I’ve got my first sermon session coming up on Wednesday. Randall Visscher and I will be preaching on Luke 13:6-9, a short parable that I reproduce here for your enjoyment:
And he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, “Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?” And he answered him, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
The end. You can see that here at CRTS they are very comfortable with letting you take the wheel, so to speak, of an 18-wheeler approaching a hairpin corner at 50 k over the limit. But I can tell you that my reaction upon being assigned this was, after the butterflies, “This will be nothing less than great fun.”
The normal procedure is that the student hands in his sermon one week prior to delivering it, so I handed in mine two days ago. But because it’s our first time writing sermons, us second-years had to hand in an outline a week before that. This gives Dr. de Visser an opportunity to correct us on the very good chance that we’re careening wildly off course. So I met with him last Friday, and the meeting was encouraging. He felt that I was going in the right direction and that I had a good grasp of the passage. Good, because I really wasn’t sure I had even that. He also told me that two of our federation’s Dutch forefathers, Dr. Schilder and Dr. Houlwerda, who agreed on pretty much everything, disagreed on how to interpret this passage. This was also encouraging, and is even more so now as I think about my completed sermon sitting there on Dr. de Visser’s desk, waiting for the red pen.
The first thing you want to do with a passage like this is look at the context. Was there a particular event that led to this teaching? In this case the context is immediately rewarding. In the verses prior we read of how Christ was asked a political question, but turned the discussion to his own purposes and delivered twice the command to “repent, or you will all likewise perish.” This parable, then, is about repentance.
So I spent last week Saturday, all day, in the library. By the end of the day I had what I thought was a pretty good sermon. I had explained who the master is, who the fig tree is, what the figs are, and what the vinedresser represents. I talked about how Christ was commanding the Jews to repent, and that He’s commanding the same thing of us today. I even pulled in a beautiful passage from Song of Songs in a conclusion that I thought was a real clincher. So I went home that night eager to impress Arenda with my first sermon. She listened very patiently, and then she calmly explained what she thought of it.
I did sulk. I sat in a chair and wondered just what in the world I had been thinking. I hadn’t even explained what repentance was, or what the Jews were supposed to be repenting from! And who did I think I was pulling in Song of Songs like that? I thought, I’m going to make a terrible minister. You know how it goes. I did eventually come to the realization that the first draft of my first sermon was hardly the place for self-abuse, and I gave up my moping. I should also add that I’m very grateful for Arenda’s critique. Had I delivered that at sermon session, I don’t think they would have sent me home; but I wouldn’t have been able to look anyone in the eye for a week or two.
Monday afternoon I went over the sermon with a highlighter, and marked all the lines that I wanted out. There was a lot of yellow, and there was a lot of writing in the margins as I went about re-imagining much of it. It was a good and productive process, however, and I again worked well into the evening. I knew that this second draft was a great deal better than the first, and the third draft on Tuesday was sharper yet. What I handed in on Wednesday was probably the best I could have done at this stage, but even then I’m still left with many questions. Did I miss something really important? Was I out to lunch in my interpretation? I got rid of the Song of Songs reference, but I brought in Cain instead. We’ll see how that goes.
But this really is the most exciting thing I’ve done here at seminary. Even with the reservations that I have about my sermon, there’s a deep and wonderful joy that accompanies delving into God’s Word and using all of your powers to explain and apply that Word. It’s one of the most involved activities I’ve ever undertaken, with my mind and my heart both very actively seeking understanding and expression. I look forward to delivering the sermon on Wednesday, and I look forward to the critique that’s coming.