One of the things I miss about being a regular church pastor is the sense of excitement and anticipation about preparing for a new sermon series.
It is exciting to wrestle with a Bible book to tease out its meaning and significance for a congregation.
I am grateful for some of the pastors I work with for the opportunity to have input in planning for a preaching series. It was therefore with joy that I have been involved in batting around ideas for a series on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which is the book that the Communitas Church is Riga will be considering this autumn. I will be preaching 5 or 6 of these sermons and listening to members of the preaching team on two other Sundays.
One of the first things I do when preparing to preach in a series on a biblical book is to read that book multiple times. For shorter books like Galatians I will listen to the actor David Suchet’s dulcet tones reading it for me on the Bible Gateway website. This give me a sense of the big picture. There are three things that I am looking for at this stage: structure, purpose and message.
Getting a feel for the structure of the book helps to identify the main movements of a biblical text. This process points to how the series can be logically divided to follow the natural movement of the book’s message. Many of the New Testament letters are laid out like a sermon.
This is hardly surprising as they begin orally with the letter writers speaking out what they wanted to say and then have those words written down by a secretary. Then the hearers experience the letter read out loud as they congregate.
Understanding the purpose of a biblical book reveals how the letter is designed to function as the congregation hear it. The purpose of Galatians is seen in the tone that Paul uses in the letter. Jonathan Pennington suggests that the tone is “dramatic, bold and fiery … The tone of the letter is that of warning.”
“Galatians show us what righteous anger looks like. Paul is angry at the Galatian churches because they are threatening to abandon the true gospel.” (Pennington)
Seeing the core message of a biblical book guides the preacher to stay focused on what the writer is seeking to communicate. The problem with the Galatians was that they wanted to go back in a cultural time machine to become Jews living in another age. Paul’s purpose is to get the Galatians back on track. Paul’s tone in this letter is so urgent because the stakes are so high:
“To add anything to the gospel is to lose the gospel. To add anything to Christ is to lose Christ.” (Pennighton)
Some of my favourite verses in Galatians capture this central message so well:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:19–20)
Every blessing to all those preachers out there who are planning their future preaching at the moment.