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preaching article The Hardest Part of a Sermon

The Hardest Part of a Sermon

based on 11 ratings
Jul 5, 2013

“Is there a word from God?” (Jeremiah 37:17)

Anyone can “get up a sermon.”

When you are first beginning in the ministry, the “art”—if you want to call it that—of finding, creating and building sermons seems mysterious and difficult.  In time, however, you work out the formula for sermons and your life becomes less stressful, sermon-building easier.

“What is the formula for sermons?” someone asks.

There’s no one formula, but each preacher works out his own according to his own style.

It goes something like this…

Take a random verse of scripture: “Some of the scribes answered and said, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.'” (Luke 20:29) Can we build a sermon on that?  You bet. Nothing to it, if all we want is a sermon.

Start with the scribes. They are scriptural authorities, experts on the law as a result of their history of copying manuscripts for use by individuals and congregations. Because they had handwritten everything the Scriptures had to say, people came asking what the Word says about this or that. If anyone knew, they would. So, when the scribes heard Jesus teaching, they recognized He was right on target with His teaching, and they said so. So, we have our first point: The testimony of the scribes.

Then there is the matter of what our Lord was saying to them that evoked this compliment. Jesus is addressing the matter of the resurrection to the Sadducees, a religious group that took only the first five books of the Old Testament as their Bible and were smugly convinced that no teachings, nada, zero, about Heaven and hell were to be found there. Jesus gave them two things: a teaching right out of Heaven itself for which there were no scriptures and He alone was the only Source, and an insight from their own Scriptures that was so perfect even the scribes applauded Him. So, second point, we have Truth from the Lord.

And finally, because every sermon needs at least three points, we can ask, “What more needs to be done?” because the very next verse says, “They did not have courage to ask Him anything else.”  So perhaps the third point could be: The courage to go forward, that is, to act on what He has said.

That was strictly a randomly selected verse. And with a few more hours of study, prayer and reflection, we could end up with a fairly decent sermon.

If that’s all we’re looking for.

Or, here’s another very quick take on the verse right before that one, Luke 20:38. “Now, He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to Him.” Three possibilities are: 1) a common misconception—the dead are dead and that’s that; 2) a scriptural revelation—God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and 3) an incredible interpretation—He is not the God of the dead but of the living.

It’s simple once you get the hang of it.

However…

Is that the Word from God your congregation needs to hear and that you need to deliver?

Just because it’s from Scripture does not mean it’s God’s word for the moment.

That, incidentally, is the problem I personally have with preachers deciding to “preach through the Bible.” It assumes that any sermon you bring from any text is God’s Word for your flock for that Sunday. And that, I venture to say, my friend, is sheer foolishness.

Spending years preaching verse-by-verse through the entire Bible will keep you in the Old Testament far longer than you will want to stay. You will struggle to find pegs on which to hang the gospel. You will be tempted to strain at metaphors and types and images and to spiritualize stories in order to bring in Jesus. And—strictly my opinion here, now—you will forever burn your people out on a large portion of Holy Scriptures. Some of those stories and prophecies and teachings they will never want to see again because you simply could not handle them.

Don’t be insulted, please. It’s a rare preacher who can preach an interesting sermon from certain chapters in Leviticus or Judges or Isaiah. Put another way, not all preachers can preach everything in the Word. Some of it requires far more in-depth study and mental skills than most of us have.

Having gone out on a limb here in urging preachers not to “preach through the Bible” as though each part’s preaching values were equal to all other parts, I might as well go the rest of the way…

The reason many preachers decide to preach through the entire Bible on a verse-by-verse basis is strictly ego. They want to say they have done it. They want to stand before a gathering of other preachers and orate about the power of God’s Word and announce that they themselves spent a full five years (or more!) preaching through the Word, and that God blessed their church in unusual ways as a result. Personally, I’d want to get the testimony of some of his deacons as to the truth of the last statement.

I cannot find anywhere in Scripture where we are commanded to preach everything else in Scripture. We certainly do not see Paul preaching Esther or Song of Solomon. There is no indication Peter or Timothy ever preached through some of the more obscure Old Testament books.

Do not read something into this not intended. I believe all the Bible is inspired of God and thus profitable, as Paul told Timothy (II Timothy 3:16-17).  But inspired not in the same way or for the same purposes.

Let the Holy Spirit lead you. If He says to preach verse-by-verse through the Bible and He will make it fit the needs of your people, go for it! But don’t do it to prove a point, to satisfy some urge within you or to show up a critic.

Rather than try to turn your Bible into a magical one-size-fits-all book of sermons, pastor, try seeking out God’s message for your people one day at a time.

