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So help me, God

Preaching is too important to prepare unaided.

-Peter Owen-

There it is again. That sinking, anxious feeling in my guts. I’ve had it every week over decades of preaching. Sunday’s a comin’. I’m called again to preach from God’s holy Word to God’s holy Church.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1 ESV). Oh, Lord, that’s so frightening. May I never forget it.

Before I even open my Bible, I begin to plead in prayer. Oh Father, please help me with this onerous task. I’m still such a sinner. Please forgive me. Yet, moment by moment I rest in the righteousness of my risen living Saviour. Thank you for Jesus. Thank you for the glorious gospel. I’m a man living under sheer grace. Thank you, for your Holy Spirit who equips me for the task. Father please quicken me by your Spirit and illuminate this week’s text to me.

Every week, I need to firmly talk to myself and remind myself of why I do this work. “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching… As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:1-2 and 5).

Be patient and fulfill your calling. Trust God that He will use your feeble efforts for His glory.

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Peter, don’t despair in your overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. The Church has set you apart for the task by the laying on of hands. You’re called to preach and teach. “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21b NIV). He’s still doing that today. Be patient and fulfill your calling. Trust God that He will use your feeble efforts for His glory.

OK Lord, let’s get to work. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV). Help me rightly handle your word, Lord, that your gospel may be proclaimed as you said it would. Luke 24:47. Honour your Word, Lord.

Here’s my weekly sermon preparation process.

(I write lots of notes during this process.) Help me Lord.

I read the book over and over. I’ve printed the whole book on several pages side by side. That way I have a bird’s eye perspective on the whole book and can see the flow. I also keep listening to the book being read on CD. I often hear things that I don’t read.

Next, I choose the portion I’m going to preach on. It’s not that easy sometimes.

Then in my word processor I do a flow diagram of that portion. I arrange it so I can see the structure and flow. This is a crucial step – it brings the text “alive”. I look for questions and answers, recurring words, key clauses and phrases etc. Help me Lord.

As we preach we’re maturing, edifying and equipping the saints.

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Now, the contexts of the verses. What’s the historical, geographical, literary, and theological context? Then I study the words. What’s the genre? Are there any technical words? What does the grammar communicate? Help me rightly handle your word, Lord.

Having done all that, I now need to ask the portion some questions. But, what questions? Well, thankfully Scripture itself gives me the questions to ask. Paul tells us what Scripture is and what it’s supposed to do for the saints. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV).

What do each of those words literally mean?

  • Teaching, didaskalia in Greek, is instruction in doctrine. Truth to be learned.
  • Reproof, elegchos, is conviction of wrong.
  • Correction, epanorthosis is restoration to right thinking and/or behaviour.
  • Training in righteousness, dikaiosune, has two meanings. The first is the teaching concerning the way in which a person may be justified (declared righteous before God); teaching on the gospel. The second is teaching on God’s commands and how to obey them.

Remember what the end of verse 16 says: “that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” As we preach we’re maturing, edifying and equipping the saints.

So let’s ask the questions.

But one other thing I must remember. The Bible teaches us about God. It’s full of theology (the study of God). So, Peter, never forget to ask your portion what it’s teaching us about God.

Help me, Lord.

What is the text teaching me about the Trinity; God the Father, Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit?

What is the principal doctrine in this text? (There may be several doctrines in the text. But what is the principal doctrine? It’s crucial I get this right because that will give me the “main idea” of the text.)

How does this text convict me of wrong?

How does this text restore/heal/encourage me toward right thinking or behaviour?

How does this text train me in righteousness? What does it teach me about the gospel? What does it teach me about God’s commands and how to obey them?

Now, having done all that work I study the principal doctrine in a good systematic theology textbook. Then (and only then), do I check all my thinking and conclusions with a couple of good commentaries. Help me, Lord.

I also, need to think about the text in relation to two key biblical themes: the Kingdom of God and the Covenant of Grace. Where is this text in the progress of the revelation of both?

Likewise, I must always remember that the central focus of the whole biblical story is Christ and His gospel (Luke 24:25-27, 44-45, John 5:39, 46, 2 Cor. 1:20). So, if it’s an Old Testament text, I ask how the principal doctrine is fulfilled in Christ? But, whatever I’m preaching on, I try to weave the gospel into every sermon. I’ve got to constantly remind the saints of the difference between salvation by sheer grace and by works “religion”.

Nearly there. I continue to pray and meditate on the text. Help me, Lord.

I must apply the text to my listeners. Actually, this is hardest part of the work. Oh Lord, I really need your help with this. I need to make the text real and preach to the heart of the listeners. I need to highlight how the text speaks to their core commitments and the motivations that drive them. Concurrently, I need to highlight how the text speaks to other world views. But application must be concrete (that is, God wants you to do something … specifically to … and this is how).

There are three things that go to the making of a preacher: supplication, meditation and tribulation.

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Then I take my notes and begin to write out my sermon. I usually write it in full and then summarise it into note form. It usually takes me 3 drafts. All up, the above process has usually taken about 12 hours of work (but much more if the text is difficult).

Well, Sunday’s arrived. That anxious feeling is now palpable. Holy Spirit, please help me. Without you I can do nothing.

Martin Luther is reported to have said that there are three things that go to the making of a preacher: supplication, meditation and tribulation. I think he’s right. Please! Pray for your preacher.

Rev. Peter Owen is planting a new Presbyterian church in Point Cook, Melbourne.

First Published in the Autumn Edition 2015

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