It's commonly thought that the art of sermonising is the ability to set out a set of logical propositions. The preacher may stand 6 feet above contradiction, or these days just wander round the place in that informal, free-wheeling manner that makes it look like they're "down with the kids". But either way, the assumption is that the preacher is giving us the facts. Sometimes the preacher will try to persuade us that they are asking questions. But we know that they're not really. If they were asking questions, they would be admitting they didn't know the answers.
But the creation of a good sermon does in fact involve asking questions. About this time of a Saturday evening, all round the country, the good (if slightly tardy) preachers are asking big questions. And it's the questions that make the difference. For those who are considering becoming preachers, or wondering how to improve their performance - these are the questions you may well be asking while writing your sermon.
1. Am I sure this is the right reading? A very important question. If you've distilled your thoughts on the Book of Job into a pure essence of practical theology and homespun wisdom on facing adversity, you're gonna be as sick as a bloke with boils if you discover the reading - which has been printed on the service sheet, and issued to the reader (who goes into a murderous rage when given last-minute changes) is actually Acts 2.
2. Why on earth do I put myself through this? A question that preachers ask all the time. Check the answer you come up with carefully. If it's something to do with "sharing the wonder I find in the word of God", carry on. If it's more like "Issuing my thoughts to a group of people who aren't allowed to answer back gives me a sense of thoroughly deserved power", you'd probably better carry on with this week's homily, but maybe give some careful thought to the future.
3. Who wrote this passage? If you come up with the answer "God did", that's fine - but you may want to think a bit harder about the more proximate source. Surely there's got to be something about the person of the author to think about - particularly if it's a letter with an introduction like "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Saviour and of Christ Jesus our hope, To Timothy my true son in the faith". You've got to think that Paul's own angle might matter somewhere in there. If, of course, you don't think Paul wrote it, you'd probably be best not mentioning it in the sermon. You'll only spend twenty minutes trying to explain your reasoning, and no time at all drawing any truth out of the passage.
4. Who was the author writing to? In the example in number 4, the answer is presumably "Timothy". This matters. (Unless you don't believe Paul wrote it, in which case it's unlikely to have been to the real Timothy. Unless it was written by somebody trying to fool Timothy that he is Paul, and hoping to knock the whole "women priests" business on the head before it takes off too much). If it's written to a specific person, in a specific place, at a certain time - that's not to say we can't draw some conclusions from it, but we need to be careful. Otherwise we'll find we are resolutely staying in Ephesus, drinking endless wine on the grounds that it's good for our stomach, and accusing any passing Cretans of being liars.
5. Just what is a pericope? It's a slightly shortened periscope.
6. What is it makes me think my own interpretation of the Greek is more valid than that in all the Bible translations I possess? Probably it's over-enthusiasm. Or the fact you're a Professor of Greek at Cambridge University.
7. Should I try to say "shibboleth"? The answer to this question depends on a couple of things. One is whether anyone knows what it means. Then there's the question of whether you'll be running the risk of spraying the first couple of rows of the congregation. Finally, are there many Gileadites in your fellowship? If so, you might want to be very careful in your pronunciation.
8. What is God trying to say to me through this passage? It's very important that you own the message - it's a message to you, as well as your victims. Sorry, congregation. But don't own it too much. Do not explain at great length that you've realised from reading today's text that since "Vanity - all is vanity" they shouldn't listen to what you're saying - that even your very words are as the wind. If they try to take you seriously, that will leave them in an semantic loop. Which is a bit like a Möbius loop, except that it doesn't go all cleverly intertwined if you cut it in half lengthways.
9. What situation was the author writing out of? If the answer you give to this is "The Biblical Situation", have a bit more of a think.
10. Have I done enough? No, how could you? Remember what you've been entrusted with here. But it's 4 in the morning, you're starting to see odd things dancing in the corners of your eyes, and you really ought to knock it on the head if you're gonna be up for the 8am. Just remember you're not going to be doing it on your own.