Five Hammer Strokes for Creating Expository Sermon Outlines
Here are the fundamentals to move from a biblical text to a message structure that speaks to today's listeners.
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Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a great preacher of London in the mid-twentieth century, knew that structuring the sermon is one of our most difficult homiletical tasks:
The preparation of sermons involves sweat and labour. It can be extremely difficult at times to get all this matter that you have found in the Scriptures into [an outline]. It is like a … blacksmith making shoes for a horse; you have to keep on putting the material into the fire and on to the anvil and hit it again and again with the hammer. Each time it is a bit better, but not quite right; so you put it back again and again until you are satisfied with it or can do no better. This is the most grueling part of the preparation of a sermon; but at the same time it is a most fascinating and a most glorious occupation. (Preachers and Preaching, 80)
This article can't (and shouldn't) stop the sweat and "labour," but it can help you strike skillfully. When pastors begin their sermon prep (and unfortunately, sometimes when they end their sermon prep), the text often seems to be, as Hamlet said, "words, words, words." The relationships among the words—the ideas presented—are hard to discern and even harder to package for the congregation. The purpose of this article is to help us make sense of the words and structure them in a way that makes sense to the listeners. As homiletical blacksmiths, five strokes of the hammer help us structure our sermons.
First Stroke: State the Exegetical Outline
Summarize the flow of thought in your text. We call this the exegetical outline, and it is part of basic exegesis. If you have gotten away from that discipline, get back to it. Charting the flow of thought with a mechanical layout, grammatical diagram, or semantic structural analysis is an indispensible step in creating an expository sermon. Simply identifying a general theme is not enough to reveal authorial intention. Laying out the major ideas and their relationships will help you identify the unifying core of the text, what Haddon Robinson calls the exegetical idea.
Once you articulate that idea, then you can turn it into your sermon's "big idea." In essay writing this is called the thesis. In public speaking it is called the central idea. The big idea is the distilled essence of the message. Compare the exegetical idea (the text's central truth) and the big idea (the sermon's central truth):