Sometimes a minister, when preparing his sermon, feels impelled to say everything he has in the depths of his heart; at other times he may feel embarrassed because he is not very sure what special message he has to give. Neither of these situations need be taken too seriously; he ought to know that what he has to say will be given to him. He should therefore try to control, to some extent, what comes into his mind and to listen, or rather allow himself to be comforted by Him who gives what he demands. Are there not also the Old and New Testaments which still have something to say?
1. The Choice of a Text
The preacher, then, has the Scriptures before him, and two things have to be considered : what has to be done and what he has no right to do. Whenever one chooses a text a decision has to be made : whether to obey or to disobey the Word, that is, God himself. Disobedience consists in imagining that it is possible to approach Scripture with full freedom to exercise one's own unfettered powers. If, on the other hand, one puts oneself at God's disposal, that obedience will guide one's choice.
There can be no thought of arbitrarily laying hold of Scripture in order to find in it a text which will suit oneself, which seems appropriate to what one wishes to say. The sacred text is not to be treated according to our own desires; it must be in command; it is above us and we are its servants. In order to avoid going astray in this way, the following points should be kept in mind
(1) Do not choose too short a text, for the danger just described will be greater than if a whole section of a book is being dealt with. For example, it is not advisable to detach from their contexts the first Beatitude or I John 4.16; such texts may tempt the preacher to use them as material on which to exercise his own eloquence. If preaching is essentially exposition of the Bible, it will be well to avoid short texts.
(2) Beware of passages which are considered easy and are frequently quoted. Thus, when commemorating the Reformation, do not arbitrarily distort the meaning of Gal. 5.1; on All Souls' Day, do not give to John 11.3 and 16 a different significance from that which the context requires. The illuminating power of a biblical phrase is always greater in the context in which God has placed it than in discourses, however beautiful and arresting, which do violence to the Word of God.
(3) Do not indulge in allegory; exercising one's talents on the Word hinders it from sounding out clearly. One should also beware of intruding one's own individuality or enlarging on one's personal experience by using illustrations or parables drawn from events in one's own life.
(4) Preaching should not be directed to a utilitarian purpose; do not use Psalm 96 to encourage better singing or as a eulogy of music !
(5) In order that the same passages of Scripture should not recur too frequently in his sermons, a preacher would do well to keep to a plan based on the Church's year, or deliver a course of sermons on one book. It may happen, as a result of his repeated contacts with the Scriptures, that certain passages impress the preacher with the force of a command. It goes without saying that a minister consults his Bible on other occasions as well as when he is preparing a sermon.
(6) It is not possible, in one sermon, to discourse on a particular subject (thematic preaching) and to expound a passage of Scripture (homiletic). Within the Church the preacher is not required to discuss Christian principles or similar topics; what needs to be heard is what God has to say to the Church, which constitutes its foundation and its building up. If an evangelistic mission is planned in order to draw into the Church those who are still outside, we should not begin by evading the special service which has been laid upon us.
(7) Avoid drawing special attention to particular events or commemorations. Anything which the congregation could profitably take note of will find an echo in the sermon; otherwise the matter can be passed over in silence. But the decision does not rest with the preacher; it will depend on what the Word of God requires of him. The Scriptures must occupy a clearly defined place in the preacher's mind and to ensure this he must submit himself to a rigorous discipline; he must be attentive only to the Word, not to what the public or the congregation or his own heart desires to hear.
2. The Receptive Attitude
The term 'receptive' is the opposite of `spontaneous'. In other words, it signifies being passive, or being acted on as object, as opposed to being active, or acting as subject (these last two terms, should, however, always be used with caution). The point is to hear what the text has to say. One may begin quite simply by reading it and pondering it word by word; here lies the content of the sermon. But the text must be read in the original, for any translation is a secondary source and, in fact, a commentary.
At the outset, therefore, we are confronted with the important question of language. It is not suggested that Hebrew and Greek possess some special quality which made them fit to be used by the Holy Spirit as the vehicle of the Word of God. Nevertheless Revelation is conveyed in these languages and it is necessary therefore to work with these documents. From listening to a sermon it is possible to tell whether or not the preacher has used the original text, for in the original certain relations and connexions are to be found which are not apparent in a translation.
