Sermon Notes

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

10 Questions Every Preacher Should Consider Before Preaching on Sunday

I have been a pastor for almost a decade. I spend between 12-15 hours each week thinking, researching, and writing before I deliver the first words in my Sunday sermon. The process of writing my sermon goes through a lengthy journey each week.  I contemplate several questions from Monday to Friday which force me to edit and re-edit my manuscript. There is no perfect sermon, but a sermon that goes through revisions and asks import questions has a much better chance of communicating with clarity than the self-assured preacher who engages the sermonic task with nothing more than academic lenses.

I have compiled a list of ten questions I ask myself each week at some point or another.

Question #1: Is this language clear? When you write a manuscript ( as I do) you have an opportunity to carefully consider the language you use. I make a habit of reading my sermon out loud which leads me to realize that certain phrases do not convey the idea clearly. A well-written sermon does not necessarily mean a well-delivered sermon. Reading my sermons out loud causes me to re-write and look for other ways to explain a concept or application more clearly.

Question #2: Is there a need to use high theological language in this sermon? Seminary graduates are often tempted to use the best of their training in the wrong environment. People are not listening to you to hear your theological acumen. I am well aware that some in the congregation would be entirely comfortable with words like perichoresis and Arianism. I am not opposed to using high theological discourse. Words like atonement, justification, sanctification are biblical and need to be defined. But extra-biblical terms and ideologies should be employed sparingly. Much of this can be dealt in a Sunday School class or other environments. High theological language needs to be used with great care, and I think it needs to be avoided as much as possible in the Sunday sermon.

Question #3: Can I make this sermon even shorter? As I read my sermons each week, I find that I can cut a paragraph or two easily, or depending on how long you preach, perhaps an entire page. This is an important lesson for new preachers: not everything needs to be said. Shorter sermons–which I strongly advocatea–force you to say what’s important and keep some of your research in the footnotes where it belongs. Preachers need to learn what to prioritize in a sermon so as not to unload unnecessary information on their parishioners.

While in seminary, I once heard a Presbyterian pastor preach the equivalent of three sermons in 55 minutes. I remember thinking, “If he finished now it will be a great sermon.” 40 minutes went by, and I thought, “If he finished his sermon now it will be all right.” After almost an hour I turned to my wife and said, “I pity his congregation.” Mistakes happen. Preachers lose track of time and people are generally very forgiving. But when this is a frequent occurrence it becomes a detriment. Preachers may turn into apologists for the Puritan era when they preached two-hour sermons. My response to this is very simple: “You are no John Owen!”

Question #4: Will my people hear a message about a great God or a convenient God? Sermons that do not lead people to serve God more faithfully have not fulfilled their purpose. The sermon needs to urge people to live more like their Lord and God. They can contemplate God, study or learn more about God (these are important), but if they leave uncertain as to how to serve their God more faithfully, the sermon has not pierced deeply enough. God’s people need to be consecrated by the Word of the Lord, pierced by the sword of the Spirit into action. Communicating only details about God can leave parishioners with a convenient God that demands knowledge but no sacrifice.

Question #5: What can I teach that will increase my people’s knowledge of the Bible? Every preacher must know: your people will remember between 1-5% of your preaching ministry throughout their lives. There is no statistic about this, the evidence is borne by daily experience. Exegesis of a verse in Hebrews will be forgotten perhaps before the sermon is over, but hermeneutical principles will remain if they are communicated succinctly. One common interpretational phrase I have used in many of my sermons is, “The Holy Spirit does not waste his breath.” This phraseb communicates that every detail of the text matters. I want my people to know in every sermon that every word in the Bible is meaningful and put in there for a reason. Many other principles will encourage God’s people to love their Bibles and learn more about it in their own studies and meditations. They may not remember my careful exegesis, but they will remember that the text is to be cherished.

