It’s a safe bet that most of us can admit to being in recovery from something. Even if we aren't struggling with the persistent urges for alcohol, nicotine, or adrenaline, we all have severe struggles with who we were in the past. If we are honest with ourselves we are probably struggling, or should be struggling, with who we are in the present.
I’m not talking about an existential struggle, where we dream up a quest for ourselves, abandon our responsibilities and hit the road for a trip to discover something inside ourselves. I’m talking about the deep and abiding struggle with sin that continually pops its head up. It’s the angry thoughts, the proud heart, the selfish actions that we reject.
Years after becoming a Christian and maybe with years yet ahead, I’m still fighting and still growing. Sermons, when the are saturated with the word of God, help me fight better and grow faster.
I listen to a lot of sermons. That comes with the territory when you hang around a seminary for several years and go to church as if, maybe, preaching might be your job someday. Listening to all of those sermons and thinking about where I am compared to where I’d like to be I've got some ideas about what makes a good sermon.
There was a time when I thought that a good sermon was one that would rock my world and reveal something new and mystical to me. Truth is, after you've read the Bible a few dozen times and read hundreds of books about the Bible, it gets awfully difficult to get your world rocked. At some point you get the point of the passage and no preacher is going to expose new, undiscovered territory. In fact, if anything theologically novel does come out of a sermon it will be cause for alarm.
So what does this mean? Is the Bible boring? Is listening to preaching a chore?
It isn't novelty that is important after years of exposure; it’s quality. Cheese aficionados aren't looking for a new cheese experience. Folks that love novels aren't looking for a new kind of book experience. Instead, such expert familiarity breeds an appreciation for quality, depth, and consistency with previous patterns.
The best classical musicians don’t reinvent the technique and rearrange the music to fit their whims. Instead, they refine traditional techniques and weave expression into the music more deeply and consistently. It is the undercurrent of excellence and fullness that is compelling.
So it is with a good sermon.
A good sermon does not reinvent the delivery of sermons. It doesn’t have a better slide show or a catchier set of alliterated points. In fact, no slide show and non-alliterated points are preferable to me. I don’t want to hear a new nugget that some preacher, old or young, thinks he got especially from God for this crowd. I want to hear the Word, laid down long ago by imperfect men inspired by a perfect God.
Good sermons till the soil of my soul, plowing in the same direction as last year and the year before. This time another clump of clay gets broken up and maybe another rock unearthed to be tossed aside. But it is the same ground that needs to be cultivated. It isn't as hard packed as it was a while ago, but the rains, the foot traffic of the field workers, and the baking of the sun have allowed it to get packed down pretty hard again.
I know I've heard a really good sermon not when I walk away with a four step action plan but when I leave my seat with a deeper sense of grace, hope, and determination. Grace comes from knowing that I’m not the first to still need to pull some weeds and harrow the field after all these years. Hope comes from knowing it can be done and that there is wisdom in the Word. Determination comes from a deeper appreciation of the Savior who gives the grace and hope.
A perfect sermon I've never heard, but I've heard some good ones. In all of the good ones it isn't so much the message itself––the bells, whistles, and the catchy phrases––but the one to whom the message points that left an impression.
The really good sermons make you weep because you see God through the imperfectly delivered expositions. They make the joy well up in your heart because the one who made the universe made you, too, even though you didn't deserve it. They make you realize how good God is and how bad you are in comparison.
Preachers young and preachers old should remember the words of the old hymn:
Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above, of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love. Tell me the story simply, as to a little child, for I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled. (A. Katherine Hankey, 1866).