When a family buys a VCR, they follow the owner’s manual for step by step directions in order to operate it. But, after using it for several weeks, they operate the VCR by second nature.
This article is much like an owner’s manual. It presents twelve steps to developing basic sermon ideas on a text from the Old Testament. Preachers who use this pattern will likely adapt it to their own theological frames of reference, styles of working, and personalities.
We illustrate in two ways. First, we follow Psalm 110 as a case study through the twelve steps of the method. Psalm 110 is an interesting study in its own right, and it also plays an important role in early Christian literature. Second, we briefly consider other texts.
1. Determine the Limits of the Text
One of the most basic rules of exegesis is to determine the limits of the text: a natural starting point and a natural ending point. The delimited text should be a meaningful unit of understanding. Still, the congregation may need to know some of the storyline, ideas, or information from the larger context in order to grasp the importance of a specific passage. The preacher can supply this kind of background with supplementary remarks at the time of the reading of the text or in the sermon itself.
Psalm 110 is a complete literary unit. To take another example, 1 Kings 19:1-18 is also such a unit. This second example is the story of the revelation of the presence of God in sheer silence to Elijah on Mount Horeb. However, in the Common Lectionary the text was chopped into three pieces and spread across three Sundays, thus inhibiting its natural movement. In the Revised Common Lectionary in Year C, the text has been located on a single Sunday, but the reading contains only vss. 1-4 and 8-15. In order to honor the fullness of the text, the preacher must supply the missing details.
2. Recall Prior Associations With the Text
Preachers typically have some preassociations with a text. These may be conscious or unconscious. They may come from direct association with the text or by transfer of association from a similar text. Preunderstandings may emanate from official church pronouncements, from recognized Bible expositors, from the memory of a childhood Sunday School class, or from barbershop lore. A preacher needs to be cognizant of these associations and to reflect on them so that they will not predetermine the preacher’s conversation with the text and the direction of the sermon. Investigations of the text may confirm preassociations or may enlarge or correct them.
For instance, a preacher might naively think that the reference to the creation of the woman from the rib of the man in Genesis 2:18-25 shows the subordination of the woman to the man. However, a careful reading of the text, especially in light of Genesis 1:27-28 and 3:16, reveals that the man and the woman are created to live in mutuality and interdependence.
Christian preachers sometimes preassociate Christ and the church with texts from the Hebrew Scriptures without reflecting on the meanings of those texts in their own historical and literary contexts. Psalm 110 is often cited in the earliest Christian literature in order to speak of Christ (e.g. Matt. 22:44; Acts 2:24; 1 Cor. 15:25; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:3). Consequently, it is natural to think of Christ when encountering Psalm 110 in the psalter. However, to do so is to import associations into the text that were not present in pre-Christian Israel. Reading Christ into the Psalm may short-circuit ways in which the Psalm, as a song of Israel, might be instructive to the church.
Recalling prior associations with the text may also be useful in the sermon itself. The preacher might want to share with the congregation her or his changes of perception as a way of helping the congregation recognize the possibility of changing their own perceptions. “When I began the preparation of this sermon, I thought … but now, after study, I think ….”
3. Identify the Major Trajectory(ies) of Which the Text is a Specific Case
A passage is usually a specific instance of one of the larger trajectories (or some combination thereof) in the Old Testament: the world of Deuteronomy, the priestly tradition, wisdom, or apocalypticism. The text may not directly signal its paradigm to the reader. But the text may pre-suppose the paradigm. Often, the preacher’s awareness of the paradigm will help clarify points of interpretation and will help the preacher describe and evaluate how the reader would view God and the world and would behave in the world if the reader were to adopt the viewpoint of the text. The preacher can ask, “What is the vision of God and the world in this trajectory and how does the text manifest that trajectory and lead the reader to participate in its vision?”
The preacher must be careful not to reduce the text to a mere illustration of the larger trajectory. A text has its own perspectives and qualities that can be discovered only by digging into the text in its particularity.
