Start early! This is the welcomed advice of Bruce Mawhinney in Preaching with Freshness, Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1991, p. 41). “Early exegesis helps to prevent late eisegesis.” Bruce Mawhinney is senior pastor of New Covenant Fellowship in Mechanicsburg and writes one of the most refreshing books on preaching I have ever read. Preaching with Freshness is a first person narrative on reviving stale preaching. Howard Hendricks said, “If more books on preaching were as interesting as this, then perhaps we would have more interesting preachers.”
The following posts are an overview of the preparation process. We want to start early and with the end in view.
1. Choose the passage
2. Study the passage
3. Discover the main thrust of the passage or the proposition
4. Construct the sermon outline
5. Develop the sermon outline
6. Write the introduction
7. Write the conclusion
In this post, I will briefly discuss the first two steps. Succeeding posts will elaborate.
1. Choose the passage
There are two ways to choose a passage. You can choose a passage in a series which has many built in advantages. If you did the spadework of outlining the book ahead of time this makes choosing the passage simple. Start where you left off in the last sermon. Not only is this an advantage to you but to your members who learn God’s Word in context of the book being preached.
There are, however, also disadvantages of preaching in series. Members may become weary if the series is too long. If the series has died; dismount. Find a good division in the book, stop, and come back later. If you are in Romans 3 and your people are filling in the o’s, d’s, and p’s in the bulletin then close the series on sin at 3:20.
Another disadvantage is not enough variety in preaching. This can be remedied by preaching contrasting series or no series at all in the other services. For example, if you are preaching a verse-by-verse series through Romans on Sundays do a topical or thematic series from Proverbs on Wednesdays. There are contrasts between the Old and New Testaments, genres, subjects and styles of preaching. You can go back and forth with alternating series as just suggested if you only have one main preaching service a week and small groups the rest of the week. Here are Some Practical Tips for Series Preaching Through a Book.
The second way to choose a passage is more difficult. Choose a passage not in series. You can choose a text according to the needs of the congregation or according to the goals of the pastor (Once a year State of the Church sermon), or according to the time of year. I suggest when special times of the year roll around such as Christmas, Easter, the 4th of July or even Memorial Day, break away from the series and meet the expectations of your people and address those special times and themes. All of these should be according to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
2. Study the passage
This takes time. A large block of uninterrupted time early in the morning is usually the best. There is an excellent interview between C. J. Mahaney and Mark Dever on this necessary step. Mark Dever says that he first reads and rereads the passage that he is going to preach and spends about 35 hours a week in sermon preparation. Dever tells the following story to make his point:
Gordon Fee taught me New Testament exegesis at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and—although I didn’t agree with his feminism or his kenotic Christology—I did love his story about the graduate student in ichthyology. There is a student studying fish at a doctoral level, and a world-class expert tells him to write down everything he sees about the fish and then he leaves. And the guy is kind of disappointed, because he was studying under this great expert. He thought, “Why am I doing this?”
He wrote down a few things. The expert returns about 30 minutes later and says, “This is all you’ve got?”
And the graduate student says, “Yes.”
He says, “I want you to do this for the next hour.”
And the student says, “An hour? You’re kidding!”
So for an hour the student does it and he starts noting down more things, and seeing more things, and writing them down.
The expert returns an hour later and he says, “All right. This is a pretty good start. Why don’t you do this the rest of the afternoon?”
And the graduate student is thinking, What are you thinking? You are the great expert, I came to learn from you and this is just a fish floating here.
So the student spends the rest of the afternoon doing the same thing. But by the end of the afternoon he realizes he has learned more about fish just by sitting and staring at the fish.
All of that to say: Rather than reading all the commentaries, I spend my first day in sermon preparation just reading and rereading the text and praying about it and noting things I see (any structures or questions that are answered). I find this to be the most fruitful way for me to have my soul freshly engaged by God about his Word.
The following posts will help in studying the passage:
See “THE FACTUAL DATA” Sheet for Sermon Preparation: (For Pauline Epistles Genre), Part One and “THE FACTUAL DATA” Sheet for Sermon Preparation for Pauline Epistles, Part Two under Category “Homiletics” for more details on studying the passage.
In the next post, we discuss Step 3: Discover the main thrust of the passage or the proposition.