God’s word in human words

A sermon … It is far more than a discourse of a religious nature. It is the assurance of God’s nearness and His help. It is the proclamation and explanation of the will of God. A sermon encourages, edifies, comforts, and offers perspectives.

Opinions are divided on what a sermon should be like. The sermon has to be the word of God, and not a discourse about one’s own experiences, values, the trifles of everyday life, or worse, trivialities. A sermon is a spiritual address given by a minister that is inspired and permeated by the power of the Holy Spirit and delivered to the congregation.

A sermon only comes across as authentic if the one delivering it believes what he is preaching. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount upset the people. They were astonished at His teaching “because He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matthew 7: 29). The first Christian sermon delivered by Apostle Peter at Pentecost baffled the people (Acts 2: 14 et seq.).

Based on Scripture

The sermon is an essential part of the divine service. In services of the New Apostolic Church, great significance is attached to the proclamation of God’s word. Twenty to twenty-five minutes for the main portion of the sermon, plus five minutes each for additional ministers who are called to assist. They have to measure themselves with what has been handed down in Scripture, the Catechism says.

A sermon is a free discourse—that is, it is delivered without a manuscript—but there are certain parameters. Although it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, every sermon is based on a prescribed passage from the Bible complete with notes on its interpretation, which is provided by the Chief Apostle and made available to the ministers in order to help them prepare for the divine service.

At the core of the sermon is the gospel of Christ: the life of Jesus, His sacrifice, His resurrection, and His return. The glorification of God and the praise of His works throughout the ages is also part of the proclamation. The sermon provides orientation for a life in accordance with God’s will and it appeals to the believers to reconcile. All of this prepares the way for receiving the sacraments.

Not infallible, but not powerless either

Of course the sermon is not flawless. This awareness is something that is startling at first and sometimes causes irritation. The word of God is perfect, pure, and infallible, no question, but it is proclaimed by imperfect human beings. So there are two levels, the Catechism says: “One is the human level: a human being speaks, and other human beings listen. On this level, both linguistic errors and errors of content on the part of the speaker, as well as misunderstandings on the part of the listeners cannot be ruled out. The other level is the divine: the Holy Spirit speaks through the commissioned servant of God to the souls of the listeners and strengthens or awakens faith within them. Thus, the imperfection of the words and sentences expressed does not prevent God from filling them with power.”

The listeners have to apply their faith: “This means that, in believing trust, the listeners must open themselves to the word of the sermon, accept it, and be prepared to apply it in their lives. Then the word of the sermon will also inspire remorse in the listener. The sins he has committed are thus recognized, and regret, repentance, and the longing for grace are awakened” (Catechism 12.1.6.3.3).

A checklist for a good sermon

A checklist for a good sermon? Is there such a thing? Not really, because automatism behind the altar distracts from the essence more than anything else. But focusing on some specific parameters can help turn a sermon into a good sermon.

  • Authentic: The preacher has to believe what he preaches. He knows he is an instrument in the hand of God and believes that He has been sent by the Apostle.
  • Loving: The sermon is a free discourse, but is oriented on the Bible. The word of God has a foundation, is built on comprehensible and documented principles, and is ultimately based on God’s inimitable love for mankind.
  • True to life. The message that is proclaimed should pick the listeners up where they are and sweep them along. The images, experiences, and parables that are used have to be adapted to the present. Using language effectively is helpful.
  • Sweep people along. The preacher has to prepare himself well; he owes this to the congregation. External things should not cover or disturb the essence of the message. The apostolic proclamation of the Lord’s imminent return must not be counteracted by long-winded or unstructured sermons.

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Peter Johanning
5.04.2016
Divine service, Doctrinal statements