Psalm 110 is commonly called a royal psalm. Scholars debate the time of its origin. In its present form and use, however, it partakes of the priestly paradigm. The interpreter, therefore, looks for how the text leads the community to become aware of God’s presence and to respond to God’s desire to hallow the whole of life, i.e., by helping all relationships and experiences correspond to God’s design. What role does the monarch play in hallowing life?
How would the preacher know that the psalm is a part of the priestly paradigm? The text itself provides the clue when it notes that the monarch of the nation plays a priestly role in the community (vs. 4). [Table 1 correlates books of the Old Testament and the four major trajectories.]
This step can particularly help preachers get a sense of the big picture within which to view a text. Many of the proverbs, for example, seem to be little more than common sense observations about life with few genuinely theological roots. But awareness of the larger worldview of wisdom, as summarized in the previous chapter, enables the preacher to appreciate the theological depth beneath the surface of the text. An underlying conviction of the sages is that God has ordered the universe with wisdom that reveals the divine will. That wisdom can be discovered by reflecting on life. Proverbs 3:30 advises, “Do not quarrel with anyone without cause, when no harm has been done to you.” This text presumes that this is the divine will. One of the purposes of wisdom is to create a community of encouragement and support. Quarreling, especially without cause, frustrates this environment.
BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT CORRELATED WITH THE FOUR TRAJECTORIES
This table correlates books of the Old Testament with the four trajectories discussed in chapter 2 of Holy Root, Holy Branches. While most of these correlations are clear, a few are imprecise. Some of the prophets participate in both the deuteronomic and priestly trajectories (with occasional touches of wisdom and protoapocalyptic included). We mark books that are especially hybrid with an asterisk (*). Of course, few books are “pure” examples of a single trajectory. Individual psalms belong to the different trajectories and must be identified individually.
Deuteronomic Priestly Wisdom Apocalyptic
Deuteronomy Genesis Job Isaiah 24-262
Joshua Exodus Proverbs Isaiah 34-35
Judges Leviticus Ecclesiastes Isaiah 56-66
1 Samuel Numbers Zechariah 9-14
2 Samuel 1 Chronicles Ezekiel 40-48
1 Kings 2 Chronicles Daniel 7-12
2 Kings Ezra
Lamentations Isaiah 1-30*
Amos Isaiah 40-55* Hard to Classify1
Hosea Ezekiel* Esther
Jonah Haggai* Ruth
Micah Zechariah 1-8 Song of Songs
Nahum Joel* Daniel 1-6
1. These four books are especially hard to classify according to the other four trajectories. They do not share enough with one another to constitute a trajectory. Each of them shares commonalities with certain trajectories but not enough, in our judgment, to fit into a single trajectory. Esther’s obedience to the tradition of her people (that results in the salvation of the people) suggests deuteronomism but the book stresses Esther’s cleverness as the mechanism of salvation in a way that is reminiscent of wisdom. Ruth’s inclusivism and universalism recalls Genesis 1 and the priestly emphasis on God’s will to bless the nations. From this perspective, Ruth could be read as a part of an intra-priestly dialogue with Ezra-Nehemiah. But Ruth does not echo the priests’ concern with purity. Daniel 1-6 shares the priestly emphasis on holiness (Israel as set apart to witness only to the divine will). The six stories in Daniel 1-6 encourage the community to remain faithful in the midst of oppression and suffering; these six chapters are compatible with the same theme in apocalypticism but this part of the book does not emphasize an apocalyptic consummation of history.
The book of Esther is hard to categorize, but its emphasis on obedience to the traditions of the community resulting in blessing (the salvation of the people) seems to make it compatible with deuteronomism. The sensuality of the Song of Songs is similar to wisdom’s fascination with experience. But the Song does not draw out implications for understanding and acting in life that are characteristic of wisdom materials. These difficulties illustrate the importance of interpreting every text in its individuality and of not reading a text in terms of an artificial or arbitrary perspective of a trajectory.
