Now that we’ve laid out the convictions that ought to be settled long before men every begin to preach, we’re going to turn to the nuts and bolts of sermon prep. To do so, we need to look at the question that will vex, challenge and haunt every preacher: “What will I preach on?”
A lot of preachers answer this question by reaching on what I would call “popular” topics. They preach on social issues, politics, culture and so forth. These sort of sermons have become the rule in North America; they explore a theme rather than a biblical passage. There are several reasons for this:
- It makes preaching appear more interesting and important in an age that has mostly lost interest in the pulpit.
- It makes the sermon sound different from what happens in the “Bible class” that occurs prior to the start of public worship.
Before long, when we look at the act of preaching the sermon, I’ll have a good bit to say about #2, but for now, I have to move on.
Too often this sort of “pop” topical preaching reduces the sermon text to a peg on which the preacher gets to hang his line of thought, and the shape and thrust of the message reflect his notion of what is good for the people rather than letting the text determine what’s good for the people. This leads to a scenario where it seems that the preacher is now speaking for the Bible and not letting the Bible speak for itself through the preacher’s own words.
There is a way to preach topically that is more theological than it is “pop” preaching, and God willing, we’ll look at that in the next week. However, let me say in passing at this point that for the faithful preacher, topical sermons won’t be his primary diet. For the faithful minister, the question is more narrow that “What will I preach on?” For him the proper question is, “What portion of Scripture will I preach on?”
Lurking behind this are three questions (one of which I have no intention of answering, as the answer ought to be apparent). These three questions are:
- Why choose a text at all?
- What is a text?
- How do I choose a text?
I have no intention of answering the first question at this point, so let’s jump right into the second one: what is a text?
Put simply, a text is just a portion of Scripture. That only raises another question, however, “How big (or small) does that portion have to be in order to be considered a ‘text’?”
The size can differ a good bit; in one of Paul’s letters it could be as small as a single phrase, or as large as an entire paragraph. In one of the Gospels, or in the Old Testament historical books, it may be several paragraphs. The book you’re preaching from has its own internal logic, and that will be a large factor in determining the size of the portion you preach from.
There is a danger in preaching from a portion that’s too small. I have read sermons by C.H. Spurgeon where his text is just one or two words, and (no disrespect to the Prince of Preachers) his outline doesn’t seem to flow naturally from the text. In other words, when I look at the text the sermon is derived from, I don’t understand how he got that sermon from that text.
My own habit is to preach from a larger portion rather than a smaller one; I have found that it is far too easy to engage in eisegesis rather than exegesis when dealing with a text that’s too short. For that reason, I tend to preach from a paragraph’s worth of text when I’m in the Epistles. Only once have I preached out of a single verse, and that was because the depth of the verse could bear the weight of an entire sermon.
If you are considering preaching from a text that is just a single phrase or verse, your listeners should be able to see clearly that this particular phrase or verse contains a cardinal truth of redemption: original sin, regeneration, the deity of Christ, sanctification, etc. Put simply, that single phrase or verse needs to so clearly propound that one great redemptive truth that no one can ask after the sermon has been preached, “How did he get that from that verse?”
A good example of the sort of text that would bear this sort of preaching is Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins shall die.” These sort of texts should never be preached a-contextually! A good sermon on this text would show how it connects to Ezekiel’s previous line of reasoning, and also how it relates to what other parts of Scripture teach about sin and death.
So, now we’ve selected our text, and it’s not too long or too small. What next?