Well, today´s sermon-writing-day: Job 23. I really like Job. His story is like the Old Testament illustration of Isaiah 52,13-53,13 and the passion of our Lord. There´s a lot of prejudice coming along with me as I start off with a sermon like this. So, it´s always a call back to basics and that´s back to the text.
My great-grandfather Carl Eisenberg (Dreihausen near Marburg) would translate the sermon text for the coming Sunday as soon as he had finished the morning service and even before having lunch with his family. Perhaps I should point out, that he was good in Hebrew as he taught theology students Hebrew grammar and translation at the University of Marburg – and translating Greek was a given for that generation of pastors anyway. So, he didn´t take hours to translate 5-10 verses 🙂
But, first things first, start off with translating the text – and then you go “pregnant” with this text for the next few days. “Gutes Ding will Weile haben!” (Good things need time) and if your mind is like mine, it needs to sleep over this before it comes up with something worthwhile and is able to consider and evaluate various options. So, get started early enough. Leave enough time. Sleep on it, before you jump to conclusions and don´t try to finish it off prematurely. Creativity needs hard work – and you have to apply your mind to it. I think, that is the greatest temptation in the pastoral office, that you put things on the table faster than you can prepare them and in the end it is just half-cooked 😦
On the other hand, when is something really ready? Perfection eludes us constantly. Just ask Max Reger, Jochen Klepper or Kurt Cobain. Some like it well-done, others are happy with rare and just seared. Mostly, I´ve had time and space to prepare and not too much on my plate. Sometimes, I took the advice of my late professor Rothfuchs: “Read other sermons. Learn from the best. Don´t think, you´re alone in this!” That was especially in preparation for the daunting task of preaching about 3 sermons every Sunday. I´ll get to that one later on again. Just for now: Luther preached every day – and sometimes more than one sermon even. We´re not Luther, but still, it puts our relatively little task into context.
From Psalm 1 & 119 and Luther´s comments on that, we know, reading God´s Word is like the cow chewing the cud. So, whilst you´re going about your chores in the week – keep that text on the front- and backburners.
On the front burner: Do not forget it – learn it off by heart – familiarize yourself with each word, connotation, phrase and sentence in the context. Read it more than once daily! Use your dictionary. Use Logos or Bible Works. Use the best grammar you´ve got. Ask your brother pastor, who is better than you in Greek/Hebrew, about this and that crux and difficulty. And think on it in your mother-tongue (This goes especially to my multilingual brothers in Africa!) whilst you do your prayers, meditations and thinking. Read the fathers, dogmaticians and teachers of the church, which you have on your shelves or files, but also the newspaper, contemporary writers and if you´ve got the stomach for it philosophers and thinkers of our time concerning topics, themes and burning issues raised by God´s Word in the biblical text.
On the back burner: For example, doing breakfast you think about what you´ve just read and when you visit old granny Elly, you can share this and that with her – trying different aspects and angels. Discuss relevant topics with those in the know – Luther spoke with the relevant artisans, experts and professionals concerning technicalities and things, they don´t teach you at Seminary. Normally, we´ve got good advice just around the corner. You just have to ask! Your dentist, policeman, nurse, vet etc. And it does provide you with the excellent opportunity to prove, that you don´t think, you know it all. And ask your people in the congregation and community, what they think about this and that. I remember a pastor, who would regularly tell us, what we as congregation think – and most of the time, that really was way beyond, I had ever heard: Really! Don´t construct a bogey man (Strohmann – “Der Sandmann” von E.T.A. Hoffmann), but address the real issues. Fake news abounds – sermons don´t need to exacerbate that malady.
