To “take a text” is, in some Christian traditions, a euphemism for preaching—“Rev. Jones took a text today” is the same as saying “Our preacher today was Rev. Jones.” There is good reason for this phrase:
To contend that a sermon must be connected to a biblical text is, of course, overstatement; there are actually many wonderful sermons with no apparent connection to the Bible. This is especially true when the audience does not recognize the Bible as the Word of God. I think of Paul’s preaching in Athens, as recorded in Acts 17, when he quoted not the Hebrew Scriptures (which he normally did when speaking in Jewish synagogues) but two Greek poets and one funeral inscription.
Every preacher will find opportunity to speak good news to audiences not accustomed to biblical exposition or even biblical reference. But for most preachers these are exceptions to the general rule. Congregations of Christian people who gather to worship desire to have the words of the preacher connected to the Word of God, and this is best accomplished by taking a text.
Whole books have been written on this rule of preaching, and I have no intention of summarizing the common arguments for its centrality. I simply have it as a guide for young preachers that they take a biblical text and study the text, so that when you preach, you explain what the text means to us today. Preachers are always tempted to settle on a preaching theme then search for a text to support their message; others take a text and read into its words things that never were there and should not be there. Learning how to read and interpret the biblical text is a first discipline of good preaching.
This, of course, is a major justification for education–for as much education as you can get! Knowing the history of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible in the long history of the church, the languages of the Bible and the customs of the biblical times: these are invaluable in preparing to preach. Excavating both the theology of a text and the sociology of a congregation require a level of learning that does not come naturally and without work. In fact, both of these tasks are lifelong pursuits, and attention to them will keep your preaching fresh and your discernment rich.
Many preachers find a great help in using a plan of biblical texts, such as the lectionary. Many religious traditions use lectionaries, which are lists of sacred texts designed to be read in certain ways on certain days. These are arranged, not randomly, but in accordance with events and themes. All preachers can at least try out this way of sermon preparation, even if they either occasionally depart from it or eventually abandon it in favor of other methods of connecting sermons with Scripture.
Another method is to take portions of scripture—whole books of the Bible or sections of the bible, such as the Sermon on the Mount or the life of David—and use these week by week as a basis for preaching. Yet another way is to select a theme, such as forgiveness, or failure, or fear and locate biblical texts that serve to explicate the meaning and relevance of what the bible has to say. All of these are excellent ways to systematically connect the sermon with the biblical witness.
But there is this: the Bible is a complicated and sometimes confusing book. It contains many kinds of literature, some of which lend itself better to preaching than others. I recommend a young preacher use familiar texts, texts that support a single theme, such as Genesis 1 (creation), Psalm 23 ( trust), and 1 Corinthians 13 love). Use also those texts that touch upon the great themes and questions of the spiritual life: themes like despair and hope, friendship and forgiveness, or courage and fear. I once heard Billy Graham take Psalm 102:6 as a text: “I am like an owl in the wilderness, like a pelican in the desert” (KJV) and preach a memorable sermon on loneliness. The power of that simple biblical metaphor and the simplicity of the sermon impressed then and lingers with me to this day.
Experienced preachers and teachers will be able to handle difficult texts and troubling issues in more appealing and powerful ways than a beginner, and they will also be able to draw out of the texts the mysteries, the contractions, and the challenges to our presuppositions and preferences. But learning to preach, like learning to play the piano, will be aided if the young preacher keeps to texts that are familiar and straightforward.