What’s in a Sermon? Part 3: Context
Apparently, you’re here for the long-haul on the sermon methodology, so let’s get straight into the first point of the sermon:
Context. Every sermon that I write and preach aims to lead with idea of “context,” which answers this question: How does this passage fit in the Big Picture of God’s Glory?
Why this question?
Because the typical American Christian will hear dozens of sermons a year, plus Sunday School lessons, Bible studies, radio broadcasts, and more. And it is important that the sermon—because we tend to elevate its value—help us all see that the Word of God is a connected masterpiece and not just a moderately curated collection of one-liners.
(Delete rant about single-verse quips on tweets and t-shirts that miss meaning terribly.)
Context, for the sermon is going to cover important parts of the big picture. That’s going to include where in the Bible your passage is—it’s not a bad idea to give your hearers the run-down on how to get to the book you’re preaching from. In fact, the more we are preaching in environments that are not heavily Bible-saturated, the more we should do that. “We’re in Genesis, which is the first book in your Bible, it’s part of what we traditionally call the Old Testament. If you use one of the pew Bibles, it’s on page 9” may seem like a bad opening, but it points people to the text rather than engages them with your cleverness.
Remember, after all, the sermon is not about your cleverness. You can be clever and creative, and you should be. You ought not be boring.
But that doesn’t mean you need to hit the hook ‘em statement right at the beginning like a speech.
Your time to work on being interesting hits with the context, though: this is where your Biblical study, background research, historical efforts all come into use. Your goal here is set the stage for what this passage would have looked like to the initial audience; what are some of the key facts about when it was written or why it was written. And no, you should not punt this to “It’s in the Bible because God wants it there” without any other discussion. Yes, we accept by faith that God put it there for a reason. Your job in preaching is to help people understand the reason!
You don’t want to spend too much time on context, though, because it’s a sermon, not a history lecture. Trust me: this is an easy mistake to make, especially if you are rushed in your preparation time. Remember this principle: be short, be clear, be moving on to the next point.
For starters, this is often repeatable background information. If you are preaching a series in Ephesians, then you don’t do the full workup on context every sermon. You can spread it out, make it sequential as you address what Ephesus was like. Touch on covenant development along the way.
Second, you may take some of this material and sink into the rest of the sermon. If there is something specifically applicable about part of the context (presence of an imperial prison, perhaps?) to one passage, fix into discussing that passage and why it is relevant.
You’ll front-load this material, because it’s basic introductory matters and it’s fine if your hearers do not remember it perfectly. After all, you do not remember it perfectly, either, or you wouldn’t need those reference books, would you? The purpose here is for the hearers to get a feel for the situation.
Context is not the part of the sermon that typically connects to life-change, but it helps make the connection from the original direction of the text to the present day. It helps with the footing to make that solid throw downfield.