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August 18, 2012

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The Art of the Sermon

by Rev. A. J. Iovine

I may be overreaching just a bit when I write that sermon writing is an art. Now I know what you’re thinking—you’ve heard plenty of sermons that could never be considered “art.” Just like some paintings and photographs and sculpture that are found in museums that can make you ask, “That’s art?,” sermons, I believe fall into the same category.

When clergy people sit down to write a weekend sermon, they can find themselves perplexed at the readings appointed for the coming worship services. Ideas are hard to be grasped. Sometimes, clergy decide to fall back into what I call “the old stand-by” and preach from something found in one of their old files in their office. The challenging part of sermon preparation is coming up with a Godly “hook” that enthralls listeners into saying that great sentence: “Oh, I get it.”

But finding that hook is never easy. It is a struggle. Many times I fail to expound on the topic from our readings; I end up walking away from the pulpit wanting to kick myself. And come Sunday afternoon or Monday morning when I open the Bible up to the coming week’s readings, the process of finding that great “hook” begins anew.

The art of sermon preparation and writing is not one of beautiful mastery. Pastors and all clergy dance from one idea to another, clinging to a first thought until it dies on the vine, replaced with a smoother idea holding greater preaching potential. As the hours pass, frustration levels increase, giving rise to the fear when the time comes to sit down and write, the pastor will not have an idea to focus his thoughts upon.

For me, the day of frustration is usually Friday morning when I sit in the office staring at my written notes (yes, I handwrite my notes for my sermon throughout the week). Struggling to read whatever I’ve blotted down, a terrible fear hits me.

I may not have a finalized sermon when worship services come around and instead will have to fall back into an “old stand by.” And for me, this is worrisome since for the past four years, nearly all of my sermons have been outlined, not fleshed out in paragraph form. Trust me, it is so much harder to figure out the true meaning of a sermon written three years ago from an outline.

As the fear grows, I continue to plug away, pouring every idea down in an attempt to shake some of the dust collecting on that part of my brain that controls sermon writing.

And then, out of nowhere, something clicks. It may not be the best click ever, but a structure takes hold. Within hours, a sermon is written and outlined. Is it one of those sermons that people will talk about for years? Probably not. However, it is a balanced sermon focusing on the importance of the life we live in and for Christ, centered on the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.

For me, when I finally hit pay dirt and stare at the final document, I smile. Of course, this document could be just the first of two sermons I prepare for our weekend services (a decently written and balanced sermon doesn’t mean that it is one that is good when it is preached). Instead, if the sermon is too wooden or structured too tightly, come Saturday night (or very early Sunday morning) you may just drive past the parsonage and see the light on in the home office as I sit behind the computer hoping my second final draft is better than the first. Come on in for a drink.

Every pastor is different when it comes to sermon structure. Some are very staid and focused on the Word. Others use plenty of illustrations. Me—I kind of fall in the middle. Granted, there are times when my real-life illustrations aren’t the greatest. In fact, I find myself scratching my own head after my sermon wondering at why I would use a particular story. Yet my inclusion of these stories is one to show that life in this world is part of an eternal struggle all of us have with sin and how our Lord Jesus saved us.

I thank the Lord for every chance to preach and for the power of the Holy Spirit that guides me in the pulpit. Honestly, no pastor does it alone. Without the Holy Spirit guiding and directing our thoughts and words, a sermon is just a great waste of time. No matter how much of a train wreck I think a sermon of mine to be, God is smiling, happy that His Word was delivered to His people.

For me, that is what makes a sermon a work of art. God molds words, even the weirdest combinations of them, and makes a sermon good for the building up of faith in the ears of listeners. The Holy Spirit directs your thoughts and builds faith in our great Triune God using the words a pastor preached while standing in a pulpit or on the floor of the sanctuary. To our God, the preached sermon is a blessing to His people.

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1 Comment Post a comment
  1. bob kuppler
    Aug 25 2012

    well said; thank you. It’s the same for me. I also listen to Lutheran Public Radio as I pray, read, outline, write.

    Reply

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