In the months leading up to my college graduation, I was permitted, like all senior ministry students, to deliver a Senior Sermon to the faculty and student body during chapel.
It was the worst sermon I think I have ever delivered.
The idea I was trying to convey was fine, but the way I attempted to communicate it just didn’t work. Afterwards, friends and professors shook my hand, smiled, were supportive; I thanked them, but I think we all went off to lunch reminded of what a sermon misfire looks like.
Looking back, I had aimed for what I had thought every chapel message was supposed to be. In my four years at Great Lakes Christian College, I had always thought of chapel as a time for inspiration. School officials had always tried to bring in the best area speakers who would share with us words from the trenches meant to give us guidance for our years ahead; other times our cherished professors would share wisdom gleaned from their years of study and ministry. And the better the communicator, the more we students left chapel feeling inspired, excited, and ready to take on the world.
So when I prepared my sermon, inspiration was what I aimed for; those powerful statements worthy of writing down in your notebook which must be delivered with all the thundering magnificence of a John Williams’ soundtrack. But I didn’t have any of those moving ‘amen’ statements. I ended up over-killing every comment and then, when I soon saw it wasn’t working, I reverted to a tone of hushed gravitas; but when you don’t have the content, the delivery doesn’t matter.
Some weeks later I had a new opportunity. It wasn’t chapel, but a presentation of a paper every senior was required to write and deliver, highlighting a theme that had shaped our college lives the most and may help frame our post-college years. I chose “The Ethics of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount”. This time I slowed down, studied the Scriptural text as it was, let it set its reality in me, meditated on it meanings, researched different commentaries, formed my own thoughts, wrote a draft, edited and reworked it, then submitted it. By the day I presented, I was content with my preparation and comfortable not feeling the need to perform.
This time was a joy to simply present it. Support from friends and faculty was substantial and sincere; a professor I highly respect came to me a week later and said he had quoted me in his sermon that past Sunday. The difference this time had been a slow but intense focus on the text that had allowed me to carefully excavate simple insights by which I could then frame the paper and presentation, letting the thoughts speak for themselves without sensationalizing them.
Aim for insight, not for inspiration.
This has become a guiding principle for many sermons since. Sermons or messages do not have to be exciting, fueled with adrenaline, or inspiring in order for their truthfulness to make its way into our minds. If insights are carefully cultivated and framed, assimilating their truthfulness will result in inspiration, though not for its own sake, but so the truth now clarified can then be embodied.
Inspiration is like snack food and soda, while insight is like vegetables and water. Inspiration is more fun; insight is more formational. Insight lasts longer than inspiration. Insight is not concerned with performing like a YouTube viral video or being a cute meme, but with giving substance to the kind of character you will end up living out for the rest of your life.
Scripture study or sermon prep cannot be a rushed process. Let’s slow down. Hurry makes worry and neither make an insightful sermon. Read the text like you’re talking with an old friend. Savor every sentence, breathe in its aroma. Do not expertly presume anything, but ponder its context and contents as with new eyes. Read carefully; read prayerfully. Let it set its reality into you. Slowly but surely, sight will be given you to see how God has been at work, both as recorded in the text and now realized in you. Delight in that insight, letting it form not just your sermon, but your substance.