There is no way to avoid it. I confess: I am one of those proverbial Saturday-night preachers. I would much rather tell you that by Thursday I am fully prepared and am simply reviewing my notes and digesting thoughts and concepts. Unfortunately, that is not the case. On any given Saturday night you can usually find me seriously at work — Bible in one hand, concordance in the other, computer warmed and ready with a thesaurus propped up on the side.
I do not recommend Saturday-night sermonizing. It is an unhappy practice that is physically demanding, emotionally frustrating, and rarely produces power either in the sermon or in the preacher.
This preaching business is tedious and treacherous stuff. It is increasingly so for those of us who are engaged in the week-by-week, Sunday-by-Sunday adventure of proclaiming the gospel. Most of us want to be disciplined homiletic practitioners. Realistically, however, most of us have discovered that those neat principles and procedures which we learned in seminary either do not fit or are irrelevant when we are faced with the prospect of preaching a sermon within the next twelve hours.
The Bones
“How do you choose your sermons?” members of my congregation frequently ask? The question is not easily answered. I spend my waking moments always in search of a sermon in the hope that, sooner or later, a sermon will find me. Sermons are usually all around us, if we are sensitive and open to the leading of the Spirit to reveal His message to us. Having said that, however, it is still necessary to point out that sermon selection and sermon preparation is an ongoing process which requires disciplined prayer and planning.
In recent years I have discovered the value of series preaching. Series preaching removes the weekly angst of sermon selection and provides a diet of disciplined study for both preacher and listener. Currently, I am engaged in preaching through the entire Book of Romans. The church is participating enthusiastically in study and preparation along with me. This preacher-parishioner partnership has brought a new level of excitement and participation in worship. As a result of individual and corporate Bible study the congregation has a common knowledge base that makes it receptive to new and fresh interpretation of the Word.
It is also helpful, when preparing to choose a subject or theme, to listen to sermons by others, to read church bulletin boards as you drive through the city, and to read the listing of local services in the Saturday paper. Their sermon subjects reveal something of the thought patterns of your colleagues. I read everything in print I can find about preaching, including the sermons of others. I also subscribe to many religious periodicals and preaching publications. It is a poor preacher who drinks only from his own well.
I make it a practice to read thoroughly the commentaries on my chosen text. In fact, I read every commentary available to me, in order to be certain of the historical data and to be sure that my interpretation is not far afield from the interpretations of others. I do not rely on the commentaries for outlines or points, but I do use them as valuable resources for the thinking and viewpoint of others.
More important than all of this is that quiet moment when the preacher’s soul stands before the Savior — that quiet moment when the preacher’s “empty pitcher” is presented before the “full fountain” in the sure and certain confidence that the One who visited Cana will visit him, changing his tasteless water to enriching wine and filling his pitcher to overflowing.
Sinew
Once the subject and the text of the sermon have been determined, an important key to preaching is to be able to ask the right question of the text. I tell my Bible students constantly, “If you ask the wrong question, you get the wrong answer!” For me, every sermon is pinned to a question or to a recurring thematic phrase. The essence of the sermon is to work through the possible answers to that question, to approach the question or theme from as many angles as possible (what some preachers refer to as “milking the text”), and then, by sheer force of logic, to come to the response which seems appropriate in light of the biblical meaning of the text and its contemporary relevance.
This is often easier said than done. At times I find it most difficult to determine the question or thematic phrase that will provide the focus and frame for the sermon. That question or phrase will determine the content of the first sentence of the sermon. In many ways it is the first step of a journey, a spiritual odyssey which pulpit and pew take together. It is a journey from concern to celebration.
As with most writing, I find the first sentence of the sermon the most critical. Sometimes I have spent hours composing that first sentence. It may be an interrogative or a declarative sentence. In most instances, however, it is a refrain to be heard again and again within the body of the sermon. Every preacher knows that it is always important to be able to state, in one simple sentence, the aim, purpose, and theme of the sermon. Once this is achieved, that aim, purpose, and theme remain ever before me, and before the congregation, until the sermon’s end.
While I develop a simple outline for writing the manuscript, I use it wholly as a suggestive guide. Sometimes I slavishly follow the outline from introduction to conclusion. At other times I abandon the outline early on, preferring the leading of another Power.
My sermons are basically a blending of the topical and the textual types. Even when my sermon is essentially topical, it will be sustained by a textual undergirding. I am convinced that there is a thirst today among our people for exegetical, Bible-based preaching. To the extent that my sermons remain organically connected to the text of Scripture, they are also expository in nature. This is to say that the sermon is designed to expound the truth of God as revealed in His Word and through His Son. Our people no longer wish to be entertained with some unbelievable, nonsensical, archaic story. They prefer to be taught and trained with the Word of God at the base and at the apex, so that they may grow in knowledge and spiritual grace.
No matter what the approach, it is sometimes hard to find the sinew that will hold the bones together. In a word, moments come when nothing works. Much like a baseball batter, the preacher goes through spiritual preaching slumps. Similarly, the only way to come out of the slump is to keep on preaching!
When a preacher is in a slump, or when preaching has no power, this is the time one becomes acquainted with Dr. Flunk. In my cultural tradition, Dr. Flunk is one with whom all preachers are intimately acquainted. Dr. Flunk visits all of us, usually on Sunday mornings, but sometimes he comes even when we are studying or writing our sermons. His presence can be recognized when everything we say falls on deaf ears, no one says “amen,” no one even nods silent approval, and everyone from the choir loft to the door becomes comatose. Dr. Flunk disregards our degrees and ignores every one of our academic achievements. He sees to it that the sermon over which we have worked long and hard comes out sounding like theological drivel and biblical non-sense.
