Let the Word of God Dwell in You Richly
Recently, the pastoral staff at CHBC read Preaching and Preachers by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones. If you haven’t read it, make a point of adding it to your summer reading list. It is a mine of biblical wisdom and practical instruction on the high calling of preaching by one of the twentieth century’s finest expositors.
One of the principles that Lloyd-Jones stresses is the “rule” of never spoiling something “which you feel within yourself is going to be good” (212). He says this within the context of his discussion on the shape of the sermon and the importance of discovering the right division of a text and the right form of a sermon. So important is this point that his own practice was to set aside a sermon and preach on a different text until just the right form and structure came to mind.
Over the last twelve years, I have had the opportunity to deliver scores of sermons and talks and teach countless Bible studies and adult Sunday school classes. For the majority of that time I was in the employ of either a local church or campus para–church ministry. In both settings, my practice was much like Lloyd-Jones’s. Whether I was preaching a sermon or teaching a class, there simply was no moving forward in the preparation and writing until I had that “Ah-ha” experience. After that, the writing of the sermon or class seemed to flow almost naturally and effortlessly.
Fortunately for me, the nature of my jobs allowed great flexibility in the use of my time. If it took me all week to reach that “Ah-ha” experience, I could easily rearrange my schedule accordingly.
That is, until now. This month Mark Dever, the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, in Washington, DC, began a three–month sabbatical. As the new associate pastor, I am filling the pulpit. But that is not the only thing I am filling. Staff meetings, prayer meetings, and Wednesday night Bible study also require my leadership and preparation. Children’s ministry, pre–marital counseling, and a host of administrative details demand my attention. For the first time in my paid ministry experience, my weekly schedule is not only full but also inflexible. Sound familiar? Friday and Saturday are completely set aside for sermon preparation, but the question that has impressed itself on me is this: What happens if two days are not enough time for the “Ah-ha” experience? Since we are committed to preaching sermon series that systematically cover the whole Bible and since these are advertised in advance, setting aside a text for a few weeks until inspiration strikes is not an option. So what can I do to insure that when Sunday morning arrives, I have a sermon that faithfully delivers God’s word to God’s people?
This month, I began my first extended sermon series: 11 sermons through the first half of John’s Gospel. I’m barely into the series, but two lessons have impressed themselves upon me already concerning the preparation of expositional sermon series on a schedule.
Build the text into your week.
One of the habits that I am developing, and that we encourage in our church, is to make the sermon text for the coming Sunday the content of our daily quiet times. Each morning I open my Bible to the text of next Sunday’s sermon and I read the passage devotionally. I don’t worry about exegetical problems, nor do I puzzle over Greek and Hebrew grammar. Instead, I meditate on the text, pray over it, and begin to apply it to my own heart.
Another way in which I build the sermon text into my weekly schedule is to read it at the start of staff and elders’ meetings throughout the week. Then we take turns praising God in prayer for something we see in the passage. Not only does this allow me to focus on the way in which the text reveals the glory of God, but also it has the added benefits of letting me listen in on the insights that my colleagues in ministry have had. It also serves to prepare our hearts for hearing the message that will be preached on Sunday.
Finally, I will often read the passage at the start of staff prayer meeting each morning. We then use that passage to guide us as we pray by name through our church directory. As we daily pray for our flock in light of the sermon text, I begin to see particular ways in which my text applies to our lives, both corporately and individually.
Accept help from others.
If even some in your congregation adopt the practice of studying the coming Sunday’s sermon text in their quiet time, make a point of asking them about it as you interact with them throughout the week. If certain questions or concerns are consistently voiced, that may alert you to particular issues that need to be addressed in your own preparation.
At times this can mean giving up the need to discover everything yourself. Two weeks ago, someone mentioned that in their quiet time they had noticed the repetition of a word in the passage that I was to preach on. At that point in the week I had not noticed it, but as I considered it over the next few days I realized that in that repetition lay the outline for my sermon. As it happened, someone else called to my attention a current event that served as the core of my introduction. By the time I got to Friday morning sermon preparation, the general structure of my message was already clear.
One practice that I have not adopted from Mark yet, but may, is to develop a regular lay conversation partner. Every Saturday, Mark has lunch with a member of the church to talk over the passage. At this point in his own preparation, he has largely completed his exegetical work, has an outline and the main points of application, but has not yet written the sermon. Over lunch, this member asks Mark questions about the text from the perspective of an intelligent, engaged, but theologically untrained reader. Often this conversation confirms Mark in the direction he is already headed, but not infrequently an issue, misunderstanding or assumption is voiced that needs to be dealt with in the sermon.
None of this is intended to replace the hard work of exegesis. Remember that after all of this I still set aside 20–25 hours to study and prepare, including translation, careful grammatical and logical analysis of the text and extensive reading on the cultural, redemptive–historical and theological contexts, writing and prayer. But those hours are more productive because of what came before. And I am not dependant on the “Ah-ha” experience to insure that my sermon will have an urgency and relevancy that connects with my congregation. These relatively simple practices, taken together, have already woven the sermon text into both my life and the life of my congregation. And when that happens, both sermon preparation and the sermon itself become less an isolated event segregated from the rest of the week, and more the culmination of a process in which you and your congregation “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16).