When Ben Stokes made a daring declaration at 393 for 8 in the first innings of England’s first Ashes Test match it was always going to be a genius move or an act of folly.
As it turned out, the failure to take 20 Australian wickets meant defeat rather than victory. It might have been a thrilling game, but the England Cricket team will need to work hard to retrieve the initiative in this series and regain the Ashes. In retrospect Stokes’s bold move has proved to be a premature declaration.
I have been thinking about how sometimes sermon can have a premature declaration.
Perhaps you have heard of the strategy of one preacher:
“First I tells them what I am going to tell ’em, then I tells ’em, then I tells ’em what I told ‘em.”
Is it a good idea for preachers to tell the congregation what they are going to say in their sermon?
Doesn’t this seem as crazy as stand-up comedians telling the punch line of a joke before they tell the joke or a crime fiction author telling us on page 1 who did it?
A premature declaration can make the rest of a joke, crime novel, or a sermon redundant.
This week I sent my PowerPoint to the church where I am preaching for a four-week run.
The church secretary said that she is going to resist the temptation to take a quick peek at the presentation, so she can experience it and the sermon in real time on Sunday.
Preachers do need to maintain a measure of suspense to keep the listeners engaged.
I am reminded of PG Wodehouse’s description of the way that the parables of Jesus work.
“A parable is one of those stories in the Bible which sounds at first like a pleasant yarn but keeps something up its sleeve which suddenly pops up and knocks you flat.”
I like the idea of a sermon keeping something up its sleeve. Sermons ought to have some element of the surprise factor. This can come in a variety of forms:
It might be an unexpected turn of phrase.
It could be an unexpected interpretation or fresh insight into a familiar biblical text.
It might be a contemporary story that builds a bridge between the biblical text and the hearer’s world.
Perhaps the surprise comes in the sermon’s dénouement that brings the hearer to an unanticipated place — like that famous message given to King David by Nathan the prophet? In PG Wodehouse’s terms it seems to start with a “pleasant yarn,” about shepherds and sheep, then provokes David to anger over an obvious injustice before Nathan lands the punchline, “You are the man,” (2 Samuel 12:1–7)
If Nathan had started his message with the premature declaration that David was guilty, without letting the message work as a slow release of truth, it is unlikely that Nathan would have landed a punch.
Preacher: don’t let the hearer off the hook with the premature conclusion, “I know where this is going. I’ve heard it all before.”
I enjoy setting off fireworks. As with preaching I have found that it is important to pace the pyrotechnics to maintain interest and save something spectacular for the end.