Introduction to part 2:
Passion for preaching
The second advice Jethro gives his son-in-law Moses is: “Teach them the decrees and laws”. In our contemporary language this means: preach to them the Word of God. Teaching and preaching are intertwined in the Bible and so Moses has the task of preaching. Today preaching is seen as one of the main tasks of a pastor. When the congregation has gathered to worship and listen to the Word of God, the preacher is there to explain and apply God’s words to His people. In preaching, God’s words as they are written down in the Bible come alive. In order to preach biblically and relevantly, the pastor needs to dig deep into the Word, bring it close to the hearts and lives of the people. He has to make sure that the Word of the Lord has touched his own heart as well. This part will show you how to do so.
Preaching is a privilege
Everyone who is called to preach is privileged. Those who are called to translate God’s thoughts into human language have a unique relationship with both God and people. You listen very intently to what God has to say in his Word and you work hard to make it understandable so that you can effectively reach the people with that word – the Gospel.
When you preach the Word you are privileged because you are being used by God to fulfil His plan of saving sinners and building His Kingdom. And that creates a tension between the urgency of ‘the now’ and the reality of eternity. Everything you say and do has eternal value and can be used by God’s Spirit to transform people into His children. That applies not only to those who hear God’s message, but also to you. You preach the Gospel to the congregation, but you are the first to hear it. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:6: ‘The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.’ When preparing the sermon you are the first to experience the amazement, the joy, the nearness of Christ. You are also the first to experience perhaps God’s reproof, or reproach – sometimes what He has to say to us can be hard.
Way of life
Preaching is not something you do ‘casually’ or as a ‘part time job’. Preaching is a way of life. It demands all of you. It demands your intellect as you search for the meaning of a part of Scripture. It demands your wisdom as you consider how people will respond to your message on Sunday. It demands your own heartfelt response to what God is saying – how does it touch you? It demands the full surrender of your soul so that you can be used by God’s Spirit.
Preaching is a privilege because it demands your body, heart and soul for the Kingdom. It makes you sensitive to what is happening in yourself, in the people around you and in society. All that you hear, see and experience will be placed in the light of that particular passage from the Bible you use next Sunday. Preaching is a privilege as it encourages you to live consciously in the presence of God. You have to take time to concentrate on God and His Word, which nourishes you spiritually.
Preaching is also a privilege because you are relying on God’s promise. It is unpredictable. You put a lot of time and energy into preparing and delivering it. You long for something to really happen between God and the people through your preaching, but you cannot force it to happen. You try to fulfil all the conditions, but yet as a preacher, you know it is not up to you to light a flame in the hearts of the people. You are between God and people – a place of mystery and a place which is the domain of God’s Spirit. It’s here that the words of Jesus in John 3:8 are so true: ‘The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.’ As a preacher you can take the message to the hearts of the people, but only God’s Spirit can take it into their hearts.
In John 3:29 John the Baptist underlines this as he talks about how the friend of the bridegroom rejoices in the voice of the bridegroom. He responds with these words to the comment of his disciples that Jesus draws more people than John does. He answers them by talking about the task of the ‘friend of the bridegroom’. In those days this ‘friend of the bridegroom’ had an important task. It is he who approaches the bride and asks her if she will marry his friend. If the answer is ‘yes’ he then makes all the arrangements for the wedding, brings them together and guides them even into their wedding night, but only as far as the door to the bedroom! He has no part in what happens after that – that is between the bride and the bridegroom – his job is finished. But the custom in these days was that the bridegroom would let his friend know that everything was alright, meaning that his bride was still a virgin, by a shout of joy. The friend waited for this shout and then went away from the door. That is what John means by ‘rejoice in the voice of the bridegroom’. It’s the joy of knowing that it is alright between the two of them.
It is the same for you as a preacher. You rejoice in the love God has for the people, you do all that you can to bring God and your people together, but you have no part in what happens afterwards in their hearts – that is between God and the people who have heard the Word. But you wait impatiently to hear what God has done in the heart of a brother or sister, you wait for the shout of joy!
The exciting thing about preaching is that you can never forecast what it will do – you can never guess how God will use it. In Isaiah 55 God Himself makes a promise about the preaching of His Word. In verses 10 and 11, Isaiah says: ‘As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’
What is Preaching?
Throughout the centuries many answers have been given to the question ‘what is preaching?’ Some say that preaching is explaining God’s Word. Others add that preaching is both explaining and applying God’s Word. Yet others say that preaching is simply telling people about God. Many experts on preaching talk a lot about the connection between God’s Word and those who are listening to it.
Among the many definitions of preaching, we choose: ‘Preaching is persuading the hearer of the relevance of the Biblical message’.
Persuading the hearer means that you deliver the Biblical message in such a way, that it really touches those who hear it, who then believe it, and act upon it.
If you want to persuade those who listen to your sermon, you must make sure that first of all they clearly understand what you mean and what the Biblical text means. So, it starts with their head, with understanding. It’s your job to prepare and deliver the biblical message in such a way that they can grasp the meaning of it.
But this is only one part of being persuasive. The other part is that not only their head, but also their heart should be moved and touched. They only will apply the message to their daily life’s if they feel that this is about them, about their daily life with God and with the people and the world around them.
