The Table Podcast

What Makes a Good Sermon?

In this episode, Drs. Darrell L. Bock and Abe Kuruvilla discuss what makes a good sermon, focusing on preparation, sermon structure, and application.

Timecodes
00:15
Kuruvilla's background in preaching
03:21
What goes into preparing to preach a sermon?
12:17
What is the responsibility of the congregation?
16:00
The introduction of a sermon
23:35
The body of a sermon
31:30
Observation and catching the thrust of the text
40:51
The application of a sermon
Transcript
Darrell Bock
Welcome to The Table, we discuss issues of God and culture. I’m Darrell Bock, executive director for cultural engagement at the Hendricks Center of Dallas Theological Seminary, and my guest today is Abe Kuruvilla, who is professor of preaching here at Dallas Theological Seminary. He gets to listen to lots and lots and lots of sermons.
Abe Kuruvilla
Student sermons.
Darrell Bock
Student sermons, and do you have any idea about how many it is in any given semester, what the range is?
Abe Kuruvilla
Depends on the load, but I have heard up to 96 a semester.
Darrell Bock
Ninety-six sermons a semester, so that’s packing two years worth of church preaching in one semester.
Abe Kuruvilla
That’s exactly right. Sometimes it worries me about the church.
Darrell Bock
I understand, so how did you end up being a professor of preaching?
Abe Kuruvilla
Well that goes back a long way. I was working on a PhD in a medical field about three decades ago in Houston –
Darrell Bock
Okay, so you were a medical doctor to begin with, correct?
Abe Kuruvilla
That’s correct, yes. I was working on a PhD on immunology when I happened to be thrown into a church plant situation, didn’t have anybody to teach, and so I was it without any theological education whatsoever.
Darrell Bock
And it’s actually not so unusual a situation to be in parts of the world.
Abe Kuruvilla
It leaves me with great sympathy for those people. And I just enjoyed what I was doing. It was probably some of the most formative years in my life. Thoroughly enjoyed the churchmanship and everything that goes along with it. Particularly preaching, and that’s when I decided someday I want to go to seminary and study more about preaching and do some writing about it, and end up teaching it. So here I am.
Darrell Bock
Now did you do any formal theological training before you came into seminary, or how did you get exposed to your interest in pursuing seminary?
Abe Kuruvilla
The churches that I attended when I was in Houston were pastored by DTS Profs, and that influenced my direction.
Darrell Bock
So you came here for your studies?
Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, about 10 years I decided I wanted to go to Seminary I ended up here.
Darrell Bock
Well that’s good, you acted quickly on that decision, that’s good.
Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, it started late.
Darrell Bock
And you were just drawn to the preaching while you were going through, is that what happened?
Abe Kuruvilla
Preaching was an interest, as I said, when I was in that church plant situation. And I got more interested in the hermeneutics of preaching while I was going through seminary. And as I was doing more pulpit work, there were issues in preaching that stuck in my mind and said, “I want to work a little bit more on this, and maybe spend the rest of my life working through this.” Which led me on another pathway to Aberdeen, another PhD, but yeah, the end of it is I’m still here and still working on preaching and trying to learn from my students.
Darrell Bock
So your doctoral dissertation was on the hermeneutics of preaching, or hermeneutics?
Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, how to go from text to praxis, the movement from text to application.
Darrell Bock
Okay, very good, well that’s a theme that is beloved to both of us, so we could have a great time here. So let’s talk a little, our topic is what makes for a good sermon. Which, I guess you formulate in part by hearing a lot of mediocre sermons.
Abe Kuruvilla
Well there is no such thing as a perfect sermon, I tell my students that all the time. I’m happy if I can do a B+ week after week, I’d be very content with that. But yeah, there are some criteria that we as a department use to grade sermons, and accuracy to the text, and relevance to the audience, and is it interesting and clear are the four criteria that we generally use.
Darrell Bock
Okay, well let’s work through those together, and then I imagine there is some, with the emphasis on relevance to the text, there also is the issue of how you rhetorically at least attempt to draw in an audience and gain their attention in what’s going on.
Abe Kuruvilla
Yes, the last two parts, the interestingness and the clear aspect of the evaluation, are sort of the rhetorical aspects.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so I think the way I want to go through this is rather than use the criteria of the department, which we can talk about as we go through each part, is maybe to go through kind of the structure of the sermon, which would be, really oversimplified, but introduction, body, and conclusion. But before you even introduce a sermon, you obviously, you gotta have some idea where you’re going.
Abe Kuruvilla
Exactly.
Darrell Bock
And so let’s talk little bit about before you even take a breath and pray at the beginning of the message. What do you see involved in the preparation of the pastor who’s going to give the sermon?
Abe Kuruvilla
I think the best way to start is of course with the text. I know we have chatted a little bit about that in the past, but understanding the text or what the author is doing with what he’s saying is critical. And that is the first step toward moving towards a sermon. Once that is covered, then you start thinking of how can our lives be applied to that text, to the call of that text. Or the other way around, how does the text apply to the audience. And once those are clear, then at that point you start thinking about now applying and organizing things.
Darrell Bock
Okay, now obviously one of the challenges of communicating to a sermon is the variety of people that you’re dealing with in your audience, that not everybody’s coming from the same place. Fortunately we have a text that we believe is inspired, so we think that the text addresses people where they need to be addressed. So there’s a very famous book on preaching by John Stott called Between Two Worlds, in which his metaphor is, you know, you’re trying to connect the world of the text with the world of your audience. What – again, even before you get up and speak and prepare, in the text, how do you begin to think about those two parts of the sermon? The world of the text and the world of your audience.
Abe Kuruvilla
Let me address the second one first. I really think that preaching ought to be pastoral. By which I don’t necessarily mean the office of pastor, but someone in a shepherding capacity, whether that means a large church, a small group, a Sunday school class, youths, young adults, whatever that might be. So you cannot divorce preaching from pastoring. The ideal is that the two should go together, because preaching is a form of shepherding and spiritual formation. So knowing your audience is therefore very critical to that aspect. And that’s where I try to bring in the audience factor, claiming that preaching ought to be pastoral. That’s critical.

