The Pressure of the Weekly Sermon

Contributed by Mike Mawhorter, DMN, Church Lifecycles Team, Fellowship Pacific, Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada

Why Preach?  Sunday’s coming. It doesn’t matter whether you are crazy busy, worn out, discouraged, embroiled in conflict, or sermon-blocked. Sunday’s coming.

One of the most challenging aspects of the pastorate is coming up with a sermon every week. We have the privilege of proclaiming God’s Word to his people week after week, for years. That is an amazing opportunity to get to know and to help our congregation learn more about God and how to live for him. But it is also a huge challenge. What should I preach? Do I work through a book? If so, how fast or slow should I go? Do I preach a topical series? If so, how do I come up with the topic, and what texts will I focus on? And then, how do I take the raw material of the passage or topic and turn it into sermons? The “what” and “how” of preaching can become overwhelming. But Sunday rolls around every week, whether we are ready for it or not.

One way that can help us with the “what” and “how” of preaching, is to think about “why.” What do we want to accomplish? If this sermon works, what do I want to see happen? In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul goes to great lengths to contrast the spiritual gifts of prophecy and tongues. Although there is a lot of discussion about tongues, there seems to be general agreement that prophecy is proclaiming a message from God, whether predictive or prescriptive. That is precisely what we are trying to do in preaching – to proclaim to our people a message from God. In our case it is taking the Word of God, given to all his people through all time, and applying it to our own specific time and context. But what are we hoping to accomplish when we do that?

As Paul argues for the superiority of prophecy in the context of the church gathered, he gives us a great “why” for our preaching: “But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.” (1 Cor. 14:3, NIV). It strikes me that the three results of prophecy that he mentions make an excellent goal for our preaching. They help us answer the question “Why preach?”

The first thing Paul talks about is “strengthening.” The word he uses (οἰκοδομὴν) refers to building up. It is used in verses 4, 5, 12, 17 and 26, either translated as some form of edify, or build up. Verse 26 tells us: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.  The Christian life is about growth and transformation. As we prepare our messages, we need to be thinking about how our sermons will help both us and our people become stronger in faith, knowledge, love and desire for holiness; how this will help us become more like Jesus. We want people to leave our services stronger than when they came in. We want to build them up.

The second word Paul uses in this verse is “encouraging” (παράκλησιν). No single English word does this Greek word justice. It is translated by a variety of terms, such as encourage, admonish, exhort, comfort, beseech, and console. It literally means, “called alongside.” Jesus uses a variant of this word for the Holy Spirit in John 14:6, where he tells his disciples that God will give them another Comforter/Counselor/ Advocate/Helper, again the various translations showing the different facets of meaning. παράκλησιν is a robust word that describes walking next to someone, helping and supporting them. There are times we have to say hard things in proclaiming God’s message, but they should always be said with a heart to encourage. Our people get beaten down all week long. Our privilege and responsibility in preaching is to help them back up; that is, to encourage, admonish, exhort, comfort, beseech and console at their side.

The third word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 14:3 to describe the results of proclaiming God’s message is “comfort” (παραμυθίαν). This word means to give comfort that encourages and consoles. It is similar to the previous word, but is more tender and focuses more on consolation than support and direction. Every time we preach, there are people listening to us who are suffering. Something has gone sideways in their life, and they are struggling to keep going and stay faithful. They need to be reminded that we care, that Jesus cares, and there is hope, even when their situation seems hopeless. Isaiah describes this kind of tender care in Isaiah 40:11: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

Approaching the text or topic we are speaking on by asking how it can strengthen, encourage and comfort our listeners can help us take God’s timeless Word and apply it, so that they (and we) find new strength, support and comfort to face the challenges of life and ministry.

Posted: March 31, 2020

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