MANY OF OUR local church elders are called upon at times to preach in their churches, particularly in those areas where the pastor has other churches to serve in a district. Yet, very few elders have ever taken any kind of a course in how to construct and deliver a sermon. Some have a special talent and speak well, even without training, but an effective message must have vital and correct substance as well as the best possible delivery.
No one can condense a good course in preaching into two pages, but the fol lowing pointers may help to make you a better preacher. Having taught homiletics for sixteen years, I find these suggestions to be of great importance and value.
First, we must accept the fact that the lasting impact of any sermon comes from letting God speak from His Word. A great weakness in today's preaching is that the speaker so often gives the audience his best ideas on a chosen topic, his solutions to a problem, what he thinks about a certain situation, with the Bible consigned to a place of insignificance in the over-all sermon. Too often we only tack on a text superficially so that we may call it a "sermon."
A sermon, to be truly such, must involve God speaking through the chosen instrument. This demands that we read from, and correctly explain the Bible, and make it relevant to the needs of our audience. When we speak from the Bible, we must tell our audience what God is saying in the passage or pas sages used. This demands study. We should use a good commentary and the Spirit of Prophecy until we know what God is actually saying in the text. To be relevant, it is not enough for our audience to hear about Abraham offering Isaac on the mount. They must become Abrahams and Isaacs that day.
As a lay preacher, you will find it greatly satisfying to base your sermon on only one passage of Scripture. First, explain the true meaning of the verses in light of the times in which they were written. The SDA Bible Commentary nicely supplies both the background and the meaning. Then draw the most important lessons from the passage and drive them home to your listeners, using illustrations if necessary. The Ellen G. White books draw out many vital and relevant points that can be used. But rephrase these in your own words. Don't just read them.
Two Approaches Illustrated
The real secret is to work outward from the text rather than just thinking up a topic and sprinkling it with some Bible verses here and there. Actually, the Bible passages, carefully studied, all reveal a subject or theme that is important today as well as back then. Let's illustrate by showing how a sermon may be developed in these two different ways.
Today there is much discussion in our church on righteousness by faith. Many people struggle to find certainty in their relationship to Christ. And so we choose to speak on the topic, "The Certainty of God's Acceptance of a Sinner." Having decided that, we begin to think of the different points that we will bring into our sermon. Then we try to think of some passages of Scripture that could be used to build up our different sections. It should be clarified that a very good sermon could result from this approach if adequate study is involved. It must also be stressed that topical preaching as such is not "wrong." There will always be topics that need to be presented in a sermon. It is how they are developed and how much God actually speaks that determines their lasting value.
We decide on the following basic points for our sermon:
1. The problem—our uncertainty of God's full acceptance of the repenting sinner.
2. What is it that leaves us uncertain, even though we have asked for God's forgiveness?
3. Bible examples of certainty.
4. Spirit of Prophecy comments that show us that we can be certain.
5. Appeal to believe more fully in God's promises.
Again, we surely could present a worthwhile sermon. But a basic potential weakness is that we choose texts to support our outline. And many times we use the texts for what they seem to say without being sure of what they mean. We work from our outline into Scripture.
Exposition of Zechariah 3
Try another way with me. From a reading of the Scriptures in our devotions or from the study of a chapter in Prophets and Kings (pp. 582-592) or Christ's Object Lessons (pp. 166-170), we become interested in Zechariah. To understand the chapter better, we study it verse by verse from volume four of The SDA Bible Commentary. We are surprised at two things: (1) that it is not difficult to understand, and (2) that it contains a message that our audience badly needs in regard to developing and preserving an unfailing confidence in our Lord, His forgiveness, and His acceptance.
The Commentary furnishes us with a simple historical background for the book. A few years had elapsed since the Babylonian captivity; many of the Jewish people had returned to their home land from exile. They started the re building of the Temple, then stopped to take care of themselves, and now God was speaking through Haggai and Zechariah, encouraging the Jews to finish God's work.
In verse one there are three characters: "Joshua the high priest," "the an gel of the Lord," and "Satan," the accuser. Your study tools tell you that we see here a high priest, representing repentant sinners, standing before Christ, but with Satan there to accuse him. The evil one desires to whisper hopelessness in every ear, attempting to discourage the repentant with the overwhelming quantity of their sins, and the futility of hoping for God's full acceptance.
But note verse two. The Lord rebukes Satan, for He has taken His people's guilt upon His own soul. A believing and repentant sinner has been snatched by Christ as a brand from the fire. The believer does not have to listen to the at tempted discouragements from the accuser. Christ is fully able to rescue and release him from guilt and doom.
Verse three admits fully that all men are sinners, clothed in filthy garments.
But now read verse four. Christ speaks, especially to the accuser, "Take away the filthy garments from him." Then He adds, "I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment." Can I be certain, absolutely certain, of what Christ does for me when I repent? From now on, I will believe Him. And the voice of the accuser falls upon deaf ears.
I could add a text or two to amplify the point—such as Isaiah 61:10; 55:6,7; and others. What certainty there is! There are also excellent and encouraging quotations that can be used from Prophets and Kings and Christ's Object Lessons.
God Has Spoken
My theme is the same, but the Word has spoken, God has spoken, of His own guarantee of His acceptance of all who hear and believe. Not only does my audience have a new love for the Word; they have a new measure of faith; and go out to praise His name.
The speaker can amplify, illustrate, apply. But through it all he must let his Lord speak to hearts. He is simply the servant of the Lord. Is Zechariah too difficult for the lay preacher? I doubt it. But if it is, there are hundreds of wonderful passages throughout the Bible, waiting to be used. God waits to speak to us and through us. There are hungry congregations, everywhere, waiting to receive what the Lord will say. Could the most hungry people be in your church?