For years I've had a recurring nightmare that still haunts me every few weeks. It comes in ever-changing versions, but the context is the same: I'm about to preach and I'm not ready. I can't decide what to preach about, or I've forgotten to prepare, or I've lost my notes. I can almost hear Jer. 23:2, "Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away." I always wake in a cold sweat, my heart beating wildly.
For ministers, there's no worse night mare than to fail in feeding their flock or to drive God's people away because they've nothing significant to say about Him.
How can preachers prevent this night mare from becoming a reality? Nobody answers better than Floyd Doud Shafer: "Fling him into his office, tear the office sign from the door and nail on the sign: STUDY. Take him off the mailing list, lock him up with his books . . . and his Bible. Slam him down on his knees before texts, broken hearts, the flippant lives of a superficial flock, and the Holy God. Force him to be the one man in our surfeited communities who knows about God. Throw him into the ring to box with God while he learns how short his arms are. . . .
"Shut his garrulous mouth forever spouting 'remarks' and stop his tongue always tripping lightly over everything nonessential. Require him to have some thing to say before he dare break silence.
Bend his knees in the lonesome valley, fire him from the PTA, and cancel his country club membership; burn his eyes with weary study, wreck his emotional poise with worry for God, and make him exchange his pious stance for a humble walk with God and man. Make him spend and be spent for the glory of God."
Paul prescribes, "Study to shew thy self approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). But what do we study? What resources should we use in sermon preparation? First and foremost, the Bible.
Why the Bible?
The Christian preacher uses the Bible as a resource because Jesus did. Luke 4:17 explains, "And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written." Jesus was not only beginning His sermon, but His entire preaching ministry. He began with the Book. And so should we.
A speech becomes a sermon when it originates in Scripture. Man's word about God is merely a speech. Only God's word about men is a sermon. True preaching is God's word to man rather than man's word about God. And since the Bible is the inspired and accurate word we have from God, it must be primary in our preaching; else our speeches aren't really sermons.
How to use the Bible
At least three basic ways of using the Bible as a preaching resource need to be noted.
1. Use the Bible systematically. Of every Bible text or passage, three questions should be asked: 1. What does it say (investigation)? We call the process exegesis. 2. What does it mean (interpretation)? We call it hermeneutics. 3. What difference does it make (application)?
To answer these questions, we need to follow a systematic approach, such as:
a. Read the passage rapidly several times. Get the overview first, and you'll make fewer mistakes interpreting the details later. What is the author talking about? Even more important, what is he saying about it?
b. Read the passage slowly. Now shift your focus from the forest to the trees. Use several versions if available, some formal, some dynamic. Who are the key persons? What are the key words? Look them up in the Greek.
c. Find the setting of the passage. Who is talking? To whom? Under what circumstances? What are the religious, political, and social settings?
d. Study the context. Knowing what is talked about before and after your passage will help interpret the passage.
e. Only then, study the commentaries.
2. Use the Bible honestly. In the process of sermon preparation, our ego is always at risk. The desire for creativity may so overwhelm us that, perceiving an original idea, we preach it even if we're not sure of it. Or we preach a possible interpretation as though it were certain. We alienate our intelligent listeners by preaching little lies in support of great truths. New is important. But true is imperative.
3. Use the Bible simply. We must never be shallow, but we must always be clear. Don't overprove. You can kill a mosquito by dropping a bomb on him, but that's overdoing it. Many people in our congregations think the Bible is boring because we taught them by the type of sermons we preach. In your study, sift through the ore minutely, intensively. In your pulpit, show only the nuggets.
The preachers' primary resource is the Bible. Nobody makes it clearer than Paul. "I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word" (2 Tim. 4:1,2, NKJV)!