1. Ask the Lord. “What do you want me to preach on the 21st of the month, Father?” Or, one that I have prayed: “Lord, you have heard every Mother’s Day sermon ever preached, and inspired most of them. Show me what you would have me to say to my people on that day.”

2. Seek His will. Read Scripture with your heart tuned to getting His answer. Read the newspaper, listen to the news, observe goings-on around you every day alert to the messages the Lord is sending your way. Stay logged on to Him.

3. Humble yourself. You may know the original languages, you may have incredible oratorical gifts and you may be gifted at eliciting responses from your people. But the question is not can you do this without Him, but “What does the Father wish to say to His children?”

4. Wait on Him. To get the answer, you might need to quiet your spirit and shut down your systems and be still before Him. Make up your mind you are through preaching “nice little sermons you carved out of Scripture all by yourself,” and from now on you are going to preach only the messages God gives you. And if you cannot tell the difference, your problems are bigger than we can address here.

5. Be willing to adapt. God is a lot more skilled at sermon-building and interest-creating than we preachers will ever be. He is the Creative God. So, once you know the text and the basic message, ask Him how He wants it preached. And once again…

Be willing to wait before Him.

The problems with this kind of sermon-building (and the reason some preachers do not take this route) are numerous…

It takes time. You cannot start this conversation with the Lord on Friday night before you are to preach it on Sunday. (The problem there is not God’s; it’s ours. It takes us time to think through these matters, to process what He says, to get our own preconceived ideas out of the way, to listen to the Spirit, and then to rehearse the preaching of this message repeatedly until we can do it well and faithfully.)

A popular preacher once told a large gathering of us pastors, “We hear of preachers who spend an hour in preparation for every minute they spend in the pulpit. Not me! Give me a Bible and a notebook, lock me in a room for two hours, and I will have you a sermon!” Naturally, he received a chorus of amens for that bit of foolishness.

All that preacher did was to say he had mastered the art of sermon-building. But God does not give His specific messages for specific congregations to preachers with a formula.

The Lord gives His message to those who seek Him, who wait upon Him, who are willing to do His will.

About the lazy prophets of Jeremiah’s day, God said, “If they had stood in my council, then they (could) have announced my words to my people, and would have turned them back from their evil way and from the evil of their deeds” (Jeremiah 23:22).

Getting specific direction from the Lord for a message may mean a little more work, requires a little more humility and prayer and study, and takes a little more time than “two hours with a Bible and a notebook,” but the end result is far more wonderful, more inspiring and more fruitful.

You end up with the kind of fruit that lasts (see John 15:16).

Finally, let’s note the difference in a “sermon” and a message from God…

They may look and sound just alike. In fact, the average layman will not know the difference. (Pray that your pastor search committee can!) Both celebrate the Word of God and may honor the Lord Jesus and be used of God. But one is special…

1. It has an edge to it.

2. It connects with people at their deepest level.

3. It provides an intersection in their lives, forcing them to take a good look at themselves and make a decision about God.

4. It leaves them forever changed. Even those who reject the Lord’s message will know they have heard from God and will not soon forget this experience.

Brethren, let us go for the gold. Let us aim for sermons that deliver the message of Heaven to earthbound men and women in need of salvation. Let us settle for nothing less.



Dr. Joe McKeever is a preacher, cartoonist and the retired Director of Missions for the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans. Currently he loves to serve as a speaker/pulpit fill for revivals, prayer conferences, deacon trainings, leadership banquets and other church events. Visit him and enjoy his insights on nearly 50 years of ministry at JoeMcKeever.com.

Talk about it...

