Pastor Frank Cronje, the previous principal of Auckland Park Theological Seminary (then it was still a theological college and not a seminary) met with my dad in the early 1970s and asked him to become a full-time lecturer and “to teach the AFM church how to preach”. This was oom Frank’s way of asking him to become the lecturer in Practical Theology. I was still a pre-schooler, but I knew that my dad was responsible to help students to become effective preachers and, in my mind, that was a huge task.
In those days the third-year students had to give a trial sermon for final evaluation in front of all the students, from first- up to third year. Those third-year students, who had already passed their trial sermons were allowed to critique the sermon, and right at the end my dad would stand up and give his feedback and whether the student passed or failed. I obviously never witnessed those classes, but I overheard many conversations between students and knew that this was a very stressful examination for them. Firstly, to preach with conviction to a crowd who is focused on identifying your shortcomings and then having everybody listen to the feedback. Yet, I have often heard of times when the whole hall met with God and were worshiping the Lord in tongues under the anointing of the Holy Spirit way past the allocated time.
My story is about the times when a student, for some reason or another, could not preach his sermon in the hall at ATS, and was evaluated in the “real world”.
One of my early memories was of one such a student who arranged to preach at the Pinksteroord congregation in Johannesburg during the evening service. My mother and little sister did not come along, but I accompanied my dad to witness how the student performed this “huge task”. I listened very attentively to the sermon, trying hard to figure out if this was a good sermon or if the student would have to try again. I had a very “small heart” and dearly wanted the student to do well, but discomfort was building up within me and the longer he continued, the more my discomfort grew.
After the sermon, my dad had a private conversation with the student while I played outside in the rainwater concrete channels, wondering what my dad’s conclusion was going to be. I knew the importance of preparing students to become craftsmen at preaching the Good News (refer to 2 Tim 2:15 “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker (craftsman) who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”). I knew that you cannot cut corners, but the student was so soft-spoken and gentle, and I did not want him to be offended. After the meeting my dad came to fetch me and we drove home. Eagerly I wanted to know if the student passed or not. His counter question was “What is your evaluation of the sermon?”. I thought that he said things that were the truth and corresponded with the Bible, but I was not sure … something did not feel right to me.
It was then that my dad gave me this first of many pictures to help me better understand what a good sermon “looks” like. He said it was a “dog food sermon”. Just like dog food, it contained all the needed vitamins and minerals, but whether the dog was going to eat it was another question. I knew of doggies who refused to eat dog food. That night in the car, he explained to me that a preacher’s responsibility was firstly to understand exactly what God wanted to say (that is the vitamins and minerals) and then he must be able to develop a sermon in such a manner that he captures his audience’s attention AND puts them in front of an Almighty God so that that they will be motivated to do God’s Word. It is about becoming craftsmen who correctly handles the Word of Truth.
Next was the coatrack (“kapstok”) sermon. The preacher had a message in his head that he wanted to give to the congregation and then he started to look for Bible verses to “hang” his ideas onto. “But those were good ideas, weren’t they?” And at least I am sure it was not dog food. He had my attention all the way. Yes, my dad agreed, but a preacher may not work with the Bible in such a way. You cannot use the Bible to underwrite your own ideas. No, a sermon must grow like a tree out of the Bible, its roots rooted deep within the Word of God. A preacher must wrestle with a portion in the Bible and ask the Holy Spirit to help him until he understands the essence of it. That is why a preacher must start early in the week to work on the sermon for the coming Sunday. You need time to put your roots deep into God’s Word.
The allegorical sermon I immediately knew was problematic. How can you say that the five stones that David picked up and put in his sling bag was faith, hope, love, obedience, and prayer? Since then, I have heard more refined allegorical sermons, but the fact remains that you give meaning to things in the Bible, that the Bible does not do. There are similarities to a “kapstok” sermon, but in my mind an allegorical sermon was cruder. Today I still feel that if my unbelieving friends would hear such a sermon, they would laugh it off for the obvious lack of logical reasoning. Both the “kapstok” and allegorical sermon do not take into consideration the context of the Bible portion. Each verse in the Bible has a specific background and context in which it was written, it talks about the “wrestling” between God and real people, and it is not truthful to ignore this context. It is a craft to understand scripture within its original context and then to transfer that truth to today’s context.
Then there is the image of the “aeroplane that just cannot land”. The preacher tells you that he is concluding his sermon, and then suddenly he catches a new breath and takes off in a different direction. For me this is not as dangerous as the “kapstok” and allegorical sermons and I have often had to discipline myself to not get irritated, and to stay open to the preacher even if he cannot land. Today I know that it is basic communication and reasoning skills that need to be applied, but still, it is important to get it right for one reason: the deceiver will always try to distract the listeners from the Gospel’s message and therefore, the preacher should not aid in this strategy. It is at times so difficult to get the pure Word of God into the heart of man, therefore, a preacher must be a craftsman. But then again, my dad said I should not be too upset, because God is able to hit straight with a crooked stick.
