‘Have you preached that sermon before?’
I’ve just been asked the same question, by two different people, about two different sermons. Set in a context of warm appreciation they both asked, ‘Have you preached that sermon before?’
What was it about those sermons that attracted the interest?
The answer, you see, was that in both cases I had not preached them before. They’d been prepped in the week, and served up on the Sunday. The usual drill.
And although I’ve no particularly strong views on the subject, I tend not to re-use old material. Unless something has been prepped for a wider crowd, I tend to believe the old saying that ‘Every sermon has a date and a postcode.’ It’s been written for this congregation, at this moment on our journey, and it feels strangely fake to re-use it somewhere else. I don’t think that means anything beyond the fact that I know I’m not built for an itinerant ministry.
Now, leap with me into the kitchen. If someone says, ‘That chicken was delicious – what did you put in the sauce?’, you’ll probably run of some ingredients and, if you’re English, mumble something about it not being that special. Meanwhile, you’re mind is tracking back, thinking ‘Ooh – that worked. I must remember the difference that not crushing the garlic makes.’
In other words, when you hit on a secret sauce by accident, it’s worth jotting down what went into it, so that next time you can make it on purpose.
So, what was it about those sermons that attracted the interest? What was in the secret sauce?
- They were both relatively unfamiliar passages to most. So that’s an easy win – when you show people a part of the bible they don’t know, and show them how even that part tracks to Jesus, you’re one goal up in the game.
- They were not unfamiliar to me. That’s not a boast – it’s saying that early on I was persuaded of the value of systematic, daily ‘all-through-the-bible-in-a-year’ reading. Lots have bibles had a reading scheme at the back, and some denominations have that habit built into their daily services (although watch out for ones which edit or skip without telling you!). That means that Id read them many times, made comments in the margins of my reading bibles, and given them a chance to occupy my mind. There is a huge advantage for you as your familiarity with the whole Bible accumulates year-on-year.
- Neither passage was an epistle or gospel, where the recipe for making a sermon is more familiar. One was OT narrative, the other OT prophecy, and both therefore required more work from me in helping people cross the preaching bridge. it’s always useful when we have a heightened sensitivity to the need to help people into the passage, and to help them home again afterwards.
- Because of those literary styles, I was consciously trying to connect not just intellectually but imaginatively. A story needs to be allowed to get under people’s skin as a story, and doing that well means that we don’t just recount the events, but that we pay attention to the story-tellers arts of tension and release, maintaining interest, drawing characters and so on. Likewise, poetry has nuance and power from the way it concentrates imagery. In both those cases, then, I was aiming to do far, for more than impart information, because the nature of the material required me to think about how to move people.
- Both sermons had had a number of months on the back burner, because I knew they’d be tricky. When the series were divided up and I knew these two were coming my way, they’d starting rattling round my brain at odd moments. And so they’d had longer to simmer, and for me to spot connections, allusions and applications along the way. These weren’t cobbled together on Saturday night.
The lesson is the importance of keeping on reading the bible freshly.
The challenge is to repeat that lesson on the next, new, box-fresh sermon.