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How the Text Can Style the Sermon

An Interview with Haddon Robinson
How the Text Can Style the Sermon
Image: Laurie / Lightstock
The idea of the passage is sort of like a tree. It has its own leaves and fruit. You don't tie oranges onto it.

PREACHINGTODAY.COM: When we first learn to preach, we need to get a form we pour our sermons into, such as a three-point outline. But as we mature in our preaching, we gain the ability to break out of a mold that can get us into a rut. One of the best things we can do is to let the text form the sermon, instead of vice versa. What skills are required to pull that off?

HADDON ROBINSON: One thing a thoughtful preacher wants to do is 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 differentform.

Let me try something with you. 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.

Yes. 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.

Right. If I say, "And it came to pass," what do you expect?

I don't know.

That's a little tougher. 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?


Yes, 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 youexpect?

Humor, a joke.

Yes, humor. So if I start in 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.

Right. We see it easily with English. We all carry this hermeneutical grid around with us. So if I start out by saying, "The party of the first part owes to the party of the second part," and I'm trying to establish a legal contract, but you take it as poetry, we're going to have trouble in court.

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 I have to do as a preacher is really understand the text for what it says?

And how it says it.

Rather than my putting my own grid or mold on it.

Yes. 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.

In my preaching I got into that mold in which I would see three parallel points, as you said, three things or lessons, and that would cause me immediately to put it into a form or package to make the text fit that way. But most texts aren't that way. Some are but most aren't.

Yes. Some are; some aren't. But 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.

How would you define a movement in the text and in the sermon?

Think of an ordinary outline. If you think of Roman numerals, in a broad sense the Roman numerals would be like movements and the subpoints would be like moves. I find myself working with moves. David Buttrick in his book Homiletics discusses this. I'm sure I've modified what he is saying, but I found it helpful.
I think of moves as building blocks. For something to form in people's minds you've got to talk about it for at least three minutes, probably not more than five minutes, or nothing will form. If you're going to have the nine fruits of the Spirit and you've got 20 minutes, you're not going to make it. You're probably going to have to take them in three groups of three, and then use each one as a unit. But you know you'll have to spend three to five minutes for these buildingblocks.

So a movement in a sermon would be the major single thing I have to say. Movements are the overarching things that need to be said in order to go from your introduction to your conclusion. Everything within that movement are the building blocks. But the building blocks determine how much I can say. I can't have eight, three to five minute building blocks in 20 minutes. It just won't work. So, often when I'm plotting a sermon I plot them that way.

When you go through a text and you're letting the text speak for itself, do you always start from the beginning of that text and work your way through to the end? Or how should we sequence the movements in a sermon?

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.

That's your homework part, yes. 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. Once you understand it—understand its basic idea, its development—then you can think about the best way to get that across to a congregation next Sunday. That's where the sermon takes its form and its shape.

If I have a parable, I know my sermon has to have about it the quality of a parable. At times I've taken an ancient parable and put it into the twenty-first century. I retold it in modern dress and spent a significant amount of the sermon doing that, because most of the parables do not depend on the dress they're in. The father welcomes his boy back from the far country and kills a fatted calf. It's not that far from parents who have had a boy go off to San Francisco or Los Angeles and they wait for a letter from him that never comes, and they wish whenever the phone rings that it would be him but he doesn't call. And when he comes back home and they go out to meet him, he may be thin and emaciated and need a suit, and his shoes are worn out, but they come in, they call the relatives and friends, and invite them over for a big dinner. That doesn't depend on the dressing.

Think, Can I make it into a modern parable? Or can I so tell that old parable that it has a freshness to it?

When I go to a psalm, I ask myself, Why did David write this? (If David is the author of that particular psalm.) What could have prompted it? I'm not talking about the historical situation but just why would he write this. I cannot treat that like a logical argument. There will be in the sermon a kind of poetic element in the language I use. Usually I cannot work my way through a psalm—only a few psalms are logical progression—but I want people to feel what the psalmist may have felt and what we would feel in using that particular genre.

Bringing across emotion and images more so than logical argument.

We're better at it than we think. It's just that somehow we get to the Bible and we think of preaching a sermon, but we do better thinking of ourselves as communicating the idea of a biblical text. I sometimes say we're really hurt by thinking of preaching a sermon because we have a certain form in our head that a sermon takes. And I'd say any form you can use that really communicates the idea and development of this text is perfectly legitimate.

But really, in a sense, the text doesn't form the sermon because we've got to talk about the audience and how they form the sermon.

There are two tensions you face: You've got to be true to the biblical text, but you have to be true to your audience. Someplace along the line you've got to ask, So what? What difference does this make? When a twenty-first century audience comes to this, what are their questions? They may ask of the text, What does that mean? Paul may have assumed his audience knew what he meant, but a twenty-first century audience may not know. Or they may ask, Is that true? Do I really believe that? It may seem outlandish to them.

Would I be correct to say, then, that we need to first understand the flow of ideas in the text—that gives us our ideas for the sermon—but it is our understanding of our audience that tells us how we're going to work our way through thattext?

Right. There will be parts of a text I will go over quickly because there is another part of that text I really want to spend time on since I know my audience needs that. I can't treat everything in the text with the same emphasis in a 30-minute message. I often have to determine the thing I really want to come down on are the last verses. I've got to show people how Paul or Peter or James got there, but that's where I want to land because that's the most important thing as I see it for my audience. So, your audience does help to shape the sermon.

Once we're out of the introduction, where should we begin in that text? What should we look for?

After I have worked with the text and have the exegetical idea, that is, what Paul was writing to the Romans, I try to frame it into a modern idea and state it in terms of the twenty-first century. Then I ask myself, What's my purpose in this sermon? What am I trying to accomplish? People who do expository preaching often miss that. They don't ask why they are preaching it. Their answer is, I was in Ephesians 2 last week and now I'm in Ephesians 3. But that's not a purpose, that's just how you got there. Why are you preaching it?

So, I will sketch out quickly what I want to do in the conclusion. I may have to sharpen it and so forth, but I know where I'm going. Then I determine how I want to start. How close can I get to my audience? Once I do that, then I say, What's the first thing I've got to say? From all the study I've done, what's the first thing I've got to say? What's the next thing? And the next thing? I jot that down on a piece of paper so I get the flow of thought. Before I ever make an outline I just want to get the flow, the way that sermon is going to develop.

As I work with that, the flow will take different shape and form, and different sermons have a different flow. The idea of the passage is sort of like a tree. It has its own leaves and fruit. You don't tie oranges onto it. It just develops. So you ask yourself, How do I develop this to be true to this text, yet do it in the most interesting and engaging way?

The critical words that jumped out to me were, Where do I have to start? What has to come next? It sounds as if, for you, it tends to form itself. As you've got 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. Am I right?

Yes. 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.

We might assume right away that we order our movements based on logic. Of course, the message has to come across to our minds and be understandable, but you're also suggesting that you choose your points based on tension and resolution, keeping tension going at a certain level for a certain length of time and then resolving that at the end. Are there any other factors or controlling principles that guide you as you sequence your movements?

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, you will 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.
This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio #218 workshop.

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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