Sermons come in short and long versions. It can move the hearts of people if delivered well. Many have written scholarly books and articles on homiletics—the art and craft of sermons and preaching. This, in contrast, is an attempt to give an overview to the art and craft of sermons and preaching.
Some sermons bloom like a bud opening into a flower. Others develop like compartments being added to a train-like structure. A few sermons are like thunder and lightning. Some others are like embers glowing in a fire; some like the gentle rain falling on green grass. Certain sermons grow up like building blocks being stacked one upon the other while the most common ones are like a tripod resting on three points.
Now let us take a look at the elements that make the message and the messenger and the audience part of a drama that heaven and angels look upon with keen interest:
The Call to Preach
Anyone can attempt to preach. But God calls certain men and women to preach. If someone recognizes that call, he or she should try to fan into flame the gift that God has given him or her. That requires diligent study and adequate preparation.
When God calls you, the first instinct is to rush ahead and preach. Good. But at the same time do not neglect to spend time with God alone. Read and meditate on God’s Word much; not with a view to gain knowledge or prepare for a sermon. But just to keep unhurried company with Jesus, get to know him close, and allowing him to search your heart and mind.
This is what Jesus meant when he asked you to abide in him. It is a life-long process. When this happens, your sermons will become channels of God’s life flowing through you to people.
Preparation in Prayer
A preacher is a messenger of God. He (when I write he, it includes both men and women preachers) is under authority of God to preach. And the Word of God he is trying to preach is living and active; a two-edged sword, a fire, and a hammer that breaks rock into pieces.
Therefore he has to handle it with care. So he has to listen to God while he is preparing a sermon. He has to spend long hours in prayer before he dares to enter the pulpit to preach.
This is the most neglected aspect in preparation of a sermon. The first instinct is to read some other sermons on the internet, refer books, and try to prepare the skeletal framework of the sermon. That is all good.
But the first thing to do is to pray. Seek God’s face. Ask him to purify your motives in preaching. It can easily be pride; it can be the desire to be famous; it can be to show off your knowledge.
You therefore need to ask God to purify your motives, that the delivery of the sermon be holy to the Lord and all glory be to God alone. Again you need to ask God to cleanse your heart by the precious blood of Jesus, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide the meditations of your heart and prepare the hearts of the audience to receive God’s Word.
When you are focused on preaching God’s Word there can be conflicts at home or other distractions that can easily discourage you. So pray for God to keep you safe in his arms. But when you pray you may not feel any emotional high. You might feel that your prayer is hitting a thick wall and not getting through to heaven. But do not count your prayers as lost.
God is ever listening. And when you pray much, there will come an assurance at some moment—before the sermon, at the time of entering the pulpit or when you are speaking—that God has heard. It is this preparation in prayer that gives your sermon the power needed to touch hearts and minds with the proclamation of God’s Word.
Seeking the Help of the Spirit of God
Even when God employed men across centuries to write the Bible, the real author of the Bible is the Spirit of God. He can bring to life what is written and impart that life to the listeners of the sermon. So seek his help when preaching for wisdom, for authority, and for empowerment to preach.
The Spirit of God cannot operate through an unclean vessel. So seek his help to purify your heart and mind by the blood of Jesus. The Spirit of God will not bless your sermon if you have not done the hard work of diligent study and preparation because you cannot expect to approach God’s Word casually and expect results. The Spirit of God will not operate when the preacher is more interested in airing his own opinions, discussing current events, and using the sermon for political purposes.
The interesting fact is that a preacher might feel totally inadequate, feel lack of courage in his heart, and maybe not physically at his best. The preacher might feel that he will not be able to preach at all. Yet in these moments of weakness, the Spirit of God moves mightily. And when you think that the sermon did not come out well, the Spirit of God would have used it to bring God’s purposes to be fulfilled.
Understanding the Focus
The Bible deals with history, poetry, preaching, prophecy, prayer, promises, commands, instructions, and so on. But the purpose of the Bible is to help us understand God’s intervention in human history through Jesus Christ. And the focus of the Bible is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and his shed blood there for the forgiveness of sins. A preacher has to keep this in mind always whatever topic he is called to preach.