After this, different versions may be consulted. The preacher should not read his own translation to the congregation, but in the course of his sermon he might well draw attention to corrections and shades of meaning.
After a careful reading of the passage, the question of its content has to be considered. First the context in which it occurs must be given its full weight, for no Biblical passage is an isolated and detached piece of writing; it is set in a specific context, it is part of a whole. Many sermons would have quite a different bearing if what precedes and follows the particular passage had been duly taken into account.
Next comes the business of analysis. Certain points are to be noticed : the intention of the passage, its separate parts, the order in which the ideas occur; also the direction of its development; only at this point should commentaries be consulted. A commentary differs from a translation in that the several sections of the passage are subjected to detailed study. There are, generally speaking, two types of commentary: those dating from the end of the eighteenth century to the present day and those going back to an earlier date.
The former are characterized by their use of the results of historico-critical research, and these ought to be read. Historical criticism has led to a better understanding of the Scriptures than was possible in the past, for those situations which show the historical and secular aspects of the Bible have also something to teach us. Naturally this method raises certain problems which did not trouble the earlier commentators. However, in course of time historical criticism has assumed exaggerated importance, so that there is a tendency to identify the real meaning of Scripture with its historical significance. This attitude has in fact become a dogma, mainly held outside the Church, according to which man is the only maker of his world and of everything in it, including religion. Obviously, such a dogma provides no basis for a sermon. If it were valid the canonical rule binding us to the Bible would have no meaning, for outside the Bible there is a vast literature on this aspect of existence. But Holy Scripture is the only witness to God's revelation, the unique channel for the communication of the Word of God.
Nevertheless it is 'necessary to take account of those commentaries which derive from historical research. The fact that, in recent times, attention has been focused more particularly on the human side of the Bible, is no reason for ignoring that aspect; it should be remembered that Revelation is the Word made flesh and, by that token, it has become an event in history.
But then, how far does the human speech represent the Word of God? To what extent do the words of the Bible lead us, beyond their human authors, to 'Emmanuel' ? No critical problem can absolve the student from asking himself this question and considering it seriously. The Word was indeed made flesh, but it is still the Word : this is the christological dogma of the Bible. The Bible represents men as constrained and subjugated by a truth which has laidhold of them; they speak of the Revelation they have received, and turn their eyes towards the Revelation which is to come. This is something which modem commentaries do not and cannot explain. Recourse must then be had to the earlier commentators (to whom the moderns often show themselves inferior in many ways), to the exegetical studies of Calvin and Luther and-with some reserve on account of Platonic influence-to those of Saint Augustine. Certain collections of sermons also, those of Calvin for example, are excellent expositions of Scripture.
Finally, some practical points may be mentioned. If, in exceptional circumstances, there is not sufficient time for such thorough preparation, the preacher should at least study the text in the original and in a good version; but this will certainly be a very rare occurrence. For those who -unlike the Church of Rome-possess this treasure-the Word-the preparation of his sermon will be the minister's prime duty.
If a discourse tends towards a too personal interpretation, the use of a commentary becomes absolutely necessary. Salutary warnings against a similar error are to be found in Scripture itself.
What should be the preacher's attitude towards a doubtful text? In the Church he is called to hear the Word of God; the verdict of the historian, therefore, does not in itself forbid the use of a text.
3. The Direction of the Text
When all the preliminary work already described has been done, the Bible is seen to be at once an historical book and the book of the Church. As an historical book it is a monument (monumentum-that which recalls the past) revealing something of the history of man's religious experience. This is, in fact, the aspect which modern commentators have thrown into relief. But there is much more in this book. For the preacher-as for everyone who reads the Bible as it ought to be read-it is, besides a monument referring to the past, a document which has a meaning for the present day. It tells of a decisive action performed once for all in the past but still relevant to us in our times; that is why the Bible is read today.
The Bible is the only record of Revelation, but the record is sufficient, and for this reason it is called Holy Scripture, the Word of God given to men. If it is recognized that this book is indeed the testimony of the Word of God, it may seem otiose to discuss subjects and theses in connexion with preaching; there can be no subject or thesis other than the Revelation of God, Jesus Christ.
