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The Sermon as the New Icon

Updated: May 28, 2023

How to preach a sermon

Too many sermons are verbose and quite frankly boring. Many of us have abandoned the craft of preaching, never mind the absence of beauty in sermonizing.

Traditionally there have been several methods for preaching a sermon. The most celebrated is of course expositional preaching. The goal is to work through a book of the Bible one passage at a time, explaining its meaning verse-by-verse. It explores the original context and offers technical exposition. Topical preaching in my view is inferior but is useful sometimes too. You choose a topic along with some supporting Bible passages and you’re good to go. Some preachers successfully synthesized these two approaches. Narrative preaching is an exciting recent development. Preachers place themselves in the biblical narrative and retell the story as if they are reflecting back on a Biblical event as one of the characters, like a disciple having witnessed Jesus calming the storm. It’s a bit of a problem when preaching from anything other than narrative and tends to sound mushy and amateurish if the preacher is inexperienced in this approach. It requires much creativity and skill as well as serious preparation.

Whatever your thoughts are on iconography, this blog is neither an apologetic for iconography nor an argument for iconoclasm. Setting aside our preconceived ideas about iconography for a moment, Eastern Orthodox Christianity has beautiful iconography with specific characteristics and purposes. While I realize this is unconventional; Eastern Orthodox churches are adorned with beautiful icons, likewise, might we adorn our church services with sermonic beauty?

Consider the sermon as the new icon.

What follows are the characteristics and purposes of Eastern Orthodox iconography and correlating principles for sermon crafting:

1. Icons are satiated in Theology. They make theological statements and provide theological insight. Without becoming a theological lecture, sermons also need to offer theological insight skillfully.

2. Icons are meant to lead one to God and invite people into the presence of God. Many contemporary protestant churches see this being fulfilled in worship music, but the sermon also ought to lead the congregation to God and into his presence.

3. Icons are said to be the word of God in pictures. They tell stories, most of which focus on God’s saving activity. Biblical stories may also be narrated in sermons. This is where narrative preaching may be very effective, with a focus on salvation where appropriate. My recommendation is to adapt and preach according to the genre where possible. When I preach, I bring out my literary paintbrushes and narrate the passage if the genre is narrative and teach where the genre is instructive.

4. Icons are artistic and beautiful. They express creativity within the tradition. If we consider the sermon as the new icon, we will have an opportunity to craft beautiful and creative sermons that are artistic. This will take practice, skill, and dedication, but it’s doable. No one became an iconographer (one who paints icons) overnight!

5. Icons are structural and flowing. Similarly, sermons need to follow a logical structure, but there needs to be room for elegant creativity as well.

6. Icons have people with slightly exaggerated eyes, ears, and noses. This feature is indicative of experiencing the heavenly glory of Christ. So too, our sermonizing ought to engage our senses so that we too may experience Jesus Christ.

7. Icons have people with small, pursed mouths as if to say don’t speak only reflect and listen. In the same way, sermons need to grab the attention of the listener and invite them into reflection. Yes, there is a place for a call to action, but action is usually a fruit of deep reflection.

8. Icons are flat and two-dimensional. They direct the attention to something beyond itself, and so it’s not meant to look like a photograph. Likewise, our sermons should not be a celebration of the preacher, and his or her rhetoric or artistic skill. Sermons are to present a majestic vision of the triune God.

9. Icons offer a minimal amount of visual detail for the maximum amount of expression. Too often sermons are too long and too wordy. Few people remember a lengthy sermon after a week or two, if at all. Shorter creative sermons that are a work of beauty give punch!

The TV series on the Gospels, The Chosen, provides an exceptional example of how this is done in filmmaking. Can we do something similar with our sermons? We can and we must! I would rather preach a short 10–15 min sermon that is skilfully and beautifully crafted with the above principles in mind than to preach a long boring 45min theologically articulate sermon that no one remembers the following week.


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