How is it possible to produce two new sermons week after week, year after year?

Thanks to a course given by Dr. Andrew W. Blackwood when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary, preaching has been a growing pleasure and challenge through the years. The course, called “A Year’s Preaching,” taught the value of planning ahead and gave suggestions and structures for organizing the preparation of sermons. This course, together with Dr. Blackwood’s practical concept of the “homiletical garden” in which one plants sermonic seeds and allows them to grow without interference but with proper nourishment, liberated me from a fearful question that beset me in seminary—namely, how is it possible to produce two new sermons every week year after year together with Bible studies for mid-week services and occasional special talks? Actually, it has turned out as Dr. Blackwood predicted; the problem is not having something to preach but having opportunity enough to preach the messages that demand expression.

I divide the year into two periods, nine months and three months, for purposes of planning not only my preaching but also the entire program of the church. The period of nine months is divided into three quarters—October through December, January through March, April through June. Planning begins with an overall theme for the year for the whole life of the church. This theme may be expressed as an apparent need, such as “Consolidation,” ‘Implementation,” or “Evaluation.” It may come in the form of a challenge: “Every Member an Evangelist,” “Total Involvement,” “Mature Christianity,” “Our Worldwide Mission,” “The Witnessing Church.” Or it may come in the words of Scripture or in a familiar slogan, such as “To Know Christ and to Make Him Known,” “Christ Preeminent,” “Abiding in Christ,” “To Live Is Christ.”

My plan for a year’s preaching loosely follows the church year for Sunday morning: the anticipation of Christ’s advent in the fall quarter (October to Christmas): the life of Christ in the winter quarter (January to Easter); and the Church in the spring quarter (Easter through June). The summer quarter, except for vacation, is reserved for special series or topical messages, which are needed to create a balanced spiritual diet for the congregation. I make a deliberate effort not to overemphasize certain portions of Scripture to the neglect of others, and to preach from every book in the Bible at some time during a period of three to five years. Sunday evening messages are generally book-by-book or verse-by-verse studies. Most of my messages are expository, with the theme, content, outline, and topic coming from the Scripture passage under consideration.

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All this means that I am generally preaching from the Old Testament in the fall quarter, the Gospels in the winter quarter, and the Acts or the Epistles in the spring quarter. Old Testament sermons may be biographical, like the series on “The Patriarchs and the Prophets,” in which whole sermons were devoted to major Old Testament characters. Another series was entitled “Christ in the Old Testament,” and another. “Famous Psalms.” One year I preached through Luke in the winter quarter; another year I gave a series on “Great Events in the Life of Our Lord.” Still another series was “The Person and Work of Christ.” One year, with some difficulty, I labored through a semblance of “A Harmony of the Gospels.” There were also sermons on “The Disciples of Jesus” and on “People Jesus Helped.” Occasionally I have used the spring quarter to preach on “Outline of Reformed Doctrine,” “The Apostles’ Creed,” or “The Westminster Confession of Faith.”

A Sunday evening series was devoted to the minor prophets, taking one book each week. On Sunday evenings in the past six years I have gone through Mark, James, First Peter, Ephesians, First John, and some of Revelation. One of the most interesting evening series was entitled “Exploits of Faith”; I took one by one the men and women whose faith is commended in Hebrews 11, relating the incident mentioned in that chapter to its full record in the Old Testament. Another very fruitful series dealt with “The Ethics of the Apostles.” One of the surprising and satisfying facts in my experience through the years has been the way sermons, though not planned to apply to current situations, have almost miraculously fit the week. It has been my custom, based on the example of my own pastor and others I have admired and on the careful instruction of Dr. Blackwood, to draw my sermons from the Scriptures rather than to attempt to contrive relevance by addressing myself to current issues. In the providence of God, rarely does a message, planned months before, fail to meet the people at the point of present need.

Generally by September I have a pretty clear idea of sermon themes, if not topics, together with Scripture sources, for every Sunday, morning and evening, October through June. By the end of May, the preaching schedule for the three summer months is usually settled. A common daily record book, one page per day, is reserved for sermonic data and related materials. Sermon themes or topics, with Scriptures, are entered under the proper Sunday, leaving six pages in the day book for related ideas, illustrations, hymns, cross-references, and the like. This is my “homiletical garden.” It is surprising how the garden grows. Often the sermons seem almost to prepare themselves.

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If possible. I begin sermon preparation on Monday. Sometimes I may get a week or two ahead, though, and at other times the beginning of preparation must wait until Thursday. My first step is to read the Scripture source through as often as necessary, until I sense its general intent. Usually the passage outlines itself after a number of readings, and the topic crystallizes. I do not like to use sermon topics that are sensational, or misleading, or designed principally as attention-getters. Most of my topics are lifted verbatim from the Scripture being studied, or the theme is abbreviated. I was taught to strive to put my sermon into one topical sentence (college courses in journalism helped here). I try to compress the main theme into the topic. A little squib taken from the house organ of a large corporation many years ago has helped me realize the importance of getting one point across rather than leaving several up in the air. It went like this: “It’s better to bring one man home than to leave three men on bases.”

The next step in preparation is verse-by-verse analysis. Using legal-size lined paper. I write the verse number in the margin, copy the verse in the body of the paper, and enter my own commentary below it. This I follow, to the extent that I am capable of doing so, with exegetical study. My main reference work is W. Robertson Nicoll’s The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, Archbishop Trench’s New Testament Synonyms, and A. T. Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament are all very helpful. With my limited facility in Hebrew and Greek, I find Strongs Concordance with its large Hebrew and Greek lexicons most helpful.

Usually I take rather extensive notes into the pulpit (four to seven sheets of 8½ by 5½ paper) for a twenty-live minute message. These notes are put in their final form Saturday afternoon or evening, sometimes early Sunday morning. I am most proficient in their use when they are as fresh as possible. Generally I type in full the introduction and the conclusion. Sensitive passages and key sentences are also typed verbatim and used that way. For many years I have taken special care in the choice of words. To this end I make constant use of Roget’s Thesaurus and continually try to improve expression for the sake of communication. There is no use having something important to say if you fail to transmit it so that the hearer understands. I am not bound by the notes and enjoy liberty to alter the message while preaching. In fact, believing as I do that the presence of the people of God makes a difference however thoroughly one has prepared in his study, I expect to be ministered to by the congregation and feel that often the message I deliver has come, in part at least, from them on the spot. This introduces an immediacy and spontaneity into the sermon that indicates a dynamic rather than sterile situation and real “dialogue,” though the people remain silent.

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Thanks to a faithful pastor, a dedicated homiletics professor, several brilliant colleagues who have challenged me to abhor mediocrity and reach for excellence by the Spirit of God, gentle and committed elders, and a congregation filled with love, preaching continues to be for me the most exciting and satisfying privilege in life.—

Fourth Presbyterian Church, Washington, D. C.

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