Going to get the mail can be quite an experience. A collage of documents is dropped into the mailbox daily — different sizes, shapes, colors, textures. On this particular day it is no different. Printed on slick, high-quality stock paper, with pictures of pristine beaches and gorgeous waterfalls, the travel brochure is part of that collage. You have always dreamed of going to Hawaii, and some enterprising travel agent hopes to cash in on your dreams.
Behind the brochure is a painful reminder of why you have not yet made it to Hawaii: a bill. It has to be a bill — a company’s logo is in the upper left-hand corner, the name of the bank card you use regularly. Your address in dot matrix print can be seen through the opening in the middle of the envelope. You choose not to open it, because behind the bill is a letter from a close friend. You know it will be personal, and it is the first letter you’ve received from him since he lost his mother. Your address and his are written in his own handwriting. And behind his letter is a larger envelope, one with Ed McMahon’s picture on it. On and on the collage goes. Every day an adventure.
The mere shape of an envelope lets you know something of its contents. Although the contents alone tell you how much you owe or how much you could win, the packaging and the contents go together. What if they did not? Imagine some creditor sending you a bill in personalized letter form. It might say: “Dear Mike, It was good to hear from you last month and to receive that payment. How are Carol and the kids? Hope things are going well at the seminary. By the way, you owe us some more money this month. Be sure to write us. Sincerely ….” Or imagine a travel agent advertising the vacation of your dreams in non-descript black and white, or a close friend addressing you as Occupant. Packaging and contents go together. Shouldn’t the same hold true for preaching?
Those who have heard their fair share of sermons know what kind of content to expect: messages about God and Israel, Jesus Christ and His disciples, Paul and the various churches he related to. And why not? After all, the Bible is a collage of documents as well. But what shape do such sermons take? In what kind of package does the gospel get delivered from Sunday to Sunday? In other words, what does a sermon look like?
Perhaps more importantly, what should a sermon look like? Is there such a thing as a proper sermon form? Absolutely not, according to Fred Craddock. No one form can be rightly identified as the sermon form. Craddock adds, “There is no evidence that the Jewish or Christian communities created an oral form and called it a sermon.”1 The term itself simply denotes a talk, what the church came to know as a talk about a text. Nothing in the term sermon denotes any certain form. So while the variety of delivered mail comes in multi-colored packaging, the variety of sermons that are delivered weekly tend to come in the same colorless packaging.
Such generic preaching results in cookie-cutter sermons; those in which the preacher forcefully presses a shape upon the dough of the text, assuring that every sermon looks alike. What a shame! Have you been in a bakery lately? The assortment of flavors and shapes excites more than just the taste buds; it stimulates the eyes as well. Chocolate chip, peanut butter, gingerbread and sugar cookies, each with its own distinct taste and corresponding shape. Tradition has it that peanut butter cookies should have the appropriate fork marks across the top. Gingerbread cookies are generally shaped into the forms of little people. Sugar cookies are topped with sprinkles, and at Christmastime they are baked in the shapes of angels, Santa Claus, and so forth. You just don’t put fork marks on the top of sugar cookies, and you just don’t shake sprinkles on peanut butter cookies. Contents and packaging go together. The same holds true for preaching.
Rather than forcing the same shape upon different texts, the preacher should be sensitive to the clues within the text as to what shape the sermon should take. Simply stated, the contents of a biblical text and the form of that text are both inspired. Marshall McLuhan’s well-known expression, “the medium is the message,” might be amended to read, “the medium and the message are complementary.”2 Thus, the form of any given text is more than just packaging. Form and content work together to produce a combined impact.
Conservative biblical scholars agree that the Scriptures are inspired — that is, God-breathed — even though they might not agree on the process of inspiration. Scholars also agree that the forms in which the various passages were recorded are also vital to their understanding. The thinking preacher knows that too — at least when it comes to interpreting a given passage. Interpreting a verse from Proverbs is different than interpreting one of Jesus’ parables, which is different from interpreting Revelation.
If the form in which a passage has been recorded is so vital to interpreting it, why not take clues from the text as to how to preach it? God chose not only what would be said in Psalm 23 but also how it would be said — in poetry. Sometimes Jesus was as subtle as, “A certain man had two sons and the younger said …”, and at other times as direct as, “Woe to you …” At times Paul wrote in scathing hortatory, at other times quoting well-known hymns of worship. Sermons from these passages should be as varied as the texts themselves, both in content and form.3
Unfortunately, while biblical studies have emphasized the importance of a text’s form, preachers have ridden rough-shod over the form of the text in order to force their own prefabricated forms upon the text. In the earliest preaching of the church, sermons were modeled after the rabbinic pattern used in the synagogue. The sermon involved an explanation of the texts’ teaching along with the moral exhortation on how to live. It was loosely structured.
With the conversion of Augustine in the fourth century, preaching began to change. Augustine was a trained rhetorician who, when converted, applied the principles of secular rhetoric to Christian preaching. In fact, Augustine wrote the first textbook on preaching in Book IV of On Christian Doctrine, which was finished in 426 A.D. Centuries later, in the most influential preaching textbook ever (On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, 1870), John Broadus once again applied principles of secular rhetoric to contemporary preaching.
