Writings by Cole Huffman

Searching for a Series

This post will appear in the January issue of our church newsletter:

Occasionally I’m asked how I arrive at topics for preaching. John Houseman, the fusty old British spokesman for the Smith Barney ads of my youth, harrumphed in one of those ads, “Good investments don’t just bite you on the bottom and say, ‘We’re here!’” But sermon ideas sometimes do, and it is hoped each series is its own good investment in our church.

I live under creative deadlines for most of the weeks leading up to 52 Sunday mornings per year. I can’t stand before you on a Sunday and say, “Sorry, but this was a tough week and I couldn’t get any sermon writing in.” The word “amaze” is chronically overused, but truly I am amazed by God’s weekly provision of insights needed to write sermons. It is a source of weekly gratitude, experienced as one among many instances of God’s faithful care of His people.

Although I’m still early in my career, I’ve preached long enough now to have a file cabinet full of older sermons. I don’t often call these out of retirement though. When I do I usually feel the need to rewrite them anyway.

It is good when I force myself to return to texts already studied. One doesn’t want to treat Scripture like a daily commute. It’s just when I think I know something that I’ve stopped noticing. In this vein familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as unfamiliarity. So the aim in rewriting older sermons is to “bring out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52).  

But I struggle with using older sermons or revisiting older sermon series. I hate confessing this, but it is easy for me to slip into thinking that if I return to a book or topic previously preached—my 2005 study of Jesus’ parables, let’s say—some assume I’ve converted my study into a kind of homiletic microwave. I go in on Saturday night to heat up leftovers for the morning. In other words, if I re-preach a book or return to a topic from a previous series some will think I’m not working hard at preaching. I’m mailing it in; out on my boat Visitation during the week; not using the freshest ingredients.

So how do I arrive at topics and/or books for preaching? Take books first. Much of the Bible I still haven’t taught. As of this writing, cumulatively considered, I’ve yet to preach completely through three of the Gospels, Acts, six of the epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation. From the vaster Old Testament I’ve only preached four Minor Prophets, maybe 25% of the Psalter (some Laments in 2008 and the Songs of Ascents, Pss. 120-134, in my church in Franklin), the Ten Commandments, and only one Old Testament “life of” sermon series (David). While books and subjects I haven’t preached yet get primary consideration when pondering a new preaching series, I also factor how long ago I preached a book. I last preached Philippians, for instance, in 1995. I’ll likely preach Philippians sometime before 2015 but it will be an entirely reworked series.

Preaching is a unique medium. Time constraints and the thematic and declarative nature of preaching means one cannot cover every nuance or issue in a book’s texts. Topical sermon series are one way to compensate. Ideas for these series often emerge from preaching through Bible books. But preaching ideas also “just appear” epiphany-like—while I’m running, for instance, or watching a movie, or shaving (or growing a beard), or sitting on the beach, or in conversation with someone.

That sounds about as inspired as a bite on the bottom, doesn’t it? I wish I could tell you all my sermon series result from concerted prayer and painstaking planning. I do pray about what to preach, of course, and believe God impresses me with topics at times in prayer. He also guides me as I read widely and pay attention to my surroundings. And I make plans too—a good thing for one series in 2011.

I didn’t really want to preach 1 John (“The Gospel as Relational Hygiene: Love is Lather, Rinse, Repeat”). I almost talked myself out of it last spring. But I had committed myself to it as part of a preaching plan I laid out during the Family Meetings in 2010. First John is kind of a frightening book for preachers because it is so repetitive—love, love, love, love, love, and love again! But I found the repetition was the genius of the book, opening whole avenues of considerations for us where I’d only expected to find alleyways.

If done well preaching is expansive, for the preacher as well as his congregation. My sermon series become almost like friends to me. I hate to see them go when they’re over.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 5:30 PM
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