Going back to the other aspect of the preaching, the call of the text is usually something very general and generic, so to speak. It may not necessarily deal with 21st century life in specific terms. The task of the pastor, then, is to say, “In view of the fact that I am your spiritual director, mentor, preacher, pastor, elder, parent figure, so to speak,” exercising pastoral wisdom at that point, “I think this is what we should do in light of the call of this text. These are the specificities that we should engage in.”

Darrell Bock
Okay, and I’m assuming that you’d agree with me that part of developing that sensitivity is really having a pretty good awareness of, I’m gonna assume a pastoral model here, of your flock. What they’re doing, the lives that they live, the circumstances that they find themselves in, that kind of thing. So that the specifics connect to some degree.
Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, I think when I say that preaching ought not to be divorced from pastoring, the ideal is that the person who is preaching is the one doing the pastoring, is on the deathbed, is by the hospital bed, is living life with the flock, whatever size that flock might be, and whatever exact composition of that flock might be. The pastor shepherds them through life. And one facet of that is the pulpit, pulpit work.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, when I was taught preaching I was taught by Hadden Robinson, and of course he used to talk about, I think the way he described it was seven kind of typical people in your audience. You think about who you’re dealing with, the mother, even – the single mother, the people who work nine to five, the teenager or college student, you know, different levels of people that you have to be thinking about as you’re thinking about addressing the text. And I’m spending some time on this because obviously, connecting to your audience with a sermon, you not only want to connect with the level of the content, but you want to connect in terms of their life.

My premise is that when people interact with Scripture, well I’ll go ahead and lay it out and then we can have a conversation. That oftentimes, we do at least attempt to do a pretty good job of going from text to life, and that is the direction, the beginning direction of all interaction with Scripture. But most people who read their bible actually read it in kind of a reverse direction. They come out of their situation of their life, oftentimes, and want to know how this text speaks into where God has them. And so that dynamic is an important dynamic to wrestle with as a speaker and preacher in which the text has its primary and defining role, if you want to put it that way, in terms of this meaning. And yet connecting it to where people are is a very, very important part of communication.

Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, I think it’s a both end situation. I think again, the staple diet of the flock ought to be starting with the text and how that applies to our lives. There is a place for the topical way of preaching where you go from issues and topics that are affecting me or the congregation and then find the texts that address those issues, there’s certainly a place for that. The difference, I would say, is the difference between an emergency room and a preventive medicine clinic. I see the topical as being ER. You have an issue, you go to doctor. I see the other way of looking at it as a preventive medicine clinic. You are not giving antibiotic shots for an infection, but you’re vaccinating them against these infections in the first place. Creating habits and patterns of life. So if the topical sermons are a spiritual response to issues of life, the other one is spiritual formation for life.
Darrell Bock
Interesting, ‘cause I think I would view topics slightly differently in the sense of, it does have that emergency role, but the other thing that it does is it’s canonically framing. A good topical sermon can bring a whole array of the Canon to a conversation in such a way that you see that this passage contributes this piece and that passage contributes that piece, and as you put the whole of the Canon together, you get a better kind of 360 view of what that topic looks like, biblically.
Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, that’s topical sermons and that’s who topical sermons are taught here. How does the Canon address a given topic?
Darrell Bock
Yeah. The other issue that of course is, is that when we preach, we preach in a very messy world. You know, people come in and we live in a fallen world, we’re fallen creatures, we end up having to deal with – a lot of pastoring ends up spending a lot of time dealing with messy situations. So, you know, the remark you often here about the pastor as well, she can be dirty. And –
Abe Kuruvilla
Smelly.
Darrell Bock
Yeah. So bringing the text to those tensions in life that we inevitably have, because we live in a fallen world, is another important part of dealing with the preaching situation.
Abe Kuruvilla
Absolutely, I think almost every text will be touching on a messy issue somewhere in our lives. I don’t think there’s any text that’s devoid of that. So the goal of the pastor, the preacher, is to see what the call of the text is and see where the lives are that need messing around with, and bring those two together.
Darrell Bock
Now one of the things that’s easy to do with a topic – how do we do good sermons, is to focus on the pastor and how he puts the sermon together, but I want to take a little bit of time to talk about the audience here a little bit. And what do you see, as someone who teaches preaching, the responsibility of the audience to be to a sermon? I mean obviously there’s attentiveness, but beyond that, how would you counsel someone who listens to sermons on a weekly basis to wrestle with, how do I appreciate what it is that the pastor’s supposed to be serving me as he ministers to me?
Abe Kuruvilla
I would probably, if I were to – if I had the chance to teach some of the audience members in my church, would ask them the same things. You’ve got to be aware of what your pastor’s doing. Is it true to the text, is it relevant to the audience, is it interesting, is it clear? It is not enough that it be interesting and clear, but it’s gotta be true to the text and relevant to our lives. Unless all of those things are there, a sermon it does not make. So I would say that’s true. That’s almost like putting a critical hat on.