2. None of these writings except Daniel 7-12 are fully developed examples of apocalyptic theology or of the apocalypse genre. Daniel 7-12 is apocalyptic theology in the genre of apocalypse and, therefore, can properly be called apocalyptic. The rest of these passages should probably be called protoapocalyptic; they contain theological ideas and images that are enlarged and stylized in the later apocalypses. Some scholars would not think of Ezekiel 40-48 as protoapocalyptic but as a peculiar combination, combining deuteronomism and priestliness but transcending them both. That is why we place Ezekiel 40-48 in both the apocalyptic and priestly categories.
4. Dig into the Text Itself
One of the most important steps in exegesis is digging into the text itself. The interpreter seeks to discover and experience the specific vision of the passage through study of its content and assumptions. What should this text evoke in the minds and hearts of the listeners when they hear it in terms of ancient setting, literary style, and presuppositions? So as not to belabor this process (probably already familiar to the reader), we subdivide it into three phases.
(a) Describe the setting of the text in its immediate literary context and its historical context (insofar as the latter can be determined). How do these contexts provide perspectives that can help the preacher enter into the world of the text?
The immediate literary context is of little use in making sense of Psalm 110. Although the historical context is debated, most scholars think that Psalm 110 was used at the time of the coronation of the sovereign. This coronation may have taken place as a part of the annual renewal of the covenant between God and the community. After the end of the monarchy, this Psalm was sometimes used in Jewish literature to describe an ideal future ruler.
Both literary and historical contexts come into play when interpreting the famous vision of the resurrection in the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 27. By the time he writes chapters 33-48, Ezekiel is in the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel’s worldview has elements of the priestly trajectory and those of the deuteronomic trajectory and yet charts a course that moves beyond them. In chapters 1-24, the prophet clarifies the circumstances that led to the exile: Israel has been disobedient. In chapters 25-32, the prophet lays bare the disobedience and doom of nations near Israel. But in chapters 33-48, Ezekiel looks forward to the restoration of Israel. Chapter 37 depicts God’s promise to end the Exile and to breathe new life into the community.
(b) Examine the language of the text. How would an ancient listener hear the words, images, themes, and idioms of the passage? What are the particular shades of meaning in the body of literature of which the text is found? Do the words of the text call forth associations with texts, stories, images, or ideas found elsewhere in the Old Testament or in the ancient Near East? At this point, there is no substitute for going over the text word by word with the help of a concordance, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries. Often a single word or phrase will reverberate with associations that deepen the preacher’s understanding.
A caution: an energetic morning with the concordance, the Bible dictionary, and the commentaries will usually generate far more exciting material than can be worked into a single sermon. The preacher must exercise focus and limitation to take into the pulpit only material that serves the particular sermon. Extra material can be filed for future sermons.
Psalm 110 is loaded with such associations. For the purpose of illustration, we discuss only two. In vs. 1, God says to the monarch, “Sit at my right hand.” We turn to the article on “right hand” in the Bible dictionary. The right hand is a place of authority. Some scholars also think it refers to taking a seat beside the Ark of the Covenant at the time of enthronement. So, we turn to the entry on “ark.” The Bible dictionary reveals that the Ark is a primary symbol of God’s presence, faithfulness, and power. The sovereign’s rule is thereby guaranteed by the divine. In vs. 4, the monarch is declared “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” The concordance leads us to the source of this citation (Gen. 14:18) where Melchizedek is described as the Canaanite ruler-priest of Salem who blessed Abram in the name of the God of Israel. By calling forth this association, Psalm 110:4 expects that the rule of a monarch will also be a blessing to the community. A biblical commentary reminds us that the essential work of the priest is to help the people become aware of the divine presence in their midst. Sovereign rule is to have this priestly dimension.
To take another example, the prophets are filled with talk about justice. Like other prophets, Jeremiah laments that the community has failed to practice justice in behalf of the orphan and the needy (5:28). God, however, is altogether just (9:24) and acts justly both towards the nations and toward Judah (23:5; 33:15). Jeremiah calls the community to practice justice (21:12; 22:3). People today often hear the word justice in terms of western legal practice: a person or community gets what it deserves; however, this perspective distorts the Hebrew notion of justice. In the latter, justice is a relational term that summarizes how God wants a community to live. The just community is one of mutuality, encouragement, and support. It is a community in which all relate to God and to one another in the way that God intended from the very beginning. Indeed, the fullest picture of the just community in the Bible is Genesis 1, where all created entities function together in mutual support.
