The Peril of Systematic Expository Preaching on Special Occasions

About once a year I encounter a preaching dilemma related to a special day on the American calendar and the text that comes next in our sermon series. Last Sunday was just such an example. We’re in the book of Nehemiah and last Sunday was chapter three. I struggle to imagine a more challenging text to preach through at any time (save maybe chapter seven of Nehemiah) and having to preach it on Mother’s day was even more daunting.

Unlike some of the other ET authors who schedule their sermons out months in advance, I don’t do this very well. I’ve tried, it just always ends up changing so much I usually scrap it. I also readily admit that I’m not a big fan of special occasion preaching. I know people come with expectations of me saying great things about mom or dad on their special days, but my experience has taught me that if I emphasize one group on a special day, I’ll likely ignore someone else on their special day and end up insulting them unwittingly.

This past Sunday, maybe against wise counsel, I pressed on into Nehemiah three for Mother’s day. Quite a few in the congregation gave me a puzzled look as I began and the PowerPoint showed Nehemiah 3 as the text. Taking the queue from Nehemiah himself, I have to say that, “the good hand of my God was upon me.” I won’t sugar coat this thing, preaching a text that lists records of names and hanging wodden gates is challenging, preaching it on Mother’s day is up hill, both ways in the snow. BUT! Here is the lesson I learned and I trust will be an encouragement to you in your sermon preparation and preaching.

I believe it is those moments that cast us, as preachers, into a place of humility and dependence that might escape us as we get in our exegetical ruts. I was forced out of my normally neat propositional box this past Sunday, but in so doing I really believe that God allowed me to broaden my preaching in general. I was also not able to nuance a lot of things because there is not a lot to nuance in this text. Oh sure, you can go on and on about the kinds of refuse the Jews collected at the Refuse Gate, but honestly, how helpful is that?

Instead, I was forced to take a larger section text that I am normally comfortable taking and to do the hard work of prayerfully finding principles with in a text that seems like a Fort Knox of exegetical gold. I can’t recall praying more for a sermon and honestly, depending less on commentaries. It was me, my Hebrew text, BW 7.0 and lots of time with God. It was invigorating.

How did it go? Only God knows. Thankfully there were no rotten tomatoes thrown and a few encouraging comments. What I am especially thankful for is that God used this challenging text on a very special day to renew my confidence and dependence on him in the preaching enterprise. It forced me to work hard and pray harder. Maybe it was not the best Mother’s day sermon possible, but in the end it made me a more humble preacher and I know that will be a blessing to our church in the long run.

Men, don’t shy away from the challenging texts, even on those special days. I believe it can be a place where God deepens your faith and dependence on him in your preaching.

Press on!

12 responses to this post.

  1. Caleb,

    Sorry to bump your latest post. I’ve been sitting on this post for a few days and I needed post something or PL was going to revoke my position here at ET. I’ll make it up to you.


  2. Thanks for this encouragement. I have found that the way to continue preaching through a book on a “special” occasion AND satisfying the people’s desire to recognize the day is to do the recognizing at some other time during the service.

    So, this past Sunday our associate pastor took one of the Scripture reading times to read a passage on mothering and to say a few words of honor for our mothers. He recognized them specifically and prayed for them.

    I didn’t make any mention of mothers in my sermon.

  3. My series of posts is me stating the obvious so no hard feelings at all…My current series is more for the layman then the pastor. You never know who might stumble across ET.

    I really like your post by the way. It was insightful and thought provoking. Our pastor preached from Genesis on Sunday and did a fine job as well. Blessings!

  4. Great perspective and nuance Rich.

    I am already looking forward to reading next year’s post!

  5. Paul,

    I keep forgetting that ET is in actuality an anarcho-syndicalist commune where we take it in turns to act as sort-of-executive officer for the week and all the decisions of that officer have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting by a simple majority, in the case of purely internal affairs but by a two thirds majority, in the case of more major affairs.

    [PL] – I order you to be Quiet!

    Your taunting me a second time will only make me post more. Not sure you want that.

  6. Posted by John on May 15, 2008 at 4:00 am

    Thanks for the good challenge. The second time I ever preached (as yet without any training!) I was assigned the task of preaching the entire book of Ezra on Mother’s Day. You may recall that the book of Ezra ends with the call to “put away” all the non-Israelite wives. That was a challenge! Not sure I passed the test.

    This past Sunday, by God’s providence, my next text in my series through John was 7:37-39 … and this was not only Mother’s Day, but it was also Pentecost. Timely given the text I was on!