Well that is important and that should be something that our audiences should be aware of. There’s also the sense of submission to pastoral wisdom. I am reminded of one of my departmental colleagues who preaches in a local church, which is attended by one of our language profs. So knowing what my colleague was preaching on, I went to this language prof and asked him what he thought about my colleague’s preaching on this stuff, knowing that he probably wasn’t doing the text much, just as much. At least, that’s what my colleague myself had confessed to me.

Darrell Bock
Okay, I actually may know this scenario, but go ahead.
Abe Kuruvilla
You might. I was taken by the response by this professor of this language department. He said, “Well, I need to listen to so-and-so, he has a lot of wisdom. He has a lot of wisdom.” So he was basically telling me that while he thought the person was probably not true to the text, that he respected the pastoral wisdom and the ethos that the man brought to the pulpit, and that he needed to listen. I think that ought to be a first, a principle of first importance for anybody listening to a sermon.
Darrell Bock
So open ears and open heart, but with a touch of a discerning eye.
Abe Kuruvilla
It’s a principle of charity with which you address the first principle that – with which you listen to somebody, or even you read something. I’m gonna give the author or the speaker the benefit of the doubt. I’m approaching this with charity. Yes, I may not agree with him in the end, but I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt. And if nothing else, he is my pastor and I should listen.
Darrell Bock
Yes, and I confess, I’ve heard lots of sermons where I go, “I’m not sure I read the text that way, but actually the application that’s being drawn out of it is not too bad.”

And so it does represent a little bit of a challenge. Well all that is kind of introduction and prolegomena to kind of working through this. So let’s talk about the introduction to a sermon. What should an introduction to a sermon seek to achieve as you walk into it? And granted, there are a variety of ways into a passage. So when I ask this question, I’m sort of asking it generically, with the recognition that sometimes you can – there are lots of ways to play with the way in.

Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, there are lot of ways to open the door. As one has struggled with the text and gotten a sense of where it’s going and how you can make it relevant, the next real thing that you need to struggle with, which forms an important part of the introduction, is what is the need for the audience? Why should they listen to this sermon? Why should they spend the next 20, 30, 40, 50 minutes listening to this sermon? What is the need? And it is up to the preacher to elicit that need if it’s not felt, and to create that need.

And the lead-in to that need is usually some kind of an image of some sort. So there’s an image, there’s a need, and then there’s the subject of the sermon. There is the text from which it is obtained, and then a preview is often helpful as to say, “You can hear this in three or four different ways.” So you’re catching their attention, you’re telling them why they should listen, you’re telling them what they’re going to listen to, the subject. You’re going to tell them from where this is being got the, the text, and you’re telling them how they should listen, the preview. Those are probably the five essential aspects of an introduction: the image, the need, the subject, the text, and a preview.

