Scripture is rarely predictable in the exact ways it makes impact today.
I remember witnessing a particularly slow death in the pulpit. After a lively worship service, the preacher stood up to read Isaiah 6:1-8. Then he said, " Isaiah lived in Jerusalem in 740 B.C. " He spent about five minutes setting the scene and explaining background about King Uzziah. Then he asked us to note three points. First, Isaiah saw God in the temple. Second, Isaiah heard God in the temple. And third, (can you guess it?) Isaiah obeyed God in the temple.
Judging by the restlessness and yawns all around me, I was not alone in being able to predict each step before the preacher got to it. We reached the end long before the preacher did. The problem was not that the preacher had been short on preparation, nor that he was insincere. It was that he was utterly, bone-crushingly predictable.
Even the best news people can ever hear can lose interest fast if it becomes predictable good news. As soon as people know what we are going to say next and how we are going to say it, and are proved right, we are in trouble.
Of course, one can argue that a measure of predictability is built into biblical preaching. If a Scripture text is well known, like Isaiah 6, then a faithful preacher will surely have a large dose of predictability built into the sermon.
One can also argue that congregations do not need shock tactics from whiz-bang preachers who feel they always need to be different. The continuous search for novelty is a sure way to superficiality. God calls biblical preachers not to be original but to be faithful.
But Scripture is rarely predictable in the exact ways it makes impact today. A high doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture means belief not only that the Holy Spirit breathed it into existence but that he continues to breathe its interpretation for today. It is a living word, sharper than a two-edged sword, so full of God's dynamism that you never know where it will cut and how it will make impact.
Our sermons will convey that dynamism if they have the following qualities.
1. See the full riches in the text.
A careful reading of Scripture is almost never without surprises. Predictability comes from a tired approach to Scripture that reads it flatly in order to get a workable outline as fast as possible. Predictability comes when we assume we know the text.
The sermon on Isaiah 6 failed on this account in three ways. (1) It stopped at verse 8, cutting out the controversial and interesting verses, Isaiah 6:9-13. (2) It seemed stuck on Isaiah's story. Of course history matters, but the sermon focused exclusively on what happened to him without getting inside this stunning spiritual event for the listener today. (3) It settled on three obvious aspects of Isaiah's response.
Although familiar, this Bible story actually brims over with startling details that shock and challenge the hearer. This outline gets at those surprises:
2. Have a truly big idea.
Big ideas capture the imagination. Big ideas make people think. Big ideas stretch people in unpredictable ways. Until we are excited about the main thing this sermon will say and do, we probably do not yet have a truly big idea. In place of a big idea, the plod through Isaiah's story simply recounted what happened to Isaiah.
Here is a big idea that would make for a less predictable sermon: " Our God has the right to interrupt you and send you out on a tough calling — perhaps today. "
3. Emphasize application.
Bryan Chapell calls application the sermon's breaking point and says it is the most difficult part of preaching. Why? Because this is where the word hits home in the lives of real people. A sermon in Isaiah 6 can make some good general points about God's holiness and the need for cleansing or about obeying God's call, but as soon as the message gets personal it becomes uncomfortable. Precise, concrete, daringly applied promises, rebukes, and challenges are what cause believers to grow — and what make for sermons that are anything but boring.
The opening sermon on Isaiah 6 was sadly weak in application because it blandly retold a familiar story and asked listeners to draw their own conclusions. It was easy for the uncommitted to shrug their shoulders and say " So what? " The sermon conveyed none of the shock of being confronted by the holy God and of overhearing the call to mission as a contemporary possibility. By contrast, specific application makes the present, interrupting call of God a live possibility.
4. Use a variety of sermon forms.
Most preachers develop habits in their sermon form that provide a comfort zone. We may design a structure of " three heads and nine tails " with a gift for alliteration. We may move from story to story with a looser structure. Preachers become known for their style and length, and many congregations value the security of a predictable format and length.
But a rut, too, is predictable. We need to step out of our comfort zones and dare to proclaim God's big ideas in fresh ways.
We can preach Isaiah 6, for example, in many forms:
Verse-by-verse exposition.For those who major in topical preaching, this is an excellent change of pace.
Thematic preaching. This text has many great themes, such as the call, the preacher's task, and God's tough mission, each of which can be a sermon.
Narrative preaching. Retell the Isaiah story as though it were contemporary. Begin by describing a worship service familiar to the listeners. Set the scene in their experience. Surprise them with how God views uncleanness today and calls for action now.
Surprise-plotted preaching. Set up a shock in the sermon. Tell the story so it ends at verse 8. Stop and ask whether anything else happens. Let the hard realism of verses 9-13 surprise the listeners. What is going on here? Why did the story not finish at verse 8? What are the lessons of rejection for Isaiah, Jesus, and us?
Michael Quicke is professor of preaching at Northern Baptist Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and author of 360-Degree Preaching (Baker).