Many sermons suffer from just being stupid.
The Scriptures assure us that the Word of God will not return void. This assurance is given, in part, because many preachers will do their best to jack up a sermon. Think I’m being harsh? I’m really not.
While driving through Ft. Worth trying to find decent sports talk on the radio (which I’m confident doesn’t exist in DFW), I stumbled upon a radio preacher. Never in my life have I heard such a stream of disjointed and dislocated preaching. I cannot relay to you what he was talking about. It was a flow of platitudes, half-true conjectures, and dribble. I can’t imagine how it ended up on the radio. What’s more, all of us have known someone who stood before a Christian audience somewhere with the hope of letting “the Spirit speak.” That always sounds good, but as someone who trusts the Holy Spirit, I am shocked frequently by how incoherent the Spirit is.
Of course, it wasn’t the Spirit’s fault that the homily was so poorly structured, argued, and delivered. It was the preacher’s fault. Simply put: He didn’t do his homework.
It may not sound spiritual to some, but good preaching requires analysis; it requires study! That’s not to dislocate the role of the Spirit, but it is to say that the best preachers you know get away, study, ponder, and write. There is an unfounded fear that study will produce academic and heady sermons. This is ridiculous. While there are some churches that are simply too heady for the common church-goer, the greater danger is the lack of study. I have seen this up close. A church that dismisses education, study, learning, and growth will not only fail The Great Commission, they will be an extremely immature fellowship. Discipleship cannot be done apart from careful analysis of the Biblical text. Therefore, when preparing to preach, the preacher needs to commit himself to the analytical context before writing the sermon.
1. Literary Context: The text being preached must be seen in it’s larger context. This alone will allow the sermon to flow more naturally from its narrative and you’ll be less likely to shove it into bullet-points. Remember: Stories don’t come in points! Does the text state or develop a fundamental theme or does it stem from one? What is the fundamental storyline the author is developing? What kind of literature is it? Epistle? Apocalyptic? Then, look for text “markers” which indicate a special emphasis (e.g. in the epistles: “therefore,” “finally,”I urge you,”. In the gospels, recurring themes, stories which tell similar tales, contrasting stories, teaching stories).
2. Historical Context: What can you determine about the historical context of the book from the book itself. What historical circumstances can be explicitly determined from the book concerning the author, audience, and the reason for writing? What can be determined implicitly from the book based on repeated instructions, recurring themes, etc.? Remember, narrative literature has a historical context in the day it was written. What were the needs of the listeners which caused the authors (inspired by God) to weave the stories as they did?
3. Theological Context. What does the text say about God (His nature, actions, promises) What does the text tell us about God as Father? As Son? As Holy Spirit? What does the text say about us as humans? What does it tell us about the nature of discipleship, of the church, and our relationship with God?
Only after you’ve done your contextual homework can you begin to make decisions about what to say in your sermon. These contexts keep you rooted in the text and not in your opinions about what people “should” hear. The glorious thing about preaching is that you’re not working from a blank script, the drama and journey are already there. You just need to embrace the story.
How do these analytical contexts sit with you? Leave a comment in the “comments” section and let us know.