That is what we mean with relevance: it’s about me! If people understand that the Word of God is not just a very old book with stories from people ages ago, but that the message through these stories will change their life today, then they will listen to your sermon and apply the Word of God in their life and that they need to respond and obey. So, the aim of the sermon is to both give a clear explanation of the biblical message as well as motivate the hearers to do what it says.
One of the ways people can truly relate to the biblical message is by telling stories. Good stories always touch people’s heart. Luckily the Bible is essentially a storybook, it’s theology in stories.
Just think about the great stories of God dealing with his wayward people, of the conflict between sinful men and a righteous God. Think about the tension, the heartache, the longing in God’s amazing plan of salvation, and the drama and intrigue of lives changed by His Holy Spirit. It’s all there.
These are the elements which, if you incorporate them into your preaching, will grip your listeners and make the Bible, and God come alive to them. He will no longer be a remote figure in a big book, but a living, powerful, and loving Being who touches people’s lives. And that is what people today are hungry for – the experience of God, and not just the facts about Him.
Every text a message
One of the most important things in preaching the Word of God is to realise that the whole Word of God is also written as a sort of sermon. The various literary forms such as the historical books, poetry, songs, gospels, letters, all carry in their own way a message they want to proclaim. So, every part of Scripture has a message that is applicable to the life’s of those who read or listen to it in every time and in every place.
This is what Paul writes to Timothy in 2Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. So the challenge for every preacher is, knowing that there is a divine message in every part of the Bible, to discover this message and apply it to their own time and culture.
This is particularly challenging if we consider the fact that when Paul talks to Timothy about the Scriptures, he is referring to the only Scripture available at his time, the Books of Moses and some other parts of the Old
Testament. How can we make the stories of the Old Testament relevant for our own times and how can we relate the people of the Old Testament to ourselves?
The answer is given to us by the apostle James. In James 5:17 he writes these important words: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are”. He means that despite the centuries of time difference and cultural difference between Elijah and us, there is one thing that connects us into a close bond: he is as human as we are. He has the same longings, the same fears, the same love and the same hate. So, even though there are many differences in time and culture, what unites us with all these ancient people in the Bible is that being human and the way God deals with humans and humans respond to God and each other, is no different at all.
This is what theologians call ‘relational hermeneutics’: there is a relation between human beings that goes beyond borders of time and place and that is why we can relate to the stories in the Bible and understand and apply their message today.
Preparing takes time
It might be clear that discovering the message of a part of Scripture and show the relevance of that message for today is not an easy task. It takes time to first of all carefully read and study the Word of God for next Sunday. Then it takes time to grasp the message and see what it means for your people today. This only comes with a great deal of studying and serious considerations and prayerful meditation. That is why I urge preachers to take time to prepare a sermon.
You can of course prepare a sermon in a few hours and experienced preachers can cope with less time. But it will not be as good as it should be. It’s a bit like the difference between a snack prepared in a few minutes in a microwave oven, and a gourmet meal which has taken hours to prepare. Which would you rather have? God’s Word requires thorough ’cooking’ if it is to satisfy the needs of the congregation. And it will not only benefit them, but you too.
The Preaching Process
The preparation of a sermon is called the preaching process and it is this process that preachers go through every time they have the privilege to preach. It is important to go through this process step by step and not to rush to the final step immediately. If you want to take the Word of God serious, step 1 is your starting point. But a preacher also takes his people serious, therefore step 2 is not to be left out. All through the process we realise that we depend fully on the anointing of the Holy Spirit, that is why we immerse ourselves into the message in order to let the Spirit guide us in our hearts. Finally, after serious preparation and meditation, we are ready to deliver the message and preach with passion!
These are the four steps of the preaching process and we will go through every step in depth in the next chapters:
Step 1 – Discovering the message by keeping faithful to the text
Step 2 – Structuring the sermon in order to get through to the listener
Step 3 – Immersing yourself in the message and stay close to your heart
Step 4 – Delivering the message. Preach it with passion
Step 5 – What shall we do?
Discovering the message by keeping faithful to the text
We already saw that there is a unity in how people from the biblical times experienced God and each other and life with all its up’s and downs. They were human beings like us. On the other hand we need to realise that when we read the Bible, we read books and letters that were written by people who lived over a period of 1500 years and who lived mostly in the Middle-East. The times and cultures that the Bible was written in, influenced the way the Word of God is written down in every way.
The church has always confessed that the Bible is the Word of God given to us in human words in history. This means on the one hand that the Bible has eternal relevance because it speaks Gods truth that is truth in every time and every place. At the same time God spoke through people in a specific historical and cultural context and used their words, images and historical events. So, the Bible speaks Gods eternal truths in the particular circumstances and events of history. The beauty of this is that Gods Words are not like philosophical thoughts, way above our daily life, but that they enter into everyday life, then and there. That gives them meaning for our ever day life here and now as well.
At the same time we need to consider that Gods speaking in history to people living then and there, means that we cannot simply read the Bible and apply it directly to our situation. It was written first of all to these people in that time. In order to find the real meaning of the Word of God, we first need to know what the original meaning for the original readers or listeners was. Only then can we begin to understand and to interpret the text as it is written in our Bibles.
If we want to learn the true meaning of a text, we first need to discover what these words meant for the people who were originally addressed. In order to find out what it means, we need to take three steps of what is called exegesis, which means find out the original intent of this part of Scripture. If we know the original intent, we can discover the message or the eternal truth that is hidden in the text and then we can apply this to our own life’s and situations.