Question #6: Do people follow me from point A to point B and C? I have heard my share of disconnected sermons over the years. Sermons need to have a message that is connected throughout. Themes and illustrations need to be connected to the central message. If illustrations have no purpose in the development of a sermon or if they are only used to get a laugh, people will inevitably leave confused and uncertain of the illustration’s purpose. Preachers need to be very aware of how point A connects to point B. Paragraphs need to smoothly transition, otherwise, you are beginning a new sermon altogether, and people are left wondering what the main point is. This is why manuscript preparation can help with transitional statements. On my last sermon, I repeated this phrase several times, “The future belongs to the child.” In fact, I generally title my sermons after my main point.

Question #7: Is this sermon going to connect to particular concerns of my people? I firmly believe that sermons need to connect in some way to everyone, from the young convert to the university professor. The more you preach, the more you begin to see people in your congregation with unique needs. When a pastor says “I have no one in mind when I preach,” he is likely ineffective in his preaching. Pastors are shaped by their conversations, counseling, and context. People I pray with and meet each week come to mind when I make applications. Of course, we need to be careful not to use the pulpit to deliver a privatized homily. A sermon on divorce the week after a congregant was divorced is unwise. Preachers need to consider the need of his own flock. For instance, “Does my congregation have a tendency to pride in their intellect or status?” A preacher is always preaching locally, though he can minister broadly. New Christians need to see their pastor’s words as applicable and rich to their own unique situation and this requires a good dose of wisdom and knowledge of particular needs in the congregation. Pastoral application becomes richer when there are pastoral encounters and engagement with the people. It is important to note also that we have our failures and shortcomings, but these should not keep us from addressing them corporately.c

Question #8: Is my argument persuasive? The sermon ought to leave the listener convinced that the Bible’s claim is right and true. Arguments can be phrased differently in every sermon. Some arguments will be demonstrably more persuasive than others. The preacher’s role is to give enough context and substance, so the main point becomes attractive. Persuasion is a difficult skill and needs to be considered again and again, which is why sermons need to be revised several times before they are delivered. One common problem is pastors trying to persuade people to death. Sermons are not commentaries. A preacher does not need to make his congregation turn to several Bible passages. A sermon is not an informal Bible study. Make your point. Make it desirable and succinct and move on.

Question #9: Where is the Gospel? A Gospel-less sermon is no sermon at all. Ask yourself, “Where is the Gospel?” Will my people be saved from their sins and misery after hearing this word? Will they find hope in Messiah Jesus? Will the broken-hearted see Jesus with greater joy? Will the single mom find refuge in Jesus and his Kingdom? Preachers cannot end a sermon in the desert. The Gospel is promised land. The sermonic journey takes the parishioner from darkness to light; death to resurrection.

Question #10: Is my application too general? Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.” My closing question is a question about how my applications speak to my congregation. There are a thousand ways to speak the truth, but not many ways to speak the truth in love. Application is truth in love. Love your congregation by applying specifically and carefully. It is one thing to say Trust God, it is another to say, Believe his promises in the middle of your cancer. Generalities sometimes are inescapable, but try to escape them as much as possible when applying the Word. If there is one part of the sermon that deserves great concentration, it is in the application of the Word to God’s people. Pastors should read good counseling books. Pastors should know their people well in order to apply God’s truth in love (see #7).

You may consider each question every Sunday, and after some time these questions will be a natural part of your sermon preparation each week. Not all sermons are created equal. Just delivering content is not the goal of preaching. Preaching is an art, and we can all learn to grow.

  1. By this I mean sermons no longer than 30 minutes  (back)
  2. I think first used by James B. Jordan  (back)
  3. I hope to address pastoral fears in another post  (back)

What is Holy Saturday?

The Passion Week provides diverse theological emotions for the people of God. Palm Sunday commences with the entrance of a divine King riding on a donkey. He comes in ancient royal transportation. The royal procession illicit shouts of benediction, but concludes only a few days later with shouts of crucifixion as the king is hung on a tree.