It should, however, be remembered that what is presented in the biblical writings is not the Revelation itself but the witness to the Revelation, and this is expressed in human terms; it is given by prophets and apostles who spoke, not on their own authority but because they were constrained to do so (as Paul says), because they could not do otherwise (as the prophets say). They uttered their testimony as well as they could, conscious of their responsibility to the men to whom they spoke. The nature of the testimony is clearly shown in John 1.7-8.' John the Baptist is not that light but he bears witness to it : 'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.'
The preacher's task is to cause the testimony presented in the text to be heard; his preaching is good if it brings to life in this present age the testimony of the prophets and apostles. He is not required to discourse about well-known truths such as the excellence of faith, God and one's country or other subjects of that sort; he is required to recall that divine truth, constantly despised by men, and to do so with hope and prayer. In preaching he must always have in mind the thought that the truth which lies behind the words of the Bible is unknown to men; but that truth wills to be manifested, it must absolutely be known. But the preacher must not torture himself; he only has to strive, as the prophets and apostles strove, to say as best he may what they heard.
Three observations must be made on following the direction of the text
(1) It has been pointed out that the Bible is both a monument and a document. The document may have to be reconstituted, but it is not always necessary to restore the monument. Purely historical material is relevant only in so far as it forms part of the testimony. In preaching it is necessary to follow the direction of the text and to relate it to our own times; the text shows where the road leads, but we have to walk on it at the present day.
(2) The preacher should be on his guard against always falling back on the same sort of plan, for instance, repeating in every sermon; 'Man is a sinner but Christ intervenes; man must mend his ways.' Scripture abounds in riches and offers an infinite variety of approaches. Bear this in mind and there will be something new to say every Sunday; and this will be a sign of the new beginning which we are undertaking with God, since he has been pleased to begin with us.
(3) It is necessary once again to issue a warning against an arbitrary and too individual interpretation of Scripture. The best means of avoiding this is to keep constantly and closely in touch with the dogmatic teaching of the Church. Dogmas are like beacons and signposts marking the right direction. It is not the preacher's task to offer an exposition of dogmas and display his theological knowledge, but rather to use them as his guides.
4. The Application of the Text
Having considered the direction followed by the witness of the biblical authors, let us now turn our attention to the way in which this path may be trodden in our day, in the situation in which the congregation is now placed. These are the people to whom the preacher's words must be addressed and who need continually to hear the Word afresh. They are baptized into the Church and an appeal must be made to the faith which is grounded in baptism. Those to whom the preacher speaks have this in common nothing is more certain than the fact they they will die.
But in order that the preacher may speak to them in a way that they will understand, he must know them as individuals; he must be acquainted with the conditions which shape their lives, with their capacities, and their potentialities for good and evil. Only so will he find the means to touch their hearts so that the Word may have significance for them.
It is useless to worry oneself about the question of how a man can ever speak to another in such a way that his words evoke faith in the hearer. One should, rather, make every effort to ensure that one's sermon is not simply a monologue, magnificent perhaps, but not necessarily helpful to the congregation. Those to whom he is going to speak must constantly be present in the mind of the preacher while he is preparing his sermon. What he knows about them will suggest unexpected ideas and associations which will be with him as he studies his text and will provide the element of actuality, the application of his text to the contemporary situation. The results of his theological studies provide a solid foundation; the element of actuality will enable him to construct a Christian discourse.
In order to make this somewhat clearer, let us consider the following proposition : in preaching, explanation is related to application as subject to predicate. The direction or guiding principle of a sermon is determined by and in the Church as it is at this present moment. It is addressed, therefore, not to humanity in the abstract but to the living, breathing man of today, whether within the Church or still outside it. In speaking of the man of today who is there to hear the Word, the preacher as well as the hearer is included. Thus preaching cannot be a monologue which a speaker delivers concerning himself and his own sin, for then it would no longer be possible to speak of the Church as the Communion of Saints.
