By John McLartyTake a few moments to peer into the busy life of one pastor as he wrestles with how to meet his weekly sermon deadline.
Monday, 8:30 a.m. (at my desk)
It’s time to start my sermon for Sabbath. I’ve been preaching through the Book of Acts, a chapter per week. The book itself dictates the focus of each week’s sermon. Now, it’s time to choose a new focus. How do I decide what to preach? Usually, I consider three factors:
1.) What do my members need? A few of my people wrestle with questions about the efficacy of prayer and the reality of God’s personal involvement in the lives of individuals. Others have recently experienced dramatic personal and marital transformation through their involvement in a prayer ministry. They know God acts and speaks. I know of individuals struggling with pornography, smoking, depression, dysfunctional marriages and other “unmentionable” problems. For other members life couldn’t be going better. All these folks come to church looking for hope and help and meaning, wondering if God will say something to them.
2.) What is burning in my heart? What has God been doing in my life? If my sermon does not connect with my own experience, it feels like a lecture. It may contain useful information, but probably doesn’t offer much inspiration. But lately, I’ve been in a funk–okay, I’ve been depressed. Nothing much is burning in my heart except a desire for a vacation. And that is probably not what my people need to hear.
3.) I speak for the church. My preaching makes a statement about what our congregation and our denomination considers important. So over time, I must ensure that the full range of our beliefs is given voice in the preaching.
It’s time to leave my desk. I still don’t have a focus for the next couple of months, even though I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. Maybe I’ll address some basic doctrinal topics–salvation, prayer, faith, obedience, law, spiritual disciplines. But where to start?
Monday, 8:00 p.m. (at a home in Tacoma)
I am meeting with a group of young adults who have the most tangential of connections with my church. Matt, the leader, said he didn’t get much out of my sermons back when he had attended our church, but he found our conversations helpful. Would I come and visit with him and his friends? I think, maybe if I listened to them hard enough, I could learn to preach to them.
Tuesday morning, 8:00 a.m. (at the Pony Express Café)
I meet Jeff for breakfast. Jeff graduated from an Adventist academy last year and no longer attends church. He’s not hostile. He just finds church boring. At the end of two hours together, he said, “Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t want to go to heaven. I do! If God would just spell out exactly what I had to do to guarantee I would be saved, I would do it!” I was astonished. This from a twenty-year old who grew up in an Adventist home and attended Adventist churches and schools. I suggested we get together again the next Tuesday and check out what the Bible said. He said okay. Back home at my desk, I think, I’ve got my sermon: “What must I do to be saved?” If I can craft an answer that works for Matt and Jeff, maybe it will work for the young people who sit in my congregation.
Friday, 9:00 – 12:30 a.m. (sitting at my computer)
(I was going to do this yesterday, but . . .) I begin by running through the Bible in my mind, looking for relevant stories. I think of the Philippian jailer, the Ethiopian eunuch and the rich young ruler. Next, I open my Bible software and search the New Testament for sav* (for save, saves, saved) and salvation. I read through the hits, pasting into my word processor any that strike me, all the while asking myself, how would this text answer Jeff’s question? How would it help Matt and friends?
It quickly becomes obvious there are at least two distinct biblical approaches to the question. Since I believe good sermons should have one central “take-home” idea I decide to do at least two sermons and probably three. I will begin with the story of the lawyer who is famous for asking “who is my neighbor?” His first question had been, “What must I do to receive eternal life?”
Unlike the Philippian Jailer, both the lawyer and Jeff knew the Bible. Jeff had told me he knew what he would tell someone else if they asked the question. He just didn’t know what answer to give to himself. His words highlighted my dilemma: The people I preach to already know the answer. So why will they listen to what I have to say? I need an illustration that connects with their world. Not something from long ago and far away or out of a book of sermon illustrations. What have my people been thinking about all week? Most likely school, girls, mortgage payments, the funny noise their transmission has been making and gifts they plan to buy for Christmas.
Christmas! When I go shopping, I am impressed with guarantees. Ninety days? A year? What about an extended warranty? Is it worth the money? Jeff wanted a guarantee of salvation. My shopping-obsessed listeners also want guarantees.
Playing with this idea changes the focus of my sermon. The most important question about a guarantee is who stands behind it. For a stingy vendor, the fine print of a guarantee may simply provide a legal pretext for avoiding customer service. For other vendors, the written warranty serves primarily as a reminder to customers of the benefits available to them.
Salvation is rooted in the intention and resources of God, not in my performance. The commandments (to love God and love your neighbor) do not describe a minimal acceptable level of performance. Instead they teach us how to align ourselves with the Savior. By loving God and loving our neighbor we learn to appreciate and to rely on the love God has for us. Thus we begin participating in the joys of unending life.
So now I had my sermon. The title: “Salvation Guaranteed,” the text: Luke 10:25-42; 12:32, and my principal illustration: Guarantees.
Friday afternoon (at the grocery store and vacuuming)
I am still worried about pulling the congregation into the sermon. My illustrations are on target, but I worry they aren’t strong enough. Sometime in the afternoon or evening, an idea hits me: During the announcement period, I will tell the congregation that I’m going to ask for their help during the sermon. I want them to think of a good experience they have had with a guarantee and be prepared to share it.
Oops! What Didn’t Happen
Nearly always, I prepare a manuscript. I don’t memorize or read it, but the discipline of thinking all the way through what I am going to say improves my preaching. (At least, that’s what my wife says!) This week, I’ve run out of time. Also, I usually write a one-sentence summary of the sermon. I need these disciplines because I am highly creative, which is simply a polite way of saying I’m disorganized and easily distracted.
I create a sermon by “stewing” over it. I fret and worry the topic or text the way my dog goes after ground squirrels. He sticks his nose in different holes. He barks and whines. He digs. He tries stalking and lying in ambush. Then whines some more. And sometimes, somehow he catches one. This is not a very efficient method of sermon preparation. I don’t recommend it. But I haven’t mastered any other way. I hope God can use dogs as well as smart people.
Sabbath Morning, 11:45 a.m.
I lay my Bible and outline on the pulpit, step to the right. Smile. And begin: “In August, I bought a computer for my son who was going away to college. The salesman told me about a super-duper warranty that covered everything except the end of the world. . . .”
The congregants share their stories. The last one is off the wall, but it provides a perfect segue from their stories back into my sermon. As I preached, a couple of things came to mind that were not in my notes. I hope they added to the value of the sermon, but since they aren’t in my notes, I can’t remember them. I was going to give a call at the end of my sermon, but I forgot to do so until I was half way through the benediction.
Monday, 11:00 a.m. (at the church office)
Melba calls to say the sermon was a real blessing. I remember that on Sabbath, someone else seemed touched by the sermon. The young adults who were visiting did not say anything about the sermon, but they expressed interest in developing a young adult group in our church.
Monday, 9:00 p.m. (At my desk)
I’m thinking and praying about tomorrow morning when I will meet Jeff again at the Pony Express Café to talk about salvation. And I’m thinking about my second sermon on salvation. Hopefully, this time I’ll prepare a complete manuscript and write a summary sentence. In any case, I trust God will use it to help my people experience salvation.
John McLarty is Pastor of the North Hill Christian Fellowship, a Seventh-day Adventist Church, Federal Way, WA. Better Sermons © 2005-2008. Click here for usage guidelines.