Be ye kind to one another. (Ephesians 4:32)
For good reason, young beginning pastors do not take the standard old texts for their first sermons. Few feel qualified to produce a full sermon on such subjects as John 3:16. The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12). Salvation by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Love one another (John 13:34-35). Forgiveness. The home. Kindness (see above).
That’s why beginning preachers almost always gravitate to the exotic texts. They find those strange little metaphors, unusual verses and unfamiliar images and light on them.
Perhaps it’s easier to get their minds around such, I don’t know. One of my first sermons was suggested by “a house in a cucumber patch,” from Isaiah 1:8. That image had brought to mind an old bungalow where some relatives of ours used to live far out in the country, but which was later abandoned and soon completely covered by kudzu vines. Eventually, a massive mound of green vines stood there, hiding what used to be a house. What point my sermon made from that has long been forgotten.
Why didn’t I preach on grander (and safer?) subjects like the incarnation of Jesus, His miracles, His amazing teachings and sinless life, and of course, His death, burial and resurrection? Answer: Any of those subjects would be so huge, and I felt so small.
I could no more preach a full-length sermon on John 3:16 than swim the Atlantic.
Recently, someone sought my input for an upcoming sermon on the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” The pastor had had a demanding week, and his study time was rapidly getting away from him. He wondered if I could give him a push in some direction with a story or an insight.
My wife said, “No wonder it’s so hard to preach on that. Everyone knows it, so it’s boring.”
Leave it to her.
That’s the truth, of course. And it’s the very reason we preachers find it difficult to come up with a sermon on such a subject.
The saying that “familiarity breeds contempt” carries a great deal of truth, although we’re not suggesting familiar texts and well-known truths are anything less than the inspired Word of God. They simply become commonplace from universal acceptance.
Announce to your people that your next sermon will be “The Golden Rule” or “John 3:16″ and watch all but the most determined or least imaginative find reasons to be out of town that day.
Complicating this is that the preacher himself may find such texts and subjects unchallenging and even boring. They’re not, of course. The problem is not with John 3:16, one of the most amazing statements of Heaven’s truth to planet Earth imaginable.
The problem is with us.
1. The pastor needs to give himself plenty of time to prepare such a sermon.
If he begins preparing on Friday for Sunday’s sermon, we can almost guarantee the result will be shallow, inferior and unworthy of such a great teaching. The Holy Spirit has no problem with advance planning for sermons (and everything else!). The pastor shouldn’t either.
2. The pastor should study that text backward and forward and everything around it, learning text, context and pretext.
What is a pretext? All the ways this text has been “done wrong” by others in times past. A pastor should flag those potholes in order to avoid them.
In most cases, the context will suggest the problem which caused the Holy Spirit to put that teaching in the Bible in the first place, and that will get you started.
After all, it’s frequently good technique to begin a sermon with a problem, particularly one the people in the pews can relate to.
3. The pastor should constantly enlist Heaven’s assistance and should force himself to listen to the small stirrings of the Holy Spirit bringing His answer.
He should pray and then stay for the answer.
In my study, I sometimes find myself saying, “Lord, you have heard every sermon ever preached on this text. And you inspired many of them!” (said with a smile) “I could sure use your help here. What do I need to see that I’ve missed? Who embodies this trait? Who in Scripture or in the world has violated this truth?”
Whether the answer comes immediately or two hours later in my study or that evening while driving to the store, when it does come, my spirit rejoices and I grab pen and paper to make notes. Many a time, the answer arrives in the middle of the night.
After all, the Lord knows more sermons than the Library of Congress. He has heard them all.
He waits to be asked for His help.
4. A wise pastor having difficulty with an overly familiar text would do well to use another of his lifelines—a game show technique!—and phone a friend.
Prayer is his first lifeline. Always. A friend is the second.
Pastors having trouble with a familiar subject should do what my friend did this week: Call a couple of veteran preachers. If anyone understands the quandary of the young pastor, they will. (That still small voice which inhibits the preacher from asking an older minister for help is called ego, and he should reject its fearful counsel.)
