Is a Sermon More Than a Lecture?

By Brian Key    |    February 27, 2023

Topic:    

“That’s what it looks like when a text preaches a man before the man preaches the text.”

Over almost nineteen years of preaching, it is the most meaningful feedback I have ever received, which is funny because when the preaching calendar came out at the first of the year, I opened my Bible to the text and wondered, “What am I gonna do with that?” What I couldn’t know was that this passage would turn out to be timely for my soul.

By the time our summer series in the Psalms rolled around, my oldest daughter was on hospice, and the question at the heart of the psalm resonated more deeply than anything I had ever preached to that point: “How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4). It was a question that was deeply personal for my wife and me. As I wrestled with the text that week, God used the circumstances of my life to lead me deep into the truth and agony of the text.

We identified with the pain behind the imprecation. We felt like Death was taunting us, daring us to sing of the hope of the gospel. The question that Psalm 137:4 posed reverberated in every corner of our souls. But, by God’s grace, so did the resolve of Psalm 137:5–6. In other words, my friend was right. The text preached my wife and me, and then, that Sunday morning, I preached the text.

A Feeling Sense of the Things I Preach

Some time after that, I was introduced to a prayer in The Valley of Vision titled “A Minister’s Preaching.” It is the prayer that I have prayed for the better part of the last decade right before I go into the pulpit. The petitions within that prayer have helped me see my dependence on God and have helped me lean on his provision as I preach. Among those petitions is a line that asks the Lord to give “a feeling sense of the things I preach.” I believe that “feeling sense of the things I preach” is what the Lord graced me with as I preached Psalm 137 years ago.

As preachers, it is all too easy to come to God’s Word as investigators or scientists rather than sons and servants. We stand over the text and try to find something interesting to say about it or something incisive with which to challenge the people to whom we preach. But the best preaching comes not from an erudite explanation but from a man who preaches with a “feeling sense” of what he is preaching. As preachers, we commend most heartily that which we have treasured most deeply.

Dr. Gardner C. Taylor once said in an interview that “if a preacher is going to have the strength of the Word of God behind him, there must be a sense of scripture.” Expanding on that thought, Dr. William Pannell says that a sense of Scripture “references the interior life of the preacher. . . . A sense of the scripture is about the disposition to commune with God, to refuse to emerge from God’s presence without the assurance that God has spoken the word for the people. It is to possess an ear for God’s voice in the text, a voice that informs the preacher of God’s will and of God’s understanding of what is really going on in God’s relationship with humanity.”1

That sense of Scripture keeps us from being scientific commentators as we proclaim God’s Word to his people. When we have that “feeling sense,” the text preaches us before we ever get up to preach the text. To be fair, it is easier to have a feeling sense of a text when our lived realities have a similar feel to the text that we preach. But often, that perfect intersection isn’t the case. So, what must we do to cultivate that feeling sense of the text we preach? What must we do to let the text preach us before we attempt to preach the text?

The Role of Meditation in Sermon Preparation

In my experience, the key to cultivating that feeling sense is to engage in the critical step of meditation. It is crucial to do solid hermeneutical work first as you seek the meaning of the text. But before I try to do any homiletical crafting, I give myself to the work of meditation. It is when I meditate on the text that the text gets down in my soul. I have learned through experience that what I treasure most deeply, I will commend most heartily.

We will commend most heartily that which we have treasured most deeply.”

—Brian Key

Tim Keller says, “The ordinary way for “going deeper” spiritually is through meditation. It is in meditation that we get into deeper self-surrender, then into higher, clearer faith-sights of his beauty, and finally into powerful, dynamic prayer for the world.”2 It was Keller’s book on prayer that taught me to ask the questions that shape my practice of meditating on the text. Keller recommends the following questions that have become integral to my devotional life and sermon preparation:

These questions help me get a “feeling sense” of the text before I commit to the rest of my sermon preparation. These questions remind me that before I am a preacher, I am first a son, a servant, a disciple. To use Pannell’s words, they help to give me “an ear for God’s voice in the text.”

As I behold the beauty of God, his faithfulness, his abundant grace, his covenant faithfulness, I am drawn up in worship. As I become aware of my own failures and sin in light of the text, I am reminded and invited to once again throw myself on the mercy of God. As I see my need for forgiveness, rest, provision, faith, or hope, I boldly approach the throne of grace, asking my loving Father to meet that need.

As I see my needs, I am reminded afresh of the rich provision of Jesus to grant me the forgiveness that I need and the invitation I have through his blood to have “boldness and access with confidence” into the presence of God (Eph. 3:12). As I consider how my life would be different if I took God at his word, I ask for him to conform my actions and desires to his Word. As I meditate on why God’s Word landed on me in this particular way in this season, I am able to see why I need this Word, not just the people that I hope to proclaim it to.

After I consider these questions and respond to what they provoke, I can no longer preach as a man who has interesting insights to offer. I am able to preach as a man who has had an encounter with the God who speaks through his Word and is inviting others to draw near so that God can have a word with them as well. That’s how Andrew Bonar describes the preaching of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. He says, “from the first, he fed others by what he himself was feeding upon. His preaching was in a manner the development of his soul’s experience. It was giving out of the inward life.”4

That feeling sense is a gift from God and is cultivated in the preacher’s soul long before we stand behind the sacred desk. Even if the circumstances of our life don’t lend themselves to see ourselves in the text easily, the work of meditation can make sermon preparation a personal spiritual exercise that gives us a profound acquaintance with the text before we endeavor to offer it to others so that we offer our hearers more than what Dr. Taylor called “a second-hand story, an arm’s-length dealing with truth.”5

Drink Deeply, Then Preach Powerfully

Our best preaching will be done not as dispassionate observers or erudite explainers of God’s Word, but as humble, delighted recipients sharing what we ourselves have found delight in, been confronted with, and comforted by. As we seek to preach God’s Word and press its claim on the hearts of the men, women, and children in our congregations, one of the best gifts we can give them is a shared testimony with David when he said, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8)

That’s what it means to preach with a feeling sense of God’s Word as a man who has already been preached by the Word. We will commend most heartily that which we have treasured most deeply.

  1. William E. Pannell, “A Sense of the Scriptures Imperative,” in Our Sufficiency is of God, Timothy George, James Earl Massey, and Robert Smith, Jr. eds. (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2010), 127.
  2. “A Prayer Life That Nourishes Your Relationship to God”, accessed February 24, 2023.
  3. Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe & Intimacy with God, 252–3.
  4. Bonar, The Biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne
  5. Taylor interview, “The Sweet Torture of Sunday Morning”
Brian Key

Brian Key is professor of urban ministry at Grimké Seminary.

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