Podcast Episode 28 | 16 min
Biblical Meditation and Preaching
Recovering a lost art and applying it to our weekly sermon prep process.
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Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley with Monday Morning Preacher, a podcast from Christianity Today where we look at all facets of preaching and how we can grow as preachers. I have a guest host with me today from Nashville, Tennessee, Robert J. Morgan, who is the teaching pastor at the Donaldson Fellowship in Nashville. He’s also the author of 35 books. He has a family, a wife and three daughters and 14 grandchildren. So Robert, it is great to have you on the podcast today.
Robert J. Morgan: Thank you, Matt, I’m so happy to be talking with you today.
MW: We are really fascinated with your perspective on meditation on the biblical text as you’re preparing your sermon. He’s even written a book on that topic called, Reclaiming the Lost Art of Biblical Meditation. Robert, we’re going to get into that in a few minutes but why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about when and how God called you to preach his Word.
RM: I began having some impressions even in childhood that this is something I’d like to do, and one of the reasons is because I had a wonderful pastor. I grew up in a small Tennessee town and I went to a church of about 200 or 300. But my pastor there, who was a dear friend of our family’s, was very good in the pulpit. His name was Winford R. Floyd. He’s in heaven now, but he was passionate, he would often weep during his sermons, he was a good storyteller, and very, very engaging. Even for me as a child sitting there because we went Sunday morning and Sunday night and Wednesday night and revival meetings and everything else. He always kept my attention, and I think that I began saying to myself, I would like to do this, this man is sincere, this man is strong, what he is doing is making a difference. So a lot of the seeds for my desire to be a pastor were planted in childhood. It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I really decided that’s what God actually was calling me to do in terms of a pastoral ministry. But I never got away from the influence of my childhood pastor.
MW: You know, Robert, we hear that a lot. Just a normal preacher in the trenches that we’ve probably never heard of who had an impact on influencing other preachers. That’s a really powerful story.
So, tell us, what do you mean by biblical meditation?
RM: You know, people are afraid of the word meditation today, especially in the evangelical and the Christian community because they think it conveys the idea of eastern mysticism and transcendental meditation. I’ve had a lot of pushback even in talking about biblical meditation because people are allergic to that word. But it’s ours to begin with, it belongs to biblical Christians. We are told throughout the Bible to meditate on Scripture. And it’s a lost art today, we’re too busy and too much noise and there’s too much connectivity.
Meditation is that habit of pondering, picturing, personalizing, and practicing Scripture. I’m talking about creating the habit of allowing Scripture to circulate through your mind constantly like water through a fountain. It’s that habit of preaching to ourselves and visualizing that passage, and training our minds. Anytime we have a few moments free we start quoting Scripture to ourselves. So meditation is that habit of thinking and pondering about Scripture every possible time we can.
MW: So walk us through practically, how does that weave its way into how you do your sermon prep every week?
RM: So let’s say that I’m going to preach from 2 Corinthians 4 that says, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” I like to sit down and type out that text and get it in front of me on a piece of paper, and then I analyze it and I dissect it and I try to do the basic exegetical work that is important. So I just tear it apart at my desk. Sometimes the beginnings of a sermon outline accumulate in my mind and I will jot them down on a legal pad or on a document.
After I’ve done all of that then I go walking, driving, or I jump in the pool and tread water, and I think about the text. Very often I go on the greenways walking. And when it says, “Therefore, we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen.” I remember taking a long walk and that was just what I asked myself: If we fix our eyes on what is unseen, what are those things? And I thought, Well, God is unseen, he is invisible. No one has ever seen God. Jesus is unseen but he is not invisible. He is out of our range of vision right now. The Holy Spirit is invisible. Heaven is not invisible, but it’s out of our range of sight right now. The angels are in a different dimension; they are invisible to us. And then I thought, The promises of God are invisible in terms of their fulfillment. I made a list in my mind of seen things that were unseen.
