By Mark Williamson
I’ve been preaching fairly regularly now for just under 20 years, and I’ve developed five points to help me through the whole preparation process. I follow these pretty closely whenever I’m preparing. Allow me to take you through them, and I’ll also share how I recently applied them when I was asked to guest preach on the book of Esther. Hopefully they can help your sermon prep too.
Have a Clear Aim
This is always the place where I start. Can I say in one sentence what is the message of the sermon? If I don’t have clarity on this, then normally the congregation won’t have any clarity on what I said after I’ve preached. We’ve all sat through too many sermons where at the end of the service we had no idea what the message was supposed to be. Being able to summarise your message in one sentence is the best way to avoid this trap.
Recently I was asked by a church to guest preach on the book of Esther. They were doing a series on different characters in the story, and I was given Mordecai. No other steer than that, so I could preach anything I wanted provided it was about him.
For a sermon that could have a topic as broad as this I ideally like to prepare around four weeks in advance. Once given Mordecai as my character I spent the first week of that prep time reading through the whole book of Esther each day, and allowing myself to think about Mordecai in spare moments. In that way I tried to let the Holy Spirit reveal the sermon aim to me, rather than having to force myself to find it in one sitting. The theme that came through was how Mordecai didn’t speak up to defend himself, but did speak up to defend others when he heard about injustice.
This thought is also found in Proverbs. So that verse (despite not mentioning Mordecai) became a key verse for the sermon. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8).
Preach for a Response
Having worked out the aim, my next step is to think through the response I’m asking the congregation to make. Without a response a sermon just becomes a talk that shares information. That information might be helpful, but I think a sermon should aim to change thinking, change behaviour, and ultimately change lives. For that there needs to be a call to action at the end of the sermon.
The classic evangelical response method is to either invite people to come forward (to the altar or the prayer team) or perhaps to stand up where they are. Both these are good, but don’t be limited by these – creative responses can involve people writing, drawing, sharing with the person next to them, and so much more.
The response for the Mordecai sermon was pretty straightforward; “Who will you speak up for this week?” This was hopefully something relevant for all people in the congregation – an important point since you always want the response to be something all people can participate in.
Teach Biblical Truth
We need to be teaching biblical truths as preachers. If we’re not preaching what the bible says, we’re just giving advice, and much of our advice could well be wrong. An old mentor of mine once said that a preacher who is not teaching the bible is just wasting everybody’s time. “I’d rather go and listen to a stand-up comedian – at least then I’d be entertained.”
I believe in expositional preaching, so I try to base the sermon’s structure on key texts from the passage I’m preaching from. The bulk of Mordecai’s story is found in Esther chapters 2-7. That’s obviously too much to include as one reading, so within that I took some key biblical points to form the sermon structure:
I didn’t originally like Mordecai – he came across as proud, an interfering uncle, etc (Esther 2:10-11, 2:20, 3:1-4).
But he has one of the greatest lines of theology from the Old Testament (Esther 4:12-14)
He didn’t speak up for himself when he was wronged, and God ultimately honoured him (Esther 6:11)
But he did speak up for others in danger, i.e. when the king was threatened with assassination, and when the Jews were threatened with genocide. (Esther 2:22 and 4:14).
People enjoy listening to stories. And people remember stories. Just make sure that your stories always have a purpose, emphasizing the points you’re making in the sermon. Also here’s a challenge I’ve been thinking on recently. Usually as preachers we end up telling stories from our own experience. Nothing wrong with that, but it can result in a limited story pool, and at its worst ends up making ourselves the centre of attention too much. Preachers from church history often told stories from the Bible (from other biblical sections to the passage you’re preaching on), to increase biblical literacy. And when we think about the stories that Jesus told, he made them up! Should we broaden our horizons when it comes to telling stories in our sermons?
Ideally I will look for a story to illustrate each of the main points for the sermon. With my Mordecai sermon I picked two stories. The first is from my own life, and illustrates how speaking up for ourselves is never a good idea. (The good thing of this personal story is that it makes me the fool rather than the hero.) The second is the story of Martin Niemoller, a pastor in Nazi Germany who after the war spoke of the guilt and the foolishness of not speaking up for others when they experienced injustice:
First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Present Good News in Jesus
This fifth principle I find is often missing in many sermons I hear, so I take extra care now to try including it in mine. What is the difference that Jesus makes to the topic your sermon addresses? If the Christian message is good news, what is the good news that Jesus offers in this area? How does Jesus exemplify what you’re talking about? Or how does following him make a difference in trying to live this out?
For my sermon on speaking up for others, Jesus gives a supreme example of this when he is arrested. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go” (John 18:8). And by following Jesus we ensure that He will speak up for after our death, when we all face judgment. This is surely good news for all of us.
All this preparation took me a couple of hours of focussed planning after that initial week or so of regular reading through the passage. The resources I used were firstly the Bible, and then Wikipedia, my book collection, and any recollections I have that seem relevant.
By the time I came to preach the sermon I was excited by the opportunity to deliver it. I felt it was a relevant message, it fitted in with the sermon series the church was working through, and I believed that God had clearly guided me to sharing on that theme. After the service I had good chats with several people who had been challenged by it, and were resolved to speak up for work colleagues or family members who they felt were being unfairly treated. A great response, and hopefully led to more people ‘speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves’, something we should all be doing as followers of Jesus.