I was a student pilot on my first solo cross country when it happened. Everything was going fine. Conditions were CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited), so I could see my destination airport from quite a distance. The two-seat single-engine Cessna 150 was humming along just fine until everything suddenly got very quiet. Because of a fuel leak, I ran out of gas. Though I had my airport in sight (in fact, I had three airports in sight), I was not going to make it. I had to land in a field.
That’s when my training kicked in. Not knowing what my problem was (fuel gauges in small aircraft are notoriously unreliable), I immediately began running through the emergency procedures for engine failure. Airspeed: trimmed for maximum glide. Fuel selector: on. Mixture: full rich. Carburetor heat: on. Magnetos: check. Back to airspeed: check. Then I selected a place to land and started heading for it. Then I notified Air Traffic Control.
In other words, I followed the old pilot mantra: “Aviate. Navigate. Communicate.” In that order. First, we fly the plane (aviate). We make sure we do everything necessary to ensure the safety of the aircraft. Then we consider where we are going (navigate). If we try to navigate first, we could make a mistake and lose control of the airplane. Finally, after we have covered the essentials, we can communicate with those on the ground. We don’t do this first, because communication can be a huge distraction from getting the plane on the ground safely. In fact, that day I had the engine failure, I eventually had to tell the air traffic controller to stop talking to me so I could take care of my business. Numerous accidents have happened because pilots have approached both emergencies and everyday flight in the wrong order of business.
This morning, as I was reading 1 Corinthians 15, the force of Paul’s words in the first five verses hit me. The Gospel, he said, is of first importance. Then, as I was jotting down a note about it, three words kept coming to mind: Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. I think so often we preachers are so concerned with the communication aspect of our sermons that we can confuse the correct order of business. If you’re like me, you sometimes find yourself wanting to say certain things in a sermon—even before you have begun to study the text. Of course, the danger there is that the desired communication can dominate proper exegesis and sermon writing.
I’d like to suggest that the faithful mantra of pilots everywhere can be applied to preaching. First, we need to aviate. We need to tend to the business at hand to make sure that we do not crash and burn. This is the exegesis. Before we can begin to write sermons or preach them, we have to focus on the text. We have to follow proper hermeneutical procedures before we can faithfully outline, write, or preach a sermon. If we do not do this first, we risk going drastically off course and making a mess of the entire exercise.
Second, we need to navigate. Once we have completed the faithful exegetical study and have a good handle on the text, then we can determine where we are going with it. Based on the message derived from the passage, we can chart a course by outlining the sermon and shaping it with the functional elements (explanation, application, illustration and argumentation). We understand our destination, and we know how to get there. All the while, however, the text is what keeps us safe and carries us home
Finally, once we have done all the hard work, we can communicate. Only after the plane is flying safely and we know where we are going are we in a position to speak about it to others. In other words, only when the exegesis is done and the sermon is faithfully written, dare we stand behind the pulpit and open our mouths
When my engine failed that day, I set the plane down in a field and walked way unharmed. Not only that, once we identified the problem and refueled, I took off and flew back to my home airport. In our preaching, if we will follow the mantra—Aviate. Navigate. Communicate—then we will arrive where we need to, and we will live again to preach another day.