David Buffaloe avatar
David Buffaloe
0 days ago
Appreciate the input, Brother
Steve Sewell avatar
Steve Sewell
0 days ago
I can't tell you how many times I've talked about this very topic with very we intentioned pastors wishing to feed their congregation the nourishment of Gods Word. It is my belief and always has been that I have been called to be a teacher of His Word because He desires to send me into the building and stand before the people and proclaim His revelation for that particular season. It is not by my might, my power but the Spirit of The Lord.
Edward Matthews Ogundo avatar
Edward Matthews Ogundo
0 days ago
Seeking the will of God in sermon preparation should be an inevitable exercise. We can't only use our intellect and ignoring the spirit of God in this great assignment. Moreover, we no longer preach to ignorant fools but professionals who are very much equipped with very effective tools for the mission and are quite willing to hear God's voice in every sermon delivered. We take them for granted at our own peril. Thank you Bro Joe for posting these insights when most of us dearly needed them.
Pastor Sung Kim avatar
Pastor Sung Kim
0 days ago
I have seen many a pastor "preach through the whole Bible" for these very same reasons and while I've never had any justification to go against it, now I do. It's true. We need to preach what's in season for the Lord at that time. Too many pastors (myself included at times) try to rely on ourselves when we really should be seeking the Holy Spirit's hand in things. Prayer. More pastors should lean on it. Thank you, Pastor Joe!
Warren Lamb avatar
Warren Lamb
0 days ago
I take a "both/and" approach - I systematically teach through one book of the Bible at a time (not all of the Old Testament followed by all of the New Testament), allowing God to lead me to which book is next, yet leaving myself open for an excursus as God leads. Taking a strictly topical or "as the Spirit leads" approach too often leaves us open to subjectivism and agendizing based upon our personal hot-buttons - I've witnessed it in many places by many individuals.
Warren Lamb avatar
Warren Lamb
0 days ago
I take a "both/and" approach - I systematically teach through one book of the Bible at a time (not all of the Old Testament followed by all of the New Testament), allowing God to lead me to which book is next, yet leaving myself open for an excursus as God leads. Taking a strictly topical or "as the Spirit leads" approach too often leaves us open to subjectivism and agendizing based upon our personal hot-buttons - I've witnessed it in many places by many individuals.
Christian Cheong avatar
Christian Cheong
0 days ago
Very well said and true. We need to hear from Him, the true author of the Word! God knows our people and their needs, and will have a word in season (that is apt and relevant). Sometimes, this can come through preaching certain books of the Bible at different times, but not "preaching through the entire Bible". Thank you Joe for a great reminder!
Clay Ritter avatar
Clay Ritter
0 days ago
Pastor, while I respect your freedom to teach as you feel led by the Lord, for you to authoritatively declare that pastors who teach through the bible are engaging in "sheer foolishness" is, in my humble opinion, a bit arrogant. Not only are you dismissing and entire movement (I'm referring to Calvary Chapel, of which I am part... how can you dismiss the thousands of churches and multitudes that have been saved and grown in faith under the verse by verse teaching of Calvary Pastors?), you are also contradicting the Apostle Paul in Acts 20: "Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God." (Acts 20:26-27). As pastors and teachers, we will all be held accountable to the Lord for how we have shepherded the flock, and thus we should strive to consistently feed our churches the unadulterated word of God. Whether a pastor chooses to teach topically as led by the Holy Spirit, or teach verse-by-verse as led by the Holy Spirit, it is God's Word, and it is spiritual food for God's people. Let's not take shots at one another. (disclaimner: I teach verse-by-verse, through the bible, but I also will teach a series on important doctrines of the faith, as led by the Holy Spirit).
Paul Burgio avatar
Paul Burgio
0 days ago
I agree with Clay. Having sat under the verse by verse teaching of the Bible made me grow in my faith tremendously. When the Word is taught in this manner, God, in His grace will speak to hearts, minds, and souls in His wisdom and as He sees fit. I can only wonder if when pastors go to be with the Lord He is going to ask some, "Why didn't you teach through my entire Book." I for one would rather err on the side of teaching "the whole counsel of God."
Greg Nance avatar
Greg Nance
0 days ago
Hmmm... Some good corrective thoughts here, but be careful! We spent a year going through the Bible asking one question: "Where do you see Jesus?" We'd cover 24 chapters or so a week so my sermon was survey oriented, but it was truly an amazing year! God did indeed speak to us all and I would highly recommend this to anyone. We saw Jesus from creation to consummation! We began looking for Jesus in our lives today and learning to listen to His voice in all of scripture. God works through the preaching of His word beyond the clay vessel that presents it. Ministers must be devoted to the word, not lazy. We must pray for open ears to hear and willing hearts to share what God's word says, whether the deacons like it or not.
Greg Nance avatar
Greg Nance
0 days ago
One other thought. If the people of God are not in the word of God beyond the sermon time, how can we ever feed them enough to live. We eat every day for physical nourishment. Surely as God's ministers we MUST call the church to listen for God's voice beyond the sermon. Should not the sermon create hunger for more?
Charles Wallis avatar
Charles Wallis
0 days ago
I have been thinking this lately - what does God want to say specifically to the people I am with. I have also heard great preachers like Pastor Chuck Smith (Calvary Chapel) preach through the Bible and make excellent current applications.
Tim Johnson avatar
