Crucial to biblical preaching is the choice of a text. This article looks at some aspects to consider when choosing a text for a sermon. The author also discusses lectionaries, as well as using and abusing freedom in text choices for the preaching.

Source: Diakonia, 1990. 4 pages.

The Text Choice

In the total sermon-making process, the choice of a text represents a decisive moment. Often it is also a difficult and time consuming part of it.We will pay attention to some of the aspects of this matter.

  1. Preaching is text bound. The character of the ministry of God's Word and the congregation dictate such an approach. The congregation of Christ has a right to the Word of her Lord. We don't hold a lecture, deliver a speech, nor give an introduction; the Word of God is brought to the congregation in understandable language. We also know of theme preaching; i.e. the catechismal preaching. That kind of preaching, however, is not the opposite of text preaching. Lord's Days 34 to 52 deal with literal texts from the Scriptures, while the remaining Lord's Days are in fact based on texts which form the foundation of the Church's doctrine. Catechism preaching can, therefore, be called text preaching.
  2. The conviction that God in the Bible speaks to His people is fundamental to text preaching. In that way we confess that the Holy Spirit wishes to dwell in the congregation and share with her Christ's treasures. As soon as the Bible becomes only an Israeli book, a documentation of the insight into faith of ancient "sacred authors", the character of text preaching changes. Then the preacher does not come with the conviction that God speaks, but in the hope that the reproduction of earlier convictions may inspire and be relevant to the present. The question of the authority of the Scriptures in each text choice and sermon preparation is timely.
  3. Not every Bible verse is suitable for preaching. A text is a coherent whole in which a message is brought, a story told and the will of the Lord is revealed. Such a text can be long or short. The Bible is not a collection of oracles, so that each verse is filled with heavenly secrets. That is why it is not possible to preach on every Bible text. In the course of history – also within the churches of the Secession of 1834 – many weird things have been done with short texts and even entire Scripture passages. In that way one in fact resorts to a rather crude form of motto-preaching. A text must definitely be a coherent whole. The sermon must hand over a text to God's people in such a way that the riches contained therein are unfolded.
  4. Since the Reformation, the Reformed churches possess the freedom of text choice (also the diffi­culty). This has not always been so as is apparent from history. Let us for a moment pay a little atten­tion to lectionary or pericope preaching. A pericope is an extract from Scripture. The lectionary denoted an ordered system of selected readings (pericopes) ap­pointed for liturgical use on specific occasions in the church year, thus pre-supposing a calendar. The liturgical year more or less determined the text choice. The history of this tradition goes far back into his­tory. It goes back to the Synagogue and was taken over by the early Christian church.

    The lectio was a liturgical element in the meeting of the New Testament congregation (c.f. 1 Timothy 4:13; Revelation 1:3), whereby the Word of God was passed on to the Church of Christ. In time these readings were ordered and a choice could be made between a lectio continua or the reading of a passage from the Scriptures ordered according to the liturgi­cal year. In practice certain portions of the Scriptures were read during certain Feast Days. The book in which the prescribed readings were collected was called a lectionarium or liber comicus.

    The order of the Church of Rome was intro­duced by Charlemagne. Because of the great ignorance among pastors, who were incapable of making a sermon, the lectionary in his time was expanded to a homilarium; i.e. to the texts to be read, sermons by the church fathers in the vernacular were added. For centuries preaching depended on them. Because the sermon often began with the words 'post illa textus verbal' , such a sermon was sometimes referred to as a postil.

    The Lutheran church maintained the system. The ancient pericopes served as a little Bible for the laymen and Luther aided inexperienced 16th cen­tury preachers with his famous 'Haus und Kirchenpostillen: Auslegung der Episteln und Evangelien die nach Brauch der Kirchen gelesen werden.' Here and there he selected pericopes other than the traditional ones, but he did not oppose free text choice as such. The existing situation, however, made him loathe to break with the old system. As a result a very elaborate postil literature developed within the Lutheran Church in order to vary the preaching on the ever recurring texts. It, however, contains much "split­ting of straws."

    The Swiss Reformation dealt differently with the matter. Zwingli began to preach about whole Bibles books: Matthew, Acts, 1 Timothy, Galatians, Peter and Hebrews. This is referred to as the lectio continua. It was done the same way in Geneva. The intent of this method is clear: through strictly kept serial preaching, the Scriptural knowledge of the congregation was enhanced and promoted. Yet, in principle there was freedom of choice for Scripture reading and text. This matter became the subject of dispute between Calvinists and Lutherans.

    The following arguments have been used in the defence of the pericope system:
  • The arbitrary choice of a text and the choice of beloved texts is prevented: the whole Christian doctrine is preached each year and difficult texts are also explained.
  • Each time the preacher is forced to ap­proach the text differently. He has to shake the same tree continually, whereas the proponents of the free text choice only pick the fruit.
  • One obtains much exegetical literature.
  • It is better that the congregation know a few texts well, than many superficially.
  • Independentism is prevented, for the preaching in the pericope system promotes the church federation.

