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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.

Recent Reading: A Psychology for Preaching

Some select quotes I found helpful. In no way do I agree with everything in the book (it’s fairly liberal for my standards), but I did find some good common sense about preaching that a lot of people won’t say (or at least I haven’t heard say).

– Edgar N. Jackson, A Psychology for Preaching (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961).

PREACHING IS IN SOME SENSE AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL

Art forms are characterized by highly individualized modes of expression, so the artful presentation of ideas through preaching is strongly tinged by the preacher’s personal qualities. It could safely be said that all preaching is autobiographical… (pp. xxi-xxii).

IT IS HARD TO BE INTERESTING EVERY WEEK

…The necessity of trying to be inspiring on a week to week basis calls for all the ingenuity that a preacher can develop (p. 18).

GRAB THEIR ATTENTION OFTEN

[Quoting a study:] It has been estimated that a class listening to a teacher, an employee listening to his boss, or an audience listening to a lecture has serious lapses of attention ever seven minutes. The expert speaker jerks attention back by telling a story, making a demonstration, or doing something unusual about every five minutes. Interest, action or noise will renew attention (p. 19).

NO PREACHER HAS EARNED THE RIGHT TO BE UNINTERESTING

Too often a man who has won the hearts of his people as a pastor seems to feel that he has earned the right to be a careless craftsman in the pulpit. No one ever earns the right to be uninteresting in the pulpit (p. 20).

JESUS ALWAYS ELICITED A RESPONSE

We have only fragments of [Jesus’] sermons, but we note that again and again there was an immediate and strong response to what he said. The listeners had been mentally engaged. They questioned him. They questioned themselves. They reacted. ‘They rose up, and thrust him out of the city.’ Any way we look at it, we must admit there are very few modern preachers who stimulate so vigorous a response. We may be sure Jesus spent little time sawing sawdust. He ripped into the real problems of people and his age. He generated real participation and response (pp. 29-30).

DON’T TRY TO FUNNY, BUT DON’T AVOID BEING FUNNY

[Quoting Charles Brown:] it is not well for a minister to go out of his way six inches to make a joke. But when some unexpected turn comes to him naturally in the treatment of a great truth, he is unwise to turn aside in order to avoid it (p. 36).

ALL OF LIFE IS SERMON PREP

In one sense the whole life of a preacher is an act of preparation for that moment when he stands in the pulpit (p. 36).

LEARN TO SEE CHRIST EVERYWHERE

It is a psychological principle that we see what we want to see or are trained to see. Sight is a learned art. At an accident near our home recently, I aw this principle in action. The physician who arrived saw the injured persons and their needs because that was what he had been trained to see. The state policeman saw the relevant facts about the vehicles and their relation to each other. That was his special training. A maiden lady, who happened to be near by, saw blood and fainted…The preacher who has developed the habit of looking or new and fresh material that is actively related to the interests of his people will begin to see it cropping up here and there where he had not suspected it before (pp. 37-38).

LISTEN TO WHAT YOU SHOULD LISTEN TO; DON’T LISTEN TO WHAT YOU SHOULDN’T; SELECTIVE HEARING IS REAL

People who live near a railroad get so they seldom hear the trains. persons who live near the town clock may be kept awake by it when they first move there, but after a time they learn a habit of exclusive listening. They hear what they want to hear. This is also true of the preacher (p. 38).

THE END OF THE SERMON IS IMPORTANT FOR SUSTAINED ATTENTION

Even the end of a sermon can be important in sustaining attention; the way the preacher ends his sermon can make the listener want to hear what he has to say at another time (pp. 44-45).

KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING AND HOW IT’S BEING DONE; COMFORT THE AFFLICTED, AFFLICT THE COMFORTABLE

…Because congregations tend to e made up of more than one type of personality it may be important for the preacher to employ a change of pace that will at one time ‘Comfort the afflicted’ and at other times ‘Afflict the comfortable.’ yet even here it is important to have some idea of what is being done, how it is being achieved, and what the effect is upon those for whom the message is not especially relevant (p. 54).