There is no way to avoid him. He comes when he will. He is designed to keep the preacher humble, to help the preacher keep his preaching in perspective, and, above all, to help the preacher refrain from taking himself too seriously. He is a master at his work. Yet we are called to preach in spite of the presence of Dr. Flunk!
Flesh and Blood
My method of preaching, then, includes planning the preaching, consulting available resources, taking time for spiritual reflection and discipline, preparing an outline, and writing a clear and precise first sentence.
When all this is done, however, it is still necessary to give the sermon flesh and blood. In my sermon preparation I am always aware of what commentators, other biblical scholars, and various preachers have said on the chosen subject, but I am also aware of the events reported on the front page of the newspaper. I always feel an underlying sense of urgency to bring contemporary relevance to my sermon by speaking freely and honestly to those issues which affect the lives of the people and their community.
Contemporaneity is not a sideline in sermon preparation. To speak to contemporary people in their contemporary situation, to make the hermeneutical leap, goes hand in hand with faithful declaration of the Word. The preacher must never be afraid to speak boldly to the times. This is not only sound preaching, it is the very essence of prophecy.
In addition to the newspaper and the commentaries, one must always have an ear to the ground to hear human groaning and to feel human hurt. One must never forget that the persons who fill our pews come with needs and desires, pain and perplexities, tears and sorrows, anxieties and burdens. There is a common posture of pain that has stooped the shoulders of even the strongest in our midst. In our pews there is always a Jacob struggling with Ahab and Jezebel, and a Gadarene who is unsure of his identity and in conflict with his own personality. As the gospel speaks to human need and human hurt, so must our preaching. Preaching is not authentic until it does so.
I am fundamentally a manuscript preacher. From time to time, however, I employ the extemporaneous or outline method as well. I find great benefit in preaching from a manuscript, primarily because it permits verbal precision and the marshaling of data and facts which might be lost in the use of less formal methods of presentation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that one method is not necessarily preferable to another. I do confess a kind of holy envy of those preachers who are able to preach flat-footed and without script or notes. But I content myself with the reminder that we are all given gifts, as the Scripture says, “differing according to the Spirit.”
I now use a word processor in my sermon preparation. The word processor is perhaps a device a preacher needs most at his disposal for the creative shaping and reshaping of the sermon. With its ability to store, retrieve, and edit at a moment’s notice, it is a tool no preacher should be without.
On to the sermon! Now I am writing — with my trusty word processor — and several things should be noted. First, as I indicated earlier, I usually have a theme sentence which is often stated at least twice in the first or second paragraph. Second, I use the interrogative method, asking one question over and over until the importance of that question and its answer becomes apparent. Third, when asking a question which serves as the basis of the sermon, I come to a clearly defined answer. Every sermon must come to a logical conclusion. Whatever we do, we must get Job off the ash pile, Lazarus out of the grave, and Ezekiel out of the valley! It is our duty not to leave the congregation sore, buried, or bewildered!
Fourth, there is usually an unmistakable beat or rhythm to preaching. Often my wife will come upon me in the process of writing my sermon and will hear me humming as I write. I hum because there is music in words. Words have sound, tone, meter, and feeling. It is important to me, as it may be to others, to hear the melody that accompanies the words. Fifth, my sermon manuscript is printed out or typewritten on 8 1/2×11 paper in either double- or triple-spaced lines.
Can These Bones Live?
The longest walk that any preacher takes is the one from his study to the steps of his pulpit. Arrogance is no longer present. There will be no thought of any personal achievement which may have brought him to this hour. The authentic preacher comes to the pulpit unsure if the bones can live. He can only respond to the question by saying, “Lord God, thou knowest!”
The authentic preacher comes to the pulpit not knowing how to preach, now knowing what to preach, not even knowing why he is so engaged. Who it is that has laid claim upon his life. Who it is that requires not his ability but his availability to be used in this manner. Who it is that becomes the preacher’s preacher. The bones can live. The bones can take on sinew and flesh and blood, but only when the wind of the Spirit of God blows upon them afresh and anew. After all, this preaching business is not ours. It is His and His alone.
Years ago, I am told, an old organist sat at his bench playing the instrument for the final time. He was a good organist and had served the church faithfully and well. Now a new organist was to come and the old organist wanted to step aside with dignity and grace. He struck the last chord, closed the instrument, locked it, and placed the key in his pocket. He then made his way to the rear of the church.
There, eagerness flashing in his eyes, the young organist was waiting for him. He asked for the key and, after a moment’s pause, he fairly raced to the organ, opened it, and began to play. The old organist had played with precision the notes before him, but this new organist played with a depth of soul and feeling that brought tears even to the eyes of the retiring organist. Reports of his artistry spread by word of mouth, and soon people came from miles around to hear him strike the keys of the console.
This new organist was a master at his craft; to that, the ear and the soul would abidingly attest. He was, in fact, none other than Johann Sebastian Bach. As the old organist left the church he thought to himself: “Just suppose I had not given the master the key!”
We do not know what spiritual music these sermons of ours have in them, but we do know that they shall be what He wants them to be, if we simply give the Master the key.
From Inside the Sermon, edited by Richard Alan Bodey. Copyright (c) 1990 by Baker Book House. Used by permission.

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