You’re visiting a church and you’re asked to preach. Even though you haven’t brought along notes or your favorite Bible, you don’t need to perspire. You walk up to the lectern and recite the Sermon on the Mount from memory without missing a word. You start with “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and go on to “the crowds were amazed at his teaching” as you look intently into the surprised faces in the congregation. Does this sound like a preacher’s dream?
It’s quite real for me. Each month I recite by memory a 30â€‘minute passage from Scripture. It’s actually quite easy to do. In this article I will demonstrate how I’ve branded the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) into my brain. Then I will show how any passage of Scripture can be quickly and easily memorized and recited to a church audience.
To begin with, you might be surprised at how much of the Sermon on the Mount you already know. The passages are probably as familiar to you as church hymns, childhood rhymes, or Christmas carols. If you read the Bible with any frequency, you’ve already memorized all the parts of the Sermon on the Mount. To recite it, all you need is a good filing system in your brain that allows you to connect everything together.
The memory technique that works consistently, quickly and completely for me, called locus, meaning “place,” was invented more than 2,500 years ago by the Greek poet Simonides.
In the Middle Ages, much of the wisdom of the ancient world was lost. This “secret art of memory” went underground, but it was kept alive by those who used locus to remember every word that they used for rituals. During the Renaissance, the “secret” was freed up. Still, it never became as widely used as it was in the ancient world. Today most people think that someone who can recite large amounts of Scripture must be gifted or savant, or have extremely good spiritual discipline. Simonides’ technique turns such ostensibly grand efforts into a simple trick. Your locus can be a home, school, or church—whatever is familiar to you.
Daydreaming improves your memory
For me, memorizing the Sermon on the Mount is as easy as taking a tour through my own house, describing what I see. I put into order key words that remind me of familiar verses or sayings that I already know. For example, regarding the phrase, “the meek shall inherit the earth,” the word meek is simply a title that reminds me of the whole phrase, in the same way the title “Silent Night” would bring the whole hymn to memory.
Here’s how I file Matthew 5 to 7 into my memory, using my own home as the locus: “Poor in Spirit.” I visualize a poor man, unshaven and dressed in shabby clothes at my doorstep.
“Those who mourn will be comforted.” I welcome him into my entrance hall. He’s crying because he is poor. I place my arms around him and comfort him. Note: Drama, action, or emotion associated with the word makes it easier to remember.
“The meek.” He takes off his shoes (a meek act) before going into my living room.
“Hunger and thirst.” He enters the next room—my dining room, where hunger and thirst are satisfied.
“The merciful.” I see a whole bunch of nuns— sisters of mercy—in my kitchen performing the merciful act of serving soup and sandwiches to the poor man.
“The pure in heart.” My bathroom purifies any dirty person when they wash with soap.
“The peacemakers.” I go to my bedroom to find peace and quiet.
“The persecuted.” I can find my two youngest children in their room. From there they “persecute” me by disturbing my sleep at night with requests for water, blankets, and diaper changes.
I finish the chapter by finding something to relate to these other words in my other rooms,such as salt and light (v. 13â€‘15); God’s law (v. 17â€‘20); vows (v. 33â€‘37); and love for enemies (v. 43â€‘48).
For chapter 6, I put my key words into a short sentence: “Give (v. 1â€‘4), pray (v. 5â€‘15), fast (v. 16â€‘18), and you’ll receive treasure in heaven (v. 19â€‘21), see (v. 22,23)?” This gets me down to verse 24. The rest of the chapter tells about two masters (v. 24) that I’m worried about serving (v. 25-34). The dramatic visual hooks of chapter 7 make it easy to memorize. Most pastors know about the “mote in the eye,” “the Golden Rule” and “building on the rock or sand.”
To deliver the sermon, I take a stroll in my imagifnation and explain to the congregation what I see. Remember, the important thing isn’t having a terrific memory but in the creativity that you show in storing information. Daydreaming improves your memory!
Try it now!
If you prepare well and preach the Sermon on the Mount as soon as possible, you’ll have enough confidence to recite other passages that will make your congregation’s joyful hearts quiver. In the past two years I’ve used the couplet of Isaiah 40 and Psalm 40, the letter to James, Hebrews 11, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, 2 Peter, Matthew 26–28, Luke 21, Proverbs 20–22 and the entire book of Revelation (in more than one sitting, though). The more you do it, the better you’ll get. I’ve been preaching Scripture sermons at least once a month for two years.
Here is my usual schedule for reciting a book or a chapter by memory for a sermon using the locus system:
• Two weeks before my sermon, I select the passage to be memorized. After learning several verses each day, I make a game of giving myself random “pop” quizzes while washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, or putting the children to bed.
• The last week I concentrate only on review. Wednesday I practice in my empty church. If I am struggling greatly, I push the sermon back for another week. The day before I preach, I practice in the church again.
If called to preach the text on the spur of the moment, a glance through the chapters completes the preparation. After praying, I recite the passage during the divine worship hour.
I find it easier to preach to a full congregation than when I’m alone in the church. As I look into the peoples’ faces, they help me along with nods, “amen’s” and sometimes tears. My church members want me to succeed. I know that their prayers are giving me power and confidence that will make my presentation grow stronger as I continue preaching. One woman in my congregation, so eager to help, mouths the words from her Bible while I'm preaching. Several others, with their Bibles open as they check on my progress, get into the habit of finishing off the endings of familiar verses.
You and your congregation will be blessed as you recite Scripture from memory during the worship hour. In fact, I can think of several blessings for preachers and several for the congregation. For the congregation: their Bibles are open during the entire service. They are reading Scripture (some may even recite the text along with you). They are hearing God’s Word. They’re not bored. You’ve grabbed their attention with your memory “stunt.” Next, the Word of God speaks. They receive a free copy of sermon notes, because it’s all in their Bibles. Their faith increases, because the Bible promises that “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17, NIV). And last but not least, they are praying for their pastor to make it through the passage that, in turn, gives them such a blessing.
For the preacher: You’re always prepared to preach. No notes. You can look directly into the eyes of your congregation, watching the Scriptures win victories for Christ.
With your mind on Scripture all week, other less useful thoughts are crowded out. Instead of replaying members’ critical comments, your thoughts are on God’s Word. Memorized passages are useful for other times during the week—in prayer, counseling, and for rebuking the devil. It takes less time to memorize Scripture than it does to compose most sermons, and then you have more time to address other pastoral concerns. You never have to worry about saying the wrong thing while preaching— if people are offended they have to take it up with God’s Word—not the preacher.
Read the Bible often—at least once through Old Testament and twice through the New. Listen to Bible tapes in your car. Dramatized versions are helpful if the music in the background doesn’t distract. Repeat five to seven challenging phrases often so you can become more familiar with these phrases. If you get stuck while you’re reciting, ask for someone to open a window or give you a glass of water as you regain your thoughts. Read many different translations of Scripture. Sometimes there are easierâ€‘toâ€‘remember phrases in Bible versions that you used as a child. For confidence, review your old files at least once every two months. You might be surprised at how good your memory is. Finally, practice brief portions of Scriptures you have memorized throughout the week.
Then let the Scriptures speak!