So when I finally crafted the sermon, none of those things were in the commentaries. But as I walked and mulled over the text and I came back and built a sermon that was based on that paragraph it ended with that list of things we are to focus on. I don’t think that I would have come up with those without the process of walking and mulling over the text and thinking through it and meditating on it is what unlocked those secrets.
MW: It sounds like as you’re doing this the Word of God is really working in your heart as a preacher, and changing you, transforming you before you get up to preach the Word.
RM: Yeah, you have to let it saturate your mind. Preaching is overflow, sermons are overflow. We have to fill ourselves with Scripture and get it saturating our minds, and then we visualize it.
This is what I think happened with Psalm 1. I can’t prove this, Matt, but I think that David had just memorized Joshua 1:8, about meditating on the law of God day and night and you will be successful and have prosperity. I think that he thought to himself, What does that look like? If I were to take verse and visualize it then what do I see, what kind of painting do I paint with the oils in my mind? He thought he’d see a grove of trees by a river bringing forth fruit in season, and I think that his sermon which we call Psalm 1 simply came out of his meditation of Joshua 1:8. So I think the Bible itself gives us clues as to the importance of doing this.
MW: That’s fascinating. So how do you capture your thoughts as you’re meditating? Do you have a notepad? Do you write it down, do you put it in your voice recorder? How do you capture all these great thoughts you get as you’re meditating. Or maybe you don’t.
RM: No, I do. And you know, this is a very old and precious art. Jonathan Edwards, after he would study he would get on his horse and go horseback riding so he could meditate on the text and he would jot down little notes and pin them to his coat so that when he came back from his horseback ride it looked like he had been in a snowstorm, he was covered with notes.
MW: That’s great.
RM: So we do have to do this. I usually will take a piece of paper and fold it up so it fits in my pocket and take a pen. And very often if you see me on the greenway I’m stopped at a fence post making notes of things that I’ve thought about, or I will dictate it into my recorder or I’ll text myself. I’ll just hit the button and I’ll say, “Text Robert Morgan,” and I’ll just jot it down verbally with a few notes there and then it’s texted to me instantly. But I’m still a guy that likes pen and paper. I’m almost never without a little scratch pad in my pocket or a piece of paper, and it’s important to capture those notes because sometimes entire outlines will unfold out of a passage while you’re walking and if you can’t jot them down somewhere or have some way of recording them then you may not be able to remember then when you get home.
MW: That’s good. That’s really practical. So we’re big proponents of the big idea in biblical preaching, that Haddon Robinson approach. So how does this help you distill and focus on one big idea?
RM: So you’re working with a paragraph or a pericope, or at least an actual preaching unit, whatever that is. But I try assimilate it, I try to either memorize it or become very familiar with it, and ask, “What does this really mean?” Richard Stores, the Boston pastor, would go for a long walk and pretend to explain the passage to an imaginary friend, and that was sort of the technique he used for meditating. And you say, “What does this mean, and what does it mean to me, what is the writer—what is Peter, what is Paul—trying to get across if they were walking with me. And it’s usually pretty easy to determine what the primary thought is that determines a passage.
So for example, I preached the other day on 1 Peter 4:7-11, “The end of all things is near, therefore be alert and pray and love one another deeply and offer hospitality …” and so forth and so on. Well, at the very beginning of that paragraph he says, “The end is near.” He was living with the sense of the Lord coming again. Therefore, because of that, we’ve got to stay alert and pray. And I thought to myself, Why did Peter say that? And I was walking and thinking about it and I remembered in the Garden of Gethsemane how he fell asleep. A desperate moment and Jesus was praying and he feel asleep during the prayer. So Peter says, “The end of all things is near, therefore be alert and sober-minded so you can pray and love one another deeply” and do this and do that. He has four or five things there he tells us to do, but it’s all within the sense of the urgency of the times, and that was the big idea, that everything else unfolded logically from that opening sentence. Very often that’s the way it is.
