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Make Your Sermons Stick

Use the biblical text and rhetorical devices to help your hearers stay active listeners.

This commentary is based on the sermon entitled “Cover or Be Covered” by Jeffrey Arthurs. At a mere three and a half pounds your brain is a mighty instrument. The 100 billion brain cells in your head receive 100 million bits of information per second. Your brain also has the ability to filter about 99 percent of that information. So here’s the question for preachers: How do you prevent the “brains” out there from filtering key parts of your message (or maybe the entire message)?

Of course the Holy Spirit is at work, but Jeffrey Arthurs also contends that preaching is a human craft that involves human (brain to brain) communication. As Arthurs argues, “Boredom kills preaching.” Preaching doesn’t always have to explain new or novel truths. Most of the time we may be preaching as reminding. We don’t need to entertain our hearers, but our sermons should be memorable.

Jonathan Edwards claimed that God has appointed a way for preachers to “stir up the minds of the saints, and quicken their affections” by delivering biblical truth “in their proper colors.” This sermon showcases some of the ways Arthurs has learned to inject vivid and memorable colors into preaching.


World War II was over. The Armistice had been signed in Europe and in Japan. Hostilities had ceased. But, under the leadership of General MacArthur, the Allies had bypassed many islands of the Pacific in their drive toward Japan. Now, even though the war was over, tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers were still occupying those islands, hiding in the jungles and mountains of the Pacific.

The Americans went to the islands and said, "The war is over. Peace has been declared. Lay down your arms, and come out." But the Japanese thought it was a trick. So MacArthur had the Emperor of Japan make recordings, which they broadcast with loudspeakers into the jungles: "The war is over. Peace has been declared. Lay down your arms, and come out." Only then did the Japanese soldiers trickle out.

The last soldier came out in March of 1974—29 years after the war was over. They asked him, "Why?" His answer: "I was afraid." “His answer: ‘I was afraid.’”

Keep in mind that this is a sermon manuscript. Arthurs argues, “This discipline [of writing a manuscript] helps slow the preparation process. It gives us time to choose vivid words. It also gives us a tangible document to edit.” This does not mean you should preach from your manuscript. We should aim for concrete and vivid language spoken conversationally.

We sinners try to cover ourselves.

If you are at war with a stronger opponent, if you have created enmity with a more powerful foe, it is natural to fear. When we fear, it's natural to hide. That's the spiritual dynamic that runs underneath Psalm 32. We sinners sin. We sinners fear. We sinners hide. What was the first thing that Adam and Eve did after their great sin in the Garden? The Lord God came walking in the Garden and said, "Where are you?" Adam replied, "We heard your voice. We were afraid, so we hid." “We sinners sin. We sinners fear. We sinners hide.”

Here’s an example of Bryan Chapell’s Fallen Condition Focus. In his grace and mercy, God has given us a word (the biblical text) to address our fallen condition. When we put this focus up front and center people start paying attention. The entire message will be more vivid and memorable because they’re tuned in from the start.

Tradition says David wrote this psalm after his great sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. He went into hiding. He tried, in the words of this psalm, to cover himself—to pretend—to live in hypocrisy. Look at verse 3: "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long." I kept silent. I pretended. I covered. I hid. Now look at verse 5. "Then I acknowledged my sin to you and I no longer covered up my iniquity." “Tradition says David wrote this psalm …”

Preaching memorable and vivid sermons doesn’t involve learning clever gimmicks. It starts with the text. Arthurs has immersed his mind and heart in this psalm. That’s part of every preacher’s normal sermon prep process. As Arthurs has exhorted, “I recommend that you get away, lock your door, take a walk, or take a drive to give yourself time to experience [your text]. Meditation demands solitude. The only way I know to unpack [a biblical text] is to slow down our normal mode of reading, linger over the words, and imagine.”

John Ortberg tells a story from his spiritual mentor, Dallas Willard. Willard's two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter, Larissa, was playing in the backyard, and she discovered how to make mud, which she called warm chocolate. It didn't take long until she was covered in mud, and Larissa's grandmother, who was in the backyard reading with her seat turned away from Larissa, discovered her, cleaned her up, and said, "Now, Larissa, no more of that." She then turned her chair to face Larissa.

Pretty soon the two-and-a-half year old went back to the warm chocolate factory, but making eye contact with her grandmother said, "Don't look at me, Nana. Okay?" Nana, who was a little bit codependent, agreed.

