Preacher: Dr. Emily Vermilya is the Pastor of Formation at College Wesleyan Church. A regular member of the preaching team, a mentor of resident pastors, and a key leader in the church Dr. Vermilya is a strong example of the benefit of great preaching staff.
Sermon Title: What are you Waiting For?
Given during College Wesleyan Church’s Advent series, Dr. Vermilya’s sermon is attentive to the congregation’s anticipation for Christmas and the Church calendar’s movements during Advent. By attending to both, Dr. Vermilya demonstrates the following helpful strategies for preaching:
- Lose the Cape: “In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m going to start with a confession today. I am terrible at waiting.”
Emily begins the sermon by admitting to the same problem the congregation faces. She doesn’t try to be the hero of her sermon; she recounts her own struggle against accepting the Gospel’s invitation. This story disarms the audience and helps them hear the Good News. It also avoids the parallel trap of exposing too much of the pastor’s personal life or struggles. The pulpit is the place for empathetic connection and authentic admittance of humanity. It is not the place to air this week’s dirty laundry or unburden the pastor’s conscience.
Great preachers foster common ground between preacher and parishioner. Sermons recite God’s mighty acts, not the preacher’s exploits or. They also proclaim God’s compassion with our human condition, not the preacher’s incompetence to guide others spiritually. By establishing common struggles in appropriate ways, preachers pave a path for resolution through Good News.
- Paint with Different Colors: “You’re getting the drift here. In any given year, it was a whole lot of Luke! Luke’s account of the nativity is the one we’re most familiar with… and yet Matthew gives us Joseph’s story.”
Preachers tend to gravitate toward familiar Scriptures like houseguests forming closed circles at the office Christmas party. But unfamiliar Scriptures provide a chance to explore. Rather than straying towards the oft-used Lukan narrative, Emily offers the congregation a different perspective. Still lauding Mary’s faithfulness, Dr. Vermilya offers Joseph’s perspective on Christ’s incarnation. Exploring ancient Jewish customs, Dr. Vermilya discusses how Joseph’s thoughtfulness shielded Mary from danger and humiliation. Sometimes gender diversity helps highlight the male figures in scripture men often ignore, or see only from a masculine perspective. Pastor Emily’s sermon is a clear example of the insight diversity in the pulpit can bring.
Great preachers tell familiar stories in an unfamiliar way. Congregations under these preachers read Scripture with heightened awareness of God’s work in the text, leading to greater opportunity for application. Always look for something that is new-to-you in this sermon. It ensures the congregation receives fresh baked bread.
- Address All Audiences: “In the midst of this story of Joseph’s awaited explanation for all the chaos that’s just broken loose in his life, Matthew inserts a message to a group of people who also knew a thing or two about waiting and seeking explanations. Israel had put their faith in God, trusting that He would deliver them… but how many times during that waiting do you think they asked, ‘How is this going to happen?’”
Emily invites her congregation to consider the Jewish population’s interpretation of the text. Vermilya’s interpretation of the Scripture delves into modern methods of interpretation—historical and literary analysis—while also exploring the ancient readers’ interpretation of the text. Both modern and historic audiences are tied together by anticipation of the Messiah.
Great preachers build empathy by exposing the Gospel’s demands of various communities. With a tight and well crafted phrase, the bridge between diverse communities and diverse listeners in your pews is made. Every person has asked of God’s promises for them, “how is this going to happen?”
- Leave Tension Unresolved “This morning, I wonder how many of us find ourselves in some sort of waiting room. This is really the reminder that Advent brings to us: that in the waiting God is preparing an answer, or a way, or an outcome that will resolve any tension and solve any problem this life could throw at us. And our challenge is simply to not allow our need for an explanation to cause us to doubt things we know or true, or get impatient and trying to create solutions on our own—even righteous ones—or to manufacture an explanation for God in the midst of our waiting. What are you waiting for? And how can you—like Joseph—faithfully and obediently walk with God through the waiting, even if you don’t fully understand why this season is even needed?”
Dr. Vermilya leaves the congregation grappling with the tension of waiting. Her sermon mirrors its message: resolution does not come quickly, but God offers hope in the process. Because Emily dismissed the congregation in tension, they are forced to grapple with the sermon’s implications after the church service is over.
Great preachers provide diverse response elements, allowing their congregation to feel resolution with an in-service response element, or offering the congregation productive tension by ending the service without an in-service response. As Fred Craddock once said, “The listener should not be able to
- Be An Archaeologist: During your next sermon series, explore the cultural background of your preaching text. If a cultural festival serves as the backdrop for your sermon, discuss how the festival might’ve changed the flow of the story. If a Jewish or Greco-Roman custom made a gesture especially significant, include the detail. Foster a common point of contact between your congregation and the ancient Near Eastern audience.
- Use Vignettes: Near the beginning of her sermon, Emily offered several examples of waiting—a patient in a waiting room, a car in traffic, and a traveler who recently purchased tickets. Before you craft your next sermon, come up with three to five colorful vignettes that would help illustrate your sermon. Rather than using one long illustration, use these to punctuate your sermon. By using diverse small stories, you’re more likely to resonate with a greater percentage of your congregation.
- Reexamine the Familiar: During your next standalone sermon, preach from an unfamiliar passage. Search the lectionary to see which passage fits with the Church Year; open your Bible to specific passage and try to write a sermon for it. Preaching from unfamiliar passages leverages your preaching skills, providing freshness in preaching and diversity in reading.