Category Archives: Stage 1 – Passage Selection

Creative Christmas Sermon Options

Christmas Dog2Christmas services are just a few weeks away.  You might be getting excited, or dreading another Christmas and the need to generate more messages when the obvious options feel well worn.  Here are some other angles to consider:

Prophecies - there are some key Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah 7:14, Isaiah 9:6, Micah 5:2, even Jeremiah 31:15.  Why not take an Old Testament approach to Christmas hopes this year?

People – maybe you have preached through Matthew’s opening chapters, but have you preached the four other ladies in Matthew’s genealogy . . . Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the one “who had been Uriah’s wife.”  Four ladies with question marks over their morality, rightly or wrongly, that set up the lady who has to be in the genealogy (also with a question mark hanging over her morality, wrongly in her case).  Or perhaps you might trace the Gentiles in the genealogy to show the greater scope of the Christmas hope?

Themes – why not track a theme this year that could be developed with one week in the Old Testament, one week in the Christmas narratives and one week later on in the gospels or epistles.  For example, consider the Immanuel theme from Isaiah 7:14-9:7, emphasized in Matthew 1, continued for our age in Matthew 28:20.

Less Obvious Passages – perhaps you might consider the less obvious Christmas passages, ie. those that aren’t in early Matthew or Luke.  You have the prologue to John’s Gospel, giving the other side of the story, if you like.  Or you have references like Galatians 4:4 and similarly Incarnation focused passages like Titus 2:11-14.

Christmas Titles – it would be interesting to explore the titles used in the Christmas narratives – Jesus, Saviour, Immanuel, King, etc.

Carol Theology – while some are keen to cut down the errors in the carols, there are some great truths encapsulated in the carols too.  Perhaps you could take Hark the Herald Angels Sing or another carol and trace the biblical background to a verse each week.  Different, but for some congregations this might be a blessing.  Remember that you are preaching the Bible, not the carol.

Contemporary Emphases - you could take key emphases in the world’s view of Christmas and present a positive biblical engagement with each one.  Gifts, peace, goodwill, family, etc.

November is here, Christmas is coming.  Let’s not have our pulpits filled with preachers trying to hide a creative fatigue over such a great subject.  Let’s take a new angle, dive into the Bible and preach with hearts spilling over!

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Preaching Big Books

BigBook2Perhaps you shy away from preaching series from the bigger books in the Bible?  Maybe it would help to think differently about big book series.  There is more than one way to preach a series from a big book (like a major prophet or Acts):

The one way – the traditional approach would be to start at the beginning and work meticulously through each passage.  It might take a couple of years to get through, but it might be worth it.  God can certainly use a book like Isaiah or Chronicles to shape your church.  At the same time, people may grow slightly disenchanted after a while.  So perhaps you’ve avoided these longer books?

Other approaches:

1. Whole Book, Varied Text Length – Just as the label suggests, you can still preach the whole book, but don’t always preach the same length textual units.  To cover a few verses one week and a few chapters another week can add energy and momentum to a series.

2. Whole Book, Highlight Texts - Again, my labels are giving the game away here, but you can also preach the whole book by offering sample highlights from each section.  Carefully done this can motivate people to read the whole for themselves, which is never a bad by-product of your preaching.

3. Section of Book – God did give us 66 whole books, but I think it is allowed to take a key section and preach it methodically.  Some sections of books are bigger in size and richer in content than other entire books, so why not?  Just remember to keep the section in its larger context as you study and preach.

4. Whole Book in One, Plus Whatever – To start or finish the series, why not preach the book as a whole in some way?  By doing this you give the benefit of the big picture, and also have the freedom to not cover every detail in the rest of the series.

5. Section Overview, then Highlights – Another approach is to give a big picture of a section, followed by a highlight passage in that section.  Then the next two weeks do the next section.  For instance, you could preach an overview of Isaiah 1-12, followed by a week in Isaiah 6 alone.  Then overview Isaiah 13-27, followed by Isaiah 25 alone.  Etc.