The apostles had nothing else to preach. They preached Christ and him crucified. They preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the gospel. Everything else is secondary.
But know one thing. Preaching Jesus is not popular today. Yet, Jesus himself said that the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms testify about him. So as a preacher you might be talking sacrifices in the Old Testament. You can tell your audience how sacrifices in the Old Testament were a shadow of the cross. You might be talking about Old Testament laws and regulations. You can tell your audience how Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the predictions of the Prophets. You might be preaching on promises in the Old Testament. You can tell your audience that these promises are made real to us through Jesus as we approach God in his name.
So when you prepare a sermon, one question you have to ask yourself is, how can I relate it to Jesus and how can I bring the attention of the audience to the blood of Jesus through this sermon? For whatever a sermon does; whether it inspires, it persuades, it influences, it informs, it entertains; nothing saves but the blood of Jesus. When you have an intent to speak on the blood of Jesus, God will give the wisdom and the communication skill needed to integrate it into the sermon.
A preacher is not called to be popular. Instead he is called to preach the truth faithfully. Therefore he cannot please men. Often he becomes a fool for Christ while preaching. He is called to present the truth about sin, unbelief, the wrath of God, the reality of hell, the second coming of Jesus and final judgement. At the same time he is called to preach God’s love, mercy, compassion, and to communicate hope and the certainty of life after death to all who believe and trust in Jesus.
We are called to speak the truth in love. That means we should not preach with a self-righteous attitude—that is with a holier-than-you-all attitude.
Then, there are truths in the Bible which go against popular vote today. It can be in areas of personal holiness, relationships, money management, communication and many other areas. For example, the New Testament teaches that a believer is not to seek to marry an unbeliever. We have an Old Testament example of Wise King Solomon led astray by ungodly wives he married. You have to preach this truth.
Another example is that of mocking, scoffing, gossip, or slander. You have to tell your audience that engaging in all these kind of talk is sin. And according to what Jesus warned there is going to come a time we have to give account for all these.
Now is preaching the truth easy? Absolutely not. As a preacher the first instinct will be that of self-preservation. The second instinct is to please the crowd. The third instinct is to exhibit our knowledge. The next instinct might be to show off our communication skills. And so on. But when preaching the truth takes priority expect people to criticize you or even hate you or speak against you. Great popularity is no indicator of being faithful to preaching the truth.
Communicating Using Stories
Jesus made his teaching memorable by simple stories he used. They are called parables. Many preachers, in an attempt to display their scholarship, forget this powerful tool in their hands. Often relevant stories used to illustrate a truth preached stays in the minds of audiences even when they forget the rest of the sermon. So choose simple stories from your own life, from literature, from what you read on the internet or watched in a movie. The art of storytelling is mastered over time. You need to have a passion for storytelling to succeed.
There are some simple principles that will help you. Keep stories short and simple. Let it highlight one truth or point in your story. If you are using a story in your intro, make sure that it is connected to the main thought of your sermon. It should lead into the body of the sermon.
Too many stories can be an overkill. But using one story or illustration to highlight a point can be really helpful. Stories from the life of missionaries can be really encouraging.
A story that is often told in sermons is that of a small wooden boat a boy made and which was lost when he floated it in running waters. Later he sees that in a shop and buys that. Then he says to the boat, ”Now you’re twice mine: first, I made you, and now I bought you.” This story has been told time and again, but still tells us about how Jesus redeemed us. So try to communicate truths using stories.
Compassion for People
One of the main highlights of Jesus’ life was that he was moved with compassion for people. A preacher is not someone who looks down on people but recognizes that he himself is a sinner saved by grace. When he recognizes that God has shown him great mercy and has forgiven him much, he will display the same compassion to people whom he is preaching to. Such sermons help people to experience the love of God.
But when people preach prosperity, there is no compassion because they are employing deception to mislead the crowd to a gospel which neither Jesus nor his disciples preached. When people preach doctrinal issues more than Christ, they have no compassion because they are ignoring the heart-cry of the audience to experience God. Instead of helping them drink from God’s Word; they muddy the waters so that it becomes impossible to experience God.
