The Art of Drawing the Line in Preaching
When I was being trained to preach three decades ago now, one of my seminary professors regularly said in homiletics class, “The art of good preaching is knowing where to draw the line.” Beyond a catchy way to capture our attention, he was teaching us an important truth about preaching. What you leave out of a sermon can be as important as what you keep in. To ensure a pointed, focused message, where you draw the line is vital.
This saying came to mind recently as I prepared a message on Ephesians 3:20-21 that I called “Far More Abundantly,” where that title is taken straight from the text.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
In the section of the sermon where I explained this phrase, I had to make some of those “drawing the line” decisions.
The first place I drew the line was with the original word of this phrase. My Greek professor and preaching mentor Ted Donnelly taught us not to get into technical explanations about the languages in the pulpit. Rather, just refer to what is needed and move on. So instead of pronouncing the single Greek word behind this phrase (uperekperissou), I chose to tell the congregation that behind the phrase "far more abundantly" there is one original word made out of three words that Paul squeezed together. I told them that he did this in order to emphasize the overflowing bounty that is beyond our imagination of what the Lord wants to do for His people.
The next area where a line was drawn was in cross referencing. Paul's compound word only appears in two other places in the New Testament (both in 1 Thessalonians). Because the context of my passage was Paul praying for the church in Ephesus, as he tells them in Ephesians 3:14-15, I only used one cross reference here rather than both of them. For Paul uses this word in the context of praying for believers. I Thessalonians 3:9-10 says, “What thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account, as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?” I was able to emphasize that as Paul prayed for the church "most earnestly" or "far more abundantly," we also should pray this way so that the church "may be filled to all the fullness of God" (Eph. 3:19) and have "what is lacking" in their faith completed.
A third and final way I drew a line was in illustrating the concept. As I desired to help the congregation see the Lord's ability to do far more than we can ask for or think, I went to the first source of illustrations which is the Bible itself. Though when using illustrations in preaching we are not confined to only the Bible, it certainly is the best place to start. For this concept, the illustrations came easily. His provision of manna in the wilderness every day for forty years to feed hundreds of thousands of people. The way through Elisha's ministry He used the widow's little jar of oil to fill all her neighbors' pots and pans. How the Lord fed the 5000 from just a few loaves and fish.
As I encouraged the church to trust the Lord to provide, I reminded them why the Lord wants us to pray that God would do far more abundantly. He wants the church to be filled to overflowing with His presence. And as I did so, it struck me again how the preacher must draw lines to limit his preaching so that the church can see more clearly the limitless grace and presence of her Lord.