Darrell Bock
Okay, now let’s talk about the subject of the sermon a little bit, because what you’re introducing here is something that, at least in many preaching circles, is called the beginning of a homiletical idea. I’m in my own mode here. The beginning of a homiletical idea. And laying out the theme or the proposition or the sermon in many ways, is at the core of the idea. What the text is actually affirming, or where the text is taking me. And in thinking about the idea, how much of the idea is the content of the passage, and how much of the idea is pushing towards the application of the passage?
Abe Kuruvilla
Which is probably moving more towards the application than the content. But in a very general sense. The attitude we must have in such and such a situation, something like that. Without giving too much away in the introduction.
Darrell Bock
Because part of the issue is gonna be you want to introduce the topic but you don’t want to spill all the beans at the beginning, so you keep the interest –
Abe Kuruvilla
That’s right, you want to play your cards close to your chest.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, and it’s interesting, the reason I raise the content versus application question of course is that we work on the front in half in our department on the developing of the message of the text in such a way that the exegetical idea of the text gets affirmed and identified. I try, because I’m thinking about the fact that the exegetical idea or content idea usually gets left behind or the homiletical idea when you actually handle the passage. I try very early on to get the student to be crisp. Most exegetical ideas that we see are long and unwieldy, and are way too complex. But I take it that one of the goals of the idea in identifying the subject, and then we eventually come to the compliment, of course, is to state this in a memorable – which means it oftentimes has to be in a kind of crisp kind of form.
Abe Kuruvilla
Are you talking about the introduction in the –?
Darrell Bock
Well, setting it up, the idea, with the introduction.
Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, the subject could very well be a question. What will you do when opposition mounts against you? That could be enough. So really the subject is, “I’m gonna tell you, at the end of the sermon you will know what to do when opposition mounts against you.” Or something of that sort.
Darrell Bock
So you may not come out and state it is at the beginning of a proposition, you may just simply raise the problem to get in touch with the felt need –
Abe Kuruvilla
Right, and the felt need is that opposition is active against us. I’m making this up –
Darrell Bock
Right, right.
Abe Kuruvilla
So there would probably be a particular context in which this opposition is working, but that could very well be the need. And the image might be the story, the picture of some kind of opposition. And moving to the need is, “You know, you and I are going to face this opposition if we already are not. How will you handle it?” That’s the subject. “Today we’re going to look at such and such passage, and first we’ll see this, then we’ll see this, then we’ll see this, then we’ll see this.” And basically saying, “This is what you’re going to get at the end of the sermon.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so you mentioned, drawing attention, creating interest, you’re also doing a little bit of mapping for where you’re going to take the people –
Abe Kuruvilla
Preview, how they will hear it.
Darrell Bock
Right, okay. Okay, well let’s – we’re almost at our break here, so I don’t want to get too much into – let me ask you this question. What are some problems with introductions that sometimes come up?
Abe Kuruvilla
Probably the biggest one is the absence of a clearly stated or elucidated need. Why am I listening to this? It has to be established right from the start. It is an integral part of making the sermon relevant, and I think that ought to be something that preaches should think through carefully. What would I lose if this text weren’t here and if the sermon was not preached?
Darrell Bock
So I can’t assume that the topic’s important and it’s gonna draw the audience’s interest.
Abe Kuruvilla
Not at all.
Darrell Bock
I’ve really got to work pretty hard to make sure that they’re with me.
Abe Kuruvilla
This is – somebody once asked me, what’s the difference between your seeing patients and your preaching? That was a very open-ended question, but I thought about it and I said, “My patients come to me knowing that they’re sick. Not so with my audience. They don’t know why they’re here. They don’t know why they need the sermon, they don’t know why they are sitting through this. Not in a hostile fashion, but generally apathetic. So I have to tell them, this is important. This is why we’re preaching, this is why this text is there, because this is what you’re going to learn. This is critical for the way you and I live our Christian lives, and this is how God will want to us to live.”
Darrell Bock
And oftentimes it’s with topics that a person may or may not have even thought about being significant to their spiritual life, and yet there it is in the Bible.
Abe Kuruvilla
Or that there is actually a call from the text for this particular behavior in such a particular situation. To that level of specificity, I don’t think people have generally paid attention to that.
Darrell Bock
Well, you know, I feel a little bit like we’re doing some science here, but it is fascinating to think through what goes into a sermon and particularly what sets it up, because I do think that sometimes the most critical part of the sermon is the first five minutes, when the audience actually decides whether they’re going to buy in to the rest of your time or not.
Abe Kuruvilla
180 seconds is all you have. That’s when they say, “I’m going to listen or I’m not going to.”
Darrell Bock
Yeah, it’s not long. Okay, so we’ve introduced the sermon, okay.

