of Solomon. There is no indication Peter or Timothy ever preached through some of the more obscure Old Testament books.
Do not read something into this not intended. I believe all the Bible is inspired of God and thus profitable, as Paul told Timothy (II Timothy 3:16-17). But inspired not in the same way or for the same purposes.
Let the Holy Spirit lead you. If He says to preach verse-by-verse through the Bible and He will make it fit the needs of your people, go for it! But don’t do it to prove a point, to satisfy some urge within you, or to show up a critic.
Rather than try to turn your Bible into a magical one-size-fits-all book of sermons, pastor, try seeking out God’s message for your people one day at a time.
1) Ask the Lord. “What do you want me to preach on the 21st of the month, Father?” Or, one that I have prayed: “Lord, you have heard every Mother’s Day sermon ever preached, and inspired most of them. Show me what you would have me to say to my people on that day.”
2) Seek His will. Read Scripture with your heart tuned to getting His answer. Read the newspaper, listen to the news, observe goings-on around you every day alert to the messages the Lord is sending your way. Stay logged on to Him.
3) Humble yourself. You may know the original languages, you may have incredible oratorical gifts, and you may be gifted at eliciting responses from your people. But the question is not can you do this without Him, but “What does the Father wish to say to His children?”
4) Wait on Him. To get the answer, you might need to quieten your spirit and shut down your systems and be still before Him. Make up your mind you are through preaching “nice little sermons you carved out of Scripture all by yourself,” and from now on you are going to preach only the messages God gives you. And if you cannot tell the difference, your problems are bigger than we can address here.
5) Be willing to adapt. God is a lot more skilled at sermon-building and interest-creating than we preachers will ever be. He is the Creative God. So, once you know the text and the basic message, ask Him how He wants it preached. And once again….
Be willing to wait before Him.
The problems with this kind of sermon-building (and the reason some preachers do not take this route) are numerous…
–it takes time. You cannot start this conversation with the Lord on Friday night before you are to preach it on Sunday. (The problem there is not God’s; it’s ours. It takes us time to think through these matters, to process what He says, to get our own preconceived ideas out of the way, to listen to the Spirit, and then to rehearse the preaching of this message repeatedly until we can do it well and faithfully.)
A popular preacher once told a large gathering of us pastors, “We hear of preachers who spend an hour in preparation for every minute they spend in the pulpit. Not me! Give me a Bible and a notebook, lock me in a room for two hours, and I will have you a sermon!” Naturally, he received a chorus of amens for that bit of foolishness.
All that preacher did was to say he had mastered the art of sermon-building. But God does not give His specific messages for specific congregations to preachers with a formula.
The Lord gives His message to those who seek Him, who wait upon Him, who are willing to do His will.
About the lazy prophets of Jeremiah’s day, God said, “If they had stood in my council, then they (could) have announced my words to my people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds” (Jeremiah 23:22).
Getting specific direction from the Lord for a message may mean a little more work, requires a little more humility and prayer and study, and takes a little more time than “two hours with a Bible and a notebook,” but the end result is far more wonderful, more inspiring, and more fruitful.
You end up with the kind of fruit that lasts (see John 15:16).
Finally, let’s note the difference in a “sermon” and a message from God…
They may look and sound just alike. In fact, the average layman will not know the difference. (Pray that your pastor search committee can!) Both celebrate the Word of God and may honor the Lord Jesus and be used of God. But one is special….
–It has an edge to it.
–It connects with people at their deepest level.
–It provides an intersection in their lives, forcing them to take a good look at themselves and make a decision about God.
–It leaves them forever changed. Even those who reject the Lord’s message will know they have heard from God and will not soon forget this experience.
Brethren, let us go for the gold. Let us aim for sermons that deliver the message of Heaven to earthbound men and women in need of salvation. Let us settle for nothing less.
Joe McKeever has been a disciple of Jesus Christ more than 65 years, been preaching the gospel more than 55 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian publications more than 45 years. He blogs at www.joemckeever.com.