(c) Experience the text from the standpoint of its genre. One of the most important discoveries in recent biblical interpretation and homilietics is that the genre and context of a text cannot be separated. The genre (e.g., narrative, prophetic oracle, wisdom saying, and apocalyptic vision) is not simply the container of the meaning of the text but is an integral part of the meaning. In fact, the experience of receiving the text in its own genre is a part of the meaning of the text for the listener. Different genres affect the hearer in different ways. The preacher can ask, “How does this text touch the listener, given the ways in which its genre functions? How does the text attempt to move the heart, mind, and will of the community?”
Psalm 110 is a hymn. The reading of this psalm evokes the memory of singing it. In corporate singing, the whole self is stirred. The congregation associates the content of the hymn with the feelings stirred durings its singing. Of course, today’s scholars cannot reconstruct the tune of Psalm 110. (We surmise that the tune was much more like the folk tunes of Palestine today than like the Bach chorales of our worship.) However, today’s congregation can imagine what it might be like to sing this Psalm as the monarch is enthroned and thereby can experience the multimedia affirmation of the divine promises in this Psalm to the priestly-ruler and, thereby, to the community.
Daniel narrates the story of the three youths in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:1-30). The reader identifies with the youths, thereby experiencing their confrontation with Nebuchadnezzar, as well as their resolve to faithfulness, the intensity of the fire, and the divine providence in its midst. At the time of the Antiochene persecution (168-165 B.C.) this story offered the community a vision of how to understand its own life. The challenge of Antiochus and Hellenization confronted the community. If they choose to remain faithful to God, they will experience the fire of persecution. But they can count on God’s sustaining presence to lead them through the fire.
In addition to helping the preacher become more sensitive to the interpretation of the text, this step may provide clues to the development of the sermon (see Step 12 below).
5. Summarize the Vision of the Text
Using the data gathered in the previous text, the preacher summarizes (a) the surface vision of the text, and (b) the deeper vision of the text. The surface vision is the straightforward meaning of the text in its own worldview, whereas the deeper vision includes those aspects of the text that are expressed in the language and idiom of its worldview but which transcend that worldview. The latter is particularly important if the text is intellectually or morally problematic. The deeper vision may allow the text to speak a positive word to the contemporary congregation when its surface visions appears unpromising.
At the surface level, Psalm 110 inspires confidence in the monarch of Israel as divinely appointed. The text encourages the congregation to recognize that God will rule the community, in part through the rule of the sovereign. Hence, the Psalm has the further effect of encouraging the community to be loyal to the sovereign and to experience divine blessing through the royal administration.
At the deeper level, the text be-speaks the divine promise to be faithful to the community and to bless it. In this case, divine faithfulness is expressed in the mode of the human institution of the monarchy. In Israel, the ruler of the community represents the divine will for justice in all relationships (Ps. 72). Yet, while the text speaks specifically of the enthronement of the sovereign of an ancient nation, it speaks more deeply of God’s intention to use human institutions to bless communities with justice. It promises the divine presence to institutions that promote justice.
6. Analyze the Text Theologically
As we have noted, the various biblical trajectories and texts make specific witnesses that do not always cohere. Of this, Paul Hanson asks, “Does not pluralism consign communities of faith to a sea of relativism within which they must lay hold of whatever ideological flotsam the currents of time send their way?” Hanson responds that a Christian community can overcome the threat of infinite relativity if it has a transcendent theological vision within which to understand specific biblical paradigms and texts. This vision articulates the nature of God and of God’s purposes in the world in a comprehensive way.
