The Breadcrumbs Of Preaching

Over the past six months or so, I have heard two different one point sermons that caught my attention. The preachers in question delivered well developed, biblically faithful, and rhetorically compelling messages. The one point, once revealed, served as both the reason and the refrain for the bulk of the sermon.

There was only one problem with both sermons and both bottom lines: As a listener, I wasn’t prepared for them.

The terms used in the bottom line didn’t emerge from what had preceded them in the sermon. The language employed in both messages caught me off guard and felt off-kilter, and I spent the last third of each sermon wondering precisely how that bottom line related to what came before. The bottom lines in question sounded good but stood isolated. They may have been clever but they weren’t coherent.

What was missing? Bread crumbs.

That’s right. Good preaching needs some great breadcrumbs.

You remember how Hansel and Gretel used the breadcrumbs, don’t you? As they ventured deep into the woods, they dropped the breadcrumbs along the way. The trail of bread then allowed them to find their way back home when the adventure was over. Drop the breadcrumbs in so you can follow the breadcrumbs out.

That’s precisely how a one point sermon should work. The bottom line serves to:

  • Bring relief to a dilemma;
  • Clarity to a topic;
  • Hope for an obstacle.

Yet the preacher needs to introduce that dilemma, topic, or obstacle early on in the sermon, and do so in a way that when he unveils the bottom line, light bulbs go on in the minds of the hearers. “A-ha! Now I know why he said what he said and how it ties together.” The language should be familiar, if not identical. The breadcrumbs prepare your listeners to feast on your solution.

A couple of recent sermons bear this out.

In the first sermon of a series called Walking On Eggshells – a series devoted to the toxic relationship between Saul and David in I Samuel 15-24 – I knew I wanted to dwell on the much-overlooked yet genuinely climactic moment of the David & Goliath story: when David presents the head of the giant to King Saul and, INSTEAD OF GETTING THE APPLAUSE HE DESERVES, David gets the insult I’m sure he never saw coming:

Whose son are you, young man? (I Samuel 17:18).

Greatest triumph, meet deepest insult.

I assume it’s the kind of insult that many have received at the hands of weak people – people who are so absorbed in their own drama that they can’t celebrate your success. So the early and middle portions of the sermon referred to many times and ways when you expect the applause, when you assume the “attaboy!” For some of us, that expectation was from parents, for others from a coach or a boss, and for many, even from a spouse. There’s an applause we yearn for.

So how did David cope with it when his great triumph met not with applause but with scorn? We look at David’s own language in the run up to his Goliath encounter, celebrating all the occasions in I Samuel 17 where David makes it clear his strength and hope come from God and not from man. That led to the release of this bottom line:

Weak people may steal the applause you deserve but they can never take the approval you have been given.

People had been prepared. The sermon had “breadcrumbed” them into a realization that, as much as we long for the applause of the crowd, it does not compare to the approval of the King.

A second sermon on a much different topic also relied on breadcrumbs to help it make sense.

The series was “Who’s Your One?” (thanks, Baptist friends!) and the message itself had the name “The Stakes Are Hot.” The topic: hell.

So the message began by contrasting the popularity of Jesus with the unpopularity of hell. It even suggested that if we could somehow separate the love of Jesus from the wrath of hell, we’d fix Jesus’ PR problem and simplify the task of evangelism.

Throughout the early section of the message, that was the contrast: the love of Jesus and the wrath of hell.

Of course, the reality is that no one in Scripture speaks more about hell than … wait for it … Jesus. So, weaving in Jesus’ New Testament teaching on hell as well as some helpful questions around philosophy – what kind of Monster God would reserve a mansion on streets of gold for Hitler, Bin Laden, or Chairman Mao? – I landed here:

Hell doesn’t contradict the love of Jesus. Hell completes it. 

Again, that bottom line intrigued hearers, but it did not take them by surprise. The solution may have been unexpected, but it was not unprecedented.

And the breadcrumbs made all the difference.

Drop your trail in and then follow it back out this Sunday.