Since we do this exegesis in order to prepare a sermon, we will take 6 steps in total to discover the original intent, the message of the text and what it means for us today. This is not your sermon yet, this is the preparation for your sermon. This is collecting the building blocks that you will use to build your sermon.
Choosing the text
Before you start working on a part of Scripture, you first need to deliberately choose a text to preach on. Preachers choose their text in three different ways. The first is the ‘lectio continua’; reading the entire Bible, with or without the help of a reading plan. The second is looking for Bible passages which will speak into a current situation or need in the congregation. The third is for the preacher to prayerfully select a passage which speaks to him directly – and the sermon then becomes an expression of the burden he has on his heart.
Five steps to discover the message
We said that preaching is persuading your people of the relevance of the biblical message for today. It’s all about the biblical message. Therefore step one in the preaching process is discovering the message. This is the very first thing you do, when you sit down to prepare your sermon. You ask, what is the message? There are six steps we can take which will help us work out what that message is. These steps are a route towards the place where the text will speak to us as we analyse it thoroughly.
Step 1: What is the situation of the text?
It is crucial that you make it clear to your listeners what is actually going on in the text. You can only do that if you realise for what occasion this Bible book has been written and what was the purpose of this book or this chapter of the Bible? What happened in Israel that God needed to act in this way or what was going on in the church of Corinth that this letter needed to be written? The answer to these questions about the historical context are often found in that Bible book itself.
So the first part of exegesis of the text is discovering what it is actually saying. This requires reading, reading and more reading. If you read it aloud you will hear and see what is written and how it is written. You need to make yourself read it with care and concentration. If you read the whole Bible book or letter as you would a paperback, you will gain an overview, which is essential to understand the context of the text. What you are aiming for is to come back to the text with fresh eyes, and see it hopefully in a new light.
Another way is to visualize the story – turn it into a movie in your imagination. Use all your senses: what do you hear? What do you see? What do you smell? What do you taste? Get a real feel for it. It helps if you put what it is saying into your own words. Yet another way is to ask questions of the text – the four ‘w’s’ – who? what? where? when?
The answers are not always evident from the text alone. You need to study the context and get a full picture – an overview. Otherwise you may end up misunderstanding what the text is actually saying. If available, Bible commentaries are very helpful to find information about the context and the original intent of the writers. If you have access to the internet, there you can find lots of information as well.
For example, if you want to prepare a sermon on 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, how does this step look like? I chose this text because here Paul talks about the secret of his fruitful preaching. If you want to know about the situation he is writing about, you can find this in Acts 18 and in 1 Corinthians 1:10-25. We read that Paul came from the capitol of Greek world of knowledge and philosophy, the city of Athens. There he had argued and discussed with the great minds of these days on the Areopagus hill. If you look at his speech, he uses the poetic and philosophical language of the Greek, he talks about God and how God send a man who was raised from the dead. He does not mention the name of Jesus or the cross. The result is that they laugh at him and only a couple of people gave there life to Jesus. Then Paul continues his travels from Athens to Corinth. He soon finds out that the Jews want to see miracles of the preachers that pass by the city and that the Greek wat to hear philosophical wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:22). But after Athens, Paul no longer wanted to adjust his message or language to what people want to hear. He says in 1 Corinthians 1:23 and in 1 Corinthians 2:2 that he had decided to only preach about Jesus Christ crucified. So that the situation he is in.
Step 2: What is the message?
This is a second crucial step in preparing the sermon – what is it about, what is its main message? Every text contains one key message. The author may break it down into a number of branches but there is always only one trunk. That one message, which should also be the central theme of the sermon, is what they aim to bring to the people. So, it is not a good idea to take an individual word, sentence or thought out of the text and preach on that. You will miss the message the author intended, and there is also the real danger that you will go your own way.
So the first question is: ‘what is the main idea, the main message in this text?’ Questions that will help you find this message or main idea are:
a. What was the author’s purpose in writing the text?
b. What did it mean to the people he wrote it for?
c. What situations or events prompted him to write it?
Looking for the message is looking for the reason why the writer wrote this text in the first place. What did he want his readers to know or to do. Why did he write this? The answer to this question is often that there is a principle or biblical lesson that the writer teaches in the midst of a specific situation. It’s your task as preacher to find that lesson or biblical truth that is demonstrated in what is written in that situation. Ask yourself: what is he really want to say? So this goes a level deeper into the text: it’s not only that you understand the situation or context, but now you discover also the reason why he wrote this, the lesson or truth that he wants to communicate to his readers then and now.
If you want to make sure you really have a clear message, force yourself to write it down in one sentence, avoiding theological terminology. It must be a sentence that can be understood by the teenagers of your church as well!
In our example of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 we are looking for the message by asking these questions above. His purpose of writing this letter is that he found out, after he had left Corinth to go to Ephesus, that people started to criticize him and his preaching. Was he a true apostle, a real preacher since he appeared so weak and his sermons were so simple? Wasn’t Peter a much more powerful preacher and Apollos a much better speaker? (1 Corinthians 1:12). Then Paul writes in response the reason why he preached like he did. It is in 1 Corinthians 2:4 “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. These are in my opinion the key words of this part of Scripture, the message he wants to proclaim. He wants to make clear the difference of believing the Word of God because of human wisdom or eloquence or, happened when Paul preached, because they are touched through the simple words about Jesus Christ crucified by the Holy Spirit. So the message of Paul in one sentence is: You can only believe in Jesus love for you on the cross by the power of the Holy Spirit!
