Where preaching should he biblical, relevant, existential, confessional, and sacramental

Sermons come out of a man’s life. Good preaching depends more on what a man is in himself than on academic preparation, accumulated reading, or the experience of the years. What a man is at the center of his being will very largely determine what he becomes in the pulpit. The channel of music is an instrument or a voice. The channel for God’s Word is the cleansed, unfettered personality of the preacher at home with both the visible and the invisible, a man saturated with the mind and spirit and love of Jesus Christ.

In a lecture John Knox declared that Christian preaching should be biblical, relevant, personal, existential, confessional, and sacramental. I should like to feel at the end of my days that my preaching has been characterized by these qualities.

Everyone must have his own method. I began my year of work during the long summer spent at a home by the waters of the Bras d’Or Lakes on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada. From the earliest days of my ministry I have kept a large, black, loose-leaf notebook, and this book goes with me to my summer home, supplemented by several large boxes of books and some commentaries.

The notebook might be called my homiletical garden. In it the idea and the inspiration for a sermon begins, grows, and in time finds expression. At the top of a page I write a single text or a series of texts, or a theme that has arisen out of my devotional disciplines or has come to me from “beyond” into my consciousness as I have gone about my work. Each idea or text gets an entire page; then with the passing of time the page begins to fill up with an outline, illustrations, and some paragraphs and sentences, and lengthens into several pages. It may be several years before the seed idea becomes a skeleton and the skeleton takes on form and substance and at last becomes a manuscript. But the book always has in it many pages with a wide variety of sermon stimulants at various stages of development.

God gives the preacher his authentic message. It comes from the biblical word, from the living word, and breaks in upon his consciousness by the power of the Holy Spirit under every conceivable situation. I have been prompted to jot down sermon suggestions while studying the Scriptures, while praying, hiking over a mountain, walking by the seashore, or swimming, on a train or a plane, in the middle of the night. I have dictated an entire sermon to my wife as we have driven on some long motor trip. When the channel is kept open, the message of the Spirit will come through.

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Gradually, as the summer weeks pass, my preaching plans for the coming season evolve, until in about the second or third week of August the plans are sufficiently well formed that I can list all my sermon subjects and texts from the first Sunday of September through the following January. This list I send back to the church office in Washington for the minister of music and other members of the staff to use as they plan their part of worship for the coming season. During the first week of January 1 provide the staff with my topics and texts through Easter. Then about midway in the Lenten season I provide the topics and texts for each Sunday until mid-June, when the vacation period begins. But before September arrives I shall have the main emphasis of the coming season’s work clearly in mind and much of it on paper.

The preaching cycle for the year falls into rather natural categories. September is a time of renewal of the regular church schedule, and my preaching reflects this fact. I find, for example, that in 1961 I preached a series of sermons in September under the title, “Christ and Your Daily Life.” The subtitles were (1) “Christ and Your Home,” (2) “Christ and Your Work,” (3) “Christ and Your Education.”

The first Sunday of October is always World-Wide Communion Sunday, and the Communion festival in our church is always a high and significant occasion. The Communion service begins with the preparatory service on the preceding Thursday night, at which time the sermon is preached and the sacrament of adult baptism is administered. On Sunday the order for Holy Communion is rich and full of meaning. Since the sermon was preached on Thursday night, the invitation to the sacrament becomes a brief Communion meditation.

October is the month of the festival of faith for Protestants. I generally preach a series of sermons, certainly not fewer than two, on the salient features of Protestantism, treating the subject in its historical and contemporary setting. Thus I note in 1961 a series of three sermons on “The Unfinished Reformation,” and in 1962 a sermon on “The Reformed Church and the Vatican Council,” another on “A Protestant Reformer and the American Revolution—An Appreciation of John Witherspoon,” and still another on “Freedom and Order.” October closes with All Saints’ Day, when there is an opportunity for a service of remembrance for the faithful departed.

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Several Sundays in November must be given to Christian stewardship and the Church in mission, for this is the period when church members are making their stewardship commitment for the next church year. November includes Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Day, with an opportunity for appropriate emphasis.

Soon after the Harvest festival emphasis, Advent begins, and I preach an Advent series each year. There are many extra services in December—stated Communion on the first Sunday, a Christmas Eve celebration of Holy Communion, and two or three vesper services containing the great treasure of Christmas hymns and carols. In January there are topical sermons dealing with the events at the turn of the year.

Then after a few weeks Lent is upon us. During this season I always preach a series of Sunday sermons, supplemented by Wednesday noon and Thursday evening services at which guest speakers preach. Such a series leads helpfully to Holy Week, Maundy Thursday, and the Good Friday commemoration. Such a series one year was “Words Spoken at the Cross” (1) “By the Gamblers,” (2) “By the Crowd,” (3) “By the Priests,” (4) “By the Malefactors,” (5) “By the Commander,” (6) “By Christ.” Another year I preached a series of Lenten Sunday sermons on the seventeenth chapter of John under the title, “The Time of Grief and Glory.” During the last Lenten season, the series was entitled “A Credo For Christians,” and I dealt with the following subjects: “A Look at the Apostles’ Creed,” “A Look at the Nicene Creed.” “The Westminster Confession—and the Proposed Revision,” “Honest to God—and the New Theologians,” “The Ecumenical Thrust,” and (Palm Sunday) “Christ and Our Times.”

On the Sundays in Eastertide several years ago, I preached a series of sermons on the “Words of the Risen Christ.” This series of nine sermons later became a book, And Still He Speaks.

Looking back, I find that I have preached three or four series each year—in the fall, in Advent, in Lent, and between Easter and Pentecost. There have been series on the parables, on the beatitudes, on great personalities in the Bible, on the Apostles’ Creed, on the Character of Jesus, the Work of Jesus, the Prayers of Jesus, and so on. There have also been topical sermons, especially on political freedom as it is derived from and sustained by the Christian faith. Special sermons appear at the time of a national election, the opening of Congress, or the convening of some international tribunal. By its very nature the National Presbyterian Church plans and conducts many special services.

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Planning one’s preaching is one thing; preparation is quite another. I make a careful and detailed outline and assemble the material that is to be quoted. I then dictate the sermon either to a secretary or to a machine, and the manuscript is given to me for use or for revision. I preach from notes but do not read from a manuscript. I do not memorize words or sentences as such, though I reproduce in spoken word almost precisely what has been written. I spend part of Saturday evening and early Sunday morning with the manuscript in my hands, pacing the floor, mulling it over, soaking it up, and praying that God will use these efforts to his glory.

The value of a complete manuscript is that one has a permanent record, yet is free for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to use, change, or even discard the sermon. The manuscript can provide the substance of what one subsequently might publish, and sometimes manuscripts end up in unexpected places. The preacher in the pulpit of the National Presbyterian Church is always exposed, and I have found a manuscript in the church office makes possible accurate quotations by the press.

When I preached my first sermons after my ordination, I wondered whether I would have enough in me to last six months. Now I fear there may not be enough Sundays left for the texts or themes growing in my homiletical garden—that big black book.—


The National Presbyterian Church,

Washington, D. C.

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