Then there is also the opposite, namely the crash-landing. Tongue-in-cheek he often commented that the blessing of such a sermon was “that at least it was short”. To preach is not a right but a privilege and you must work very respectful with God’s people.
The next picture is a very common problem in preaching and is testimony of what Peter said, that at times the Bible is difficult to understand. Having to exert yourself to understand a portion from the Bible is not actually a problem, because what it asks of a preacher is to do good work and to prayerfully try to understand what it is that God is saying. All it does is it makes us humble and very attentive to “hear” and discover what is pleasing to God. It makes us wrestle with the Word of God and in this process of exerting ourselves to understand, we are changed. Often, I hear my dad say the preacher did not yet shake the iron filings enough (die ystervysels is nog nie goed genoeg geskud nie).
This image refers to the process where you put iron filings on a piece of paper and then bring a magnet under the paper. If you gently tap on the paper, the iron filings move and line up according to the magnetic field so that you can visually see the invisible magnetic field. Listening to the sermon you get a feeling that there is more, that we have not yet discovered the clear picture. The iron filings need more “shaking”. This can be for different reasons; on the one end, that the preacher’s reasoning and preparation need more attention, but it can also be that the preacher and myself are still in the process to discover the magnitude of what lies there. If this is the situation, I feel that we need to revisit it again with another sermon.
The other day I was listening to a sermon, it grabbed my attention but at the end I had this nagging feeling that there was more and that the preacher and myself had not yet discovered it. I so wished that he would preach on it again the following Sunday. Not repeating the same sermon but revisiting the portion in the Bible to discover what we might have missed. I know that this is a tall order to ask of a preacher. You must be very brave to come back with the same message, although maybe from a different angle. What if the congregation does not take kindly to it and true, there are preachers who could use it as an excuse to not do their work. But what if we missed out on something God wants us to understand? Maybe the craft lies therein to be able to do it in such a manner to again grab the attention of the audience and take them with him.
Arguably the most important but also the most abstract principle of a good sermon is that it must be Christ-centric. I do not have a picture for this, but you can identify it in the response of the audience. That is when the listeners’ comments after the service are not “what a sermon” but rather “what a Saviour”! My uncle said that you know when this has happened in your sermon because the people do not want to go home; they stand around excitingly chatting with one another. He said you can feel the buzz of excitement about our Lord Jesus amongst the people exiting the church and it manifests in openness and keenness toward one another. I think that to develop a good Christ-centric sermon, you need thorough theological training and then, when you are in the ministry, you need people around you who help you evaluate you sermon and help you discover how to approach a portion in the Bible with a Christ-centric focus. Paul was a master at this, and then Peter commented and said that Paul’s work is not easy to understand.
When my husband started to join my family’s discussion of the morning’s sermon around the Sunday lunch table, the principle of a sermon being Christ-centric was challenging for him to understand. But a few years later, again during Sunday lunch, he asked my dad whether he thought his sermon that morning was Christ-centric enough? My dad conceded that he could have been more Christ-centric and so started our second sermon of the day …
An acid test of a sermon that had hit the mark or not, was introduced to me when my dad asked me after a “fire and brimstone” sermon we had listened to, whether the sermon made me love Jesus more or, did it cause me to be fearful. It is the love of God that motivates us to give our lives to Him. To the contrary, to serve Him out of fear for retribution will not bear fruit in the long run. (note: it tests amongst other things, for Christ-centric and pheumatological focus.)
A preacher who wants to make people love Jesus more, cannot rely on logical reasoning alone. That consuming love for an unseeable God is the work of the Holy Spirit. A preacher should have a sensitivity for the working of the Holy Spirit: recognising and providing opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work God’s love and truth in people hearts. Preaching is not about the cognitive message only; it is about an encounter in man’s inner being that flows from the working of the Holy Spirit.
I shall “crash-land” with a final anecdote. I was in grade one when I got a brilliant idea of how to outsmart my dad. At the breakfast table on a Sunday morning, I asked him what he was going to preach today. Cryptically he said he is going to preach on Solomon’s request when he became king. Eagerly I said “well, this sermon I know!”. I have heard it before and to support my argument I gave my dad the essence of the sermon, namely that Solomon did not ask for wisdom, but if you read the text correctly, he asked God to help him to be obedient to God and His Word. God then replied to his request and said that what he asked for, was wisdom. I could see that I had hit the nail on the head and therefore, I proceded with my strategy which was, now that I have proof that I remember the sermon, “may I stay at home?” Calmly, my dad said “yes, you are welcome to stay at home if you are sure that God is happy with the way you are applying the message in your life”. Needless to say, I went to church that day and every Sunday thereafter.
Preaching is about bringing God’s undiluted Word to His people in such a manner that it changes their lives. Preaching should result in God’s church being informed people who love and understand the Bible, can think for themselves, and allow the Holy Spirit to work within them so that they can live by the Spirit. It is a “tall order”, but I am convinced that God does not expect anything less of us.
“For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21 (NKJ))
 A metaphor: a figure of speech in which a phrase is applied to an action to which it is not literally applicable