Many of us are servants in our churches or from time to time are asked to prepare a lesson for a Sunday School class or a youth meeting or any of the many activities in our church. The question than becomes, “How can I prepare something that will benefit my audience, attract and keep their attention, and will be something that they can remember and reference later on?” To answer this question, we will look at the example of one of the most famous sermons recorded in the Bible-the sermon of St. Stephen before his martyrdom.
St. Stephen was a man of great character. He is described in the book of Acts as a man “Full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” In fact, while he was just beginning his sermon, the people who were listening to him compared his face to that of an angel. St. Stephen most likely had no time to prepare for this sermon because he was dragged into the streets for his impromptu trial, but because he was filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, his words were strong.
Similarly, a spiritual servant will give a good sermon or lead a good discussion on any topic. The opposite is true as well. Even spelling out a topic would not be good enough for someone who is not spiritual and they will be unable to benefit their audience. So then, before preparing a talk or speaking to a group, the first thing we should do is to examine ourselves. St. Stephen having the face of an angel reminds us of prayer. When Moses spoke with God on top of the mountain, his face became in enlightened. Because St. Stephen spent time in prayer his face also was bright. So before he was a deacon or a speaker, St. Stephen was a man of prayer. Therefore, we should pray fervently and then whatever subject you speak about will be edifying to your listeners. Conversely, pray little or do not pray at all, and it will not matter how long you prepare or what nice words you come up with, because it is God alone who changes the hearts.
Looking at St. Stephen’s sermon itself also yields many lessons for us to learn. He begins by saying “Brethren and fathers, listen” (Acts 7:2). It is important that, one way or another, a speaker get the focus, concentration, and attention of the listeners before he or she speaks. Even Christ often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” in order to emphasize a point. In Acts 22 when St. Paul found that the Jews were about to tear him to pieces and he wanted to speak, he asked for permission from the soldiers and said in Hebrew, “Brethren and fathers, hear my defense before you now.” When St. Paul said this the people, “kept all the more silent,” because they were surprised that he spoke Hebrew. So the wise speaker is one who can attract the attention of his or her intended audience. If you intend to speak to a group you must make sure you have their complete attention before you begin.
The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’[a] 4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell. 5 And God gave him no inheritance in it, not even enough to set his foot on. But even when Abraham had no child, He promised to give it to him for a possession, and to his descendants after him. 6 But God spoke in this way: that his descendants would dwell in a foreign land, and that they would bring them into bondage and oppress them four hundred years.
Here we can see the wisdom of a good introduction. It is always vital when speaking to begin with something that the listeners know or already agree with. This is especially true in cases where you may be speaking to someone who does not agree with you because this will help you build your case on ideas that are mutually agreed on.
In this case, we see that the Jews were expecting St. Stephen to say something along the lines of “I didn’t break the law of Moses” or “I’m a good, faithful Jew”. He, however, has a different goal than exonerating himself with his sermon and he has a clear plan in his mind to reach that goal without giving away the take home message of his lesson. He speaks about Abraham, which causes the hearers to wonder what Abraham has anything to do with the things St. Stephen was accused of. We learn here that it is vital to begin a lesson or sermon or talk with something that the listeners already know or understand and move them step by step from there. The introduction, however, should always complement the purpose of the sermon, not detract or confuse the listeners
St. Stephen also teaches us here that it is important to know what to say and what not to say. We see that St. Stephen roughly summarizes the whole story of Abraham in a few verses. If the purpose of St. Stephen’s sermon was a history of the life of Abraham, he should have taken his life piece by piece and dissect every aspect of it. He chose to summarize it though because it is not the subject, but rather the foundation or introduction. We should, therefore, be careful about what to elaborate on and what to cut short. You don’t want to spend too much time on something that is an auxiliary to your main point. Spend your time focusing and concentrating on the main point and give the ancillary points a limited amount of time.
Another point to appreciate here is that, when giving a sermon, you are free to go outside of the letter, but not outside the idea or facts. It is good an necessary to summarize to keep people’s attention, but you must remain faithful to the facts and spirit of the words. If you are not careful, you may find your speakers memorize a story and thinking it is part of the Bible when it is actually not!
As St. Stephen continues, we see that he was able to summarize quite a large segment of Genesis and Exodus in only a few sentences. The only way he could do that is if he had studied the scriptures very well. As servants, we should know what we are teaching inside and out in order to relay it to others.
Finally, we see St. Stephen starts to speak in detail about Moses. He says, “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one God sent to be a ruler and deliver.” (Acts 7:35). He then reminds the people of Moses’ promise that “The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear.” St. Stephen is trying to connect the dots for his listeners. He is trying to tell them that their ancestors rejected Moses despite how great of a man he was and they are still rejecting God and even now by rejecting his Son. This was the main point of St. Stephen’s speech. He did not begin by preaching, and was thus able to disarm his listeners. He focuses on Christ, as all our lessons should and He kept a spirit of prayer throughout his talk. These are the things we must do to be effective speakers.
So what was the result of St. Stephen’s beautiful sermon? Of course St. Stephen was stoned after giving his speech. But even in this there is a final lesson to be learned. We do not always achieve what we think in our heads to be our goal when we give a lesson. We may sometimes become discouraged that the people we spoke to did not completely change their lives or that our words seemed ineffective. It is important never to lose hope. The words of God are not spoken in vain. Even St. Stephen had someone in the audience who heard his speech and was eventually deeply moved by it. While he seemed to ignore the words at the time, St. Paul used many of the same tactics he heard in St. Stephen’s speech as he preached throughout the world.
May the Lord use our speech as an instrument of His love for the glory of his name, Amen.