    In opposition to the sys­tem the following reason­ing is used:
  • The office of the minister off the Word brings with it an independent text choice.
  • The whole council of God must be preached.
  • The option of taking current happenings and special occasions into account must remain open.
  • The pericope system fosters a theological "splitting of straws" and laziness.
  • Traditional text rosters, relegate the Old Testament to the background. The content of the Bible is reduced when everything centers in the liturgical year.

    The arguments against the periscope system are strong and do not make us long for a return to such a sermon roster.

    The lectio continua is not recommended either. By itself it is a particularly helpful means in acquir­ing Scriptural knowledge for both the congregation and the preacher. For the preaching it cannot be realized in practice. It is tiresome and does not satisfy. "It was, as if one had only bread for supper for months on end, and afterwards only vegetables for years and finally, and then for years, meat and potatoes."

    With conviction we choose for the freedom of text choice. In this way the independence of the office bearer, who is called to proclaim the whole counsel of God and who, also in view of current events, must bring the Word of God, is honoured. The feared of individualism and the threatened one-sidedness is greatly curtailed in Reformed churches by the prescribed Catechism preaching. This com­pels the minister of the Word to explain the complete doctrine of the Word. It is an excellent system of great pedagogical value for both the congregation and the preacher.
  1. The freedom of text choice is not an unrestricted freedom. It is not necessary for us to discuss the liturgical question of the church year. Even without such a discussion we can state emphatically that the work of God is redemptively historically determined and the church is called to commemorate the deeds of her Lord. Therefore, it is good and beneficial to present the facts of redemption regularly to the congregation. We need not idolize the church year, neither should we in desperate tenacity reject that church year in the scheme of preaching. One can adhere to the liturgical year by using it for good preaching.

    Here we have the first limit to the freedom of text choice. A second limit one can apply himself by the discipline of serial preaching. The practice points out its benefit. It is a sort of compromise between lectio continua and free text choice. It is highly recom­mended that a sermon series be preached (as a rule no more than five) on, for example, Abraham, the desert journey, the furniture of the tabernacle, the kings, the parables, the beatitudes, etc. That is very satisfying for the preacher as well as for the congre­gation . If one has access to a local church news, the series can be announced and introduced before­hand, for example, the chronological aspects of the Bible passages concerned.

    One can also choose a theme: work ethics, dea­conry, future expectation, Israel, authority, etc.... The great benefit of such an approach is that "apho­ristic edification" of the congregation is thereby prevented: one Sunday this way, the other Sunday that way.

    A third limitation of the free text choice is found in the regular celebration of the Lord's Supper and the preaching connected with it.
  2. A warning about the text choice-per-week is here in order. The administration of the Word is too vital to the Church for the preacher to go about choosing it haphazardly. It shows a sense of respon­sibility when all the texts for a certain period are carefully selected. You are then better able to reserve days for study and writing sermon outlines. This is to be preferred over the tension caused by the weekly search for a suitable text.

    A previously established sermon roster also enables the collecting of literature, and "meditation" becomes attuned to the work of preaching. The con­gregation is edified because she begins to see the relevancy and coherence of the Holy Scriptures in the well-ordered preaching and well-considered text choice.

    In this way it becomes clear that continuous and regular Bible study ought to be the foundation of text choice and sermon. This is the first requirement for the work of an office-bearer. Regular study, for example working through a new commentary or reading a few monographs successively, keeps the minister of the Word going.

    J. van Andel writes in his Vademecum Pastorale that the pulpit must not drive us to the text, but the text to the pulpit. He who studies regularly, sooner has a problem of too many texts than of having no text. This is true and urges us to take time for study in spite of other duties (for example, in spite of the complaint that the minister did not come for coffee on someone's birthday). The minister is primarily called to administer the Word. It is a good practice to choose the definite text early in the week, so that there is time to meditate on it and discuss it; for instance, on a visit to the sick. Precisely in such a discussion one can test one's ability to verbalize the message.

    It is also beneficial to start a list of texts which appear suitable and jot down first impressions or the first exegetical explorations. These can be ordered according to the various duties the preacher must fulfill: catechism preaching, preaching for a mar­riage, a day of prayer, a day of thanksgiving etc...

    A knowledge of the congregation is also neces­sary for a good choice of the text. Listening to people in need and in sorrow, stimulates the preaching and contributes to the important warmth and love in the delivery of it. We are not in favour of the so called "dialogue" preaching, but believe that precisely within the framework of regular (official) work, there is enough dialogue to benefit the choice of text and the sermon. The context of the preaching is this official work in the congregation.

    For a good choice of text one should also be well acquainted with one's own time. It is not necessary to mention and comment on the latest news in a sermon. Even if we could, there is no need to com­pete with television. We must, however, gauge the climate in which we live. That gives depth to the study of the Holy Scriptures as the relevant Word of God and promotes a good choice of the text. There­fore, it appears to be true that in the choice of text there lies an enormous amount of "application." A sermon must by definition be current, in order to teach the congregation to discern the spirits. We may set that as our goal in the initial choice of the text. Once the text has been chosen we must surrender ourselves to it. Only in exceptional cases must we may opt for another. Precisely, therefore, it is of the greatest importance that the text is chosen early. One should live with it for a few days and in an unforced manner, then the connections and the correct formu­lation can be found which will be of significance to the sermon.

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