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Ruffin’s Renderings: Sermons

By Mike Ruffin ruffinml@gmail.com Do you ever wonder where preachers get their sermons? Your first thought might be ‘from God.’ We probably hope that’s the case. Preachers probably hope so too. I remember hearing a story about two church members discussing their pastor’s sermon. One said, ‘It sounded as if he had been talking about it with God all week.’ The other responded, ‘Maybe he had been.’ It’s a good thing if a preacher’s sermons come out of her or his walk with God. People expect a sermon to be a word from God. Preachers want it to be. You may also have thought ‘from the Bible.’ Different Christians have different ways of describing the way in which the Bible reveals what God wants us to know, but almost all Christians take the Bible seriously. Most church folks probably expect their preachers to take it even more seriously than they do. But we expect our preachers’ sermons to do more than repeat what the Bible says. We expect them to offer some interpretation of the Bible that will help us understand how God expects us to live here and now. We expect to hear what the Bible means as well as what it meant. Where do our preachers learn what they need to learn about the Bible in order to share with us what we need to know? Well, we might expect them to learn it from the Spirit of God. I suppose there may still be some preachers who get in the pulpit not knowing what they are going to say and expecting the Spirit to inform them on the spot. I never forgot what my mentor, the late great Dr. Howard Giddens, taught me: ‘The Spirit leads you in the study too.’ I believe that we preachers owe it to God and to our listeners to prepare as fully as we can to share the Gospel truth as accurately as we can. That requires careful and prayerful study. But before preachers study, they have to decide what they’re going to preach on. Let’s pause here for a joke. Someone asked the preacher what he was going to preach on. ‘On the pulpit,’ the preacher answered. Now back to our regularly scheduled column. What I mean is that a preacher has to choose which Bible passage he or she is going to base their sermon on. There are several ways preachers might decide, including preaching on a particular subject, preaching through a book of the Bible, or (and I don’t recommend this) deciding what they want to say and then hunting for a Scripture passage to fit their pre-determined position. Other preachers (including me) find guidance in something called a lectionary. Back when I was serving as a Baptist pastor, the church’s newsletter, which members would receive during the week, included the title and Scripture passage for the coming Sunday’s sermon. Every once in a while, one of our members would tell me, ‘We visited our daughter’s family’s church in Atlanta last Sunday’ – at that point they’d lower their voice and confide in a conspiratorial tone, ‘They’re Methodist, you know’ – ‘and their pastor preached on the same Scripture passage you preached on!’ I would smile and say, ‘Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways!’ And the Lord certainly does. In this case, the Lord was working through a lectionary, which is a collection of recommended Scripture readings. Many pastors who minister in mainline and liturgical traditions follow one called the Revised Common Lectionary. I started following it back when I was a Baptist pastor because its readings follow the Christian calendar, which I had come to believe (and still believe) is a very important aspect of Christian worship and practice. Another thing I like about following the lectionary is that it forces me to deal with Scripture passages that, left to my own devices, I’d probably choose to ignore. I also like that the lectionary readings cycle through all four Gospels (each year of a three-year cycle focuses on Matthew, Mark or Luke, with readings from John included at times during each year). Anyway, more often than not, the lectionary helps me select the Scripture passage or passages that will provide the basis for my sermon on a given Sunday. But once the selection is made, I am still responsible to study, pray, and write in the quest to present best approximation I possibly can of the word God wants the people to hear. Preaching is hard, challenging, and important work. All of us preachers are imperfect recipients and deliverers of God’s word. At our best, we will prayerfully prepare with all our might in the hope that the good news of Jesus Christ will be proclaimed. To return to where I started, hopefully our sermons will come out of our own ever-growing relationship with God. And never from the internet. Mike Ruffin is a Barnesville native who lives in Macon. His new book, Praying with Matthew, is available at helwys.com and at Amazon.

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