The Truth Bears Repeating: Revisiting Your Old Sermons

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So let me begin with a point of recognition: the title of this article has likely evoked certain emotions within you, whether it be discomfort, uncertainty or maybe even disgust. Don’t worry; you’re not alone. I’ve had a colleague tell me once that a pastor should never preach the same sermon twice because we should always be attentive to what the Holy Spirit is doing in the now, this week, this day, which of course is hard to argue. While I don’t disagree with the desire for deliberate discernment, however, I do disagree with the principal. That is why I want to say this most emphatically to you: It is ok, and sometimes entirely necessary, to preach the same sermon twice. Please give yourself permission, let yourself off the hook, allow yourself to revisit and rework old sermons.

That being said, let me be clear about another point: I don’t believe we should give ourselves permission to repeat sermons–revisit and rework, yes, but repeat, no. The distinction is this: a repeated sermon is proclaimed verbatim with the same manuscript or outline is just pulled out of the pile and presented again. I don’t think this should be permitted. I think when we return to previous research and material we should take the time to discern, adapt, and improve. We would do well to give ourselves permission to rework our old manuscripts and material, but we are doing the church a disservice if we simply pretend our preaching is in syndication.

Like many I don’t understand Hollywood’s obsession with the reboot (I mean I don’t understand it from an artistic point of view, I get the economics). Most of the movies that are rebooted or given a rebirth of some kind were actually pretty good movies to begin with; I mean why aren’t they rebooting the bad movies, the misfires and disappointments? But the truth is we love a good story and, if it’s good enough, we’ll gladly pay money to see it again and again, even if the new version is slightly different or has a different emphasis. Why? Because good stories are worth our time even if we’ve heard it or seen it before. The same is true of Scripture and our sermons: the truth bears repeating. Whether it be circumstance, opportunity or discernment (or maybe they’re all the same thing) it is always a worthwhile endeavor to rework old material because there is always something for us to improve upon and God’s Word always has something else to say.

I was recently returning home from a speaking engagement, a camp retreat, where I had spent the weekend sharing three messages from the same passage of Scripture. Six years ago I only had one sermon based on this passage of Scripture (Mark 5:1-20) but after revisiting the material more than once, I’ve now managed to craft and create three full messages that cover almost every angle of the story (and I say almost because I know there is still more there). On my drive home I was listening to a couple different podcasts (did you know the Preaching Collective has a podcast?) and on one episode I was listening to director Michael Mann was being interviewed. Michael Mann has made many memorable films: The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), Ali (2001), Collateral (2004), just to name a few. His most recent film, however, Blackhat (2016) starring Chris Hemsworth, was the first in a long time that wasn’t met with critical praise and box office success. Throughout the interview Mr. Mann spoke quite candidly about the experience and he shared how at a recent film festival he actually went back to the editing room and completely re-cut Blackhat. Even before the film had been released in theaters he knew he was dissatisfied and that he needed to rework the material. Even after all of his success, Michael Mann still never takes his stories for granted.

The same should be true of the preacher, if not more so. Just because you’ve preached on that passage from Paul’s Epistle or Luke’s Gospel, doesn’t mean you’re done with it or that it’s done with you yet. There is more to discover and discern. Whether it be the same story with a slightly different focus or a passage of Scripture that begs to be told from a whole new point of view, whatever the situation or circumstance, God’s story is not done with you yet. And maybe if your research is complete you can spend that additional time considering ways in which you might experiment or stretch yourself as a storyteller. In either case, repetition is valuable for the preacher, and the truth bears repeating for every single human being (a while back Tom Fuerst wrote a great piece on the Preaching Collective about the necessity of repetition too).

So let us extend greater grace to ourselves and to one another. Let us give ourselves permission to revisit and rework previous material, because even though our sermons may not be in syndication, the servants of God who deliver them have a long way to go.

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