There are other approaches too.  Feel free to share any ideas I’ve missed here…

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The Biggest Lesson for Preachers from Kids Books and Movies?

movie2We live in a world that is marked more by narrative than we tend to acknowledge.  Stories are not just for children, the movie industry is massive, so is TV advertising, and sports journalism, and all of these are profoundly narratival in form.  So what might be the biggest lesson for preachers from children’s books and movies?

How about this: people still appreciate them second and third time.

I have a two and a half year old who will happily hear the same story over and over again each night.  There are numerous books to choose from, but she will often pick the same one to experience again.  Somehow knowing how the story goes doesn’t change her appetite for hearing it.

I think most of us will gladly watch certain movies again.  Even with the constant stream of new movies being released, there is something familiar and powerful about experiencing an old favourite again.  Even knowing the ending, there is always more to appreciate.

So what does this mean for preachers?  When you have a familiar narrative to preach, be sure to tell the story!

It is tempting to think that people know it and so you can skim the storytelling part and dive into some nuanced theological construct or applicational point.  Don’t do that!  Be sure to tell the story and tell it well.  Why?

1. Stories work even when people know the ending.  The point of a story is not simply to find out what happens, but also to experience the journey.  The identification with characters, the tension, the resolution, etc., will all work in people who know how it turns out.

2. God inspired many narratives because they do a work in people.  When we finish reading the Bible that does not mean we have exhausted it – we have only just begun!  God knew that life is lived in narrative and so we identify most readily with narrative.  Let the text do its work in listeners and don’t short change them.

3. There is always more to see and feel in a story.  The story may be the same as last time it was preached (although don’t give yourself or other preachers too much credit here – there are a lot of Bible stories preached poorly!)  But your listeners are not the same people they were last time . . . life has happened, their story has moved on.  So they will engage the story in a fresh way.

4. People appreciate hearing the narratives.  Our goal in preaching is not originality of content, but presentation of the gospel and transformation of life.  Telling a familiar story well will do both.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 4

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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4. Areas for special attention

So let’s try and get down to nuts and bolts. What practical steps can we take to try and improve our preaching of wisdom literature?

1. Beware of self-improvement. It is all too easy to focus on the fact that Job ended up with more stuff at the end of the story than he had when it started, or to preach Proverbs 22:4 in such a way that we motivate our listeners with the prospect of material blessings now, rather than the glorious treasure that awaits us when Christ appears. It’s true, wisdom literature seems at times to focus on material blessings in this life, but I think there is more going on here – and more on that later.

2. Beware of making promises out of proverbs. Yesterday, I mentioned the example of Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”), we need to teach this in a way which both understands and communicates that proverbs are generally true, they not promises. This proverb is saying that if 100 sets of parents train their children up in the gospel, more will become followers of Christ than won’t, but this is not a promise that 100% will. Wisdom literature often provides us with general truths, not promises to be claimed.

3. Preach thought units. In his excellent book “Preaching With Variety”, Jeffrey Arthurs points out that Proverbs are often grouped together, though the connection between them can be quite subtle and not always obvious. Look hard, reflect, pray to identify those units of thought. And don’t be afraid to use a good commentary. Arthurs also suggests taking a more thematic approach to Proverbs, where you can draw together a few proverbs on the same theme (laziness, alcohol, parenting, old-age and youth) from different parts of the book. Also, there’s nothing wrong with simply preaching a whole sermon on one proverb.

In other wisdom books, the units of thought are often much larger. I’ve heard of someone preaching through Job a verse a week, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

We will complete this list next time . . .

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 3

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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3. Be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature.

