Ever wonder why we Lutherans use the form of worship we do?
In this series we examine the depth and meaning of the various elements of our Lutheran worship service.
When Martin Luther returned to Wittenberg in 1523 after his time in protection at the Wartburg Castle, he set out to correct abuses that had crept into the churches in his absence. One of these was the neglect of preaching. In the services it was not enough, he said, for the Scriptures to be read. It was necessary that the Word of God be taught in sound, Biblical sermons. In support of the sermon in the worship service, Luther cited the Apostle Paul’s direction that when Christians assemble for worship there should be “prophesying,” which we understand to mean proclaiming God’s Word (1 Corinthians 14).
The importance of the sermon as a regular part of Christian worship has been understood since the earliest days of the Church. At first, the reading of the Gospel was followed by an address in which the lesson was explained and applied to the lives of the people. Later, the sermon came after the Creed, the place that it still holds in our services today.
It is fitting that the sermon should follow the reading of the Scriptures and the recitation of the Creed, for in the sermon the pastor brings the teachings of the Scriptures as expressed in the ancient creeds into the present so that the people may hear and understand them today and apply them to their lives. This is not to be done according to the idea that the Scriptures need to be updated for today’s hearers, as though the Church needs to “keep up with the times.” The sermon is to bring the unchanging Word of the eternal God to bear on today’s hearers, to bring their hearts and minds in line with God, not the other way around.
Preaching the Word of God in a sermon is a serious responsibility. Before a man is entrusted with this responsibility among us, he is required to go through extensive preparation. A candidate for the pastoral ministry is taken through much thorough study of the Scriptures, even learning the original languages. He learns rules for interpreting the Bible that are drawn from the Bible itself. He takes classes in the preparation and delivery of sermons. He prepares and delivers sermons in class, subjecting his work to the criticism of his teacher and fellow students. Through all of this he learns to be careful in his handling of the Word of God.
In our seminary, candidates for the ministry are taught to distinguish Law from Gospel. Both of these doctrines of Scripture need to be taught in every sermon, but the Gospel is especially to be emphasized. The sermon should bring the hearers to a consciousness of their sins, but should never send them away feeling guilty. The message of redemption through the blood of Christ shed for all on the cross is to be the main theme of every Christian sermon.
Seminary students are encouraged to choose their sermon texts from pericopes, systems of Biblical texts chosen to cover the doctrines of Scripture in the course of a year.
The preacher needs to stay within the bounds of Scripture. He should not feel free to teach ideas that are unsupported by Scripture, nor dare he use the sermon as a forum for his opinions on matters on which the Scriptures do not speak. However, the form of the sermon may vary according to the preacher’s gifts.
So much for the responsibilities of the preacher. What about the hearers? Our responsibility is to attend to the preaching of the Word. Weekly sermons on texts from the Bible in which Law and Gospel are faithfully taught are a precious resource. It is to our blessing when we put aside other things and make a point of being in church to listen and take to heart what we hear. “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11:28)