When I graduated from seminary, I never expected to preach sermons as much as I have. But in the past fifteen years, I’ve been called upon to preach more than a few times a year; one year, I was asked to preach once every month. Preaching with such frequency, I’m grateful for the two courses in seminary that provided me with training in many guidelines for good preaching. Often my experiences of preparing and delivering sermons have been refreshing for me alongside my normal work of lecturing in theology. I now feel comfortable as a preacher practicing the methods I learned from my training: get the truth accurately from the passage, construct ways of presenting the truth with relevant and interesting illustrations, and make it all clear for the listener to grasp.
Somewhere along the line in my learning, I missed something in preaching preparation. It is only recently that it occurred to me that this step is a vital part of sermon preparation if I hope for my sermons to resonate the truth of biblical revelation, and I have found this tool to be necessary in order to bring my preaching from the level of a “Bible study” to a “sermon.” The “tool” or “method” I speak of is meditative substance. It’s likely that I was taught about this, and just missed it. (There’s actually a lot in seminary that I missed and I had to re-learn things later.)
What I missed is the requirement to burrow into the passage and meet with my Heavenly father there, in receptivity. I don’t mean a squishy sentimental experience, but something in which I am spiritually aware alongside being rationally aware. Sitting in the passage, mulling over it without thought about the sermon or trying to figure out the details—just living in it—is a sort of meditation. This takes the time of several days to wonder about and wander in and out of the passage meditatively, letting ideas develop and settle in the background of my days. A further step is to meditate on the message in applications for daily life, which means being led by the Spirit to see how the passage touches my church.
Somehow, through meditation on the text and about the sermon, I am emptied of my agenda for the message, and instead learn to discern God’s agenda for it. For me, sometimes this process takes several tries to create good, responsible, and responsive-to-God outlines before I can see the difference between my ideas of what to do and what I take to be God’s leading for what to do.
In meditation, I now listen for God’s message through the text in a different way. I have stopped merely thinking about the sermon and drilling into the passage, chewing on what the commentary says, and that shift has helped open things up for me. The result is a different sort of sermon.
Instead of just bringing truth that is delivered with clarity, relevance, accuracy, and interest, I bring something that has weighty wisdom in it. I feel it. Whereas other sermons were valuable, this feels much more like a word from God for my church. The Spirit of God speaks freshly to me through the passage, and I have that gift to share as a sermon. Overall, I think this experience is different because it is rational with relationship.
My sermons are also better when I talk about them with another person (my wife). Some ideas that seem brilliant within my own mind and glowing on my computer screen fall flat when I say them out loud. I am grateful to weed those things out in conversation instead of at 10:15 am on Sunday, when the microphone is on. Discussion with other people sometimes helps me to meditate and be directed by God.
The difference between a message that is a “Bible study” and a message that is a “sermon” is this additional meditative substance in the latter, by which God speaks through his word, and through the preacher. In the end, I am more comfortable with delivering the “Bible study,” but I am more interested in being a lightning rod for the sermon.