Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sermons and Their Delivery #1

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.


CanadianGrandma said...

Can you give examples and the names of the preachers of old whose messages are not applicable today? Personally, I have not come across any sermons that are not for this generation!

TheSaxonHus said...

Nice to hear from you again, “canadiangrandma”!

What I said was “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.” I do not mean to imply the message is not applicable to me. Rather, the specific application often given by the messenger is not directly applicable.

The thrust of what I am attempting to communicate is that the application of the text by the preacher must apply to the audience to whom it is proclaimed. Hence, no matter how old the message, the application given by the preacher must address the listening congregation.

My experience has been the more removed the message is from today, the more frequent the application (or some of it) will need modifying. The reasons for such modification are many (time, geography, theological, etc.) and a blog is probably not the place to discuss them. But here are a few examples.

Charles Spurgeon said:

“Why, it followeth how earnest ye should be in prayer to the Holy Spirit, as well as for the Holy Spirit. Let me say that this is an inference that you should lift up your prayers to the Holy Ghost; that you should cry earnestly unto him; for he is able to do exceeding abundantly above all you can ask or think. See this mass of people; what is to convert it? See this crowd; who is to make my influence permeate through the mass? You know this place has now a mighty influence, and God blessing us, it will have an influence, not only upon this city, but upon England at large…” (“The New Park Street Pulpit”, Vol. 1 (
Baker Books): “The Personality of the Holy Ghost”, delivered on 1/21/1855 based on John 14:16,17).

Spurgeon’s application is “right on” even to our generations. But you certainly have to make a minor adjustment for geography and time if you were to preach it in the United States. So, some “cooking” is required but nothing which changes the overall “taste” of the meal.

Similarly, Spurgeon also preached:

“The Lord has helped us as a church…Many a sinner has been converted to God in this hall … Arise! Arise! Ye members of this church, ye who have followed the son of Barak, and have gone up as the thousands at his feet; arise and triumph for God is with us…” (“The New Park Street Pulpit”, Vol. 6 – “Magnificat”, delivered on 10/14/1860 based on Judges 5:12).

While this application (an exhortation directed at his church members) also requires some adjusting due to geography (“this church”), additional changes may be required depending upon the church to which it is proclaimed. Has the church, like the son of Barak, “gone up as the thousands”? Spurgeon’s application may or may not be appropriate depending on the recipients of the message.

One more example from Spurgeon’s early days in the ministry:

“We love the Missionary Society, both for home and abroad…I love the Bible Society, because that enables me to serve God personally. For the same reason, I must ever love the Religious Tract Society, because that enables me, nay, compels me, if I would do anything, to do it myself. … I look upon the giving away of a religious tract as only the first step for action not to be compared with many another deed done for Christ; … There is a real service of Christ in the distribution of the gospel in its printed form … Let each one of us, if we have done nothing for Christ, begin to do something now. The distribution of tracts is the first thing.” (“The New Park Street Pulpit”, Vol. 6 – “Personal Service”, delivered on 5/3/1860 based on Psalm 116:16).

Again, the exhortation to pass out tracts is a good one and applicable to us today. But, due to time and organization changes, there are necessary, albeit minor, changes required to his application.

Going back to Martin Luther, we often read applications of this kind:

“12. Consequently do not allow yourselves to be persuaded that you must believe what the Pope says or the councils decree.” (“Complete Sermons of Martin Luther”, Vol. II, “Eighth Sunday after Trinity”, preached in 1522 based on Matthew 7:15-23).

I would say in many churches and for many groups, this application would be meaningless and not appropriate. Now, in Luther’s day it was. If you take his exhortation and make it more general (essentially arguing that our persuasion must come from the Word of God and not the Word of men), then it is entirely applicable.

Now note this extreme case from Augustus Toplady:

“1. That as I am, in the literal sense of the word, an Englishman, so I wish to be such in the best sense of it. Next to the gospel of Christ, I love and revere the constitution of my country. Consequently, 2. I am not a republican. On the contrary, I am a royalist on principle. … Every pulse I have sincerely and strongly beats for the present moderate episcopacy in the Church; and for constitutional monarchy in the state. … 3. In my opinion, every true Englishman is a constitutionalist … I shall only detain you a moment or two longer by observing that you have now an opportunity of adding another good work to those in which you have already been engaged. … The Ethelburga Society, who are at the expense of supporting a Sunday evening lecture, and of maintaining a charity-school for the education, board, clothing, and apprenticing, of no fewer than fifty-two children of both sexes, request your benevolent contribution, to assist them in the support of this noble and eminently useful institution. I beseech you therefore, brethren, rightly to improve the present season of national humiliation, by duly considering these awful words of God …” (“The Works of Augustus Toplady”, Bookshelf Publications, the message beginning on page 392; Philippians 4:5 “Let your moderation be known unto all Men).

I am not 100% certain I would present the same applications as our brother did if I preached on this text. But, if I did, I would have to reword them greatly in the form of American patriotism as well as select a different organization to which the people could contribute.

Even present day messages sometimes require a “recooking” of the preacher’s application. Check out John Piper’s sermon from November 4, 2007 entitled “Treasuring Christ Together as a Church on Multiple Campuses”, based on Acts 2:36-47. Even the title indicates this message is directed specifically at his church. The message abounds with solid truths as well as great Christian principles but the primary application he presents is specific to Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis.

Again, the thrust of what I am trying to say in my posting is that the application of each sermon is directed toward the audience that will hear the message. Many sermons have applications which may be given to almost any church. Nevertheless, part of the preacher’s sermon preparation must include developing Biblical application and that requires some knowledge of those to whom he preaches.

You will see why I am so interested in application in a future post to the blog.