Lincoln, Gettysburg, and Brevity in Sermons

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When the Union army won the most costly battle of the Civil War in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 3, 1863, more than 51,000 casualties lined the battlefield. The state of Pennsylvania purchased nearby land to create a proper cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers. It was at the dedication of The Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln gave one of the most significant speeches in US history, now known as The Gettysberg Address.

What few people know is that Lincoln was not the main speaker that day. In fact, Lincoln was asked only to give a few short remarks at the ceremony following the formal speech of the primary speaker. Edward Everett, one of the most famous speakers of the time, gave a very moving, eloquent two hour oration, but it is Lincoln’s two-minute speech that has been remembered as one of the finest in history.

Despite the short length of the speech, Lincoln gave his remarks a great deal of time and thought. With this brief, poignant speech Lincoln turned the site of the bloodiest battle in our nations history into a symbol of rebirth and reconciliation.

This story reminded me of something one of my college professors once said, “A sermon doesn’t have to be eternal to be immortal.” Lincoln’s brief speech made me wonder if I could hit a home-run like Lincoln did in only two minutes?

For the next two sundays I will be speaking at a church that typically is used to 15 minute sermons. I love speaking at this church because it forces me to whittle my thoughts down to the absolute essential. My experience has been that most pastors speak about 10 minutes too long.

As an experiment, try purposefully crafting a 15 minute sermon. This exercise in brevity will be good for you. I’ve never heard a listener complain that a sermon was too short, but I have heard listeners moan that a sermon was too long. Brevity is a virtue…especially with sermons.