One good question is worth a dozen answers. Nowhere is this more true than in the craft of preaching. To make a point, to challenge the mind, to stir the will, to touch the soul; nothing works like a question.
Jesus was the master of the question. “Whom do people say that I am?” He asked His disciples; then followed up their answer with a second question, “Whom do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27f).
When an inquirer approached Him with a question about eternal life, Jesus responded with a double question, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). He dealt with critics the same way. To those who questioned His authority, He asked, “Was John’s baptism from heaven or from men?” (Mark 11:30).
“To what shall I compare the kingdom of God?” Jesus said, and proceeded with a parable (Mark 4.30ff). His most famous story concludes with a question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36).
Jesus the preacher made effective and varied use of the question. His famous eschatological discourse began with a question, “Do you see all these things?” He asked, obviously pointing to the impressive stones, steps and ramparts of Herod’s temple (Matthew 24:2). That same sermon ended with a word picture of the righteous and the wicked asking the same set of questions, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feel you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” (Matthew 25:27-29, 44).
The Sermon on the Mount includes several sets of questions. “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matthew 5:46f).
When driving home the futility of anxiety, Jesus said: “Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes. See how the lilies of the field grow” (Matthew 6:25b-28a). Later in the Sermon, Jesus asks: Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3); and, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); and “do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16b).
Jesus demonstrated the power of the question to direct His audience (whether the committed, the critics or simply the curious) to see and understand the truth.
Questions as the Title of a Sermon
Christian preachers have followed the lead of Jesus to great effect and lasting fame. A. J. Gossip preached his well-known sermon “But When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” and in so doing illustrated one very effective use of the question, as a sermon title. The multivolume collection of sermons, Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching gives other examples: “How Can We surrender a Situation to God?” (Samuel Shoemaker), “How Should a Christian View Communism?” (Martin Luther King, Jr.), “Saved or Lost?” (Billy Graham), “Where are the Heroes Now? (Peter Marshall), and “Who Cares?” (William Booth).
When a question is used as a sermon title it is most effective if it is connected to questions that arise out of the minds of the people who will hear the sermon. Lloyd John Ogilvie tapped into this vast reservoir of puzzlement when he invited his listeners to submit to him questions about which they would like some guidance. He promised to use this congregational input to prepare a special series of sermons. Out of this exchange between preacher and people came a published book of sermons, Ask Him Anything: God can handle your hardest questions.
Among the 20 sermons published were: “Is God Really in Control?”, “Why Are My Prayers Unanswered?”, “Is It a Sin to Doubt?” and “How Can I forgive and Forget?” In his introduction, Ogilvie wrote: “There is nothing more foolish than an answer to an unasked question … This book represents the results of listening with the ears of the mind and the heart to the questions people are asking in America today.”
Bill Nichols, in an article in Proclaim, outlined sermons on “Life’s Ten Toughest Questions.” His list includes: knowledge & certainty, “How can I be sure of what I say I know?”; evil and suffering, “Why doesn’t God eliminate evil?”; God and the supernatural, “Do I have any factual evidence for God?”; religion and beliefs, “How can I know who’s telling the truth?”; faith and reason, “Does my faith make sense?”; miracles and prayer, “How can I get in touch with the power of God?”; man and creation, “Where did I come from and why am I here?”; death and immortality, “What happens when I die?”; freedom and determinism, “Did the devil make me do it?”; and history and time, “Where is it all going to end?”
Books of sermons that combine these various uses of the question are The Greatest Questions of the Bible and of Life by Clarence E. Macartney and Great Questions of the Bible by Fred M. Wood.
Questions in the Biblical Text
Another avenue to the use of questions in preaching takes us to the Bible in search of the question mark. Paul Scherer’s sermon, published in Twenty Centuries, is entitled “Hath God Indeed Said …?” This question is taken from Genesis 3.1 and is part of the dialogue of the serpent with the man and the woman in the garden. It illustrates a second effective way to incorporate questions into a preaching schedule — by seizing upon the questions located in the biblical text.
It is hard to imagine a source of preaching material more rich, more relevant, and more ready than the questions which punctuate Holy Scripture. They are everywhere, and they are powerful. “Where is your brother Abel?” God asked Cain; to which Cain replied with a line ready-made for the preacher, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses asked God as he stood in bare feet beside the burning bush. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” was the question of the psalmist which he proceeded to answer (Psalm 8:4). Isaiah chapter 40 includes no less than 29 questions, none of which is more pliable in the preacher’s mind than “To whom then will you compare God?” (Isaiah 40:18).
How many sermons have arisen from this query of the wise men from the east: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2); or this question of Pilate during the trial of Jesus: “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22).
On my library shelf are no less than 40 Bibles, in a dozen translations, and half as many languages. Some are old and are kept for sentimental reasons; others are never used but are not discarded. One, however, I use constantly. It is marked on the binding as “QB” but it has nothing to do with football! It is my Question Bible. In this Bible I mark only the questions; but I mark every question. Some books of the Bible (i.e., Colossians) have none; but most have some (Joshua has 18); a few have many. (John’s Gospel has 156!)
