Betty (my loving wife) paints. I’m not talking about refurbishing the exterior of the house but about the kind of painting that eventuates in pictures hanging on the wall. She’s good at it, so I like to listen to what she says about it. Recently, she told me, “A picture isn’t a picture until it’s framed.” Profound! She’s right. Putting a frame around a painting makes all the difference. It defines, delimits, focuses and sets off the thrust of the painting. Truly, it makes a picture out of a painting.
While there is much more to a painting than the frame—try hanging an empty one on the wall—the frame enhances the painting. It is a shame to see good work diminished by either no frame or a poor one that fails to complement the painting. A picture becomes a picture when it has a frame!
The same is true of a sermon. Many preachers never take the time required to frame their sermons. And even when they do, some choose frames that clash rather than blend with the sermon itself. What is a good sermon frame? It is one that directs the listener’s attention to the focal point of a biblical message. This may be done in any number of ways, but let me list just two.
First, a good sermon frame is one that limits. A painting with a frame is bordered on all sides. That is also true of a good sermon. It does not extend out in every direction covering all sorts of topics and ideas thrown together in some haphazard fashion. Rather, it confines the sermon to those elements that are central to the Scripture portion from which the preacher is speaking. A good frame holds one’s attention upon what is inside of it. Likewise, a good sermon frame restricts a preacher to the topic at hand. In that way a preacher helps his listeners to concentrate on the one thought of the passage rather than distracting them by extraneous ideas.
There are a number of ways in which preachers may fail to limit their messages. The may wander off onto tangents. Usually, these are chunks of thought that interest the preacher, but have little direct bearing on the main point of the passage. They are bits of information that have caught his attention, about which he thinks (usually wrongly) that the congregation will be as interested as he is. Better to jot them down and file them for future use when they do pertain to the truth of another message. Take it as an axiom that whatever doesn’t directly contribute to the message of the hour will detract from it.
Some preachers fail to frame messages when—unlike the writers of Scripture—they think that they must say everything about every subject. It can’t be done. The attempt is futile. Biblical writers don’t do it, so why would you think that you need to? What am I talking about? The idea that unless you treat every aspect of any subject you have failed to preach the truth. It took Paul years to preach “the whole counsel of God” at Ephesus; how do you think that you can do so in less time?
Jesus, for instance, told His disciples that when they would ask anything in His Name the Father would give it to them (John 16: 23). Now, apart from the fact that this promise was made to them in the context their future ministry, even if the passage can be applied to us in a secondary way, it fails to tell us everything about how to pray. Elsewhere, James says that we must pray rightly (not to satisfy our desires), that to be “effectual” it must be uttered by a “righteous” person, and that we must pray without doubting—in faith believing. We would have to refer to numerous passages about prayer in order to gather the entire scriptural doctrine of prayer. But neither Jesus nor James did any such thing. Nor do you have to do so. What you do need to do, instead, is to know and hold all aspects of prayer in the back of your mind when preaching about any one of them so that, some day, when you preach about the next aspect, you won’t contradict what you said in a previous message. In each biblical passage the writer (or speaker) has a particular point to make, so he didn’t go into all aspects of his subject. Nor should you!
Secondly, as an appropriate picture frame pulls the eye inward toward the object that the painter wants to emphasize, so too a good sermon frame helps to attract ear to the focal point of a message. A common thread running throughout the message may accomplish this. Like a ribbon tying up a package (to change the simile) a sermon frame packages truth. A word, phrase or example repeatedly referred to throughout the sermon will often accomplish the same thing. Or a matching introduction and conclusion-a match that keeps the main subject before the listener and summarizes it in the conclusion—is another way to appropriately frame truth. A question asked in the introduction, then raised again and again within the message, and answered only at the end also tends to frame things well.
In short, we may say that the scriptural message stands out most vividly in a sermon when it has been properly framed. Good preachers always do it. Go thou and do likewise!