Getting a Word from the Lord


Many mysterious things happen in the life of a preaching pastor — like why the mike fails to work on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday morning; why the best-prepared sermon often falls flatter than roadkill on I-95; and conversely, why those sermons cobbled together at 6 a.m. Sunday are so often blessed with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Like I said, weird.

But perhaps nothing is more mysterious than the process — if there is one — by which preachers decide the text and topic for Sunday’s sermon. “Let beer be for those who are perishing, wine for those who are in anguish” (Proverbs 31:6 NIV). You decided to preach on this text why?

Don’t you wish you could have Jeremiah’s experience? “God, just touch my mouth and put your words there!” (See Jeremiah 1:9).  I guess if you aspire to be a prophet, you could legitimately ask God for a manuscript. When you’re speaking on someone else’s behalf, you don’t want to mess up. So prophets are mouthpieces; not preachers. They’re something else.

Moses is another example. Have you ever said to God what Moses said? Here’s Moses with his umpteenth excuse: “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10). God responds saying, “Go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” Moses wavers and pushes back, and God explodes: “Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses …” (4:13).

Many of us feel the inadequacy of Jeremiah or Moses for reasons of our own. Preaching may not be our strongest skill, but we do what we have to do. Perhaps the best we can do is to trust the promise God made to Moses: “I will be with your mouth.”

But, what to say? What text to use? What’s in play when a preacher chooses a text or topic for the Sunday sermon? What factors enter into the decision? Here are some possibilities.

The need to be organized: Many preachers do not like not to know. Waiting until Saturday night might work for some, but many of us prefer to lay out a proposal before the Lord and say, “Here’s what I am thinking of doing for the next 12 months. If you’d like to revise this, feel free. But give me a sign.”

So we go on a retreat and we have the Bible before us, and a chart or list of topics and texts from previous years, and a file of possible themes for future consideration. In the end, we come up with a laminated, 12-month, color-coded preaching schedule that’s more complicated than Bill Belichick’s offensive game plan.

The 12-month preaching schedule takes the mystery and anxiety out of the preaching task. Yet, why the texts, topics and series were selected is a question that remains unanswered and is as mysterious as ever.

Our tradition: Perhaps you didn’t know what a lectionary was when you took your first church. You grew up with expository preaching. Expository preachers usually do not need to select a mere text; they need to target a book through which to preach, beginning at 1:1 and meandering verse by verse until they’re at the end. Some preachers will spend three years going through Romans. No Sunday morning angst for these preachers.

 The lectionary: A typical sermon from a lectionary preacher is a sermon based on of the readings for the day. Today, many preachers accept the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) or a denominational lectionary as a preaching rubric, satisfied that God can bless this plan as surely as any other. And the RCL allows for series preaching through a gospel or an epistle. Forays into the Old Testament and Psalms are welcome homiletical detours.

The advantage for lectionary preaching is the assurance of working through the “whole counsel of God” in a three-year cycle. It keeps a preacher from becoming a “one string” preacher — from harping on one theological chord.

The late Robert McAfee Brown comments on this very tendency: “My three and a half years with the lectionary taught me a number of things about the faith and its proclamation. … Using the lectionary means that we can’t confine our preaching to the ‘canon within the canon’ that each of us erects with his or her favorite texts. … My own penchant in this regard has been to tilt toward social-justice issues. But if I take the lectionary seriously, I can’t get away with concentrating only on those themes, for the same people come back Sunday after Sunday, and they will yearn for and finally demand more.

“By looking into people’s faces I discovered that I’m not faithful to the gospel if I preach only judgment and social concern week after week. Not only do members of any congregation need to be roused out of complacency; most of them are hurting and need support and comfort, not an unwavering diet of chastisement. Time in the pulpit sensitized me to the lives of those who are not in the pulpit. A rousing denunciation of the Gulf War isn’t necessarily what a couple needs when they’ve just learned that their daughter has cancer.“

The needs of the congregation: Sometimes, we choose a text because we believe it works really well given the emotional and spiritual health of the congregation. Perhaps some specific event triggers a text. Our preaching is often affected — as it should be — by such events as a death, an anniversary or a celebration of some kind. Perhaps our city has been beset by riots or shootings, or the hometown basketball team is headed for a championship game, requiring that prayers and imprecations, liturgical colors and even the sermon be adjusted accordingly. Therefore, context helps to inform our selection of a preaching text.

Something we’ve read. Our sermon next Sunday may be influenced by something we’ve read or a conversation we’ve had. I’ve often had this experience. I read something very interesting to me, and then I fervently pray that the RCL has a text into which I can fold the thoughts I’ve read like you’d fold egg whites into a soufflé.

For example, I just read an article about holacracy (Google it), which I think links well with 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. After reading about flattened, boss-less companies like Zappos and Valve, I wanted to preach this right away. I was excited and passionate about it — and I have found that I preach best when I am really “into” something, when I have a new insight that’s really fresh to me and thus I can’t wait to share it.

And then I read this week that Pope Francis, speaking at World Youth Day, referred to Mary as the world’s first influencer. This was a reference to influencer marketing, a topic in the next issue of Homiletics (July 7, “The 70 Influencers”). I immediately added a note to our treatment of Jesus sending out the 70. Influencers.

Our hair’s on fire. My wife’s a teacher and so it’s natural that I run across some books in her field. One such resource is Rafe Esquith’s book, Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire. When he was teaching at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles, his fifth-graders were already dipping into high-school subjects like algebra, philosophy and Shakespeare. Esquith describes himself as an educator who teaches “with total abandon!”

The title of a book for us preachers: Preach Like Your Hair’s On Fire. What’s that like? It’s preaching with total abandon. It’s fearless preaching. It’s preaching that elevates core biblical content and theologies. It’s preaching that informs and persuades. It’s preaching that takes lots of work, emotion and energy. Esquith says: “I do the same job as thousands of other dedicated teachers who try to make a difference. Like all real teachers, I fail constantly. I don’t get enough sleep. I lie awake in the early-morning hours, agonizing over a kid I was unable to reach. Being a teacher can be painful.”

Now, let’s use preachers instead of teachers in the same quotation: “I do the same job as thousands of other dedicated preachers who try to make a difference. Like all real preachers, I fail constantly. I don’t get enough sleep. I lie awake in the early-morning hours, agonizing over [someone] I was unable to reach. Being a preacher can be painful.”

Me? I’d love to preach like my hair’s on fire.

In fact, I’d just love to have some hair.

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Timothy Merrill

TIMOTHY MERRILL is an ordained minister and has served churches in Oregon, Minnesota and Colorado. His doctoral work at Princeton Theological Seminary focused on the apocalyptic nature of the preaching of the First Crusade in 1096 A.D. His work has been published in the academic press including the Patristica and Byzantine Review and the Westminster Theological Journal. His book, Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy (Chalice Press) appeared in 1998.

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