Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

10 Nov 2016

Getting the Sermon Started

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I feel a bit inadequate to write on a topic on which so many with greater experience than I have written at length. I don’t purport to be an expert on writing homilies; only rarely have I had extended seasons of life where I have had to write a weekly (much less twice- or thrice-weekly) sermon. But when I do, I feel keenly the time restraints. How can I most efficiently distill God’s intentions in a given text and deliver them to God’s people? I haven’t all the answers, but I have come to embrace some rather avant-garde advice I received (and initially rejected) many years ago about commencing that process.

The advice was this: Start with secondary sources. That’s right—secondary sources. When I received this advice it ran counter to most that I had received up to this point in my then-rather-short ministry preparation, but it came so confidently from the mouth of a trusted mentor that I had to entertain it. It took time, but eventually I embraced it.

Many suggest that the best way to begin preparing a sermon is to read the text over and again in its context, bathing it in prayer and taking as much time as is necessary to translate the text from the original sources. As one reads, he should prayerfully attempt to construct the historical milieu from the author’s words, carefully define each term, weigh every possible use of each verbal aspect, noun/adjective case, and article (including the ones that aren’t there), discover all of the rhetorical markers, all the while praying that God will “bring to my remembrance” parallel texts and theological insights that bear on the meaning of the text, etc., etc. THEN (and only then) should a preacher permit himself to consult Bible introductions, commentaries, and systematic theologies—after all, these represent man’s thoughts about a text, and should be treated with appropriate suspicion.

Now I am a seminary professor who lobbies for students to sharpen their exegetical skills to a razor-fine edge. I want students to study context, define terms, translate texts, make exegetical decisions based on contextual evidence, do rhetorical analysis, and so forth. But I resist the sentiment that one should always (or ever) try to do any of these things without the help of sources. Here’s why:

(1) Because preachers need to be humble. The idea that one can or must reinvent the exegetical wheel every time he teaches or preaches is sometimes a reflection of arrogance: I can do this (or at least start this) without help. Now as we advance in our Bible knowledge and exegetical skill, this may become progressively truer; still, it hints of an arrogance that says I simply don’t need help. In direct contrast, the pattern of wisdom is to recognize that the more one knows, the more one doesn’t know. The fact is, I’m too dumb to prepare sermons without help—from the initial steps to the last.

(2) Because preachers need to resist pietism. Many who follow the pattern of starting the homiletical task without helps do so because of a false conception of what the Spirit does to assist the pastor in his sermon preparation. Here let me be blunt: the Scriptures never teach that the Spirit assists me in the hermeneutical process. One of the more troubling theological ideas of our day is that the Spirit hovers above the text giving spiritually sensitive people greater insights into the authorial intention or deeper meanings of a text. This idea (which we might call existentialism or pietism) suggests that God directly, miraculously, and supernaturally inserts insights into the human mind that (1) were previously absent and (2) unattainable by normal means or that (3) provide a shortcut to around normal means. There are a great many problems with this idea (as many and the same, incidentally, as the problems with continuationism of all varieties), but the chief of these is this: if God stands ready to miraculously supply meaning that can’t be found (or can only be found with great difficulty) in the text, then the text to that degree becomes unnecessary.

Now, this is not to say that the Spirit’s work is unnecessary in sermon preparation. Every preacher should pray earnestly for sensitivity to the Spirit’s work, embedded in the new nature, that enables him to welcome, submit to, and apply the text’s significance, not only to not only his own life but to the lives of his audience (e.g., 1 Cor 2:4–5, 14–16). But this dependency is not in the realm of meaning; it is in the realm of significance. IOW, the preponderance of our prayer and groans for spiritual insight should not occur in the exegetical, but in the structural and applicational parts of sermon preparation.

(3) Because preachers need to be good stewards. If there is time to be saved in the sermon-writing process, it can be found in our stewardship of homiletical helps.

