By Brad East
(originally posted on Resident Theologian)
1. The principal subject matter for preaching, always and everywhere, is the triune God of Israel attested and revealed in the good news about Jesus, the Lord and Messiah of Israel. If a sermon could not plausibly be said to have been about that, it was not a sermon.
1.1. This is primarily a substantive point, that is, regarding what a sermon is “about,” which doesn’t mean that counting the number of times the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Spirit,” “Trinity,” etc., are mentioned in a sermon is going to do the job. Throwing around those words isn’t good enough; indeed, imagine an expertly crafted sermon on the book of Esther that somehow avoided such terms, just like the text in question, while nevertheless rendering God’s providential, saving hand throughout.
1.2. Having said that, the point is secondarily grammatical. That is, months and months of sermons unpopulated by liberal use of the sentence structure, “God [verb],” would be deeply suspect. In most sermons God ought to be the grammatical subject as much as he is the subject matter. God is not passive—in Scripture, in the world, in the church, or in the sermon—and he shouldn’t be implied to be by the rhetoric of preachers.
2. A sermon is the proclamation of the gospel by an authorized member of the church out of a specific text from Holy Scripture in the setting of public worship among, to, and for the sake of the gathered local assembly of the baptized.
2.1. Proclamation means announcement, attestation, verbal testimony, public witness, a herald’s message from the royal throne. A sermon, therefore, is not a lesson. It is not (primarily) teaching, or didactic in tone or content. It is not a pep talk, an inspirational message, or personal sharing. It is not a comedy routine. It is not a TED Talk. It is solemn, joyful, awesome declaration of the gospel of the incarnate Lord.
2.2. The gospel is the good news about Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God become human, crucified, risen, and ascended. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us; the autobasileia, the kingdom himself in person; the God-man who takes away the sins of the world. He is the promised one of Israel, the grace of God enfleshed, the King and Ruler of the cosmos. His name means love, forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption. A sermon is not a sermon that does not point, like the outstretched finger of John the Baptist, to this Christ, and to life in him, the life he makes possible.
2.2.1. That the sermon announces the gospel, and the gospel is the good news of friendship with God through the grace of Christ, does not mean that every sermon must be about or mention the name of Jesus. Most should, no doubt, and no sermon should fear mentioning Christ lest he be “imported” into or “imposed” on, say, a text that does not mention him by name. A Christian sermon should not fear to be a Christian sermon. But it is certainly possible to preach a faithful Christian sermon out of an Old Testament text without mentioning Jesus. Why? Because the good news about Jesus is the gospel of Israel’s God, whose covenant with Abraham is the very covenant renewed in Christ and extended to the gentiles. God’s grace, in other words, and God’s identity and attributes, are one and the same across the covenants. To preach the one God just is to preach the gospel.
2.2.2. Having said that, reticence about preaching Jesus from Israel’s scriptures is an inherited prejudice worth unlearning in most cases. Moses and David and Isaiah foretold Jesus, as Jesus himself taught. We should take him at his word, and God’s people deserve to hear of it.
2.3. A sermon is and ought to be rooted in and an explication of some particular passage of the Christian Bible. This should go without saying. A sermon, however thematic, is not on a topic or theme first of all. The topic or theme arises from the text. A sermon series that does not follow the lectionary and is organized thematically should be very careful so as to commit itself to concrete texts each week.
2.3.1. Expository preaching may be done faithfully, but not all preaching need be expository. The danger of so-called non-expository preaching is that it become unmoored from the text. The alternative danger, however, is mistaking the sermon for a class lesson. But a sermon is not a lecture; the pulpit is not a lectern. A lecture’s aim is understanding. A sermon’s aim is faith. One can proclaim the gospel out of a text without parsing its every verb and explaining its every historical nuance. But one can do the latter without accomplishing the former. That’s the error to avoid.
2.3.2. A sermon is not a book tour. It is not a personal testimony. It isn’t time for church business (or, God forbid, budget talk). A sermon isn’t practical advice, or suggestions for living your best life now, or ideas about how to parent. It is not electioneering and it is not political advocacy. If you hear attempted preachments that, for example, do not have a biblical text as their source or the living God as their subject or the gospel as the matter of their announcement: then you have not heard a sermon.
