Sermon

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)

Thoughts on the Beatitudes, Part 2

Before we delve into the Beatitudes we are confronted with the first two verses, which establish the background for the Beatitudes.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Mountain and Mouth

There are two words that need to be stressed in these verses, and they are mountain and mouth. First, the gospel of Matthew is full of mountains. In fact, the first mountain we see is in Matthew four where Satan takes Jesus up on the mountain and offers him all authority if He only bows down and worships him. The last mountain is in Matthew 28 where Jesus gives forth his Commission to his disciples on a mountain. Jesus begins on a mountain in Matthew four being offered all authority and he ends in Matthew 28 with all authority in heaven and earth not because He submitted to the devil, but because He conquered the devil by giving His life through death.

And why are there so many allusions to mountains in the gospel? The simple answer is that Matthew is drawing our attention to that great mountain in the Old Covenant where Moses received the laws of Yahweh and instructed the people how to live and how to be a different people from the nations around them. Jesus is the greater/better Moses. Just as Moses gave Yahweh’s law to the people, so now Jesus, as the Law-giver, instructs his people how to live and consequently how to become a different people, a kingdom people different from all the other earthly kingdoms. The Sermon on the Mount is an extension of the laws of Moses; it was what Moses’ law always intended, but in Christ these laws are lived out in fullness, loyalty, and righteousness. The Sermon on the Mount is not a set of harsh, moralistic, legalistic rules to live by, they are life-transforming, grace-giving instructions from on high.

The second word to consider is the word mouth. It is important to see that these words are proceeding from the mouth of Jesus. In Deuteronomy 8 the people are told to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus rebukes Satan by pointing back to Deuteronomy, and now in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is the one who speaks authoritatively. Jesus is affirming that He is Yahweh in the flesh. Just as Israel needed to live by the words of Yahweh, this new Israel—composed of Jews and Gentiles—need to live from the words that proceed out of the mouth of Jesus, the Christ. These words in verses 3-12 are the words of a new world order given by a new Moses to a new people.

An Honorable People

There are eight beatitudes in this sermon. Some have translated the word beatitude as happy or blessed, but a more accurate way of understanding this term is by translating it as honorable. These are value statements. The Beatitudes are not characteristics of a pitiful/shameful people, but these are characteristics of an honorable people; a people who have been exalted because of their dependence on God. Saint Peter says that if we humble ourselves before the Lord He will exalt us in due time.a The people of the kingdom are being honored and exalted when they live according to the laws of the kingdom.b These beatitudes are set against the shameful characteristics of those outside the kingdom. Jesus is saying, “How honorable are those who live under these gracious laws!”

Another element concerning the beatitudes is their poetic naturec. The first section, the first four beatitudes, contains 36 words; and the second section, the last four, also contains 36 words c forming a perfect poem. We are considering a piece of poetry as we look at the Beatitudes.

One final observation and a crucial one before we look in great detail in the next few posts. As we apply these beatitudes we must remember that these are not intended for those who want to be in the kingdom or as a way of getting in the kingdom, no; these are for those who are already in the kingdom seeking to expand and live out the ethic of the kingdom. We are not to see these as ways of getting in the kingdom, but as ways of living the kingdom out.

Part 1

  1. I Peter 5:6.  (back)
  2. K.C. Hanson’s analysis of “Honor and Shame in the Ancient World.  (back)
  3. Leithart writes: “12 is the number of Israel and 72 is the number of the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.”  (back)
How to Prepare to Listen to a Sermon?

How to Prepare to Listen to a Sermon?

Calvin once wrote: “When a man has climbed up into the pulpit… it is [so] that God may speak to us by the mouth of a man.”Paul says in  I Thessalonians  2:13: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.” (1 Thes 2:13)

The Word of God preached is a necessary part of worship. It is the counsel of God to the people of God. The sermon is a time for teaching, exhorting, and bringing the Word of God to bear upon the life of the people.  This is the pastoral duty as he stands before you. The pastor preaches as one following the apostolic train.

But how do you as a parishioner respond to the preached Word? Preparation is key. People need to be trained to take advantage of this profound means of grace. The Word is a two-edged sword. It is God’s divine surgery on the Lord’s Day. It is crucial to realize as God’s servant prepares to deliver God’s word to you that your expectation is not one of a judge or critic, though at times you may have your doubts about a particular interpretation, but that is not your duty when listening to the Word preached. Your duty is to trust the Word preached to mold your very being; to humble your very spirit, and to change your very life. If you are in doubt that this is happening in the preached Word, you may need to consider whether another Church is more faithful to this sacred duty or whether–and this is likely–you have hardened your heart to the ministry of the Gospel. In other words, if everyone around you affirms that God’s word is being delivered faithfully and you are the only one who sees differently, perhaps the problem is not with the ministry of the Word, but with your heart.

