Sunday morning approaches as you stare at your stack of sermon notes. The stack stares back and it says, “Preacher, you’ve worked hard on me, but let’s face it — I’m boring.”
You have, in fact, worked hard. You have exegeted your text, identified the central idea or theme, and even jotted down one or two dynamite illustrations. You think you understand the problematic words and phrases. You have a fair outline. But….
How are you going to treat the large amount of necessary background material without losing your listeners? The text may include foreign names, obscure cultural references, strange ideas, all calling for some explaining on your part.
And you know from experience that explanation can be the most boring process in preaching. You have seen the glazed eyes, the shifting bodies as you attempt to elucidate the long ago and far away. Arguing a case, telling a story, applying a principle — these give preacher and hearer alike something to sink their teeth into. But explaining historical background or complicated ideas may produce a sermon described by Haddon Robinson’s phrase, “As dry as cornflakes without milk.”
Only the most highly-motivated student-types in the congregation are likely to stay with you for a prolonged session of explanation. Most folks will never make it as far as the first dynamite illustration.
Granted, you don’t have to explain everything. A sermon is supposed to be the fruit of, not the display of exegesis. But to skip over explanation entirely is to be faithless to the text, to preach an idea severed from its roots, to give your listeners no opportunity to see where the idea comes from.
So you might try preaching a split sermon. You do the explaining first, probably right after the text is read. Later, following other elements of worship, you illustrate and apply the main idea of the sermon.
Take a message on Isaiah 7 (the Immanuel prophecy), for example. This is one of the great texts in Isaiah which anyone preaching through that book is bound to cover. It’s also a favorite Christmas text, so most preachers will deal with Isaiah 7 sooner or later.
It presents a number of problems for the expositor: over-familiarity is one. The listener can’t count how many holiday homilies he’s heard on “The virgin shall be with child …” so he starts counting the panels in the stained glass instead.
Misidentification of the exegetical idea (theme) is another problem. This text’s central idea is not in verse 14 (though the Christmas prophecy may be where our interest lies and the reason for choosing this chapter), but in verse 9: “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” If you are going to preach on Isaiah 7 — not just verse 14 — some statement of verse 9 will have to be your theme.
Perhaps the most difficult problem this chapter presents for the preacher is the amount of explaining which must be done. If the person in the pew is to hear God’s message in this text, she must have at least some understanding of the following:
– Who or what are Ephraim and Aram and why are they threatening God’s people?
– What do we mean by the divided kingdom?
– Who is Ahaz? (You think your listener will remember because you preached on chapter 1 two weeks ago and mentioned that Ahaz was one of the kings under whom Isaiah ministered? Optimist!)
– What do the curds and honey (vv. 15, 22), the hired razor and shaving (v. 20) signify?
– How is prophecy fulfilled? Once? More often?
– Why do some translations speak of a “virgin” and others of a “young woman”?
These matters may be addressed in a few minutes of verse-by-verse exposition. “History is bunk!” you may begin. “Henry Ford may have had a point when he first said that. But if taken at face value, his claim is manifestly wrong. Apart from history we cannot know ourselves, we cannot know God, we certainly cannot understand His Word. Take this passage for example. “We will miss the point of this great chapter if we do not walk for a few minutes in history.” Then you explain. And the congregation sings, perhaps, O Come, O Come Immanuel and continues worship.
A few minutes later you resume the sermon: “You’ve probably heard the story of the man who fell off the cliff, but managed to grab a branch and stop his fall. As he hung there, he cried out, ‘Help! Help! Is anyone up there?’ ‘I am here,’ a voice answered. ‘Who are you?’ yelled the man.
“It’s the Lord. I will help you, but you have to let go of the branch.'” After a pause the desperate man cried, ‘Is anybody else up there?!’
“Our text teaches us that there really isn’t anyone else up there. If we do not stand firm in our faith, we will not stand at all. There is no substitute for trusting God. From the sad experience of Ahaz we see ….”
After developing the idea, you might conclude, “Twenty-seven centuries ago the king of Judah was hanging from a branch crying, “Is anyone else up there? Some Assyrians maybe?” But there is no substitute for trusting God. We have even less excuse than Ahaz for not trusting, for we live after Christmas. With the eyes of faith we can see a hand stretched down to rescue us from our predicament — a strong hand, the hand of God incarnate, Immanuel’s hand.”
Why does this split sermon form work? Because you have not taxed your hearers’ store of endurance too severely. You have given them a manageable dose of explanation, followed by a break and a fresh start. And you’ve not overused this form, so it is different, unexpected. Their interest is aroused.
Anne Ortlund’s fine little book, Up With Worship, includes a chapter, “A Sermon Doesn’t Have to be All at Once.” She cites as an example of what I am calling the split sermon form an occasion when her husband, Ray, preached on Romans 8. His sermon was in three parts, complemented by choral presentation of Bach’s cantata, Jesu, Priceless Treasure.
Clearly the form may be used for more than one purpose, but for sermons heavy on explanation, it may be the form of choice. As Ortlund reminds us, “The mind can only absorb as much as the seat can endure.”
What do you think about the idea of a “split sermon” form? Have you tried it — or would you? Send us your thoughts and comments; we’ll share them with our readers in a future issue.

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