Sermon Structure: the abyss

So I preached on Psalm 41 recently, and today started work on a sermon on Psalm 72. The contrast between one sermon and one proto-sermon got me thinking about how sermon structure actually works.

I feel like I’ve been closing in on my preaching voice recently, gradually focusing on one meta-structure for my sermons. But it’s not a structure I would ever mention in a sermon.

Have a look at this sermon outline:

Psalm 41 – God saves us through the weakness of Jesus

Jesus is weak because:

  • the weight of sin
  • people say there is no hope
  • he’s not safe anywhere
  • he can only trust God

That’s the outline that was in the bulletin, and the outline that I referred to during the sermon. If I had been more organised it would include two brief application points at the end. This is an outline; a tool for the congregation to follow the sermon. It has little to do with the overall structure of the sermon.

Here’s a rough walkthrough of how the sermon went:

  • none of us want to be weak
  • Psalm 41 talks about weakness differently
  • Jesus says Psalm 41 is about his weakness
  • Jesus carries our sins
  • Jesus’ resurrection shows that God can do things even when it looks hopeless
  • Jesus was betrayed by a close friend
  • The church is not an entirely safe place
  • Jesus trusts God and beats death
  • Therefore: (a) we look forward to resurrection, and (b) suffering doesn’t mean God hates us

The earlier outline is based on the landscape of the text. This walkthrough is the landscape of the sermon; it’s a map of oral communication rather than textual. The walkthrough shows where I am going from the starting points on the outline. And it’s in the walkthrough that I can detect my usual pattern. Here’s the walkthrough again, split into parts:

Introduction (raising the topic or main question of the sermon, in this case the experience of human weakness)

  • none of us want to be weak

Text/Argument (laying out the general structure and point of the text)

  • Psalm 41 talks about weakness differently

Doctrine (a single sentence that crystallises what the text says to the church of Jesus, in this case pretty straightforward)

  • Jesus says Psalm 41 is about his weakness

Exposition (developing the doctrine using the resources of the text)

  • Jesus carries our sins
  • Jesus’ resurrection shows that God can do things even when it looks hopeless
  • Jesus was betrayed by a close friend
  • The church is not an entirely safe place
  • Jesus trusts God and beats death

Application (some application happens along the way in exposition; this is a birds-eye view of the implications of the doctrine, now that it’s been developed and bedded down in the text)

  • Therefore: (a) we look forward to resurrection, and (b) suffering doesn’t mean God hates us

Conclusion (summarising and wrapping up how the doctrine alters the topic of the introduction)

  • ???

I am terrible at conclusions and didn’t really have one in this case.

Here’s my draft outline for Psalm 72:

Psalm 72 – Give us a good king

We pray for God to give the king:

  • judgement
  • rule
  • rescue
  • endurance

But of course this is only scene dividers. A walkthrough of what I intend to say would go as follows:

  • Psalm 72 is a prayer asking for the king to be granted righteousness and all its following qualities
  • The desire for good and right authority figures is common to all of us (intro)
  • Solomon was the golden boy, a wise king who presided over Israel’s greatest time of prosperity, and it’s appropriate that the psalm is read in light of him (argument)
  • Solomon exercised wise judgement
  • Solomon received tribute from the nations
  • Solomon did not really rescue the needy, and certainly not for all nations
  • Solomon’s goodness did not endure to the end of his life
  • The kind of endurance we want from a king could only belong to God
  • God’s own son became our royal son in Jesus (doctrine)
  • Describe how Jesus endures, rescues, rules, and judges in his kingdom (exposition)
  • The tribute from all nations is being gathered in and will be revealed when Jesus returns (application)

The same metastructure can yield a very different kind of sermon, as the sermon demands more time in one section or another. In this case the argument almost pretends to be exposition as Solomon’s inefficiencies are gradually detailed.

Just thought it was an interesting chance to explore sermon structure. And this is of course only talking about the structure used to draft the sermon – the emotional and intellectual structure the sermon takes during delivery is quite a different matter, though anticipated even at this early stage.