One of the first tasks in preparing a sermon is simply selecting the biblical text to preach from. While it seems like such a simple thing, it can often be a monumental task. The text will determine the message. Preaching from a particular text will mean that some things will be said, and other things will be left unsaid. It will mean that you will address certain topics thoroughly while other topics are ignored completely. Time, energy, and thought in selecting the sermon text should not be neglected.
There’s no one way to select a sermon text. There’s no verse in the Bible that says, “This is how you go about selecting a passage to preach on.” So there’s a certain amount of ambiguity and flexibility involved. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that we should follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit in sermon preparation, which includes the selection of the sermon text. Here are a few habits that I’ve developed that help in determining what I will preach on in the coming weeks:
- Prayer. I simply ask God to guide me in what to speak about.
- Follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Often God will lay a particular passage on my heart.
- Read through Scripture. By simply opening God’s Word and reading, a passage will often jump out and me.
- Select a passage that contains one complete thought. Sometimes this will mean preaching on 50 verses in one sermon. Sometimes it will mean preaching on half of a verse. Keep in mind that the chapter and number divisions are not inspired. They were added to the Bible centuries after it was written in order to help in finding and referencing passages in the Bible. So don’t be limited or bound by those divisions. A couple more notes about preaching on one complete thought.
- Sometimes a section of Scripture that contains a complete thought will still be based on the passage before it. We find this a lot with passages that begin with “For” or “Therefore.” As often as possible, I try to back up a few verses in order to show what the text that I’m preaching on is based upon.
- In the same way, when I preach on just a verse or even half of a verse, I almost always read more of the passage around it in order to make the context of the verse clear.
- Do a sermon series on a topic. Perhaps use a concordance to find several passages that talk about repentance, and focus a week on each passage.
- Preach systematically through books of the Bible. I love this method because it forces the pastor to preach on many different texts and topics, and doesn’t allow him to just pick the ones he’s most familiar with. That being said…
- Try to preach on passages and topics that you’ve never preached on before. It’s okay to preach on passages and topics that you’ve heard preached before (as long as you don’t just re-preach their message, and always give credit for illustrations and ideas that you use). But it’s easy to get into a rut of preaching on the same things week after week because we’re familiar with those things, neglecting the rest of God’s Word.
- Determine a preaching plan for the next few months or years. I’ve yet to plan an entire year in advance, but I hope eventually to plan about 3 years in advance. Such plans should be tentative, allowing for flexibility as various needs arise, but can be extremely useful.
- Take a look at a lectionary. Lectionaries are basically plans to read and/or preach through all of Bible every 3 or 4 years (depending on the particular one used) so that no part of God’s Word is neglected. This is different from preaching systematically through books of the Bible because it doesn’t always go through a book from start to finish, but often jumps around.
- Take a look at the calendar. Not only are there many Christian holidays, but the calendar is full of days to observe and note (such as National Day of Prayer and Right to Life Sunday).
- Take a look at the top news stories. When something major goes on in the world, your nation, or even your community, people want to hear what the Bible has to say about it.
Of course, I don’t always incorporate all of the above habits in selecting a text for every sermon I preach. I vary in how I select a text any given week. For instance, I sometimes preach topically for a few weeks before determining what series I will start next, and of course if you preach long enough, you’re going to start preaching on passages that you’ve preached on in the past. But some of the above habits ought to be practiced in preparing every sermon, such as prayer and following the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
I certainly don’t have the definitive steps in how to select a sermon text, but I hope that what I’ve learned is useful to someone else. Ultimately, we can’t go wrong in selecting a text to preach from, as long as it’s in the Bible. The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, and it will not return void.