By Phillip Hersey

When the pastor stands before the congregation on Sunday morning and prepares to give the sermon, what do you expect? This is a crucial question and may well determine what kind of pastor you have or the type of church you attend.  There are different aspects of corporate worship—singing hymns, prayers, giving gifts, words of individual testimony—all centered around giving glory and honor to God.

The primary focus should be when God speaks and we as believers listen, which is supposed to happen when the pastor gives the sermon.  For me, as a layperson who sits in the pew on Sunday morning, this is vitally important.  Why?  The more effectively and clearly the preacher is able to proclaim God’s truth, the more my spiritual needs, as well as those in the congregation around me, will be met.

I need expository preaching and I would passionately argue that you need it too.  Anything else falls far short.

Why it Matters

These are perhaps strong words, but as Christians living in a country where a glut of churches offer all manner of fare and label it worship, we need to start by asking ourselves why we do what we do on Sunday.  If we truly believe the Bible is God’s communication to man, faithfully recorded, remarkably preserved and the basis of truth upon which we as Christians are to live our lives, then we are making a very bold claim.

We are saying that truth does exist and that God has spoken. If God is speaking, this is serious business and our worship should indicate it. Otherwise we may be fooling ourselves in calling what we do worship, when in reality it is nothing more than dry, mechanical ritual, something we do because we’re supposed to and there’s no intrinsic joy in it, like going to the dentist or stopping at traffic lights.

The other extreme is to put on an entertainment extravaganza—something between a full-fledged opera production and a cheesy infomercial—call it worship, and hope no one notices attending church has as much significance in our lives as eating at a gourmet restaurant, attending the symphony or just going fishing with the guys.

Burning Bush Principle

How did Moses react when God spoke to him? Moses was out taking care of animals in the field when he saw a burning bush that wasn’t burning up, and it understandably caught his attention. He was going to get a closer look at this phenomena when suddenly God spoke and commanded him to stop right there and take his sandals off because he was standing on holy ground.

The Exodus narrative rather understates the whole incident and doesn’t even directly tell us Moses obeyed—it’s almost as if the writer assumes anyone in their right mind, who hears God speaking to them out of a flaming bush that doesn’t burn up, is going to listen and obey. I know I would. I would be terrified. All scripture says is that Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

From subsequent events we know Moses did take this encounter with God seriously, and it would set the pattern that was to follow throughout the book of Exodus as Moses led the Israelites out of slavery to the Promised Land. God would speak. Moses would obey.

So when we as Christians gather at the church on Sunday, this is serious business. God is speaking. This is a serious matter for the preacher who, like the Old Testament prophet, is to carefully proclaim God’s Word to the people. It is also a serious matter for the congregation of believers, who are to humble themselves and open their hearts to what God has to say.

Would it make a difference in our church if before the sermon the Bible on the podium burst into flame and the voice of God quietly said, “Hear the words written in My Book?”

Would the preacher regret he had not spent more time in study preparation, or be apprehensive that the sermon he had ready was more his message than God’s? Would the congregation be looking at their watches thinking, “Only 27 minutes ’till 12 o’clock, home to lunch, ballgame at 1:00?” At the very least, the preacher wouldn’t have to resort to corny jokes to get everyone’s attention.

Encounter with God

So even if the Bible on the podium doesn’t burst into flame, how should I as a believer sitting in the pew come to worship on Sunday? The plaintive, fervent cry of the psalmist is a good place to start, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.”

Jacob, the inveterate trickster and swindler, shows us what this means on a more physical level when he literally wrestled with God throughout the night. His leg had been crippled in the struggle and dawn was approaching. Still, he would not relent until he had received God’s blessing: “l will not let thee go, except thou bless me.”

Jacob’s unrelenting pursuit of God changed his life. God blessed him and even changed his name to Israel. From that moment on, Jacob was no longer known as a backstabbing schemer, but as a man of great faith. So when I go to church on Sunday my heart should have both the longing of the psalmist and the fierce tenacity of Jacob—l want to draw near to God and there is nothing else that will satisfy.

What I don’t want when I sit in my pew on Sunday morning is to be entertained, either by a scintillating musical production or by a sermon laced with slapstick comedy and gratuitous humor. Neither do I wish to be browbeaten by a preacher attempting to conform me to his image rather than the image of Christ.

