Variety is one of the many benefits of being intentional about the way you structure the sermon from week to week: even when there is strong unity of theme, the experience of the hearers doesn’t become predictable or rote.
Our 2013 Advent series is a case in point. The unifying theme was “Beyond Expectation” and each week we took a closer look at characters and stories leading up to the birth of Jesus.
Each of the weeks had a lot in common–all of the readings were strongly narrative, each included specific characters and their reaction to good news, each had an element of surprise and a sub-theme of preparation. But the sermons felt very different from week to week.
The first three weeks of Advent provide enough of a sample to make the point: variety of sermon structure keeps the experience of the hearers fresh even when the content is similar.
Advent 1: Zechariah (Story Interrupted)
Advent 1 focused on Zechariah in Luke 1:5-22. The Zechariah narrative features several discrete movements in the story; I wanted to focus on these dynamics, so I chose to shape the sermon with a narrative structure, specifically the structure dubbed “Story Interrupted.”
The primary feature of the Story Interrupted structure is the retelling of the Biblical narrative with specific breaks in the story where the preacher makes application to the faith and lives of the hearers. You don’t have to tell the narrative this way–you could tell the whole story and then make application or even spend the first part of the sermon setting up the narrative and then closing with the entire story itself. But the Story Interrupted structure particularly emphasizes the narrative moves within the text while also bringing the story home to the hearers.
As I went to break up the moves in the Zechariah story, a second narrative structure came to mind. Eugene Lowry developed his famous “Lowry’s Loop” to help preach parable texts; it has since been applied to all kinds of narrative sermons. Looking at the narrative in Luke 1:5-22, Lowry’s basic elements all seem to be present. So the sermon took on this shape:
Story of Zechariah (Oops!): Faithful people living without evidence of God’s blessing.
Story Interrupted: Do you ever feel that way?
Story of Zechariah (Ugh!): When the promise comes, Zechariah is no longer able to receive it with faith.
Story Interrupted: Maybe you know how Zechariah feels …
Story of Zechariah (Aha!/Whee!): The promise is bigger than the one who receives it.
Story Interrupted: God works like that in your life, too.
Story of Zechariah (Yeah!): The time of silence and preparation leads to songs of joy!
Story Interrupted: Our Advent preparation leads to songs of eternal joy!
Here is the sermon, preached at St. Luke–Ann Arbor.
Advent 2: Mary (Frame and Refrain)
The second week of Advent took us to the Annunciation in Luke 1:26-38. The same angel again shows up with a surprising message. This time, however, I chose to highlight one particular aspect of the story that was central to what I wanted to accomplish in the sermon. In this case, the difference between Objective and Subjective Justification is at the heart of the sermon. Mary clearly believed in God’s universal plan of salvation; in the text, that universal salvation becomes concrete, up close and personal.
The structure I chose therefore highlighted that dynamic of “It’s for me?!” The “Frame and Refrain” sermon structure uses an image at the beginning and end of the sermon (like a frame) and then brings that image back throughout the the sermon as a way of providing thematic unity (like a refrain).
In this case, the image of finding YOUR name on the biggest and best present under the tree became the introduction, the conclusion, and the unifying image of the sermon. It was also the lens through which I chose to look at the text, the faith experience of the hearers, and the way the hearers live out their faith interacting with those around them. The final sermon structure ended up looking like this:
Frame: It’s for me?!
Part 1: Mary’s experience in the text
Refrain: It’s for me?!
Part 2: The hearer’s experience of the Gospel
Refrain: It’s for me?!
Part 3: A realistic, non-heroic depiction of the hearer living out the Gospel in their own life
Refrain: It’s for me?!
Frame: It’s for me?!
Here’s what the final sermon sounded like:
Advent 3: Joseph (Comparison/Contrast)
Although both of the sermons above come from narrative texts that focus on strong characters who receive an angelic visit and promise of a child, the two sermons feel very different. The different sermon structures shaped the experience of the hearers in different ways.
The Frame and Refrain structure belongs to the category of Dynamic Sermon Structures and is one of a variety of image-based designs. The Story Interrupted structure is one of the narrative techniques in the category of Textual Sermon Structures (though in this case I doubled-dipped and utilized Lowry’s Loop, which on its own is actually a Dynamic structure). Because I was consciously trying to proved variety for the hearer from week to week, I wanted to do something different when we got to the story of Joseph in week three (using Matthew 1:18-25 as the text).
The three large categories of sermon structures are Textual Sermon Structures, Dynamic Sermon Structures, and Propositional (or Thematic) Sermon Structures. The flow of the text itself shapes the sermon in the Textual Structures; the experience of the hearers guides the shape of the sermon in the Dynamic Structures; the logical relationship between the parts of the sermon provides structure and movement in the Propositional Structures. (For more on these types of sermon structures, follow the link at the end of this article.)
So by the time we get to Advent 3, I am looking at preaching a sermon on Joseph structured in a way shaped by the logical presentation of a primary thought. In no way does propositional mean boring or esoteric (necessarily…); but what provides both unity and movement within the sermon is shaped by the logic of the presentation.
As I prayerfully considered the story of Joseph and the experience of my hearers, I began to hone in on one Propositional Structure in particular: Comparison/Contrast. This sermon structure allows the preacher to develop both similarities and differences between the text and the lives of the hearers.
I chose to present the story of Joseph one part at a time rather than dividing the sermon into two primary sections. This movement from part to part emphasizes the points of comparison and contrast. Moving from whole to whole, on the other hand, helps the hearers remember the two primary topics being discussed.
By the time I was done, I had this sermon structure prepared:
Introduction: That’s not what I expected!
1. Seeing godly character and striving to be like that.
A. Joseph: faithful to the law and compassionate, obedient to the Word and humble.
A1. Us: compare/contrast
2. The kind of God we have
B. Joseph: God at work in confusing situations
B1. Us: compare/contrast
3. Hold on to God’s Big Picture promises
C. Joseph: name Him Jesus (Yahweh is Salvation); Emmanuel (God with us).
C1. Us: compare
Conclusion: So much more than I expected!
Even as I preached this sermon, I was aware of how different was from many Law and Gospel sermons I have heard (and preached) over the years.
The development here is from least important to most important, which somewhat surprisingly places the sanctification preaching at the very front of the sermon rather than at the end.
Also, the Law/Gospel dynamic is not limited to two large chunks in the sermon: part 1, LAW; part 2, GOSPEL. Instead, there is a Law/Gospel dynamic in both the second and third sections of the sermon.
Providing this kind of variation in sermon structure helps the hearer engage in the material more actively from week to week. This variety also increases the chance that different kinds of learners and hearers in the congregation will feel engaged regularly.
Here is the sermon on Joseph:
Three sermons in a row, all in Advent, all from the Gospel lesson, all based on narrative texts with primary characters, Gabriel the messenger, and the promise of a Savior. Yet three very distinct sermons structured in three very distinct ways.
As a preacher, I find sermon structures to be tools that help me find joy, creativity, and insight as I interact with the text on behalf of the people God sends me to week in and week out.
To learn more about sermon structures, check out David Schmitt’s contribution to Concordia Seminary’s web page: http://concordiatheology.org/sermon-structs/