Thematic Sermons: Cautions for Preachers


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Speaking God’s messages to the flock is a very serious responsibility. We shepherds need to remember that our function is merely to relay God’s messages. We don’t create them. We don’t decide for the Creator what He is in the mood to say. We don’t put words in His mouth. We don’t have the audacity to tell Him that He isn’t being politically correct. Of course some of us are doing all of these things on a regular basis because we’ve completely lost our grip on reverence. If that’s where you’re at today, you have two options: repent and get back into alignment with God or keep on as you are and get slammed with some well-deserved discipline.

Speaking for God is not a game, nor is it some privilege we choose out for ourselves like a man snatching a trophy off of a shelf. If we’re running our mouths without authorization, then we’re guilty of flagrant rebellion. The authorization to speak for God must come from God directly. It doesn’t matter if everyone in your church thinks you’re a gifted speaker. It doesn’t matter if you father needs you to follow in his preaching footsteps. Human beings are not God, and human beings are not the ones you’re going to answer to for attaching God’s Name to your idiotic guff.

Let’s get real about our own wisdom: it’s non-existent. We’re blind, ignorant fools who don’t have the first clue about spiritual matters. Any truth that we now know was taught to us by God, and He can just as easily unteach us and turn our minds to mush if we disrespect Him. Let’s not keep blowing past those passages in the Old Testament in which Yahweh boasts of turning wise spiritual leaders into babbling morons as punishment for the humans refusing to respect His Authority. We do not attach God’s Name to human guff, nor do we edit what He has to say. God knows His own mind. We are not His handlers, nor does He invite us to instruct Him on how to be relevant. If you don’t like the tone or contents of the message God is downloading into your brain for your next sermon, then you’re in for some stressful anticipation. But it’s better to be stressed about obeying God than it is to be stressing over what He’s going to do to you for intentionally misrepresenting Him from the pulpit.

Here’s something we need to understand about God: He is very touchy about His Name and Authority being abused. You don’t need to start a sermon with “Thus says the Lord”—the very fact that you’re going around with a shepherd title and standing behind a pulpit is making everyone associate God with what you’re saying. So what are you saying? Is it really what God told you to say or have you cut out certain sections and added in some ego-pleasing filler as a way of trying to improve on His perfect work? Let’s remember who it is we’re working for: God Almighty, not some bumbling mortal. You don’t get out the red pen and start slashing God’s speech. There’s no deleting the paragraphs that make you uncomfortable. When He called you to speak for Him, God didn’t promise to keep you comfortable, He ordered you to accurately relay His messages to the flock. Your comfort is not the priority. Certainly God cares about your stress, but not to the point that He is going to smile on your rebellion.

Now whenever a holiday comes up on the calendar, the pressure to preach on some holiday theme really increases. If it’s Christmas, you’re expected to go trooping through the Advent weeks. If it’s Easter, you have to preach on Jesus’ triumphal entry. If it’s Lent, you have to talk about sacrifice and devotion. Well, no, you really don’t. You see, God does not consider “But it’s Christmas” to be a valid excuse for you blowing off His message. Maybe He doesn’t want to talk about the Nativity story this year. Maybe He wants to talk about something totally different—something that has nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Let’s remember what it means to speak for God: we repeat His messages, we don’t create them.

You should find it rather suspicious when every pastor in your community is preaching about the same thing. Since when is God so predictable and narrow-focused? The fact that all the other churches in your area are telling the Nativity story on a particular week could be the very reason why it is so important to God that you don’t tell it. Think about it: who can God call on to talk about something other than Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday?

The problem with Christian rituals is that they soon become excuses for not listening to God. “It’s time for the next Advent candle, God.” No, it’s time to stop obsessing over Advent and listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling you. “What aspect of Your Son’s birth do You want to emphasize this year?” This is the wrong question. Don’t go picking the topic for God and then act like you’re doing Him some big favor by letting Him choose the emphasis. God chooses His own topics. If He wants to entirely scrap the idea of a holiday sermon, then are you going to walk your talk about obeying Him or are you going to start fussing about how awkward you’ll feel?

