Gathering Materials for the Sermon
By Jess Hall Jr.
Ingredients are important. To make biscuits you don't use corn meal and you don't use only flour. You measure and mix just the right amounts of flour, baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar, sugar, salt, shortening, and buttermilk. Then you cut and cook them at the right temperature for the right amount of time. While they are cooking, you "stir" the butter and the sorghum. When the biscuits come out of the oven you sit down to feast.
Regrettably, for sermon preparation there is no supermarket where you can go and get five pounds of illustrations, a box of points, and a can of organization. How, then, does the preacher prepare a sermon that, when completed, his hearers may sit down to feast? Where does he gather the ingredients for his sermon? What should be in his pantry? When the demands are high and the time is short, how does he go about developing his sermon from "scratch" and avoid the temptation to use Bisquick™ or, worse yet, Hungry Jacks™ Moreover, why should he? Can his audience really tell the difference? Do they even care as long as they get to the cafeteria on time?
Good questions in this day of fast food restaurants and precooked cardboard hamburgers. There was a day when you could hear the meat sizzle and smell the tantalizing odor as it cooked. Today the only odor is the overwhelming reek of used grease as it spews from exhaust fans. The former whets the appetite; the latter dulls desire. Those who have tasted the former can never be satisfied by the latter.
Since time is money, and fast food by definition takes less time, fast food restaurants are forgivable. Besides, those who frequent such establishments are there by choice. The only consequence of not going is lower cholesterol. Not so with worship. Worshippers worship at the behest of God. Though voluntary in the sense that God does not force attendance, more is at risk than clogged arteries if his invitation is refused. Those who worship deserve more from the pulpit than "canned" sermons and fricasseed clichés.
The preacher who loves both his Lord and his hearers will not be satisfied with a "thrown together" sermon. He will take the time necessary to gather the finest of ingredients, and he will prepare them with love. In the manner of a fine chef, he will labor to make his presentation both pleasing and palatable. (While not everything tastes good, even castor oil can be mixed with orange juice. If a preacher gives the congregation too much castor oil, he makes things worse, not better. He should not be surprised that, when he gets in the pulpit, the congregation greets him as youngsters used to greet castor oil with thumb and forefinger clamped firmly to the nose!)
So how does the preacher gather sermon material and from whence does he gather it? First and foremost, the primary source of material must always be the Bible. This does not mean that every point and subpoint must be followed by some passage, it does mean that the focus of every sermon is the application of God's authoritative will to the hearer. Thus, the Bible is the first source for gathering material. Failure to ground the sermon in scripture results in a skyscraper sermon story after story with nothing in between. If the stories are good they will keep the hearer's attention, but they will not fill him with any sense of the eternal or make him long for the home of the soul. The study of the Bible should be regular and systematic. The preacher who opens his Bible to get a text so that his civic club speech can be called a sermon has no message from God.
While the study of the Bible must never be neglected, neither can the preacher neglect the reading and study of books, newspapers, and magazines. The preacher's library should contain, among others, books of history, science, theology, commentaries, great literature (both prose and poetry), and discussion of current issues. Commentaries and other sources should include a variety of types exegetical, hermeneutical, and devotional-to provide material both to understand and to apply the text. Exegetical and critical information without application tends to produce lectures, not sermons.
In addition to reading widely on the text and on the issues chosen to develop the purpose of the sermon, the preacher should spend time thinking about his personal observations of life that can add meaning to his sermon. What is there in nature that is helpful? What has he seen in the lives of the congregation? What is going on in his city, state, nation, and world? The Master Teacher commonly began his sermons with personal observations: "Behold a sower went forth to sow"; "A certain man had two sons"; "Consider the lilies of the field." He who has eyes to see can often see a better sermon in a brook than he can in a book, unless that book is the Bible.
Finally, the preacher should search his files to see what he has gathered on the subject. (See "Finding Sermon Subjects, "Firm Foundation, September, 1996 for a discussion of the preacher's files.) In this day of marvelous filing mechanisms, there is no reason for the preacher not to have a rich supply of sermonic material at his fingertips. If he does not, it indicates that he has not yet mastered the skill of preserving the results of his study, observation, and meditation. Instead, he treats his mind like a sieve-that which enters passes through and leaves nothing but perhaps a lime residue.
Preachers who reserve all material gathering for the week the sermon is finally prepared risk preaching only halfdigested thoughts. The material passes over the lips of the preacher but not through his heart. He has not made it his own. Before a cook undertakes the preparation of a meal, she has the ingredients on the counter. The greater the selection of ingredients the richer and more attractive she can make the meal. Preaching is no different. Before beginning final preparation of the sermon, the preacher should have materials gathered and at hand. He will have a greater variety of illustrations and facts at his disposal to enrich his sermon. Some suggest that the preacher's job is not to preach, but to gather and proclaim truth. To do so effectively, he must be gathering constantly. He must be always seeking truth for truth's sake and not for the sake of sermon preparation. When he does, his sermons will be richer and his hearers will be blessed.