I ask because I believe there is a general level of confusion on the part of Christians. Is the sermon just another kind of "speech? Is it a lecture? Is it a motivational talk?
Here are some comments I've heard recently...only one of these is from a parishioner.
"Why can't we avoid controversial topics in sermons. It just turns people off?"
"I go to church to feel good, to start my week out right, but when the pastor preaches on________ I go home feeling rotten..."
"Why does he want us to open the bible during the sermon? Isn't that his job? Shouldn't he simply summarize his point get on with the service?"
All of these comments and questions reflect serious misunderstandings of the purpose and point of preaching.
Biblically speaking, a sermon is not a speech, lecture or motivational talk.
Rather it is an exposition and application of scripture. Read Paul's charge to Timothy:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.(2 Tim 3:14-17)
This is not only Paul's charge to Timothy, but it represents God's charge to every preacher. The task is not to inspire or motivate or teach on the basis of witty formulations or high rhetoric...it is not to send people home "feeling good."
Rather the task of the preacher is to open God's Word to the congregation, to bring the bible to bear on the consciences and hearts of God's people (and his own). I do not, and I don't know of a preacher who does, claim to get this right all the time. I just don't. But nevertheless, regardless of our imperfections, the primary purpose of preaching, the goal toward which every preacher worth his salt strives, is to let God's Word speak for itself...not to get in the way...because, as Paul's words above show...when bible is truly preached, God's Word is truly heard. God speaks to his people through preaching.
So when someone, myself or anyone else, stands up to preach, his message must center on the Book. And through the Book, God's Spirit works to convict, rebuke, correct, and encourage.
It is a dereliction of duty not to preach from the scriptures in such a way that the necessity of repentance and reconciliation is made clear. When God's call to all men and women to repent and surrender to Christ is hidden behind comforting words that provide false salves to the conscience and superficially alleviate the tension between biblical truth and cultural norms, souls are endangered. What a terrible thing to send a congregation home hyped up on motivational platitudes without a hint that there is a judgment to come and that apart from Christ none can stand in it.
If the bible is truly being preached in a congregation it is IMPOSSIBLE to go home feeling good all the time. It is, and should be, a regular experience to feel a sense of "conviction" and sometimes to feel rebuked...not by the preacher but by the scriptures themselves. God uses his Word to correct us and to sanctify us and that, sometimes, can be a painful process. When the sins we cling to are exposed to the light of God's Word, like Adam and Eve, our inclination is to hide, to seek shelter from God.
And yet we should not run from such things but relish them, embrace them, be filled with gratitude for them. As the author of Hebrews says, God rebukes those he loves (Hebrews 12). If he did not love us he would not care what we do...he would let our sins pile up so that we might be judged and found guilty. But because he loves us, he convicts, rebukes and corrects us here and now.
At the same time, we should not depart regularly feeling condemned. While the sermon opens the Word of God and that necessarily leads to conviction from time to time, it also brings comfort and encouragement and assurance. Not only are we forgiven sinners, but in Christ, we are beloved children of God. We are heirs to the world. We have no reason to hang our heads in shame because our Lord has taken away all shame and guilt. God not only confronted Adam and Eve with their sin, he himself provided a covering for them and, ultimately, promised to provide eternal shelter from his wrath...a promise he fulfilled in the propitiatory sacrifice of Jesus Christ. There is no hiding place, no cleft or shelter or Ark, apart from him.
There should then be a sense of eager anticipation as the bible is opened and the sermon begins...what treasures will God reveal? What comfort will he bring? What guidance or assurance will he give me this day? For every rebuke, there is also a promise of mercy and grace to all who seek it in Jesus Christ. For those of us who have come to faith in Christ, all our thoughts, words, and deeds, sinful or not, are done in the context of his compassionate love. We are his children in his house. We have the freedom to crawl up into his lap and call him "abba" or Father. His rebukes and corrections then, when applied to believers, are always tender; always given with the purpose of building up and making holy.
The preacher, then, is to use the bible for all these purposes; to teach, correct, rebuke, and encourage and if he does there is the following consequence:
"...that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
The bible, when it is applied to the congregation rightly, equips the Christian for every good work. Through biblical preaching, God's people (preacher and congregation together) learn what pleases him and how to accomplish it and they are given his power to do what he has called them to do.
The sermon is not a speech, lecture or motivational talk, done properly it is the means by which God communicates the desire of the bridegroom to the bride, Christ's will to his Church.
I confess, and I think most preachers will join me in this, that I do not do this as well as I should. I often fail. But God promises to use the weak things of this world to accomplish his purposes, to take our imperfect gifts and, by grace, convert them to his perfect use (1 Cor 1). That is the power of preaching...not the eloquence or rhetorical charm of trained speakers, but the infinitely powerful grace of God piercing hearts and minds by the double edged sword of his Word wielded imperfectly by unworthy servants.
This week, Alistair Begg, posted a couple of very good talks on this subject on his website, and I will leave you with links to these and my encouragement to listen to them.
The Pulpit: It's Power and Pitfalls Part 1