    As regards Nehemiah … I loved preaching the 3rd chapter. Might want to check out my book Revival in the Rubble (CLC Publications, 2006) which is based on Nehemiah.

  7. We also take a more subdued approach, mentioning it other times during the service, but not necessarily in the sermon.

    However, there actually was specific application I could and did make in the sermon regarding mothers.

    With the exception of the resurrection, the birth, and my annual sermon on the Lord’s Supper, we generally don’t deviate from a sermon series.

  8. Paul,
    Chapter 3 of Nehemiah has become one of my most favorite parts of Nehemiah to mediate on, practice, and preach. Does that sound crazy? It was grueling at first. How do you preach a list of names and the work that they did? What is God’s intent with this section of Nehemiah? How does it rebuke, correct, and exhort the Church today? I had to work through all those issues. Most commentaries contribute little on this chapter.
    In the providence of God, I have preached the text twice-once at the Pastoral Training Institute chapel and then, also at a local Church in Thailand. Chris Williams and I were trying to get into Myanmar for some ministry opportunities, but the flight was cancelled due to the cyclone. Consequently, I preached Nehemiah 3 at a friend’s Church in Bangkok. We had good fellowship discussing the text after the worship service. We have not preached through Nehemiah at Kerruso Bible Church. Hopefully, we will in the future.

    I would love to hear your understanding on the Spirit’s intention in Nehemiah 3. Here is my attempt to understand it and preach it:

    If you want to accomplish something extraordinary for the Lord-even if you are ordinary- you must work hard for it.

    That is my preaching point. I should add that this is preached in light of and with the reminder of God’s sovereign faithfulness to His people (2:8, 20; 9:8). Also, there is a transitional plural noun statement and main points that I use. The above, though, is what I have come to hold as the intention of Nehemiah 3.

    I think this could be a fine mother’s day text. Most of the people listed are ordinary people-“Laypeople”- and some are women (3:12). In my study of the text, I found at least five actions that the text seems to emphasize. I have used them as my main points. Start, delegate, diversify, unify, and motivate. This is my imperfect attempt at understanding and shepherding God’s people with this text.

  9. Tom,

    FYI – I wrote this (Rich) not Paul. We’re often confused for each other since I post here so often.

    I definitely saw the aspect of working hard in Neh 3. Chapter 4 makes that even more clear. What caught my attention (maybe this is based on my previous career as an architect) is the fact that Nehemiah had to take a very broad group of people, of widely varying skill sets and get them to build a wall that NEEDED to seamlessly integrate at the intersections.

    From my observations I think the sections were divided up and the the people got some linear distance to build – some only gates, some only the wall, some houses, some all three. But the crucial point was where the walls touched. IF they did not make sure the sections seamlessly integrated the whole project is a bust. The wall goes from protection to a tomb (one breach traps the inhabitant inside with the enemy streaming in).
    They had to set aside personal peferences and opinions and make sure that the greater goal was their central aim.

    So I keyed in on the unity aspect of the work, especially given the Israelites propensity for grumbling, complaining and disobedience over the years. The fact that God graced Nehemiah with the ability to corral this group and get them to work on a project bigger then their own agendas was compelling to me.

    I inevtiably related it to the picture that it is of the Body of Christ. A broad array of people all focused on the greater goal of the Gospel, serving as one. My title was When Many Act as One.

    Only God knows if that was a faithful application.

    Thanks for your insights.

  10. I sure appreciated your post and I am fully on board with your commitment to staying with the Scripture book. I found myself facing a unique passage for Mother’s Day – the beheading of John the Baptist. I highlighted the passage by looking at a contrast between the kind of man John was in comparison to Herod Antipas. Also, I compared the nature of the Biblical account to the storyline of Braveheart. The death of an extraordinary man isn’t a tragedy… (Who am I talking about? Click on my name to llisten if you are curious how it all fits)
    I am sure it was a blessing to those that came to hear God’s Word but to those looking to hear 40 minutes of praise for Moms they may have been disappointed. God’s Word must run the pulpit agenda.
    Thanks for reminder Rich.

  11. Posted by Hayden on May 16, 2008 at 7:52 pm


    Good for you! I remember when I was under Steve Lawson’s ministry his preaching on this text. It was one of the best sermons that I have ever heard and I go back and listen to it often. I must say that this was very instrumental in my development as preacher because every time I come to a ‘hard’ text I tend to think, “Well its not as hard as Neh 3 or Chronicles or Numbers”.

  12. Posted by tshuck on May 17, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    Oppps! Sorry for my confusion. Thank you for the interaction on Nehemiah 3. It is helpful.

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