Step 3: What is the biblical-theological truth that is presented here?
When it becomes clear what the text is about and what the message is, it is important that you put it into a broader context. Paul or Peter or Isiah is not the only one in the Bible who has spoken about this important subject. You need to find out what is said about it in other parts of Scripture. This will add a depth and richness as these other texts, acting like lamps shining from different angles, reveal more treasures in your text. It is a way of illustrating the truth of this part of Scripture with the help of other parts of Scripture. This will make the message even more convincing. It is really looking at the ‘theology’ of the message, by examining other passages on the same subject and seeing how they all interlink with the themes of the Bible.
Looking at 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, several other Bible texts come to mind. For example Zechariah 4:6 “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty”. Or the words of Jesus in John 3:8 “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit”.
Step 4: Dealing with objections
We have reached the stage where we have discovered what the text is saying. We have heard what God is saying. You sense the text is becoming more and more a part of you – and it is increasingly dominating your thoughts.
Now that the context and the message are clear, and we have plumbed its depths, we have to be absolutely honest about its affect upon us. That will give us some idea of the people’s response when they hear it. They may have a few ‘yes buts’. A clear message may come with a clear challenge and therefore provoke a clear objection: ‘I don’t like what I am hearing’ and so on – ‘yes buts’! Or it may raise questions like: ‘Why does God say this?’. In fact it may well create the very same reactions as those who first heard or read these words thousands of years ago: astonishment and amazement or doubt and confusion – does God really mean . . .? A clear Biblical message always calls for a response of some sort – especially if it clashes with our own experience or challenges the way we have been thinking about what the passage means.
At this point in your sermon preparation you are not only doing an exegesis of the text, but you also perform an exegesis of the people that will listen to your sermon. If you can imagine what their problem will be with this message, you can help them to deal with it in your sermon, instead of ignoring this and let them go home with lots of questions and yes … but’s. You have to acknowledge the ‘yes buts’ at this stage, and deal with them head on.
Talk about the objections in your sermon. Don’t avoid the big questions which your message has raised. But make sure you answer them too. Help your listeners find a way of dealing with the difficulties they are having by pointing them in the right direction.
If you don’t know how your listener will respond to the message, what their objections will be, there is simple trick to find out. Realise that you are just like them: a human being with the same feelings, longings and troubles as all of them. So, if you want to come close to their hearts and deal with their objections to this biblical message, just be very honest with yourself, search your own heart and mind and see what your objection is to this message. How do you deal with your objections and still life close to God despite your yes .. but’s? This way you will be able to help your church with it as well.
The objections I feel by Paul’s message are strong: Yes, the Spirit is at work, but is it not important too to prepare a good and persuasive sermon? Yes, it is not human wisdom or power that will convince others about Jesus, but shouldn’t we use our gifts of eloquence? All these questions come to my mind, but I know what Paul would answer me: you can use your gifts, your preparation and all you to share the gospel, but changing someone’s heart and life is done by the Holy Spirit alone. He will use you, but He does not depend on your wisdom or powerful preaching, He just uses your words to touch peoples hearts.
Step 5: What shall we do?
The sermon may have been an excellent discourse on a Biblical theme, and people may talk about it for a long time afterwards, but it still may not help them in their daily lives. The function of the preacher is not just to pass on the message, but help his listeners put it into practice. That is the ultimate goal.
So the big question here is: ‘What do you want to happen in the hearts of your listeners? What changes in their lives do you want your message to produce? You long to hear the same question that people asked Peter after his Pentecost sermon: ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’
Preaching is always aimed at getting a response – a response which will impact their everyday lives. God’s Word does something in people, it changes them, it sets them on a new path. But the direction God wants them to go should be made clear to them. Make this application for their daily life as practical as possible. What should they do?
What do I want people to do with the message of Paul? I want them to believe and trust that they should not wait with proclaiming the gospel or witnessing about Jesus until they think they are wise or strong or convincing enough. Just speak from your heart and the Spirit will convince those who listen to you. Do not hesitate to speak of Jesus and the cross, though it sounds foolish, the Spirit will reach those He wants to reach with your words!
In these five steps we have made our way to the heart of this text and the core of the sermon. We have discovered the message. We have an objective to aim at. What matters now is to structure the sermon in such a way that the message and the relevance of it can be effectively communicated.
Structuring the Sermon
The funniest joke won’t get a laugh if it’s badly told. It is the same with preaching. You may have many great and amazing things to say, but you have to say them in a well-planned and structured way, otherwise no-one will listen.
Communications experts tell us that: ‘It is ‘structure’ which makes the story convincing and gives it the power to persuade’. A message which is well thought out and structured properly is much more likely to be received and accepted by its listeners than one that isn’t.
In our media dominated culture – both written and visual media – there’s always something which grips or challenges the audience. The same goes in preaching. Your message needs to be ‘going somewhere’ – your listeners need to feel they are being taken on a journey which has a final destination. And the journey needs to be as interesting and attention-holding as possible. The last thing you want is to be ‘boring’ and send your listeners to sleep.
Working out the structure
In my decades of experience as preacher and communicator I found out that a good structure is one where the sermon ‘takes off’, climbs to its climax, and starts to descend and land without any delay. Whereas almost all earlier books on preaching teach the traditional structure of a beginning, middle and conclusion, I encourage preachers to structure the message so that it gradually builds towards its climax. I believe this is more appropriate to our media based culture. It makes the message relevant and applicable – and is much more meaningful, helping today’s hearers face the issues and problems of daily living.
