Waldo Revisited

A bit more nuance to add to Tuesday’s post “Stop looking for Waldo.”  The point I was trying to make was a corrective. Like most correctives, it is doubtless overstated. My point is really two fold:

1. That we preachers often search for Waldo before we search for Jesus in the text, and

2. We sometimes aren’t careful enough in the way we connect ourselves to the characters in the text.

Take Mark 4. I’ve heard countless sermons that have put us in the boat with the disciples. We too face “the storms of life.” If only we will trust in Jesus, he will say in the midst of our storms, “Peace be still.”

The theology of this may be ultimately true, but I suspect Mark would be extremely surprised to learn that preachers were using his material in that way. Mark’s point is to show Jesus’ authority over nature. In light of this powerful authority, we CAN see ourselves alongside the disciples asking “who is this?”

Maybe if I were re-writing the post I would say this:

  • Be sure you find Jesus in the text before you go looking for Waldo
  • Be careful that you find an actual Waldo, not an illegitimate look alike!

Does that make sense?

Stop Looking For Waldo

Yesterday was a rare pleasure indeed. For two pleasant hours, Dr Sinclair Ferguson preached to me.¹

The messages by Dr Ferguson on Romans 5 and 6, were nothing short of a theological thrill.  A stimulus for the mind and a feast for the soul, I left both full of ‘matter’ and worship.

Yet as the dust settles today, one line from Dr Ferguson seems to be lodged in my mind. I am sad to say it is not some weighty truth about the nature of justification by faith or our union with Christ!   Instead what I cannot shake is a  brief  parenthesis Dr Ferguson made. One of those “throw away” comments that is anything but throw away.

Dr Ferguson referred to the danger of the “Where’s Waldo” Hermeneutic.  And he warned of its alarming frequency in modern preaching.

Before going any further, I really should check that you know who Waldo is. Waldo is that little fella in the red striped jumper, with eyes bulging behind those thick, round glasses. In the series of “Where’s Waldo” books, he appears in scenes of massive crowds.

The aim of the game is to find Waldo somewhere among the masses. It can be struggle to locate him. It can take many minutes. But you know that somewhere in the throngs of people, Waldo must be in their somewhere!

Back to Dr Ferguson. His point was that many preachers use a Where’s Waldo hermeneutic. They are studying a Gospel, say, and they’re reading a passage about Jesus, the disciples and the crowds. Their immediate instinct is not to focus on Jesus. Their immediate instinct is bridge the gap to the  congregation by finding ​them ​in the text. The congregation is Waldo, and they must be in the passage somewhere!


  • maybe our congregation is the disciples, 
  • or maybe our congregation is the crowd,
  • perhaps they are the rich young man, or doubting Thomas, or blundering Peter
  • surely they are not Judas,
  • but we’d better warn them in case they’re the Pharisees
  • But one things for certain, our congregation must be in the text.

The truth is, our congregation isn’t. Our congregation is nowhere in the Gospels, or anywhere else in the bible. They live 2000 years later. They are not in the 9th chapter of Luke!

This is not to say that we cannot at times carefully observe parallels between biblical characters and ourselves today. Or that we cannot correlate the words and actions of biblical characters to teaching material later in the New Testament. But we must change our assumption that our preaching goal is to find the congregation in the text.

Take the Gospels, for example. This is where we miss the most obvious point. The Gospels are telling us about Jesus. Any sermon which majors on how we are like Peter, or like the Pharisees, or like the crowds is probably missing the point. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are writing about Jesus.

So preacher, tell us about Jesus!

Tell us what we learn about Him!

Tell us about His character, His words, His deeds, His heart, and ultimately His sacrifice for sins and His resurrection from the grave!

Tell us about Jesus, and then tell us how to respond!

Don’t keep searching around for Waldo, when Jesus is so easy to find.



¹ Disclaimer: Dr Sinclair Ferguson was also preaching to about 100 other pastors at the Northern Ireland Ministry Assembly, 2012.

Tuesday Toolbox

Now this is what I call a bookcase: Book Mountain, Netherlands.

