Preparing to Preach
It’s early Sunday morning and I am adding some additional thoughts to my sermon for today. I preached it last night at the Saturday evening service in our chapel. Preaching first in a smaller space is always a good experience for me. I only find awkward phrases and weak points when I say them out loud to a congregation of people. When I get up early on Sunday morning, as I did today, I already have a list of improvements in mind. I read
It’s early Sunday morning and I am adding some additional thoughts to my sermon for today. I preached it last night at the Saturday evening service in our chapel. Preaching first in a smaller space is always a good experience for me. I only find awkward phrases and weak points when I say them out loud to a congregation of people. When I get up early on Sunday morning, as I did today, I already have a list of improvements in mind. I read the Scripture a few more times, look at my outline, and add or take away. On Sunday morning I have three more sermons to preach.
I am in pretty good shape this morning. Actually, I have an hour or so before I need to leave for church. That is just enough time to write a blog post for AnglicanPastor.com. Today I am writing about preaching.
Preaching is a wrenching joy for me. I mean that in the full sense of both these words. It is wrenching because it takes nearly everything I have to pray, prepare, write, and deliver a message that I pray God can use. By the end of the process I am spent, emotionally drained.
But, it is also a joy for me. The privilege and honor of delivering this amazing news is a thrill. But this Gospel burden creates a sober sense of responsibility in me.
Week by week, the process of writing a sermon begins on Sunday morning right after I have preached my sermon at the last service. Yes, it is true that when others are receiving communion at my church, I am reading the Scriptures for my next sermon. I find myself having some fairly explosive, creative thoughts as I read the Scriptures while at church. There is a remarkable sense of energy and power among the people of God. Maybe it is the music. I’m not sure, but I think other preachers probably experience the same thing.
Then, on Monday morning, I read the text again…and wait and think. I’ll let it stew for a few days. After nearly 35 years of reading the text this way, I have to say that the text never fails. I read it…and then it “reads” to me. Scripture always shows me two things, sometimes simultaneously. It tells me who God is…and who I am. Every time. It shows me the glory of the vast and infinite worth of our God in heaven…and of his Son our Lord…and of the proximate power of the Holy Spirit. And, candidly, it never fails to reveal my own stubby sins and the small little footprint I make in this world. I think preaching is the second most humbling experience of my life. Preparing to preach is the first and it puts me firmly in my place.
But I keep at it week by week because it is a joy to me. The insights and integrity of the Bible are a constant marvel to me. There is no end to the connections and wisdom and revelation I find every time I open it for study. Sometimes I will weep in my preparation for a sermon. It is just that beautiful.
I think of the Bible as an integrated whole with all 1189 chapters connected to each other. As I have studied it over the years–and chased and considered its meaning through its own set of cross-references–I have always stood amazed. The Bible is the first and best version of the World Wide Web! It contains thousands and thousands of hyperlinks scattered throughout its words and verses and chapters. One passage in Luke will hyperlink to a phrase in the Minor Prophets. Jesus hyperlinks himself to the Psalms and to Isaiah. Paul hyperlinks his Letter to the Romans to the Book of Genesis. If you ever read the Bible on a computer screen you can take your cursor and hover over a footnote next to a word or a verse and an amazing thing happens: Chapters and verses from all over the Bible appear!
This is amazing in and of itself. What a Book! Written over 1500 years by multiple authors, in multiple genres, in multiple languages, in multiple settings, and in various cultures, the Bible has a solid internal coherence and message. Do a word search on forgiveness and you will find it everywhere in the Old and New Testament. The Bible has something consistent to say about greed and peace and family and hope and sin. The Bible has thousands of hyperlinks that keep me busy for hours, week by week. And through all of these networks and connections, these hyperlinks unveil the Word of God. If I have tapped into that network of links and text and meaning, I have a sermon worth preaching.
When I leave the house in a few minutes and make my way over to the campus of Christ Church, I will arrive with a pit in my stomach. I always do every week. I have delivered well over 1000 sermons there, yet I am still nervous. It is still new and fresh for me. I will have a notebook with my final draft in it. I will have an outline with certain quotes and call-outs in highlighted boxes for me to read. I keep these notes with me during the sermon for reference only. But at a few tricky spots where I want to be clear or consistent over all four sermons I will preach in a weekend, I will read a few lines right from my outline. But for the most part, it is delivered freehand.
Not surprising to me, when I am done for the day–as I will be in a few hours–I will have a different sermon in my notebook than the one I arrived with in the early morning. Last minute scribbles will be seen in the margins of my outline. I may draw an arrow to remind me of a last minute change of order.
But the sermon will be different in one other way. When I am done, it will be an old sermon, a “used sermon.” I’ll come home and take a final look at the outline and then toss it in the waste basket next to my desk. It’s over. Its moment in the pulpit has passed.
I know that the sermon outline lives in the internet Cloud somewhere, but I rarely read my own “used sermons.” My writings seem to be good only for a particular people at a particular time, unlike the Bible’s universal and eternal message. I have never bothered to repeat any of them in over nearly 30 years of preaching at Christ Church. I believe this is a testimony to two things: First, it speaks of the vast riches of the Bible itself. It is an endless source of creativity and preaching week by week for all who take it seriously. But secondly, as hard and grueling as the process of preparation and study is, I think I am addicted to it. It feeds me richly. In a way, it is my spiritual exercise week by week. I’d miss it if I went back and borrowed my own stuff.
Finally, I will end this blog post with words from Psalm 19:14, through which I usually begin a sermon: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in your sight O Lord. For you are our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.”
Canon David blogs here and at LeaderWorks where he is the Executive Director. For 31 years he has been the founding Rector of Christ Church in Plano. He is NOT retired…he is reFIRED for a new chapter. Follow him there.
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