Nine Marks: Include a Question

I once designated one of my Bibles as my “Question Bible.” As I read through that Bible I underlined (and counted) every question. There are approximately 2,550 questions in the NRSV of the Protestant version of the Scriptures. Most surprising to me was the number of questions in the book of Psalms—

 

  • What is a person that you are mindful of her?
  • How long, O Lord?
  • Why have you forsaken me?
  • Where shall I go from your spirit?

 

It is not surprising how many questions occur on the lips of Jesus.

 

  • Which one was neighbor to the man?
  • Whose image is on this coin?
  • Why are you bothering this woman?
  • Who is the wise and faithful servant?

 

The Sermon on the Mount has no fewer than 17 question marks! Jesus knew that few things are as powerful as a question: as the title of the sermon, or the introduction, or a transition from one section to another, or the conclusion to the sermon.

 

These biblical questions offer a wealth of preaching material.  In fact, during 2013 up and through our 2014 National Festival of Young Preachers in January of 2014, we used 52 of these questions as our preaching texts for our Academy of Preachers events. Here are some of the questions on that list:

 

  • Have you only one blessing? (Genesis 27:38)
  • What do people gain from all their toil? (Ecclesiastes 1:3)
  • Son of Man, can these bones live? (Ezekiel 37:3)
  • Who will separate us from the love of God? (Romans 8:35)

 

The wise preacher will pull from these texts often for his sermons. In fact, it might be a smart thing to do an annual series of questions. The reality is there are enough questions straight out of the bible to keep a preacher in fine sermonic shape for years!!

 

Then there are the questions people ask, questions that arise out of their lived experience, questions they bring with them when they attend worship or carry with them long after they have ceased attending worship. One of the most famous sermons in Christian history is that preached by Arthur John Gossip in 1927 after the death of his wife. He took as a text the question from Jeremiah, “If you have run with the footmen and they have wearied you, then how can you contend with horses?” (12:5); and he took as his sermon title, “But When Life Tumbles in, What Then?”  You can read that sermon in the book edited by Clyde Fant and William Pinson entitled  20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume VIII., published by Word in 1971,  page 232 and following.

 

Every so often a pastor will appeal to his congregation to submit questions for his sermon preparation. Years ago I secured a book of such sermons by Lloyd John Ogilvie entitled Ask Him Anything with the subtitle God Can Handle Your Hardest Questions. Then pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood and later Chaplain of the United States Senate, Ogilvie used these questions as titles for twenty sermons, including:

 

  • How Can God Know and Care About Me?
  • Is It A Sin To Doubt?
  • Why Are Some Christian s So Dull?
  • How Can I Forgive and Forget?

 

It is very difficult for the listener to avoid the seemingly automatic (and perhaps momentary) search for an answer to a question posed by a speaker. Every preacher—indeed every public speaker—needs to know this and to take full advantage of the unique rhetorical power of the question.

 

Questions can be used as

 

  • Text, as when T J Pancake AoP ’10, preached his sermon “Letting Jesus Drive” from the famous text in Mark chapter 8, “Who do people say that I am?…Who do you say that I am?”
  • Title, as when Gabriel Alemayehu AoP’11 preached on the Sabbath commandment at the 2011 National Festival with a sermon entitled “Got Rest?” or
  • Theme, as when Rashad Moore AoP’12 in his 2012 Festival sermon “Carriers of the Cross,” mused while “sitting in that theater, I wrestled again with the question, “What does it mean to be a follower of Christ and not just a fan?” or
  • Appeal, as in the testimonial sermon by Anne Marie Roderick, AoP ’10, on the “The Lord’s Prayer” where she concludes the sermon with this series of questions:

 

How would you name God’s holiness?

How would you describe the imminence and power of God?

What is your daily bread?

What forgiveness do you seek?

Have you forgiven everyone who has hurt you?

How would you ask for God’s protection?

 

Questions are useful as transition statements or concluding statements.  Preachers often use a series of question to carry their appeal to the heart of the listener, and few elements of rhetoric can be as powerful as a succession of questions.

 

But perhaps the perfect use of questions in a sermon came from the imagination of my then five-year-old grandson Samuel Wyatt Curson. He had accompanied me to a preaching service and heard me describe how some young ministers “play church” at home, using people and animals, even stuffed animals. After a stop for lunch during which more than one person ordered breakfast, he went right home, gathered his extensive collection of stuffed animals, arranged them into an assembly, and took his place standing on the bed. He started to preach with  much animation and exertion, concluding his “sermon” with this wonderful appeal in the form of a question, “Now, do you want the Lord’s green eggs and ham, or do you want the plain green eggs and ham?”

 

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