The art of expository preaching

Four steps to make your sermon speak the Word to the life of the believer.

William G. Johnsson is a former editor of the Adventist Review.

As a teenager I listened one day to a tall, no-nonsense preacher expound the Word of God. The preacher was H.M.S. Richards. More than 40 years later I can still recall his topic "Our Unsparing God" and his text, Romans 8:32: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?"

That is one of the great benefits of expository preaching: it sticks in the mind. Carefully prepared and delivered with the power of the divine Spirit, it bears a harvest for the kingdom over many years.

But exposition is the most difficult preaching of all. It calls for vigorous study to be true to the text. The text imposes constraints on the preacher's imaginative powers, and the pitfalls are many. The "sermon" can become a study in exegesis, a display of the preacher's learning; it may degenerate into a commentary, a string of clever observations on the words and parts of the text; or it may never touch and move the lives of the hearers. And the people go home instructed but not fed, impressed but not renewed, or bored and not born again.

How do you get from text to sermon? For me, expository sermons entail four major steps. For each one I will illustrate the process by refer ring to a sermon that I developed several years ago and to which I have returned on numerous occasions.

Step 1: getting the text

A great professor of homiletics used to teach that all powerful sermons arise from only two sources: preachers who have experienced something that they want to share with the people; or preachers who discern a spiritual need among the congregation that they seek to address.

In reflecting on the hundreds of sermons I have heard and preached, I think that analysis is still true. It applies to the expository sermon as much as to any other. An expository sermon is not simply "on 1 Corinthians 13," for instance. Granted that it may derive from this passage and expound it, it is much more than a study in Scripture. It is a sermon, an art form that in a peculiar and beautiful way unites the Word of God with the life of the Christian in these times.

So you have a message, a theme, a concern on which you wish to preach. How do you find a text that will impart the message?

There can be no simple answer. Sometimes you will struggle for hours and days, mulling over possible pas sages, going from one to another and only settling on the text after strenuous thought; sometimes the text will be "there," in front of your eyes, as soon as you have become clear as to the message of the sermon.

All genuine preaching unites the ancient text with life today: the preacher has one foot in each world or, to change the metaphor, he or she has the Bible in one hand and today's newspaper in the other. But expository preaching imposes more stringent controls, since the input from the Word comes primarily from one passage.

Expository sermons, therefore, demand a thorough knowledge of Scripture. The preacher must be steeped in the Word; it must be his or her friend, a source of spiritual nurture that is sought after daily with delight. Could this be the reason that we hear so few expository sermons today that preachers no longer have the close acquaintance with the Word that this art form mandates?

So we have the message, and then we have the text. Out of our closeness to the Word, and by prayerful reflection, the text comes to us. And we are ready to begin the craft of sermon building.

Shortly after I came to Washington, D.C., I was asked to prepare a sermon for our church's Annual Council. And with the invitation came the topic: "Foremost in Exalting the Cross of Christ." Now, I find it difficult to preach on assigned subjects, because such sermons do not grow out of my own experience or observations of others' needs and therefore run the risk of being artificial. The invitation suggested a passage of Scripture (for which I was thankful), but it referred to Ellen White's statement to ministers: "Of all professing Christians, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world" (Gospel Workers, p. 156).

Right away I determined to quote her words but not as the introduction to the sermon! While I believe that Adventist ministers should be acquainted with Mrs. White's writings and make some reference to them publicly, I am convinced that they should make the Word central in their preaching.

Although I don't usually care for assigned topics, this one excited me. I felt I could make it my own without a hint of artificiality; already it was my own. To uplift the cross what a glorious topic! But what text among the many in the New Testament to use as a basis for the sermon?

I thought of Galatians 6:14: "But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world." I reflected on that wonderful, dramatic chapter, which portrays the slain Lamb in Rev elation 5. But then Paul's proclamation of the cross in 1 Corinthians that soaring passage of the divine foolishness rolled by and swept me off my feet. I had the text.

Step 2: focusing the text

After you have found the text---or better, the text has found you your work on the sermon has hardly begun. The passage will probably have both more and less than the sermon will require. More, because all parts of it will not be equal, and some may be extraneous to the sermon topic. And less, because some parts may not be as fully developed in the passage as your sermon will require to bring home the message convincingly to the people.

When I prepare an expository sermon, I read through the passage over and over. I read it in context, making sure I understand what the author intended the original readers to take from it. I read it through in the original language (if from the New Testament), and also in several translations.

While I read I am thinking, thinking, thinking. Thinking what the logical and legitimate divisions of the passage are. Thinking about its leading ideas. Thinking about what is there and what isn't. Thinking about the passage itself and with the sermon message in the background. Thinking, reflecting, and praying.

During this time I consult no other source the Bible only. I am trying hard to listen to the Word, to be hon est with it, to be true to it. I want nothing to interpose an external idea on the Word.

For me, this is the most strenuous but most creative step in the whole process. I frequently scribble possible outlines and configurations on large notepads, not stopping to subject them to rigorous scrutiny. I turn the page and scribble again as a new rush of possibilities present themselves.

For me, this process takes several days. I begin each new day's efforts on a new page with out turning back to the previous day's work.

