Many times I’ve sat on the front pew just prior to the sermon time looking at the steps to the pulpit. In these moments each Sunday morning I’m reminded of the great task with which I have been entrusted and my own weakness to perform it.
After hours of painstaking study and prayerful preparation, I still stare at those steps and feel under qualified, knowing I’ve only scratched the surface of the message. There is a certain holy trembling a preacher feels before climbing those steps to proclaim God’s eternal Word. In centuries past, preachers like Charles Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones had to climb winding staircases to reach the “sacred desk”, but many pulpits today are just a few steps above the floor. Whether you have many steps or none at all, it is an other-worldly task we have been given. The following are a few practical steps preachers can take before climbing the real ones on Sunday morning…
Get in the Word
We must immerse ourselves in the text at the outset of all sermon prep, otherwise we will start with our own flawed opinions instead of the rock solid truth of God’s Word.
Read the text multiple times, letting its arguments and warnings and promises inform and shape your thinking. Know the context of the passage and how it fits in the chapter, the book of the Bible it is in, and the grand scope of redemptive history. Beware of relying on your own history with the text, but don’t forget how it has affected you in the past. Familiarity with famous passages often requires we do a lot of un-learning before we can really understand it. This is the step in which to consult the original languages and discover the many nuances and word plays happening. Its also a good time to ask lots of questions of the text and consult commentaries to iron out the logic. Get the tone of the text in your head as well, so that you don’t carry the wrong tone into the pulpit. Since the tone of Psalm 23 is much different than that of Psalm 10, our preaching tone ought to reflect this. Breaking the text down into truths for the Christian life is best at this stage as well.
Let the Word get in you
This second step follows closely behind the first. You may know the Word well and have consulted the Greek and several scholarly commentaries, but you are not yet ready to preach it until you have let it get into you.
Have you been humbled or encouraged or corrected by its teaching yet? What about it are you disobeying right now? Spend time thinking over these questions. I give myself an entire day for this stage. Before we preach the gospel from this text to others, we must first preach it to our own hearts. This is the step where study Bibles and devotional commentaries can be helpful. Such tools as the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible help to take the text and apply it with gospel force to our lives. It is also helpful at this stage to open oneself up to the scalpel of the Puritans, as their applications are heart-searching. A work like Banner of Truth’s Voices from the Past can assist you here as it has texts listed in the back to easily look up.
Pray the Word back to God…a lot
We ought to be praying at all times anyway, but especially over the text we’re to preach on Sunday. I have found that the more time I spend praying the text back to God, the more He reveals about it.
If I’m preaching on the Great Commission this Sunday, I’ll be much more likely to share the gospel that week if I’ve been praying it to God multiple times. This also gives us a deeper conviction about its necessity before preaching it to others. After reading Tim Keller’s book entitled Prayer, I have since followed Martin Luther’s prayer method, which involves thanksgiving, confession, and supplication (p. 90). I first thank God for the text at hand and how it relates to the gospel. I then confess my failure to obey that particular text. Lastly, I pray for God’s grace to obey the text this week.
Get with the people to see how they need the Word
Your sermon will always need tweaking and will never be fully complete, but the people God has entrusted under your charge need you. One secret to preach better sermons is to get to know the people to which you’ll preach it. Sometimes I’ll realize a powerful application of a text only after visiting a family undergoing some turmoil. Trust me on this: getting to know your members will be some of your best sermon prep in the week.
Illustrate the Word in a fresh way to engage their minds
This stage takes the most effort from me personally, yet can cost me dearly if I skip it.
Sermon illustrations serve a number of uses: mental break, artful explanation, real-life scenario, and many more. The best sermon illustrations, however, are those which take the congregation on a two minute journey outside of the building and four walls to help bring home the message of the text in real life. You can even use church history here to bring a truth home. Jesus was the master teacher because he used current events, everyday objects, and simple stories to add further weight to the message. Beware of using too many illustrations, but have some on hand when the need arises.
Apply the Word to the people
You can’t personally apply the text to every scenario in the life of the congregation, but you should give more application than, “Just do this”.
We can tell others the gospel is amazing all day long, but if we don’t show them it matters for their work attitude or their family relationships or how they run their errands this weekend, we’re doing a disservice to God’s Word. If you struggle with application, Mark Dever has a helpful idea known as the application grid. He basically asks questions of how the text relates to various groups in the church body (age groups, believer/unbeliever, married/single, father/mother to children and vice versa, work, etc.) and then address a few of those in your message each week.
Preach the Word from the heart
The final step in sermon prep is the preaching of it.
Familiarity with the text and your sermon manuscript/outline is vital. I try to look over my sermon manuscript at least four times before preaching it. I want to make sure I know the points and how to transition to them in a way that does justice to the text. But make sure you always leave some on the cutting room floor. If you try to say every single thing you prepared, you’ll only sound wooden, distant, and possibly rushed. Sometimes pausing for a few seconds after a truth has been communicated conveys you care more about bringing the message home than regurgitating a manuscript.
There are multiple other aspects to sermon prep which I didn’t even cover, but these are just a few to help my fellow pastors deliver the Word.
God’s grace to you as you ascend the steps of the pulpit this week to proclaim His Word.