Me with my lovely wife, Kathy:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Preach the Word--No, Really, Preach the WORD:

Let me say upfront that this is pretty much a shoptalk piece.  I am writing with my fellow preachers in mind.

At our Easter service 2014, I did something that I have never done before.  I presented a sermon that
consisted entirely of scripture.  I figure it is something like seven-tenths of one percent of the whole Bible.  I did it from memory.  (imprefectly, but mostly.)
Toward the end of last year, my son sent me a link to a video of a message delivered by Ronnie Smith.  As you'll see if you peruse the site, Smith died not long after delivering this message.  He died while sharing the Good News.  (, click on "watch the sermon.")  The sermon Smith delivered is composed entirely of scripture.  You will hear as you get into the message, that it is much more than a dry recitation.  It is a passionate presentation of the History of Redemption.  My son, Chris, challenged me and a couple other of his preacher-buddies to do this for Easter.  I realized that memorizing that much scripture would take a lot of work--at least for me--so I thought about it for a while.  I decided that if I did this I wouldn't just take Smith's assembly of Bible passages (though there is nothing wrong with his collection, in fact I used it as a source for much of mine) but would use my own script.  Previous reading of scripture had shown me that the New Living Translation, because of its conversational tone, works well for this kind of thing, so, I decided, if did this, I would use it for the base of the presentation. (When I finished, my compilation contained NLT, NIV, NASB, and KJV.)  I, fairly early on, realized that if something like this was going to work, there was no easy way to do it.  It couldn't be read--whether from paper, or teleprompter (I don't have one, anyhow.)  It had to be memorized--and memorized to the point that as one is sharing it he wouldn't have to think about it.  The preacher needs to focus on delivery, not what the next word is.  I finally came to the conclusion that this was something I should do.  As I got into it I found myself asking,

"Why have I not done this before?"

Over the years I have heard of other preachers who have presented similar sermons.  I heard about one preacher who memorized the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, and delivered it.  I've not heard it, but I've heard that a friend of mine has a Christmas message that includes large quantities of the Bible he has memorized.  The closest I had ever come to doing anything like this was reading fairly large portions of scripture--the Book of James, most of 1 John, or the Sermon on the Mount.

Early in 2014 I decided I was going to do this.  At first I thought I would divide the message into several sections and present the pieces spread over several months, as a ramp up to the Easter message, which would be all the pieces put together.  I never really decided  to not do that.  It just didn't happen.  I put the script together and started working on it.  After I had the script assembled, I read it and recorded it.  I and a couple of others listened to it.  This led to some tweaking.  It seems like memorizing is such a very personal thing, so I won't say anything about how I memorized the material.  I'll simply say it did take a lot of work.  I'd guess I invested at least one-hundred-fifty hours, spread out over two months, in memorizing the text.  I still didn't get to the word-perfect point where I wanted to be.   If you listen to the sermon, you will hear my homiletic tires hit the gravel on the shoulder of the road numerous times.

This is really the main point of this post:  I recommend that other preachers do this.  At least once in your career, present a message that isn't just based on God's Word, but is God's Word.

Here are some of my reasons for making this recommendation:

  • In a sense it is putting our labor where our mouth is.  We talk about the power, perspicacity, sufficiency, and absolute necessity of the Bible.  OK, preach the Word.
  • I was personally moved by this presentation, so much so that had there been a freak storm on Easter Sunday, and I never had the opportunity to present this message, I would still be glad I had done this.  The congregation heard this message once.  I "heard" it at least a hundred times, and I never grew tired or bored with it.
  • I became convinced at a deeper level of the unity, and grand sweep of scripture.  The symmetry, and the driving themes of the Book came through to me.
  • As I shared the sermon on Easter Sunday, I was struck with the power of Scripture to impact lives.  I am not opposed to preaching, in the usual sense of the word.  In fact I am a fan of the medium, but if I think that God, and God's Word, are unintelligible, unless I explain Him or it, I am simply being arrogant.  Just scripture, if the presenter gets out of the way sufficiently to allow the pathos, as well as the logos of the Bible to come through (and this is one reason the text has to be memorized to the point so one becomes comfortable with it), will impact people.  God did not give His Word only for PHDs.
Probably by this point you already see some dangers.  Here are some I tried to guard against.
  • I absotively, posolutely did not want to crash and burn.  Some of my practice sessions produced the human equivalent of a locked up computer.  I came to a point where if you had asked me, "Howard, what is your name?"  I couldn't have answered.  Obviously, I didn't want the people who came to the Easter service at CBC to go home and say, "Wow, that was really something.  I don't think I've ever seen somebody crash that spectacularly."  So, I decided early on I wasn't going to do this without a net.  If you watch the sermon, you can see a large monitor in front of me.  A colleague--a trusted one--displayed the text of the sermon for me.  Mostly I didn't use it, but--call me a coward if you want--I was very reassured that it was there.
  • I wanted this to be about the Word of God, and the God of the Word, not this poor preacher.  I've already said that this was a lot of work, and quite unusual, so it was unavoidable that this presentation would attract some attention to itself and to me.  My constant prayer, though, was, and is, that this would be to the glory of the Word, not the presenter of the Word.  And here is one of the oddities.  It seemed to me, if that were going to take place, that I had to do this in a non-stumbling manner.  I didn't want folk to say, "We could see that he worked really hard at that, but he got through.  Bless his heart."  I tried to do well, so people wouldn't notice that I did well.  I had a couple of months to work on this inner antinomy.  I suppose you could add this to the list of benefits, above.  It is good to work hard and do something with as much excellence as one can, so as to present it as an offering to the Lord.  I figure this was something that Bezalel and Aholiab had to work through.
  • This one has more to do with preparing the script than the presentation.  I found it hard to edit out portions of scripture.  This is the Word of God.  Who am I to say that this word or this sentence, etc. should be cut.  Yet, in trying to tell God's Story in about thirty minutes I had to edit out some over seventy hours of material.  Not only did I select certain portions of scripture--effectively editing out the rest.  I chopped out words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs from those passages.  If you read through the scripture I listed in the handout it will take you considerably longer than half an hour.  In my editing I really tried not be cute and especially to not be deceptive.  Whenever possible, I looked for briefer accounts of the same event given elsewhere in the Bible.  Stephen, in his sermon in Acts, helped me out several times.  The exercise forced me to apply 2 Timothy 2:15.
Bottom line:  At this point I'm planning to do this again.  I want to review this message--possibly tweak it some--enough so I can use it again sometime, without completely relearning it.  I'm thinking about some other similar projects.  Like my son, who got this started for me, I challenge you.  Preach the Word.  at least once in your life.

Website for the Hisotry of Redemption:  (click on "watch the sermon")
My Easter Sermon, God's Story in His Own Words: 

The handout containing the list of scripture used:

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