Why do we have sermons? (And why are they So Long?)
There is more time devoted in our worship service to preaching than to any other single element. This is intentional, and reflects our understanding of just how important preaching is for establishing and strengthening our life of faith. Preaching was central in the ministry of Jesus, the ministry of his Apostles, and is to have a central place in the church. As Paul solemnly charged young Timothy, a primary responsibility of ministers in the church of Jesus Christ is to “Preach the Word: be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2). So important is preaching in the life of the Church, that reformed churches going back to the Belgic Confession of 1561 have declared that the faithful preaching of the Word of God is one of the three marks of a true church of Jesus Christ. But what is good preaching? What are the marks of a preaching ministry that God will use to build up my faith?
First, good preaching will explain God’s word. True preaching is always Biblical - it can never be divorced from the Scripture. Preaching as God intends it is not an opportunity for a pastor to offer his own reflections or personal opinions on a topic of his choosing, but rather to declare God’s revealed will through his Word. Thus, good preaching will either explain a specific text of Scripture, or will bring to bear what Scripture has to say about a certain topic. Generally speaking, the main point of a sermon should be clearly discernible from the Biblical passage that is being preached. This is how you know that what you are hearing is God’s word, and not the opinions of man.
Second, good preaching will apply God’s word. We are called to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving ourselves.” Every part of God’s revealed word is ultimately practical in nature, calling us to change or grow in some way - whether that be in our attitudes, beliefs, or actions. Good preaching will help us make connections between the meaning of a Biblical passage and the impact that it should have on our lives.
Finally, good preaching will proclaim the apex of God’s word: The person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. Preaching Christ every sermon is vitally important for two reasons. First, Jesus himself taught us that the entire Bible is ultimately centered on and about him (Luke 24:44). Therefore, we cannot fully understand any passage of Scripture until we see how that passage relates to God’s saving purposes in Christ. Second, failing to proclaim God’s saving work in Christ distorts the overall message of Christianity. The Gospel is that God forgives and accepts us, even though we are sinners, because of the work of Christ for us. If we only call people to “be better” and “try harder” without reminding them of this truth, we veer into legalism and give the impression that we can make ourselves acceptable to God by our obedience if we just try hard enough.
This last point is so important that it needs more elaboration. Bryan Chappell, in his book on preaching, warns against what he calls “The Deadly Be’s” that “strike at the heart of faith rather than support it.” What are these? He is referring to sermons that only call us to “Be Like” a certain biblical character such as David or Daniel; or to “Be Good” by doing what God tells you to do; or to “Be Disciplined” by praying more or reading the Bible more. These types of sermons, even if given with the best of intentions, undermine the message of Christianity. This is because, as Tim Keller puts it, they “give the impression that (we) might be complete enough to pull ourselves together if we really try hard enough.” Keller continues:
What if you are preaching a text on Joseph resisting the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, or of Josiah reading the forgotten law of God to the assembled nation, or of David bravely facing Goliath, and you distill the lesson for life--such as felling temptation, loving the Scripture, and trusting God in danger--but you end the sermon there? Then you are only reinforcing the self-salvation default mode of the human heart. Your sermon will be heard as encouraging the listeners to procure God’s blessing through right living. If you don’t every time emphatically and clearly fit that text into Christ’s salvation and show how he saved us through resisting temptation, fulfilling the law perfectly, and taking on the ultimate giants of sin and death--all for us, as our substitute--then you are only confirming moralists in their moralism.
This is why at Redeemer we are not just committed to preaching, but to preaching Christ in every sermon. And why are the sermons so long (if you consider 30-35 minutes long)? Well, simply because taking the time to explain a passage, apply the passage, and proclaim Christ from that passage, usually can't be done well in ten to fifteen minutes.