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Book of James as Sermon Paradigm

Are you struggling with sermon outlines and structure? Here’s what we can learn from the Book of James.

In his commentary on the Letters of James and Peter, William Barclay uses the book of James as an example of classical sermon structure. He thinks the letter of James was likely a sermon originally. Here are the elements of James that were common in ancient sermons:

  1. “They frequently carried on imaginary conversations with imaginary opponents, speaking in what has been called a kind of ‘truncated dialogue.'”
  2. “They habitually effected their transition from one part of the sermon to another, by way of a question which introduced the new subject.”
  3. “They were fond of imperatives in which they commanded their hearers to right action and to the abandoning of their errors.”
  4. “They were very fond of the rhetorical question flung out at their audience.”
  5. “They frequently dealt in apostrophes, vivid direct addresses to particular sections of the audience. So James apostrophizes the merchants out for gain and the arrogant rich.”
  6. “They were fond of personifying virtues and ices…So James personifies sin (1:15); mercy (2:13); rust (5:3).”
  7. “They sought to awaken the interest of their audience by pictures and figures from everyday life.”
  8. “They frequently used the example of famous men and women to point their moral.”
  9. “It was the custom of the ancient preachers to begin their sermon with a paradox which would arrest the attention of the hearers. James does that by telling a man to think it all joy when he is involved in trials (1:2).”
  10. “The ancient preachers could speak with harshness and with sternness. So James addresses his reader as ‘Foolish fellow’….(2:20).”
  11. “They ancient preachers had certain standard ways of constructing their sermons: [(a) using antithesis, setting the right beside the wrong way, (b) using searching questions, (c) they often used quotations]”

If we boil all this down, you may have the makings of a pretty good sermon:

Big picture:

  • Start sermon with a paradox
  • Start individual points with a question
  • Structure for points: Points can be centered around: an antithesis, a searching question, or a quote

Particulars:

  • Create imaginary dialogue
  • Use imperatives
  • Ask rhetorical questions
  • Single out particular types of people for application
  • Use personification for big points
  • Use illustrations from everyday life
  • Use famous people as examples
  • Be harsh when you need to

Quotations from pp. 28-29.

Trusting Something Enough to Find Your Own Words for It

Speaking of writers using cliches.

…dead expressions, the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for.

-From John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, p. 11

Preachers, push the Scriptures enough into your own experience that you demonstrate you’re trusting them enough to find your own words for what they are saying.

AI, Bionics, Technopoly, and the Gospel

I tend to shy away from posting on current events; I talk about them often in my sermons, but it is not my purpose on this blog. But this one ties into my reading from not only this past week, but really the past month.

I came across Stephen Hawking’s op-ed (HERE) from a couple of weeks ago on the subject of Artificial Intelligence. I actually agree with his main point in the column: we need to start considering the future ramifications of our technological tinkering. This is really the main point that Neil Postman was trying to make in Technopoly as well. From Postman’s perspective, which he wrote 20 years ago, Americans, at that time, needed to start asking important questions about technology: What is it replacing? What will it cause to become obsolete? He proposes many questions that we should have been asking then. But few were asking them. Perhaps someone with the alleged credibility of Hawking will actually cause some folks to ask questions they haven’t been asking.

Hawking makes the point that our technologies may have more of a dangerous potential than we typically envision. Maybe some of the Sci-Fi movies and books may actually prove prophetic. Perhaps The Matrix isn’t so far removed from potential reality. But he also makes the point that technology, especially Artificial Intelligence, provides glorious possibilities; In his own words, “we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools that AI may provide, but the eradication of war, disease, and poverty would be high on anyone’s list. Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history.”

There is a bigger event that has already happened (2000 years ago); but I digress.

