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That I Should Preach: importance of theme

Every sermon begins

in moments of quiet and prayer

“Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints,
is this grace given,
that I should preach” —Ephesians 3:8

Every preacher has had that moment in which the sermon worked well. Every preacher has also had that moment when the sermon fell short, and more often than not, the failure could be traced to poor planning. Rather than having something to say we had to say something, and therein was the problem. We needed to preach the word of God, and the people needed to hear the word of God, but neither need was met. We prayed, we even quoted Scripture, but our efforts were as weak as the mighty Samson shorn of hair, sight, strength. Lincoln reportedly said that a man should fight bees when he preaches. In our case, though, we fought only the ticking of the clock. If our audience were anxious, it was only because they were anxious for us to finish.
Call it a sixth sense, but every speaker knows when the interaction between audience and speaker is right and when it is not. No sermon ever fails, of course, in the ultimate sense—

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please  —Isaiah 55:11.

Nothing we ever do for God is ever lost. We know this. We also know the exhilaration from a sermon that has hit its mark. Both audience and speaker are very much aware when a man has fought bees: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

The question, though, seems to be what was it in that moment that made the moment? The answer is rather simple if we think about it. The sermon is a speech and as a speech involves the interaction of speaker, message, and audience. Remove any one of these three components, and there is no speech. A preacher who is speaking only to himself is not preaching even if there is standing room only. A speech has to be directed to someone, and perhaps, here is where our preparation must begin.

Speak to people

It is the audience, after all, that determines the scope of a speech. A speech is more than disseminating information, more than merely delineating facts. A speech on computer engineering would probably not be very effective at a funeral. A defense attorney at court speaking to a jury about how to make potato soup would soon find himself in a soup of malpractice of law. A speaker simply cannot neglect his audience and the expectations of that audience. What if you ordered ice cream but the waiter served you fish because salmon is what he liked?

The sermon is no different. Consider, for a moment, the perspective of someone who visits a worship service. He is not a member, and may know little or nothing of what God expects of him, but he has come before the Lord. Paul counseled those at Corinth to be aware of how others might regard them should the service be inappropriate or confusing: “Will they not say that ye are mad?” (1 Cor. 14:23). If a visitor is ignored, the gospel is dishonored. Andrew Blackwood in one of his many books on sermon preparation suggests four reasons why someone may visit a worship service:

He wishes to worship God.
He comes seeking forgiveness for a life gone wrong.
He needs the warmth of a genuine friend.
He comes because life no longer has answers.

Any one of these four motives, of course, could become the basis of a sermon, but let’s look at the one about coming to worship God. We could, of course, begin with any of the four possible themes and the resulting process would be largely the same. The point is that if we begin with a guest-centered theme, the sermon preparation must follow accordingly with every phase of that preparation focusing on the need of our guest. It much like having someone visit us at our

home. We do everything we can to make the person feel welcome. We offer our guests the best chair. “Sit here, sit here,” we say. We graciously offer them the best piece of chicken while we take a cold ‘tater and wait. When company comes down the road, we want to be hospitable.  We want people to feel welcome. “Y’all come back, ya hear?” Church is really no different. The focus needs to be on our guest, on the person who has come before God to worship.

None of us would ever think of going up to a personal friend and saying, “I was just thinking about cabbages and keys.” Out of courtesy our friend might listen to us for a few minutes, but any discussion with no immediate relevancy to the point at hand would soon be dismissed as a mere waste of time. Or, as Paul asked, “Would they not say you are mad?” A topic even among friends in private small talk must have some sense of relevancy. However, if my friend happened to have a hobby that involved the study of cabbages, the subject might prove most interesting, but for most of us, cabbages and keys make as much sense as a sermon that has no immediate purpose for an audience. Even small talk begins with some sense of shared interests and a sermon is no different. Audience, then, is the place to begin in thinking about a sermon, about how to frame a sermon. If a man comes our way to worship God, and my discourse is framed to talk with someone about such a subject, there is hope that the gospel may not only be preached, but also be heard. Certainly, the gospel must be preached, but it must be preached to people.

Begin before you begin the sermon

The question here, then, is how might I prepare a sermon to meet such a need? If worshiping God needs to be my theme, how can I create a message around that theme? How can I help this man who has come before God to be more aware of God? Actually, if we think about it, building a sermon around a theme is not all that difficult.

No, I do not mean preaching a series of sermons on a given topic. We are not talking about subject or content. If the soup is terrible, serving more soup to our guests only makes the matter and the meal worse. Preaching a series of poorly prepared sermons is hardly the solution.  More sermons is not what is needed.

We’re talking about people, about meeting the needs of someone who has come before God to worship. God has given us the chance to talk to a man about his soul, but instead we talk about politics, or about whether or not communion should be offered on Sunday evening. We might as well be talking about cabbage and kings and whether the sea is boiling hot. We are not deriding other topics. We are saying make the message fit the man in the same way a tailor makes the shirt fit the man.

Know when to stop

The first step in sermon preparation, then, is to be aware that we need a theme that fits an audience. In our scenario, our theme is that of worshiping God; our audience, that of the guest who has come before God to worship. We have the size of the shirt. We have the material. Our next step is to cut out the pieces and to sew the pieces together into a coherent whole.

And we will do just that in another article, but not now. For now, we need to complete our thought.  We need to finish and to talk about the importance of finishing.  Otherwise, we might be accused of not knowing when to stop, accused of being verbose, loquacious, even tedious.  People might even come to think of us as a bore.

Brevity is the soul of wit and it is also the soul of a good sermon.  Shorter, however, does not mean better.  Two points and a poem might qualify as a nice talk, but it hardly qualifies as a sermon.  Brevity does not mean how long we may talk.  The point is we need a point, and we need to come to that point directly, and quickly, and without deviation. The sacred Scripture repeatedly tells us of how the Christ straightway lived and spoke the word of God.  Speak as long as necessary, but no longer. The word of the Lord will accomplish the intended purpose of God. God will see to that, not us.

Preach in faith, preach in humility, but preach knowing that saying more will not necessarily accomplish more. If the sermon has not hit its mark, further rambling will not help.  It may, in fact, hurt the message we want to herald.

If I may cite a short dialogue from Alice in Wonderland

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

With this article, we started at the beginning and now have come to our end, and so, we shall stop. Even a sermon must know when to stop and so should an article about how to cast a sermon. We shall end then with the promise of returning later. We end then with the famous words of John Donne—

“I preach as if never to preach again,
as a dying man to dying men.”

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