What Is A Good Sermon? Textuality

Before I explore the centrality of the Biblical text, let me first admit humbly that I feel a little presumptive writing about good preaching.  What I write is what I have learned through more failure than success.  14 years of preaching 70+ sermons a year is a formula for many a bad sermon.  Nevertheless, it is also a formula for learning much about preaching and even as a write this I find myself wanting to know more.  Please understand these posts on preaching as coming from a pastor who is still “a work in progress” who always has much  more to learn.

Some preachers randomly select texts from Sunday to Sunday to give them springboards to talk about what they wanted to talk about.  Some have a text but never get to it in the sermon.  Some preach so many stories that the text is no longer discernable.  Some ignore the Scriptures altogether.  And, quite truthfully, I probably have committed all these sins (crimes) as well.

I think it’s safe to say that a sermon requires a text or it is no sermon.  Even Peter’s Pentecost sermon, the first sermon of the Christian Church, had a text:  Joel 2.  Peter preached Joel 2.  He didn’t just reference it.  He read the text and explained what it meant…with particular relevance to what was happening at that moment.  Joel 2 is the prediction that God would pour out His Spirit on His people…which He was doing at the very moment Peter stood up to preach.

The beauty of textual preaching is that it is the intersection of the Bible with your life today, with your life at this moment.  This is precisely true of Peter’s Pentecost sermon and it is true of every good sermon.  The best sermon takes the Biblical text and interprets your life with it.  It does that through Law and Gospel (a topic in a future post).  The sermon places your life in the context of God’s whole salvation history in Christ.  It “Words” your entire life.

To that end, let me make a big advertisement for the Church Year calendar and the Lectionary here also.  Having a schedule of regularly scheduled readings has an additional benefit for the pastor and the Church.  For me, I don’t pick texts in order to preach on what I want to preach about.  Preaching out of the Lectionary (the schedule of readings according to the church calendar) insures that the text I preach picks me, not the other way around.

One may preach in an expository fashion, moving verse by verse through a text for meaning.  Even Luther preached this way.  Nevertheless, it is important to differentiate the sermon from a Bible Study.  Preaching is proclamation.  It can and should teach a text, but it should “put forth” that text into the lives of the hearer.  The hearer needs to know not only what the text means, but also what it means for me.

Textual preaching puts forth the value we place on the Scriptures as God’s Word.  Since the Enlightenment, many “churches” find it easier to preach on moral, social, and political issues largely because they have a low view of the Biblical text.  Thus, they preach these side issues largely so they can say they have something to say, because they do not stand on God’s Word.

It is also my very firm belief that textual preaching is best facilitated through thorough study of the Scriptures…in their original languages.  The pastor who has a working knowledge of Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew and uses it is at a distinct advantage over the preacher who does not.  (In case you’re not aware, the overwhelming majority of American denominations no longer teach their future clergy these languages.  This point says more than anything about the differences between the LC-MS, for instance, and other denominations.  Most of these differences are about regard for Scripture, plain and simple).

Ergo, a good sermon is textual.  It “puts forth” the Biblical texts into the lives of the hearers.  It protects the pastor from posturing or agendizing.  It demonstrates a high regard for God’s Word.  Whether the pastor is a firebrand or quite the opposite, the preacher who sticks to the text is to be treasured.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Matt. 24:35).

What Is A Good Sermon?

“The sheep judge the shepherd,” wrote the founder of the LC-MS, C.F.W. Walther. The standard, he would go on to write, is the Word of God. The sheep are not allowed to judge the pastor by any other standard. Indeed, any other standard would point to vanity. The preacher’s voice, hair, looks, family, etc etc etc are not valid standards by which to judge him.

The truth of the matter is that there is no more visible–or important–place to see the shepherd’s faithfulness (or lack thereof) than in preaching. The standard of the Word of God is important especially in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod which, God be praised, has been kept from sinking into doctrinal malaise through a low view of the Word of God. As I write, I thank God to be part of a church body which wholly and totally confesses the Word of God as inspired, inerrant, and thus, authoritative. This places us in a woeful minority in American Christianity. We pastors should thank God every day, though, that we have a Word not our own on which to stand and preach.
Sadly, all of us pastors fight a sinful nature too. We can fail to stand on that Word. We can fall into preaching ourselves more than the Word. We can try to stand on style more than substance, stories rather than God’s story, politics rather than proclamation. Sometimes we preachers preach as if the Word was a hindrance to us…or just a springboard from which we can talk about what we want to talk about. Even the best of preachers, the most faithful of proclaimers, can fail in this matter.

Thus it is absolutely critical not only that pastors preach faithfully and well; it is important that they teach the sheep the Word and what to listen for in a sermon. The truth is that a stylistically bad preacher may have many good things to say. The truth is that a great public speaker may be guilty of not preaching faithfully. The truth is that what many people mistake for good preaching is not. The truth is, also, that many people do not understand what good preaching is.

Ergo, this post is the first in a series of posts written to teach and help the members of St. John’s, and any others who may read them, to understand what a good sermon really is. I’d like to structure these posts around three basic characteristics of faithful preaching. Faithful preaching is textual; it is law and Gospel; it is centered on Christ.

I hope you will read these constructively and certainly put me, your pastor, through a constructive “judging” based on them. God bless the preaching of our pastors and God bless you in hearing the Word through them.