To Preach a Book: Panicking

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
~ 2 Timothy 4:2

Follow one preacher’s journey preaching through a book.

I have chosen a book to preach through and I have assembled a pile of books and tools to use. I’ve had a host of thoughts go through my mind. I’ve probably thought of a title for the sermon series. I’ve thought about some things I’m going to say in sermons. In other words, this is the really fun part of preaching through a book.

Yes, the fun part is just before you actually start working on preaching through a book. Everything is perfect at this point. I have selected a book. The biblical book is a fixed point. I have some familiarity with it, though I’m probably overestimating how well I know the book. I have a pile of books I haven’t read yet, but I’m confident all the answers to my problems are there in characters on the pages. I just have to fetch them, but that shouldn’t be too hard. I also have blank pages, an empty file, or a blank canvas if you’re feeling artsy. The blankness means endless possibilities and limitless space for a brilliant sermon series.

The Blank Page

Uh oh. The blank page. Writers call it the blank page syndrome. The blank page holds endless possibilities until you actually sit down to write, and then the endlessness of it becomes overwhelming. To preach through a book, those blank pages will have to actually be filled with notes or manuscripts of sermons going section by section through an entire book of the Bible. Where am I going to find time to read all those books and how am I going to sort out inheritance laws, kinsman redemption, and levirate marriage? Does that have something to do with Levites? Why did I pick this book? Maybe I should check the want ads to see who’s hiring and find another line of work.

Maybe you don’t experience those types of panics, but I do and quite frequently. In the process of putting together nearly every sermon I preach, there is a point where I think I cannot do this and I am tempted to just preach a topical sermon, or pull an old one from the file. I feel I am in the center of a terrible maelstrom with all these pieces whirling around and I can’t manage to pull them together. I don’t go to the old file, but I experience the tempting thought more often than I wish was true. Maybe that was too honest.

A Line Anywhere

The answer at this point is to keep praying and keep working. When I’m overwhelmed and don’t know what to do, how do I keep working? I need something to work on.

I read about an artist who had a particular method for overcoming the blank canvas syndrome. The artist would simply make a mark or line, in any shape or direction, anywhere on the canvas. That mark might become a tree, mountain, shoreline, or something else entirely. What it ended up being in the painting did not matter. What did matter was the mark now gave the painter something to work with and took away the blankness of the canvas. That’s what I need—a line anywhere to give me something to work with.

I will explain what I mean in a minute. First, the illustration I just used provides us with a bonus lesson. I read that in a book sometime in the last two years. It came back to me as I was thinking over this post. I remember reading it, but I can’t remember where. I can’t remember if it was a well-known artist or someone the author knew. Maybe it wasn’t actually a real person, but a story to simply make a point. I don’t know, because I can’t remember.

I remember reading it, but I don’t remember thinking anything special about it at the time. I was thinking about how I get started preaching a book and how I could best describe that to you, and out of the leaf-mold this story came. That’s just how my mind works. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” That’s a great quote my mind offered me in this search, but Chesterton wasn’t talking about the same thing. I searched through the books I have read in the last couple of years and could not find it. I searched the internet for too long and couldn’t find it. If you recognize it and know where it came from, please let me know. I will continue to try to find it, but I may never come across it again. So, the lesson here is don’t trust your memory. You’re going to be reading and thinking a lot about the book you’re preaching through. You’re going to come across little bits and pieces of insight. You need to write it down somewhere. If it is tied to a particular verse or passage, the Scripture Journal I mentioned in the last post is a great place to make a note.

Back to the original train: How do I make a line anywhere to start preaching through a book? I have to have something to work with in order to keep working. The first thing I need is the big picture of the book, and, more specifically, the big idea of the book. Sometimes we call the big idea of a book the theme of the book. Theme is a perfectly fine term, but it can be confusing because theme can refer to the primary message of the book, or refer to recurring ideas within the book. You have the theme and a theme, or themes. See how this can get confusing?

Any repeated idea or teaching in a book is a theme. What I have to find is the dominant theme, or major theme. This theme is sometimes referred to as the controlling theme or unifying theme. Those are good terms because they highlight the fact that a book is written with one main, overarching theme, and that theme controls or unifies all lesser themes. Lesser themes serve the main theme. Identifying the controlling theme gives you the key to interpret the book. When I am looking at an individual section in a book and wondering why it is there, or why it is written the way it is, I know the controlling theme is the answer. Every section contributes to the controlling or unifying theme, whether directly or indirectly.

At this point in the process, I usually have an idea what the controlling theme of a book is. That is perfectly fine. Write it down. I now have a line anywhere. I also have to remember that line may end up being a mountain or a tree or something else entirely. I don’t want to force the book to conform to my initial idea. I want to conform my idea and refine it so it’s shaped accurately by the book. Sometimes what I start out thinking is the theme turns out to be a theme, or something else in the book, or I may just be wrong. This is the starting place for the work of preaching through a book. Identifying the controlling theme is the first objective.

Up Next

Identifying the controlling theme is where the work starts to preach through a book. How do I identify the unifying, controlling theme? I will start on that in the next post.

This post is part of series. To read the entire series from the beginning, go here.

About Jeff Short