So you’ve done the sentence flow and worked over the passage, and come up with the theme of the passage, and its aim. You take a fresh page, and you’ve identified the theme and aim of the sermon. Yes?
Let me ask you a question that troubles me about my sermons – given the wide variety of scripture, with differences of time, place and culture but also of styles of literature, why do the sermons come out so similarly?
It’s as though I carefully designed a week’s worth of meals, with a careful balancing of flavours, from recipes taken from around the world, using the freshest of ingredients, and then after cooking each meal I put each one through the blender and produced soup. Every meal was soup.
Do you recognise the problem?
I think one part of the solution is a missing question. As well as theme and aim, we need to ask about the tone of the passage. By which I mean, where does it fit on the emotional register. Is it a careful argument or a song of praise? Is Jesus scorning the hypocrites or welcoming a sinner? Is this an exciting story with lots of tension and release, or a piece of apocalyptic that is on the brink of being indescribable but which makes us catch our breath?
Most of us cut our teeth as preachers on the epistles, or short sections of the gospels. I’m not saying that these are easy nursery slopes, but they are good places to work out the basic skills of analysing and describing a passage’s central point. Equally, in terms of output, most of us learnt to structure our material in a way that matched those first findings. We give cool, descriptive lectures.
But if we take the skills that we learn that way, we shall find that they don’t work quite so well outside that narrow band. Big blocks of narrative, or an allusive proverb don’t yield up their treasures unless we approach them appropriately.
This moment is a fork in the road for a growing preacher. Either we force every kind of passage through the same basic methodology, (producing sermon soup) or we consciously reflect on the kind of material and its tone, and aim to get people to resonate with it.
Don’t mishear me: I’m not saying that our sermons should match that register, otherwise no-one would ever dare to preach Revelation. But there has to be some attempt to help our listeners catch the mood of the passage, and as the Spirit does his work they will find the echo within themselves.