What makes for a good sermon?
Should sermons be a certain length of time? Should they be entertaining? Should they challenge us with something to do? Should they be an exposition of a biblical text? Should they be about a topic? Current events? Should they be the main feature of Sunday morning worship as they are in evangelical Protestant churches, or should they be one feature among many as they tend to be in other church traditions?
Some of those questions are really about the nature of worship in general, but assuming that we agree that a sermon should be in the mix somewhere, how do we tell if one is good? Or, maybe more pointedly, what is it a sermon-giver should be trying to do when they produce a sermon?
I don’t know that there’s a completely objective way to answer that. If we look to sermons in Scripture, none of them look very much like what people do today when they give sermons. If you’re Jesus, you can even get away with, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” cue the invitational hymn.
Most, if not all, of what we might call sermons in the Bible look more like appeals to Israel’s history to impress upon the audience that they, as Israelites, have killed the Messiah, but the Messiah is alive and now the world is about to change – quite badly for the people who had him killed.
That’s not really much of an option for us, either. Any sermon audience today is not going to have had anything to do with the execution of Jesus, and that sort of takes the teeth out of the whole, “This Jesus you have crucified, God has made him Lord and Christ” point that seems to be so popular in the sermons described in Acts. Perhaps the sermon to the Athenians in Acts 17 might come closer to something we’d expect, although the context there is not a sermon given to believers, and I shudder to think what most denominations would do to their pastors if any of them started a sermon talking about how God was the father of us all and they just needed the God they were worshiping in ignorance explained to them. You probably wouldn’t last in many denominations suggesting that Muslims worship the true God in ignorance, much less pagans.
We do have epistles written to believers. Are those sermons? It seems like they were expected to be read in these early Christian church/synagogues. If early Christian worship looked anything like first century Jewish worship, readings were part of that, optionally followed by additional teaching or instruction. In that sense, worship may have relegated the sermon to a relatively short period of time in among the other elements of worship.
There seems to be a conviction of early Judaism that just being exposed to the Scriptures in worship was potent enough. And maybe we could learn something from that in our own sermons. Maybe we don’t always need a long sermon. Maybe we don’t always need a sermon. But whatever you say, it ought to be shoring up the reading you just did and not the other way around.
And I think this maybe gives us a vector for thinking about sermons. In the 21st century, we are separated from the world of those texts by at least two millennia. By contrast, we are only separated from William Shakespeare by about 400 years, and we often need a little help to understand what’s going on. We would expect we’d need some help understanding very ancient texts and we’d expect that help would need to cover more instructional ground than a first century rabbi reading from the Torah would.
But the main thing is that what you say needs to facilitate the encounter with the word.
This, I think, is something we don’t always see in sermons like “3 Steps to a Marriage God Blesses” and “Learning to Trust God from the Life of Amaziah.” There seems to be a trend that can sometimes drive sermons that looks like one of the following:
- The biblical text on its own is not relevant. I need to figure out a way to make it relevant by making it about a modern issue/concern.
- The biblical text made me think of some spiritual insights, so I’m going to share those spiritual insights.
The things that can make these trends slip under your radar is that, usually, the things that a person is saying are true. They are not saying false things from the pulpit. The question is whether or not those things actually put you in closer contact with the text, or whether or not they abstract it from you. Let’s not talk about the text; let’s talk about these other things that are textish. Let’s talk about the giant Philistines in your life. Let’s talk about your Red Seas. Let’s talk about how godly and intentional Daniel’s parents must have been to raise a son like that. Let’s talk about how Peter is always putting his foot in his mouth, and don’t we all do that, sometimes?
None of those things actually help us encounter the text. Those things may all be true, and they may be useful thoughts the text inspired in the speaker, and they may even help us process some ramifications of the text, but they do not bring us closer to the text itself. Instead, quite unintentionally, they may have the effect of saying, “Don’t worry about the actual text. Let me give you some text-inspired thoughts.”
And maybe there is a place for that in sermons. Maybe we do need help making practical applications or drawing out a personal meaning of the text. But if that’s all a sermon is, have I heard the true Word of God who speaks to me through those Scriptures? Is that the kerygma?
I fully admit a lot of this may just be my own personal preferences, and I can take that criticism. I mean, I just made that criticism of myself. But from my own experiences, I’ve found the most powerful sermons are the ones that take me to stand before the Scripture and uncover its raw, pulsing force. I don’t always appreciate it like I should when it happens.