This is the fifth in a series of five articles from Langham Preaching, a ministry of Langham Partnership, which seeks to work in fellowship with national leaders to establish local and national preaching movements. This series highlights the five focal areas that shape the curriculum of Langham Preaching and also guide which materials are published within our imprint Langham Preaching Resources.
What is the impact of a clear and memorable biblical sermon? During an IFES Bolivia training event, the preacher, Jorge Atiencia, read Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 and announced his sermon's title: "God restores what happened." Step by step and without leaving the text, he showed us the different stages and cycles of life that we all have to go through, the truths about God and time, and how God restores what happened. He concluded with a challenging illustration. It exemplified the importance of respecting cycles and showed that there is even a time for forgiveness. In the auditorium, there was complete silence that demonstrated how we were all following the sermon's development.
I was at that meeting with my wife, Charito, and our eight-month-old baby. Throughout the years, the Lord allowed me to repeatedly remember this sermon, especially when we faced painful and critical times and stages of joy and victory. There is a time for everything, and we all have to go through this range of experiences. Remembering that "God made everything beautiful in his time" made me look for each new project's right moment. Now that I think about it, I am surprised to realize that it has been 30 years since Charito and I heard this sermon. My daughter Sara, who was just a baby in her stroller at the back of the auditorium, is now a mother and a PhD student of theology. How do I remember that sermon so clearly 30 years later? What made this sermon so challenging in my life?
Faithfulness to the structure
That's what this short article is about, clarity of message. What makes a sermon clear? Firstly, a message is clear if the preacher transmits the author's original intention, the heart of the text. What we call in our Langham Preaching workshops "faithfulness to the text." There is no doubt that if the sermon is faithful to the biblical text, it will be easy to remember it when we re-read it. We will find the central truth and the points that the preacher emphasized. That is what happened with Jorge Atiencia's sermon of Ecclesiastes 3. He showed what is already in the text. He also helped us understand the implications of what the wise man Solomon wrote.
On the one hand, faithfulness to the text has to do with the central idea or main emphasis of the passage. But it also has to do with the sermon's structure that reflects the organization of the text itself. One of the struggles in preparing a biblical exposition is finding the natural division of the passage and its relation to the central idea. When we achieve this task well, we have progressed a lot in the outline of our sermon. And when reviewing the exposition, the attentive listener will be able to say: "this sermon was clear because the organization of ideas conveyed what the text says."
Faithfulness to the genre
In recent years I have noticed another level of faithfulness to the text that clarifies the sermon. It is not only about being true to what but also about being true to how. Not only to the content of the text but also to the way of communicating it, that is, the book's literary style. Many of us are very familiar with the three-point logical sermon. And this type of exposition is probably very suitable when we preach an epistle. But, I ask myself, do we have to look for the three points when we preach a story from the New Testament or an Old Testament poem?
Some preachers would probably answer, yes. At this point in my life, I would say, not necessarily. The three-point sermon style is very suitable for a discursive text where you are working with logical arguments. But the narrative has another approach, another way of reaching the listener's attention. We can't reduce it to three rational points. Stories have the virtue of disarming the listener's defenses as they enter the house through the back door. In that sense, I would say that a sermon of a narrative text is clear when it follows a story's structure. It relates to a series of events where characters face a critical situation and how they resolve it. Another way of explaining this would be to show that something significant happened to change everything between the initial and final conditions. The plot in the narrative sermon is so engaging that the entire audience is hooked, following the story. At the end of the exposition, you will have not only listened to an exciting story, but you also learned something important about the character of God, who is the protagonist of the Bible.
Another characteristic that makes the sermon clear is the use of excellent illustrations. Especially when the example clarifies a tricky point of the text and helps us in the application to see the current and pertinent implications of the truth expounded in the biblical passage. We all enjoy hearing illustrations in sermons, but we know that not all of them are appropriate and relevant. Some entertain and distract, but are not related to the central truth of the text. But when the preacher uses a good illustration and shows us how to apply the principle taught, it adds much to the sermon's clarity. There is no better example of this point than the sermons and parables of the Lord Jesus. Some of his most studied parables stemmed from Jesus' clear intention to challenge his listeners, his critics. He recounted three parables of something lost and then found to challenge the Pharisees and scribes who were criticizing him for eating with sinners (Luke 15). These three parables' practical implications were so clear that the listeners only needed ears to understand what the Lord wanted to communicate to his opponents. Instead of criticizing him for eating with sinners, they should rejoice that these people were found and returned to the Father's house.
Let's review what we have said so far. Sermons are clear when they faithfully express the main idea and natural structure of the text. They are also clear when they communicate in a way that respects the literary style of the passage. We should preach a discursive text following a logical scheme and a narrative sermon following the different conflict and resolution stages. Finally, we said that a biblical exposition is clear when the illustrations help us think about how to apply the truths and principles taught in the text.
Let's recognize that achieving this level of clarity is not easy. It will take a lot of work and especially prayer. You might be asking, "Is it worth all that effort?" My answer is, obviously, YES. Just think about this: A sermon I heard 30 years ago continues to resonate within me and challenge my life. The impact on the lives of the listeners will more than compensate for the preacher's effort.