As I read that line for the first time, in my mind, I began to hear the voice of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching about modern man, the bomb, Man coming into his own, Educationism, and Scientism. If you are somewhat familiar with him, you could probably imagine him in a pulpit today saying something like this:

Modern man thinks that he is unstoppable. He has his technology. He has his computer – it is the answer to everything: ‘We don’t need your Christianity for answers,’ he says. ‘We have internet search engines that are omniscient.’ ‘We don’t need your resurrection; give Google 20 years and they will cure death,’ he says. ‘A few more years and we will eradicate war and poverty and disease.’ Modern man says, ‘We don’t need your God, we have Bionics. We can make the lame to walk and the blind to see with our technology.’

And then I can hear the Doctor, in my mind, saying, ‘But they are all fools; the fool saith in his heart there is no God. Have they not read the story of Babel? Have they not read the psalmist speaking of the raging of the heathen? The God who sits in the heavens laughs. “Let us tear their chords apart and burst their bands asunder!” says the fool; and the living God laughs at their notions of power.’

Now, back to my own voice. I watched a TED Talk on the subject of Bionics recently. It’s worth the 20 minutes it takes to watch it (HERE). It chronicles the development of Bionics as scientists and engineers are seeking to create prosthetic appendages that will work with the neurological systems of human bodies (the recent FDA approval of the ‘Luke Skywalker Arm’ is an example of this). The invention itself looks magnificent; the problem comes in when the creators of such devices say things like this: “I reasoned that a human being can never be broken; technology is broken; technology is inadequate.” That is the logic of Technopoly in a nutshell. We’re fine; there’s nothing wrong with us; we have unlimited potential; we just need the right technology.

We have no idea what our future has in store. In many ways we should be thankful for the advances we are making in Bionics and other technological fields.When we cause the lame to walk, we are, in a sense, imitating the work of Christ. But if, in their new ability to stand, they rise up on those magic legs (to quote Forrest Gump), beat their breast, and pronounce their own deity, then we have a great problem. And this is my great fear. In the words of Joy Davidman,

…Perhaps our remote ancestors had no sooner invented the slingshot than they reared back on their hind legs and proclaimed that their technical progress had now enabled them to do without religion.

Let me end by going back to Dr. Lloyd-Jones. He was fond of saying that the great problem with humanity is that we tend, at one and the same time, to think too highly of ourselves and too lowly of ourselves. We think too highly of ourselves because we think that we can do without God, or indeed, that we are gods; we may not be perfect, but certainly we have no categories for sin. Yet we think too lowly of ourselves because we believe that we are simply evolved animals upon whom Heaven has no bearing. We think that Heaven, if there is such a place, is wholly indifferent to our actions (or at least this is what we prefer). Psalm 8 is our great corrective.

We in the West are back, philosophically, where we were before the World Wars. We think that we can somehow eradicate war and poverty because we have no conception of sin. We see nothing but progress in our future. Hawking wants us to consider the possibility of negative effects, yet also boasts of a technological future without war and pain and hunger. As Christians, we must be mindful that the sinful nature of Man will continue to play a role in all he does, and it will infect all he creates. This does not mean that the future is a lost cause. Rather, it means that repentance and wisdom are necessary. Yet repentance is no longer in the modern vocabulary and wisdom has been wholly removed from any relation to God.

We are now obsessed, as a culture, with creating artificial life; all the while, God calls us to genuine life (see John 3). We are obsessed with progress; all the while, God calls us to re-dig the old wells (see Genesis 26) and return to Paradise (see 2 Corinthians 5 and Revelation 21-22). We are obsessed with making the lame walk and the blind see; all the while, we will not heed the call of Jesus Christ:

He speaks, and, listening to His voice,
New life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice,
The humble poor believe.

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come,
And leap, ye lame, for joy.

Charles Wesley captured it beautifully. I am a simple country preacher, but I would dare say that we desperately need to sound this note, especially in our urban pulpits. Hawking is right; we need to think about the ramifications of what we are doing. And it is the Christian’s job to be at the forefront in that thinking as we call humanity away from making idols of technology, and themselves, and declare the gospel of the great Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.