What makes a good sermon? What qualities would you list that would make a sermon great? What criteria would you use to determine that a sermon is great? And who gets to judge a sermon great, or poor?
Paul must have done a great deal of thinking about preaching. In preaching instructions to his protégé, he solemnly challenged him: “I charge you, in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom …” (2 Timothy 4:1).
Ultimately the judge of great preaching and faithful ministry is neither churches, nor individuals, but God himself. What God says about preaching, what he expects from the minister is really the only factor.
There is an identity crisis amongst preachers today, and the same is true of churches, and what they see as the preacher’s responsibility. Is the preacher a therapist, administrator, public relations expert, CEO or cheerleader?
Or does it matter?
Perhaps it all boils down to a matter of taste, like choosing our favorite music: “She’s a little bit country, he’s a little Rock and Roll.” The problem is this: if we do not have a clear, biblical view of what a preacher should be, then we will insert in place of the Gospel proclaimer our own self-serving notions of what a preacher should be. Paul warned of a time “when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”(2 Timothy 4:3).
Paul is pretty clear about what Timothy the minister is to be. Primarily, Timothy is a minister of the word. “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Timothy is to meditate on, study, and proclaim God’s word. To do so will not always be fashionable or welcome, but this is what Timothy is to do. “Be prepared in season and out of season.” Marshall Keeble, the great African American preacher would explain: “That means you preach it when they want to hear it, and you preach it when they don’t want to hear it.” There are times when the message must be preached, even when the listeners are not likely to be receptive, when they feel there are more “sophisticated” or “relevant” things to say.
Now I don’t think there is any special merit in a dull sermon. Paul is not against crafting a sermon to make it interesting, nor is he against illustration or oratorical skill. He is simply telling us that the criterion of great preaching lies, not in the glamour of its entertainment value, but the depth of its biblical content.
Preaching requires balance: there are times to be “straight,” and blunt, pointing out where we need to repent. There are also times when we must encourage. And always, we must be patient with people.
The description of churchmen seeking ministers who “say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3,4) has a very modern ring to it. It is so easy to become enamored with eloquence and story telling that we forget what is truly important – biblical content!
Paul seems to fear a conspiracy between listener and speaker to ditch biblical content for “myth.” The pulpit and the Pew find themselves accessories to the crime of deserting Bible preaching for something else. The congregation cheers the merely eloquent, and the preacher eats the flattery up.
A speech without the Bible is commentary; a preacher without a word from God is a huckster tossing candy to an audience suffering from famine, a doctor addressing cancer with Band-Aids. Time is too short, souls are in too much jeopardy, for God’s man to do anything but preach the word.