What I Expect In A Sermon

Dear Pastor, 

You asked me what I longed for and expected in a sermon. It is not easy for me to respond. My first reaction to your request is the feeling that it doesn’t really make much difference what I want in a sermon. What I want isn’t always what I need.

After the initial surprise at the query, I have pondered your question for quite some time. “Longing” is an appropriate way to describe my heart on most Sunday mornings. As you know, my husband and I have three children who have varying attention spans and levels of energy. Both of us have full-time vocations, and our lives are filled with activities, grandparents, school, housework, finances, yard work, and a host of other demands. By Saturday night I am tired and hungry for the spiritual food that is offered on Sunday.

When I come into church to worship, I believe that I am crossing over from this life into the portals of heaven. I not only believe, but I also expect to experience that part of the liturgy that describes our worship as “a foretaste of the things to come.” Personally, the entire service provides a sanctuary from the world, including my own troubles and trials, the evil that is rampant, and the blaring news accounts of wars, murders, and other disasters. Of these I am well aware, too aware; the sin in my life and in this world are a yoke around me. You needn’t take time to recount the news of the week for me.

Pastor, I need your help in sorting out my sin and guilt in order to see and know the grace of the Gospel and how that applies to me. At the same time, it must be personally applied for each individual who is listening to your sermon. I know how daunting that must be for you; however, this is what I long for and expect.

I am not interested in a sermon that includes a list of “how-to’s.” There always seems to be a new book, an article, or a TV talk show guest who offers a particular version of self-help exercises to improve my life. I can’t keep it all straight, and after 37 years of living with myself, I know that I cannot by my own reason or strength fix that which is wrong with me. Please don’t even try to suggest that I can.

Each week when I come to church with my family, I am eager to step out of my life, my schedule, and the secular calendar of events. I want your preaching to follow the church year and the appointed lessons for the day. The rhythm of the church year and the worship and preaching that accompany it help me face all the unknowns and changes of daily life. There is a certain comfort for me each week to know what to expect from the service and from you. No surprises, no theatrics, simply firm and clear preaching from the Word of God. What a respite this is for me from this world!

In the liturgy we sing of the “angels and archangels” and “all the company of heaven”; in the Te Deum we sing of the “noble army of martyrs and the goodly fellowship of the prophets.” Through your preaching help me to connect with the whole company of heaven. Allow your sermon to lift me out of my self-centered world of the present and join me with the whole Christian church. As the writer to the Hebrews says, they “are a great cloud of witnesses.” It is good for me to be reminded that my place in life is not so unique, that others have been here before me, and that the same Lord who rescued them is present now to rescue me from sin and death.

Pastor, I am Lutheran for a reason. I have studied the Confessions, and as a commissioned church worker in our synod I have unconditionally subscribed to our Lutheran Confessions. Preach like a Lutheran—make it obvious. Tell me again and again about my Baptism, the incarnation, justification, grace alone. Prepare me to receive the body and blood of our Lord and the life that it offers.

For the sake of my elderly parents and my young children, use our Lutheran language. We have a vocabulary and a way of saying things that is uniquely ours. I have visited enough other churches to really appreciate the way a Lutheran speaks about God. I know this language, as do my parents, because it was always spoken in the Lutheran churches where we worshiped. It is truly ingrained in me. I want this for my children. 

Pastor, as I read what I have written to you, I am aware still again that I should presume to tell you what to preach. But that is the beauty of it. Each week you stand in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ and offer to me forgiveness, hope, and strength to live as a child of God. Also, each week as you sit down to write your sermon, you don’t have to pull from within yourself. You are an instrument of God’s mercy. What a comfort that must be to you!

“What I Expect in a Sermon” Deaconess Pamela J. Nielsen Concordia Pulpit Resources Volume 12, Part 3 Holy Trinity–Pentecost 15, May 26, 2002–September 1, 2002 Series A

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