The importing of a particular form for preaching is not necessarily wrong, however. Christianity has been well-served for centuries by the traditional “three points and a poem.” Besides, some recent preaching books have shown the potential of importing all kinds of exciting, new forms.4
Still, the most exciting new form for preaching today is the use of some ancient forms — the forms of the biblical texts themselves. These forms are the shapes of sermons to come. So, how would such a process work? How do you decide to preach a passage based on clues within the text?
It is important to realize that such preaching does not necessarily entail copying the form of the biblical text. “The goal of shaping the sermon according to the form of the text cannot be a slavish imitation. One might speak instead of respect for the text.”5 A narrative text might result in a sermon following pretty much the plot flow of the text itself, whereas a poetic passage might mean a sermon using more imagery and metaphor than actually following the structure of the text.6
Nobody has done more to help preachers who are struggling to preach what I call “form-sensitive sermons” than Thomas Long in his book Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. He proposes four broad strategies on shaping a sermon in light of the text’s form, two of which to me seem most helpful: one, allow the movement of the text to shape the movement of the sermon; two, allow the mood of the text to shape the mood of the sermon.7 Both strategies could be used within a single sermon, though ordinarily one or the other would be used alone. Both strategies imply that the sermon will seek to be more than a reporting of what happened in the text — rather, an experiencing anew of what happened. Ronald Allen puts it this way:
If my text is one of forgiveness, I want my listeners to experience forgiveness through the medium of the sermon. If my text is one on judgment, J hope my listeners and I will experience being judged. If my text pictures eschatological hope, I want my listeners to experience a moment of glory.
In addition to Long’s strategies, he proposes the following questions that might be asked of each text before selecting the appropriate sermon form:
1. What is the genre of the text?
2. What is the rhetorical function of this genre?
3. What literary device does this genre employ to achieve its rhetorical effect?
4. How in particular does the text under consideration, in its own literary setting, embody the characteristics and dynamics described in questions 1-3?
5. How may the sermon, in a new setting, say and do what the text says and does in its setting?9
Fred Craddock suggests asking two questions, to which I want to add a third.10 First, what is the text saying? Second, what is the text doing? Third, how can the sermon say and do the same?
What is the text saying? The answer to this question is, of course, the goal of interpretation. It involves many disciplines of study, one of those being an analysis of the form (or genre) of the text. A recent work in New Testament studies, Literary Forms in the New Testament, is one valuable source for such an analysis. The authors define the various forms of the New Testament along with helps on how to interpret such forms and some hints at how to preach them.11
Unfortunately, many preachers begin and end with the question, what is the text saying? Thus their sermons are nothing more than a report of what Moses did in the wilderness or what Paul said to the church at Philippi. As one person so aptly put it, “You should never preach a sermon that could just as well have been preached in the first century.”12 Arriving at what the text is saying is only the first step.
What is the text doing? Along with the works of Long and Greidanus, Elizabeth Achtemeier and others have given serious consideration to the role of the text’s form for preaching.13 The issue involves analyzing the text in order to determine the strategy being used to communicate the biblical truth. Some texts proceed in a complicated fashion, others are very straightforward. Some make heavy use of imagery and story, others can be predictably pedantic. Unless a preacher moves beyond the first question and struggles with this second question, the sermon will most likely fail in its intentions.
Still, it is the third question that remains the stumper, one that preaching has only begun to deal with and one that will shape preaching for some time to come.
1. Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon), p. 170.
2. McLuhan coined his original phrase in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964) but later changed it to “the medium is the massage” in a work by the same name. By the term massage he meant that communication has the ability to touch people. Some forms touch us more than others.
3. Recent works in preaching have emphasized this. Two of the more important works include: Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), and Thomas Long, Preaching and the Literary forms of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1989).
4. For instance, Eugene Lowry in Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980) shows how plot sequences in literature and television can be beneficial for preaching. Fred Craddock, Preaching, pp. 176-77, offers a list of forms that might be imported for preaching. Harold Freeman discusses the use of several creative forms in his work, Variety in Biblical Preaching (Waco: Word, 1987). Several works have been written on narrative preaching as well. See Eugene Lowry, How to Preach a Parable (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), and my own Sermon Strategies for Narrative Preaching, to be published by Broadman.
5. Greidanus, p. 20. Emphasis his.
6. See Ronald Allen, “Shaping Sermons by the Language of the Text,” in Preaching Biblically, ed. Don M. Wardlaw (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), p. 36.
7. Long, pp. 128-34.
8. Allen, p. 35.
9. Long, p. 24.
10. Craddock, pp. 122-124.
11. James Bailey and Lyle Vander Broek, Literary Forms in the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992).
12. Interview with Joel Nederhood, “Do We Really Have to Compete with TV?” Leadership (Summer 1992), p. 16.
13. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Preaching from the Old Testament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1989); Donald Gowan, Reclaiming the Old Testament for the Christian Pulpit (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1980); and Wardlaw, Preaching Biblically.

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