Sounding brass or preaching with clarity

How to preach the Word with power and point.

Ted Pettit is an assistant editor at the Stanborough Press in Lincolnshire, England.

Recently I was privileged to visit Edinburgh, that queen of cities, aptly termed by some the "Athens of the North." The first place on my itinerary was the Cathedral of St. Giles, where John Knox, the indomitable champion of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland, preached and prayed that unforgettable prayer, "Lord, give me Scotland or I die!"

Just along the road from St. Giles is the rambling old house where Knox lived. To step into those very rooms where the great preacher studied and prayed was to relive one of the greatest chapters in Scottish history. Even the tiny study Knox had built onto the house is open to visitors; one can enter it and imagine the great man poring over his Bible. Then, looking out the window, one gazes down on the busy modern thoroughfare leading to St. Giles.

Said Knox, of Edinburgh and St. Giles, "In this town and church began God first to call me to the office and the dignity of a preacher." On display in the room are the various sermons Knox preached. Reading them through again dispels any wonder at why the course of history for a nation was changed by one man. There those sermons are, like solid Scottish granite clear, solid, well-phrased Bible truth. There's no argument one can put against them; the excuses, cunning, philosophy, and craft of the enemies of the Reformation were simply no match for the hammer blows of Knox's homiletics. As I read his sermons I realized why error came crashing to the ground in his day.

What about our work as preachers today—are we "workmen that needeth not to be ashamed"? Today the church faces peril as in the days of the reformers, and God has called us to "the office and the dignity of a preacher." As an editor it has not been my privilege of late to minister in a specific pastorate, but to have a "roving commission." Consequently, sometimes I have free Sabbaths, and instead of a preacher, I have been a listener. Many of the sermons I have listened to are good. Some, quite frankly, are bad. Possibly, though, even the bad sermons have taught me something, because the very faults I have been frustrated with in others I now recognize as being present in my own preaching.

I am no John Knox, but perhaps the following suggestions will help to improve the general standard of preaching in our pulpits.

Preach the Word

Fundamentally, of course, we must "preach the word." Your ideas and mine are of little interest to the flock of God. Many of these people live and work in discouraging surroundings, their homes may be divided, the problems they face are harsh and daunting. But they come along with their children on the Sabbath. Locked in each heart is a world of doubt, fear, perplexity, or cares. What avails your sermon to them except it be a "thus saith the Lord"? And how can you speak for God except that you preach His Word? And how can you preach His Word except you be a man of the Word?

So let us climb off our favorite hobbyhorse, spare our opinions, cease all foolish jesting, mawkish sentimentality, triviality and banality, and preach the majestic truths of the living God from His Word.

Any man who sets out to so "preach the Word" will be challenged by the great things of God. He will then have in his ministry weapons that are "mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds" (2 Cor. 10:4).

How then are we to preach the Word? It is taken for granted that we are fully consecrated to God. Any man who has the temerity to ascend the pulpit without having first surrendered heart and will to God need read no further. He has no right to any pulpit in the Adventist Church. But granted that our all is on the altar we may approach this challenge with a confidence born of faith.

To preach the Word one must be a man who spends time with the Word. We must wrestle with its mighty truths and make them our own. Our minds and souls must be saturated by the Word. Its teachings must enter the warp and the woof of our own experience. Nor must we disdain the study of many good books. We must delve into the library and consult commentaries, lexicons, dictionaries, and encyclopedias. A great blessing is to read the lives of great Christian men, like John Wesley, D. L. Moody, Martin Luther, and a host of others. Fore most, next to the Bible, we must avail ourselves of the great treas ure-store in the writings of Ellen G. White. A preacher without such books is a craftsman without tools.

But here is a word of caution. Do not let the reading of many books cause neglect of the Book of God. The Scriptures are fundamental; everything else is secondary.

Also do not suppose that a sermon is a string of quotations. An occasional quotation can be telling, but a string of quotes is boredom.

