I realized it about five seconds before it happened. I was in the pulpit. I was halfway through my sermon. And I had no idea what this passage of the Bible was talking about. My stomach turned to lead. My throat was coarse sandpaper. In an effort to salvage the message, I went off-script.
Instead of laser-focused, white-hot gospel truth, a palpable haze descended on the congregation. A man near the front fell into a full-on sermon head bob. Even the smiling lady stopped smiling. All I could think at that moment was, “Please, either come back, Lord, or help me get to point 2.”
That fateful day I experienced a common preaching phenomenon: sermon explanation disintegration.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever preached a text only to find your sermon explanation generated more smoke than heat? If you have, then let’s fight the fog together with a second post on “Preaching Like Broadus.” Let’s see what we can glean from Chapter 4 of John Broadus’s classic, A Treatise on the Preparation and Delivery of Texts.
In that chapter, Broadus lays out for us a few homely cautions and several components of sermon explanation.
First, do not attempt to explain what is not assuredly true.
I love this quote by Broadus: “One sometimes finds great difficulty in working out an explanation of a supposed fact, because it is really not true” (118, emphasis mine). How easy it is to miss the point of text on first glance! How easy it is to launch into an explanation that’s not quite right! Until we nail down what the passage is actually teaching, Broadus reminds us that we will be frustrated. If you find yourself there, the only course of action is to listen to your gut, pray, and study the section again.
Second, do not undertake to explain what you do not understand.
See Broadus face-palming at the podium, “Oh the insufferable weariness of listening to a man who does this” (118)! Learn from my sermon train wreck and fix your sermon before Sunday morning. Either dive back into the text or be honest in your explanation that you don’t understand. Don’t make up a fanciful explanation of who the harlot of Revelation 17 is if you truly don’t have a clue.
Third, never try to explain what cannot be explained.
To be clear, Broadus isn’t saying we should never preach on doctrines such as the Trinity or the problem of evil. Instead, he’s reminding pastors that some of these antinomies defy complete, exhaustive explanation:
In such a case it is very important to explain just what the Scriptures really do teach, so as to remove misapprehensions; and it may sometimes be worthwhile to present any remote analogies in other spheres of existence . . . but attempts to explain the essentially difficult must necessarily fail, and the failure will react so as only to strengthen doubt and opposition (118-119).
How true this is! Better to let the text speak instead of playing philosophical football with your congregation. You will not win.
Finally, do not waste time in explaining what does not need explanation.
In some cases, the problem is not with the difficulty of the biblical text but the hearts of the people receiving it. “Men frequently complain that they do not understand what it really is to believe, and preachers are constantly laboring to explain. But the complaint is in many cases a mere excuse for rejection or delay, and the real difficulty is in all cases a lack of disposition to believe” (119).
If you realize this, it will free you to simply preach the text of God’s Word without burying it in thirty caveats.
Components of Explanation
After laying out some cautions for sermon explanation, Broadus then turns to the common components of explaining texts and subjects. You may not use all of these in one sermon—that’s okay. These are, however, helpful categories to keep in your mind as you draft your talk.
1. Pulpit exegesis.
The first component is pulpit exegesis, also known as pulpit exposition, and it is to be distinguished from normal exegesis. In normal exegesis, you are trying to “leave no stone unturned” in your study of the text. Pulpit exegesis, on the other hand, is very different. We aren’t taking our congregations on a whirlwind tour of everything we learned this past week; we are sharing concentrated nectar from the fruit of our study. Broadus explains, “We must omit various matters, which have perhaps greatly interested ourselves, because they would not interest the people, or do not pertain to the object of the present discourse” (120).
Pulpit exegesis can’t be an info-dump or a running commentary on the text. It must be well-crafted, clear, and to the point.
At some point, every pastor will need to narrate or summarize certain sections of Scripture. Even so, a preacher needs to be smart about how he does it.
If you are narrating minor biblical characters, Broadus thinks it’s fine to simply recap most of what you know about them. Your congregation probably isn’t familiar with Onesimus (Phm 10). However, with major characters like Moses or David, “We may select salient or characteristic points of his history, and so narrate these as to exhibit the chief lessons of that history, introducing such details as are to the purpose, and rigorously omitting all others” (121-122, emphasis added). If you aren’t disciplined in this—trust me—you’ll get carried away, and the glazed look on the eyes of your congregation members will be the only thing to get you back on track.
It goes without saying that if you are preaching the Word, you need to be able to describe a setting, a person, or scene in a vivid and engaging way. But what if that isn’t your forte? Check out this tip on description from Broadus:
While gathering such [historical background] information, and after doing so, he must fasten his mind upon the scene, so that the imagination may realize it; he must look at it as he would at a landscape or a painting, first surveying the whole, then inspecting the most interesting details, and afterward comprising all in a general view. This should be kept up, with the point of view varied, and repeated effort to imagine, till the whole scene stands out clear and vivid before the eye of the mind; only then is he prepared to describe it (124).
For help in this regard, try expanding your reading list as a pastor. Consider adding some literary fiction. See how a literary great describes a scenic vista, a braying horse, or a petrified child, and go and do likewise. Aim for vivid, yet concise, language—language that packs a punch.
4. Definition, Exemplification, and Comparison.
Broadus wraps up the chapter by pointing out three final components of explanation.
Definition. Define your terms, especially when dealing with potentially controversial passages. Broadus wisely points out, “Everyone has observed how important it is in beginning a controversial discussion, public or private, that the question should be exactly defined; otherwise confusion of ideas is inevitable” (127).
Exemplification. Instead of carefully defining the inward struggle against sin, perhaps you could hold up an example of this, whether it be a biblical example (Paul in Romans 7), a historical example (Luther), or a contemporary one.
Comparison. Finally, Broadus ends by reminding pastors of the two primary tools for comparison: contrast and analogy. In explaining a text, you might contrast the Christian view with that of another religion. Or, by way of analogy, you might explain the text using a familiar illustration.
Even though I shudder to think about that sermon gone terribly wrong, I know the Lord has used it to make me a better preacher. The next time you find yourself “fighting the fog” in sermon explanation, don’t make the same mistake I did. Take time to hone that sermon explanation. Your pulpit exegesis will be sharpened, and your congregation will be blessed as a result.