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).