Carl Trueman reviews Logos 5, as does Adrian Warnock.

Steve Lawson on the secret of Spurgeon’s evangelistic preaching: hard study. It is strangely encouraging to realise that Spurgeon found sermon preparation a labour:

“I scarcely ever prepare for my pulpit with pleasure. Study for the pulpit is to me the most irksome work in the world.”

Mike Bullmore has a challenging posts to pastors about our responsibility to train up the next generation.


How long?

How long should a sermon be? 

Over the years as I’ve taught preaching and trained preachers there has been one question that has been asked more than any other, and by a considerable margin: How long should a sermon be?   Mind you, even as I think about that I realise that there is one place where my students have never asked the question: Africa!

Asking this question is a bit like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ and the answer is simple: it depends!

1. It depends on the congregation

Some congregations are used to and appreciate good solid sermons that take some time, but others are not.   I was once visiting a church in Glasgow and, trying to get a feel for the place before the service started, I asked the Minister how long he usually preached for.  The answer shook me!  “I usually try to spin it out to 15 minutes,” he said “but if you can only last for 10 that’s fine.”  I seem to remember commenting in response, whether out loud or internally I’m not sure, ‘I’m still clearing my throat at that point!’

If you are a visiting speaker, try and find out what the congregation is used to and, if it strikes you as being a very short period of time, perhaps try and extend it a little but, as a visitor, you won’t be able to push the boundaries massively and you will probably lose the attention of your listeners once their usual listening time has been exceeded.  In such cases I always try to do this, making sure I am feeding them well and thereby perhaps whetting their appetites for more substantial ‘meals’ in the future.

The attention span of a group of unchurched people at an evangelistic event will probably be considerably shorter than that of the congregation of the local, well taught, Bible Fellowship.  I used to preach regularly in a church where 50 minutes was the usual sermon length and some folk felt cheated if it was less.  What a joy for a preacher!

2.It depends on the content

Some types of sermons and some passages of Scripture really demand that you take more time over them.  Some passages need some more background and context setting than others, for example.   Again, there may be a difference in an evangelistic address and a ‘meaty’ exposition.

3. It depends on the context

Some occasions and meetings are such that they require shorter messages and it would be inappropriate and unhelpful to abuse that by preaching for an extended period of time.   Again, this needs to be assessed and understood in advance.  An additional factor that comes into play here is one that surprised me in my early days in pastoral ministry.   If you are in a settled pastoral and preaching ministry, and preaching systematically through books and sections of the Bible – which is, after all, by far the best way to maintain a regular preaching ministry – you will not, each week, need to take much time to set the passage under consideration in its biblical context because that ought to be familiar to your listeners.  You will probably want a brief word of reminder as to how the present passage is connected with the previous one but you will not need to dwell over long on that.  However, if you are preaching somewhere else, or indeed in your own church, on a ‘one off’ event or passage, you may need to allow a little bit of extra time to set the passage in its biblical, and even historical context, before delving into the meat of the text itself.

4. It depends on the communicator

The truth is that there are some preachers who, to listen to for more than 10 or 15 minutes, would exercise the patience of a saint, while others can be listened to for longer periods of time with hardly any sense of the passing of time.   Some by their monotonous use of their voice or the dry content of their message ought to be brief while others have much good to say and say it well.   It is said that the first time Jonathan Edwards’ preached his sermon lasted for two hours but that his listeners listened so intently that they were unaware of how long he had taken.

In conclusion, and based on my own personal experience, it probably has to be said that in the average western evangelical church 30 minutes seems to be the maximum attention span of congregations while those blessed with a particularly good preaching ministry can cope with and profit from 40-50 minutes of faithful exposition.

One of the marks of times of spiritual quickening, but also of spiritual maturity among God’s people, is the greatly increased appetite for God’s Word and the ability to sit and listen for longer.  O for such days to be our experience as well!