Preachers need to look for the drama that is already there in the text. It will vary from passage to passage. The Bible is full of exciting and gripping accounts of God’s dealings with His people – and this dramatic element is what will draw your listeners in to your message. If you get it right – your listeners will pay close attention.
Head and heart
In practice, finding a good structure can be quite difficult for many preachers. How do you take the results of your reading, studying and meditation and form them into a well-structured sermon? And perhaps a bigger question is – how do you get that message into the heart of the hearers? As we noticed at the beginning of this chapter, it is not enough to educate the mind alone. The heart also has to be touched otherwise there will be no real change in the life of the listener. So the challenge now is to convey the message in such a way that the listener is captivated and that it touches their heart.
Of course, you may be able to come up with several methods for structuring your message – which also depends on the kind of text you are preaching from, whether its poetry, history, letters and so on. The more familiar you are with one type of structure the easier it will be for you to adapt it as necessary.
Impact of the message
I like to preach to the heart rather than to the mind only. I don’t focus solely on analysing the text – rather I concentrate on the impact of its message – ‘what is this text actually saying to me?’ By making it relevant, maybe by drawing out the similarities between the experiences of people in the Bible, and those of the listeners, I touch their hearts. It is preaching ‘heart to heart’: from the heart of God, via the heart of the preacher to the heart of the listener. Outlined below are 5 steps which will help you towards a good structure:
1. The beginning: raising expectations
The first part of the sermon should create a direct connection between the message and the listeners which reaches their hearts. The sermon should not be something they just listen to and sit through – but an ‘experience’ – something which engages their whole personality. A good beginning creates this expectation of an ‘experience’ – and so will hold their attention as they listen – and hopefully discover things that will bless them. If they are not encouraged to ‘expect’ – you will soon lose their attention.
One way of losing the attention of your church very rapidly is by plunging into the text or explanation of the text immediately. People are not ready yet, they need to be taken by the hand and lead into the context of this part of Scripture. To say it in the terminology of a farmer: first you have to plow the ground before you saw the seed. The beginning of the sermon is helping people to relate with this part of Scripture. The best way to do that is not by giving them textual details, but by making the connection between the situation of your text and the situation of our daily life and emotions.
Remember there are so many different people in front of you, all with quite different levels of understanding. The manual laborer and the university graduate are sitting next to each other. How do you reach both of them at the same time? How do you hold their attention? The answer is not to approach them on a purely intellectual level, but start with something they can both identify with. Use the language of the heart and the emotions. Stories from everyday life work well – especially if it is something you have experienced yourself or have heard or read, maybe in the newspaper. The important point is that it is familiar and recognizable to everyone. You also need to make sure, that the story illustrates the central emotion of your sermon. By that I mean it touches them at the level of their deepest feelings.
Let us look, for example, to the story of Jesus, visiting Martha and her sister Mary in the village of Bethany, which is written in Luke 10:38-42. If you should start your sermon by going directly to the text, you would start like this: “Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem and pass the village of Bethany. There lived His friends Martha and Mary, who invited Him in their house”. People will not be triggered to listen any further by these words. I once started a sermon on this part of Scripture with describing a scene in my own home: “In our family we have the rule that the children help clean the table after dinner and do the dishes. Now, almost always, one of the two have to visit the bathroom very urgently just after they started to do the dishes, so the other one is left with the dishes and does the all the work by herself. This happened again last night, but now, the child doing all the work alone again became so angry that she came up to me, stamped her feet and shouted: Daddy, tell her to help me!. Well, brothers and sisters, exactly that was what Martha said to Jesus”. After this, I tell about the situation of the text, but now people can relate to Martha, feel what she felt and recognize her anger. They ‘are’ Martha, because through the story of my children they feel the anger and by relating that with Marta they can feel Marta’s anger as well. This draws them into the story of text with all their heart. They are now ready to hear more about the situation of the text and to hear the message.
So, the story of everyday life that you start with is meant to have the same emotion as the story of the Bible text you are preaching!
2. What is going on?
There is always the possibility that even after a good opening – the response will be ‘so what?’ The listener may feel the text you are speaking on has little relevance to his or her life. ‘What does it have to do with me?’ So you, as the preacher have to work at making the text or the passage connect with the lives of the hearers. How do you do that? You explain what is going on in the passage, emphasizing the ‘human interest’ elements which you discovered in your preparation. You demonstrate just how meaningful and applicable it is to those sitting in front of you.
Look at it like a movie – zoom in on the details that ‘connect’, without forgetting the main thrust of the story. Get inside the characters of the people the passage is talking about – what they felt when this or that happened. Make the characters come alive! You will find you are keeping your audience riveted – you are talking about emotions and experiences they know all about.
If we look again at the story of Marta and Mary, at this stage you can paint the situation in such a way that it is recognizable for your people: My daughter stood before me, angry and asking in a loud voice: Daddy, tell my sister to help me! That how Marta stood before Jesus, angry and upset and she said: “Lord don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”. Marta was frustrated, because when visitors arrived in a Middle-East house, you do not just pour them some coffee or tea, you prepare a meal for them. Hospitality is the most important virtue for a Middle-East woman, that’s how you show your respect for your guests. So Marta needs to prepare 13 meals at once. And I think that she would love to sit at the feet of Jesus as well, why not? But somebody has to do the work for the Lord, somebody has to open up the church, somebody has to teach the youngsters, somebody has to organize the congregation, somebody has to go and evangelize and so on. That why Marta is angry: she is so busy serving the Lord and Mary just sits down to listen.
