“Save some for later.” That’s what I was advised one All Saints’ Day after I’d foolishly preached for almost fifty minutes on the day’s Gospel (St. Matthew 5:1-12). Yes, I decided to tackle all eight beatitudes in one sermon. It was one of the very first sermons I’d ever preached and I didn’t yet have the preacher’s sense of time. (I still struggle with that. Once I’m preaching, I’m focused on what I’ve got to say and on the people to whom I’m saying it. The clock is the last thing on my mind!) As I was preaching that sermon it seemed like quite the tour de force, but after the feedback I got, I realised that I had tried to cover too much material. It was more than the congregation could take in, and the fact is that I gave my text short shrift. Years later when I preached through the Sermon on the Mount I gave each of those eight beatitudes a full thirty-minute sermon—and even then it was hard to do each of them full justice. I’d have been far better off giving twenty or thirty minutes to a general overview of the beatitudes on that All Saint’s Day and the congregation would have gone away full. Instead, I’m pretty sure they went away feeling like they’d been trying to drink from a firehose manned by a fireman with poor aim.
I’m raising this point in response to several comments I’ve received in response to the Application Grid. “You can’t cover all of that in one sermon,” said one reader. And he’s entirely correct. You can’t. If you tried, you’d be like me trying to preach on the beatitudes—in detail—in less than an hour. You wouldn’t be doing your text justice and you’d be overloading your congregation. The point of the Application Grid is to help the preacher pull the application out of the text and to make sure he hasn’t missed something important. Once that’s been done, it’s time to winnow things down to just a few points—or even one point—so that your sermon has a clear focus.
The Puritans were famous for trying to cover everything. In fact, many Puritan preachers prided themselves on being able to take a single verse, a single phrase, and even sometimes a single word, and coax out of it an unimaginable number of points and then preach for an hour or two—or longer. In one of his sermons, Richard Baxter goes on “Sixty- fifthly….” Somehow I doubt even the most hungry of his listeners could remember more than a few of the preceding sixty-four points he’d made. And if the Puritans could do that with a word or a phrase, imagine how many points we can potentially pack into a sermon when preaching on an entire Epistle or Gospel lesson, not to mention a combination of both! I ran across an apt quote from Charles Simeon this past week:
“Do not preach what you can tell, but what your people can receive. Suppose I have six narrow-mouthed glass bottles to fill. I have both a large pail brimful of water, and a small tea-kettle, with a taper spout, also full of water. Which of the two shall I use in filling the narrow-mouthed bottles?”
Sometimes, I think, we preachers are prone to dumping our full pail of water over the bottles and hoping that some of the water makes it in. Sometimes we may do worse. I know there have been weeks that I’ve poured over a text and taken away a huge reservoir of insights—and then tried to fill those narrow-mouthed bottles by hitting them with a firehose. Brothers, if we do that we waste the precious treasure of God’s Word. That’s bad preaching.
By all means do pour over your text. Be thorough in working out the practical and doctrinal applications. But know your congregation and deliver it wisely and deliberately. It’s better to impart a little bit of information to them in a way they can absorb and use than it is to overwhelm and confuse them with too much—no matter how edifying and life-changing it is. Share with them the things they need or are capable of hearing today and remember that there are always going to be plenty of empty bottles coming back to the pews for another filling. Save some for later.