There is, however, another danger which perhaps is more to be feared because it is easier to fall into : the preacher may address the congregation from a standpoint outside it instead of making himself one with it. He ought to know what his real position is; undoubtedly he has a special function, but that function is entrusted to the Church, not to him personally. He has no right to regard himself as set on high because of his knowledge of theology, so that he may stoop down to the level of his poor people. He must realize that he himself continually needs to hear the Word afresh. The recognition of this situation is the necessary condition for achieving a sound application which will also be an explanation.
When, in preparing a sermon, an effort is made to follow faithfully the direction of the text, a serious difficulty presents itself in regard to the application : how to be faithful to the text and also true to life in this present age. Woe to the minister who does not see that the Word has a real significance for the men of today ! But that man is even more to blame who recognizes what the Bible has to say to modern man, but is afraid of causing scandal and thereby betrays his calling.
The Word confronts modern man, to disturb and attack him in order to lead him into the peace of God. This Word must never be distorted or obstructed by laziness or disobedience. The preacher, therefore, must have the courage to preach as he ought, courage that does not flinch from a direct attack and is unmoved by the consequences which may result from his obedience. If this courage is his, the Word of the whole of Scripture will bear the responsibility.
To keep close to life and remain close to the text - this difficulty, for which there is no solution, should be a warning to all. In thematic preaching, where it is so easy to make a casual idea the centre of one's discourse, the preacher is specially prone to do violence to the text in attempting to get closer to actual life. It is only too easy to mistake those beautiful thoughts so dear to our self-esteem for the thoughts of the text, which are generally much less comfortable and less suited to the fashion of the day. It is, therefore, necessary to test most thoroughly the ideas about the contemporary situation which crowd into our minds, and to sift them by reference to our text. This may force us to discard some of our finest thoughts because the tenor of the text demands it. There is no need to be distressed because a sermon may have to go forward with some broken limbs; it will not necessarily be slipshod or in adequate. This is where real courage is displayed before men and, at the same time, humility before the Word-that true humility which is fitting where Holy Scripture is concerned, and which alone is able to pronounce a discourse which can receive God's blessing. Let us then apply ourselves to our text; the true exegete will always find in it fresh depths and new mysteries; like a child in a marvellous garden, he will be filled with wonder. But let him not pose as God's advocate !
Be faithful to the text and faithful to life. It is always better to keep too close to the text than to adhere too closely to one subject or dwell too long on it. Be bold and yet humble; great courage is always needed, and also great humility, but let the accent be on humility so that love of God may be fulfilled in love of one's neighbour.
5. Composing the Sermon
There are a number of rules which should be observed in composing a sermon. First, a sermon should be written; this is so important that it is necessary to give reasons for it. Certainly the preacher will be giving an address, but whether or not he has the necessary capacity for doing so, he should not simply wait for the Holy Spirit, or any other spirit, to inspire him at the moment of speaking. A sermon must be prepared and drafted word by word. It is certainly true in this instance that an account will have to be given for every idle word. Preaching is not an art in which some are able to improvise while others have to write everything out; it is the central action of evangelical worship, in close association with the sacrament. Only a sermon in which every word can be justified may be said to be a sacramental action. The responsibility which attaches to every word he utters, is a part of the sanctification of the minister. This rule holds for every preacher and not only for the young. Some ministers have acquired such facility in preaching that they feel able to dispense with this discipline, but their sermons are not Christian discourses. A sermon should not be merely a chatty talk, obviously delivered without preparation.
Is an introduction necessary? Not unless it is a biblical introduction; any other kind is to be ruled out for several reasons, two of which may be noted
(1) Why do we go to church? To hear the Word of God thus the successive acts of worship are sufficient introduction to the sermon - which is their culmination. A few opening words will suffice : any other sort of introduction is waste of time - and a sermon should not be too long. But some sermons are too short, and in their defence it is urged that brevity is a virtue. This may be true for any other sort of discourse, but not for preaching, which must make room for the Word of God and the Word will regulate the length of the sermon; obviously mere length is not a sign of faithfulness; nevertheless it must not be forgotten that the sermon is included in the worship offered to God and that worship is the most important part of Sunday. One does not give glory to God with an eye on the clock.
