It is a most privileged calling to be a preacher; one that comes with significant challenges. Not the least of these is to preach well. Even when we do, not all folk think so! That’s because there are many different views around as to what makes a good sermon. What matters most, however, is not what we think, but what God thinks. He has chosen the means of our nourishment. Like a good parent, He feeds us with what is good for us but not necessarily with what we want.
The Goal of the Sermon
The sermon is the pinnacle of public worship ~ that climactic phase of the service in which God addresses us. He does so not, initially, to speak to our needs, but to show us His glory. This is necessary not only because we are human and cannot see or comprehend a lot of God, but because we are fallen, and will not contemplate Him. By nature we’d rather look at ourselves.
God’s glory is not impractical. It is only as we glimpse it that we see in its light both our needs and the way they are met in Christ. It’s for this reason that good sermons focus, first and foremost, on God. Sometimes we detect in a passage His glory from the history of his dealings with his people; at other times from the manner of His dealings. We see His glory in His grace, His mercy and His faithfulness, but we also see it in His fatherly chastenings.
The Content of the Sermon
It is the expository method of preaching that enables us best to hear from God, for exposition focuses on the interpretation and application of the Scriptures. Setting each text or passage in its context, the expositor applies the Word to our contemporary circumstances. Context is so important in helping us, with the Spirit’s aid, to determine the right meaning of the passage. Once we know the backdrop to a passage we can proceed to connect correctly its meaning to the present day. Illustrations and humor may be useful in this process, so long as they do not take on a life of their own. They are the servants not the masters of the sermon, and only work when they flow naturally from the preacher’s material and personality. They should never be crude or irreverent. The goal throughout, we must recall, is the airing not of our own thoughts or opinions, but of the voice of God. Hence the Reformers’ belief that the “preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
Topical preaching by contrast relies on the accumulation of isolated texts from around the Scriptures ~ texts often abstracted from their original context ~ such that God may not be heard to speak so effectively for Himself as in the expository method. This does not mean to say that there is no place for topical preaching, but it does remind us not to permit personal need (often the subject matter of the topics) to obscure the sermon’s goal; namely the depiction of God’s glory and the exaltation of Christ.
The Application of the Sermon
Once the preacher has worked out the biblical principle or teaching at the heart of a given passage, he proceeds to figure out how best to transmit the application to the congregation. Sometimes the application will take the form of an exhortation ~ say to praise, to pray, or to witness. On other occasions, the application may include practical tips on how to work out the teaching or principle in view. Inevitably, this will differ for the housewife, the father, the manager, the farmer, the nurse, the retired, the young adult, and school children. As ministers cannot be in every place, we rely on congregants listening to the sermon interactively. We are greatly helped in preaching to know that as the Word is preached and its principle(s) applied, the faithful are processing the information, and seek as they do so to work out in the week(s) ahead its personal application.
The Delivery of the Sermon
The sermon ought not to be dull. Preachers speak of the best news available to humankind ~ that God in Christ has visited us, forgiven us, and accepted us! A sermon, then, should be delivered energetically and passionately, but not in a shrill tone. While it will seek to embrace the whole congregation, faithful preachers refuse to compromise content for entertainment. Nor do they patronize the congregation by preaching at a level that is beneath them. We preach in such a way that all may glean something from the sermon, but this does not preclude the sermon’s role in stretching our minds. Indeed, over time the expansion of our understanding not only enlarges our capacity to worship, it enables us to grow in our leadership of, or contribution to, the ministry of the church and our family worship.
Preaching would be very daunting were it not for the success God has promised us (Isaiah 55:11). This promise does not alleviate ministers of the responsibility of crafting the best sermons we can, nor does it free congregants of the duty of praying for the preacher or of coming to worship with prepared hearts ready to hear from God. A great sermon, it is worth noting, requires both the preacher and the people to be full of God’s Spirit. We each have a responsibility to ask, then, what contribution we make to the richness of worship each Lord’s Day. Let’s encourage each other in this.