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The Movement of the Sermon

How to make Jesus the "hero" of every sermon.
The Movement of the Sermon

Your outline has to have movement, progression, tension. I hear many sermons that are simply a string of good thoughts that could almost be set forth in any order—even if they are all faithfully taken from the text and in general accord with the sermon theme. That is actually a series of mini sermons, and it is invariably tedious, even when delivered with conviction. Each point in a compelling sermon must contribute something new to the theme, building on previous ones, sometimes making use of clues and undeveloped thoughts mentioned earlier but opened at just the right moment later on. In your sermons you must build some suspense that creates an eagerness to hear what is coming next and a sense of traveling to a destination. Skillful preachers can state earlier points in such a way that it will cause questions to be raised in listeners' minds: If this is true, doesn't it contradict that? or Won't this create a problem with that? If that is what the Bible says, how do you answer those who object to it like this? If that is what we must do, where do we get the resources to do it? That way the preacher can answer the questions in the hearts of the listeners as he or she moves through the sermon.

In your sermons you must build some suspense that creates an eagerness to hear what is coming next and a sense of traveling to a destination.

Eugene Lowry argues that even if preachers are not preaching on a biblical story, the points of the sermon should nevertheless feel like the parts of a narrative. A narrative begins when something knocks life off balance. Life is now not the way it ought to be. For example, "Little Red Riding Hood took her grandmother some goodies" is just a fact. However, "Little Red Riding Hood was going to her grandmother's, but a big bad wolf was waiting to eat her" is a narrative. As the story proceeds, the plot thickens as central characters fight to restore the initial balance. There are always protagonist figures and forces struggling toward the restoration of balance as well as antagonist figures and forces struggling against the restoration and against the protagonists. Finally, the story ends as the struggle results in either restoration of the balance—in which the desire of the protagonist (and the listeners) are reunited with objective reality—or the failure to restore balance. So every story consists of an assumption about how life ought to be, a problem or force that prevents life from being that way, and a pathway through which that life can be restored.

Lowry believes that the general flow and movement of the sermon (though not necessarily embodied in explicit headings or points) should follow this general pattern. First, present the problem, showing the particular way indicated in the text that sin has knocked life out of whack, what Bryan Chapell calls "the fallen condition focus."

Then develop tension by looking under the surface at the reasons that the problem is so difficult and enduring. Crucial to this step is going beneath personal and social behavior down to the motivations of the heart. We may be selfish with our money, but mere exhortation won't work, because money is more than money to us; it is identity and security. This second move must always recapitulate the gospel message that we do not have the resources to save ourselves. It seems hopeless (because it is).

Next, show how Jesus, his salvation, and faith in him solve the problem before us, objectively and subjectively. Jesus is the exemplar, who lives the human life we should be living. He dies to save us from the guilt and consequences of our failure. But in addition to all this, faith in Christ always perfectly solves the heart problem that is at the root of the difficulty. We can't give our money away until we get new security and identity in Jesus. We can't love our spouses rightly until we fill our inner neediness with the spousal love of Christ. The second and third moves of the sermon are intimately tied together. If, when analyzing the fallen-condition focus, you depict the problem as a matter of behavior, then the only solution will be some exhortation to try harder. Unless you get down to the level of heart dynamics and motivation, the transforming power of the gospel in the work of Christ won't be seen as the unique, direct solution to the problem.

This is why the sermon, if it moves like a narrative, with a thickening plot and little hope—can at this point produce what Tolkien calls "the turn" that is present in all good stories. There is a reversal, an upending of normal expectations, and a sudden plot resolution that is counterintuitive and satisfying. This is where the gospel and the person and work of Christ are brought to bear on the problem, and he is proclaimed as the unique solution to this issue, unlike anything the world has to give. This is how Jesus is assured to be the "hero" of every well-crafted sermon.

Here is another way to look at the underlying movement of the sermon to give it a gospel shape, a fall-redemption-restoration plotline. Remember that these are seldom or never the announced headings or even the points of your outline. I think of it as the metaoutline, the deep gospel pattern, of every sermon I preach:

Intro: What the problem is; our contemporary cultural context: Here's what we face.
Early Points: What the Bible says; the original readers' cultural context: Here's what we must do.
Middle Points: What prevents us; current listeners' inward heart context: Why we can't do it.
Late Points: How Jesus fulfils the biblical theme and solves the heart issue: How Jesus did it.
Application: How through faith in Jesus you should live now.

Here are the assumptions behind this deep pattern. One is that the Bible addresses heart issues that are true for all human beings everywhere in every century. So that heart issues of the original readers will overlap with those of the preacher's listeners. Also, in every text of the Scripture there are imperatives, moral norms for how we should live. That norm may be seen in what we learn about the character of God or Christ, or in the good or bad example of characters in the text, or in explicit commands, warnings, and summonses. The next assumption is that this moral imperative always presents a crisis, for when properly understood, the practical and moral obligation of the Scripture is impossible for human beings to meet. If the preacher does not bring that out, the sermon is headed for moralism, for implicitly or even explicitly asserting that our moral efforts could be sufficient to please God. If instead the preacher makes the crisis clear, then the listeners who have followed the path of the sermon to this point are led to a seemingly dead end. Then, when we point to the gospel, a hidden door opens and light comes in. Jesus has fulfilled the law's requirement in our place and so protects us from condemnation. But more than that, when we put our faith in that saving fulfillment, it changes the structure of our hearts, melting them where they are icy, strengthening them where they are weak. Faith in Jesus is our only hope—but it is a sure hope.

The sermon now moves definitively out of argument and teaching toward worship and wonder when it shows how only Jesus Christ has fulfilled the requirement. If the text is a narrative, you can show how the characters in it point to Christ as the ultimate deliverer, sufferer, prophet, priest, king, and servant. If the text is didactic, you can show how Christ is the ultimate embodiment of the moral norm and the only way to become people who can begin to follow it. Finally, the sermon can take time to spell out practical ways that faith in Christ should shape our lives in this area.

FROM: Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller, pgs. 228-232. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. He is also the Chairman & Co-Founder of Redeemer City to City, which starts new churches in New York and other global cities, and publishes books and resources for ministry in an urban environment.

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