2.3.3. Texts preached on should be diverse in every way: narrative, epistle, Torah, psalms, wisdom, paraenesis, apocalypse, etc. For both lectionary and non-lectionary traditions, the harder texts should not be avoided (purity laws, money, war, nonviolence, gender, miracles, politics, justice—whatever challenges you or your audience’s preconceptions or sacred cows).
2.4. Preaching is an item of Christian worship. It is an element of the liturgy, the word proclaimed in speech and sacrament. Preaching is not secular. It is not a species of human speech in general. It is the word of God communicated through human words. The preacher is an instrument of divine speech, a sanctified mediator of Christ’s saving gospel. The Holy Spirit sanctifies the words of the sermon to be, in all their unworthiness, the medium of the eternal Word that slays and makes alive again.
2.4.1. Preachers and Christian hearers ought to approach the word proclaimed mindful of what is happening. Which is not to make the occasion a somber or rarefied event: a sermon’s environment is and ought to be the lively reality of human community, which means nursing babies and fussing kids and coughs and tears and inarticulate moans (offered by, for example, profoundly intellectually disabled persons, who are welcomed by Christ himself to hear him speak). The sermon, in short, is not cordoned off from real life; the assembly need not resemble the silence of a monastery before God can begin to work. But precisely in the midst of and through all such common features of human life together, the Spirit of Christ is making his presence known in the speaking of his holy word.
2.4.2. The long-standing catholic practice of the church is for the proclaimed word to precede the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the climax of the liturgy. Churches descended from the Reformation tend to reverse the order, so that the service culminates in the sermon (sometimes tending, regrettably, to eliminate the meal altogether). The catholic sequence seems right to me, but in either case, there are dangers to be avoided.
2.4.3. Protestants must resist the temptation to make worship talky, so word-centered that it really does become like one long classroom experience, peppered with prayers and a bit of music. The word, moreover, must not swamp the sacrament. Far too many sermon-centered churches, even if they celebrate communion, downgrade its importance through a minimum of ritual, time, and emphasis. The sermon becomes the reason the people are gathered; and if the sermon, then the preacher; and if the preacher, then a mere minister has displaced Christ as the locus of the church’s assembly. The gravest theological danger is that the sacramental principle of ex opere operato ceases to apply, practically, to the sermon, because its centrality highlights the need for technical quality, and preachers are no longer trusted to successfully proclaim God’s gospel apart from their own worthiness or talents, for those very things become exactly the measure of their faithfulness, and thus their appeal.
2.4.4. Catholics (East and West) must resist the temptation to make the sermon, or homily, a mere prelude, preferably brief, to the Main Event. The gospel is proclaimed in word and sacrament; that need not imply equality in every respect, but it certainly requires a kind of parity, a recognition that each has its proper work to do, under God, for God’s people. Ritual is good and liturgy is good, but proclamation of the gospel has the converting power of Christ himself through the Spirit (a sword in the hand of the servant of God, to mortify the flesh and vivify the soul), power to convict of sin, awaken faith, to work signs and miracles, to raise the dead. The centrality of the Eucharist does not logically entail, and must not become an excuse to enact, the liturgical devaluation of the proclaimed word.
2.5. A sermon is an ecclesial event; it exists by, in, and for the church of Christ. Preaching is a practice proper to the baptized. The proper context and principal audience for the word of God is the people of God. In this the sermon is no different than the Eucharist, whose natural home is the gathered community of faith.
2.5.1. The twofold telos of the sermon is the awakening of faith and the edification of the faithful. The sermon, then, is preached primarily to and for baptized believers, not to nonbelievers, visitors, seekers, or pagans. The sermon is not first of all evangelistic or apologetic. Doubtless there have been and are contexts in which sermons ought to be oriented to nonbelievers, but that is not ordinarily, not normatively, what the sermon is or is for. The word proclaimed is for the upbuilding of the saints in via, the (audible) manna alongside the (visible) manna that the Lord provides for the journey through the wilderness to the promised land.
