Rob Sturdy: What makes for a good sermon?

20 12 2011

I was having a conversation with a colleague recently who asked “what makes for a good sermon?”  We covered all the usual bases.  That is, it should be scriptural, engaging, challenging, orthodox, etc.  But that is not really the question that my friend was asking.  He clarified by asking “what do you think a sermon should accomplish?”

The question is helpful because so few people ever ask it.  Recently, a fellow pastor when asked the same question answered with “I think a good sermon is when people are still talking about it on Monday morning.”  This is quite ludicrous.  After all, I could strip naked and do a rain dance on the front pew and people would still be talking about it on Monday morning.  In fact, they would probably talk about it for much longer than that.  The pastor’s response showed that even though he preaches every Sunday, he has never actually thought critically about what he is trying to accomplish from the pulpit.

Likewise, I wonder how the person in the pew evaluates sermons.  Did it make you laugh?  Were you challenged?  Did it make you feel bad?  What do you think the sermonshould accomplish.

Perhaps few people illustrate what a sermon should accomplish more clearly than John the Baptist, whose very life was a visible sermon.  He accomplished a range of things, however I would like to point you to three specific things that the Baptist was intentional about that help us understand the mechanics of a good sermon.  At a bare minimum, the preaching and teaching staff at Trinity tries to accomplish each of these things in every sermon and teaching.

A good sermon testifies about Jesus

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.   (John 1:6-8 ESV)
John was very clear about who he was and who he was not.  He “was not the light.”  John’s role is not to testify about himself or to draw attention to himself in any way.  Rather, he came to draw his hearers attention to someone else entirely.  Namely, he came to draw people’s attention to Jesus.  Whatever the text, whatever the topic, the role of the preacher is to guide the sermon towards a testimony about Jesus.
A good sermon makes us look small and makes Jesus look big
He must increase, but I must decrease
(John 3:30 ESV)
People want to hear sermons that make them look big.  Inside each of us is a desire to be sufficient, strong, courageous, disciplined, important, etc.  The root of this desire is that you and I desperately want to be the hero of our own story.  So whether we’re talking about overcoming sin, reaching the lost, or correcting some social injustice, people will always be most pleased hearing that the answer lies within themselves and its now up to them.  But of course the life of John the Baptist teaches us that we’re actually quite weak and insignificant.  We’re not the hero of the story.  Jesus is.  We must decrease.  He must increase.  A good sermon exposes all the ways that you and I are insufficient for the demands of life.  There is sin that we cannot overcome.  There are situations that we are ill equipped to manage.  We need help.  A good sermon, after making us realize we are in need of help will encourage us to run to the helper.  The good news is that help has come in the person of Jesus Christ.  He’s the hero of the story.  He is relief in time of need.  He is mercy in the time of judgment. A good sermon will “decrease” the ego of the individual and exalt the greatness of Jesus Christ.
A good sermon points to the sacrificial death of Christ for sinners
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
(John 1:29 ESV)
A few days ago  my two year son David and I were talking about the cross.  He asked why Jesus had a cross and I said that he was rescuing us.  The word “rescue” triggered something in my son’s brain and he promptly asked  ”why is Jesus a superhero?”  Indeed!  The sermon must answer this question to be complete.  After “decreasing” ourselves by exposing sin, it is not enough to claim that Jesus is the hero but we must know why he is the hero.  Here, John the Baptist pulls no punches.  Jesus is the hero because he is the sacrificial lamb whose death takes away the sin, guilt, and shame of the world.  John’s life is about calling people to “behold!”  Behold the hero who gives his life for needy sinners.
So what should the sermon accomplish?  It should testify about Jesus.  It should make us feel small and make Jesus look big.  It should p0int to Jesus’ heroics on our behalf, chiefly demonstrated by his sacrificial death on the cross.  For those of you preparing a sermon this Sunday, I challenge you to follow the example of John.  For those of you listening this Sunday, I encourage you to evaluate what you hear along these lines.