When "sermon thoughts" Ruin the Sermon

“Feel I failed the Lord in too much digging for sermon thoughts, and not enough time letting the Scripture speak to me.” (Jim Elliot)

I’m currently reading through missionary martyr Jim Elliot’s edited journal – ‘Shadow of the Almighty’ with a good friend. I’ve come to both appreciate and be intimidated by Elliot’s consuming passion for the gospel, as well as wincing occasionally at his struggles to comprehend a high view of marriage (reference for example his lighthearted comment, “…with a wife comes Peter the Pumpkin Eater’s

Jim Elliot, missionary martyr

proverbial dilemma – he must find a place to keep her”).

A number of musings on his own heart have given me pause however, and the quote at the top of this post is high on that list. It’s painfully self-aware, and cuts to the heart of a delicate balancing act in sermon preparation.

Some preaching feels a little like – as my grandfather put it – serving raw meat for dinner. There’s goodness in there, but it’s hard to extract and may make you sick in the process. That is to say, what is delivered is less of a sermon and more of a brain dump of everything the preacher learnt about the text during his time studying it. This may spring from, among other things, a lack of appreciation for the fact that the preacher is not there to simply describe and paraphrase the texts, but to explain, illustrate, and apply them to his hearers.

Then there are the sermons that belong in a technical commentary not a church – linguistically complex exposes of the Hebrew/Greek with a quirky new take on a verb that no-one else had spotted before. An opening gambit in a theological chess game to which the congregation is not invited.

At the other end of the scale is preaching that’s more akin to a half-time pep talk during a game of football. Maybe the team is losing and the manager comes in to encourage them to work hard, keep trying, play as a team, never give up, be patient and it’ll all work out well in the end…because they deserve it.

It’s very hard to get the balance right – after all, to err is human, and to be human is to err… For me, I probably err in the way Jim Elliot did (which of course makes me look not-that-bad, claiming to get it wrong in the same way as a legendary missionary martyr…but there you go…). I really want to be faithful to the text, and I really want to communicate something useful in a useful way, whilst having to work hard to stay out of the way of what God is saying.

So, knowing that understanding Scripture and communicating it to people are complementary and not competing aims, why does it sometimes go wrong? Why do I sometimes find myself “digging for sermon thoughts” to the exclusion of “letting the Scripture speak to me”?

There are several reasons this can happen during a given sermon preparation time, including:

1.) Complacency about the text
“Yep, I know what that means. Right…how do I preach it?” This isn’t usually a problem when I’m preaching the prophets or the Psalms for example, but can become an issue with some of the more famous texts, such as events of Jesus life in the gospels, or his parables. It can be tempting to think that I can cut short my satellite pictures and forensic examinations of the text and skip straight on to making it sound good for the listeners.

2.) Self-consciousness
A perpetual enemy of mine, this is a tendency to worry more about what people think of me than how faithful I’m being to my God-given task of preaching. In fact, second only to asking God to help me with the preparation itself, my biggest and most frequent prayer in the week before a sermon is that God would rid me of self-absorbed self-consciousness.

3.) Bewilderment about the text
This might either be because the text is home to a long-standing Christian debate (e.g. Revelation 20), or bland moralisms jump out of the text inviting you to end your study right now and just go with them. Or because you really don’t know what the prophet/apostle/poet is trying to get across. So with less to say about the text that you don’t really understand, you fill up the gaps in your sermon plan with your own thoughts.

Actually, it involves more preparation than that…

4.) Lack of time to prepare
Preaching Scripture is much more demanding of time than talking about Scripture. I’ve been in church all my life and I can talk about Scripture all you like and plenty more besides without having to put much time into it. Trying to faithfully communicate God’s Word however requires a much greater investment of time in prayer, Bible reading, background reading and meditation.

5.) A hectic mind
My mind doesn’t have an off button. That doesn’t make me more thoughtful than the next person, or more intelligent. It’s simply the case that I always seem to have a bunch of things ricocheting around up there, which makes it very difficult to clear enough room to have thoughts slowly make their way in.

6.) Ungodly ambition
A close relative of self-consciousness, this is the part of me that wants to be a good speaker. Not that there’s any part of me that doesn’t want to be a good speaker, or that being a bad speaker is a good thing for a preacher. But there’s a difference between wanting to communicate well, and wanting people to think I’m a good communicator, and it makes all the difference in the world when I’m studying. For example, when I’ve thought of a great illustration, does that illustration help me to drive home the main point of the message? And if not, why am I thinking of including it, knowing that a great illustration of a sub-sub-point will almost always obscure the main point itself?

While I battle in prayer against these pitfalls I am greatly helped, and not just by folks from whom I receive direct feedback on my sermons. I also know that when I preach at my home church, I am talking to many, many people who have no interest whatsoever in Paul Reynolds’ thoughts about the passage, but have a burning desire to hear God speak to them through His Word. And for that I thank God.

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