Finally, here is some advice from the Prince of Preachers:

“In order to maintain attention, avoid being too long. An old preacher used to say to a young man who preached an hour, — “My dear friend, I do not care what else you preach about, but I wish you would always preach about forty minutes.” We ought seldom to go much beyond that — forty minutes, or say, three-quarters of an hour. If a fellow cannot say all he has to say in that time, when will he say it? But somebody said he liked “to do justice to his subject.” Well, but ought he not to do justice to his people, or, at least, have a little mercy upon them, and not keep them too long? The subject will not complain of you, but the people will…Brevity is a virtue within the reach of all of us; do not let us lose the opportunity of gaining the credit which it brings. If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say. A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in. Attend to these minor things and they will help to retain attention.”[1]

[1] Spurgeon, C H     Lectures to My Students     Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2008     pp155-156

Best Summary of Luke and Acts?

This Sunday I will be launching a new series of sermons on the gospel of Luke. During my preparations I have become “good friends” with Darrell L. Bock, arguably the best modern commentator on the gospel of Luke.  Reading Bock’s writings and listening to his online videos has enriched my understanding of Luke’s wonderful gospel. I’m also thinking of growing a beard!

In the following series of videos, Bock says that the central theme of Luke Acts is: “Jesus is the Lord of all, so the gospel can go to all. And that gospel includes the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles into one body.” I don’t believe I have come across a clearer, more comprehensive summary of the theme of Luke and Acts.

To give you a flavor of Bock’s thoughts on Luke’s two volumes, take a look at the four videos below. I hope some of you who are preaching on Luke/Acts, or are planning a series, will benefit from them.

Tuesday Toolbox

  • The Simeon Trust is still doing a great work in the USA. Are you planning on attending one of their 19 workshops before next summer?

Preacher School #5: Outline the Passage

In an earlier lesson I said that your sermon outline would come directly out of the text. Rather than assembling what you want to say and trying to fit that into a text, your job is to let the text form your preaching outline. Banish the idea of “three points and a poem!”  Unless, of course, the original text contains three points and a certain poem wonderfully encapsulates its message.

But how do you get to that outline? What do you look for?

The best way to start doing this is to buy a book on grammatical diagramming. There are many available and I am so retro that I am holding out hope it is making a comeback. Kitty Burns Florey wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times recently that suggested the same! http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/a-picture-of-language/

If you didn’t get this stuff figured out in Grade 8 English, don’t fret. Neither did I. But lots of practice and lots of humility can take you a long way in the right way. The beauty of it all is that it forces you to consider every single word and how it relates to all the others.

A Test Run

To help you get the gist of this, we will look at the grammatically simple Ezra 7:10. The first thing to do is read Ezra (all of it and hopefully in at least two English translations). Then figure out where you are in the Biblical storyline. If you understand Hebrew, your next step is to start considering what each word means and how it connects to all the others. This can be done in English as well, as long as you recall that translations never give an exact word-for-word rendering of the original text.

So, Ezra 7:10 says this: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”

Start by looking for the main verb of the sentence. Once you have located it, arrange every word of the verse as follows.

Subject | Verb / indirect or direct object of verb

In our example, these words are: Ezra, had set his heart, to study the Law of the LORD, to do it, to teach his statutes and rules.)

What you will have left are primarily a bunch of conjunctions and modifying words. They need to be attached (like stems) to the words they connect or modify. (In our example, these words are: for, his, and, in Israel.)

Altogether, the diagram for the verse will look something like this:


In this diagram, you will notice two things right away. The main verb of the passage concerns Ezra choosing to set his heart on something. Actually, diagramming makes it clear that he was setting his heart on three parallel things.  So, in this sermon, we are actually going to get three points!

Move From Diagram to Preaching Outline

Next you must move your visual representation closer to a preaching outline. It is helpful at this point to write out what your diagram visually represents.

 Main Verb: For Ezra had set his heart

Point 1: To study the Law of the Lord

Conjunction: And

Point 2: To do it

Conjunction: And

Point 3: To teach his statutes and rules in Israel

But this is just assembling the pieces of the puzzle. Now, the fun begins. You are going to preach this passage, not just repeat back its words. So you have got to take these points and put them into your own words. Since we are sermonizing here so I am picturing myself preaching this text to a group of preachers. I want to call these men to something based on this text.  So, I might re-phrase the outline to an imperative like this:

Commit to being a man of the Truth, Preacher!