7. Listen for Echoes of the Text in the New Testament and in Christian Life Beyond the Bible
The preacher listens for echoes of the text in the New Testament and in the subsequent life of the church. These may be quite direct, as when the New Testament explicitly cites the text. Or the echoes may be somewhat indirect, as when the New Testament alludes to a text. Further, the church sometimes uses a text, image, or theme from the Old Testament in Christian theology or liturgy.
By using a concordance, the preacher can often locate instances when the New Testament refers to the Old. The preacher identifies key words in the Old Testament passage, looks them up in the New Testament, and investigates the passages in which they occur to determine whether the New Testament actually makes use of the text from the Old. For instance, in Acts 18:18-23, Paul cuts his hair to keep a vow. By looking up hair and vow in the concordance, the preacher quickly discovers that Paul was enacting a nazirite vow described in Numbers 6:1-21. In the midst of a discussion of church discipline, Paul admonishes the Corinthians to clean out the old yeast because Christ, the paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. By looking up these terms, the minister discovers that they are drawn from Exodus 12, especially vss. 15, 3-8, and 21. The foundation of Paul’s ethical exhortation, then, is to understand Christ as the paschal lamb of the church.
The preacher will often get help from secondary sources, such as the commentaries or the Bible dictionaries. A preacher will often “feel” a connection between a text in the Old Testament and a text or theme in the New. Of course, the results of a potential intuitive discovery must be critically examined to determine their accuracy.
The preacher must soon make a key decision. If the text from the Old Testament has echoes in the New, should the New Testament be brought into the sermon? Usually the preacher can cite good reasons for responding to the question both affirmatively and negatively. But the preacher can responsibly answer that question only after understanding how the text is used in the New Testament.
If the text from the Old Testament does appear in the New, the preacher will want to notice how it is used in the New Testament.
(a) The Old Testament may help interpret the New. The language of the Old Testament may help the church name its experience and see how the traditions of the Old Testament are confirmed, interpreted, extended, and adapted for the church.
(b) The New Testament may interpret the text from the Old as a prophecy that is now fulfilled. The passage from the Old Testament expresses a promise that, according to the early church, was not made good until the coming of Christ. At other times, the prophecy offers interpretive categories that help the church explain Jesus Christ and its experience without diminishing the Old Testament or the life of the people who wrote it.
(c) The use of the text in the New Testament occasionally implies a relationship of contrast, even supersession, in the two testaments. In this case, the New Testament allegedly exposes the inferiority of the Old Testament and (or) of Jewish people, beliefs, practices, and institutions.
These categories sometimes overlap. The Gospel of John, for example, interprets Jesus and the Christian life in categories that are drawn almost exclusively from Judaism. Yet John is polemical towards many Jewish people and some of their convictions.
The connection of texts in a lectionary is a subcategory of this discussion. If the text from the Old Testament appears as one of the lectionary readings for the day, the minister must reflect on the relationship of the lection to the other lections for the day. Are the texts genuinely related to one another, either directly or indirectly? Or are they essentially unrelated? If the former, the preacher must decide whether to comment on this relationship either in connection with the scripture readings or in the sermon itself. If the latter, the preacher needs to be careful not to miseducate the congregation or to violate the integrity of the lections by leaving the impression that the texts are related when they are not.
Psalm 110 is cited more frequently in the New Testament than any other passage from the Old Testament. Each use of the psalm has its distinctive aspects. Most instances fall into the first category above (a. The Old Testament helps interpret the New). The psalm explains the relationship of God, Christ, and the church. Christ manifests God’s rule in the church much like the monarch manifests the divine sovereignty in Israel. One can see this, for instance, in Ephesians 1:20.
Mark 12:35-37 is an example of the second use above (b. The New Testament regards the Old as prophecy fulfilled). Mark depicts David as the author of Psalm 110. David, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, prophesied that the Christ would be superior to the son of David (i.e., Israel’s sovereign). The reader recognizes that Jesus fulfills the hope of the psalm.