We had been in the business of introducing the sermon –

Abe Kuruvilla
Which really is the last thing you ought to do as you prepare the sermon.
Darrell Bock
Interesting, yes, because –
Abe Kuruvilla
You want to know what you’re introducing.
Darrell Bock
Exactly right. So that’s interesting, ‘cause – I’ll leave that for later. And you’ve already mentioned that you have about 180 seconds to gain your audience’s attention and their commitment to listen to you while you present the need and try to introduce the subject and do those things that an introduction, a good introduction is supposed to do. Working with an image that sometimes will drive the sermon and the backdrop of the sermon. Let’s talk about the body of the sermon itself, and obviously here the text is king in terms of what drives the passage. But here’s a question I often get asked, and I think raises some interesting issues, and that is, when you pursue the message of the text, do you feel obligated necessarily to go in the order of the text? Or do you have some freedom as to how you go about bringing out the idea that’s in the text?
Abe Kuruvilla
Yes, there’s considerable freedom. I’m not constrained to go in the order of the text simply because it’s a different medium. It’s written, and I am speaking. I need to convey the thrust, or the theology, as I call it, of the text. But I may not necessarily have to go verse one, two, three, four, five, six in that order.
Darrell Bock
So sometimes you can work backwards to unview the last of the text, or dive in the middle where maybe the center theme is, or tension?
Abe Kuruvilla
Absolutely, depending on you, your audience, and how you want to convey this across.
Darrell Bock
Okay, so part of this is just to suggest how much, and I mean this in a positive sense, how much creativity there is in doing a sermon and working with the meaning of the text, drawing out its interest, drawing out the points, et cetera. There are a lot of – the preacher is faced with a lot of options.
Abe Kuruvilla
Far more options than there are preachers. So I generally have in my mind the picture of an engine. What I want to teach them is really the engine. You can put whatever body you want on it, whatever color, whatever shape, A/C, no A/C, heat, warmers, seat warmers or not, or – it’s entirely your –
Darrell Bock
Seat warmers are really recommended when it’s cold, but anyway, go ahead.
Abe Kuruvilla
[Laughs] So all of those things are your choices. Those are options based on you, your personality, your audience, and where you’re ministering.
Darrell Bock
Realistically, what do you think about the kind of time that a pastor can give to the preparation of a text? I mean this is something that we, I know we’ve discussed in our own exegetical department. There’s the ideal world that you wish people had enough time in the context of the pastor to be able to spend say, X hours on a text, or something like that. But the reality often is that you don’t have that kind of time. So what kind of advice do you give to pastors as they think about the time they spend actually interacting with the text?
Abe Kuruvilla
Over the last two years, I’ve had on my blog at homiletix with an X dot com, a series of interviews with a number of preachers. And one of the questions that I ask them is, how many hours they spend on their sermon. It’s interesting if you want to go back and compute the average, it’s about 15 to 20 hours for a sermon. And I would say from my personal experience, yeah, I would fit into that.
Darrell Bock
That’s actually very close to what we recommend as well, that’s interesting. Yeah, we tend to be on the upper end of that number, but that’s basically the number that we give students. And the other thing that I think is important to realize is – and I do think this is true, is that the more you teach and preach, it’s a little bit like a building snowball in the sense of your understanding of the text grows as you spend more time in the word all the time. So I remember, I think this was in Oswald Sanders book on spiritual leadership, in which he’s telling the story about giving a talk and someone walked up to him and said, “How long did it take you to prepare that message?” And his response was, “All my life.” You know, that basically he was saying, he was drawing on everything that God had taught him in his exposure to work.
Abe Kuruvilla
I would say that if somebody asked me how many years did it take you to become a dermatologist.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, so it’s a good answer to the question. So let’s talk about the text a little bit. How do you recommend that people interact with the text? What – I have in mind here, their own study, their use of resources, that kind of thing. What kind of recommendations do you give to your students?
Abe Kuruvilla
I would say both and. Since the Holy Spirit speaks through voices other than me, I have to respect that through democracy of the dead, even, even dead authors. And those who are writing, thinking of books as just funnels of everything that God has taught God’s people over the ages. So it’s a both and situation for me.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, we use the picture of – they’re like conversation partners for you about the text, and good commentators will spur your thinking in ways that will help or encourage your preaching. Not just – interestingly enough, a good commentator will do it in a way that doesn’t just spur your thinking in terms of the content of the text, although oftentimes that’s what their goal is. But sometimes they’ll spur your thinking about how to even frame and present the text, that image that you’re talking about, or something like that, will sometimes come out of your interaction that you use in the conversations that you have with those. The page is dead and the words are dead, but they’re coming from a live mind that is trying to stimulate your thinking.
Abe Kuruvilla
And they’re interacting with a live mind. The reader himself is a live mind right there, so.
Darrell Bock
Now again, this is kind of a positive and negative template I’m using to ask you these questions, but what are some of the problems or issues you see in interacting with getting to the meaning of the text? What are you commonly run into?
Abe Kuruvilla
I think probably the biggest one for me, and this is something that I’ve been working on for a while, is catching the thrust of the text. What the author is doing with what he’s saying. The sense of the pragmatics of the text. I think we’re very good at understanding the semantics of the text, what it means, how the words relate to one another and the clauses and the parsing. Going beyond that asks, so how does – so what is the diagnosis? All of these symptoms, how do they add together and come up and create a diagnosis of what’s going on? I think that’s the biggest failure. That’s something that I also see commentaries as being not very attentive to.
Darrell Bock
So, and when you say that, are you thinking about how or why? I mean, what kinds of questions are we trying to answer when we’re looking and fishing for that, the rest of the text? Or is it the question is determined by what the text itself is doing?
Abe Kuruvilla
Yeah, the text drives that, and the questions are driven by the text. But still, what – why is this said? Why is this stated here? What is it doing here, how does it fit all the other elements in a pericope or preaching text? And how does this pericope fit with pericopes preceding and following? And so all of the sense of what is the author doing in a whole book, as well as in this pericope that contributes to the movement of the whole book?
Darrell Bock
So this is a pursuit of a message in a context, really.
Abe Kuruvilla
Very much so.
Darrell Bock
And can be very much a challenge. And it’s one of – if I can say it this way, it’s one of the problems that preachers have if they come with their situation – how can I say that? Too prominent in the questions that they’re asking, that the issue can be that the static that they’re getting from the situation they find themselves may actually prevent them from seeing what’s happening in the text, or may frame it in a way that may not be in connection with what the text is doing.
Abe Kuruvilla
This is true, that’s another advantage of just preaching pericope by pericope, because you’re not constrained by what particular situation your life is going through at any given time for you to pick the text that addresses that, but you’re just being forced in a sense to go through the whole counsel of God.
Darrell Bock
Okay. So what other advice would you have for those that are thinking about gaining the meaning of the text? You say you’ve been wrestling with this for a long time. Are there any kinds of probing questions that you tend to ask on a regular basis to get at what this text is doing and saying?
Abe Kuruvilla
I think we’re all taught in seminary to make observations of the text. I think a synthetic approach to say, so, what does this observation mean? So why was this done in that way? Let me give you a quick example. In First Samuel 15:1, where Saul is asked to kill all the Amalekites, the story starts with the word of the Lord came to Samuel to tell Saul to destroy the Amalekites. But in the Hebrew, it’s actually the voice of the word of the Lord came to Saul. And very few English translations have that. Immediately, that should raise – why that redundancy? The voice of the word of the Lord came to Samuel. So we’re taken by surprise there, and I think it’s very much appropriate to ask why.

