Easter

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)
5 Lessons I (Re)Learned in Lent

5 Lessons I (Re)Learned in Lent

Easter Season is here! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Easter came with all the glory expected. Every year it just seems more and more meaningful. But as I am slowly immersing into the season of abundant joy, I ask myself what to do with the season that is now behind us, namely Lent?

The 40 days of Lent a provided some genuine times of reflection, introspection, and renewal. The Season went by faster than I anticipated, but it left a profound mark in my life. There are five lessons I thought I’d share as I enter the Easter Season with a tremendous appetite to see Christ exalted in everything I do.

First, I learned that Lent is needed. We tend to think that we can meditate on everything without any order or sequence. We simply can’t. God loves time. He gave it to us. He knows we need to be structured as human beings, and He gave the Church wisdom to help us structure our meditations and concerns. To do so, He gave us Jesus. Jesus is with us all year long as we live, move, and have our being in Him through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost (Trinity). We need not just Christ, but His entire life lived, crucified, and raised. Consistent meditation on one theme over the others causes misdirection in affection and the Christian experience.

Second, I learned that Lent is for loving. We live for others. We live for the community. We follow the Head, and following Him means serving the body. Lent is for going the extra mile in service and charity.

Third, Lent is for dying. Life is structured as a death/resurrection pattern. We all enjoy the latter motif, but we find the dying part to be a bit outrageous. Perhaps our expectations need to be re-shaped. Lent is for dying to self. It’s for taking up the cross. It’s for weeping with those who weep. Lent is the realization that the joy of living is dying, so that others may live.

Fourth, Lent is imprecation. In Lent we learn that God has enemies.  In Lent we pray that God would act justly upon those who humiliate, abuse, torture, and murder the innocent. I learned that imprecation is the most powerful response to such cowards. In Lent I learned that God’s justice is always perfect and His acts always timely.

Finally, during Lent I learned that I do not love the cross as I ought. I learned that crucifixion and death are still too foreign to my way of thinking. I learned that the death of Jesus continues to have serious consequences for the way I live my life.

Through Lent, I learned that I needed Easter and that Easter needs Lent.

  1. also known as Quadragesima  (back)
Augustine postulates on why the angels were positioned as they were in the tomb

Augustine postulates on why the angels were positioned as they were in the tomb

For look she did, “and saw two angels in white, sitting, the one at the head and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.” Why is it that one was sitting at the head, and the other at the feet? Was it, since those who in Greek are called angels are in Latin nuntii [in English, news-bearers], that in this way they signified that the gospel of Christ was to be preached from head to foot, from the beginning even to the end? a

  1. St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John; Homilies on the First Epistle of John; Soliloquies  (back)
There is more to Easter…

There is more to Easter…

But if we regard the resurrection as simply a kind of certificate of authenticity for the atonement and sterling evidence for life beyond the grave, we have sold the resurrection short. {Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology, 435}

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

Fourth Sunday of Easter: The Empty Threat of Death, Part III, I Corinthians 15:20-28

First Sermon

Second Sermon

People of God, this is the Fourth Sunday of Resurrection! We are still immersed in this season of joy and celebration. And we have chosen I Corinthians 15 as the background theme to this feast. Why? Because the resurrection is God’s response to death and Caesar. God does not make false promises. He fulfills His creation purpose: to renew all things and to make the Light the center of His universe. Namely, that Light is Jesus. The Light is so powerful that the darkness of the tomb cannot contain it.

The great Princeton Seminary professor, B.B. Warfield, enjoyed saying to his students: “Gentlemen, I like the supernatural.[1] We are believers in a supernatural God who made an unknown tomb to be the center of a supernatural faith.

Out of this empty tomb God is making something new. We call it the New Creation . This New Creation  was not the invention of man; it was the entrance of God’s kingdom into this world. It was not the Church that created a story to keep their dying faith alive, it was the resurrection of Christ that created and sustained the Church. As F.F. Bruce wrote:

“The early Christians did not believe in the resurrection because they could not find his dead body. They believed because they did find a living Christ.[2]

The tomb is empty because the threats of death are empty. And this is the apostolic goal in this chapter: to re-affirm and to revel in the resurrection of the Messiah. More

Third Sunday of Resurrection: I Corinthians 15:12-19,The Empty Threat of Death, Part II

People of God, this is the Third Sunday of Resurrection! We will continue our study through Paul’s narrative in I Corinthians 15. This is Paul’s resurrection magnum opus; it is the Bible’s greatest treatment of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah.

This new creation, this new Church has its root in this glorious event in history. The Church did not create the resurrection story, the reality is the resurrection of Christ created the Church.[1]As F.F. Bruce once stated:

“The early Christians did not believe in the resurrection because they could not find his dead body. They believed because they did find a living Christ.”[2]

The tomb is empty because the threats of death are empty. In fact, the threats of death are so foolish that Paul goes so far as to taunt and mock death at the end of this chapter: “O Death, where is your victory? O grave, where is your sting?”[3]  Paul is pushing the idea that if there is no resurrection, then death will have the final word. In fact, I Corinthians 15 is structured in a way that explains this resurrection theme through various perspectives and angles. “Christ is risen, so we have hope.” “Christ is risen, so you may live a resurrected life.” “Christ is risen, so you are no longer in your sins.” These are the implications of the resurrection. This is why Paul takes such time and care to teach this immature congregation in Corinth why the resurrection is central. More

Future Bodily Resurrection

According to St. Paul, without the resurrection, everything is futile (mataia). But the opposite is also true. If you deny that there is a future bodily resurrection, then you cannot claim that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and your faith is also futile. Messiah’s resurrection implies the corporate bodily resurrection. N.T. Wright summarizes succinctly:

To deny the future resurrection would entail the denial of the Messiah’s resurrection, which in turn would undermine Christian faith (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 331).

Third Sunday of Easter; Luke 24:13-35: Resurrection Perplexity and Gospel Confirmation

AUDIO

Introduction: People of God, in this gospel lesson we see the end of history breaking in in the middle of history in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our nearest Kinsman. Amen.

Sermon: On this third Sunday of Easter, we are confronted and challenged by a strange conversation. The context of this conversation is the empty tomb. The women have come to apply spices to the body of Jesus. The Jewish Sabbath prohibited them from doing this, so they came on the first day. Notice right from the beginning that there is a movement. The Jewish world is passing away, and the new world is emerging. In Luke, the women are perplexed. As they are wondering what may have happened to the body of our Lord, the Bible tells us that two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. This is not the first time the angels appear. They appeared to bring glad tidings of the birth of our Lord and they appear again to bring glad tidings of the new birth of our Lord from the dead. More