This past week I spent about 25 hours preparing our church’s Sunday morning message. It was based on 1 Samuel 9-11, so maybe it’s better to call it a sermon. During this sermon, I read the whole text, and then spoke for another 40 minutes explaining the meaning and applying it to the hearts those present. So maybe we should call it an expositional sermon. And I don’t live in pre-Enlightenment England, nor was it offered in homage to “Puritan Preaching Sunday” on our annual church calendar. Frankly, our senior pastor loathes those annual calendars, but that’s for another article . . .
Why spend all this time poring over God’s word? And why as a congregation did we devote an hour to my (sometimes painful) monologue? I’ve been asked such questions before. And I’ve been gently rebuked by well-meaning friends. They ask things like: Why do you single out preaching over other forms of worship? Doesn’t this just reflect your Western prejudice toward rational, reasoned, and orderly discourse? Nobody will remember 95% of what you say anyway. In other words, they say, stop wasting your time—and ours!
However, before you forgo Scripture for the fine arts in your Sunday gathering, let me offer a few reasons why preaching ought to be not only present but primary to the life of your local church.
GOD’S PEOPLE GATHER AROUND THE HEARING OF GOD’S WORD
Believe it or not, I don’t naturally want to sit down and listen to someone talk to me. I would rather be motivated through film, energized over a raucous drum solo, or stirred through a moving piece of art. But the consistent pattern in Scripture is that God’s people gather around the hearing of God’s Word. We are to remain silent, while he speaks.
When God establishes his covenant relationship with his people at the Exodus, he used words and commanded his people gather around and hear those words (Exodus 24:7). While Israel has her enemies on the run heading into the Promised Land, God commands his people to halt and march 20 miles north to the spot of two opposing cliffs. There, with the steep mountains overhead providing a natural amphitheater, “Joshua read all the words of the law—the blessings and the curses— . . . there was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the woman and the children, and the aliens who lived among them” (Joshua 8:34-35).
This is a curious thing to do in the midst of their blitzkreig through the south, but this is no ordinary war, and these are no ordinary people. The word that created them is the word that defines them. Years later, when Josiah leads his people back to the Lord, he does so by reading “in their hearing the words of the Book of the Convent that had been found in the house of the Lord” (2 Chronicles 34:30). When all God’s people gather as one after the exile, Nehemiah doesn’t lead them in a Crossfit routine, a finger-painting exercise, or an extended meditation through the stations of the cross. He has Ezra stand up on a wooden platform (Nehemiah 8.4) and while the people remained in their places (8:7), Ezra and the scribes “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8).
Jesus’ public ministry in Luke begins by entering into the synagogue, picking up the scroll of Isaiah, reading it, and teaching from it (Luke 4:14-22). In Acts 2, the people aren’t saved through a gospel blimp or some other gimmick, but through Peter’s public exposition of Joel 2. Deacons were established in Acts 6 not so that the apostles could be freed up to study the latest in drama techniques or hip dress, but so that they would be free to preach the Word of God (Acts 6:2). Paul exhorts Timothy to preach the word (2 Tim 4:2).
I could go on and on. The eye excites, but the ear empowers. We don’t need Tetzel-like skits of heaven’s gates and hell’s flames. God’s people need to gather around the hearing of God’s word.
PREACHING GOD’S WORD TEACHES YOUR PEOPLE HOW TO READ GOD’S WORD
Not long ago David Wells lamented how evangelicals no longer have the courage to be Protestant. Today, we struggle for the courage to be, in any sense, historically Christian. As the cultural tidal wave of gender and sexuality crashes upon us, we don’t have anything to say because we don’t think the Bible finally has anything to say, or we don’t know what it says, or it’s become nothing but a collection of moral stories, a religious version of Aesop’s fables that we get to reinterpret to fit our cultural mores.
But keeping God’s Word central to the life of your local church, especially by preaching through consecutive texts of Scripture, teaches your people how to read the Bible. They don’t need a seminary class on hermeneutics to get this; what they need is faithful preaching. Preaching that connects the power of God’s creative word, the fallenness of the first Adam, the need for sacrifice, the promise of a second Adam and a new Eden. Preaching that connects what God had done through Israel to Jesus and the new Israel of God.
My early Christian life was spent in churches that loved God’s Word, however they did not treat it as a mountain of gold to be mined, but more of a hill with a few scattered rocks we could pick up and observe with passing interest. It was only when I landed in a church that mined the word, carefully connecting rich biblical themes and showing how it all pointed to Christ, that I began to tackle the Old Testament with confidence and encouragement. Keeping God’s Word central in your preaching and teaching will not only help people know how to read it, but it will give them the encouragement to dive into it for themselves.
PREACHING GOD’S WORD IS MEANT TO CHANGE THEIR LIFE, ONE WEEK AT A TIME
What good do all those sermons do, if we proceed to forget most of what we heard shortly thereafter? Well, we don’t forget everything we hear. I trust most of us can remember sermons that challenged how we thought about God, marriage, money, etc.—and we were forever changed. So let’s not write off the whole enterprise.
But beyond that, the weekly word in our morning messages is only meant to get us to next Sunday! In God’s weekly rhythm, he seems to grasp that come Sunday, we’re famished, and we need to be filled yet again.
My sermons, your sermons, they don’t have to remain with our people throughout eternity. It’s not meant to change their lives in that sense. They’re meant to sustain them until next week. One week at a time. Until heaven. And there, the word made flesh will dwell with us forever, and the need for sermons will be no more.