6 days is a long time. A lot can be done in that week. And you only need to put down about a thousand words on approximately 2 pages and preach 15-20 minutes – without inserts and injections. One of my supervisors during vicarage did 6 pages in tight type for the same. I couldn´t follow his speedy speech, but his written papers were great 🙂 I speak hesitantly – slowly even – and it´s getting worse. It helps those, who need a bit of time, but it is a strain for witty movers and shakers, who get the drift even as you just start the sentence… To preach 12-16 minutes – rather less than more – needs focus and preparation. And you´ve mostly got the hope of preaching against next Sunday. So, you don´t have to say all and everything – even if you should remember, that your hearer needs God´s law and gospel – and the full thrust of salvivic wholesomeness: The peace that passes all understanding. Remember, you´re busy with divine given facts from heaven – and not just with rhetorics. (Vilmar) So, hand it out – and don´t hold back!
I like the short guideline “Goal, malady, means” (Aho). It fits nicely with the detailed workshop by Manfred Seitz on homiletic in Erlangen and also the fundamental framework and magisterial classic by C.F.W. Walther “Law and Gospel”. Seitz taught us to put a topic (spear point) and then elaborate in some steps (spear shaft) to attain what God intended with this his holy Word amongst his people sitting here under the pulpit.
Now, I better get to the real thing of writing that sermon on Job. In my view, it’s good to keep this exercise for the end of the week – so that you´ve got enough thought (i.e. reading, temptation and prayer) put into it and the broth is not just too thin. Then, it’s good to write it down in one piece and not piecemeal, otherwise I at least tend to run into the danger of losing my thread, going off on a tangent and loosing the feel of the piece at hand.
Obviously as pastor, you need to watch out, that you don´t run into some funeral, wedding or birthday party on Saturday – and run out of time to write your sermon. During my studies, we had a pastor, who would write the sermon after the Soccer-Show (Sportschau) late on Saturday evening. Well, not only the preacher nearly fell asleep during those boring sessions. It´s practical stuff like Spurgeon´s advice: “Keep the windows open for fresh air!” So also, don´t fall asleep on the pulpit and expect your hearers to stay awake. Preaching the sermon on the pulpit is the final thing – not your paper on the desk. So, you should have time to learn the outline and key phrases, but also remain alert and open for situational opportunities. This is the battle-front in your ministry – or as Melville (Moby Dick) says: The ship´s bridge! So, expect God to do great things, miracles and wonders through His creative word being preached – by you. Yes, that is indeed some reason to laud and magnify His glorious name for!
I remember old Willy (Wilhelm) Reusch in Uelzen near Glencoe, KZN. Like most pastors then, he would have 3 sermons every Sunday. (This is where I catch up on the hint up front!) One for the confessional service, one for the divine service and finally one for the catechetical service. That´s not counting the sermons he did on the outstations like Paardekop, Enhlanhleni, Sutherland etc. Well, he would have them all written down and then pace up and down under the cypress at the parsonage – learning these sermons by heart. No wonder, the Uelzen people even today know, what it means to be joyfully Lutheran. They learnt it well from their pastor, who still unanimously believed, taught and confessed: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2. Tim.3,16-17). That´s very different to being under the impression of having to preach some mythology or loose fable to entertain more or less bored guests. It is as the apostle St. Peter writes: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty…. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2. Pt.1,16-21)
Therefore, let us rejoice and sing with a teacher of our church:
1. Preach you the Word and plant it home To men who like or like it not, The Word that shall endure and stand When flow’rs and men shall be forgot.
2. We know how hard, O Lord, the task Your servant bade us undertake: To preach Your Word and never ask What prideful profit it may make.
3. The sower sows his reckless love Scatters abroad the goodly seed, Intent alone that all may have The wholesome loaves that all men need.
4. Though some be snatched and some be scorched And some be choked and matted flat, The sower sows; his heart cries out, “Oh, what of that, and what of that?”
5. Of all his scattered plenteousness One-fourth waves ripe on hill and flat, And bears a harvest hundredfold: “Ah, what of that, Lord, what of that!”
6. Preach you the Word and plant it home And never faint; the Harvest Lord Who gave the sower seed to sow Will watch and tend His planted Word. (Martin H. Franzmann 1907-1976)