Tim Johnson
0 days ago
Joe, Yes! Let us always wait for a word from GOD. Thank you for challenging us thru this message.
Daniel Israel avatar
Daniel Israel
0 days ago
It is surprising to hear people mocking at verse by verse Scriptural teaching. When our Lord Jesus stood up to read in the Nazareth Synagogue the scroll of Isaiah was given in His hands! Paul says in 2 Timothy 4 to preach the Word, and not preach a topic. Topical issues can be addressed in a question/answer format any day, anytime, but the exposition of the Word requires uninterpreted, complete attention toward that passage, and the expositor must hear the Lord's voice in con-temporizing that passage for his church. Every Word is like a kaleidoscope and it brings out myriads of day to day applications. Our churches are getting weaker and weaker because we started feeding people what they want hear in their daily living rather than the true, unadulterated Revelation of Word of God. People desperately need a balanced, wholesome spiritual diet, and that will come automatically if we study in a systematic manner verse by verse. Let us not raise our children through chocolates alone!
Daniel Israel avatar
Daniel Israel
0 days ago
One more important point! Acts 2:42 says that the church devoted themselves to Apostles' doctrine....which is nothing but Jesus' teaching and the Old Testament Scriptures. Yes, that includes Leviticus also. They had to preach about the Blood sacrifice in detail to compare the atoning power of blood of Jesus. They had to teach Torah to see if Jesus came to fulfill it or not. Jesus Himself predicted how a Kingdom of God preacher will be! Mathew 13:52 "And Jesus said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has become a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a head of a household, who brings out of his treasure things new and old." Let us not omit any book. If we study the dietary law very well, we may be able to understand a Jew much better. Every book of the Bible has real life value!
Chris Hearn avatar
Chris Hearn
0 days ago
Thanks for the article! What do you think of churches (Covenant, Lutheran, etc.) that use a lectionary? Those pastors have their Scriptures chosen for them in advance, then they are free to preach how they are led by the Spirit. Is a lectionary good or too far removed from the local church?
Minister Sanders avatar
Minister Sanders
0 days ago
The Apostle Paul says it best, "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness ".-2 Timothy 3:16 We are to use Old as well as New Testament Scripture to teach our congregations and I don't preach the whole bible Scripture by Scripture, I just pray and ask God to lead me to where he wants me to preach from and whether the Word comes from the Old or New Testament I just be obedient and diligently seek God knowing that through him I will be able to deliver a Word from the Lord God is Good!!!!!
Peter Feige avatar
Peter Feige
0 days ago
This article is exactly what I needed to hear. All too often I approach sermon writing with the "ego" approach; that is "What I can tell the congregation that will wow them?" instead of what do they need to hear. This is pure brilliance! Thank you!!!!
Peter Feige avatar
Peter Feige
0 days ago
This article is exactly what I needed to hear. All too often I approach sermon writing with the "ego" approach; that is "What I can tell the congregation that will wow them?" instead of what do they need to hear. This is pure brilliance! Thank you!!!!
Peter Feige avatar
Peter Feige
0 days ago
This article is exactly what I needed to hear. All too often I approach sermon writing with the "ego" approach; that is "What I can tell the congregation that will wow them?" instead of what do they need to hear. This is pure brilliance! Thank you!!!!
Richard Carter avatar
Richard Carter
0 days ago
Hi Joe, I appreciate much of what you say in your article and I'm many of us from different denominations might feel offence at your almost throw away line of "absolute foolishness', if we step back and recognise that you highlighted that areas of you letter were 'your opinion', then the overall tone of what you have to say is great. Pray, think, pray, listen and then begin to prepare are away's good for study, for preaching, for teaching and really for walking with Christ through this tough world we live in. God Bless I found your letter and everyone's comments expanded my understanding of meeting the human condition.
Maxwell Owusu Mensah avatar
Maxwell Owusu Mensah
0 days ago
we have to function in the area of our calling and allow all 5 ministries to function in our meetings. its very important that all that we do, we do it as led by the spirit of God, if verse by verse or topical. there must always be a presentation of the whole counsel of God preached. thanks let not cut or tear one another as we as soldiers must walk in our designated ranks and not cross one another. if i have something to share it must be for edification, correction, doctrine, exhortation that the body of christ will grow into a perfect man of the full measure of the stature of our lord and master, Yeshua the son of the living God (the father, Yah)
Maxwell Owusu Mensah avatar
Maxwell Owusu Mensah
0 days ago
we have to function in the area of our calling and allow all 5 ministries to function in our meetings. its very important that all that we do, we do it as led by the spirit of God, if verse by verse or topical. there must always be a presentation of the whole counsel of God preached. thanks let not cut or tear one another as we as soldiers must walk in our designated ranks and not cross one another. if i have something to share it must be for edification, correction, doctrine, exhortation that the body of christ will grow into a perfect man of the full measure of the stature of our lord and master, Yeshua the son of the living God (the father, Yah)
Scott Letson avatar
Scott Letson
0 days ago
Folks we serve a big God who can direct us in what we are to preach for how ever long He wills. He knows what our people will need 1000 years from now. Please don't limit Him to our personal opinions.

So, what did you think?


Thank you.