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Where Do Sermons Come From Anyway?

On any given week, pastors and preachers all over the world are working on messages, lectures, devotions, and lessons that will be delivered to congregations. Most traditionally these homilies are delivered on Sundays and are most often referred to as sermons. You may be asking yourself the question, “Where do sermons come from anyway?” Like a young child asking questions about life, babies, birds, and bees you may receive any number of answers to this question we have before us. In order to best understand where sermons come from, we should first consider “What is a sermon?”

Most simply, a sermon is a “talk on a religious or moral subject, especially one given during a church service and based on a passage from the Bible.” So, there you have it. According to the Oxford Dictionary a sermon is a religious talk. But if looked at historically, a sermon isn’t merely a religious talk, it’s a word from God. Now in today’s culture a word from “God” could mean any number of things. Certainly we must reveal our presuppositions as we address what a sermon is. For evangelical Christians a sermon must be based on the Bible – God’s Word. These aren’t necessarily thoughts from an individual, wisdom from sages, or series of sayings from your grandma. No, a sermon should deliver to people the very words and thoughts of God. The short answer to “Where do sermons come from?” is – the BIBLE.

Charles Simeon is noted as saying, “My endeavor is to bring out of Scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less than I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.” Further Simeon states a simple 3 fold purpose for preaching sermons: to humble the sinner, to exalt the Savior, and to promote holiness.

Essentially, a sermon is what John Piper calls expository exultation. He states, “It [the sermon] is not disinterested or cool or neutral. It is not mere explanation. It is manifestly and contagiously passionate about what it says… So preaching is expository… It deals with the Word of God … In a phrase, preaching is expository exultation … It is uniquely suited to feed both understanding and feeling… God has ordained that the Word of God come in a form that teaches the mind and reaches the heart.” Preaching uniquely channels God’s inspired truth through a man who is passionate about God. “People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure … The vision of a great God is the linchpin in the life of the church.”

With this in mind, there are 2 questions that will help us understand the two major types of preaching. Additionally, there are 2 follow-up questions which will help us gain clarity on what type of preaching takes place at the Church at Martinsburg.

1. What is expositional preaching?

The term “preach” comes from the Greek word which simply means to “herald, proclaim, or announce.” The Bible makes clear in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. Additionally, in 2 Timothy 4:1 there’s a direct command to preach the word of God. In the most basic sense expositional preaching is empowered preaching that rightfully submits the shape and emphasis of the sermon to the shape and emphasis of a biblical text. This method of preaching works to uncover the meaning of the biblical text and its applications – directly from the text itself. Within this type of preaching the one sermonizing will work to limit personal opinion and influence while providing space for the purpose of the passage of Scripture to shine brightly.

2. What is topical preaching?

As can be easily deduced from the description, topical preaching focuses on specific topics or emphases that the preacher desires to address or discerns a need for addressing. Topical preaching generally starts with an idea and finds biblical instruction, passages, and themes to support the specific topic. For instance, if a pastor sees a deficiency in a certain area of theology or a widespread practice of unhelpful, unhealthy, or unbiblical behavior he may develop a sermon or series of sermons to address those topics and issues. Special sermons responding to events in culture, natural disasters, social issues, etc. would likely fall into this category of preaching as well (consider 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, governmental rulings on marriage, racism, abortion, human
sexuality, and similar items). Let’s make sure we understand too that sound topical preaching is rooted in the Scriptures. It’s starting point is a topic, but it’s foundation must be the Bible.

3. What type of preaching is done most regularly at the Church at Martinsburg?

Over the short history of the Church at Martinsburg we have utilized both types of sermons for specific reasons. Pastor Jacob is convinced the most healthy diet for our church is a consistent diet of expositional preaching which carries our congregation through books of the Bible. Thus far we’ve had expositional series from the books of Philippians, Ruth, I John, Colossians, Romans, Acts, portions of Ephesians, Genesis, James, and Proverbs. Topical series have addressed subjects such as doctrine, finances, relationships, forgiveness, missional living, character, values, sabbath rest, and many other topics.

Topical preaching is typically shorter in its series length as expositional preaching, which focuses on books of the Bible, selects smaller portions of each passage in order to expose the meaning in the context of the chapter, book, testament, and entire biblical account.

To be sure, both expositional preaching and topical preaching are highly useful (strengths) and can have significant pitfalls (weaknesses). Without attempting to be exhaustive let me list a few for each:

Strengths of Expositional Preaching

● Provide the opportunity for a preacher to address specific issues and topics in the life of the church in a short but powerful manner.

● Allows for biblical theology to take place in the life of a congregation. This can be particularly helpful when addressing major themes such as expository preaching, biblical theology, church leadership, discipleship, stewardship, etc.

● Gives the preacher a measure of flexibility in planning and preparation.

Weaknesses of Expositional Preaching

● Can result in a rigid and potentially self-righteous mind.

● Requires significant amounts of time, training, resources, and development of skills to get it right.

● Can lend itself to elongated planning that can at times limit freedom in the pulpit and among the people to address needs of the congregation. ● Without an historical-redemptive hermeneutic in place this type of preaching can easily drift into academic lecturing and dry delivery.

Strengths of Topical Preaching

● Provide the opportunity for a preacher to address specific issues and topics in the life of the church in a short but powerful manner.

● Allows for biblical theology to take place in the life of a congregation. This can be particularly helpful when addressing major themes such as expository preaching, biblical theology, church leadership, discipleship, stewardship, etc.

● Gives the preacher a measure of flexibility in planning and preparation.

Weaknesses of Topical Preaching

● Potentially relies too heavily on the creativity and personality of the one preaching.

● Can rely too heavily on non-biblical sources and data.

● This can either unintentionally or intentionally focus exclusively on the felt, perceived, or actual needs of people and not the presence and power of God. Essentially, topical preaching if not based in the Scriptures, can become a self-help lesson or lecture.

● Without exercising restraint a preacher can end up preaching an entire sermon or series of sermons to the entire church that should have been nothing more than a personal conversation with an individual or a group of individuals.

The steady diet of preaching at the Church at Martinsburg should always lean more toward expositional preaching that moves through books of the Bible. Topical preaching historically has had a place in our church and will continue to in the days ahead. While this type of preaching will not be the norm, it will be present as need and situation arise.

4. Why does this matter?

In the Old Testament, the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” appears over 400 times. This phrase is not just suggestive, it is God communicating with creation. Sermons are more than just an opinion or an opportunity to give ideas and plans for better living. Sermons are supposed to expose God’s word – on any given matter, topic, or subject. Preaching sermons is a high calling as is listening to them. Neither preaching nor listening to sermons should be taken lightly. When God speaks we should always listen. So when asking the question “Where do sermons come from?” our response should always be from God and His Word. If what we’re listening to lacks the Bible, we can be sure we’re hearing from someone, but that someone isn’t God.