I have some thoughts on preachers and their sermons which I am going to share in this blog over the coming days. Some of what I say may be harsh but I believe it is Biblical and it needs to be shared.
Almost any book you pick up on the subject of homiletics will define and discuss the “sermon”. However, one of the best descriptions of a sermon I have ever seen is given by the prophet Malachi at the beginning of his message: “The burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi.” There are several thoughts I pick up from this introductory verse.
Most translators renders the Hebrew word massa’ as “oracle”. The noun used here comes from the Hebrew verb nasa’ which means “to lift or carry” (which, by the way, has always been easy for me to remember since I have a deep interest in the space program!). So, the principal meaning of the word used by Malachi is “that which is lifted or carried”, hence, “a burden” or “heavy load”. So I prefer the King James Version in this particular case.
Other prophets use this word as well to describe their prophecy/message (see Nahum and Habakkuk for examples). I see these prophets telling us the message they are about to give is a burden they are carrying. It is a burden in the sense it is their responsibility to share it with the people of God. Also, it is a burden to them, a weight on their heart. This is one characteristic of a sermon delivered by any prophet (or preacher): it should be a burden to them, a responsibility which has become a part of them (i.e., it has been internalized by them) and a message which they must share.
But this message is not just the opinion of the speaker. Preachers may be passionate about a great many things and may speak passionately on those subjects. At the same time, though, the message they deliver may not be a sermon or a burden from the Lord. When we lived in the Dallas area, I knew preachers who were passionate fans of the Dallas Cowboys. They could speak at great length about the team and individual players and do so with gusto. But what they proclaimed was not a sermon.
As Malachi notes, this burden he has is the result of the Word of God (literally the word having its source in and belonging to Yahweh). He has received God’s message and it is that message which must be proclaimed, not simply his personal opinions or interests. Therefore, a true sermon must be founded upon the Word of God. Its theme must be rooted in the text of Scripture and its points must come from Scripture. In my mind, the message that best meets these criteria is an expository sermon.
Malachi continues and notes that his message, the text the Lord has given to him as a burden, is for a specific people: Israel. God’s Word is given for a particular audience. For us who are preachers of the Gospel, I believe Malachi is instructing us that his message (and our messages) should be applicable to the people for whom they are intended. If you are a pastor with a congregation then God will lay a burden on you from His Word. You are to extract the message from the text (not read your message into the text) and then discern application(s) for the audience to whom you will deliver it.
Essentially, God’s people need food (that’s the exposition) and they need fresh cooking (that’s the application). I enjoy reading sermons of great preachers from the past and often learn considerable truth from their exposition. However, I usually find much of the application they have in their messages do not directly apply to me today. The food is there but requires some new cooking.
Finally, Malachi adds that the sermon is his, i.e., he is the one presenting the truth to the people. Obviously, in the case of the prophets, what they presented by means of writing was the actual revelation of God, inspired and without error. This is true of all the Scripture. It is God’s Word BUT it is written in the language of men, language which differs by their style, knowledge, training, environment, etc. It is God’s message but it is also THEIR message.
That should be the case with the messages we deliver. We expound God’s Word but WE are the ones who develop the outline, gather the illustrations, discern the applications, and deliver the message.
That’s what a sermon is to me. It is an exposition and application of God’s Word which has been internalized by God’s messenger and then delivered by that messenger to the people for whom it was intended.