Hebrews 7 is an example of the use of the psalm to show that Jesus and Christianity have superseded Judaism as in the third category above (c. A relationship of contrast between the testaments). Hebrews 7:15 uses Psalm 110:4 to show that the priesthood of Jesus is superior to the levitical priesthood.
Some texts from the Old Testament echo in the life of the church outside of the New Testament. The crossing of the Red Sea, for instance, is associated typologically with baptism in some theological traditions. The preacher might need to discuss such an association to help the congregation discern critically how the association is or is not germane to the sermon.
8. Establish the General Direction of the Sermon
The preacher now establishes the general direction of the sermon. This step has two important dimensions. One is determining the general theological content of the message. The other is determining whether to bring the New Testament (or some other component of Christian origin) into the homily.
The preacher asks, “How does this passage help the community perceive and respond to God’s presence and purposes?”
When a text from the Old Testament echoes in the New, there are no simple rules for determining whether to bring the echoes into the sermon. A preacher ordinarily ought to take into account the occasion of the sermon, the needs of the congregation, the prominence of the passage from the Old Testament in the New and in Christian consciousness, as well as the time needed to explain the relationship of the two passages. On a major Christian holy day, it may be important to carry forward the text into the New Testament. If the congregation suffers from a misconception about the passage, the preacher may feel the need to discuss this misconception in the light of the Christian reflection. The minister may want to bring material of Christian origin into the sermon when the passage from the Old Testament has become so closely associated with a passage in the New Testament or with themes or practices of the Christian life that the congregation uncritically thinks of the passage in Christian terms.
We recommend that preachers first explore the possibility of letting a passage from the Hebrew Bible speak on its own. When the preacher brings the New Testament or Christ or Christian doctrine or practice into the sermon, let it be for specific and significant reasons.
A preacher could easily think that Psalm 110 is irrelevant to the church in the United States today. We do not have a monarchy. However, the deeper vision of the text, as outlined in Step 5, suggests that a sermon on Psalm 110 might examine ways in which God seeks to express the holy will for justice in the community through human institutions and movements. God promises to be faithful to such initiatives. A sermon could encourage the congregation to identify such movements and to have enough confidence in the divine will to pursue them unrelentingly. If the preacher decides that it is important to bring the New Testament into the passage, the sermon might help the congregation discover how the church experiences such divine initiative and faithfulness through Christ.
9. Think Analogically
The hermeneutic of analogy rests on two foundation stones. First, it recognizes differences in paradigm, culture, and expression between the worlds of antiquity and today. But second, it also recognizes that at the deepest levels of human awareness, ancient and contemporary people are often very similar. Beneath differing paradigms, cultures, and styles of expression there is often common orientation to life.
The similar feelings and awarenesses may go by different names, but their feeling and effect are closely related. Therefore, the hermeneutic of analogy seeks to bridge the gap between ancient and contemporary communities by locating language and events in contemporary culture that function similarly to those in the text.
When preparing a sermon on Psalm 110, a minister might ask how the congregation experiences threats to the just life. What institutions or movements are seeking justice in today’s world? How can the congregation join them? How is God faithful to their initiatives? What does God promise to such a congregation? If the preacher concludes it is important to deal with Ephesians 1:20 in conjunction with Psalm 110:1, a leading question might be, “How do we experience the sovereignty of God (as expressed through Christ) over the principalities and powers of the world?”
10. Trace the Effect of the Preacher’s Conversation With the Text
Ministers might look again at their responses to Step 2. How has the preacher’s conversation with the text affected her or his understanding of it? At the least, the exegesis and subsequent reflection ought to have deepened the preacher’s perception. At the other end of the spectrum, the process of engaging the text may have brought the preacher to an understanding of the text that is 180 degrees from the preacher’s starting point. Will the congregation be enriched if the preacher brings these changes of perspective into the sermon?
11. State the Core of What the Preacher Wants to Say in a Single Indicative Sentence
One of the most revered axioms of homiletics is that the preacher should state the core idea of the sermon in a single sentence. This sentence goes by many names (e.g., proposition, big idea, focus statement, thesis, sermon in a sentence). Out of the exegesis, theological analysis, and hermeneutical reflection, the preacher distills a single idea that will be the centering point of the sermon. This sermon in a sentence summarizes the good news that will come from God through the sermon.