2.5.2. Simplifying sermons so as to be intelligible, week in and week out, to people who know nothing about the Christian gospel or Holy Scripture is unwise and, though it may provide short-term results, in the long-term it is impracticable, ineffective, and damaging. The Lord’s people require feeding. Refusing, on principle, never to move beyond milk for infants will leave the people famished and arrested in their spiritual maturity.
3. Preaching in a digital age presents challenges the church hasn’t had to face in nearly its entire life. It’s a genuinely new world, and the changes are still fresh, historically speaking. Microphones, video, images, projected text, recording, podcasts, broadcasting to multiple sites at once—I don’t envy pastors who have to make decisions about such things in real time. But there are principles worth keeping in mind while navigating the new landscape.
3.1. Technology should serve the sermon and the sermon’s ends, not the other way around. It should serve, in fact, every one of the theses above. If it does not—if it distracts, if it draws attention to itself, if it becomes an end in itself, if it is superficial, if it is flashy, if it is ugly, if it abets rather than subverts the hyper-technologizing tendencies already gnawing and corrupting the minds and souls of the faithful—then it should be resisted and rejected out of hand.
3.2. Preaching is an oral event. Considered as a natural occurrence, it is essentially a verbal communication spoken by one human being to the hearkening ears of a gathering of other human beings. Technology can aid this occurrence: by amplifying sound, for example, for the large size of an assembly; or, say, for the hard of hearing. It can even transmit the sermon to those unable, for medical or travel or other reasons, to attend the convocation of God’s people in person. These are clear ways in which technology serves the orality of gospel proclamation.
3.2.1. Technology can also mitigate the spoken nature of the sermon. Such technology includes videos, extensive use of screen text, involved graphics and images and slide shows, and so on. The question is not whether these are absolutely forbidden in any and all cases. The question is whether they are subjected to rigorous theological inquiry as to their suitability to the essential form of churchly proclamation, rather than their merely instrumental capacities with respect to desired secondary ends (e.g., lack of boredom, capturing youths’ attention, entertainment, laughs, viral videos). The medium is not neutral, not an instance of adiaphora; the medium is, literally, the message: the word of God for the people of God. If it isn’t a word, if it isn’t God’s word, then it isn’t the preaching of the gospel. And that’s the whole ballgame.
3.3. Churches and preachers should be wary rather than eager to use new technologies. Technology takes on a life of its own. It masters its domain. Nor is it neutral: a social media app cannot reinforce good habits of sustained attention, for example, because by its very nature a social media app is meant to colonize your attention and destroy your ability to concentrate for sustained periods of time without interruption. Nor is technology master-less; it serves gods, rabid and hungry and insatiable. Those gods are the market and Silicon Valley. Technology doesn’t descend ready-made from heaven. It comes from somewhere, and is made by human beings. Those human beings make what they sell and sell what they make for one reason: money. Letting what they make and sell into the church is a dangerous game to play, even if well-considered and well-intentioned. A pastor ought always to be suspicious rather than sanguine about the power of technology in the life of the church—and such suspicion should bear on its use in preaching.
4. Technique is, hands down, the least important thing about preaching. If a pastor has spent the week dwelling in the biblical text for that Sunday’s sermon and, from the pulpit, strives, while petitioning for help from God’s grace, to preach from Scripture the good news of God’s grace in Jesus on behalf of and for the sake of the upbuilding of Christ’s body—then the job is done. In a real sense that is the only criterion for any sermon: was that thing accomplished (even, was its accomplishment sought)? If so, then questions of delivery, eloquence, clarity, form, etc., are all secondary, and of little import. If not, if a truly Christian sermon was not even attempted, then all the good humor, articulateness, pathos, personal anecdotes, intelligence, powers of rhetoric, and the rest don’t mean a damn thing.
