“You have to do whatever the Lord says you have to do in order to preach that Bible.”
When I heard a friend say this in a conversation with a group of preachers, I laughed. He was asked his philosophy of sermon preparation. Specifically, they wanted to know what steps he takes to get from text to sermon. How long does it take him to prepare? Things like that. His answer: “You have to do whatever the Lord says to do in order to preach that Bible.”
(Some things we laugh at because they are funny. Some things we laugh at because they are true. And some things we laugh at to keep from crying.)
Sermon preparation is both an art and a science. It is a science in that there are basic rules and principles you must follow to develop a biblical sermon (assuming you are seeking to prepare a biblical sermon). But it is an art in that the dynamic of each person’s process is unique. Two men can go through the same steps of sermon preparation on the same text. But that does not mean they are going to end up with the same sermon (that is, unless they both wind up stealing a sermon from the same internet site).
But one thing is the same for all who would preach faithfully. You have to do whatever the Lord says you have to do in order to get ready to faithfully preach the word of God.
There are times when you go through all the steps and still end up without a sermon. You have read the text dozens of times. You have performed word studies and examined comparative translations. You have researched the historical and contextual background of the passage. You have looked up cross-references. And you have consulted the commentaries. As the Gospel song says, “You prayed and cried… You prayed and cried….” But still no sermon.
I have a cartoon picture in my study of a man on his hands and knees crawling through a dessert. He approaches a sign that says, “SERMON.” Under the sign is a map with a dot that says, “You are here.” But there is absolutely nothing else on the map! I have approached the weekend feeling that way many times.
Other times you sit at your desk and it almost seems that the Lord is sitting next you whispering in your ear. “This is what I meant in that text. And this is what I want you to say to my people Sunday.” The point of the text is clear. You have a good idea about how to organize the text for preaching. The material you need to develop the sermon just falls into your lap like manna from on high. It rarely happens like this. But some times it does.
I think this mystery of sermon preparation is meant to both encourage and humble preachers. The sermon can be hard to come by when you have had a great week of study to remind us that scholarship alone does not produce the message God wants us to deliver. And the sermon can just come to you when you have had a hectic week that has stolen hours from your study to remind us that God is with us and he understands the burden we bear.
Above all, this mystery of sermon preparation keeps us from cheating! You have to do whatever you have to do to get ready to preach.
We preachers need to remember this. And so do those who sit in the pew and listen to us from week to weak. I often think that church members either misunderstand or underestimate what it takes most preachers to prepare. It seems they think that preachers learn everything they need to know in seminary. And from week to week, we just pick a text and stand up to preach from some storehouse of biblical wisdom. Believe me, you do not want to sit under a preacher who just picks a text and stands up to preach! If your pastor makes preaching look easy, it is usually the result of much hard work.
When the MacArthur Study Bible was being released, I saw an advertisement in a magazine that said something like this: “A young preacher asked Dr. MacArthur was the different is between average preachers and great preachers. He was surprised by the answer. ‘Good preachers stay in the seat until the hard work is done.'” How true.
You have to do whatever the Lord says that you have to do to get ready to preach the word of God.