Friday, February 08, 2008

First, Diagram

My friend Mark's blog (Converging Heritage) has had several posts about preparing for sermons. I got to thinking about my preparation for sermons. So I will post a series of my development of a sermon or two.

To begin with, I think the goal of any sermon is to faithfully convey what the author intended. This goes for any bible study, sermon, or any other time we engage the text. As Fee and Stuart say,

...the aim of good interpretation is not uniqueness; one is not trying to discover what no one else has ever seen before.

Interpretation that aims at , or thrives on, uniqueness can usually be attributed to pride (an attempt to 'outclever' the rest of the world), a false understanding of spirituality (wherein the Bible is full of deeply buried truths waiting to be mined by the spiritually sensitive person with special insight), or vested interests (the need to support a theological bias, especially in dealing with texts that seem to go against that bias). Unique interpretations are usually wrong. This is not to say that the correct understanding of a text may not often seem unique to someone who hears it for the first time. But it is to say that uniqueness is not the aim of our task.

The aim of good interpretation is simple: to get at the 'plain meaning of the text.'
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 17-18.

To get to the "plain meaning of the text" means that the text, the Scripture itself, must be the center of the study. This does not mean that we cannot use other sources like commentaries, dictionaries, and the like. But it does mean that the text drives and shapes the sermon. To make sure of this, I attempt the following to begin my study for a sermon:

1. I read the text in its context several times. This may mean reading an entire book several times. It may mean reading some background information. But one should understand the basic questions of the text: when was it written, why was it written, to whom was it written, etc.

2. I usually try to diagram the text is some manner to gain an understanding of the author's flow of thought. This is usually basic diagramming and not very sophisticated but enough to allow me to see the basic themes of the paragraph(s).

To show what this would look like, I have some examples below. These are not very detailed diagrams (there are some who diagram every word). I do try to find the main phrase of the sentence, the supporting phrases, and any contrasting themes found in the text.

Here is a diagram of a New Testament passage:

1 Timothy 1:3-11

(You may not be able to see if you are using a Vista machine - don't ask me why but Comcast is having trouble with that).

Note several things about the diagram:

First, my diagrams are usually not done in electronic format. However, I usually do some sort of diagram even if it is scratched out with paper and pen.

Second, it flows in the order of the text. I believe it is important to keep the text in the order in which it was written. Others seem to think they can take liberty in rearranging the text but I think it should stay in the order the author wrote it.

Third, I include the verses on the left side just to keep track of where I am in the text.

Forth, the farther to the left of the paper, the more major the topic. Thus, you can see the Roman numerals which will indicate the probable "points" of my sermon, even though I will not use the exact words under each Roman numeral (this will become clearer as I continue to develop the sermon).

Fifth, this diagram is a diagram of the English language. It would always be better, if possible, to go to the original languange and diagram that. However, if that is not possible at the present time, then diagramming from a reliable translation will usually provide you with a good diagram. Any issues within the text which would impact diagramming will be identified later in the process.

While Paul's epistles are a little easier to diagram than other parts of Scripture, diagramming can be done with any part of Scripture. I have included an Old Testament example to show what that would look like:

Haggai 1:1-11

While the Old Testament is not as clear, when looking at the New Testament diagram above, one can see an outline taking shape. This is a valuable exercise and all I have done is studied the text. I used some commentaries and lexicons, but only to confirm the accuracy of the relation of phrases. For example, in the 1 Timothy passage, it says, "some me, straying from these things, have turned aside..." The question is, "What does 'these' refer to?" It seems obvious that it is referring to "a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith" but I wanted to consult some other opinions to be sure.

So, to start, I would suggest a good diagram of the passage. This provides some great beginning information about the passage which is derived directly from the the passage. This is a great start.

Tomorrow, I will post the next step I take when developing a sermon.

Diagram -> Outlining -> Excursus -> Word Studies -> Commentaries -> Excursus -> Refining -> Illustrations -> Practice -> Preaching