4.1. Method is a matter of prudence, native talent, gifts of the Spirit, audience, context, training, and many more largely uncontrollable variables. A faithful sermon can be 20, 40, or 60 minutes long (or more); it can be done from memory, with a basic outline, or with a manuscript; it can involve gestures and movements and animation or minimal intonation and emotion; it can encompass the whole spectrum of human passions and virtues; there is no platonic ideal of Faithful Proclamation. (Nor, by the way, is there The Biblical Model of it.) Method depends; don’t be a slave to method; don’t be a disciple of methodologists.
4.2. Preaching should wear its study lightly while depending on it as the sermon’s lifeblood. You can spot a preacher who doesn’t study from a mile away. A preacher who doesn’t read except for what is strictly necessary. A preacher who doesn’t read widely, who doesn’t read for pleasure, who doesn’t read anything but commentaries (though, please, read the commentaries!). A preacher whose primary—or, God forbid, exclusive—allusions and references are to pop culture. A good preacher doesn’t flaunt sources and drop names. But the research that informs a sermon should be discernible in the rich substance of it; should be there to be offered to anyone with further questions following the sermon. “Oh, you had a question about that line? Here are half a dozen books I’d recommend on the topic if you want to go deeper on it…”
4.2.1. Speaking of pop culture: steer clear of it. Nine times out of ten an explicit and/or drawn-out reference to pop culture is a distraction and undermines the aim of the reference. Lovers of pop culture vastly overestimate the universality of their pop culture darlings. Harry Potter may have millions of fans, but here’s the truth: half of your church hasn’t read the books or seen the films. Moreover, pop culture almost always skews young, and playing for the youth is a capitulation to market pressures. A sermon is catholic: it is meant for the one holy church of God—not some upwardly mobile demographic slice of it. Finally, pop culture references usually denigrate rather than elevate the material. What hath Hollywood to do with Jerusalem? Children’s movies and science fiction are silly and insubstantial compared with the holy ever-living Trinity and the sacrifice of Jesus upon a Roman gallows. “When Jesus calls a man he bids him come and die—oh and that reminds me of this funny little anecdote from Finding Nemo…” The juxtaposition is absurd, and though congregants might chuckle or wink, in their hearts they know something great and weighty is being set alongside something weak and shallow. Don’t do it.
4.2.2. The pop culture rule is a species of the greater genus of illustrations. (Another species is anecdotes.) Illustrations are certainly useful and have their place. But at least two dangers are worth addressing. One is the tendency for illustrations to swamp the text. Instead of the preacher’s experience at the DMV illuminating the real matter at hand, which is the text from Scripture, the opposite happens: God’s word becomes a bit player in the larger drama of the preacher’s life. The other danger is related: illustrations, consistently used, can come to shape the people’s minds in the following way. Instead of Scripture being the relevant, formative, immediate influence on their souls—their hearts, minds, morals, imaginations—Scripture is instead pictured as distant, alien, strange, ancient, foreign, irrelevant. And what illustrations do is bridge that gap, translate that language, assimilate that culture into ours, our time and context and culture and language being the dominant factors. Illustrations and stories and anecdotes and allusions need, rather, to serve the relevance and power and relatability and authority of the scriptural text, not reverse the terms and increase the alienation people (perhaps already) feel about the Bible.
5. All that the preacher does, all that the many facets of the sermon strive to achieve, must be in service of the one thing necessary: to speak human words, rooted in God’s written word, that may, by the Spirit’s grace, become a conduit for the living and eternal Word, Christ risen and reigning from heaven, to speak himself in person, in his saving presence, to his beloved people, that he might justify and sanctify, equip and encourage them in faith, hope, and love; and that they might, when the words are finished, give glory to God—and say Amen.
Brad East is Assistant Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, Abilene, Texas. His articles have been published in Modern Theology, International Journal of Systematic Theology, Scottish Journal of Theology, Pro Ecclesia, and Anglican Theological Review. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Christian Century, Comment, Commonweal, First Things, Living Church, Los Angeles Review of Books, Marginalia Review of Books, Plough Quarterly, and more. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture, set to be published this summer with Oxford University Press, and his book The Doctrine of Scripture is forthcoming in the Cascade Companions series.