In speaking with a preacher friend recently, I mentioned that the early part of every sermon needs to surface a problem that needs to be solved or expose an itch that needs to be scratched.
Really, then, sermon openings invariably involve predicaments. I want the congregation asking themselves one of two questions in the early moments of the message:
How is the preacher going to get out this predicament?
How am I going to get out of my own predicament?
I believe sermon success happens when those two questions intersect. Every good adventure has a moment where the cause appears to be lost and the case seems to be hopeless. Every great adventure muscles its way through to a place of victory and hope. The same is true of our sermons.
How is the preacher going to get out of this predicament?
This question arises most easily in those sermons where the preacher begins with the bible. On those occasions where I begin a message directly with the text in question, I keep these reminders at the front of my mind:
Keep it playful. You’re entering a different world when you enter the world of the Scriptures. Through you words, you will give people the vicarious thrill of actually being able to question the bible – the very thing many have been taught they’re not allowed to do. The example I just cited from Mark 5 provided fertile ground for admitting the strangeness of the story, the cultural parallels, and even the awareness that the tale could have been more easily written by Stephen King than Mark the Evangelist. Because we brought levity to a story most would regard as solemn, people were engaged.
Admit your struggles. The congregation needs to feel the tension you feel when approaching a difficult text: “What did this mean to its first audience?” “Why does that matter to me?” “And how in the world can a get a meaningful sermon out of THIS?” When you allow the people insight into your own journey in processing the passage, preparing the message, and then delivering the sermon, the adventure becomes something pastor and people share.
Ponder the incongruities. This came from the early part a message called Control Freak Meet Trophy Wife which launched the series Behind The Scenes, based on the book of Esther:
So now that you know all about Control Freaks– AND you’re looking at your closest relationships with a lot more suspicion! – there is a story that I can’t wait to dig into. A story from a book that we include in the God-breathed library of the bible. And that is remarkable because our God is so emotionally secure that he inspires a book that BY DESIGN omits his name. Not even an Oh My God, not a “so help me God,” nothing. No God, nowhere, in a book in the bible. Whoda thunk it?
But here’s the situation as the book of Esther opens up. The year is 483 BC and the setting is Persia (modern day Iran). In Persia, there is still a smattering of scattered Jews. A large chunk of them had returned to Israel when King Darius let them return home (imagine the irony: Iran does Israel a NATIONAL FAVOR!). This is really an IN BETWEEN time in Jewish history … after a series of defeats, following a terrible exile, and discovering what it means to be Jewish in a land that does not recognize your God. In a land where, in spite of Darius’ favor, there is still a lot of hostility to that ragtag group of people who dare to claim that a) there is only ONE GOD and b) that ONE GOD has chosen this ONE PEOPLE GROUP as his. It’s a pagan, secular, vicious culture, which may well explain why the anonymous author of Esther keeps God’s name on the DL here.
This sort of existence also led many of the Jews living outside the Promised Land to ask, “how can God be present when he seems absent? How can he rule when it looks like he is in hiding?” Again, more evidence of why not mentioning God’s name is not only necessary for safety, it is brilliant for insight. Because these are likely questions YOU HAVE ASKED today. Unanswered prayer. Cultural decay. Church ignored. Gender fluidity. A world that by all appearances has less to do with God than ever before. He’s not splitting the sea anymore, so what is he doing? Can he work when it is not obvious and spectacular?
At each level, then, you acknowledge the strangeness of the biblical world, the pickle that leaves you in, and the church is wondering, “how that preacher going to get out of that fix?”
Yet there is a second, more important, dilemma to create in the minds and hearts of congregants: “how I am I going to get out of the mess this sermon has put me in?”
How Am I Going To Get Out Of My Own Mess?
To see what I have to say about THAT, you’ll want to pick up a copy of Simplify The Message; Multiply The Impact, released by Abingdon Press in February 2020 and available here. The preceding is an excerpt from that book.