TRUTH THROUGH PERSONALITY

This concept of preaching stresses the role of the preacher as the creator in the employment of an art form. His own personality is then inseparably bound up with what is communicated (p. 61).

HELP OTHERS SEE WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN

[Jesus] indicated that his disciples were custodians of the privilege to help others ‘to see those things that you see…and to hear those things that you hear’ (p. 67).

LITERATURE HELPS US UNDERSTAND PEOPLE

Definite supplemental sources of aid in the developing of the pastor’s art of ‘seeing people’ are available to all. Invariably, the masters of understanding have been immersed in the great literature of the past. Jesus had at his disposal the books of poetry, law and prophesy of the Jewish tradition. Paul knew not only the Jewish literature but was conversant with the literature of the Graeco-Roman world as well (pp. 68-69).

JESUS PREACHED SIMPLY

[Jesus] was simple in his presentation. No one from the child to the scholar could be confused by what he said. he used stories that were related to the experience of his hearers, and each story had one main point that stood out too clearly to be mistaken (p. 162).

SNEAK-ATTACK

The timid trout is not pulled from the stream by loud noise and by flailing the water. Rather, it responds to the quiet descending of the unsuspected fly (p. 168).

HAVE ONE MAIN POINT

The sermon must drive with all power toward one point. It must have a theme, a center of concentration and a point of focus. There are many ways of presenting a theme (p. 185).

LEAVE OUT WHAT DOESN’T NEED TO BE THERE

Every part [of the sermon] must serve a purpose, nothing must be there which is not needed, and nothing should be omitted which is required (pp. 186-187).

All Truth is from God

I’ve posted before (HERE) about Calvin’s take on reading and quoting non-Christian authors. Here are some more of his thoughts on the subject:

14. Next come manual and liberal arts, in learning which, as all have some degree of aptitude, the full force of human acuteness is displayed. But though all are not equally able to learn all the arts, we have sufficient evidence of a common capacity in the fact, that there is scarcely an individual who does not display intelligence in some particular art. And this capacity extends not merely to the learning of the art, but to the devising of something new, or the improving of what had been previously learned. This led Plato to adopt the erroneous idea, that such knowledge was nothing but recollection. So cogently does it oblige us to acknowledge that its principle is naturally implanted in the human mind. But while these proofs openly attest the fact of a universal reason and intelligence naturally implanted, this universality is of a kind which should lead every individual for himself to recognize it as a special gift of God. To this gratitude we have a sufficient call from the Creator himself, when, in the case of idiots, he shows what the endowments of the soul would be were it not pervaded with his light. Though natural to all, it is so in such a sense that it ought to be regarded as a gratuitous gift of his beneficence to each. Moreover, the invention, the methodical arrangement, and the more thorough and superior knowledge of the arts, being confined to a few individuals cannot be regarded as a solid proof of common shrewdness. Still, however, as they are bestowed indiscriminately on the good and the bad, they are justly classed among natural endowments.
15. Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skillful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.
-John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 2 MAN NOW DEPRIVED OF FREEDOM OF WILL, AND MISERABLY ENSLAVED
In my other post, I referenced Calvin’s Commentary on Titus 1:12, in which Paul calls a pagan Cretan author a “prophet.” Here are his thoughts there:

12 One of themselves, a prophet of their own
I have no doubt that he who is here spoken of is Epimenides, who was a native of Crete; for, when the Apostle says that this author was “one of themselves,” and was “a prophet of their own,” he undoubtedly means that he belonged to the nation of the Cretans. Why he calls him a Prophet is doubtful. Some think that the reason is, that the book from which Paul borrowed this passage bears the title Περὶ Χρησμῶν “concerning oracles.” Others are of opinion that Paul speaks ironically, by saying that they have such a Prophet — a Prophet worthy of a nation which refuses to listen to the servants of God. But as poets are sometimes called by the Greeks ( προφὢται) “prophets,” and as the Latin authors call them Vates , I consider it to denote simply a teacher. The reason why they were so called appears to have been, that they were always reckoned to be ( γένος θεῖον καὶ ἐνθουσιαστικόν)a divine race and moved by divine inspiration.” Thus also Adimantus, in the Second Book of Plato’s treatise Περὶ Πολιτείας after having called the poets υἵους Θεῶν “sons of the gods,” adds, that they also became their prophets. For this reason I think that Paul accommodates his style to the ordinary practice. Nor is it of any importance to inquire on what occasion Epimenides calls his countrymen liars, namely, because they boast of having the sepulcher of Jupiter; but seeing that the poet takes it from an ancient and well-known report, the Apostle quotes it as a proverbial saying. (228)

From this passage we may infer that those persons are superstitious, who do not venture to borrow anything from heathen authors. All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not to reject it; for it has come from God. Besides, all things are of God; and, therefore, why should it not be lawful to dedicate to his glory everything that can properly be employed for such a purpose? But on this subject the reader may consult Basil’s discourse (229) πρὸς τοὺς νέους, ὅπως ἂν ἐξ ἑλλ κ.τ.λ

Spurgeon the Minimalist

I came across this quote HERE.

“Long visits, long stories, long essays, long exhortations, and long prayers, seldom profit those who have to do with them. Life is short. Time is short.…Moments are precious. Learn to condense, abridge, and intensify…In making a statement, lop off branches; stick to the main facts in your case. If you pray, ask for what you believe you will receive, and get through; if you speak, tell your message and hold your peace; if you write, boil down two sentences into one, and three words into two. Always when practicable avoid lengthiness — learn to be short” (Sword & Trowel, September 1871).

On Finding Your Voice

On ‘finding’ your voice or the voice of a character in writing. This could apply to preaching and real life as well:

Though you shouldn’t consciously work on your voice as you write, there is a way to encourage it when you get to the self-editing stage. Start by rereading a  short story, scene, or chapter as if you were reading it for the first time…Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that gives you a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say ‘Ah, yes,’ that sings – highlight that passage in a color you like, or underline it. Then go through and read aloud all  the sentences you highlighted or underlined. Don’t analyze them for the moment, just try to absorb their rhythm or fullness or simplicity or freshness or whatever made them sing to you. What you’ve been reading aloud will represent, for now, your voice at its most effective. And making yourself conscious of it in this mechanical way will strengthen it.

Now read through the same section again, and when you come to those passages that make you wince – or just leave you cold – highlight the passage in a color you dislike, or draw a wavy line under the uninspired sentences. Go back and read consecutively all the passages you didn’t like, and this time try to analyze what makes them different from the passages that sang to you. Is the writing flat? Strained? Awkward? Obvious? Pedestrian? Forced? Vague or abstract?…

If you do this exercise often enough, you will develop a sensitivity to your own voice that will gently encourage the development of the confidence and distinction that you want. And this is as true of a character voice as it is of a narrative voice…

– Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, pp. 178-179

They are More Evil than the Rest of us Walking Pavement

In his novel/novella, Ray, Barry Hannah has a preacher with suppressed urges murder the love of the main character’s life (The ‘flying’ is a reference to being a pilot in WWII):

In their secret hearts, such perversities as Maynard know there are things they can never have, things they have wanted with all their hearts. So they kill them. Most preachers are this way. Their messages seem benevolent, but they are more evil than the rest of us walking pavement.

When I fly again, it will be against the preachers.

-Barry Hannah, Ray, p. 54

I am a preacher, so I take statements like this, even in a novel, to heart. Hannah had a love/hate relationship with the church for a long time. He openly confessed Christ later in his life (and I’m thankful for this), but that’s not what’s important here. The issue here is actually taking such a statement seriously: Preacher, be careful what you do with your urges, and how you mortify them. Suppression is not enough. The Apostle Paul called himself the chief of sinners. Do you think that you’re better?