And out of it all the miracle. Out of it all the marriage, as text and message join hands and become one. Three or four main ideas emerge, and they complement one another and together combine to communicate the sermon message, but no longer from my mind but from the text itself.

I say "miracle," for that's what it is. Because the Bible is the Word of God, it has power to speak to us to day if we take time to hear it. And miracle because the Holy Spirit alone is able to set aside pride in my learning and discovery, my vaunting ego, so that the Word may be central, so that He may increase and I may decrease.

My proposed sermon on 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, did not come into focus easily. The problem was the sheer abundance of great ideas. I soon settled on the place to begin verse 17, with Paul's declaration of his call to preach: "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power" (NIV).

But where to end? I toyed with closing at verse 25, but that seemed to do violence to the passage. Verses 17- 31 form a seamless robe, a grand parade of thought that builds and strengthens to a denouement in verse 31.

At last, however, three leading ideas that form the structure of the passage emerged emerged in relation to one another, and more important, in relation to the theme of the cross:

A. The cross secret of power (verses 17-19)

B. The cross secret of wisdom (verses 20-25)

C. The cross secret of newness (verses 26-31)

And I also had a title something I find important. When I am satisfied with the title, the sermon is in focus. My title? "The Divine Foolishness."

Step 3: shaping the sermon

Now is the time to read widely about the passage. Now is the time to work through each detail, until you are sure you have mastered the meaning of the text.

But you must not attempt to convey all you know through the sermon. You must resist the temptation to give lessons in Greek or bring in interesting asides that are not germane to the sermon, just as in all preaching you must steadfastly refuse to bootleg an illustration that doesn't really fit but is "so good" that you just can't leave it out.

Shaping the sermon includes both elimination and addition of biblical material. Some words perhaps even some verses if you are dealing with a long passage can be dealt with in passing or omitted completely. And others that are important to the sermon may need to be filled out by reference to scriptures outside the passage.

Let me mention a misguided approach that I have sometimes heard in expository sermons, especially those that seek to elaborate a single verse or two. The speaker takes up a particular word and tells how the Greek may mean this, or that, or something else. And the hearers are left wonderfully befuddled. So, preacher, study the Greek but keep it to yourself. And, second, while the Greek may mean this, that, or whatever in various con texts, in the text at hand it cannot mean all these at once!

Notice the three leading ideas that came into focus as I studied 1 Corinthians 1:17-31 intensively. In terms of the number of verses Paul wrote on each, the first should be a minor idea and the third the dominant one. But in preparing the passage for preaching, the flow of ideas demanded that the first should be emphasized over the third.

I was especially impressed by Paul's reasoning in verses 17-19. When he says that the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, we would expect him to say that for those who are being saved it is wisdom. But he doesn't: the cross, he says, is the power of God. Later he will speak about wisdom, but first he deals with power. The break in logic is deliberate and too important for the preacher to pass by lightly.

The portion of the passage on the new people of God presents a marvelous concept and deserved adequate treatment, but it was the result of the two earlier sections on the cross as power and the cross as wisdom and so could be handled more briefly than these others. But that meant, of course, passing quickly over many of the verses in this last section.

Step 4: honing the sermon

In this last stage I polish and complete the sermon. This process includes working on the introduction, illustrations, links, and conclusion.

Because the preacher must catch the attention and interest of the hearers immediately, I favor an introduction that springs out of life today and that points to the message of the sermon. Occasionally I have begun with an arresting statement about the pas sage itself, but in today's media-jaded society I doubt the effectiveness of such approaches.

If the sermon has arisen from the preacher's own experience or the lives of the parishioners, illustrations will present no problem. They will be real, not phony; actual, not bookish. They will ring with the conviction of the sermons of Acts, where the first Christians told the story of Jesus and also their stories.

With all the emphasis on communication in today's society, most sermons still fail where most public speaking fails: people don't "get it." They don't know what the speaker was trying to say. They can remember a lot of words, but not the message. And the reason is that the speaker didn't provide links those transitions that sketch the structure of the speech or sermon and indicate movement from one part to another.

Finally, the conclusion. I find that, if the rest of the sermon hangs together, the conclusion suggests itself. A good sermon is a whole, a unity; thus, the conclusion is in the introduction.

The conclusion deserves careful planning, however. It may be short, but it must be powerful. It should not only bind off the art form that is the sermon but should move the hearers to action. Indeed, throughout the sermon the people should feel the call to response, as the Word addresses life---their life; and the conclusion pin points that response. Response can be of various kinds: at times public, but just as much private.

And so I honed "The Divine Foolishness." I began without reference to the text, throwing out questions that at once introduced the key ideas of power, wisdom, and community (see sidebar). I drew in illustrations from this year and yesteryear; I tried to ensure that the people would know what I was trying to say and where I was going; and I closed with an illustration that seemed to capture the feeling tone of the passage and to sum up the message of the sermon. How long did it take me to prepare the sermon? Many hours. In fact, about 30 years. While it emerged from a period of concentrated study and creative reflection, it distilled a lifetime of experience.

Ah, the miracle of expository preaching! For out of the divine-human struggle the gospel is proclaimed through lips of clay.

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William G. Johnsson is a former editor of the Adventist Review.

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