Great Preaching: (Part III) Walk in the Light!

Leave It The Way You Found It?

A pastor places his order at the pet store: “I need at least 50 mice, 2000 ants and as many of those little silverfish you can get.”

The clerk replies, “We can probably do that, but it might take some time. Mind if I ask why you are placing such an unusual order?”

The pastor replied, “I’ve accepted a call to another church and the congregation council told me to leave the parsonage the way I found it.” From * That is the problem with so much preaching today – it leaves people the way they found it.

In a few years, will you have left your congregation the way you found them? Or, will your preaching have sparked a spiritual awakening … that glows long after you’ve gone?

The first step of Great Preaching: Walk in the Light is –

Learn to see the light of God

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.  If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.  But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. I John 1:5-7

Charles Adams helped his son to see the light in the world by taking him to the Panama-Pacific Exposition fair in 1915. A gift to his son to capture the visions of the fair and the Golden Gate area was a Box Brownie #1.

The following summer the family crossed the shimmering heat of the San Juan Valley and wound their way to El Portal, where 14 year-old Adams exited the vehicle to take snapshots with his Brownie. From that day forward, the vision of Yosemite held Ansel Adams, as he wrote –
“That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra…was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”

Move Beyond Snapshot to Vision

Below is a snapshot I took of our dog, Shadow. A snapshot captures a surface, temporal point in time. It captures what is required for a picture that might get a “like” on social media. It presents what is expected. A snapshot captures what happens in a typical Sunday morning pulpit. The people come, with expectation that the pastor will perform a sermon. Once completed, the pastor gets an “atta-boy” and everyone goes home. The pastor is satisfied that he/she did all that was safely required to retreat into the pastor’s office “dog house” until the next Sunday.


Vision discerns the eternal truth behind the surface. Vision moves beyond the required to the acquired. Vision finds that serendipitous moment as Jacob described in Genesis 28 “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it. “

Thunderstorm at Yosemite Valley, Ansel Adams

The above shows a thunderstorm at Yosemite. Using the darkness mixed with light, Adams was able to point his lens to the picture behind the picture. Adams used his black-and-whites as a medium of change that would ultimately expand the US National Park system, for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.

In the photo below, Adams captured a simple baseball game, something like he might have snapped with his Box Brownie at 14. We can taste the mustard on the hot dog and feel the sun and breeze on our cheeks.

Baseball 1943

The image of the game captured what is typically required of clergy on Sunday morning. The organist throws out the opening hymn, while the choir director tosses some high and low notes. Finally, the preacher walks out as the heavy-hitter to send everyone home.

Not so fast … True to Ansel Adams’ use of “picture behind the picture,” let’s add some clues to see through the surface of the photograph – World War II, California, Japanese Internment Camps 1943. We receive a serendipitous moment that these Americans, enjoying the “All American Pastime,” were interned as part of the 110,000 Japanese Americans held in 10 camps on the West Coast . Adams helped to heal America’s blindness to the plight of our fellow Japanese Americans. Photos from

As a result, in some instances Ansel Adams’ books were banned from bookstores and even burned as un-American. Remember that while Adams showed what he could in the camps, he was forbidden to photograph the guard towers and barbed wire.

Are you willing to take the risk to move beyond preaching what is required to sharing what is acquired as a word of God for the people? When was the last time your church heard your church bulletins were banned or burned as they moved the masses toward embracing the unfolding truth of God? What are the new forms of internments, the social concertina, that hold people captive today?

The New Sitz Im Leben

Back in my seminary studies across Baptist and United Methodist seminaries, we learned the term sitz im leben represented the original “situation in life” that gave gave rise to the Bible text. The New Sitz Im Leben is the situation in life of your people which provides the fertile soil for the Bible passage to produce life.

While attending seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas, I spent a summer as a paid student chaplain at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. About that time, I read about an Air force Base colonel who saw that his base chaplains sat in air conditioned offices and debated Karl Barth while the crews sweltered on the flight line. So, the colonel ordered the chaplains out of the office to minister to the soldiers working on the hot tarmac by the aircraft.

You may say,

“Jim, I’m too busy preparing my sermons to visit the people.”

Get out on the flight line.

“I’m more of an ‘executive leader’ than just a pastor. “

Get out on the flight line.

“I’m more of a teaching pastor than a pastoral caregiver.”

Get out on the flight line.

“It’s just not exciting visiting widows and shut-ins than discussing the computer images of the next big service.”

Get out on the flight line!

The result of failing to embrace your sitz im leben will be that your sermons will come across as Kodak slide shows of vacations you’ve taken where your members pretend to be interested. The message will be void of life that springs out of that context. For those of you who don’t remember, a Kodak slide show was a meeting of friendly captivity at which a host projected images of distant lands while guests feigned interest. Feigned interest is quite difficult and can only be accomplished by consuming large quantities of chex party mix.

f/64 Sharp Focus

  • Use and carry a Vook. A Vook (vision book) is a small lined book that you use to obtain insights and applications that you gained from your sitz im leben – your vision book. Keep it by your bedside and be ready. God may give you insights in the middle of the night that may become the heart of your message.
  • Use Bible software to do an in-depth “instant verse study” that will compile the data from a variety of Bible translations, commentaries, word studies and devotional works. The image below shows a favorite tool of mine used for over ten years and versions – Wordsearch Bible

I chose Wordsearch Bible as a tool over other more technical Bible study software as it more applies to the lives of the people versus a Bible language analysis tool. The people don’t need the nuances of meaning of the Greek verb if they are facing a death in the family or a job layoff.

  • With a few clicks, you can create a 40 page instant report containing the best Christian writings available on your chosen text. With that you can read through the study material and mark it with a check mark (for check this out!), ! for must focus, and ? for question.

The Shutter Squeeze

You’ve spent the week with your Vook and have consumed your “Instant Verse Study” with process notes. Now is the time for the frame, which involves focus – What is the subject of your message? What one or two points will you use to convey the message? Focus – What is the subject of your message? What one or two points will you use to convey the message?

As every photographer knows, frame is followed by shutter squeeze. Your “instant verse study” resulted in 40 pages. You may find them all as interesting as riding every amusement ride in the park. Squeeze your message down to ten minutes but have something to say.

Some rules of thumb:

Leave them wanting more.

Rather than fill-in-the-blank sermon notes, provide vision space in the bulletin for flash notes on an empty canvas.

Today fill-in-the-blank sermon notes have crept into PowerPoint slides – a form of the Kodak vacation slides party.

Write out your sermon. Give yourself permission to cut it down to two points.

Keep your outline on the pulpit as a safety-net while you preach without notes.

If you can’t remember what you’re saying, how will your people?!

Start on time. Finish early.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about how to Run with your Message!

Pass the Chex Mix!,

-Pastor Jim