Step 9: Plan Special Topics
How to make the most of the unique opportunities and challenges posed by major holidays and special events.
Andrew W. Blackwood, one of the preaching experts of the mid-twentieth century, wrote this about preaching for special services: "Special occasions call for skillful planning. Like the poor, they are ever with us, and their number bids fair to increase."
An almost endless parade of potential special occasions confronts the preacher. Some come from the church year such as Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and Lent, then Easter and Pentecost. In addition to the church year there are also national holidays, as religiously oriented as Thanksgiving, as politically potent as the Fourth of July, or as sentimental as Mother's Day or Father's Day.
The chorus of voices vying for the spotlight on Sundays can be bewildering for the pastor as he or she intends to preach biblical messages to nourish the congregation during the course of a year.
Of course, as Blackwood notes, planning is key to good special occasion preaching. While there are some occasions for which a preacher can make solid preparations (Christmas, Easter, etc.), there are others that pop up unexpectedly (weddings and funerals).
Preaching at special occasions allows any preacher to speak the Word of God to those gathered, to round out the worship, and to bring focus to the occasion. A good biblical theology affirms that the preaching of the Word is worship. In these special-occasion services, the Word is to be preached. The special occasions we're exploring have a liturgy, a series of readings and prayers associated with them. Our task as preachers is to complement the liturgy and speak God's Word on the special occasion, making it a total worship experience.
What are the essentials preachers want to take into consideration when making preparations for preaching on holidays, at weddings, or at funerals, so that we can keep our preaching fresh?
Essentials for preaching on holidays
Holiday preaching is often a challenge for the preacher. In this article I'm focusing on the major Christian holidays, not national days (the Fourth of July or Labor Day) or even the greeting card variety (Valentine's Day or Mother's Day).
The two prominent holidays for preachers are Christmas and Easter (Resurrection Sunday). In December and in the springtime preachers are considering ways to bring a fresh word to these familiar holidays. What can a preacher do to make each year's sermon at Christmas or Easter unique?
First, get fresh perspective on the holiday. Try to recalibrate your own thinking about the holiday. Do some extra reading on the history of the holiday to broaden your perspective on it. Dabble into exploring the theological roots of the holiday that will enable you to understand the meaning of the holiday in a new, distinctive way.
Second, take different angles on familiar texts. This doesn't mean that you redefine the biblical meaning of the text, but try to see it preached from different angles. For example, explore how you would preach Matthew 1:18-25—Matthew's description of the birth of Jesus. Take the text from the angle of Matthew who wrote to Jews, from the angel's perspective, or from Joseph's perspective. The idea of the passage remains the same but the way in which the truth is presented homiletically can be shaped differently.
Third, another take on homiletical perspective is to preach the sermon from the first-person. Haddon Robinson tackled the Matthew 1:18-25 text in his first-person sermon, "Joseph Davidson." Robinson became Joseph as he told the story of his encounter with the angel.
Or shake up your holiday preaching by writing an original story that keeps to the intention of the text. I've incorporated this approach regularly for Christmas Eve services. One of the stories, "Grandmother's Carpet" is based on Luke 3:1-6, the passage for the second Sunday in Advent (Cycle C).
Fourth, deal with resistances or familiarity. When developing the introduction to a familiar text you can acknowledge the resistance listeners might have when they hear that the sermon is going to be preached from a familiar text—once again! For example, I approached preaching from Isaiah 9:1-7—a familiar passage at Christmas time—this way:
Sometimes at this time of year we become both excited and maybe also uninterested. We're energized by the whirr of the season—sales and shopping and carols and gifts. We might even be eager to hear once again the story of Christ's birth, the predictions of his first coming as a babe in Bethlehem's night. Yet, for some of us, this certainly is an old story. It's as predictable as much as the sun shining the next day. We know what the story is all about.
We might approach the birth of Jesus with a big yawn. (Yawn.) "Not this again," we might secretly think that it's like the story of the preacher standing at the door after the service greeting people. It was a Christmas Eve service and people were filing out. A man slinks up to the preacher and says, "You know, I wish you preachers would find something else to talk about. The birth of Jesus is all I hear when I hear you preach!"Of course the truth is that the man only came to worship at Christmastime.
