Sermon preparation and climbing a mountain are similar endeavors.
Both present challenges and difficulties.
Both offer pleasures and joy.
When preparing a sermon, you start at the bottom, staring up (or down) at the text, anxious to grapple with the words, syntax, and theology. But you gladly grapple with the difficulties because, just like reaching the top of a mountain peak, you are eager to reach heights where you can see great and glorious things.
In order to scale the mountain, and take in the view, the preacher must start climbing. If you would see the great and glorious realities in the Bible, you must begin navigating your way through the biblical terrain. If the first step is never taken, the sermon fails to come to fruition. The preacher must move his legs, his feet, and start climbing.
But where do you start? When you look up at the mountain, you try to find a good place to begin. That first step, though not as difficult as some of the later steps, is important nonetheless.
Let me share how I begin the climb towards the pulpit.
Seeing, Savoring, and Saying: A Simple Formula to Preaching
It’ll help, I think, to give a simple formula for preaching before talking about a particular step in the process of preparation. Preaching flows from the heart of a man who has seen great things in the Bible, has savored what he has seen, and stands before a people to tell them what he saw (I flesh that out a bit below and a bit more over at Desiring God). Preaching is, without question, more than this, but it shouldn’t be less.
Notice three key ideas: seeing, savoring, saying. A preacher must see what is in the Bible, and rightly see what is there, before he is ready to stand and preach. Furthermore, the preacher serves his people best when he marinates in the biblical text, savors the truths that the Lord is showing him, and drives those truths deep into his own heart. Then, after seeing and savoring the truth of the Bible, he thinks carefully over how best to say what he saw.
But where do we start our climb up the mountain of sermon preparation? I start, early in the week, by opening my Bible and using my quiet time to journal through the text I’m getting ready to unpack.
Start Seeing Through Journaling Through the Text
I know, some preachers discourage combining of quiet time and sermon preparation. However, through my relatively short years of preaching (around a decade), combining devotional time and sermon prep has served me quite well. If preaching is telling people what you’ve seen and savored in the Bible, first you must see and savor. Quiet times, where I meet with the Lord in prayerful meditation over his Word, are times when I’m asking the Lord to open my eyes and help me see. At this point, I’m not mainly concerned with seeing for the sake of saying. I’m concerned with seeing so that I can savor the treasures in the text, challenge my own sin and soul, and spur myself on towards Christlikeness. When this happens, and God gives me eyes to see and a heart that rejoices in what I’ve been shown, I cannot wait to tell others.
Over the last ten years or so, my practice has been to plan my quiet times (normally early in the morning) to cover multiple passages (reading across the testaments), always giving the lion’s share of the time to the passage I’m preaching (or the book I’m preaching through). By doing so, my devotional time and sermon preparation come together. The ways the Lord is meeting with me in the Scriptures, the way the Spirit is cutting me to the bone, and the grace that he mediates to me as I soak in the Word, are sweet graces. The Word works me over first. Then, and only then, when I’ve preached the passage into my own heart and soul and mind, am I ready to think about this text in relation to the people in my church. This approach has, I believe, strengthened my preaching.
On Tuesday morning I sat at my desk, opened my Bible and journal, clicked my pen, and began reading Philippians 3:1–11. Paul reminds the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord,” to bank all their hope in Jesus rather than their pedigree. While capturing my thoughts via pen and paper, an idea came to my mind that I had never considered in relation to this text. Paul is calling us away from hoping in our pedigree or past efforts to commend us to God. That’s a warning we should sound every day.
And yet, there is another group of people who, though they too look at their past, believe they are beyond the grip of saving grace. That is, this particular group thinks they are too wicked, too sinful, and too ugly for God. This, however, is a lie and has the stench of smoke all over it. No one, not even Saul of Tarsus, is beyond God’s saving power.
This idea, addressing those who think their past places them outside of God’s saving purposes, isn’t explicitly in view for Paul (and therefore will not be the main point of my sermon), but is nonetheless a point the Lord impressed on my heart during my quiet time. This struck me about halfway through the first page of my journaling through the text. Now, the idea will find its way into Sunday’s sermon. And, it’s one I’m eager to exult over.
It was in my devotional reading of Sunday’s passage where the Lord helped me to think more deeply about how to offer penetrating application come the Lord’s Day.
Starting Up the Mountain
Unless the Lord Jesus returns, Sunday is always coming. The preaching pastor has a lot of responsibilities throughout the week. One responsibility that takes priority is preparing to preach the Word when God’s people gather. To prepare, he must start climbing towards the pulpit.
I’m suggesting the place to begin, the first step up the mountain of writing a sermon is sitting down with an open Bible, an open journal, and a nice pen. Start reading. Let the pen hit the paper and record the great and glorious truths that the Lord is giving you eyes to see. Without a doubt, you’ll need to make sure what you’re seeing is truly there (practice good exegesis, check other sources, etc.). But when you see, and God’s Spirit causes you to savor what you’ve seen, then stand and exult with your people over what you’ve seen from the top of the mountain.