How I Break Through Difficulty in Preparing My Sermons

(Originally sent out as an article under Eagles' Simply Proclaim)

Fact: Preachers don’t always get to choose their sermon topics. I once quaked whenever I was assigned a passage I wasn’t familiar with, or a topic I didn’t know much about. If there ever was Goliath to slay in my life, this was it!

I was terrified. What if I dishonored the Word of God by making a mistake, or lost my audience through poor discussion of the topic?

Here’s how I’ve learnt to navigate the difficult process of preparing a sermon, particularly on an unfamiliar text. I’ve come to divide my efforts into the three things a Bible message needs, at minimum. When I focused on delivering just those three things, I knew that I would be able to preach clearly and touch my audience no matter what. That would get me through any difficult message, and set up a framework I could build on in the future, to do even better next time.

This process looks simple, but it’s saved me much time and heartache. Here goes:

  1. Study: What did the Word mean to its original audience?

    The words of the Bible are both human and divine words. Christian theologians tell us that Scripture is the Word of God, communicating His eternal laws and commands—but through the words and styles of human writers, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    This means that the authors of Scripture wrote to specific audiences, addressing real people in real situations. Before we can truly reach the intent of the biblical authors, we need to consider the texts in their historical and literary contexts. What genre did the biblical writer employ, and what was the general situation he was addressing? (For instance, the prophetic books were written for different reasons from say, the Gospels and Paul’s letters.)

    Consider a simple book like Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon, asking for the safe return and forgiveness of Philemon’s former slave, Onesimus. It’s no less part of God’s divinely inspired Word, so I asked the same questions of it as I would have of another, more substantial letter like Romans.

    Why did Paul write in the first place? How did he go about accomplishing that goal?

    To my amazement, I learned that even in such a simple letter, there were so many nuances that Paul used to convince Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother-in-Christ, forgiving him for all that he had done. Paul did all this without once using the word “forgive” in the letter!

    This short book, when we truly unpack its message, has much to teach us on the theology and practice of godly forgiveness, including how Christians are to forgive each other and put love, concord and unity above personal slights—like the one Onesimus had committed by running away.

    Scripture rewards those who study it! If we’re serious about teaching it to others, Bible study is a command, not an option. As John Stott has said: “The higher our view of the Bible, the more painstaking and conscientious our study of it should be.”[1]

    If we do not study the Scriptures, we risk reading our own world into the biblical text when it is not warranted. Even worse—we reveal our lack of respect for the Scriptures, and perhaps our motivations to further our own interests instead of God’s.
  2. Meditation: What does the Word mean to me today?

    A friend once said to me, “You study theology; that’s theoretical. I’m more practical and just apply what the Bible says.”

    I wouldn’t agree with that, but he held a common sentiment in the pew today—that preachers and Bible teachers are only imparting head knowledge with no real-world use. This should not be the case!

    We can only give of what we have, and we need to have known the Scriptures’ touch before we can truly share them convincingly with others. It’s one thing to hear Isaiah 58 being proclaimed in a comfortable sanctuary by a Bible scholar, and quite another to hear it preached by a veteran social worker who has seen and endured a great deal of suffering and brokenness.

    In other words, the Word should have made a tangible difference in our lives. For most of us, we can open ourselves to the Word through spending time to meditate on it. There’s nothing mystical about meditation; it’s about turning the words over and over in our heads, which I do throughout the week as I ask God how it applies to my own life.

    Doing this has one more practical advantage. As we ask God what the passage really means to us and how it applies to our lives, we learn to personalize our message. Practical examples and applications from our own lives surface, which we can readily use.

    For example, I was once tasked to preach on Joseph’s reunion with his brothers after their long separation (Genesis 45), and highlight God’s sovereignty over all aspects of our lives. That’s an amazing passage and I began to gather points from the text, commentaries and other sources, and tease out my own thoughts on it… but something didn’t sit well with me.

    I sensed I was not truly obeying that message myself, and until I was, I knew I could not reach the congregation with it.

    So as I meditated on the passage, I asked which area of my life I still needed to let God take control over. Shortly thereafter, God cause my wedding preparation process to surface. My fiancée and I were frenzied and struggling to make sense of it, and I decided to let God deal with it as He chose.

    That brought the connection I needed with my listeners, and became a key example I used to bridge the gap between the ancient passage and a modern audience.
  3. Bridging: What does the Word mean to my audience today?

    For Scripture to be truly learned and grasped, it has to mean something to its audience. While the biblical authors wrote to a particular audience during their own time, the truths behind these messages remain timeless and relevant to audiences today.

    In the end, preaching is not about how great the preacher is, but about helping audiences understand and live out the Word of God. So as I prepare a sermon, I put myself in my congregants’ shoes. I ask myself, “What might my audience be facing at this moment in their lives?”

    It helps to do a mental walkthrough of the possible issues, and understand your audience deeply enough to shine the light of Scripture where it is needed. Whatever your message, ask God how the truth in it can help to change their perspectives and make sense of their problems.

    We can’t possibly cover everything, especially not when we are just starting, or when we aren’t close enough with our congregants to understand all their issues. But why don’t we let the Holy Spirit shine His light on them, and allow Him to tell us what they are?

    That’s why I consciously seek the Spirit’s guidance. There is only so much I can do, so I ask Him to guide not only my preparation and delivery, but the hearts of my hearers—so they will truly know and live the Word for themselves.

I have found that following these three broad steps in sermon preparation—study, meditation and bridging—has helped me to frame any message in a relevant, engaging way. What are the other ways that you use to aid you in preparing your own sermons? Share them with me. I read all of your comments and replies.

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[1] John R.W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), 182.

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