Three times as the little girl was playing in the mud, she said, "Don't look at me, Nana. Okay?" Willard writes, "Thus the tender soul of a little child shows us how necessary it is for us that we be unobserved in our wrong." We hide. “John Ortberg tells a story …”

There’s a simple way to stir memory—tell a story. Arthurs writes, “Listening to a story is a whole-brain activity which rouses emotion, stimulates imagination, and prompts identification.”

Imagine a businessman who checks into a motel room. The motel has a policy that states: "The name of the movie that you rent will not appear on your statement." As he reaches for the remote control, he first fires up a little prayer: Don't look at me, God. Okay?

Imagine a student taking an exam. The adrenaline's flowing. She's crammed a bunch of facts into her mind, but it is spinning. The answers are in there, but she can't access them. So she looks at a cheat sheet. Her soul is bothered, but she needs the answers: Lord, don't look at me. Okay? I'll be back with you in the morning when I read my Bible. For now, would you do me the service of just turning away? Her need outweighs the fear of God.

Imagine a woman who's out for coffee with a friend. She says something funny and mildly sarcastic about her husband, and she senses a little bit of sympathy from across the table. She says something else and feels a reciprocal dynamic. For the next 90 minutes, she roasts her husband at the stake of criticism, but even as this conversation is going on, another one is simultaneously taking place: Don't look at me, God. Okay? Just turn your face away. “Imagine … Imagine … Imagine”

Throughout this sermon Arthurs uses a simple rhetorical device—he repeats the same word, phrase, or short sentence over and over again. He starts three paragraphs in a row with the word “imagine.” He repeats the same little prayer: “Don’t look at me, God. Okay?” He repeats the same string of short sentences: “We sinners sin. We sinners fear. We sinners hide.” These simple refrains are powerful tools to stir affections and make our main ideas memorable.

Ortberg says this may be one of our most common prayers, one of our least acknowledged prayers, one that we may not even be aware of when we speak it. Don't look at me, God. Okay? This is the dynamic of the spiritual life: Sinners sin. Sinners hide. We try to cover ourselves.

We use various methods, tools, tricks, and devices to cover up our sin. David used deception. Remember the story of David and Bathsheba? She became pregnant, and he tried to cover it up. He brought her husband home from the war and tried to get them to spend time together. It didn't work. We trick; we spin; we deceive: Don't look at me. I'm fine. I'm good.

Sometimes we cover up our sin by simply ignoring it—out of sight, out of mind. Maybe this was the dynamic with Peter. Peter denied his Lord, Jesus. Then Jesus rose from the dead. But apparently, things weren't right. There wasn't any reconciliation. What did Peter do? He returned to his old occupation of fishing. We don't know his motive, but perhaps what was driving him was a desire to get back to the mundane.

You and I spend 12 hours a day at the office to occupy ourselves. We work, work, work. Because anytime our mind lifts from our work for an instant, it returns to the scene of the crime. Or maybe we spend 4 hours a night on the Internet to fill our minds. We cover our sin by ignoring it.

Another method we use to cover our sin is justification. This is my personal favorite. We justify ourselves: "No, I shouldn't have done it, but the people made me. My kids made me. My coworkers made me. If my spouse just wasn't so hardhearted, then—." But what does that do for your sin? It doesn't take it away! “This is my personal favorite.”

For Arthurs, self-disclosure is one of the key techniques of vividness. “Through the senses of sight and sound—what the [preacher] looks like and sounds like—listeners associate a potentially abstract proposition [i.e. how we cover our sin] with a flesh and blood person [the preacher].” Our listeners can face their own “stuff” when we admit our “stuff.”

We sinners sin. We sinners hide. We use various methods to do that hiding. Scripture teaches that when we try to cover our own sins, God's hand falls heavy upon us. When we try to mask our own sin, we groan, we fade, we bake in the heat of discipline. Consider verses 3 and 4: "When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer." David is saying: My moisture was evaporated. I became desiccated. I'm like a raisin. I have no strength. I'm fading away. David is describing the physiological response our bodies have to a troubled conscience. Your mind spins; your stomach churns. “I’m like a raisin.”

Throughout the sermon Arthurs mixes in concrete language with vivid and simple metaphors. “I’m like a raisin.” Arthurs could have said, “I feel hopeless.” That’s textually accurate, but it’s abstract. It doesn’t paint a picture. We can all see a raisin. As Arthurs says, “Discipline yourself to use exact words not vague words.”