But though the preached Word plays a fundamental role in the life of the Church and worship, it’s important to avoid a particular kind of error that sometimes plagues certain Reformed churches. aOur intellectual heritage is largely a “Word-oriented” heritage. In light of this, sometimes we think of the sermon as the climax of the service, so that everything before and after do not carry the same weight. We have a tendency to view preaching as the only indispensable part of the service, but we should not think in this manner. The sermon is not meant to be primarily a time for great detailed word studies or to hear the latest controversy, or to hear an exhaustive treatment of a passage. If you want a classroom atmosphere, this is not it! Worship is not an extended classroom time; worship is the word of God from heaven to you! This is the gathering of the army of God. As an army, you will begin the service hearing God’s call, and you will sing God’s word in psalms and hymns, and you will eat at Christ’s table, and you will leave with a benediction from God’s word. All these areas are as important to worship as the sermon. Each has its own level of importance. I want you to look at the sermon as a time for an extended hearing of God’s word, but the Word of God is also present from beginning to middle and from middle to end. If you have been inattentive throughout the whole service waiting simply for the preaching, then you have failed to prepare yourself for the preaching. The whole service of God is the service to God’s people. If only a portion interests you, then you have failed the task of responding properly to the Word of God.

The over-emphasis on preaching has created a type of elite Christianity where the newly converted, divorced mother of three feels inferior because of her inability to keep up with detailed Greek exegesis or lengthy treatments on cerebral subjects. These topics do have a place, but worship is not that place. Fancy terminologies may fulfill the appetite of hungry theologians, but may leave the depressed parishioner–who desperately needs hope– empty.

So, qualifications aside, the sermon, or the preached Word, is a necessary part of worship. It ought not to be the center focus of worship, but the most extended aspect of worship due to its nature. And taking that time seriously is important for those who wish to mature into a fruitful faith. Here are then some ideas for how to make that time more beneficial for you as a Christian.

First, come humbly to hear. We are not trained well in this area. Most of us are more interested in what we have to say on a particular subject. Hearing a sermon will require humility to train your ears to listen.

It will help keep your attention throughout the sermon. Parents this is especially important for little ones. Use the questions and short outline in the bulletin to interact with your children.

Second, for all the work a pastor does throughout the week in researching and putting together a manuscript, through every attempt to be precise, still sometimes he will say something that does not connect in your mind. When this happens, write it down and ask the pastor after the service. If you think it is a subject that will require more time, wait until Monday or sometime during the week. After the service, pastors are eager to greet guests or to minister to certain members, or to counsel someone. Pastors always enjoy when people interact with his sermon. Trust me!

Third, prepare yourself for the text. Read it throughout the week. Know the passage before hearing the passage explained to you. In most churches, pastors will give the congregation some idea of what text he is preaching next. If this is not a habit, ask your pastor to let you know, so you can prepare yourself and your family for the sermon. He will be appreciative of that.

Finally, I exhort you to presuppose the authority of the Word. When science speaks with authority, the Word of God is more authoritative. When there is a claim that contradicts the Scriptures, the Scriptures will never fail. The Word shall never be broken. Trust it, embrace it, and live by it and you will be blessed all your days.

  1. I refer to Reformed churches because this is the context I have been serving in the last 15 years   (back)
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.

Lenten Sermon: Luke 13:31-35, The Mission and Tenderness of God (Audio)

Sermon Preached at Providence Church in Pensacola, Florida on February 24th, Lenten Season

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Sermon: John 16:23-33, Prioritizing Prayer and Peace

Audio Sermon

Sermon: People of God, Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! As we come to the last two Sundays of the Easter Season, we begin to get a sense of the surpassing greatness of the resurrection. In our passage, Jesus is preparing His disciples, so they may persevere and believe.[1]

Jesus has been with them throughout His ministry and now He promises not to abandon them. This preparation is precisely what they will need when Jesus dies at the cross. This Upper Room Discourse is filled with contrasting language. The language of going and coming, grief and joy, tribulation and peace, asking and receiving, seeing and not seeing, parable and open speech, unbelief and faith, the world and God.[2] This language is used to describe precisely the emotional state and the response of the disciples when Jesus would depart from them, but at the same time it would reflect the disciples’ response when Jesus would be with them “in a little while.”

The Lord Jesus will be arrested and betrayed. It is important that they grasp what our Lord is about to say, so their faith will not falter; that they will be strengthened to endure what is ahead. More