One of my favorite classes in seminary was also the one that intimidated me the most. It was “Preaching” with Haddon Robinson.
The class was at 8:00AM. That was early for me. So I would sleepily shuffle in sipping coffee from a tumbler, my brain still yawning awake.
Dr. Robinson would enter the room with pace and purpose. He would have been in his seventies then, spending his retirement training the next generation of pastors, but he was as sharp as a tack. In fact, he taught every class, all of them, without notes. He insisted (required!) for his class that we all preach without notes, too. He said if you can’t remember your sermon, why should your congregation. It was hard to argue with a septuagenarian who went sans notes every lecture and sermon I saw him give.
On those frosty early mornings in New England, I remember we would read a passage of scripture together and Haddon would spin around the room and suddenly point at one of us and say, “What’s the big idea!?”
That question didn’t mean what it normally did, but it still had an edge. In hermeneutics, every paragraph of scripture has (theoretically) one “big idea,” and for homiletics and Haddon, a good sermon would preach that one big idea. Not two or three or four big ideas: one. And Dr. Robinson did not hesitate to let you know if you were wrong about the big idea or too fuzzy.
I dreaded being called upon, but I loved that class, and I have often thought back to what Haddon taught us.
This past week I heard the news that on July 22, 2017 Haddon Robinson went to be with the Lord. And at once, so many memories of him came flying back.
I remember listening to one student preach for the class a good but unconventional sermon. When he stopped, we all turned to Haddon and waited to see how he would respond. He said something I have never forgotten. Of course, he admitted what we were all thinking, that the sermon had been somewhat unusual, but he clarified something we all had felt. Haddon said that the young man had done something that trumps all the rules of preaching mechanics: He had said important things.
Good preaching always says important things. Content is king. Not rhetoric and not style. Not charisma. Say important things. If you think of great preachers today, you will see no one form that explains their power. But all of them – by grace, by work, by faithfulness, by gifting – have a knack for saying important things from the scriptures.
That clunky student sermon could have been an occasion for criticism or misdirection, but Haddon made it an unforgettable lesson by pointing us to the heart of good preaching.
Another memory I have of Haddon is from a Friday chapel service. The one chapel sermon I remember from three years of seminary was his. I believe it was actually the first chapel message I heard at Gordon-Conwell. I was sitting in the balcony. It was an exposition of Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” The sermon was a beautiful and simple telling of the gospel, and for a trembling first-year seminarian a long way from home, wondering what I had gotten myself into, it was the reminder I needed. I got a tape of the message (yes, a tape), and listened to it many times during and after seminary.
All these years later, I still look back at his lessons regularly. Several times a year I forget how to preach entirely. In those moments, the book I reach for is Biblical Preaching by Haddon W. Robinson. I leaf through it and retrace the path he so helpfully laid for his students.
I owe Dr. Robinson many thanks. I am so grateful for his ministry in my life, and I praise the Lord for him.