2000 Sermons, 25 years, Some Observations (Part 1)

My filing system shows that I recently preached my 2000th sermon. This year I will complete 25 years of pastoral ministry. Praise God for His grace. I want to write down some of the things I have learned along the way. I think I’ll do it in 3-4 separate posts, including what I have learned about preaching, about ministry and churches, about people, and about God.

Here are some things I have learned about preaching, in no particular order.

Preparing and preaching a sermon is like having a baby. You labor over it for many hours, sometimes right up until the minute you start speaking, and then it is born. If you’ve prepared diligently, something good will come out. It isn’t always pretty, but it has potential :).

Trust the text. You don’t have to make up stuff to say. Let the text speak for itself. Explain what it means and apply it to life. If you are struggling with what to say in a sermon, keep digging in the text. Good stuff will come out of the text. Say it.

Don’t just repeat what you learned in seminary or have heard others say. Study out difficult passages, complicated theological points, and biblical positions on current issues.

The commentaries aren’t always right. Use them, but study for yourself and reach your own conclusions.

Most people need help applying truth to their lives. Include enough application to help people grow, not only in knowledge, but also in practice.

Don’t rush through important topics and difficult, profound truths. Give thorough attention to a text or topic. If necessary, turn one sermon into three, or extend a series. The truth deserves full treatment, and people need to understand it.

Shepherd the flock with the Word. Teach truth from Scripture in order to bring the immature to maturity, the weak to a place of strength. If a tragedy impacts the whole church, don’t ignore it in preaching. Take a Sunday and address it lovingly and compassionately with comfort and encouragement from God’s Word. If changes in church culture are needed, teach on the issues from the Word, then lead in a biblically-based direction.

Have an organized filing system for sermons. As years pass, you will benefit from being able to find previously preached material and from knowing what you preached at certain times.

Be as simple, clear, and practical as possible. Make the complex simple. Make the eternal understandable.

Preaching is communicating. Develop and grow in communication skills.

Be yourself. Don’t use other preachers’ material, other than brief summaries or quotes. Don’t mimic the manner or channel the personality of other preachers. Develop your own characteristic style, rhythm, and sense of humor. Be who God made you to be.

Use canned illustrations (the ones you find in a sermon illustration book or on a preaching website) sparingly. Look around you and use illustrations from your own life, the news, nature, and people you meet. Make up analogies that give insight to complicated truths. Jesus illustrated His teaching and preaching using the circumstances around Him and stories He made up. It’s fresh, engaging, and it works.

Don’t let your preaching be colored by frustration or anger at someone who has hurt you.

Be humble and transparent without telling all of your sins.

When you think your sermon was good, well, it might not have been that good. When you think your sermon was horrible, you will often hear from people how it was just what they needed.

“Keep your b*** in the chair until the hard work is done” (John MacArthur). In other words, study until you understand the text and have something to say about it. Put in the time. Don’t give up. Don’t get lazy. Don’t “wing it.” Fight off distractions. Do the hard work of preparation, for as many hours as it takes to be ready to explain and apply the text. (I can’t write that word out, my Mom might read this.)

Make your exegesis precise.

Make your exposition clear.

Make your delivery conversational yet passionate.

God uses the preaching of His Word to grow people. This growth happens over years of time. It is one of my greatest rewards to see years of expositional ministry bear fruit in peoples’ lives.

Pray. Pray for understanding. Pray for power. Pray for conversion. Pray for growth. Pray for fruit.

Preach Christ. Preach the Gospel. Preach truth. Preach grace.

Preach the Word.

Five Benefits of Translating from the Greek Text when Preparing a New Testament Sermon

image19This is primarily for preachers, but others may enjoy reading it. And I’m specifying the New Testament because I don’t translate from Hebrew. I rely on language helps for my understanding of Old Testament Scripture. My minor in college was Greek. I won’t tell you what my grade was in my seminary Hebrew class.

When I am preparing a sermon from a New Testament passage, I usually translate the text from Greek into English, especially if it is a didactic section. If it is narrative, I will usually at least read through it in Greek and note key words and grammatical features. It takes time. I may spend from 20 minutes on a shorter passage up to an hour or more on a longer one. But it’s always worth whatever time and effort I invest.