I don’t want my worship to become a perfunctory and burdensome ritual, where I merely plod through some dead “traditions of the elders” and return home thinking I have in some way fulfilled my obligation to God. I don’t want to hear a sermon that has little or no relation to the scripture texts used, no matter how heartwarming, inspirational or motivational the message.

I long to hear the very words of God Himself, spoken from the flaming Book that doesn’t burn up and know that I have been on holy ground. I want to drink of that water Jesus offered the despised Samaritan woman and have within me “a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” l need to hear God speak. I need expository preaching.

Preacher’s Responsibility

So if it is the responsibility of the believer to come to worship with an insatiable hunger and thirst to draw near to God, what is the responsibility of the preacher? The preacher has a much greater obligation and burden. He is to speak, as it were, the very words of God Himself.

This is a solemn matter. It is what the apostle Paul meant when he carefully instructed the young pastor Timothy to patiently “preach the word.” Unfortunately, in the day in which we live, the word “preach” is loosely used to describe anything a man standing behind the pulpit on Sunday morning says, and the word has lost its meaning.

This is why we must come up with new terminology like “expository preaching.” Randy Sawyer writes, “Perhaps the most simplistic way of defining expository preaching is to say that ‘the text of scripture shapes the sermon.’ This means that the text shapes the sermonic structure, development and presentation, allowing God to say what He wants to say from a given passage.”

All other forms of “preaching,” to some extent, put what man has to say as more important than what God has to say. This is tragic because the Bible has become merely a tool for what the preacher wants to say, instead of the preacher becoming the tool.

The preacher or “expository preacher” if we must use this term, is like the Old Testament prophet who accurately and faithfully transmits what God wants to say to the people. Not a word more, not a word less. He is careful to follow Paul’s admonition to accurately handle the word of truth and not twist the words of scripture to say what he wants to say, or use it as a springboard to personal opinion.

He doesn’t preach only on the elementary principles of the faith, such as the necessity of repentance from sin and a personal salvation experience, but utilizes the whole counsel of scripture, the complete panorama of spiritual truth unfolded from Genesis to Revelation. As I sit in my pew, I need for my soul to be fed. I don’t need pablum. I need meat. I need expository preaching.

Peril of Pablum

For example, consider the book of Romans. We are all familiar with the verses in what has been called the “Romans road” to salvation. If these few verses are all a pastor preaches on, neglecting the rest of the great themes in that book, this is pablum.

The writer of Hebrews talks about pablum. The reproof is directed at immature Jewish believers who had a difficult time understanding how Christ, especially in His priestly capacity, had fulfilled the requirements of the Old Testament law and was in every way far superior to the old way of doing things.

“For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat.” (Hebrews 5:12)

Though this rebuke is directed at the laity, it is a far more serious matter when preachers neglect meat and only give pablum. If the preacher only preaches about a few verses from Romans, and in a lifetime of preaching ignore the rest of that book, the Bible will never become a burning bush that doesn’t burn up. It will never catch fire and neither will the congregation.

That is why pastors and teachers have a higher standard of accountability and why the apostle James warned they will incur a stricter judgment.

When the expository preacher opens the book of Romans, he will, at one time or another, preach on all the great themes of that book. His preaching will be meaty spiritual food because he is being faithful to proclaim the complete counsel of scripture and not just bits and pieces. Though it is not always necessary, most of the great expository preachers simply preach through complete books, or sections, of scripture.

Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, one of the greatest expository preachers of this age, preached at Westminster Chapel in London. His sermons through the book of Romans—section by section, theme by theme, verse by verse—have been published and amount to some 10 volumes. This is meat, not pablum. When he preached on the three chapters that comprise the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), it took him 60 sermons, preached consecutively on Sunday mornings during 1959-1960.

So after all is said and done, when we come to church on Sunday morning, why do we do what we do? What do we expect? I know that when I sit in my pew and the Bible is opened and the preacher proclaims God’s truth, that I long to hear the voice of God speaking directly to my heart from the burning bush that doesn’t bum up. And like Moses, I too will take off my shoes, because I’m on holy ground.

Article adapted from Contact Magazine, March 2003.