If you can’t tell us this, your sermon prep hasn’t even started

I’m writing this, mainly, because I’ve currently got sermon-block. I’ve been staring at the same passage for days and I have no idea what to do with it, to be honest. Even as I open the commentaries, and if I was inclined to throw my hands up in despair and just unceremoniously rip off what they say, I am finding they are ultimately no help.

The thing is, I know what each part of the passage is saying (broadly). It’s not a lack of understanding at issue. There are three bits to the passage, which is handy for a Baptist sermon. I understand (I think) what each section is saying of itself. So, why am I struggling?

The bottom line is this: I know what each bit is talking about; I have no idea how to preach it. I understand the raw words of what the passage is saying; I have no idea how to structure it nor what the principle points of application should be. If I don’t know what the principle points of application will be, I do not have any points for my sermon. Because I am preaching to people, and those people inevitably want to know what this means for them, my points are always the key points of application. But if I can’t work out the application, I have no points and no sermon structure.

I am minded to think, however, this explains why a lot of preaching is so boring or uninteresting. Whilst I am sitting here believing I have sermon-block despite knowing what each bit of the passage is saying of itself, many preachers seem to believe that is 90% of getting your sermon done. I don’t think I have really started while they would think this is the point at which they have nearly finished. Why is that?

I think it is because we have bought into the belief that preaching is, essentially, ‘explaining the passage’. The problem with that view is that some passages of scripture are painfully obvious. Take the parable of the sower, for example. Even JC Ryle – in his devotional commentaries – essentially says the parable is so obvious it doesn’t really need any lengthy explanation, so he doesn’t do that. So a sermon that goes into great length explaining what is plain and obvious is both boring and patronising. We have all just read it, after all.

Even where passages are less obvious to us and do require explanation – maybe some of the nutso imagery in the prophets or some of the mental bits of Revelation – merely explaining them doesn’t achieve much. Let’s say we carefully explain what all the imagery symbolises in Revelation, we show how these images point to the gospel, we draw out all the little nuances our folks might not pick up on a first blush reading, after 25 minutes of that our people will still all be asking the same question. So what?

It’s usually at that point such preachers answer in one of two ways. Either, isn’t it obvious? Well, maybe to you who has spent ages preparing and thinking about the passage, but evidently not to most people sat in the pews. Alternatively, they argue I couldn’t possibly apply to everyone’s situation so they need to apply it to themselves. Except, of course, many people in the congregation haven’t been given the tools to do that. And there are always broad ways in which you can apply a passage to most people in the congregation, so minimally we should probably try and do that. But there are always specific ways we can apply it too. Though we can’t run through every possible application that will touch all members of the congregation, we can offer a few specific and direct examples which, in turn, might give those whose particular circumstances you don’t touch on enough to work out how it might apply to them. If you are making several points in your sermon, you might try to hit different specific folks situations so that a broad spread of the congregation have at least some of the sermon directly and specifically applied to them.

But much of our preaching contents itself at the level of explanation. As long as people know what the passage is going on about, in broad terms, we have done our job. If that is all we are doing, far from having finished our sermon prep, it means we haven’t even begun to preach. Preaching aims at the heart. It calls people to something. It is an encouragement to do something, stop something, think something, do something, feel something. What it is not is a bald explanation of a passage so that we can all go home and know that David is a type of Christ who defeats our enemies. That may be true, but we aren’t aiming for a bit of intellectual stimulation over something we may, or may not, have known before. People listen to sermons, fundamentally, to know what God is saying to them. What does God want me to do, think, feel with whatever we are reading. Far too many of us content ourselves with not telling anyone.

So, I haven’t gotten anywhere with my sermon because, while I broadly know what the words on the page mean and I could tell you, I have no idea yet what that means for anybody I will be speaking to. And if I don’t know that, I haven’t got very much worthwhile to say. If I’ve got half an hour of telling people that Moses instituted cities of refuge and then gave some historical details on where his speech was delivered, before introducing the law, everyone will entirely legitimately be asking, so what? If I have nothing for them, I haven’t yet got a sermon. And what I might have will be boring as they struggle to see the point, which is a short step to them feeling they have given up 30 minutes or so for something of little to no value.

Unless you know what your passage means for the people in front of you, and you specifically tell them, your sermon preparation isn’t over. No sermon is complete without it. I just wish more of us realised it.