One True Thing: Moving From Text to Sermon

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

The good sermon is, in many ways, a mystery: like the seed that is the kingdom of God, it seems to grow on its own, and even those of us who “harvest” sermons for a living are hard pressed to say, exactly, how they come to happen.

And yet happen they do, and our efforts, while certainly not guaranteeing that those who hear will understand or those who understand will believe, nevertheless do make a difference.

One of the central challenges is making the move from the biblical text to a biblical sermon. How do we take words penned two and three thousand years ago and open them up for today? How do we use our words to speak forth the living Word of God?

Words Do Things
To move from biblical text to biblical sermon, focus first on the power of Scripture to move beyond telling us about God to actually prompt an encounter with God. The words of Scripture mediate an encounter with the God we know in Jesus and through this encounter we are changed.

Recognizing the power of words provides perhaps the central key in making that critical jump from text to sermon. By and large, preaching has been described, to borrow an image from homiletician Thomas Long, as a “two-step waltz.” First, you uncover what the text meant in the past, and then you tell us what it means today–a largely cognitive conception. The Bible is a book of facts, or perhaps only slightly better, truths, which need to be unearthed and then made relevant so that we know something about the Christian life today.

There conception gets at part of the story–there is a gulf between the text in its historical setting and its proclamation today. The text demands interpretation. If it didn’t, we would simply read the Bible aloud and sit down. This conception of preaching ignores that the gospel is not so much information about God as it is an experience of God. Similarly, the Christian life is a living relationship with God in Christ and through the Spirit, with each other–not just merely “know how.”

Hence, the quintessential quest to move from text to sermon is fatally flawed, from the outset as it ignores the essentially experiential quality of evangelical preaching. The primary question when we approach the biblical text is not “what did it mean” (although this affects our preparation), rather “what is it doing to you?” And from this follows the second question, “what do we want and expect this text to do to our audience?” The move is from text to our experience of the text, and from our experience of the text to what we hope our listeners will experience through our sermon, and finally to the form of the sermon that will best accomplish that end.

Identify: Focus and Function, Content and Character
Focusing on the power of words to do things, and therefore on our experience of the text and the experience we wish to share through our preaching, leads us one step further. According to communication theorists, all patterns of speech, biblical or not, include two dimensions. Words, sentences and paragraphs first tell us things and secondly they do things; they affect us.

Based on these two elements, as Thomas Long believes, our sermons need both a clear focus and a dynamic function. The focus statement tells what you want the sermon to say, and the function statement describes what you want the sermon to do.

I think of these two dimensions of focus and function as the sermon’s “content” and the “character,” respectively. The “content” is what you are going to say, the sermon’s thesis. The “character” is what it will do to your listeners. Where do you want to leave people when you say “Amen”? What do you hope will have happened to them? These are questions of character.

Ideally, both the focus and function can be summed up in one sentence each.

  • When your sermon has a clear focus you can write one declarative sentence that sums its cognitive information and content.
  • When it has a dynamic function, you can write a similarly brief, though vigorously active, sentence summing up the experiential impact of the sermon.

Find the Focus
The focus of the sermon, or what we might also call your one driving conviction, gives your sermon its center, the point to which everything else relates. So, when preparing to compose your sermon, first sum up the one thing you want to say in your focus statement. And by “one,” I mean “ONE.” This for at least two good reasons:

  • First, for the sake of clarity, say just one thing. Martin Luther said much the same thing: “In my preaching I take pains to treat a verse, to stick to it, and so to instruct the people that they can say, ‘That’s what the sermon was about.'” He shaped his sermons around the Herzpunkt, the “heart point,” or “central meaning” of the passage with which he was dealing.
  • Second, for the sake of depth, offer just one profoundly true thing in a sermon because that will be enough. To introduce, develop, and help us imagine one true thing about our life in the world and in Christ will take considerable effort–therefore, for your sake and that of your hearers, be clear to say just one thing.

Clarify the Function
With regard to writing the function statement and establishing your sermon’s character–use active, even vigorous verbs. Determine what you want your sermon to accomplish. You can keep yourself focused on establishing a clear and compelling character by crafting an active function statement. When attempting this, avoid naming cognitive goals–“I want my hearers to know…,” “I want this sermon to teach….” Instead discipline yourself to think in terms of active verbs–“I want this sermon to drive, to compel, to alert, to console, to empower, to free, to liberate” and so on.

Make Your Words Count
Beyond giving your sermon greater clarity, preparing clear and succinct focus and function statements has one other distinct value: they lend a sure measure by which to evaluate the worth and necessity of every word you write in a sermon. Of all the genres of literature, sermons are most like short stories. In the novel or play you have chapter and acts, plots and subplots, with which to ramble until you’ve reached your goal. But in the short story every word must contribute to the final effect or it is eliminated. So it also is with preaching. We are called upon to make every word count. So after you’ve written a draft, go back over it and, with your focus and function clearly in mind, cut out every word, image, or idea that doesn’t have to be there to execute your desired end. You won’t regret it, and neither will your listeners!