When I receive criticism, a wise friend tells me to try to discern at least two things: does this criticism reflect the critic’s attempt to be biblically faithful (and thus to be heeded) or does it simply expose the critic’s faulty views? An example comes to mind – not too long ago I preached a sermon in a charismatic church in Australia – upon coming off the pulpit I received two comments back to back – one from my sister, who is not a Christian, and another from the pastor of that church. The content of those comments is revealing. Growing up in a Roman Catholic background, my sister associated church service with a feeling of weightiness, reverence, and peace – her comment to me was simply that my sermon felt totally out of whack with the pathos of the whole service: the sermon was substantial and serious whereas she thought that the prayers, worship music and liturgy betrayed a sense that God was weightless, or rather, contentless. I took that in. Then came the pastor: his comment, or rather, criticism, of me was two-fold: (1) that I was preaching too much of the Bible (and not enough life-stories) and (2) I was not funny enough. His tone was serious and unappreciative. I didn’t know whether I should feel happy or disappointed – probably a bit of both. We had coffee afterwards and it became clearer to me where he was coming from: for the church to survive, the church ought to preach things that is relatable and thus humorous (okay, fair enough), but here comes the kicker: to be relatable one ought to avoid talking too much of the Bible in one’s sermons. The Bible ought not be central in one’s preaching. You can probably guess what I thought about that opinion.
Which brings us to the present topic: what in the world is preaching anyway? What we believe preaching is and is supposed to effect will inform the way we listen, criticize, and embrace sermons. If we believe that the sermon is primarily a means by which someone tells us how to make our lives better tonight or tomorrow (10 ways to manage our finances the Christian way!) then we would be disappointed with a sermon that spends only the last 10 minutes speaking about application. Don’t get me wrong – application is necessary, but if we define application as a list of quick-fixes then we probably have a wrong understanding of sanctification anyway, and the sermon certainly isn’t reducible to list of dos and don’ts. Likewise, if we believe that preaching is primarily about imitating a comedian, we, too, would be disappointed with a sermon that produced only one or two laughs (I do wonder if that ought to even be a priority). So what’s missing?
Sermon preaching, in my view, is itself worship and proclamation. What do I mean by this? Perhaps I can provide a sketch.
It means that preaching is proclamation to the people of God about the God that they worship. Namely, preaching points people away from themselves and reveals to them the one and true God; the God who exists as Father, Son, and Spirit, self-sufficient in himself, needing no one to be who he is, eternal, sovereign, simple and glorious. What do we mean when we say that God is glorious? Well perhaps we can connote by this that his name and who he is has a sense of weight – that we can only approach him with an attitude that appropriately corresponds with that weightiness. After all, when we think about this God we must inevitably come to be aware of our own finitude – we are creatures, dependent, contingent, weak, fragile and often fickle; from the lies that continue to come forth from our mouths contrary to our best intentions, to the bad outcomes that come from our best yet failed attempts to love our neighbour, we sinful human beings are incessant error-makers. The God we approach is a holy judge – his character and will reflects an inflexible law that can only look at our sins as but filthy rags, and we can never approach him but by his own initiative, grace, and sovereign mercy. Not only so, our every move and every moment in existence is beyond our control, and we are approaching the one who is independent, unchanging, unlimited, and all-sovereign. When the preacher comes up to that pulpit he has a heavy weight of responsibility upon his shoulders; he opens the text, the Word of God, and he must seek to represent this God – the God that would force him to fall on his face if He were to appear at that point in time.
Faithful preaching must be done in correspondence with the God that that preacher seeks to represent. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, preachers must be able to say with authority thus says the Lord, with the congregation knowing that when this occurs, she ought to listen.
Simply put, then, preaching which offers no weight, no stability, no desire to expound faithfully the Word of God (the Word which so reflects the majesty of the true God from whom it came), has no place in a context where this God is to be worshipped.
So if preaching is worship of this God (and worship must reflect the worth of the one who receives that worship), and proclamation of who he is, then successful preaching must have the effect of leaving the audience with a sense of that weightiness of God. The congregation leaves, if all goes well, for a moment forgetting herself – suddenly the problems and the cares of this world grows dim in comparison to the beauty of God. That is, one ought to come away from the preaching of the Word thinking much about the Triune God, the magnitude of one’s sins which offends this God, and the gracious salvation that Jesus Christ pours forth. That is the desired effect of proper preaching (perhaps, I do think, above all else).
Of course this isn’t to conflict with application, and it certainly doesn’t conflict with the centrality of the Gospel – whoever thinks that coming away from preaching with weighty thoughts of God isn’t itself a practical implication of preaching seriously needs to reconsider his theology of worship – and we could only understand the Gospel if we first take seriously the God that saves.
The pastor ought to preach sermons consistent with the Word, and congregations would do well to reinforce such preaching, while being aware of what is or isn’t faithful preaching.