“Leave them with marching orders!”
That was the advice given to me by another pastor who heard one of my sermons. “It was good…” he told me, “but it failed to answer one thing: “So, now what?” Truthfully, I’ve never been big into giving the congregation “marching orders” in response to my sermon. I’ve always believed that we are all called to discern how to respond to the sermon in our own lives and contexts. However, I do think that my pastor friend had a point and he left me with this question to ponder:
“Should the sermon be about God or about us?”
Is it about telling the story of God or about what Christians should be doing in the world? Both have advantages and disadvantages. We’ve all heard the theological sermon filled with words like “eschatology” and “hypostasis” that seemed so disconnected from our own lives. And we’ve all heard the sermon that tells us what we should and should not be doing, with very little mention of God.
So, which is it?
I happen to think that a sermon can AND SHOULD do both! I haven’t mastered this art by any means, but along the way I’ve started using three questions that help me ensure that my sermons are rooted in God while also calling our congregation to action. I hope that they can help you, too:
Question One: Who is God in this passage?
Whenever I begin studying a text, I first read through the scripture and write down preliminary thoughts on a sheet of paper. At the very top of the paper, I write this question: “Who is God in this passage?” Since scripture is the story of God, the first task of the interpreter and preacher should be finding out what the scripture is saying about the nature of God. This will theologically ground your sermon. Is it speaking of God’s love? God as Creator? Reconciler? Judge? High Priest? Savior? If a sermon isn’t rooted in the nature of God, what’s the point in preaching it? It might be a good talk, but it’s not Christian preaching. This question anchors your sermon in God.
Question Two: What is God doing in this passage?
The second question that I try to answer is: What is God doing here? God is living and active throughout the whole of scripture, and vital to Christian preaching is determining what God is doing in scripture and in the world. If we believe that the mission of the church is to join in with what God is already doing in the world, what does the scripture say about God’s redemptive work? When reading Genesis, what is God doing? What about in Exodus? What is God up to in the Gospels? Here we can take it another step: How can we potentially see what God is up to in our own community? Based on this scripture, where is this happening in our context? If we are preaching on Israel’s Exodus, how do we see deliverance in our own communities? How does the Exodus connect to the substance abuse center down the street? As we determine what God is doing, we can begin to see how that’s happening in our own context. That’s the good news!
Question Three: In response to who God is, what are we called to do and who are we called to be?
This is the question that we usually want to get to first, but we shouldn’t ask it until we have grounded our text in the nature of God. When that’s done, then we can ask, “In response to who God is, what are we to do?” The sermon should call us to action, but that action should be theologically rooted in the nature of God. If God loves the stranger and the outcasts, what does that say about us, followers of Jesus? If God seeks out the lost, what does that say about how we associate with our unchurched neighbors? Are we being sought or are we called to do the seeking with God? Sermons tell God’s story, but just like any story, the best part is the feeling of being a part of it. Every sermon should in some way have an invitation to join God’s story.
These are three simple questions. I encourage you to write them down on a single sheet of paper and answer them as you begin your sermon prep. They shouldn’t be the only questions that you ask of the text, but they do force us to think about what’s important as you prepare to preach God’s word. I hope that they can help us as we seek to preach the Good News!