Remember the words of Spurgeon, "Preach from your over flow." That is to say, preach upon a topic only when you have studied and wrestled with it. When you are overflowing with the subject, then is the time to prepare the sermon. Therefore, it just will not do to sit down on a Friday afternoon hurriedly to scrabble a few texts and thoughts together. The time to begin preparation of the Sabbath sermon is at least the Sunday before. Better still if it has been simmering for weeks or months. Brooding over the Word of God, consulting commentaries, the Spirit of Prophecy, and other reference books will seed the mind with the message God wants delivered.

Preach with power

So you have come to the time when you are ready to put pen to paper. What sort of sermon should you preach? Without question, the prince of sermons is the expository one. There the preacher concentrates all his resources on one telling passage of Scripture. Instead of stringing a dozen or so texts together in what is known as a "topical sermon," take a portion of the Word of God and preach on that alone. This is not a call for extremes. Dr. Martin Lloyd preached every Sunday for three and a half years on one text in the Gospel of John. He may have had the homiletic skill to do so, but it is doubtful whether we would have any congregation left should we try a similar plan.

You will find your congregation greatly strengthened and blessed by expository preaching. Taking a great passage of Scripture, properly understanding it, and applying the principles of truth it contains to our own day and situation, makes the Word live. Moreover, one's own spirit grows and develops as he thus studies the Word.

Preach with point

To misquote Paul we could say, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not clarity, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal." Many times I have come away from a sermon given by a dear and saintly brother and have had to ask myself, "What was it all about?" The line of his thinking was not clear; instead he seemed to wander about aimlessly from Dan to Beersheba.

Such preachers need to bear certain practical principles in mind. First, concentrate on one big idea in your sermon. Like a precious jewel, hold your theme up to the light and show your congregation its many facets. Don't keep going down side alleys. Keep to the King's highway. Be specific. Don't ramble.

Use plain down-to-earth language, good strong Anglo-Saxon verbs and nouns that speak to the current generation. Avoid those "purple pas sages" as you would a miry bog. Cut down on your adverbs and adjectives as a slimmer cuts down on calories, and use pithy, easily under stood words. If you wish to parade your literary learning join a literary society. Sabbath mornings you have more important things to do than be a dilettante.

Talk about concrete, real, down-to-earth things, as Jesus did. Avoid general abstractions, which people cannot see, touch, taste, or feel. Use your illustrations judiciously. Illustrations are like windows, they let in light and air. Too many of them make the building structurally unsound. Too few make it dark and stuffy. The best illustrations are those taken from the Bible and from real life, especially from your own experience of life.

Be concise. The attention span of the average person lasts no longer than 20 minutes. The average sermon we tend to preach is far too long. Sermons of 30 minutes are usually long enough. It is true, how ever, that a sermon is as long as it seems. You can help cut it down by keeping it moving and interesting.

Even then, remember the limitations of the human mind and "break" the sermon up into three or four sections so that you give your congregation frequent rests. Imagine you are taking your congregation up a hillside. You must stop for the stragglers to catch up and to allow the people to get their breath and pause to admire the view. Here the judicious use of repetition to sum up a point and illustration to clarify it come into their own.

Plunge in the sword of the Spirit! Your sermon should have a climax that you gradually lead up to. Such a climax is the whole point of preaching. For we are not preaching to entertain or while away the time. We are preaching to influence the minds of sinful men. We must therefore preach to convert sinners and to sanctify saints. Therefore we must be bold. We must call for decisions for God and His truth. Someone in the congregation may be hearing his very last sermon. We must preach every sermon with this in mind and give urgency to our words. Finishing lamely with a mumbled apology is a disgrace to the dignity of the pulpit. It is a frustration to man and an offense to God. We are preachers commissioned by God, and it is our work to tear down a congregation's defenses and thrust home the sword of the Spirit.

Let us then, like John Knox, re member that we are called to the office and to the dignity of a preacher. Let us preach the Word with power and with point.


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Ted Pettit is an assistant editor at the Stanborough Press in Lincolnshire, England.

February 1978

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