You would like to know if this pastor friend has an insight or a story that will jump-start your own thinking on this text. Often, he can put his finger on the very issue without a moment’s hesitation. A lifetime of preaching and walking with Jesus enables him to do that.
5. Then, a technique I have used a time or two when experiencing sermon-blockage: Go to the food court at the mall (or wherever large numbers of busy people are coming and going). Sit in a corner with your notebook, asking yourself what possible meaning such a text has to these people.
I’ve gone so far as to engage a few of those shoppers in conversation on this very thing. That might require some explanation. I do not approach strangers with such, but invariably you will see someone you know and get into a quick conversation. So, you say, “Bob, do you have 60 seconds to help me?” He will. You say, “I’m preaching next Sunday on the Golden Rule, do unto others, etc. How does that apply in your world?” And take notes.
6. Cut yourself some slack. You’ll not hit a home run every time.
When the sermon ends, you may decide some parts worked and some did not. Some people were engaged and with you throughout, while some were bored.
What else is new? That happens every week anyway, I assume.
However, presumably you will be coming back to this text or this subject from time to time over a long ministerial career. So keep the subject active in your mind.
My story, which I’ve related before on these pages, has to do with “love your neighbor as yourself,” another subject I had probably never preached on for the simple reason that it’s so well known and so clear that there is nothing more to be said about it.
In a restaurant in a Mississippi town where I had stopped for lunch, two men sat across the table from me and one wanted to talk politics. When he found out I was from Louisiana, the man asked about our politics, in particular about a former KKK leader who was running for governor. When I said, “He believes things most of our people do not buy,” he said, “For instance?”
“He believes in the superiority of the white race,” I said.
The man was ready and loaded. He had had this conversation before.
“Well,” he said. “That’s a little hard to argue with.”
I closed the book I’d been trying to read. “I’ll argue with it.”
“Then why,” he said, “down through history whenever whites and blacks have lived alongside each other, the blacks ended up as slaves of the whites?”
I’d heard that before. It was based on bad history.
I said, “Sir, you will be happy to know that did not happen often. But whenever it did, it seems to me that if the whites were making slaves out of their neighbors, it would say a lot about the inferiority of the white race.”
Such a debater never concedes a point, even when you have skewered him. As I say, he’d had this discussion before. The technique of such debaters is to keep changing the subject.
He said, “I see you have a Bible there.”
“You know there’s not a word in the Bible against slavery.”
I said, “Are you serious?”
He said, “Give me one verse in all the Bible that says slavery is wrong.”
What happened next took all of two or three seconds, but it seemed like a week. My mind was whirring trying to come up with just the right scripture. In college, I’d done a term paper for a Civil War history class on just this subject, on correspondence between two preachers, one in the north and one in the south. I knew there is no text saying, “Thou shalt have no slaves.” But the concept is opposed to everything the Lord Jesus taught.
The Lord who “came to set the captives free” (Luke 4:18) surely would not condone slave-holding among His followers.
While I was scrambling, trying to come up with an answer, the second fellow at the table turned and answered his friend.
He said, “How about ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’?”
I pounded the table. “Great answer! Great answer!”
It was the perfect answer. (I was more than a little relieved!)
When the antagonist tried to change the subject—such a person will never admit to any flaw in their thinking; ignorance and arrogance often go hand in hand—I said, “Sir, you’ll have to excuse me. I have some reading I have to do.”
I never read another word, but sat there thinking what a powerful thing had just happened here. A verse of Scripture, a truth the Lord Jesus called the second greatest commandment, found in Leviticus 19:18 and in Matthew 22:39, had just been taken off the mantle where I’d elevated it and then promptly forgotten about it, and dusted off and shown to be highly relevant to today’s issues.
A few weeks later, when the sheriff of our parish in suburban New Orleans challenged me to come up with a scripture to justify my opposition to gambling casinos, I said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” He had no answer.
Someone has pointed out that clichés become clichés for good reason: They embody universal truths. Likewise, the widely known and well-loved texts of Scripture did not become such accidentally. They deserve the full treatment from the Lord’s teachers and preachers, something many of us have not been giving them.
But these texts deserve to be treated carefully and lovingly. Lives hang in the balance.