At Temple University they're using brain-imaging technology to study the human mind. They have found that when we lie, there's a lot more going on in the brain than when we tell the truth. Dr. Scott Farrow, a researcher involved in the project, says, "Lying is a complex behavior. There's more activity. There are more interactions during a lie than during truth telling." Your mind spins. Your heart pounds. We groan. We fade.

We sinners can confess and be covered by God's forgiveness.

Isn't there a better alternative? Is this the way we want to live our lives? We can try to cover our own sins, or we can confess as David did. Look at verse 5: "Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord'—and you forgave the guilt of my sin." “Is there a better alternative?”

Arthurs uses a classic inductive outline to approach his theme. Instead of starting with his big idea (“When we confess, we experience the shalom of God”), he starts with our problem (“We sinners sin”) and our defective solutions to that problem. So the outline looks like this:

I. We sinners sin.
II. When we sin, we try to cover ourselves.
III. When we try to cover ourselves, we bake in the heat of discipline.
IV. Therefore, we sinners confess.
V. When we confess, we experience the shalom of God.

Here’s Arthurs pithy case for an inductive approach: “If the truth causes a yawn when it should cause a gasp, let it sneak up on the congregation.”

We acknowledge. We respond in transparency. We respond in non-hypocrisy. We confess: "Lord, I've done wrong. I've broken your holy laws. I made an idol of my money. I have committed adultery in my mind or with my body. I have cheated. I have stolen things that don't belong to me. I have criticized. I have ruined the unity of the Body. I have sinned. I did it."

All sins are committed against God. Even if I sin against you, it is primarily a sin against God, because he is involved. He infuses all human interactions. The way I treat you is the way I'm treating God. So when we confess, we always confess to God: I've done wrong. I'm sorry. I repent. And since we have wronged each other, we also confess to our brother or sister when appropriate.

The great evangelist D. L. Moody was on an evangelistic campaign in England. While he was there, he fell in love with the English lawns—manicured and beautifully green. When he came back to Northfield, Massachusetts, he was determined to have a lawn just like the ones he'd seen overseas. He worked and worked on his lawn, raking and grooming it. Just as it was coming in, his two boys let the horses loose from the barn, and they walked across the new lawn and ruined it. Moody lost it. He blew up at the boys and sent them away.

Many years later, when one of the boys was writing his father's biography, he recalled how they had heard their father's heavy footsteps outside their door later that day. Moody walked into the room, laid a heavy hand on each of their heads, and said, "I want you to forgive me. That wasn't the way Christ taught."

We confess to God, and we confess to each other. But the Scripture also teaches that we confess as a group—corporately. "No man is an island unto himself." Each of us is a part of the continent, and we have a group identity, so together we acknowledge our sin.

We sinners sin, we sinners hide, and then we sinners confess. When we confess, God extends his shalom to us. Shalom is richer than just peace; shalom is fullness, health, prosperity, and blessing. When we confess, God forgives.

Look at verses 1 and 2: "Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit there is no deceit." Note the passive voice: "Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven." Someone else is doing the forgiving. "Blessed is the one whose sins are covered." We could try to cover ourselves, or we can be covered. The word "forgiven" in this verse means "to lift, to carry, to bear away." How blessed, how happy, how fortunate, how full of peace is the one whose sins are laid upon Christ's shoulder.

The Word says, "Blessed is the one whose sins are covered." The word "covered" means "to conceal, to veil, to put out of sight." It's like when you're having guests over to your house, and you've been cleaning all day; it looks really good, but there's that one room you didn't get to, and it's a mess. So you close the door; you veil and cover it. God does this for us; he takes our sins and puts them away. We will no longer stare at them anymore. They will no longer gain our attention. We will no longer focus on those things.

Isaiah says, "Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them as white as snow." God says: I'm not going to stare at your sins anymore. I'll cover them myself. You can try to cover them, or you can confess and receive the peace that I've granted.

How happy, how fortunate, how full of prosperity and health is the one whose sins are covered.


If you are at war with a more powerful opponent—if you have created enmity—then you fear and hide. But what if the war is over? What if God has made peace through the blood of his Cross? What if he desires to make a wretch his treasure? What if the armistice has been signed, and we lay down our arms? We will come out of hiding. We will walk in the light as he is in the light, and we receive the peace of God.

Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.

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