Although I get into pulpits from time to time, I seldom preach anymore. I do preach in the seminary chapel and at Old Trinity in Saint Louis five times a year to a shrinking group of German-speakers who have become acquaintances over the past few years, but my other appearances in pulpits are occasions for lectures on biblical texts to strangers. The trouble is preaching is conducting the conversation God wishes to have with his people. The preacher lifts God’s words from Scripture and shares them with the gathered community of his people. Conversation takes place face-to-face. Preachers may not know every single individual hearing any given sermon, but they are familiar with those to whom they bring God’s Word and the situations in which they live-out their calling as his children.
This conversation takes place between individuals who know each other. They are familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, aches and pains, joys and delights, worries and concerns. Although the preacher does all the talking out loud in a sermon, God is engaging the lives and thinking of His people through the preacher.
There is no such thing as an individual sermon. The conversation conducted between pulpit and pew continues week after week over long periods of time. That means no sermon contains the whole counsel of God. Some sermons will dwell on specific calls for repentance and on specific instruction for Christian living, that may not be repeated for weeks, simply because the specific issue at hand is properly taken care of in this one sermon. On the other hand, some specific calls for repentance or instruction will be woven into several sermons over a longer or shorter period, even if not repeated each week. No two sermons will rejoice in the gospel of Jesus Christ in precisely the same way even though the preacher’s favorite expressions, images, and metaphors may occur often. In this way they also become part of the linguistic framework with which the hearers view their own experiences and shape their lives.
God is a God of conversation and community which is simply part of His being a Person. He not only created by speaking in Genesis 1. He initiated conversation with his people in Eden and was sorely disappointed when Adam and Eve did not show up for their daily chat. He did not ask, “What have you done now?” He asked, “Where are you when we are supposed to be having our usual tête-à-tête?” It is in God’s very nature to be communicating and this communicating is always with someone. The sermon is one special opportunity for God’s people to be listening to His Word, and their responses come not only in the way they live their lives during the week, but also in the liturgy of their worship itself. In 1526 Luther commented that preaching and teaching of God's Word is, “the most important part of the divine service.” The divine service constituted for him the center of the entire week. For those whom the Holy Spirit has called together into a congregation for enlightenment through the Word and fellowship in the gospel this common renewal of the conversation with God provides the working material for prayer and meditation for not just Sunday, but Monday through Saturday as well.
Good communication depends on trust to make such conversation work effectively. That trust springs, first, from God’s own promise and the punch put into that promise by the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit. Added to this, beyond trusting this person named Jesus Christ, God’s Word in fleshly form, who emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness, humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11), the sermonic conversation works best when hearers trust the person who stands before them, speaking God’s Word and applying it to their lives. The preacher never stands as preacher only; he always brings with him the impressions left behind by the pastoral care delivered and the personal attention paid in the past. That trust is cultivated by the preacher’s demonstration of genuine understanding and concern for the real needs, hurts, longings, fears, and hopes of his people.
For the pulpit is there because God truly wants to address and engage the real needs, hurts, longings, fears, and hopes of his people. His Word is not some grand theory of the universe floating in empty space. His words descend from the cloud into the hurly-burly of the homes of teenagers, the workplaces of their parents, the neighborhoods in which they live, and the churches in which they worship. The message of Moses or Isaiah, of Matthew or Paul, fits into the experiences of twenty-first century U.S. Americans; it must simply be properly translated.
The sermon proceeds out of the pastor’s experience with the congregation during the preceding weeks and months. The hearers’ expressions of their needs, hurts, longings, fears, and hopes molds the thinking of their pastor and sets his mind on the immediate situations that God wants to address through His Word in Scripture. That can often be accomplished under the discipline of the periscopes, but in some situations pastors will decide to preach on other texts for one sermon or for a series of sermons. Luther described the practice in Wittenberg in his German Mass: “For the epistles and gospels we have retained the customary division according to the church year because we do not find anything in this usage that deserves special criticism.” He explained that students would leave Wittenberg for parishes in which the pericopal system was in use, so he retained these lessons, “because this may be beneficial and serve good purpose without any drawbacks,” adding, “but we do not criticize those who take entire books of the evangelists to treat in their sermons.” Never submitting to the discipline of the pericopes leaves too much to the wisdom of the preacher, but Luther saw that the traditional lessons also dare not become a straightjacket. His concern for the sermon as a tool for the pastoral care of the people entrusted to a specific pastor in a unique place was too strong to let him think that.
No preacher has the right to burden the congregation with his own hobby horses, nor with his own fears! But proclaimers of God’s Word can and should share those parts of their own stories that are also parts of God’s story and that serve to highlight and make concrete what God intends for his chosen people. Hearers are interested not only in what the Holy Spirit did in biblical times, but also in what He has been doing for His people lately.
Sermons fire the imaginations and ruminations of hearers and provide food for thought for the coming days. They give impetus to an individual searching the Scriptures that take place in the wake of the worship service. They direct and guide the minds of worshippers into the challenges and opportunities of the immediate future with the decisions and planning that lie before them. Not all the hearers of a sermon will benefit equally from any given homiletical conversation. I have occasionally preached a sermon to one member of a congregation. Ironically, it may be that others benefited immensely from such a sermon, while the target of my exposition of the text not at all. That is simply the way in which the Holy Spirit sometimes uses us.
God wants it told as it is, to use Luther’s phrase from the Heidelberg theses of 1518. Pastoral honesty functions in proportion to the trust that has been built between hearer and preacher. Such trust must recognize that the preacher is genuinely concerned for the person of the hearer and for the faithful delivery of what God really wants the hearer to apprehend and use. Sometimes that honesty with the text and the hearers hurts—sometimes it is designed to kill. Sometimes it surprises us with joy. It builds hope and refuses to cave-in to doubt or fear.
God loves to talk with His human creatures. This is clear throughout Scripture. Being called by God and his people to facilitate the conversation for which both are longing is a tremendous gift from the Maker and Governor of the people of God.