The Acts of the Apostles, as you might suppose given its narrative character, is filled with preachable questions. “Why do you stand there looking into the sky?” (1:11); “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”(8:37); “What must I do to be saved?” (16:30); “What shall I do, Lord?” (22:10); and “Why should any of you think it incredible that God raises the dead?” (26:8).
I once preached a sermon series taken directly from the questions in the Psalms. Out of at least 115 identifiable questions in the 150 psalms I choose these seven: “Why do you stand afar off, O Lord?” (10:1); “Whom shall I fear?” (27:1); “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (42:5); “Who will stand up for me against the wicked?” (94:16); “How shall a young man keep his way pure?” (119:9); “Where shall I flee from your presence?” (139:7); and “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (137:4).
B. H Bruner published Great Questions of the Last Week. The seven sermon titles are all questions but each arises from a textual question: Who is Jesus? By What Authority? God or Caesar? When Cometh the End? Which Commandment is Greatest? What is Truth? and What Place Jesus?
Questions in the Course of Preaching
Besides being a sermon text or a sermon title, questions can be a useful element in the strategy and structure of the sermon. A question can be used to great effect as an introduction. Peter Marshall preached a sermon on Nicodemus entitled “Dawn Came Too Late.” It begins with this opening line: “Have you ever come right up to the point of making a decision and then backed away — to your regret later on?”
W. E. Sangster, in his book The Craft of the Sermon, tells of the last sermon J. N. Figgis preached before the University of Cambridge: “It was June 2, 1918. After nearly four years of grueling war, the Allies were being driven back again … In that tense atmosphere of national fear he started with the text: ‘The Lord sitteth upon the Flood; yea, the Lord sitteth King for ever’ (Ps. 29:10, KJV), and he began at once with one tense question: ‘Does he? Does he?’ That was enough. He was in” (pp. 134f). Sangster used this story as an illustration of the need for an “arresting” introduction to a sermon.
It is certainly true that the right question is often the best way to begin a sermon. I have begun sermons with questions that people put to me; and I have read as an introduction to a sermon some questions written to “Dear Abby.”
Questions also function to give structure and continuity to a sermon. Who can forget, again, the great Peter Marshall sermon “Were You There?” The title itself, as connected as it is to the passion of our Lord, evokes an emotional power that drives the sermon. But it is the repetition of that question that gives the sermon its cadence of rhetorical and spiritual energy and secures its place as one of the most famous sermons of 20th century American church life.
A less well-known sermon by a more famous preacher illustrates well how the repetitive use of a question, this one arising from the chosen text, lifts a sermon from mediocrity and makes it a memorable exposition of the word of God. Charles Spurgeon once preached on “The First Recorded Works of Jesus.” His text was Luke’s account of Jesus’ visit to the temple as a boy.
That story contains the question Jesus put to his parents: “Wist you not that I must be about my Father’s business?” Spurgeon repeated that question no less than 15 times. I might add that the sermon also contained another 59 questions, almost all used for rhetorical purposes, including one passage of 12 consecutive questions!
Questions, then, can provide the basic outline of the sermon, or the reccuring theme of the sermon, or the emotional appeal of the sermon. In all of these ways, questions keep the preacher connected to the congregation and keep the congregation engaged in the development of the sermon.
Not all questions intended as rhetorical as so received by the people. At a groundbreaking for a new building I talked about the founding of the church a century earlier. I noted the fact that the original congregation of some 500 plus members constructed a sanctuary that would seat 2500. I asked, “Why would 500 people build a building for 2500?” I meant it rhetorically, but Luke Ray was in his very first worship service, having just turned five years old. When he heard the question repeated by the preacher, he answered for all to hear, “I don’t know.”
The people laughed; the boy and his family were embarrassed. I am sure the little boy received a lecture on sanctuary decorum. But had he been in another congregation, especially those of African-American traditions, he would have been right at home in the question-and-answer dialogue that is characteristic of that homiletical style.
Preachers are often perceived as those claiming to have all the answers. While it is true that we hold forth Jesus Christ as the source of truth, the solution to problems, and yes, the answer to questions, we nevertheless recognize both the fundamental mystery of the universe and the quirk of curiosity that seems be present in living things, especially humans. The Bible exhibits this double fact of existence by the ubiquitous use of the question mark. Preachers of distinction have also found a prominent place in their homiletical work for the effective use of the question. Contemporary preachers, living in an age in which answers cannot keep pace with the questions, will do well to find in their religious tradition of scripture and sermon a powerful model for using the interrogative mood in leading people to follow Jesus Christ.
Questions for the Preacher
I have on my desk a card on which are printed six questions. These questions ask things of me, the preacher, as I prepare myself and prepare my sermon. They are intended to keep me on track. I offer these six questions to you.
– Does this sermon treat the text with integrity?
– Does this sermon respond to people’s needs?
– Does this sermon speak the truth?
– Is this sermon about Jesus?
– Is this sermon the best I can do?
– What is this sermon intended to accomplish?

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