In this installment of the “Why Do We Do That?” series, I hope to answer some fairly common questions about an integral part of the worship service and a primary responsibility of a pastor, the sermon. This week: What is a sermon and why do we do it? Next week: How do you decide what to preach?
One of the weird things about church, as I mentioned previously, is our tendency to use obscure words without explaining them. With that in mind…
The word sermon is from the Latin word sermo, which means speech or discourse. So why don’t we just call it a speech? Because it is a very special kind of speech, and we want to set it apart from a speech you hear from a politician or salesman. The pastor is not trying to sell you something, he’s not trying to get elected, and he’s not trying to win an argument – he is delivering the Word of God in a way that should be easy to understand and easy to apply to your life. The English variation of the Latin came down through the church, and it has become synonymous with the message given by the pastor during the worship service. So it’s traditional, it works, and I just explained it so now you understand it…!
So what makes a sermon a sermon? Well, in order to be a faithful sermon, there are a few characteristics to look for:
- It is based on Scripture. Sure, you can use a book or a movie or a poem or even a picture to illustrate your point, but the heart of the sermon had better be from the Word of God, as written in the Bible. And it needs to take into account the greater context of the book of the Bible it’s from, as well as the Bible as a whole. No ‘proof-texting’ or eisegesis allowed.
- What’s eisegesis, you ask? Eisegesis is the fancy foreign word for ‘reading into’ the text your own ideas and biases, as opposed to exegesis, which means ‘reading out’ of the text. A faithful preacher starts with the text and preaches a message based on what’s there – rather than on what he wants to be there. Proof-texting is the same bad idea: starting with what you want to say and then looking up Bible passages that seem, out of context, to agree with you. Bad form, pastor, bad form.
- It uses explanation, story, metaphor, allegory or analogy to help the text come alive. Now, I realize that some Christians reading this are going to object: “The Holy Spirit makes the text come alive, not your story!”, to which I say, okay, calm down. I was using hyperbole. What I mean is, the preacher’s job is to use modern sound and application to help the hearer to see how the Word of God, timeless in its Truth, applies to his or her life right now.
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).”
But while there is teaching involved, it is not simply a lecture for the purpose of explaining Scripture. More appropriately, it is proclamation – proclaiming or sharing the Good News of salvation in and through Jesus Christ…
- It contains the two parts of God’s Word, Law and Gospel. For some reason, this seems to be a mostly Lutheran understanding, but it seems far more obvious to me than to be limited to one denomination – because once you understand the Law-Gospel distinction, the Bible begins to be much clearer as you read and study it. So, here it is: God’s Word is always in two parts: everything that is expected of you, being Law, and everything that is done for you by God, being Gospel.
- Law: Everything which God commands of us. The demands of the law are many, and impossible to meet; hence, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).” And yet the expectations are still there, because God has given the Law as a direction for our lives because He knows what is best for us. This can be confusing to people, because Jesus’ instructions to love one another sounds sweet and happy and Gospelly – but it is a command. Loving each other is not easy, especially the commands to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves, and to pray for our enemies. That is an incredibly high standard, and it is the standard. It’s pass/fail, there is no in-between or partial credit. We are commanded to love our neighbors and, when we fail, we distort the image of God we were made to carry in ourselves and end up showing others a messed-up picture of our perfectly loving God. And that’s bad. Like, really, really bad. You probably already know someone (or are someone yourself) who rejects God because of the way God’s people have behaved. It’s a high calling, being made in God’s image, and we all – every single one of us – fall ludicrously short. That is sin in a nutshell.
- Gospel: Everything which God has done for us. Because we deserve death and separation from a perfectly holy God because of our sin, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ to pay the price for our failure in full (“…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord [Romans 6:23b]).” In and through Jesus Christ, we are free; forgiven; a new creation; baptized with Him into everlasting life.
- So the Law shows us our sin, and the Gospel shows us our Savior. The Law kills, the Gospel brings to life. The Law knocks you down, the Gospel picks you back up.
- And then, God pulls a switcheroo (technical term): through the lens of the Gospel and by God’s forgiveness, we are able to see the Law as a helpful guide for our lives, rather than as a ruler to measure up to.
- But our memories are short, and we tend from moment to moment either to judge ourselves overly harshly (thus needing the Gospel) or to feel too good about ourselves (thus needing the Law). Therefore, it is good to hear a new sermon containing Law and Gospel each and every week.
So why does a worship service include listening to a sermon that can last anywhere from 5 minutes to over an hour, depending on the church? Because it is God’s Word, proclaimed to you in a way that speaks into your life and shows you how it applies right here, right now. It’s Christian living, it’s growing in your faith, it’s convicting and comforting – it’s God’s Word. And your pastor went to extra schooling and puts a lot of effort into study, writing and practicing the sermon so that it is faithful and timely. but remember that it is God’s Holy Spirit speaking through him, so whether or not he is a talented writer or a dynamic speaker, it’s not about him – it’s about what God has to say to you!