Last week, we began a series on the "sermon moment" - the time of preaching in our worship service. The first installment covered what the preacher must do. Today, we'll look at how the preacher goes about his task.
Anyone who has ever read from the bible knows that there is lot you could say about any passage of scripture. There are contexts to consider, grammatical features to examine, historical backgrounds to understand, the biography of the bible book's author, the over-arching theme of the whole bible, the main idea of the text itself, and all the imaginable ways one might apply the meaning in their own life... and that's just some of what could be said. The preacher's job, then, is not so much figuring out what things can be said, but figuring out what things should be said.
Last week, I wrote about expository preaching: putting the truth of a text on display. Let's imagine, for a moment, that the truth of the text is a precious stone. To show the stone, we could simply place it on a shelf, or maybe under a glass. But if we want to appreciate the stone's value more fully, we have to find a way to view it from different angles, to see it against different backgrounds. We would never change the stone, but we could see its worth more completely by examining it in different ways. Similarly, the preacher displays the truth of God's Word, turning it one way and another, so that everyone has the opportunity to experience its full worth and weight.
So, what tools can the preacher use to better display the truth of God's Word? There are many, and the scholars and students of preaching have different ways to describe and categorize them. Here are a few that are simple and easy to remember.
1. Explanation. In any sermon, there should be some explanation of the text. Hearers need to know what the text means. Obviously, some texts will require more explanation than others. Explanation is necessary, but doesn't make a complete sermon. If there is too much explanation, there may not be time -or the listeners may be too worn out- for much else. A sermon isn't just a lecture, so the preacher should try to use other tools to compliment his use of explanation.
2. Illustration. The use of stories, quotes, media, object lessons, etc., can all be used to illustrate the points or main truth of a sermon. Illustration provides a more creative or engaging way to think about a particular truth. It also helps the listener maintain interest. But preachers and listeners alike should be careful: listeners sometimes remember illustrations without remembering the meaning behind them. (As you listen, think of an illustration as a side-dish at a good meal. It adds flavor, but it isn't the main course. You are there to be fed, not entertained. Nourished, not impressed.)
3. Application. Every sermon must include application. Application takes the truth of the bible passage to the life of the listener. Often, there are dozens of potential applications. Application causes a change in the hearer's heart that overflows into his or her thinking, decision-making, and day-to-day living. The preacher can't leave the meaning of the passage in its own time; It has to live and work in our time and culture.
4. Compelling. A sermon is not a presentation of facts given by a neutral presenter, who doesn't care what decision hearers might make. A sermon is an argument! The preacher has "seen and savored" wonder and glory in the scripture - and he wants his hearers to see it and savor it too. The sermon is also tied to the greater narrative of the whole bible- the gospel. The gospel is the central, redemptive story that connects all the pages of scripture and all of history together. The preacher desperately wants his hearers to receive the truth of the sermon, and he desperately wants them to believe the gospel.
As you begin to recognize some of the "tools" used in preaching, I hope you will grow in your ability to listen and apply the truth of God's Word for yourself. Next week, we'll be looking at that very idea: that the hearer is the one best equipped to apply the truth of God's Word in his or her own life.