So when I tell you that today's text is from Isaiah 9:1-7, some of you may be excited—"Oh, we get to read and hear about the prediction of the birth of Jesus." Others of you might be thinking, "Here we go again."
I offer no apologies. This is who we are—we are people of the promise and those who love the Savior, those who have been embraced by God's Spirit, don't mind being reminded of what God predicted through his prophets that was fulfilled in Jesus the Christ.
But I ask you this morning, what is your response to the reading of this text? Is it excitement or boredom? Are you satisfied in its message or are you frustrated that you have to hear yet another sermon on the predicted birth of Christ? Your response may reveal your own spiritual temperature.
Preaching on the major Christian holidays—holy days—is the privilege of every minister of the gospel. Our task is to freshen up our approach to holiday preaching so that our listeners will genuinely see the Holy.
Essentials for preaching at weddings
A word fitly spoken can add to the wedding ceremony and be meaningful to the couple and congregation. Some pastors conduct few weddings while others tie knots all the time. The question is how can we make each wedding sermon unique?
First, connect with the couple. Get to know them. Take notes about them. Ask them questions about their faith, their relationship to the church, family, friends, marital status, children, and the people coming to the wedding. The friendliness of the pastor and the investment of time and interest in the couple will be revealed when he or she stands up to preach. A congregation can tell whether the preacher cares about the couple and about the congregation. An effective wedding sermon links with the listeners—both couple and the congregation.
Second, like any sermon, a wedding sermon has focus. It has purpose, the target the preacher wants to hit by preaching the sermon. A good sermon has a written purpose statement. For example, "As a result of hearing this sermon, I want my listeners [the couple and congregation as they overhear the sermon] to know that Christ is the protector and pinnacle of their marriage." A sermon with focus prevents the preacher from traveling all over the homiletical landscape.
Third, a wedding sermon is unique. There are no set ways in developing a wedding sermon. The main thing to keep in mind is to communicate a clear central idea. Although the central idea is developed from the text, in a wedding sermon the couple and the congregation play a significant role in shaping the idea. The central idea of the wedding sermon can be shaped by the following factors:
- The theology of marriage
- A great wedding text
- A text that bisects an aspect of the service
- A text that intersects with the couple's interest and qualities
- A text that reflects the personality of the couple
- Texts that capture the uniqueness of the couple as revealed by the meaning of their names
Thinking creatively about the theology of marriage, or a wedding text, or even the names of the couple can increase the freshness of your preaching.
A Christian couple may select a Bible passage that is meaningful to them, one that has become important in their relationship, or the life verses of the bride and groom. This will increase the connection of preacher and congregation with the couple, allowing a unique avenue for a personal, engaging sermon.
For example, if the preacher incorporates the names of the couple in the sermon, the first step is to work on determining the idea of the biblical text. At one ceremony Patrick and Marcy were standing before me. They were both Christians and chose Romans 12:9-13 as their wedding sermon passage. The exegetical idea of this passage is clear: Paul says to the Roman Christians that love is motivated by the Lord who helps them to do good every day.
As I considered their names, I discovered that Marcy means "from Mars" and Patrick means "noble, gentle." Keeping in mind the idea of the biblical text, I worked with the names. The love Paul is talking about could not be expressed by his Roman readers on their own. It is a love that only comes from Christ, from out of this world (Mars/Marcy), and is gentle (gentle/Patrick) in everyday relationships. This truly is the challenge from the text, for Christians to love in all of life and its relationships, even marriage.
So here's my homiletical big idea for the wedding message: "Christ is calling you to an out-of-this-world love that is gentle in all you do." In the sermon I pointed out that it takes extraordinary love to be a Christian—and that's not easy to do. Then I applied the text to the couple's relationship as a married couple.
Fourth, keep the wedding sermon brief. Wordiness is not a virtue for wedding sermons. The sermon is only one part of the ceremony. Usually the couple and attendants stand throughout the service. We want them and the congregation to want to hear the sermon. Be brief.
Essentials for preaching at funerals
Haddon Robinson says, "Death keeps a sloppy appointment book." He's right. Funeral sermon planning isn't something that most preachers think about—or are prepared when the need to preach a funeral sermon arises. What are preachers to do in order to keep funeral preaching fresh?
