Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. 2 Timothy 4:2
What exactly qualifies as good preaching? When we walk away from our churches, do sermons really change the way we live or treat others? Can we even remember the message the next day, especially with all the competitive noises of our culture? What responsibilities do pastors have besides dismissing us in time for kickoff?
For centuries, sermons and homilies have stood apart in the minds of Christ followers from other oratory traditions such as lectures, lessons or speeches. Certainly, lectures and speeches can challenge us, inspire us to change, cause us to feel and send us out to change the world. So what’s different about sermons?
The difference is the source and origin. Speeches are prepared and practiced, like good sermons, but sermons are birthed from a spiritual source. Sermons materialize to pastors through prayer, study, reflection and sometimes travail. Sermons speak to us deeply because they arrived from the deep. It’s the Holy Spirit’s work through the preached Scriptures that changes the hearts of men and strengthens the souls of saints.
Notice, though, the three charges in the passage of Scripture above – correct, rebuke, encourage. It seems Paul was telling a timid Timothy not to shrink back from telling people how they should live. In a culture where popularity is prized, that is risky stuff. It seems the best sermons are birthed in prayer, but fleshed out with a courage to confront behaviors in those listening.
Doesn’t Paul know that cute and funny performances build crowds? It seems gathering a crowd was not the point. Paul knew even Jesus had trouble holding onto the crowds, especially when he talked of sacrifice and suffering. Those sermons even made Paul nervous when he first heard of them.
Prophetic sermons call us to a life that is different, but better. Because pastors love their flock, they tell them of greener pastures, still waters and a Shepherd who cares for their frantic souls. Pastors protect them from wolves who wish to devour and idols which steal their worship. Sermons jolt us into a better reality. In the end, we are encouraged, strengthened and comforted.
Yes, sermons can change us. Pastors will do well to remember the tremendous responsibility that comes with the stage and pulpit. With great patience and careful instruction, disciples can be shaped by the foolishness of good preaching.