After a lively discussion with students, I realized that this question was more significant than I had anticipated.
What do people really remember about our sermons? I studied homiletics in seminary with the late Larry Lacour. I can still remember the collective groan of the class when Dr. Lacour told us that people only hear about seven minutes of our 20-minute sermon (a disturbing statement when you think about all the time that we invest in them).
What kind of sermon makes an indelible impression upon the worshipper? When I think about the most memorable sermons that I have heard, there are several generalizations that I can make about them:
"I never thought about it that way." Familiar texts are not occasions for the preacher to lean back on old notes or old clichéd interpretations of the text. The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son and the Twenty-third Psalm still lead to unearthed treasure. You might start by looking at your familiar text from different angles until you begin to exorcise the specter of the last time you preached from it.
If your attention has always been on the magnanimity of the Good Samaritan, turn your investigative flashlight on the unsung generosity of the Innkeeper. If you have alternated between looking at the Prodigal and his Elder Brother, look instead at the neighbors who do not know what to make of the Father's love and forgiveness. Examine the Shepherd Psalm through the eyes of the sheep.
The Bible is about human relationships with God and with neighbor. Yet it is relatively easy for us pulpit exegetes to get so caught up in the excitement of our research findings that we objectify the text. In our eagerness to distill the text to five easy steps or seven principles (all beginning with the letter "L"), we often move away from the humanity of the text. The sermons I remember most did not shy away from the messiness of human relationships with God or with other people. When preaching texts that contain people, it is often helpful to do a mini-character study of the person, see if they are mentioned in other places, or do a study of the people group that the person comes from.
Your congregation may not know that the Canaanite woman was not a Jew, nor might they understand the flap over asking a woman for a drink of water in Samaria! Don't overlook elements of human interest like the messiness of Jacob's family tree or the presence of Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba in the Messianic family line. These may not always become the focal point of the sermon, but they often offer important clues to interpreting the text.
Grounded in Scripture
The sermons that I most remember have also been firmly grounded in a Bible passage. Those memorable sermons were rarely based on one or two verses; they were based upon texts set in a biblical context and presented as such. Seen in their own context, they offered me an unsmudged snapshot of lives or church fights or national crises that often mirrored my own and then offered me ways to embrace the text in daily life.
A couple of guiding questions:
- How do you use the text in your preaching? Is text like a springboard that launches you into a pool of ideas, or do you use the text more like a treasure map that leads to greater understanding of spiritual things? Robert Mulholland (Shaped by the Word) speaks of the difference between reading the text and having the text read us.
- What are hearers invited to do with the text you have just preached from? Text without some mention of application risks becoming exposition. If the most frequent feedback you receive when shaking hands out the door is "interesting," sound an internal alarm to check your sermons for practical application.
- Finally, is your sermon on the biblical text presented in an understandable way? Think of ways to word your revelations so that a fifth-grader, her parents and the visiting grandparents might be able to participate in a substantive conversation about your sermon over Sunday lunch. Jesus spoke in the language of the people using illustrations and allusions that all would readily understand.