Set Free from the Cookie Cutter
How the text can form the sermon
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When we first learn to preach, we need to learn a form to pour our sermons into, such as a three-point, subject-complement outline. But as we mature in our preaching, we need more flexibility in our sermon forms to stay out of the rut. We need to learn to let the text form the sermon, instead of vice versa.
Genre and the form of a sermon
The first step in that direction, of course, is to fully understand the text. You can talk about exegesis, and it can sound cold. Sometimes when people think of exegesis, they think of analyzing words and phrases. But basically what you're trying to do when you exegete a text is to really understand it—understand its flow of thought, how the author is developing that thought.
So when I come to didactic literature, such as Romans or Galatians, I analyze how the thought develops because there tends to be a logical flow. I get to a parable and I can't do that. The danger is to go to an epistle and see that Paul has three moves in a particular paragraph in which I can trace that development, then move over to a parable and try to say there are three things we learn from this parable. One thing you have to say is, Couldn't Jesus have said that? Why did he tell a story when he could have just as easily said, "There are three things I want you to know about God's grace?"
Part of exegesis is to recognize that the form of literature ought to have some influence on the form of the sermon. A sermon developed from didactic literature, the literature of the epistles, will be different than a sermon developed from the parables or from the Psalms or from the narrative literature of the Old Testament, because the writers are using a different form.
For example, if I say to you, "Once upon a time," what do you expect? A story.
If I say, "Dearly beloved, we're gathered here today," what do you expect? A wedding.
Or if I say, "The party of the first part assigns to the party of the second part," what do you expect? A legal document, a contract.
If I say, "And it came to pass," what do you expect? Maybe a parable. You pick up from the Bible a certain tone.
If I say to you, "How do I love thee, let me count the ways," what do you expect? Poetry.
Notice what happens. The minute I give you those clues, you set your mind to a whole new hermeneutical development. Let me give you just one more. If I say, "There were three men: a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and a Baptist minister," what do you expect? Humor.
So if I start by saying, "Once upon a time," and I give you a story, but you respond as though you were analyzing a legal document, we're going to miss each other badly.
So, there are ground rules that immediately get established based on the form.