I’ve already mentioned some of the challenges in teaching wisdom. But there are other challenges – how about the theological question of preaching wisdom literature? Think of some of the big Bible themes – creation, sin, promise, redemption, and so on. When you dive into wisdom literature, it can seem as though these big subjects get very little development as we read through the wisdom literature. And even when they are mentioned, it might be hard to see how our understanding is developed therein. Song of Solomon is a good example – I mean, what is it about? There’s a whole lot of stuff in there on men and women and well… you know what I mean. But what has this got to do with those important big Bible doctrines? If you’ve read anything on the Song of Solomon, you’ll see this tension getting to people – there’s a big debate going on – some people will tell you that it’s basically some kind of sex manual for happily married Christians, others will tell you that it is nothing of the sort, that it is a book about Christ and his church. I’ll leave you to do the reading on that, but I’m convinced that the argument itself comes from this apparent disappearance of the grand narrative of the Bible story. I say apparent because we’ll pick up on this later in the week.

Another problem, more practical perhaps, comes when we try to preach from a book like Proverbs. How should we divide the text up? A chapter at a time? A verse at a time? Is there really a connection between these proverbs that can help us draw our thinking together into a unified sermon message? And what about Job? Even breaking the text up into sizeable chunks is still likely to make for a lengthy sermon series. Or Ecclesiastes – how many messages are you going to take to get through this book? One or more?

Then there’s the issue of how wisdom literature functions. Think of verses like Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) or Proverbs 15:22 (“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”) Don’t many of us will know godly parents who faithfully taught their children the gospel all their lives, and whose hearts are now breaking for those same children as they are far from Christ? And didn’t Rehoboam surround himself with not one but two teams of counsellors?

I’ll attempt some answers tomorrow, but for now let’s be aware of the challenges in preaching wisdom literature, and not rush in without a proper respect for the sophistication of this beautiful genre.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – Part 2

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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2. Know why it is important to preach wisdom

With the exception of the Psalms, wisdom literature is very often neglected by Bible teachers and readers alike. Why is this, and what do we miss out on when we neglect wisdom literature?

Firstly, we miss out on the necessity of reflection. Now of course, all scripture requires us to reflect on it, and to meditate on it. But think about it for a moment, I was preaching recently on Luke 14 and an incident of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. It was a narrative passage, and so none of us in the room had much of a problem with what the passage was saying in the immediate sense – a sick man came to Jesus on the Sabbath, and Jesus healed him. I suspect that sadly, not everyone hearing that sermon believed that the miracle actually happened, and sadly, not everyone understood the significance of what Luke was saying about who Jesus is, but do I think that at the very least, everyone present understood the passage in it’s immediate sense – that Luke says a sick man came to Jesus and that he got healed by Jesus.

But imagine now that I am preaching this Sunday on Proverbs 30:18-19:-

18 “There are three things that are too amazing for me,

four that I do not understand:

19 the way of an eagle in the sky,

the way of a snake on a rock,

the way of a ship on the high seas,

and the way of a man with a young woman.

What is the immediate meaning of this passage? What is it saying, in order for us to reflect on it? That’s a bit harder, isn’t it? And I suspect that many of us stop reading at this point, and flick over to Philippians to find something with a clearer immediate meaning. But this is the point – wisdom literature underlines to us the necessity of reflection. This proverb is inviting me to stop what I’m doing, to reflect, to take time to think about what this could possibly mean, what the connection is between these four “ways” and in doing so, to get a little wiser.

Many of us don’t like reflection. We live in the internet age of social media and immediate information, preferably in 160 characters or less. But wisdom literature defies that approach to life and demands that we slow down, maybe even that we stop what we are doing, and that we consider. Sadly one of the reasons why we neglect wisdom literature, is that we have lost the art of reflection.

Think of the book of Job – it’s a long book. Who of us hasn’t struggled through some of those passages and wondered if it will ever end? Again it’s tempting to turn forward a few hundred pages in order to find something a little easier to understand – but that is kind of the point and it’s all wrapped up in the genre itself. We might be looking for an easy answer to the problem of suffering, something we can post on Twitter or Facebook, but God refuses to give us that kind of answer, He gives us a proper answer, He gives us the book of Job. And it is a cosmically-proportioned book, to discuss a cosmic struggle.

So let’s know why it’s important to preach wisdom. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the specific challenges.

