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In this post and the next, I will describe briefly five “places” to find a sermon. Although there is nothing strikingly new here, it is always good to be reminded of the options that are available. These options are not, of course, mutually exclusive.

Place 1. On the page of the biblical textIn this approach, you find a sermon idea among the obvious features of the biblical text (in translation) or what is “on the page.” Of course, in order to be sure that you correctly understand what seems “obvious,” you need to study the text in its context first. But as a preacher, once you are certain what the text is saying, you will return to the words and thoughts (ideas, metaphors, images) “on the page” as the place to find the sermon. As you think about these words and thoughts, ask yourself: “What might be dynamically equivalent to this thought/image/word in today’s situation?” By dynamically equivalent, I mean to imply that you allow some well-considered latitude. Don’t remain overly wooden or literal when identifying an equivalent idea. For instance, In the story of Mary and Martha the image of Mary seeking instruction from Jesus is dynamically equivalent to any action of attending carefully to the words of Jesus in today’s context. A non-dynamic or literal equivalent would focus only on instances when women attend to Jesus’ words and thoughts today. This may constrict and overly narrow the meaning of the text.

When you preach from this “place,” your congregation will not hear you referring so much to the historical context for the biblical text as to the translated words on the page of the biblical text. In effect, you are asking them to live lives that are in some way imitative of, or closely analogous to the clear and straightforward meaning of the words on the page.

Place 2. Behind the biblical Text. In this approach, you find a sermon idea “behind the text” in its historical situation. Through careful exegetical study, you arrive at the text’s historical, traditional, social, and religious situation (exodus, exile, poverty, empire, wilderness, passover, etc.). Having arrived at this “place” behind the text, you will preach a sermon that invites the congregation to live in historical continuity with the community of people who spoke or recorded the words on the page. You ask questions such as? “How are we also people struggling with exodus, empire, or some other similar situation in these ways?”

In Ched Myer’s commentary on Mark’s gospel, for instance, he argues that the “fishers of people” text is best understood in a situation of empire in which the gap between rich and poor is ever-widening. He notes that Mark’s listeners would have heard these as apocalyptic words referring to images of fishers in Jeremiah 16:16, and Amos 4:2 where fishing hooks and nets were not only used for gathering in God’s chosen people, but for separating out the evildoers from their midst. In our current post-Enron, debt-crisis situation, the preacher may discover strong historical continuities between first century struggles with empire and our own struggles, and the need for “fishers of people” who will both gather in the wounded and pronounce judgement on the purveyors of empire.

When you preach from this “place,” your congregation will not hear the words on the page as much as references to “Mark,” or “Matthew’s community,” or “during the exile,” and other indicators that your sermon comes from behind the biblical text. In effect you are inviting listeners to live lives in historical continuity with our forebears in the faith.

Place 3. In Front of the biblical Text. In this approach, you find a sermon idea “in front of the text,” in what the language or rhetoric of the text does. One way to get to this “place” is to say: This text sounds like __________” (a sales pitch, a prayer, lamentation, praise, a lover’s quarrel, a negotiation, an argument, etc.) For instance, Tom Long once preached a sermon about Jesus’ trip to the temple as a little child. He was struck with the way the language of the text seemed to shout: “Everything about this person is a mystery!” He used the litany “Did you ever get the feeling there’s something going on you don’t understand?” to draw the reader deeper into the mystery of Jesus created by the language of the text.

When you preach from this “place,” your congregation will not hear so much the actual words of the text, or about “Mark’s community’s desperate struggle with empire,” but a re-performance of the text’s rhetorical or communicative force – what it “does” to us.

Let’s stop here for now. These are the first three places you can go, if you want to find a sermon. These are all “bible-centered” approaches – starting in, behind, or in front of the biblical text. In the next installment, we will look at two places you can go that are not as textually centered – but which still honor the biblical witness.

For a more detailed description of these options, see The Four Codes of Preaching: Rhetorical Strategies, and the word “hermeneutics” in Preaching Words: 144 Key Terms in Homiletics.