The summary sentence normally has the following characteristics.
(a) In grammatical terms, it is indicative in mood. It is the mood of present reality. For example: God loves you. The indicative contrasts with the imperative, the mood of command. For example: you should love God. The priority of the indicative in the construction of the sermon mirrors theological reality. God first acts in our behalf. God’s action is indicative. We then respond to the divine initiative. Of course, the preacher might come upon situations that call for a sermon whose dominant note is the imperative, but even then the preacher should make clear the content of the indicative on which the imperative is based.
(b) The sentence should be as simple and uncomplicated as possible. The sermon tends to become more complicated, and even convoluted, as this sentence becomes more complex.
(c) God is ordinarily the subject of the sermon in a sentence since the sermon is primarily news from and about God.
(d) The verb is normally an activity of God in behalf of the community.
(e) The predicate is often a result of the actions of God. The predicate sometimes includes an indication of the congregation’s response to God.
A possible sermon in a sentence for a message on Psalm 110 is: God is acting to bring justice to our community by means of [specific circumstances or people that the preacher can name].
The sermon could relate the monarchy to the quest for justice in the community. The sermon might help the congregation recognize impulses toward justice in its own world that function similarly to the monarchy in antiquity. How might the congregation experience these impulses as demonstrations of divine faithfulness?
12. Select a Form and Movement for the Sermon
The preacher will frequently find it useful to reflect consciously on possible structures and movements for the sermon. Such reflection allows the preacher to shape the sermon so that it has the best chance to be received positively by the listeners. For example, if the congregation is likely resistant to the direction of the homily, the preacher may want to avoid antagonizing them at the very beginning of the sermon with a bald statement of the main idea of the sermon. The preacher may want to shape the sermon so that the congregation eases into the subject and, thereby, has a greater chance of being receptive to it.
Because sermon form is one of the most widely discussed aspects of preaching today, we do not dwell on it here. However, we call attention to an approach to preaching that is especially promising for sermons on the Hebrews Scriptures. Recent homiletics emphasizes the possibility of letting the literary genre and function of the text suggest the design of the sermon. The preacher notices how the text communicates its genre. The preacher designs the sermon to function similarly. Sometimes the text can actually provide a structure for the sermon. For instance, this is often true of narratives. The story of Jacob’s encounter with God at the Jabbok (Gen. 32:1-32) unfolds in a series of scenes that could easily become a series of subunits in the sermon. Scene by scene, the preacher might make analogies with the contemporary setting. The experience of hearing the sermon then becomes sequentially similar to that of hearing the text.
At other times, the function of the text may suggest an approach to the sermon. Psalm 110 seeks to awaken the awareness of the congregation to the divine will for justice and to God’s trustworthiness in the search for justice. The experience of singing the psalm (or of hearing it) kindles such awareness and feeling. How can the preacher use ideas and images in the sermon to kindle similar ideas and feelings?
A step-by-step approach to the preparation of the sermon cannot guarantee that a preacher will engage a text at a significant level. Indeed, a preacher’s most stunning insights sometimes seem to come out of the blue. And the repetition of a single pattern of engaging the text, week after week, can have a narcotic effect on preacher and congregation. Even the most disciplined exegesis cannot expose all the riches of a single text in the Hebrew Bible in a given week. But an exegetical pattern can often help carry the preacher’s imagination across the occasional homiletical wasteland. It can help intensify those infrequent moments on the exegetical mountaintop when the preacher can see the promised land.
Excerpted from Holy Roots, Holy Branches by Ronald Allen and John Holbert. Copyright 1995 by Abingdon Press. Holy Roots, Holy Branches can be purchased for $14.95 by calling 1-800-672-1789 and asking for ISBN 074703.
When a family buys a VCR, they follow the owner’s manual for step by step directions in order to operate it. But, after using it for several weeks, they operate the VCR by second nature.