(2) Only too often an introduction diverts the thoughts from the Word of God. People come to church with all kinds of preoccupations in their minds, and then the minister wastes words on what is not the real subject of his discourse. From the outset he misses his mark, for the first ten minutes are of prime importance in indicating what the sermon is to be.
If, however, there must be an introduction, how is it to be done?
(a) A favourite point of departure is to speak about the contemporary situation, towards which the minister may take a favourable or a negative attitude. But the audience probably knows more about this than the speaker, and it has no bearing on the sermon.
(b) Or perhaps one may begin by quoting a great man; but what significance has this man's name in the context of prayer and reading? The only result is to turn the congregation's thinking into another direction. The Word of the Bible cannot gain credit from that of a man, however notable. This is unworthy.
(c) The introduction may be negative, but this procedure is bad. An account of the sins and the errors of the world is not a good way to begin a sermon. It may offer a wide horizon but it is not legitimate to deluge a Christian community, or one on the way to becoming Christian, with such an outburst of bitterness at the very start. Of the same sort is the scheme which begins by abusing the old Adam which persists in man in order to counter it with a resounding `But God ..: To begin by describing man's corruption may easily lead to thematic preaching and the Bible will remain in the background.
(d) Sometimes a preacher will make use, by way of opening remarks, of a piece of biblical theology or an introduction to the Old or the New Testament. This is out of place as a separate section of the sermon, but may well fit into the exposition of the text.
An attempt is sometimes made to justify an introductory section on theological grounds. The starting point is the notion that there is in man's nature something that responds to the Word of God and disposes him to hear it. This might indeed have been true of Adam in Paradise ! Such a point of view would be conceivable in the structure of Roman theology. But according to the Reformers' understanding f the Bible, there are no such human potentialities the relationship between man and God is effected from on high by a divine miracle. Man is not naturally disposed to hear the Word of God : we are children of wrath (Eph. 2.3).
We appeal to men on the grounds that they are called to baptism in Christ. They possess nothing except the promise; but, because of the promise, human nature need not be regarded from a purely negative point of view; here is the real significance of John 3.16. We believe in the miracle wrought by God in us, and by which a relationship between ourselves and God is brought into being. It is unthinkable that a man should attempt to speak of this, but nevertheless this is what he is called to do. But he has only to play the part of a messenger who has a message to deliver; he must not try to build a stair up which to climb; he does not have to ascend the heights, for, in truth, what happens is that something comes down from on high to us, but only if, from the start, it is the Bible that speaks.
A sermon is not made up of separate parts arbitrarily arranged in relation to the text; it is a whole. If it is considered as body or corpus, then necessarily any premeditated arrangement is excluded. In a thematic discourse it is logical to distinguish the several parts, but this is not how the preacher of the Gospel proceeds. He is guided by the text, not by a topic. Thus the Law will not be separated from the Gospel; neither will faith be discussed first from a theoretical and then from a practical point of view. Unity arises from the text itself if its own rhythm be followed and its proportions observed. Thus, it is necessary to proceed verse by verse, though it may be that not all the verses are of the same quality and that there are variations of emphasis in the text. However that may be, the essential content of the text must govern the development. For example, in John 1.43-52 the discourse will turn on verses 47-48: Christ recognizes the predestined Nathanael; all the rest is directed towards this central point.
There is, therefore, no need to consider what has to be said firstly, secondly, and thirdly, Take note of what is said, for it is unique : it is the Word of God and it owes nothing to man's ingenuity; he can only bear witness to it.
A sermon does not require a set conclusion; it comes to an end when it reaches the end of its text. If a conclusion is necessary to sum up what has been said, then the preacher has missed the mark. Neither should the application form the conclusion, for then the challenge will have been made too late. Quoting parts of the canticles in conclusion, or interpolating them arbitrarily in the body of the discourse, should be avoided. It is tempting, and dangerous, to conclude with a great Alleluia in the guise of a final exhortation. This may happen, but it cannot be an habitual method.
Finally the last word : amen is a consolation to us in our weakness. Because we believe that the Word of God is truth, we have tried to bear witness to it. This amen gives us peace and calls us to work, with confidence, on our next sermon.
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