When I decided to become a preacher, I imagined myself preaching to an attentive congregation full of people who could not wait to hear my sermons and to apply them to their lives. And God has been gracious to me: sometimes I hear stories of how God has used one of my sermons to change a person’s life. And some people even say they like my sermons!
Like all pastors, though, I also preach to people who are indifferent, exhausted, fearful, or skeptical of what I’m saying. Some people fall asleep before I arrive at my carefully crafted conclusion. Sometimes it’s worse than that: one Sunday many years ago, I spotted an amorous young couple at the back of the auditorium, enthusiastically kissing during my sermon. (And no, my text was not Romans 16:16, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”) When people are that disengaged, it’s tempting to think that nothing significant or spiritual is happening during the sermon.
Many people want to hear from God’s Word, but they struggle with personal pain, habitual sin, spiritual indifference, or doubt. They have problems that no sermon can fix, so they question God’s goodness or even His existence. Sometimes I am one of those people, even though I’m the pastor. I can relate to those who wonder if sermons do any good at all or if we are filling the air with noise. In a world full of strife and pain, what good does it do to gather once a week to listen to somebody talk about the Bible? Why did Paul exhort Timothy to “preach the Word, be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), even though people are often indifferent or even hostile? Let me offer four reasons why I think preaching still matters, even when it seems like an exercise in futility.
First, God’s Word is inexhaustible.
This past summer, I took a preaching course, and I was required to present a sermon from an Old Testament prophetic passage. I selected Malachi 1:6–14. To my surprise, one of my classmates chose the same text. What I found remarkable, though, was that our sermons were very different. We derived basically the same main idea from the passage, but he explained it in ways that never would have occurred to me. In a similar way, whenever I preach the same passage a second time, I notice things I didn’t see the first time around. God’s Word is an inexhaustible source of wisdom and knowledge about who He is and who He is calling us to be. As Jesus said of the kingdom-minded scribe, we can always bring forth “both old and new treasures” from God’s Word (Matt 13:51-52). The Bible never changes; there are always new treasures to unearth, no matter how many sermons we’ve heard from a particular text.
Second, God’s Spirit is always speaking.
Even when it seems like nobody is listening, or when the sermon could be better, the Holy Spirit still speaks. Each week, I remind myself of Hebrews 4:12: “The Word of God is living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing even to the point of dividing soul from spirit, and joints from marrow…able to judge the desires and thoughts of the heart” (NET). If we believe those words, then we know that the Spirit of God will always speak to us when we gather to hear from His Word. As a preacher, I can study the Bible and consider the needs of my congregation, but only the Spirit knows exactly what He intends to say to each person. As hearers of the Word, all of us should be prepared for it to cut us open and perform the painful but necessary work of transforming us into Christ’s image. We cannot predict how the Spirit will speak to us each Sunday, but we can trust that He will speak, even when it seems like nothing is happening.
Third, the world is always changing.
Sometimes my witty teenage daughter asks me what the world was like when I was young. “Did they have breakfast way back then, Daddy? Did they even have shoes?” I am not really that old, but the world has changed a lot since I was her age. The world has also changed since last Sunday, though, and so have we. We face new challenges and fresh fears. We are either closer to God or further from Him than we were last week. Things are always changing. Yet the Word of God speaks to us exactly where we are today. We always need fresh sermons, then, to help us apply God’s unchanging Word in our ever-changing world.
Fourth, we are always forgetting.
In 2 Peter 1, Peter told his readers, “I intend to remind you constantly of these things even though you know them and are well established in the truth” (2 Pet 1:12–14 NET). He knew that the truth has a way of leaking out of our brains over time. Sometimes we forget about the sermon before we eat lunch on Sunday. I even forget my own sermons sometimes! Therefore, I need to be reminded of the gospel and of the truth of God’s Word on a regular basis. That’s true for all of us; we are all forgetful people. We get together every single week, then, to hear a message from God’s timeless Word. Even though we heard the good news of Jesus last Sunday, we need to hear it again this Sunday. Good preachers pretty much say the same things over and over again, in fact, because they know how desperately we need reminding.
Next time you sit in church, ask the Spirit of God to speak to you through the sermon. Whether your pastor is a world-class communicator or just an everyday preacher, God has something to say to you through His Word. The question for each of us is whether we will listen carefully and then obey Him joyfully.
About the Contributors
Matt Morton (ThM, 2004) is a teaching pastor at Grace Bible Church in College Station, TX. He is currently a student in the Doctor of Ministry program, focusing on expository preaching. Matt and his wife, Shannon, have three children.