The Church also celebrates Maundy Thursday as our Messiah provides a new commandment to love one another just as He loved us. The newness of the commandments is not an indication that love was not revealed prior (Lev. 19), but that love is now incarnate in the person of love, Jesus Christ. We then proceed to sing of the anguish of that Good Friday as our blessed Lord is humiliated by soldiers and scolded by the offensive words of the religious leaders of the day. As he walks to the Mount, his pain testifies to Paul’s words that he suffered even to the point of death (Phil. 2)But hidden in this glaringly distasteful mixture of blood, vinegar, and bruised flesh is the calmness of the day after our Lord’s crucifixion.

After fulfilling the great Davidic promise in Psalm 22, our Lord rests from his labors in the tomb. Whatever may have happened in those days before his resurrection, we know that Christ’s work as the unblemished offering of love was finished.

The Church calls this day Blessed Sabbath or more commonly, Holy Saturday. On this day, our Lord reposed (rested) from his accomplishments. Many throughout history also believe that Holy Saturday is a fulfillment of Moses’ words:

God blessed the seventh day. This is the blessed Sabbath. This is the day of rest, on which the only-begotten Son of God rested from all His works . . .(Gen. 2:2)

The Church links this day with the creation account. On day seven Yahweh rested and enjoyed the fruit of his creation. Jesus Christ also rested in the rest given to him by the Father and enjoyed the fruits of the New Creation he began to establish and would be brought to light on the next day.

As Alexander Schmemann observed:

Now Christ, the Son of God through whom all things were created, has come to restore man to communion with God. He thereby completes creation. All things are again as they should be. His mission is consummated. On the Blessed Sabbath He rests from all His works.

Holy Saturday is a day of rest for God’s people; a foretaste of the true Rest that comes in the Risen Christ. The calmness of Holy Saturday makes room for the explosion of Easter Sunday. On this day, we remember that the darkness of the grave and the resting of the Son were only temporary for when a New Creation bursts into the scene the risen Lord of glory cannot contain his joy, and so he gives it to us.

The End of the Serpent’s Sting

The End of the Serpent’s Sting

There is a venomous snake in the garden. While the great Messiah and his disciples enter the garden, a certain snake-like figure named Judas knows precisely where the faithful are. He enters the garden knowing that this was a place of constant fellowship and peace. But Judas is not a man of peace and his fellowship with the Messiah has been broken. He is now a man at war and his loyalty is with the darkness.

In the Garden of Eden, the Great Serpent entered the garden to bring about chaos; to tempt the first Adam. Indeed he was successful. The first Adam failed in his loyalty to Yahweh, being deceived by the serpent in the garden, and thus, thrusting all mankind into a state of sin and misery. Now in John 18, the New Serpent enters the garden. He is possessed by the same devil that possessed the serpent in Genesis. It is this precise battle that is unfolding before us in this text. The question is: “Who owns the garden?”

Does Judas with his new found commitment to darkness and evil own the garden or does Jesus own the garden? As the text reveals to us we see that Judas, the son of perdition, seems to have the upper hand in this sacred dispute. In verse 12 we read:

So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him.

Jesus is arrested and bound. They take him out of the garden bound like a defeated enemy. Now, in every conceivable scenario, this would be the historical determination that Jesus has lost. But if the Messiah is to bring this unshakable and unmovable kingdom with his coming, then how does this binding, this apparent defeat in the garden connect with this glorious kingdom? The answer to this question is: paradoxically. The coming of the kingdom is paradoxical. The kingdom does not come in the way and in the expression that many expected.

Now if the kingdom of God comes paradoxically, in a way unknown to the first century, then there may be a different way of understanding this garden scene. In this text, Jesus is not being bound because of defeat; he is being bound because of victory. Jesus’ arrest is his release. His arrest is not his binding, it may appear to be, but it is ultimately the binding of the evil one, the father of lies, Satan himself. This is why the gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus is the One who bound the strong man. He is the One who arrested the Serpent and dragged him out of the garden. Jesus owns the garden, not Judas or His master, Satan.