  • Rather than trying to reconstruct the context from a bare reading of the text, I should begin with quality introductions and book/chapter summaries that accelerate this process for me.
  • Rather than creating crude and pedestrian translations of every verse (which tends to rather bite-sized sermons—after all, who has time each week to translate from Hebrew an OT story that spans four chapters of Genesis?), I should lean heavily on translations prepared by experts in the languages then use the commentaries to discover as soon as possible where exactly I need to concentrate my exegetical efforts, surveying the various options before I start. Note that the preacher still needs a background in the original languages, but not (as many suppose) for the purpose of looking up words and successfully writing out wooden translations; instead, he needs in his head a summary cyclopedia of syntactical options that flow from a knowledge of how language works. (Which is why a seminary should offer either a minimum of two to three years in each biblical language or else not bother—but I digress.) And here’s the thing: if I don’t have those skills or have some level of deficiency in those skills (reality check—we all do), no amount of re-reading or meditating on the text or engagement in earnest prayer will help me. The help I need is found in secondary sources.
  • Rather than hoping that the Spirit will jog my memory to supply choice words and parallel Scriptures on demand, miraculously inserting them into my mind as I write, or worse, into my mouth as I speak (a terrible miscarriage, incidentally, of texts like Luke 12:12 and John 14:26), I should look again to the commentaries and to the indices of key theological sources that cluster texts with other related ones in defense of important theological constructs. And then I need to take the time to plan and polish my words so that I communicate these ideas with clarity and precision.
  • And while the application process requires proportionally more prayer as to how I might successfully structure the sermon and suggest application, even here the consultation of key sources is of help. The fact is, most hearers do not make the jump from meaning to significance as readily as the preacher who has mulled over the text all week. And heady seminarians, especially, need to lean on others not only to make the jump ourselves from the ivory towers to the pulpit, but also to assist our hearers to make the same jump, whatever their situation.

Conclusion: No doubt some will not like this post, seeing in it a diminution of the Spirit’s work, prayer, and/or humility in the pastor’s primary task. On the contrary, the preacher needs all of these. But as I have hopefully shown, a careful understanding of the Spirit’s work, the divine expectation of and pattern in answering prayer, and the biblical exercise of humility suggest that the preacher should not delay, but rather prioritize the use of secondary sources in the preparation of sermons.

5 Responses

  1. Hi Mark. Thanks for this. As one who HAS prepared sermons, often 2-3 per week, for 12 years, I can say from my experience, you are correct.

    I think the one of the most important points you make is understanding the Spirit’s help in sermon preparation. We ought not to be looking for Him to clarify the meaning but to clarify the application. Many texts can hold several truths, but which one is needed for my flock right now? “I am the way, the truth and the life…” Do I need to spend my efforts on Jesus is the way? The truth? The life? All three? This is where preachers need the Spirit’s leading.

    As for using secondary material for initial sermon preparation, I would agree with this as well, especially for those newer to the task. As experience comes and familiarity with the texts grows, beginning with the text becomes easier. That said, regardless of experience, it is a fool who thinks no one before them has understood the text as well as they will. The more mature will recognize that it is wisdom to use the knowledge of those before us. Recreating the wheel is a fool’s errand and it does not help the congregation – only the pride of the preacher.

  2. Great post, Mark. And I mostly agree. The very minor point of disagreement (maybe) I might have is that I think it is helpful to read the text in the English Bible you’ll be preaching from noting which phrases/words you don’t understand or think you might need more information about. This is where the commentaries are going to help you the most, hopefully, so you want to be sure you’re looking for that help intentionally. When I don’t do this, my understanding of the text suffers and so does my preaching.

    Also, I find it helpful to outline the passage exegetically before cracking open the commentaries. I’m not trying to understand what it means when I outline it; rather, I just want to see the flow of thought and how it unfolds. My outline merely describes the English text and not in a great amount of detail. I spend maybe 15 minutes total outlining and noting what exegetical questions I have, then I go for the commentary.

    One more thought: it helps me to start with the least lengthy commentary. By necessity these commentaries have to go right to the key points. If I read them first, I get more clarity on the big picture of the paragraph and they usually note areas of disagreement among commentators so I’ve gotten a general picture of things that the more detailed exegetical commentaries fill in.

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    Good thoughts Brian. I should clarify that I’m not suggesting that one open up the commentaries before reading the passage even once, but that, like you say, the path to the commentaries is very short.

  4. Nathsn

    Helpful thoughts!

    One tension I have on prayer and meaning — my training has left me with a deep impression of the importance of getting interpretation right, and of a healthy humility in that process. This being humbled, this must be an object of my prayer as I prepare, without that prayer turning into some kind of “Let go, let God” delegation of the responsibility to think to the Holy Spirit:

    So we can still pray for the Spirit’s help to get faithfulness to the text right just as we might pray for the Spirit to strengthen us in any other commanded faithfulness, right? All the while knowing that the Spirit uses means?

  5. Mark Snoeberger

    Of course I would never discourage prayer at any stage of the sermon preparation process. But I am sensitive to maintaining appropriate content and expectations in that prayer, too. Ask God to keep me humble? Yes. To increase my wisdom? Absolutely. To stealth me the meaning of the text? Not so much.

    Great thoughts.

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