I've heard many a good talk that falls short of being a good sermon.
The preacher is well-intentioned, sincere, and passionate. But the most intriguing, entertaining, even insightful sermon is more like a clanging cymbal if it doesn't actually offer good news.
Too often there's no theology in the "sermon" that elevates it from a lecture to a proclamation of faith and hope in God's actions among us.
We might feel instinctively that "we know Good News when we preach it," but it's worth double-checking. Are you sure you're proclaiming Good News?
The Good News is that, through Jesus Christ,
we have gone, now go, and will go from dead to alive.
After listening to our sermons, would people know that? Follow these seven steps to ensure your sermon consistently and truly offers "Good News."
1. Confess Death. Seek Life.
- In the lessons for your sermon underline or circle all the words or phrases that describe ways we are dead and ways in which God resurrects us.
For example, I'll use RCL (NRSV), Year A, Epiphany 5 to show some examples from the Hebrew Scripture and the Gospel.
Isaiah 5.8:1-9a (9b-12)
- you serve your own interest on your fast day
- you oppress your workers
- you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist
- ls not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice
- let the oppressed go free
- share your bread with the hungry
- bring the homeless poor into your house
- see the naked [and] cover them
- then shall light break forth like the dawn
- if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored
- it is no longer good for anything
- whoever breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven
- unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven
- you are the salt of the earth
- you are the light of the world
- a city built on a hill cannot be hid
- let your light shine before others...and give glory to your Father in heaven
2. Choose one or two ideas that resonate with you.
- What grabs your attention?
- What piques your curiosity?
- What catches your breath?
- What makes you "bend the knee" in awe?
What grabs me from the above are, "you serve your own interests on your fast day/is not this the fast I choose, to loose the bonds of justice...", and, "if salt has lost its saltiness, can its salt be restored/you are the salt of the earth?"
3. Identify when/where/how/why you Have seen this death in your own life and where have you seen resurrection.
Be as concrete and specific as you can.
Example from my life:
Of death: visiting and living with refugees and the oppressed from El Salvador and Guatemala during their civil wars in the '80s and early '90's.
Of resurrection: being part of the Sanctuary movement in churches who harbored illegal aliens fleeing those wars, and a trip to El Salvador during their civil war.
4. Identify where your congregation/city/ nation/world has seen or been part of the death you know.
People in many parts of the world right now are desperate for a safe place to live and raise their kids.
I ask myself: If I were in their shoes, how far would I go and what would I be willing to do to get my two sons to a place of safety?
5. Look for the resurrection God offers.
What does scripture tell us?
We can fast for show, or we can fast "for real," with sacrifices that are meaningful and relevant. When we fast "for real," the glory of God shines and we build that city on a hill.
God calls us to feed, house, and clothe the stranger, for then we are salt and light for the Earth as Jesus was.
6. Based on the above, name the Good News you feel called to proclaim.
- Pray through to the core of what you believe.
- What is the life to which God raises us from the ashes of our sin?
- Write it in one sentence.
The only fast worth its salt is when we house the homeless poor and feed them our own bread.
7. Test the idea.
Look at the scripture you flagged earlier. Is it included? Are God's actions to bring us from dead to alive included?
- What death from the lessons is stated or implied in the sentence?
Death is implied in my sentence: there are fasts that are self-serving and not self-giving, from Isaiah.
- What new life from the lessons is stated or implied in the sentence?
When we house the homeless poor and feed them our own bread, we fast not only from feeding ourselves or sleeping in our own beds but also from convenience, safety, and money. This type of fast is akin to Jesus' teachings and sacrifices as laid out in Isaiah and Matthew.
Whether or not this sentence of Good News is stated as-is in my sermon is a separate question.
However, by having this idea in front of me as a guide when I write my sermon,
I can be assured that my sermon is not only grounded in the theology of resurrection found in scripture also grounded in real life.
God's Word of resurrection is incarnate, lives now, and offers hope and guidance.
When we identify the death and new life we see in Scripture and the world around us, we won't offer just a good talk but a good sermon, full of God's grace and truth.
This is the fourth in the series explaining our definition of an "Effective Sermon," which "offers a clear message of Good News, is authentic to the preacher, relevant to the listener, keeps their attention, and invites transformation."
Next week we'll start talking about authenticity. There's a lot more to authenticity than just "be yourself."
Preaching God's Word is bigger than each of us. Send me your challenges, ideas, and suggestions. I'm glad we're in this together.
Be Good News to Preach Good News,
P.S. Keep these 7 steps near your workspace for easy reference. Download the graphic for "Good Talk or Good Sermon?" here.