The Ending Before the Beginning

Have you ever turned off a movie trailer because you really did not want to see anymore of the movie before you saw the actual movie? Sometimes movie trailers give away so much that you know what to expect from 75% of the movie. They sometimes play with the line of giving away all the “goods” before you go see the actual movie.

Too often sermons do not just give away 75% of the sermon up front but 100%. You have possibly preached this kind of sermon and you have certainly heard this kind of sermon: “Today, we are going to see three main-points from our passage. We are going to see that God is good and that he sustains us in suffering; that suffering, while hard, is used by God for our good. That is everything that we are going to look at today, so let’s get started.”

After that kind of introduction, what now sustains the attention of listeners? They just heard the whole message in the first few minutes, so what else are they on the edge of their seats listening for. A sermon like that, that puts the ending before the beginning, preaches the message of the sermon and then assumes listeners will hang on for another 30-40 minutes for further details about the message they already heard. But that is a big assumption to make about listener interest and attention.

What keeps us engaged with and hanging on every word of a story, movie, book, or the like, is not fully knowing where it is going or how it is going to end. Our attention is sustained by understanding, in general, what a book is about but we keep turning the pages to see exactly where it is going to go, what argument it is going to make, or whether or not the hero is going to live or die.

Imagine Jesus telling the story of the prodigal son and beginning with, “Right now I’m about to tell a parable. This parable is about a son who runs away, returns, and is embraced by his gracious father; this parable is intended to convict those listening who do not understand grace. Let’s begin…” All the thunder would now be gone from the parable. The compelling nature of the parable of the prodigal son is the shocking ending of the son being received back graciously and also that the older brother did not receive the son graciously, sending a message to those listening who are rejecting the grace of Jesus standing right before them.

Is it wrong to preview your whole sermon before beginning your sermon? Of course not. But are you losing the attention of your listeners when you do so? It seems highly likely. Rather than previewing your whole sermon ahead of time, putting the ending before the beginning, consider just beginning your sermon. Start the sermon, start preaching the message of your biblical text, build the argument and the main idea until it is completed.

Then close the sermon.