(One of the goals of Brothers of John the Steadfast is to train the Brothers in good practice and theology. This article is one in a series that teaches about the liturgy.
These articles were initially intended to be put into bulletins or read during the service to educate the laity on the different parts of the service. They were therefore purposefully made short.
Notes on the Liturgy #12 — The Sermon
The task of proclaiming God’s Word is one of the major tasks of the Pastoral Office. It is for this reason that Dr. Norman Nagel told his students at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, “The most important thing about you that is ordained, is your mouth!” If a service, is held without the Lord’s Supper, then the high point of the liturgy is the sermon, and in the Divine Service it serves as the culmination of the Service of the Word that began with the readings.
The sermon is nothing more than the exposition of the Scripture with the proper balance between words of Law and words of Gospel. It is a relatively simple goal, but acoomplishing it is anything but easy. The ultimate goal of the sermon, like the liturgy as a whole, is to serve the Gospel. The Law that exposes our sin and then condemns us for that sin, gives us a thirst for the refreshing drink of the Gospel that offers us the forgiveness of Christ. We will never outgrow Law/Gospel preaching this side of eternity though we may not always appreciate it. A Lutheran pastor should never lose sight of this primary task of Christian preaching!
Some people want “how to/practical” sermons, but there is a danger here. It has been said, “The most popular sermons…will draw principles from the Bible about practical issues–such as how to manage money, how to handle family problems, and how to avoid stress. Such sermons, in one sense are all ‘Law,’ but they manage to water down the Law so that it seems easily achievable, a matter of self-help rules, rather than demands of a righteous God. Such sermons, however popular, can never bring anyone into faith…pastors must be very careful to avoid the cultural temptation to preach sermons that are merely ‘therapeutic,’ as opposed to bringing their listeners to repentance, through the Law, and to faith, through the Gospel of free forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (For the Sake of Christ’s Commission: The Report of the Church Growth Study Committee p. 25) The other issue that arises with such “practical” sermons comes with the Gospel. Such preaching often excludes it altogether, waters it down so that it’s unrecognizable or tragically warps the intended gospel into Law (Think of the Evangelical’s demand that you must “pray Jesus into your heart” in order to be saved. They call that the Gospel, but it’s really Law as it makes salvation into something that I must do to be saved.)
There is nothing wrong with “practical” properly understood. The Bible does indeed have some “how to’s,” but never encourage your pastor to preach practically so that Law/Gospel proclamation is lost. Train your ears to hear the word of Law/Gospel in the sermon. As C.F.W. Walther said, properly distinguishing between Law & Gospel is one of the most difficult aspects of studying God’s Word. It is a fine art that is practiced, but it is never perfected this side of Paradise. Apply the Law to yourself first not your neighbor first. Listen carefully to the words of Gospel and believe that in Christ those words of mercy are for you!
Previous Notes on the Liturgy —
Introit, Psalm or Hymn
Kyrie and Gloria
Alleluia Verse and other responses
The Hymn and Hymns
You may find all these by looking at our Regular Column on the Explanation of the Divine Service category or by using the shortcut https://steadfastlutherans.org/liturgy.
These notes were originally written in 2001 by Pastor David Oberdieck and have been edited. Thanks to Pastor Mathey for improvements to this segment.