Now, compassion for people will not come automatically. It is a burden even Moses found hard to bear. Paul too was burdened by his concern for the churches. Compassion can come only to a shepherd-heart. There is great breaking of heart when you have compassion for God’s people. God moves and touches people through broken and contrite hearts.
Jesus often was burdened when he saw that the people were like a flock without a shepherd. He is looking today for people who will stand in the gap and plead for God’s people like how Abraham did for Lot. Today God’s people are being destroyed because of lack of knowledge, because of the worries of daily living, because of divisions in the church, and because of lack of teaching of God’s word in the church. So speak to people with God’s compassion that in their brokenness, they might find the healing touch of God.
Understanding a Passage
Read a passage thoroughly before you start preparing a sermon. It doesn’t matter if your sermon is based on a text, a topic, or whether it is inductive or deductive or expository or whatever technical term is used to describe your sermon. Read a passage or passages thoroughly before you start preparing. Understand the historical context in which it was written.
There will be literary or grammatical or semantic highlights of the passage you might need to explore (use appropriate hermeneutical/exegetical resources to do so).
For example, Jesus’ sixth word on the cross, “It is finished,’ is one word in the Greek, “Tetelestai.” It means paid in full and was a kind of seal used in transactions of the day when payment was done in full. These kind of details can help the audience better appreciate the truth.
Use the information you gather to supplement the truth you are preaching and not make it the chief focus in your sermon. For example, there is great debate about when Jesus is coming back. Is it pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or post tribulation? It is easy to go around explaining all the points and taking your stand on it. But what is the main point? The main point is that it is certain that Jesus is coming soon and we have to be ready looking forward to his coming whenever that might happen; isn’t it?
Try to Have a Grip of the Timeless Message
An example can make it clear. Jonah’s story is one of disobedience. It is as clear as daylight. But in that story is a greater message of God’s compassion and mercy shown to a merciless people (the Ninevites). And God’s great desire to reach out to people who live in ignorance and sin and darkness and bondage with his love and mercy; giving them a chance to repent.
It was the reason why God created the storm and made a big fish to swallow Jonah and to vomit him onto dry land after three days and nights and brought him back to preach a message of repentance. Jonah being in the belly of the fish three days and three nights is referred to by Jesus as a sign of his own resurrection from the dead thus proving him to be Messiah. These are the timeless message here.
Again, when people preach on the parable of the Prodigal Son or the parable of the Good Samaritan, there is a modern trend to read into the story current psychological research and findings. All this is good intellectual exercise. But the bottom line in these stories is the joy of finding someone who was lost and his restoration to fellowship; and showing mercy to a total stranger as an illustration of the teaching of love your neighbour as yourself. Do not miss these timeless messages while dissecting a passage for your sermon.
Help People to Know What Action to Take
“Repent,” is a consistent message of the Bible. It is not just being sorry for your sins. There should be a change in one’s life. Help people understand what action they have to take to make the message real in their lives.
There has to be action if the message has to be effective. If the message does not deal with practical things that has to do with attitudes of your heart, words of your mouth and actions that you take; then it is just an academic exercise.
For example, one of the areas people struggle with is time spent on their mobiles engaging with social media. Telling them to spent time with God might not help. Instead ask them specifically not to touch their mobiles in the morning without having spent an hour reading God’s Word. Well, people might be shocked. But at least they will have an idea about giving God first priority in the morning.
Again, when you teach about maintaining purity, you may need to spell out action that need to be taken. For that, you might need to tell people that they have to run away from sources of temptation like how Joseph did. And how to use Scripture to defeat the devil like how Jesus did saying, “It is written.” And again, how they can claim victory over the devil and overcome him by the blood of the Lamb of God (see Revelation 12:11). And again, how they can use the shield of faith to put out all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Be Willing to Be Rejected
When you speak God’s Word truthfully, the chances are that you will face rejection. Like how God said to Ezekiel: “You are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice (Ezekiel 33:32 NIV 1984).”