3. The message
The next step focuses on the main theme of your sermon. This is the central message – what it is all about. Now you can expand on it and speak at length and in detail. It’s essential to remember though: keep it clear and understandable so that everyone will grasp the main point which should be the core, or the ‘heart’ of your sermon. It may also help to clarify or reinforce your message by using other appropriate texts as you discovered in your preparation – but not too many. They can often add extra insight and understanding of your main text – like a light coming from a different angle.
Jesus responds to Marta’s complaint. He doesn’t say that she is doing a wonderful job, he doesn’t applaud her for taking care of Him, all He says is: you are so busy with many things that seems very important, but few things are needed, indeed only one: what Mary chose to do, sit and receive from Me, that is all that is really necessary. In fact, Jesus says the same here as He said before in Marc 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many”. Jesus message is very clear: it is not about what you can do for Me, but what you allow Me to do for you. Most important in life is that you sit down and listen to Me, hear My words, read the Word, receive what I want to share with you.
4. The objection: yes, but….
By now, it is important to express the doubts and objections which may arise in response to your message. ‘I agree with what you are saying but . . .’ You could call them the ‘yes buts’. You need to be honest about them – acknowledge that this is how some people will react. You need first to listen honestly to your own ‘yes buts’. Many preachers are so concerned with how their message will go down with their listeners that they forget to stop and ask themselves what their own response to it is. If you openly share what your own reactions are to your message, your honesty will win over your listeners. They will realize you are on their side.
The more you talk to people, and understand the issues and problems they may have about certain Bible themes, the more you will be able to help them. They will see you are the same, that you have had the same questions, the same difficulties.
But you have taken the time to find the answers to these questions. Then when they see how seriously you take them, they will listen to you, and take in what you have to say. This makes preaching very exciting, as you realize you are speaking effectively and powerfully into their situation and making God’s word real to them.
Yes, what Jesus said is true, but somebody has to do the job. Somebody has to organize church, prepare a sermon, make music, watch over the little children and so on?! We cannot just sit down all day with our Bible, can’t we? Indeed we cannot. But what we can do is start our day with sitting at the feet of Jesus. If we start with reading the Word and meditating it and pray over it, we start with Jesus and that will bless everything we do during the rest of the day. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all else will be given to you”.
5. What shall they do?
The fifth element in the sermon is its closing. You have preached a message from a text or passage of Scripture, now you challenge the people with how they are going to respond to it. What am I going to do with it? Where do I go from here? What changes is it calling me to make? In many ways the conclusion is like a signpost, pointing people in the right direction. It can also be a new beginning. There is now work to be done, and now I know how to do it. It can also be a door, opening out into a new life – with new vision, new hope, new dreams. Make this point as clear and practical as possible, so people really know what to do to apply this message into their daily life!
So, my advice to you, church, is that you plan a moment every day to sit at the feet of Jesus. For some it might be early in the morning, for others it might be in the evening or night. It doesn’t matter when you do it or how long you do it, as long as you set time apart every day to sit at Jesus feet, because only then you’ll find out what it means that Jesus says to you: I want to serve you! Amen.
In these five steps we have structured the sermon in a way that captures the listener’s attention and brings the message home to their hearts.
How to write down your sermon
The next question is how we are going to write our sermon down? Do we write it out in full? Or do we use a few key words?
Preachers have different ideas on whether you should or should not write out the sermon in full. In my own country, the Netherlands, most preachers have been trained to write out the sermon in full because – so they were told – it will stop you ‘waffling’ or getting on to your ‘hobby horse’. The reason, they say, is that preaching is a responsible task and therefore you should choose each word carefully. Unfortunately, this way of thinking has prevailed in our theological seminaries for many decades. The result is that many preachers write down carefully composed sentences and then deliver that same written language from the pulpit. Preaching the sermon then becomes more like an exercise in reading instead of speaking. It’s an unnatural way of speaking. The preacher has become more like a newsreader, than a proclaimer, delivering God’s message with heartfelt feeling and passion.
The notion that not writing out the sermon in full encourages a casual irreverent attitude in the pulpit is usually based on a few bad examples. Of course, there are people who preach with either no notes or just a few – and do indeed waffle. But that is more likely caused by inadequate preparation. The crucial thing is that you ‘connect’ with your listeners – that they really sense you are talking to them and not the wall behind. Communication experts tell us that eye contact is a key factor in connecting with people. You won’t have that if you are forever looking down at your full notes! The best method is to limit them to key words. They will keep you on track, as you have a quick glance down to remind yourself what your next point is. You will have much more time to have eye contact with the congregation.
The best system I know to write down your sermon is a system called ‘Mind Mapping’. It works by creating an image of your notes, in the form of a map, which is then easy to visualize and remember. You can see at a glance where you are in your message, and what you should say next.
A Mind map is an image of someone’s thoughts (mind) and is presented on a sheet of paper as a network of colourful key words and symbols that summarize a lot of information. Every key word has been chosen in such a way that it is like a stock cube – containing concentrated information with all the key words interconnected.