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Guest Series: Preaching Wisdom – 1. What is Wisdom?

wisdom1Guest blog: My good friend, Huw Williams, has offered this series on preaching wisdom literature.  Huw is the pastor of the International Church in Torino, Italy, where he lives with his wife and daughter.  Here is his personal blog.  Thanks Huw!

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We’re going to think this week about preaching wisdom literature. It’s a big subject, so let’s pitch right in and ask, how can we improve our preaching of this important genre? Firstly…

1. …Understand what wisdom is.

What exactly is biblical wisdom? Perhaps the easiest way to answer this question, is to look at a passage – not in one of the wisdom books ironically – but a very important narrative in 1 Kings 12. Solomon, the archetypal wise king, has died and his son Rehoboam is taking the throne. The people of Israel come to him and say “Your Dad laid a heavy burden on us in taxes and so on, so lighten it for us.” What is Rehoboam going to do?

He starts well – he gets counsel. First, he listens to his father Solomon’s old advisers. They tell him “Do as the people say and they will serve you totally.” Next he takes counsel from his old school buddies, and they tell him that he needs to stamp his authority on this people, make a statement, show them that he is not to messed with. “My little finger is thicker than my father’s thigh… he disciplined you with whips, I will discipline you with scorpions.” That ought to do it – that’ll show them who’s boss. So who is Rehoboam going to listen to? – And here’s the point, because for a Hebrew reader, this decision has “wisdom” and “folly” written all over it. Solomon’s counsellors are older, they are experienced in helping to run a country, they have spent a lot of time with wise King Solomon and they would have learned from his wisdom. Rehoboam’s old school pals are young, have no experience of running a kingdom, and not much experience of life, either. To the Hebrew mind, it’s a ‘no-brainer’. A wise man is going to listen to the wise old counsellors and the foolish man is going to listen to the foolish young counsellors. Which will Rehoboam do? Will he show himself to be wise or foolish? I’m sure you know, and the rest as they say, is history.

And this is invaluable to us in understanding biblical wisdom. For us Westerners especially, when we think of wisdom our minds go very quickly to intelligence. We tend to think that the cleverer, the more educated a person is, the wiser he/she will be. But that is a Western idea, not a particularly biblical one. I imagine that Rehoboam’s young counsellors had a good education, but they were still foolish by way of their youth and inexperience. Many of us live in a culture which is obsessed with the idol of youth. We are drawn to young people with new, fresh ideas. But again that is a Western idea, not an expecially biblical one. In biblical cultures, older people were held with higher regard than younger people because of their years, their experience and hence their relative wisdom. Of course there are exceptions – you will find foolish old people and wise young people in the Bible – Solomon himself, as a young king recognised his need for wisdom and asked God for it – and that’s a big theme in Proverbs for example, of enabling the young to get wisdom. So let’s understand what wisdom is – it is not intelligence, education or information. Wisdom is the knowledge of God and how to live in His world. 

And tomorrow we’ll actually look at some of the wisdom books. I promise.

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 7

PenInk2In this series I have looked at letter openings and closings.  Lots of treasure that is often overlooked and ignored despite being fully inspired and massively preachable!  Here are a few closing ideas to pull the series together:

1. Preach a whole book through the lens of a key element in the letter frame.  By taking an opening greeting, a doxology, or whatever, it is possible to introduce and preach the big message of an entire epistle.  This could function as a stand-alone message.

2. Introduce or conclude a series in a book using opening or closing elements.  Instead of sounding like an introductory page in a study Bible (i.e. just giving a bland author, recipients, date, occasion, map, etc.), diving into the body of an epistle and ignoring the opening or finishing a series abruptly, consider the value of an overview intro or conclusion that is a legitimate exposition of an inspired text.

3. Consider a series of doxologies, closing prayers, or whatever, with whole epistles reinforcing each message in the series.  This would be a challenge for the preacher, and might require some awareness from the listeners, but it could be highly effective.  It would help us break out of a “standard section length for every sermon” approach. Whole books have big ideas that transform lives.  Letter frames offer summaries that root those ideas in shorter texts.

What other ideas would you add?  How have you heard a letter frame preached effectively?

