Set Free from the Cookie Cutter
How the text can form the sermon
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So one of the things I have to do is look at a passage and say exegetically, What's going on here? What is the genre? What is the writer doing? You have to assume the author didn't just choose this genre because any old genre would work. If Jesus tells a parable, then I have to be aware when I preach the sermon that I can't treat it as if it's didactic literature. To be true to the Bible, I have to understand the genre; that's part of exegesis. And different genres, different kinds of literature, have different rules.
We understand that in English, yet somehow when we get to the Bible we don't understand it.
So the first job of the preacher is to understand the text for what it says and how it says it, rather than my putting my own grid or mold on it.
One kind of grid we've put on texts for years has been the three points grid. If I go to a psalm, I get three things we learn about suffering from the psalm. But the first question you have to ask: Is the biblical writer giving you three things about suffering? We learned four things about stewardship from Matthew 18 in the parable of the unjust steward (about the man who was forgiven the several million dollars he owed but wouldn't forgive his brother's debt). You take something such as that and you can say, "There are three things we learn about our obligation to God because of his grace." But you have to think, Is that what the biblical writer is doing? Is he giving you three things? Once you say, Oh no, that's not what he's doing , then the question is, What is he doing? And how does this story carry what he is doing? That is an important part of taking the genre of the literature, then working to see how I can incorporate that in my sermon.
That is quite a different thing from the cookie cutter approach, where we always fit the content into three parallel points. We always make the text fit that way. Some texts will fit, but some won't. You've got to avoid the cookie cutter syndrome for two reasons. One is you get bored with your own preaching. And two, everybody can anticipate your message in terms of what form you're going to use.
Sequencing the movements
How should we sequence the movements in a sermon? Do we always start from the beginning of the text and work our way through to the end? Exegetically, of course, you start from the beginning and you work through. You've got to understand what the writer is doing. That's your homework. Whether you use that in the pulpit or not, you need to do that homework.
In fact, there are two major stages of preparation. The first stage has to do with the studying of the text and getting the idea of the text, and the second stage is communicating that text. It's dangerous to bring those two together; that is, to go to the text knowing you've got to preach a sermon on Sunday. The problem with that is you're going to read the text for the hot buttons. You're going to read it for what will preach. But first of all you have to understand the text.
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