MW: I assume that outlining would come the same way, that it would be a very similar process. You’re meditating on it and the outline comes to you as well. Is that correct?
RM: Yes, because the outline is usually embedded in the text. You know, I try to preach with a minimum of notes and expositionally that’s pretty easy to do when you realize that the passage of Scripture you’re dealing with unfolds logically out of the very mind of God. So I try to locate the natural progression of the unfolding of the logic of the text, and then out of that comes your outline.
Now, preparing a sermon, my process is after I have studied the text and done the exegetical work, and after I have meditated on it, then I create an outline and then I manuscript the sermon and then I come back and create another outline based upon the manuscript. Because I really get into the text and sometimes my outline doesn’t quite work or I improve on it or I make it more relevant or tangible. Maybe I’ll find some alliterative technique that will make it a little bit easier for people to remember. So that’s sort of the process through which I go in creating the preaching form for the message.
MW: Well, correct me if I’m wrong but it seems like there is some bad news and some good news in this approach. Maybe not bad news, but reality check news. The reality check is this must take a lot of time and it’s hard work. But the good news is it sounds like you’re not just sitting eight hours a day; you can do this as you live life. Is that correct?
RM: That’s absolutely correct. I’ll read the Bible at night, I’ll read the Bible in the morning. I will get my piece of paper with the text on it and tear it apart, I’ll think about it, I’ll check some commentaries. But then it comes back to meditation. I saw an article not long ago in The Huffington Post that said that Americans do not think anymore, that they no longer have time in their lives to think. But if they do think, it would be one of three times during the day. When they’re in the shower, when they’re driving their car, or when they’re exercising—walking, running, swimming, or whatever they do. So this is when I meditate for sermons as well. I’m trying to train myself when I’m in the shower in the morning or when I’m at the shaving mirror not to be thinking about the thousands of things I’ve got to do that’s crowding in onto my thoughts, but to use that time to think through the passage that I’m preaching on. Let it keep circulating through my mind, keep visualizing it, saying, “Lord, what does this look like if I were going to paint a picture? What would it be like if I were going to explain this to a friend?” How would I go about it when I’m driving, when I’m tired and I lay down after lunch to rest for 15 minutes before I start the afternoon. I’m probably not going to go to sleep but my mind just rolls over those verses. So you develop the mindset. And it’s not just for sermon preparation. This is a basic habit of the Christian life, of meditating. When does it say to meditate? Day and night.
MW: This is really good stuff, Robert. One last question for you. You have a big group of preachers in America listening to this podcast so what would you want to tell them as your words of a preaching mentor to us? What is the thing on your heart that you’d like to say to the preachers of America?
RM: I would say to follow the Ezra model. The best definition of preaching in all of the Bible. To read from the Book of the Law distinctly and give the sense and cause the people to understand the reading. Expositional preaching covers all of the topics that Millennials are concerned about and that all of the other generations are concerned about. But this idea that we have to give typical topical talks, that they have to be short, that our series have to be two, three, or four weeks because people’s attention spans are not longer than that. To me, this is very dangerous for the future of the strength of the evangelical church. Strong churches are built on strong expositional preaching, and God has embedded his logic into the Word of God. It is woven there. And when you preach expositionally, you are preaching God’s Word as he gave it. And to be able to tackle portions of Scripture and unfold them for people and to preach the whole counsel of God, to read from the Book of the Law distinctly, to give the sense, to cause the people to understand the reading has an impact that is both immediate and it’s also ultimate. And it’s the only foundation I know for real longevity.
MW: That’s great final advice. Thanks so much, Robert. I’ve been talking to Robert J. Morgan, and he is the author of Reclaiming the Lost Art of Biblical Meditation so go buy his book, preachers.
Matt Woodley serves as the Editor for PreachingToday.com and the Pastor of Compassion Ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. He is also the author of God With Us: The Gospel of Matthew (IVP).