I have said that the text should shape the sermon, and the outline should rise out of the text. What does that mean in practice? What does that look like?
Let’s use a text that many readers are familiar with, Genesis 1, and use it as an example.
When I look at Genesis 1, I notice several things.
- The text doesn’t appear to end at the end of chapter 1; it seems to hang over into chapter 2, ending at 2.3 or 2.4.
- There is only one actor in the text, God. It’s all about God doing, God being.
- The text is very structured. It’s not straight prose; it’s not right to call it poetry either. It’s somewhere between.
- Adding to the poetic nature of the text is the way it uses repetitions, and most occur a symbolically significant number of times (i.e., 3 times, 7 times, 10 times).
- In the Hebrew text, Gen 1.1 has 7 words.
- Gen 1.1 – 2.4a consists of 7 sections.
- The Hebrew of Gen 1.2 has 14 words.
- The Hebrew of the paragraph referring to the Sabbath (2.1-3) has 35 words.
- Significant Hebrew words that occur in multiples of 7:
- Elohim (“God”): 35 times
- Eretz (“earth”): 21 times
- How many commands does God give in 1.1 – 2.4a? (Ten)
- “And God said” (10 times)
- “Let there be” (7 times)
- “make” (7 times)
- “firmament” or “expanse” (21 times)
- “according to their kind” (10 times)
- “and it was so” (7 times)
- “God saw that it was good” (7 times)
- God “blessed” (3 times)
- God “created” (3 times)
- What is the actor (God) doing?
One of the hermeneutical rules for the Old Testament is that God is always the hero. For this reason, you can’t really understand any particular OT text without considering what God is doing (or trying to do) for his people (or here for his creation.)
Repeated reading of the text tells me that the central idea is who God is and what God does. Here he is in a cycle of creating and providing for his creation. So: he creates and provides.
This sermon turned the corner when I asked the question, “What does this text teach me about God’s character and personality?” (As I would ask my students: “If you had nothing but this text, what would you know about what God is like?”)
The text tells me that God is:
- Personal (not an impersonal force; conscious, w- intentionality)
- Powerful (he speaks & it happens)
- Organized (works according to a plan)
- Benevolent (he blesses)
- In charge (no one competing with him)
- Artistic (he creates beautiful things)
- Social (he has relationships)
My sermon on this text is “What Kind of God?”, as in, what kind of God do we worship? What kind of God is our God? What is he like.
Instead of a seven point sermon, I gathered these seven points into three.
- God is powerful; he is in charge, unopposed, with no equals.
- God is orderly; even though life can seem chaotic, God acts according to a plan and purpose, and (see point #1) he is in charge.
- God is generous; he provides for the things he creates. He is good and loving.
I am not particularly happy with the groupings or titles I gave them; I probably change the groupings every time I preach this sermon. You can probably do better.
But regardless, THIS is what I mean by a text-shaped sermon. It’s expository, because it asks, “How do I preach the point of this specific passage of scripture?”
It’s not textual, it doesn’t focus on specific words and phrases and how they fit together; that’s my normal approach for Paul’s letters. It’s more narrative than textual.