The first thing to remember is that people are very much impatient these days. They want to be entertained. They want showmanship on stage. But that is not possible when you preach the Word of God truthfully. So they will complain if it goes a little longer than they expected. Then there will be people who come to advise you about how to tone down your message so that it will suit the congregation.
The greatest offense comes when you preach on sin, the cross, the blood of Jesus, the second coming of Jesus, the wrath of God, coming judgment, and hell. The point is that you cannot be a preacher of God’s Word and at the same time please men. Is it easy? The answer is a big NO.
Preaching is challenging because the audience comprises young and old, men and women and children too. There can be people with all kinds of attitudes and needs in the audience. There will be some who are bored and find listening to sermons a chance to sleep. There will be people who are ready to criticize and find fault with every word you say. Children can be distracted as they may not make much sense of what you say (unless you start with an engaging story they can follow). And there will be those who are playing with their mobiles.
But certainly there will be many who are facing difficulties in life and coming to listen to the sermon to hear an encouraging word from God that can give them hope and courage. So the introduction becomes important as that unveils before them what is coming later in the sermon, and what they can expect to take home from their sermon.
Whatever it be, the introduction should capture attention. It is said that you get around 3 seconds to engage someone as far as a web page is concerned. In speech it could be a little longer. But there should be something in your opening remarks that would hook audiences. There is no universally true method, but you can experiment. Some will succeed; some will fail. It’s all a learning experience.
This is an intro to a sermon I attempted years ago in my youthful enthusiasm:
April 20, 1814 Paris, France.
Napoleon bids farewell to his old guards.
Soldiers of my Old Guard: I bid you farewell. For twenty years I have constantly accompanied you on the road to honor and glory.
February 11, 1861.
President-Elect Abraham Lincoln bids farewell at Springfield, Illinois.
My friends: No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return . . . .
11 December 1936
King Edward VIII gave this farewell address after having abdicated the throne of England to marry the lady he loved. This is what he said:
At long last I am able to say a few words of my own. I have never wanted to withhold anything, but until now it has not been constitutionally possible for me to speak.
A few hours ago I discharged my last duty as King and Emperor, and now that I have been succeeded by my brother, the Duke of York, my first words must be to declare my allegiance to him. This I do with all my heart.
[By this time the audience in the church were visibly disturbed thinking that I totally missed the fact this is sermon in a church and not a speech to a secular audience. Then I said:]
2000 years ago,
another man gave a farewell address. And he was no ordinary man. He said:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am (John 14:1–3 NIV 1984).”
If you ask me, I might not attempt this introduction these days; because it is a bit long. But it has one redeeming aspect; that is it succeeded in building the mood of a farewell address. In fact, we shouldn’t forget that Jesus spoke these words to his disciples who were unsettled at heart by the news that Jesus was soon to be betrayed and that he will leave them.
Perhaps this introduction that I attempted was a failure because it violated audience expectation about a sermon introduction too much. Or it might have done its purpose of making the audience listen intently because they thought the preacher had mistaken the sermon to be a speech to a secular audience.
But my point is that, you should try to experiment with new approaches to introductions rather than fit into stereotyped moulds which makes people lose interest at the beginning of your sermon itself. Without any doubt, the worst beginning is: “Today the topic given to me is . . .” They will switch off active hearing and tune out immediately.
Here’s an example of beginning a sermon with a simple illustration or story: Speech on Gratitude.
Many preachers summarize the points they had said. Others focus on the call for action. Some end with a brief story that crystallizes the main emphasis of their sermon in the minds of the audience. Whatever it be, the conclusion is perhaps the most important part of the sermon and the time when perhaps the audience interest will be very high. So be ready to go for a strong conclusion and do not leave it to chance. Be thoroughly prepared with a conclusion.
The following conclusion was planned but the question at the end came at that particular moment. I would say it was God-given. “The Bible is a book of invitations. Jesus called disciples to himself saying, “Come, follow me.” In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened.” At the last day of the Feast of tabernanacles Jesus cried out saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” The Book of Revelation ends with a picture of the River of the Water of Life flowing. And the Spirit of God and the bride say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Are you thirsty? Amen.