Here are five benefits:

  1. Translating forces me to look closely at the meanings of the individual words. If I am just studying from an English translation, I may not think beyond the first meaning of the word that comes to mind. But if I am translating, I am more likely to consider the depth and nuances of meaning contained in a single vocabulary word. Sometimes the meaning is what it is – the English word captures it well – but translating makes me think about that meaning carefully. Often the meaning is richer than I would have realized by merely considering the English word. I regularly find myself making copious notes about the meaning and significance of a single word when I pursue its Greek definition and its uses in other places in the New Testament and in outside literature.
  1. When I translate, I notice detailed grammatical data that I would be ignorant of otherwise. Translating requires an analysis of verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, and participles. The different forms of each one have significance. The construction sometimes just contributes to the flow of the sentence. Often, however, the forms of these parts of speech contain data that makes the author’s meaning clear or provides added insight into a particular instruction or truth. Recently I preached from 1 Thessalonians 5:24, He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it. “Calls” obviously refers to God’s initial call to salvation through the gospel, right (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:14)? But the verb in 1 Thessalonians 5:24 is in the present tense. A literal translation is, “the one calling you”. You could even say, “the one who is continually calling you”. An expanded translation might be, “the one who called you and is still calling you.” The ongoing call of God in our lives has implications that I can include in my sermon. Understanding the significance of the present tense enriches the meaning of the word and increases the impact of the truth on our lives. This is just one simple example. There are many additional ways, and more complex ways, that knowing the grammatical data increases understanding of the text.
  1. The original text often reveals the main idea, proposition, or “kernel” of a section of Scripture. When first reading over a paragraph of the Bible, it may appear that all of the sentences and phrases contribute equally to the meaning of the passage. However, in language, there is always a kernel, usually a subject and verb structure, or a command, or a main proposition that everything else in the passage modifies. This kernel is often clear in the English text, but not always. Sometimes participles are translated as regular verbs. Frequently a passage contains a lengthy, complex sentence, especially in Paul’s epistles. Translating forces you to find that kernel and build everything else around it. Looking at the Greek grammar often reveals which parts of a sentence or paragraph are the main ideas and which are subordinate. I use this information to build my block diagram, a visual display of the main ideas and the relationship to them of subordinate clauses. The main ideas portrayed in the diagram often become the main points of my sermon. This information is invaluable in developing a message that accurately reflects the meaning and emphasis of God’s Word.
  1. By translating, I become intimately familiar with the text. This may sound like a restatement of everything above, just in more general terms. But I’m talking about a personal, heart level familiarity, not just detailed knowledge of the technical elements. It’s kind of like having an old car that you have worked on, not only wiping off the engine occasionally, or just changing the oil, but rebuilding the engine from inside out. You know that engine. You know how every part of it fits together; you know how the simple and the complicated parts work; you know what is producing that squeak you hear when it idles. You know that it will get you from point A to point B. It’s that way with the text of Scripture. When you “take it apart” and “rebuild” it, you know it inside out. And that intimate knowledge of truth should increase the personal impact of it on the preacher before he presents it to others.
  1. The detailed study, comprehensive knowledge, and heart-level familiarity with the text give me confidence when I preach. I know what it means, so I am able to explain it to my listeners with confidence. I have learned the significance of vocabulary words and grammatical data. I know what the main ideas are and how the rest of the text supports them. This is not a proud confidence, but a confidence nonetheless. I can know that I am following Peter’s instruction to be sure that when I speak, I “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11a). I can say to my congregation, “This is what God says.”

I need help praying.

I want to commune with my Heavenly Father consistently and meaningfully.  I spend time first thing in the morning reading the Word nearly every day.  Then I begin to praise God and make requests to Him in prayer.  And my mind races.  Some of the thoughts that fill my mind are related to praying, but many are not – they are distractions.  I start thinking about all kinds of things that are totally unrelated to what I am thanking God for and asking of my Heavenly Father.  After some time I realize – I’m no longer praying, I’m thinking about something or someone else.

A couple of months ago the speaker at our church men’s retreat stated that the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4) is the model for how we should pray.  I started opening my Bible to it and using what Jesus said to prompt and guide my own prayers.  And then I realized something very helpful.  When I find myself distracted by unrelated thoughts racing through my mind, I can easily turn my attention back to the words of the prayer in front of my face and get my thoughts and heart back on track.  It really helped!

So I decided to try something.  There are other prayers in Scripture.  Some are in Old Testament narratives, many are in the Psalms, there’s of course the Lord’s Prayer, and there are several in the Apostles’ writings, especially Paul’s letters.  One morning I turned to Colossians 1:9-12 and wrote it out in my journal.  Then I held the open journal in my lap and used Paul’s requests to guide my own.  And it worked. When I realized my mind was far afield, I glanced back at the page and picked up where I had left off.  And I knew that what I was praying followed a biblical pattern.  I used this scriptural prayer for a few days, then I wrote out another one, Ephesians 1:15-21.

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In recent weeks I have also used 2 Timothy 2:25, Psalm 23, and the first and last sentences from Deborah and Barak’s song in Judges 5, which I paraphrased as, Help me to lead, and the people to willingly offer themselves, and we will bless the Lord.  Let those who love you be like the sun when it comes out in full strength. These prayers have helped me know how to pray, to keep from being distracted, and when I do find my mind elsewhere, to bring my thoughts back to my communion with the Lord. Because I have them in my journal, I can go back to them whenever I want, and can continually add new ones as I come across them or search them out in Scripture.

I experience other hindrances to prayer, but distraction is a big one, and this simple practice has helped. Maybe it will benefit you too.  We all need help praying.