When asked how many points a sermon should have, my colleague, Michael Rogness, is fond of saying, “At least one.”
In fact, one is just the right number of points for a sermon. Attempting to incorporate everything one knows about a text into one sermon compromises a sermon’s focus and clarity.
If one imagines sermon preparation as discovery, development, design and delivery, the second task–development–is working with multiple ideas long enough to figure out which ones to let go. There is no way around this: good sermons require work that will never be reflected in them. To know which ideas to let go and which to design a sermon around, the preacher has to develop a few insights further than they are developed at the end of the discovery process and then let all but one of them go.
For example, imagine working with Matthew 8:23-27, the story of Jesus stilling a storm as panicked disciples look on. In the discovery part of your work, let’s say you asked, “Where is the trouble in this text?” and you came up with two answers:
1.In the midst of the storm, Jesus is asleep instead of helping.
2.In the midst of the storm, the disciples have “little faith.”
Either of these insights could be the beginning of a textual sermon. Trying to develop both of them in one sermon puts your hearers in the position of being (1) annoyed with the sleeping of Jesus (as the disciples are) while also being (2) annoyed with the little faith of the disciples (as Jesus is). While it might be possible to pull this off, most of us who attempt it would leave hearers asking, “Who am I supposed to identify with?” or just, “huh?” The discovery process has left us with the seeds of two sermons, rather than one. To figure out which sermon to preach, look for bad news and good news connected to each discovery.
Why bad news and good news? Generally Christians agree that the world is not as God created it to be and that in Christ, God has made things better, the full extent of which is yet to be revealed. Because we believe this, we can find bad news and good news in almost any biblical text. That is, in the Bible we see documentation of how the world is not as it should be, and we see news of God’s work to redeem that broken world. In sermon development, we pose very big questions to individual texts. What is the nature of the world’s brokenness in this text? What is evidence of renewed wholeness?
In Matthew 8, the first point of narrative conflict or trouble we discovered is that Jesus is asleep when the disciples need him. The text is a window on God’s apparent inattention to humanity’s plight. With the psalmist, we wonder, “How long, O Lord?” A sermon that starts here might ask, “Do you ever pray and wonder if anyone is listening? You’re knocking on the door and feel forced to conclude: lights on, nobody home.” In Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard relates hearing a minister interrupt himself during the prayer of the church to blurt out, “Lord, we bring these same petitions to you every week.”1 It is true. We want a more peaceful world, a more equitable economy, even just a calmer temper with our loved ones. We pray. Jesus snores.
In the text, of course, Jesus also wakes up. The bad news is that he is sleeping. The good news is that he is only sleeping; he wakes up and rebukes the storm. The disciples discover he was with them all along and is able to keep them from harm. The text reveals a God who is really present for good even though it often appears that God is absent.
A different sermon could focus on the indictment of Jesus about the disciples: they have little faith. The preacher could start by wishing the disciples–or present day hearers of the text–had more faith. In spite of experiences of God’s care, when life becomes hard or frightening we move quickly to doubt and fear. Take the disciples for example. They had been right beside Jesus, watching as he healed Peter’s mother-in-law and dozens more. Now, in the boat during a storm, these followers of Jesus are sure they are dying, and they are even more sure Jesus doesn’t care about it. When he wakes up and sees them, their “little faith” shows all too clearly on their panicked faces. He comments on it, and then he does something to change it, something that only he can do to inspire great faith: he calms the wind and the waves.
Here the bad news is little faith. The text’s answer to “little faith”–the good news–is that Jesus doesn’t need great faith from the disciples to be able to save them. He just saves them.
A good development process will help a preacher know what not to include in a sermon. To tease apart the multiple sermon ideas you have in your notes on a text, explore what each of your discoveries implies about the problem addressed by the text and the solution offered by the text. Then focus on statements of bad news and good news that are related to each other. Do not be afraid to leave really good material behind at this point. As you develop a few ideas, it will usually become clear which one has the most potential to speak to the time, place and people that the sermon is to address. Let the rest go. Go on to the design phase where you will work on how exactly to craft the one sermon you will preach.
1 Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 58.
This is the second in a series of four articles about the four Ds of sermon preparation: discovery, development, design and delivery.