It is only natural, when you lose a loved one, to find yourself reflecting upon what that person said or did. Since my dad’s promotion to heaven a few months ago, I find that I have frequently engaged in such reflection. I treasure the memories of times spent with my dad and of the many things he taught me.
But when it comes to preaching, thinking about my dad is nothing new. In fact, for more than thirty years, it has been a weekly experience for me to think about my father. As a pastor, whenever I sit down to write a sermon, I feel as if my dad is at the computer with me. Throughout the homiletical process, I find myself asking: how would my dad handle this passage? I wrote an entire book with my dad on preaching, but I’d like to keep these reflections brief. As I prepare a sermon, among the many things my father impressed upon me, the following three are certainly worth highlighting.
What’s the Big Idea?
The most basic and yet perhaps most important homiletical foundation to every sermon involves nailing down your Big Idea. I used to tell people that while dad never gave me credit for it, I was the real source of the Big Idea concept. I remember on several occasions when dad saw me getting into trouble as a kid he’d stop me and say, “What’s the Big Idea?”
As obvious as it may seem, clearly stating the Idea of your sermon is often harder to do than you may realize. Until you’ve reasoned your way clear to your main idea, you have nothing to say. Just this week, as I was preparing my Sunday sermon, I realized late in the game that I was trying to put my sermon together when I wasn’t clear exactly what I was trying to say. Once I stopped to clarify the idea from my preaching passage, I had the key element to begin writing my sermon.
Identifying the Big Idea should be the foundation for every sermon. But thinking myself clear to my idea is only the start. As I write my sermon, I need to be clear that I communicate my idea clearly. That is much easier said than done.
A friend of mine, who is a capable preacher, studied under my dad. He told the following story on himself. After he preached his first sermon in his doctoral studies class with my dad, this pastor explained that he ended his sermon by dropping in his homiletical idea, “like a pearl” at the end of the sermon. He said that he sat down feeling that he had just preached an exemplary sermon. Yet when my dad got up to critique his message, the first thing dad said was, “I’ll give a quarter to anyone who can tell me the big idea of that sermon.” My friend confessed that nobody could do it. He learned, early on, that it is much harder to get your big idea across than he had thought.
What’s the Big Idea? That’s a foundational question that every preacher must ask. Think your way clear to the idea in the exegetical process. Then organize the sermon so that the idea is apparent to the listener.
Identifying the Preacher’s Stance
As I preach my sermon, it is important for me to give consideration to my stance as a preacher. That is, do I stand with God’s people or do I stand against them? When I started out in ministry, I remember my father pointing this out to me. A pastor who fails to give this thoughtful consideration, can easily take the stance of pronouncing God’s judgment against His congregation.
To be sure, if you read the Old Testament prophets, God’s preachers to the nation of Israel often stood with God in declaring His judgment upon the nation’s sin. But as a pastor, my sermons will likely be more honest, and almost certainly better received, if I take the stance of Ezra and Nehemiah who acknowledged their own sinfulness even as they read about the judgments of God against the sins of their forefathers.
My dad put it this way, “Whenever you are talking about people’s sin, you have to have a sympathy for sinners, not sin. The sinner needs to know that you have sympathy for sinning so that they can trust what you are saying. It is the mood of the preacher. It is important to start the sermon identifying the needs of the sinner. The priest sacrificed for his own sin before he sacrificed for the sins of others.”
Do your listeners think you empathize with their struggles with sin? Giving thought to your stance will go a long way towards gaining a hearing from your listeners.
There’s another aspect to the preacher’s stance. In the book I co-wrote with my dad, we applied the concept of stance to first-person sermons. In first-person sermons, stance means something a little different. Giving thought to the preacher’s stance in relation to the audience in a first-person sermon, primarily is about avoiding anachronism. When I preach a first-person sermon, I need to be clear and consistent as I portray the Biblical character to a contemporary audience. In this case, stance has to do with what the character would know about the people to whom he/she is speaking.
In my experience in preaching first-person sermons, inconsistency with the preacher’s stance is one of the primary mistakes made by preachers who have little experience with first-person sermons. For example, you may preach the story of David and Goliath as David’s armor bearer. To do this with consistency, it is important to think whether you are inviting the audience to travel back in time to observe the confrontation or will the armor bearer step forward in time to speak in this day to the contemporary audience. As you tell the story every detail needs to be consistent with the stance you choose.
An inexperienced preacher may easily ignore his/her stance in relationship to their audience. But a good communicator will take this into consideration. Consistency and integrity are key.
Preaching to Yourself
To be honest, I can’t say that I thought much about this until after my father’s death. But my dad’s life demonstrated the power of preaching to yourself.
The definition of expository preaching in Biblical Preaching underscores preaching to yourself: “Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.”
Dad, the ultimate word-smith, spoke of those who failed to apply the truth they were preaching to their own lives as “trafficking in unlived truth.” Over the years, hundreds of people have shared with me the impact of my father’s preaching on their lives. It wasn’t until after my dad died that I reflected upon the impact of dad’s preaching on his own life. He truly practiced what he preached. Dad’s love for and commitment to the scriptures marked his life.
As Haddon Robinson’s son, I saw the impact of the Word of God upon his life. Let me give you just two examples. When my dad was in his midlife years, I heard him preach a very powerful sermon covering the entire book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is certainly relevant to our times. But it was clear to me that the message about the futility of life was personally relevant to dad and enabled him to manage the challenges of his own midlife years.
About the time my father became president of Denver Seminary. It seemed that he “discovered” the Sermon on the Mount. Dad came out of a background of old line dispensationalism taught at Bob Jones University and Dallas Seminary back in the 1950’s. That theology didn’t have much interest in Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom but it had an impact on his life. Dad led a Bible study with dozens of businessmen in the Denver area before work one day each week and he led them through a study of the Sermon on the Mount. This study later became a book that is one of my personal favorites from dad, What Jesus Said About Successful Living.
The impact of that study on dad’s life was evidenced by his fondness for the Lord’s Prayer. From the time of that study on, Jesus’ model prayer shaped dad’s prayers. My father frequently led us in the Lord’s Prayer when we prayed as a family and when he prayed with his students in class.
In the months following my father’s death many have written about the impact dad’s preaching had on their lives. But I bear witness to the fact that my dad and our family may have received an equal, if not greater blessing: the impact God’s truth has upon a man and his family, when he preaches to himself and when he practices what he preaches.
What’s the Big Idea? What’s your stance as you preach? Are you preaching to yourself? I can attest from my dad’s ministry, answering these three simple questions will have a profound impact on your listeners and on yourself.
Torrey Robinson is Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church Tarrytown, NY. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society, in an issue dedicated to the legacy of Haddon Robinson, who died last year.