Hold that thought. So Samuel goes, tells Saul, “Kill all the Amalekites,” Saul says yes, but doesn’t. He saves the chief of the men and the best of the animals. And later Samuel confronts him, “Did you do what the Lord told?” “Yeah, I did what the Lord told me to do,” and then you have those powerful words in verse 14, well, what’s the bleating of the sheep and the lowing of the cattle that I’m hearing? Well it’s not lowing and bleating in Hebrew. It’s voice. So clearly, and again, this is a failure of translation to translate it as lowing and bleating, which is probably what really happened. But the way the Hebrew text is saying it, is actually using the word voice. And by that you’re immediately hit by, there you go, this is the connection. Which voice are you listening to? The voice of the word of the lord, or the voice of these seductive titillations of the world?

So it’s one thing to make the observations and then it is to connect the rash with other symptoms and come up with a diagnosis that says, “Ah, I think this is what you have.” And I’m again harking back to my dermatological experiences.

Darrell Bock
Right. Now I’ve heard you preach several times, and the one thing that does strike me about your preaching, and you do this very, very clearly when you’re developing the text, is that you show people these kinds of connections and these kind of – what I would call either word repetitions or word associations, that I take it that that’s actually one of the ways that you – one of the things that you concentrate on as you’re observing the text, is looking for these threads or these lines that run through the whole of a passage.
Abe Kuruvilla
That is true. Those are not the only things, but the fact remains that the text is the only inspired artifact, if you want to call it that, we have. What happened is not inspired. It’s the Holy Spirit’s account of what happened that is inspired and profitable for doctrine or proof collection. So paying attention to the text, which is why I wrote a book called Privilege the Text! How is the story being told? What is – and that goes for repetitions, structural issues like chaisms, and there are other things as well. And that’s dependent on the particular picture. But there – so the reason that I bring it out to my audience is this: the word of God and the people of God, why should I interpose myself between the word of God and the people of God? It is simply because they may not separate it in language, culture, centuries and millennia, may not be able to catch the thrust of the text. So my task is almost as if I’m imagining a pericope as a painting, and these are gallery visitors, and I am the curator of the docent, pointing out, “Look, did you see this? Did you see this?” So they catch the force, and then I duck, of course.

Obviously it has to have hit me first in this story. And my task is not to take on more. I am not Da Vinci. My task is to point out what the text is saying and let the force hit it. And then there’s a secondary task, because I am their spiritual formation leader, director, pastor, preacher, elder, parent figure, I also have to tell them, “Listen, if this is the force of the text and this is what the text calls you to do, how can we put it into shoe leather? Let me give you a few suggestions.” That is the application part. So I see preaching the body as being composed of two parts. First is to catch the thrust and the theology of the text. Second, in my pastoral wisdom, to give suggestions as to how they may apply it to your life.

Darrell Bock
Now it’s interesting, ‘cause on the one hand we’ve got this, if I can say, helping the text project itself on the audience, that you’re kind of the facilitator for, if I can say it that way. May not be the best words, but –
Abe Kuruvilla
I like that.
Darrell Bock
Okay. And yet on the other hand, when you ask questions of why this is happening, which is your kind of going deep and digging for the thrust, that is a challenging exercise. Because sometimes the text doesn’t say it. It leaves it implied, or there is a cultural script at work in the text that is related to a customer or background that triggers the expectations that you’re looking for that a why question might raise, that a person sitting in the 21st century may not even be aware of. So that’s one of the challenges of the preacher, isn’t it, to connect those thoughts?
Abe Kuruvilla
Yes, of course. Yeah, and I think all those are important. I have to take a family history for genetic predilections, I have to take a social history for habits, I have to take a personal history for demographics and occupation. I have to take a medical history for past ailments and earlier maladies. And then I have to examine the patient and do the current modalities of studying the current issue, the pericope, if you will. With all of those histories in the background contributing to my study of the facial rash that, say, you might have when you come to see me.

