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Set Free from the Cookie Cutter

How the text can form the sermon

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A sermon tends to form itself. As you get a full acquaintance with your audience and with your text, you just have a sense that this has to start and that has to lead to this.

Occasionally I'll look down and say, "Yes, there are three things I'm going to say." So this can be a subject completed. I'm going to raise the subject in the introduction and then each point will be a completing of it.

Other times I look and say I'm going to do it deductively and state the whole idea in that introduction. Then I'm going to either explain it or prove it or apply it. Most often for me I'm going to keep that idea of the text as far along as I can. So it will be at the end or maybe two-thirds of the way through before I state clearly what my idea is because I want to keep as much tension as I can before I state it. That's just the way my mind works. But sermons will take different forms. Sometimes I will look at a passage and think the best way to get this across is to do a first person narrative.

But however I develop the ideas, I want to delay resolution if possible. If you and I are having a conversation and I say, "I want to tell you what I've learned about the Boston Red Sox," and we're not talking baseball, you might be polite. You might say to me, "Okay. What have you learned?" But instinctively if I say to you, "I've been in New England and have been rooting for the Boston Red Sox. And I learned something while I've been rooting for the Red Sox that I think is a keen insight into life. It goes way beyond the Red Sox." Now, what I'm trying to do is to motivate you to listen to me.

If I succeed, if you say, "Well, what have you learned?" I may tell you right away what I learned. More likely I'll say, "Let me explain the Red Sox to you. That organization has not won a World Series in almost 80 years. Seldom do you meet a fan who was around when they last won a World Series, and if they did they were a babe in their mother's arm."

I'm not going to tell you what my lesson is, but I'm going to tell you about all the frustrations the Boston fans have endured. And they actually believe there's a curse. I'll tell you about the curse. They sold Babe Ruth to the cursed Yankees and we got cursed. So as I come to the end of that story, I say, "This is what I have learned. I have learned that if you believe there is a curse on your life you will live as though there is a curse on your life."

We just instinctively will do that. The people who tell boring stories give you the punch line before they tell you the story. So you ask yourself, What's the best way to do that?I think you instinctively do it in conversation. Unfortunately we lose it when it comes to preaching.

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Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Jimmy Orr

November 15, 2010  2:32pm

Although it would have made this article prohibitively long, it would have been more helpful if Dr. Robinson had given sermonic examples (or at least excerpts) of the suggestions he makes in the article.

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