1.         Absorb the Truth

2.         Practise the Truth

3.         Speak the Truth

Notice how the three points all substantiate and explain the main point.  These are not three unrelated thoughts – they all drive to the one big point. Once the main points are settled, begin to fill in the outline with explanations.

Title: Commit to being a man of the Truth, Preacher!

  • Ezra is a model to all of us of a faithful preacher
  • He lived a life committed to God’s Word
  • His actions are timeless and instructive to all preachers

         1.         Absorb the Truth          

  • Ezra had settled in his mind a commitment to three actions
  • there is a chronological order to these actions
  • the first was “to study” – this meant to ponder over and fully understand the words of the text before him
  • A man cannot teach what he does not know
  • etc…

Now you are off to the races. Do the same thing for all three points and by the end you will have a kind of first draft to a really good sermon. It is no where near ready to preach yet, but when the time for delivery arrives you will be able to stand and deliver with conviction and love since you really know what this text means.

Two final notes

In my experience, this outline will go through 3 or 4 major revisions. As you continue to study the text your understanding of its message will sharpen and hopefully improve the outline. Secondly, parallelism in an outline is a nice feature, but accurately expressing the message of the text is more important. Get the message across. That is the matter of first importance.

Preacher School #4: Sermons Should be Interesting!

(This part of a series I have called Preacher School based on a training regimen we ran over the summer at our local church.)

Interest Derives from Exegesis

It ought go without saying that preaching, of all things, should be interesting! A “boring sermon” is an oxymoron. There is essentially only one cause of dull preaching – you have not exegeted the text.  Here is what I mean.

God is infinitely interesting. We will never, in three billion eternities, finish discovering new things about God or enjoying the things we already know about Him. That is why we can read the same Bible passage 50, 100 times in our life and find new things there – these words on the page are spoken by God! The Infinite has communicated about Himself through finite words in order to allow us to know Him. If you do the work of a good exegete, you will always, without exception, find something interesting to say because God is interesting. The text always funnels up and out to Him.

So, when I say that preaching must be interesting, I am thinking first of all of its content, not its presentation. The most fruitful garden had the most work in the early spring and hot summer. The best doctor is not the best-looking, best bedside-mannered one, but the most studied and skilled at his practice. The most interesting preachers will say more than what a plain reading of the text says; they will give clarity and colour to its meaning and application to its demands.

That is why a somewhat banal presentation can still be very interesting.

There Are No Trophies for Boring

That said, we ought to do all in our power to avoid banal presentations and I have a reason why. If these things we are learning are truly interesting (stimulating, remarkable, attractive, attention-grabbing, life-altering, value-shifting, etc.) then we must allow ourselves to present them in a manner that matches. You would think me an odd fan indeed if I mumbled, “I can hardly contain myself at the fact the Leafs just won their 14th Stanley Cup.” There is a manner of expression that ought to match that glorious announcement! And it is not quiet.

So, interesting preaching allows the tone and tenor and truth of the text to take over the presentation of its truth. This presentation will vary based on personality, culture, ethnicity, age, and a host of other factors, but the goal when preaching is to find “your voice” and let the truth come through.

“I am disturbed therefore when I am often told by members of churches that many of the younger Reformed men are very good men, who have no doubt read a great deal, and are very learned men, but they are very dull and boring preachers; and I am told this by people who themselves hold the Reformed position. This is to me a very serious matter; there is something radically wrong with dull and boring preachers. How can a man be dull when he is handling such themes? I would say that a ‘dull preacher’ is a contradiction in terms; if he is dull he is not a preacher. He may stand in a pulpit and talk, but he is certainly not a preacher. With the grand theme and message of the Bible dullness is impossible.”    – Martyn Lloyd-Jones

How do you preach interesting sermons? You dig deep into God’s Word and find Him there. How do you do that? I hope to start and tell you next time.