A mind map is always presented in ‘landscape format’ as people naturally look more from side to side than up and down. Because you compress your thoughts into key words and write down only the barest essentials you need to remember, one sheet of paper can keep you going for quite a long time. The result is a gradually expanding network that starts to look like a spider’s web. Many people who first look at a Mind map may find it confusing. For those who use it though, it enables them to quickly access the information which is in their mind. You make the mind map as carefully as you can. You can always alter it later.
Mind mapping can quickly be learnt based on a number of simple principles. These principles have not only been based on recent insights into the functioning of the brain, but actually result from years of experience of people around the world who started to work with Mind maps in all sorts of situations.
1. A key word or title is written down in the middle of a horizontally placed empty sheet of paper (or computer spread sheet) which describes the subject. Mind mapping is mostly a visual activity. The sheet should be used in ‘landscape’ format to give a much better panoramic view. It is easier to make notes in all directions on unlined paper. Different colours and a clear central title grab your attention and help you focus on the subject.
2. Choose appropriate key words, pictures, symbols or codes and use different fonts for the whole of your mind map. Don’t make too many wordy notes. You don’t need to write down what you already know. Each key word acts to ‘unlock’ the information it is associated with in your mind. Just a few key words, can unlock a lot of information.
3. Write down your main ideas clearly – preferably in block letters. You can add in any thoughts or ideas that come to mind later, but in smaller letters. The fewer the words, the quicker you can take in what is on the map. A good key word creates a strong association with the idea or thought it represents. It will trigger your memory, even after a few weeks!
4. All these key words are connected like the branches of a tree, radiating out from the first, central key word you wrote down when you started. The Mind map is drawn so that everything can be read at a glance and without having to turn your head during the presentation.
5. It is important to use a few clearly recognisable colours to give each main branch and its sub branches their specific colour. This is an example of a mindmap:
If we apply the mindmap to our sermon example, this is what that mindmap looks like:
Meditate your sermon: immersing yourself in the message
A well-known preacher once said: ‘In preparing a sermon, half the time is spent working on the actual sermon. The other half is spent working on the preacher’. God has decreed that His divine Word is conveyed to the world through human words. The preacher is first a listener – who needs to listen well, before he then passes on to others what he has heard. He is a witness who tells what he has seen and experienced when he was listening to God’s Word. Your preparation of your sermon is not over once you have worked out your message and structured it. You are only half way there! One more stage to go before you deliver it – and that is your own personal preparation. The message has to become part of you – something you are living and breathing yourself. Before you take it to the people next Sunday – you need to examine your own reaction to it. Where does it challenge me? Encourage me? Change me?
Absorbing the message
The first step in preparing our sermon is to discover what our message is to be – based on a particular Bible text or passage. The second step is to work out the structure of your message – how you are going to present it in a way that holds the congregation’s interest and speaks directly to them. Now this third step is to absorb the message. Let it sink in – take time to meditate on it. Don’t rush from your study to the pulpit. Make time in your preparation to allow it to touch your heart, because if it touches your own heart – then it will touch the hearts of your hearers.
You have reached the stage where your reference books are shut, you put down your pen and you try to become still before God. You now give time to listening to your own message – and with the help of the Spirit of God, discover what it is saying to you. Although you have already been doing this, almost unconsciously to some extent, as you have been preparing your message, you are now doing this as a definite conscious action. It is doing what Jesus said in Matthew 6:6 about going into your room and locking the door to pray to your Father in secret. You have to create a time and place for God’s Spirit to apply the message of your sermon to your heart. For some this place may be a room in their house. For others, it’s a walk in a wood, a field or a garden. In such places, you can sometimes sense God speaking to you through both His creation and His Word.
By making personal prayer and meditation part of your sermon preparation, you will allow God’s Spirit to breathe life into it. From being a dry skeleton, it will come alive. You go through the sermon guided by God’s Spirit. I would encourage you to actually speak out the sermon with God as your first listener. You pray though every step of the sermon, and get a burden for the message God wants you to deliver. Then you are silent because you know that God will speak to you in this silence. Silence is the secret of meditation. Jesus says in Matthew 10:27: ‘What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops.’ Meditating on your sermon is listening to God’s whispers and feel how the Spirit sets your soul on fire with the message of your sermon.
How to meditate
Meditation is most effective when you follow a few simple guidelines.
Come to rest. Be still and concentrate. Become aware of the presence of God: ‘He is here, He is here with me, He lives in me.’ Make room for listening to God’s Word in this way.
A) Ask the Holy Spirit for open ears, open eyes and an open heart.
B) Read your entire sermon slowly. Be conscious of each step. Familiarize yourself with the points of the sermon as well as with what you want to say by speaking your sermon out loud to yourself. Familiarize yourself with the words of the sermon and let them resound in your heart. Do this prayerfully, as if God is looking at sermon over your shoulders. Ask at every of the five steps: Lord, is this pleasing to You? Is this what You want me to share?
C) Familiarize yourself with the images of the sermon. How do they affect you? Where are they taking you? Put yourself into the story. Hear, look, taste, feel, smell…
D) Ask yourself questions. How does this sermon move me? Do I feel a resistance, anger, sadness, powerlessness, opposition? Is there something that strikes me that I find beautiful, which makes me glad? Does the message call for a change in my own life?
