Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
My catechism students are required to do eight sermon reports each year. Listening to a sermon, and discerning what makes a good sermon, is a skill. It’s a skill that can be learned, honed and practiced. I use a 4 question tool to evaluate sermons. I got it from Issues Etc., a Lutheran online talk radio program that broadcasts out of St. Louis, Mo.
The first question is very simple, how often is Jesus mentioned? This part is just a simple running tally. You count how many times Jesus, whether in name or in concept, is mentioned. Note, that you don’t count abstract references to God, this is looking for specific mentions to Jesus, our Saviour, the Son of God, etc. However, if you find that you can’t concentrate on the rest of the sermon because you’re just listening for Jesus then you can just make this a yes, a lot/yes, a little/only once (counts as no)/no. If a sermon is going to be Christian, then it should be about the Christ. Jesus said, “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations.” (Luke 24:46-47) If repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in Jesus’name, then Jesus’ name must be mentioned, and that name should be coming out frequently.
The second question delves a little bit into English grammar—Is Jesus the subject of the verbs? This is a simple yes/no question. Simply put, is Jesus doing the verbs, the action words. Who is the central actor in the sermon? Is it you or is it Jesus? We want Jesus to be the actor in the sermon, the one who acts on us to bring us His salvation in Word and sacrament.
The third question is connected to the second—What are the verbs? What is Jesus doing? Write some of them down. Is He an example, a motivator, is He there to inspire you, show you what you need to do and how you can get it all done? Is this the Jesus who is going to put you back on yourself? If so, then it’s not the Jesus of the Scriptures. In the Bible the verbs that are applied to Jesus, the verbs where He is the subject, show that He is forgiving, dying, suffering, crucified, giving Himself, offering a sacrifice, washing away sin, bleeding for sin, etc. Again, look at the verse from Luke 24, the Christ suffers, He dies, and He raised from the dead, all for us.
The last question is likely the most difficult. My catechism students have the hardest time with this question at first, but before long they get it, because this question requires that you do a little summary of the sermon. What problem has the preacher diagnosed in me, and what solution has the preacher given? In Luke 24 Jesus tells us exactly what the sermon is to be about: repentance and the forgiveness of sins in His name. Is your problem just that the world, or things, or even doctrine, drag you down so you can’t get ahead in life? That’s clearly not what Jesus is talking about in Luke 24. Is your problem that you are sinner who can’t save yourself, and that this problem is manifested in specific ways that you break God’s law and deserve His wrath and can’t do anything to get any better? This is the kind of thing Jesus is talking about, but if the sermon ends there, it’s still not a good sermon. You need some solution, the solution Jesus spells out, the forgiveness of sins in His name. If the solution is you needing to try harder, believe better, and trust your visionary pastor guru more, there’s a problem there, that’s not the solution Jesus wants preachers to give. If the solution is Jesus, who died for you, covers you with Himself, works repentance in you and will work in you to struggle against sin, you’ve got a good Christian sermon.
Like I said before, listening to sermon and discerning what is a good Christian sermon is a skill that can be learned, practiced, and honed. I use these four questions in my catechesis, and I would encourage you too to pick up one of those sermon reports in the back, use it during the sermon. Or, if you’re going to be going to a different church on vacation in the week or so, take one out with you. It can discipline your mind to listen all the more closely, and inform your mind for what to listen for when you are in need of a Christian sermon.
Your servant in Christ,
Pastor Tim Schneider