And all those impinge on it to some extent, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes the family history may not have anything to do with the facial rash. Sometimes an occupational history may have everything to do with the facial rash. So that has to be – you have to exercise some discretion, or what’s important, what’s not. And this is where diagnostics are critically important. I’ve gotta see all of these observations, backgrounds, everything, and – this is important, this is not. This is, this is, this is, because they’re all adding to one thing, the diagnosis, which is the best explanation for the observed symptoms, data, textual clues.

Darrell Bock
Now I feel like if I keep asking you questions, I’m not only gonna get how to do a good sermon, but how to do a good diagnosis. [Laughs]
Abe Kuruvilla
I think the diagnosis of texts is something that we really need to be working a lot more on.
Darrell Bock
Yes, yes.
Abe Kuruvilla
Not just a random – for instance, I could, if you come into my office with a rash and picking on your__, 63?
Darrell Bock
Right, right.
Abe Kuruvilla
63 year old man with a December birthday, coming in with a facial rash, is a little thin on the top, he’s got glasses, he’s wearing a brown shirt. Now, how many of those are important for the rash? Oh by the way, he has got a little redness and some papules and macules on the – I immediately have to discern, the shirt is probably not going to – the fact that he’s married to Sally is probably not significant for his – unless she slapped him or something.

So I have got to immediately clear away some of the brush. I can’t, as somebody once said, just be browsing like cattle, just picking every blade of grass. But I’ve got to be exercising some discretion as to, “Oh, I think this is what is happening here.”

Darrell Bock
And you’re assembling a lot of pieces and trying to make, for lack of a better description, some sense out of all the pieces that you have.
Abe Kuruvilla
In medicine, that’s called inference to best explanation. Here are the symptoms, and here are all kinds of observations, the red shirt, brown pants. Discounting that, these are critical, and from that I am going to make an inference. And if that facial rash, for instance, is, say, psoriasis, well now I’m going to be somewhat deductive and say, “If it is psoriasis, Darrell would have something else, say, on his fingernails. Psoriasis can’t affect the – so let me see your fingernails.” And I look at that and say, “Oops, nothing there.” So I better go back and say I got it wrong. So you’re making an inference and then based on that inference, deductive – looking back at the text and saying – and then you actually go back and refine.
Darrell Bock
Exactly.
Abe Kuruvilla
So here’s the process as I see it. The first step is that quasi-mysterious, it’s called abduction, really. It’s an abductive reasoning, this whole bang, they came together, this is probably it. Now I’m going to have a deductive approach. If this is it, then the text or the patient should have this, this, this, and this as well. Every other thing in the text should be adding to that. And if it does, great, my diagnosis is established. If not, I gotta redo it. So there’s a deductive process. And at that time, with all of the deductive things, I may go back and do another inductive, which is refining my hypothesis. So it’s abduction, then there’s deduction, then there’s back to induction, which clarifies my diagnosis. “Ah, I think this is what you have. Now, let me apply it, or let me treat it.”
Darrell Bock
Yeah, great, and in hermeneutics of course we talk about the hermeneutical spiral and the interplay between what’s going on in the text and what you’re attempting to see there. And that, it’s a similar kind of dynamic. Now let’s talk a little bit about the move from the text to the application, because obviously the goal of preaching isn’t merely to communicate content that I understand in my head. A pastor – we’re back to ___ – a pastor works on the heart, and so let’s talk about that transition a little bit. How do you encourage your students to move towards what you might consider to be appropriate application?
Abe Kuruvilla
Often, I may even go so far as to say always, the call of the text will imply at least a very general application. For instance, in the First Samuel 15, okay, once the force of the text hits the audience, or the reader, me in my study, I get the sense, yes, I need to be attending to listening to exclusively the voice of God, and shunning the voices of the world. So there is an inherent call of the text to live in this fashion. Now the question is, how do I start doing that? What are the habits that I can cultivate so that these habits take over, as Aristotle said, become second nature, and then it becomes disposition, and it becomes Christ-likeness as it grabs all of my life. So this is where the pastoral wisdom comes in. Okay, we know we need to listen to the voice of God. How are we going to do that?

Now that’s – just struck me that one thing that I did personally, I’m not sure if it was based on First Samuel 15 or not, but it first, and I could use it for the sermon, is in the days when I was working, I used to have a PC. I had an application launcher. In other words, it’s a launcher I could program key words to open a particular application. So my bible program, I was using Bible Works then, I programmed on this launcher to be launched with, when I type in the letters H-I-A. For me in my mind, it meant Here I Am. Whenever I type in H-I-A, Bible Works opens up. It’s a little habit that got me to thinking this is the voice of God that I need to pay attention to. Here I am.