E) Pray to the Spirit of the Word for renewal of your own life. Does this connect with the Word you have listened to? Surrender yourself to Christ, Who meets you in His Word. Rest in His presence. Bring glory to God.
From heart to heart
While meditating on your sermon you will receive what really matters, the anointing of God’s Spirit. He places your sermon in God’s light and gives you, as the first listener, the first blessing from it. The sermon is now really your sermon; it lives in your heart. Only those who let the sermon really speak to their own hearts by praying and receiving can speak to the hearts of others.
We have now reached the stage where the sermon has to be preached. And there is only one way: with passion! That is what our next chapter is about.
Preach with passion
The sermon and the preacher are well prepared. The time to deliver it has come. Every Sunday thousands of preachers step onto the podium or enter the pulpit to proclaim what they have heard and discovered during the preceding week. Every one of them will have his own style, his own method, depending on their character, temperament, education and talents.
Filled with Compassion
I see the preacher as a witness. Matthew 28 describes the time when Jesus sent out his disciples with the words: ‘You will be my witnesses …’ When the coming of the Holy Spirit was promised to the apostles, it was for the purpose of empowering them to testify (Acts 1:8). A witness is someone who is called to tell others what he has heard or discovered. A witness is a compassionate person. He is moved by what he has to say and you notice it. There is passion and fire in him. This is very important for the preacher. Some preachers tend to hide their personal feelings behind impressive words and beautifully constructed sentences. But in preaching the primary objective is not to impress with style, but to touch, persuade and convince. The compassion of the preacher plays a major role in this.
Paul expresses this perfectly in 1 Corinthians 2:4: ‘My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but in demonstration of the Spirit’s power.’ In preaching, words are one of our tools. But these words need something else to be really effective. They need to be ‘anointed with the power of the Spirit’ as they are spoken. We should not be so concerned about speaking beautiful words, but inspired words, life giving words that are delivered in a life giving way. That doesn’t mean you should jump around or use wild gestures as you preach. Not only are you ‘full of the word’ – you are full of the Holy Spirit. Being ‘full of the Spirit’ comes from the Greek ‘theos’, which is where we get the word ‘enthusiastic’. If you are really enthusiastic about the message, people will definitely notice it.
This enthusiasm is far more important than how clever you are, or how refined and genteel you are. You should be real, be yourself, be filled. This enthusiasm, this passion is really a passion for Jesus. Don’t be fooled. Passion is not necessarily about raising the voice, making extravagant gestures, or strutting to and fro on the platform. Its presence is revealed in the eyes. They are the mirror of the soul. That’s why having eye contact with the congregation is so important. People see in your eyes and hear in your voice what lives in you, and they can detect whether you have that passion or not. When it is there – and pray God it is, then the message comes across much more powerfully.
Principles of Presentation
Our ambition should be that we do not ‘get in the way’ of our message. By that I mean we should not hinder the effective communication of our sermon. We really need to ’be ourselves’. So below are some of the basic principles of effective presentation.
When preaching it is important to make contact with your listeners and develop a ‘dialogue’ with them. There has to be two way communication. Encourage them to make some sort of response, rather than just sit there passively. Ask them a question. ‘Do you understand that?’ ‘Is that your experience?’ When they answer back, or nod or shake their heads – you know you have made contact with them and are having ’dialogue’. A sermon is really a monologue within a dialogue.
In choosing the place where you speak, make sure that there are as few barriers as possible between you and the congregation. Speaking to people from behind a table or enclosed in a pulpit creates an atmosphere that is entirely different from that created by speaking from an open space. Many people like to have a table in front of them as it provides support and gives them somewhere to place their notes or, if they are nervous, something to hold on to. Speaking from an open space says ‘this preacher is honest – he has nothing to hide’. Furthermore, it allows greater freedom to express yourself, and adjust your position (but do avoid pacing
backwards and forwards). This all helps make the presentation much more engaging and interesting. Try to avoid high, closed pulpits or rostrums as much as possible – you really cut yourself off from the people.
When having a conversation with someone, the amount of eye contact you have plays a crucial part in how the conversation goes. It’s really no different when speaking in public, even though you are addressing a larger group of people. By making eye contact with your audience you will get a clear indication of how you are coming across. Having eye contact with someone who is listening attentively (and their body language shows it too as they lean forward and smile or nod in agreement) can really encourage you.
When you are preaching in front of a group, try and be conscious of the overall space you are in, and of the people in it. Make sure you look all around you as you speak – not leaving any part left out. Look up and out. Your audience needs to know you are looking at them so that they will feel involved and take in what you are saying.
Take time when you speak – don’t rush. If you are tense, your sense of time will become distorted. It will feel as though time is passing more slowly – so you will end up rushing. Being at ease is really important in preaching. If you are not, you will make the audience feel uncomfortable and tense. They will sense your nervousness, and become nervous for you. So here are a few tips to help you be at ease:
1. If you are breathing to much in and out because you are nervous, there is this little trick that will help you regain control over your breathing: just move your toes in your shoes up and down. This will lower your attention and by that will lower your breathing from your chest to your belly and by that will bring rest again.
2. Stand with your feet slightly apart and firmly on the ground. Some people when they are nervous hop from one leg to another.
3. Most important advice for preachers and public speakers: know what you want to say, believe with all your heart what you are going to say and long to tell it to the people in front you. If your motivation is right, everything will be all right. Trust God, He is the One who called you, has sent you and will guide you!