Preaching Articles

Sometimes preachers shy away from well-known passages because we think our listeners are too familiar with them. What I’ve discovered, however, is that most people have a “watercolor memory,” they remember the big picture but they’re fuzzy on the sharp details.

Good preachers help their listeners focus on the sharp details. It’s the difference between watercolor and painting in oil: there are always details that can make any passage worth a second (or third) look. Remember the story when Jesus and Peter go fishing together? It’s one of those gospel accounts we think we know: we’ve heard it before but the details seems to run like watercolor. Let’s use this watercolor passage as an exercise in spotting—and preaching—the details. (You can find the account in Luke 5:1-11)

Here’s the exercise: take ten minutes and write down the details Luke has chosen to highlight. Then ask yourself, “How can I help my listeners move from watercolor to the sharp clarity of oil?”

Did you do it? I found eight details in ten minutes—and enough application for an entire sermon series! Let’s compare lists and develop some preaching points. Here are eight details I saw, and the applications I developed:

Jesus, the intruder: when he saw the crowd was too big, Jesus first stepped into Peter’s boat and never asked for permission. Jesus simply asked Peter to push off. This is the beginning of the story, and beginnings are important: I wonder what would’ve happened if Peter had said, “Get your own boat.”

Peter thought the mission was fishing, and he was done for the day. Jesus had a new mission, one that incorporated Peter's skill and experience. Jesus spoke the language of commerce but, as we all know, he trades in souls. I wonder how many of our listeners realize that their work experience can be applied in the economy of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus said, “Try again” at a different time and a different place. Peter, somewhere between amused and irritated, humored the clueless Lord of glory. But he did what Jesus said. Perhaps we should all humor the Lord the glory.

Yep: there was a ton of fish. So many, in fact, Peter needed help to bring them in. How many preaching applications can you find in that one detail? Hmmm, let’s see: Doing God’s work requires community? The bounty of God isn’t just for me alone? God’s work draws in more people? (Also: Peter and friends are about to “leave everything” and follow Jesus—in the great catch of fish was provision for those left behind.)

Peter’s first reaction is to see his own sin, and he thinks he isn’t “qualified” to be a disciple. In truth, his sin did not disqualify Peter from being a disciple; his recognition of sin was the starting point.

"Don't be afraid" How many times does Jesus say this? At least seven times. Angels say it, too. So do the prophets. So I decided to do a quick Google search: according to some accounts, add them all up and you hit 365 “fear nots.” One for each day of the year: fear not, daily.

Leave everything: no, Luke didn’t really say this. A close study of the original languages reveal that what Jesus said was “develop an attitude of inner detachment from your possessions and cultivate a spirit of sacrifice.” Actually, that's nonsense: those guys left everything.

Finally, Jesus was after more than a boat. This passage starts with a description of Jesus preaching to a crowd, so we think it’s about the preaching or the crowds. Then Jesus asks a random fisherman for the use his boat as a preaching platform. Then we hear nothing of the sermon or the crowd, but we discover the Lord’s true objective: the fisherman. I guess Peter wasn’t the only one who had a good catch that day.

How did this list compare to yours? No matter—the real winners will be the people you bless, all because you dug into the details.

(And: I’d love to read your details in the comments below.)

Ray Hollenbach helps pastors and churches navigate change. He's the founder of DEEPER Seminars, weekend leadership retreats focused on discipleship in the local church. His newest book is Deeper Grace, a guide to the connection between grace and spiritual maturity. Ray currently lives in central Kentucky, coaching and consulting church leaders. You can visit his blog at Students of Jesus.

Talk about it...

E L Zacharias

commented on Jan 4, 2016

Great points, Ray. This story is loaded with tangents on which a person could preach. It could make a great set of devotions. However, one potential danger is that when we break something down into parts we tend to moralize. It seems that you have a heart that focuses on Jesus being the focus of everything in this biblical account, as Savior and Lord, so I am confident that you would resist this pull. But for many there is the urge to move things away from our Lord Jesus, as the goal in a lot of preaching is to exalt community building and life lessons and not to follow the Gospel's lead, which is to reveal the "Good News" of salvation through Jesus Christ. Thanks for sharing this lesson-building exercise with us.

Stephen Belokur

commented on Jan 5, 2016

Amen to both Brother Hollenbach and Brother Zacharias! Point to Jesus! Always point to Jesus!

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