Time was when preachers would stand up on Sunday morning, announce ‘my text for today is…’ and proceed to preach from a single, or maybe a couple, of verses. Times changed and preachers began to stand up, read out a much longer passage, and then proceed to preach on it. Both, I think, have their place. Both have their advantages. Both have their drawbacks.
Taking a longer chunk of scripture allows you to take a bigger picture view of what is going on. You are less likely to so focus in on one verse that you miss the context in which it was placed and, potentially, the actual intent of the author in saying it. Taking a shorter bit of scripture, focusing in on just one verse, might allow you to take the time to draw out all kinds of legitimate application of a key thought encapsulated in one standalone verse. There may be all sorts of theological issues that come out of the verse that require some time to explain. Preaching just a solitary verse can help you to do that. There is no exclusive right or wrong here.
I have long been of the view you can preach whatever amount of the Bible you want in a single sermon. One verse, no problem. Short section, fine. Several chapters at once, perfectly reasonable. Whole book, why not? I have, at some point of other, done all of these things. There can be something of a horses for courses approach to how much we preach. Certain narrative passages that span several chapters may well be best preached together. Certain theologically rich sentences in Paul’s epistles might be best handled on their own. You may decide to approach a section one way in a particular setting and another way in an altogether different one. These are all legitimate choices to be made when handling the text.
However, what is key is understanding how any of it actually holds together. Preach a single verse if you want, but you do need to understand what that verse is meant to be doing in the context of the section its in, in the chapter (or chapters) surrounding it, in the scope of the whole book it belongs to and, to some degree, in the context of the whole canon. The same is true if you are taking several chapters at once or if you decide to do a single sermon on a whole book. You need to understand how whatever section you’ve got – whether big or small – fits into the whole.
It’s this thinking that lies behind the ‘big idea’ approach to preaching. Working hard to understand the main theme running through the section that you’ve got. Some want to push back against that and say (rightly in my view) that sometimes a passage has several ideas in it and all seem as important as the others. But it still bears saying, no matter how many ideas might legitimately be there, they are in that passage, placed together, for a reason. There may not be a single thematic ‘big idea’, but the writer certainly had an idea in his head that led him to group these particular things together. They may be building on one another, or leading to a particular crescendo, or all exemplify something, or all independently serve the broader purpose for which the book was written. But somewhere, somehow, you’ve got to know how these things fit together.
You may think it doesn’t matter so much. The problem isn’t so much that you will get preaching that will say horribly wrong stuff – you probably aren’t going to wander into heresy if you don’t heed this – but you will wander into disjointedness. And wander will be the operative word here as you will go after every tangent available to you because you will not have any sense of what is important to emphasise and what isn’t. Unless you have a clear idea about why these bits sit together, you won’t have a clear idea about what they are there for and so you won’t really have a clear idea what your sermon is meant to be about either.
Sometimes we want to get around this problem by blaming the time available. To do it justice, we think, I’d need hours not just 30 minutes. Well, that’s only true if you don’t really understand what you’re looking at so you chase every detail there to be found. You may preach almost everything you could pull out of a particular passage and still miss the point because you simply didn’t get to grips with how these bits sit together. That’s how sermons end up either very long – because we don’t really understand what we’re preaching and don’t know what to edit out – or we end up with very disjointed sermons where one part doesn’t bear any relation to the next. It’s only when we understand the context of what we’re preaching, how and why these particular parts have been put in this particular order, that we can begin to get a handle on what we ought to be preaching.
When we’ve understood that, we can find interesting details in the text and know whether they are at all pertinent or not. We can see nice little side points and figure out whether – though they may be true – they are actually part of what this passage is pointing us to see. There may be some interesting nuggets we see in the text that we don’t mention at all because they’re not really significant so far as the main point the writer is trying to get us to understand is concerned. There may be some small details that really do help elucidate what he is saying. The question isn’t whether you should or shouldn’t ever include these smaller side points and interesting thoughts. The point is, you will only know whether to include them and which of them to include if you have a grasp of why the writer has grouped these parts together and what he is trying to say.
Disjointed sermons and chasing after every theological tidbit in the passage tend to be the result of a lack of editing which itself often stems from not doing the work to figure out what the writer is trying to convey. The writer may well be trying to convey several ideas at once, and there is nothing wrong with insisting there is no one ‘big idea’ because he has several ideas to show us. But it tells when we don’t really know why this bit of narrative follows that one or why these things have been grouped together and what role they play in whatever the writer is trying to do throughout the book. In the end, we haven’t really preached the passage, or the verse, when we have disjointed thoughts tacked together. Our goal is to expose what the writer wants us to see and understand. To do that effectively, we have to understand why he has put this here, why he has grouped this together, why it is in this context or else we will get a series of random, unconnected thoughts that, whilst ultimately true observations, aren’t what we are supposed to glean from the scripture.