Here is another incident which I used as a conclusion in another sermon: The Stranger with a One Line Haunting Message.
Sometimes preachers make the mistake of taking too much time with one point and then finding that they have to rush through other points. This gives the false impression that one point was more important than all the others. Or in a much worse judgement; the audience will think of the sermon as poorly constructed. Don’t worry too much if this has happened to you. That is how it is in the beginning days of preaching. It is only with experience that this sense of balance to be maintained will become part of your strength in preaching.
The lack of balance happens for several reasons. One point is more dear to you and you spend much more time on it. But what can be more true is that you fail to think-through the other points. See, borrowed ideas has to be made your own. You should take time to prayerfully think-through those ideas in the light of God’s Word. You have to develop that thought. It takes time. Failure to do so is what often results in lack of balance.
Or it can be because you have too many points. For example, if you find that Point #1 and Point #2 have been well-developed in a 3-point sermon; and there is not full maturity of thought with Point #3; it is better that you leave out Point #3 and then develop the first two points to their fullest strength and impact.
When you travel on the road signposts help you to navigate. It helps you know where you have reached and how much more you have to travel to reach destination. Similarly a preacher has to employ transitions to help the audience travel along with them. First, second, third is a simple way to help audience understand the main points. At the same time, it is important that you use creative transitions from the intro to the body of the speech.
After giving a quick intro about the story of Eric Liddell, you can use a statement like: So the story of Eric Liddell is a great motivation for us to remain faithful to God’s call in our lives. Or, Eric Liddell and his passion for running should remind us that we too are called to run the race of faith and to finish strong.
Equally important is how you end each segment. When you do so; you should attempt to close that segment before moving forward. Say something like, we have now had a look at how God provides for the needs of his children. Now let us take a look at how God protects his children. Such transitions help the audience to easily have a position check as to exactly where they are at the moment, where they are headed to and how long it might take to reach there.
A preacher has to be in touch with people. Jesus was always in touch with people. A preacher has to be like that. He has to know what people think, fear, dream about, and struggle with. A preacher’s role is to help people understand that they have a God whom they can approach with freedom, boldness and confidence calling him, “Abba Father.”
A preacher’s role is to help people understand that God cares about them. A preacher’s role is to decrease while God grows big in the minds of the audience. A preacher’s role is not to report what the newspapers discuss about current events or discuss theological jargon but to shine the spotlight on Jesus.
The comment, “It was a good sermon”; though it is pleasing to the preacher’s ears, falls short of, “I was able to experience God through your sermon.”
The preacher is called to preach the foolishness of the cross. He is called to walk close with God. A preacher therefore has to avoid and remove from his life anything that hinders the message of the cross.
A humble heart which is sensitive to the voice of the Holy Spirit and trembles at God’s Word and cleasned and sanctified by the blood of Jesus is what a preacher should be. In every sense, all this is not accomplished in a day or two but is a lifelong process as God chisels away at the preacher shaping him to declare his message with humility as well as Spirit-filled boldness.
There is nothing to be surprised if you face depression after a sermon. The classic case of Elijah is enough to understand this. After the mighty demonstration of God’s power on Mount Carmel, he is discouraged.
In a similar way, after a sermon, it is quite natural to be discouraged. It can simply be a case of physical fatigue. Or it can be because you didn’t see God’s fireworks happening. The simplest thing you can do is to thank God that he gave you grace to preach. And leave the results with God. The messenger has only one duty: deliver the message faithfully. People might accept or reject it.
But there is one thing you can do and should do. Revisit your notes a few days later and try to find out where you can improve the presentation. Maybe the sermon might have been better if you had edited out a few sections. Might be you could have quoted a more appropriate verse. You could have improved your conclusion.
Such an evaluation is an attempt to improve on the best you did. Yes, being dissatisfied with your best is one sure way to improve. Learn from the past; but always look forward.
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