This arrest and this binding of Jesus in the garden is not a plan gone awry, it is exactly what has been planned. In one sense, this arrest is the cosmic Trinitarian conspiracy against the kingdoms of this world. When evil leaders and governments think they have the Son of Man trapped, he fools them. As Psalm 2 says, “God laughs at their plans.” The conspiracy of the cross is that the cross is Christ’s sword to defeat evil. But the serpent does not know this. He is virtually blinded to the Messianic plan and nothing will stop Jesus from conquering evil and bringing in a new world, a new creation. The garden belongs to him, because the garden is where his people gather, and eat, and fellowship. The garden is the sacred space, the place of peace. Make no mistake, we are a warring people, but we war against the enemies of Messiah. In the garden, the King, Master, and Messiah says, “the gates of hell shall not prevail. Death dies once and for all and victory will come and we will celebrate it this Sunday. Today, though we fast, it is only a prelude to our coming feast. Jesus’ death marks the end of the serpent’s sting of death.

In the “cool” of the day…

In the “cool” of the day…

Genesis 3 indicates that the voice of Yahweh Elohim walked in the cool of the day. This post-fall image has been improperly understood. The image the author  conveys is not that there was a cool breeze in the garden. What would be the purpose of mentioning such a point? Rather, the word “cool” in the Hebrew is רוּחַ, transliterated ruwach. This is the familiar Hebrew word for “Spirit.” We are not simply dealing with a breeze here, this is the Spirit of God who shows up as the judgment of Yahweh upon Elohim. It is important to note that the Triune God is coming as witnesses against our first parents.

Not a Primitive Philosophy

Will Willimon writing for the Christian Century asserts that truthfulness is most clearly seen in its practical force. “How shall they know you are my disciples? When you love one another.” This was Jesus’ simple response. At the same time we must not forget that truth is contextualized in history by the writer of history. Life cannot be divorced from truth. Life is formed and lived out by truth if it is to be lived out accordingly. Pagans may conform externally to the law, but manifest “enlightened self-interest” in their actions. The Christian faith, on the other hand, sees truth affecting both external and internal motivations. These motivations are self-less and are shaped by the God/Man who was the embodiment of truth Pilate wondered about. As Willimon concluded:

Christianity is not another philosophy  or some primitive system of belief; it is a community  of people who worship the Jew whom Pilate sent to the cross.

This devotion to the Jewish Messiah is what enlivens the Christian truth and what changes the world.

Herod the Fox, Jesus the Hen, and the Exodus: Lectionary, Luke 13:31-35

In these few verses in St. Luke, the writer plays on the animal vocabulary to describe two opposing groups. In the process it also echoes the exodus motif.

In this text, Herod is described as a fox. A fox is known for its cunning and deceitful ways. Herod wants Jesus out of his way. As N.T. Wright observes, “Herod is a predator.” The Pharisees come along and ask Jesus to flee the fox and exodus from the town. On the other hand, Jesus describes his purpose in gathering Israel to a hen protecting her own.

Herod wants to kick Jesus out and Jesus wants to kick demons out (exorcism). Jesus wants to gather his brood, but they will not listen. They do not want Jesus’ hen-like protection, and so they will suffer destruction. Their home will be left desolate. The glory will exodus from Israel’s temple. Jesus will journey out of the region, so that He may depart to Jerusalem. Finally, Jesus will work on day one and two, but on the third day He will depart and cry It is finished.

No Past. No Future.

Paul ties the resurrection to the forgiveness of sin ( I Cor. 15:18). Hence, a denial of the resurrection means that our sins were not forgiven. If Christ is not raised, we have no past and no future. As Gordon Fee concludes:

Thus the whole Corinthians experience, past, present, and future, has come to nothing, if they are correct.

Leprosy and Uncleanness

To be a leper in the Bible meant ceremonial uncleanness; it meant distance from God’s special presence. In Mark 1:40-45, Jesus is restoring a man not only from physical uncleanness, but from spiritual uncleanness. By healing this man Jesus is destroying the exilic state of the unclean, and bringing them near to him and his blessings.