Darrell Bock
I’m walking into his room.
Abe Kuruvilla
Yes, it’s the sense of exclusive attention. So it was a habit that got built up in me so much so that every time I fire up Logos or Accordance or – there’s a, I’m not doing H-I-A anymore, but it’s become second nature to start thinking –
Darrell Bock
I’m in the present, right?
Abe Kuruvilla
This is a special place, I need to be listening. So this is the kind of thing that you want, that you as the spiritual formation director, shepherd, all those synonyms, preacher, you’re calling for a creation of certain habits and lifestyles, one step at a time. So that as it grabs you, it becomes a passion. So I always say ritual practices, H-I-A, lead to radical passions. That it takes over, and then you see the benefit of doing that, it hits you even more, so you start doing all the time. It just snowballs into a powerful thing.

This is what we hope to do week by week. Create new habits, immunization, so the later problems may not affect. So you’re in a sense going from the call of the text, and you’re given certain significance as how this may concretely be accomplished in your life. How you may draw one step closer to the call of the text to listen to God’s voice exclusively.

Darrell Bock
I’ve got about four different thoughts and I’m trying to sort out which one I want to go. I think one of the questions that I have here is that of course, one of the challenges of life is, is that sometimes you’re put in circumstances that you’re not directly responsible for. That, you know, someone draws you into a controversy, or you’re in a family where there’s something else going on, the dynamics are not something you contribute to or something like that. So this formation of character that we’re talking about, that is so important, as a preventative exercise, which is part of what preaching’s supposed to do, is also a forming exercise. So no matter what circumstance or situation God places us in, we have attempted to become equipped and prepared for dealing with it.
Abe Kuruvilla
Way back when.
Darrell Bock
Way back when, that’s right. Again, it’s a full life – it’s a full life enrollment.
Abe Kuruvilla
Exactly, so in my sermons I tell my students, “Don’t shoot for too much.” Our responsibility is simply to take this text, show how life can change, and to create new habits with that. Don’t try to accomplish everything in one sermon. If God gives you a chance, you might preach next week. Plus your people are listening to other sermons. We’re simply just one little cog in this huge machine that God has. So my task, my responsibility is to this text for this moment for this audience.
Darrell Bock
Okay. Now we’ve got very little time to talk about the conclusion. How do you wrap it up? I mean, how do you pull these all together? What do you hope to achieve in a conclusion?
Abe Kuruvilla
You may want to reiterate what the call of the text is, and then maybe give an image of how the application has changed lives, or something like that, and conclude it. Not – and there are many different ways of doing that, of course, but a summary is probably the good way of looking at a conclusion, without any new material introduced in. You may have forgotten something, don’t bring it into the conclusion.

Throw it away, it’s gone, it’s too late for that now.

Darrell Bock
So, and we haven’t wrapped up entirely the idea here, but in the midst of having introduced the topic of the sermon, by the time you get to the end, there should be –
Abe Kuruvilla
It should have been clear.
Darrell Bock
There should have been an idea, a theme that’s kind of run through the sermon that a person could pick up. And ideally, if you communicate it clearly enough, if someone asked what was that sermon about, that idea would be very prominent in the responses you would get.
Abe Kuruvilla
Right, the question you raised in the introduction should have been answered by the time you get – otherwise it’s a bait and switch. You said you would answer this but never did.
Darrell Bock
Yeah, that’s not good. Well Abe, I really do appreciate you taking the time to come in and just kind of walk us through what a sermon is like. You’ve certainly earned your stripes. I can’t imagine how many sermons you’ve heard in your time here, both good and bad. You know, we get the privilege, the last week of every semester, to hear senior sermons, which are always very, very well done. And you see the application of the skills that you’re trying to teach the students, and you get to hear very good preaching. And it’s an encouragement to know that you’re on the team working hard to help us do what we’re tasked to do, which is to prepare people to teach and preach the word with accuracy and relevance, and so we thank you for taking the time doing it with us.
Abe Kuruvilla
Thank you for your constant interest in preaching. I’ve always appreciate that. And thank you for this opportunity for this conversation.
Darrell Bock
Well we’re glad you were able to join us, and we thank you for joining us at the table, we hope you’ve enjoyed this kind of review of what a sermon is like. Kind of looking at the inside of what it takes to produce a sermon, and we hope you’ll be back again with us soon on the Table.
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Abraham Kuruvilla
Dr. Abraham Kuruvilla is Senior Research Professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. Captivated by the intricacies of the interpretive movement from Scripture to sermon, Dr. Kuruvilla centers his ministry around homiletics: exploring preaching through research and scholarship, explaining preaching by training the next generation of church leaders, and exemplifying preaching in regular pulpit engagements. He has also served as interim pastor of several churches.
Darrell L. Bock
Dr. Bock is senior research professor of New Testament and executive director for cultural engagement at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than 40 books, including Jesus according to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels, Jesus in Context: Background Readings for Gospel Study, Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods, Jesus the Messiah: Tracing the Promises, Expectations, and Coming of Israel’s King, Who Is Jesus?: Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith, and Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus: A Collaborative Exploration of Context and Coherence.
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