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 6

PenInk2There are some stunning doxologies in the epistles.  They are a potential treasure for preachers:

1. Doxologies tend to offer a succinct overview of the content of a letter.  What the writer was pondering as he wrote or dictated tends to come out in this late point of praise.  As preachers we can tap into that to review or overview the epistle as a whole.

2. Doxologies offer the preacher an opportunity to preach a different genre within the epistle.  Just as introductory and closing materials can offer a more narrative type of content (i.e. accessing the narrative behind the letter), so the doxology allows the preacher to preach something akin to poetry.  Preaching poetry offers something different to the discourse that predominates in the epistles.

Here are some doxologies to ponder:

* Hebrews 13:20-21 . . . The preacher (remember that Hebrews is not an epistle, but rather a sermon with an epistolary postscript) points to God’s raising Jesus from the dead, and to the blood of the eternal covenant, as the one who will equip the hearers to live lives pleasing to Him.  The Jesus-focused encouragement throughout the “letter” is seen even here.

* Jude 24-25 . . . One of the more famous doxologies pointing to God’s ability to guard and protect believers in an antagonistic world.

* 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 . . . An easy one to miss, this is effectively a doxology within the body of the letter (similar to Paul’s explosions of delight at the end of Romans 8 and Romans 11:33-36).

* 2 Corinthians 13:14 . . . Is Paul offering three elements of God’s goodness within a trinitarian framework, or is he actually referring to the One who is the grace and love of the Son and Father, that is, the Holy Spirit?  Jonathan Edwards understood this doxology as being entirely about the Spirit, which would fit a letter gripped by the New Covenant ministry theme.

* 1 Corinthians 16:22-24 . . . A striking and often ignored conclusion to a letter.  Perhaps verse 22 is key to the complexities of church life in Corinth?  I have never heard anybody preach from this section, have you?

* Revelation 2-3 . . . Don’t miss the treasure in Jesus’ seven epistles to the churches of Asia Minor.  Recognizing the consistent themes within and throughout each individual letter is key to making sense of the details.  The promise to the overcomer always makes sense in light of the description of Christ and the commendation/complaint within the letter.

Seems like there is plenty of scope for a series of messages based purely on the doxologies.  After all, pondering the truth and life-changing relevance of the gospel should lead us to praise God!

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Letter Frame – Preacher’s Treasure 5

PenInk2Yesterday we saw that there are a host of ingredients that could go into an epistle closing section.  One way to use the closing is to select an element and preach an overview of the whole epistle using that text.  Some examples:

1. Preaching Final Personal Remarks – Galatians 6:14-15

Paul keeps on reinforcing the big themes of Galatians: it is all about Christ crucified, the promised deliverer, and the work of the Spirit in making us new creatures in relationship with our Abba.  Here Paul gives a Christ and Spirit (New Covenant shorthand term) summation, just to reinforce the point already made in chapters 3-4, in the summary of 5:5-6, etc.  From these two verses you could effectively preach the whole letter.

2. Preaching Concluding Exhortations – Romans 16:17-20

Paul addressed the issue of a disunited Roman church from the beginning of the letter.  The applicational climax in 15:7-13 is brought back here in the final verses of the letter.  Romans could be preached or reviewed with this text, as it could with the doxology to follow in 16:25-27.

3. Preaching Closing Prayer – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

Again, the big themes of the body of the letter are clearly evident in this single verse: sanctification and anticipation of the Lord’s return.

4. Preaching Prayer Request – Colossians 4:2-4

Not only does Paul offer a “practical” prayer request, but it is focused on the key issue of the whole epistle – the person and mystery of Christ.

5. Preaching Greetings – Romans 16:3-16, 21-23

Paul’s list of connections in Rome gives an insight into the constitution of the church in Rome – several Jewish names among a predominantly Gentile group.  This is tricky, but if handled well, this could be a gateway into the issue that Paul has been addressing theologically throughout the letter.

Tomorrow I will almost wrap up the series by looking at doxologies, and then will offer a final post with some big letter-frame preaching suggestions.

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