First, funeral sermons that are most effective are connected to the Bible and to the listeners and fit into the flow of the worship service. The preacher wants to understand the deceased and the family and to appreciate the listeners who will be attending the funeral.
If we want to make our funerals effective and fresh they must be personal. How can we make our funeral sermons personal? The answer depends on a number of factors, including the length of the pastor's tenure at the church and the relationship with the family. One of the keys to personalizing funerals is keep up-to-date records of pastoral visits. Records of family members' names, relationships, hobbies, interests, and talents can be information woven into the sermon.
Second, the funeral sermon is to be focused. Biblically-based sermons are to be listener-oriented. We all know that the funeral sermon isn't addressed to the deceased but to the mourners—the family and friends. Therefore, ministers are to shape the purpose statement of the funeral sermon keeping in mind the Bible, the listeners, and the occasion, for people to hear about the hope found in Jesus Christ.
A purpose statement might read: "As a result of hearing this sermon, I want my listeners [mourners] to know that at the end of time we will not mourn but will praise God."
Third, a funeral sermon isn't a "cookie-cutter" sermon that can be preached at every funeral the preacher preaches. Instead, we recognize that every funeral is unique and every person who has died is unique, which calls for a fresh approach to preaching.
Some of the factors that help to make a funeral sermon fresh include an appreciation for the following:
- The theology of grace, salvation, forgiveness, faith
- Death as the Christian's hope
- A great funeral text
- A text that intersects with the interests of the deceased
- A text that reflects the personality and character of the deceased
- The favorite text of the deceased
- A text that captures the uniqueness of the deceased by using his or her name or occupation
The family may suggest a text from any of the above categories. The decision may be left to the minister—in light of pastoral visitation records, if part of the congregation. Of course, the pastor will assess the faith of the deceased and the family before settling on a text.
The sermon might be approached biographically, incorporating a person's faith, or citing an example of an item from the deceased's life that can be used to introduce listeners to a biblical truth. Another biographical angle involves incorporating a person's occupation, his or her role and contribution to the life of the local church, special interests, civic activities, friends, hobbies, or favorite things or personal characteristics. The sermon may include humorous stories from the family, stories that the deceased used to tell about him or herself, or humorous accounts from relatives, friends, or neighbors.
Jim Procious was a dear Christian man from my first church. He gave of himself and his time. As I prepared his funeral sermon I noticed that the words Procious and "precious" sound alike. So in my sermon I played off these two words, leading the listeners to Psalm 116:15, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."
A homiletical twist on the biographical sermon is to turn the lens from the person who died to the mourners who listen and struggle to live. The biographical sermon does not obscure the listener from seeing the ultimate focus, God himself.
The manner in which a person died may impact sermon construction, particularly in cases of suicide, murder, devastating illness, or accident. Naming the cause of death will allow listeners to begin their recovery from grief at the same starting point.
The death of infants, children, or young adults is especially difficult. I conducted a funeral for quadruplets who died before birth. The young Christian parents mourned the loss of their children. The text was Revelation 7:9-17. The exegetical idea for the passage was, "John states that those who endure the struggle of living out their faith are protected by God, who will care for them forever." Keeping in mind the occasion, the couple, and the congregation, I developed the following homiletical idea: "At the end of the story our tears are gone and God is praised."
A doctrinal approach in developing funeral sermons can speak to the hope that Christians possess. Preachers can talk about the greatness and goodness of God and the Christian hope of future life in Christ in the presence of God. Shaping the doctrinal sermon to relate to the church year and specific events in the life of Christ might enable the preacher to tie the person's life to that episode in the life of Christ. A funeral during Advent might suggest texts of preparation, hope, or expectation.
Fourth, funeral sermons are usually brief. Ministers generally agree on an upper limit of ten to fifteen minutes.
Preaching is a privilege. We want to help our listeners every Sunday and on every holiday or special occasion to engage with the biblical truth in ways that will enable the truth of the text to stick—and our task is to find ways to make it fresh.
Scott M. Gibson is the Professor of Preaching and holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching at Baylor University/Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. He also served as the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he was on faculty for twenty-seven years.