Here’s the thing about God: He resents being scheduled by us. When we tell Him six weeks in advance what He’s going to be preaching on, we’re just asking for Him to change directions on us at the last minute. Maybe you and the worship team and the drama team and the prayer team and every other team have it all worked out that this week you’re going to talk about God’s amazing grace. All the songs are about grace. The drama’s about grace. The prayer team is praying for extra grace (which is of course a waste of time, but that’s a different post). When Sunday finally arrives, and you’re singing all of those grace themed songs, God suddenly starts downloading a message about His wrath into your mind. Now what? Are you really going to have the audacity to tell God Almighty that He isn’t allowed to change His instructions at the last minute? Are you really so lacking in reverential fear that you’re going to tell Him He’s not on theme? God has called you to speak His messages, and that means you’d better haul yourself up there and announce that there’s been a change of plans. Let the worship pastor get his nose out of joint—and if he does, you might give him a little reminder of who his Boss is as well.

We answer to God for how we lead His flock, and all this garbage about us having to lead in groups isn’t coming from Him. Idiot humans were the ones who decided that there could be no value in God leading the worship leader and the preacher in two totally different directions. We’re supposed to be attending church to hear from God, not to watch some thematic flesh fest. Every item in a garbage can might be brown in color, but it’s still garbage. Simply having a theme is no guarantee of quality. If your sermon wasn’t drafted by God, then it’s garbage: there is no middle ground. We don’t preach to play the role of spiritual advisers. We preach because we have received a command from God which we must obey in order to honor Him.

God comes first. How many times have you made this point in your sermons? It’s time to start living it out in your sermon preparation. It doesn’t matter how fired up some human being is about some particular topic. It doesn’t matter if the entire congregation is clamoring at you to discuss some particular issue. What is God telling you to say?

Why do we resist doing what God has commanded us to do? There are a couple of key reasons. The first is that we care more about pleasing people than we do about pleasing Him. The second is that we think we’re wiser than God is. You see your flock going through a tough time and you figure you know just what they need. But then God starts haranguing you with some message that seems irrelevant and ill-timed. Whose wisdom are you going to defer to: yours or His? Given that you don’t have any wisdom of your own, there’s only one rational answer.

When we’re feeling dependent on those tithes and offerings, it’s very easy to slip into the trap of pleasing people at the cost of dishonoring God. But seriously, how stupid can we get? God is the One who we answer to for what we do, and God controls the people as well as our finances. God could set us up to be millionaires tomorrow if He wanted to. If He doesn’t want to, all of our bowing and scraping will get us nowhere. Don’t sell out over some paycheck—that’s only going to lead to more trouble. God is jealous and He isn’t going to stand by doing nothing while you tell Him to stuff it and act like the creatures who depend on Him for every breath are more important to you than He is.

We’re leaders, and leaders are held to a higher standard. God causes us to have influence over other souls and He expects us to treat this as the serious thing that it is. When we shepherd the flock, we’re interacting with souls who God dearly loves. We’re dealing with His lambs, and He is ragingly protective. So we have to take the job seriously, and we have to make sure we’re always herding the flock in the right direction, which means towards their true Shepherd and away from some unhealthy dependency on us. We’re not the ones they should be clinging to and admiring and trusting in. Only God can be trusted to give them what they need, and His are the arms we need to keep placing them into when they go wandering off.

It’s a great privilege to be called to represent God to the flock. It’s a sacred trust. We need to do it right, and that means obeying His orders without compromise. When you preach, you need to be preaching the sermon that God wrote, no matter what time of year it is, and no matter what is going on in the world around you. Steer clear of falling into holiday ruts and this robotic plodding through every verse of a book. It’s all fine to start some theme when you feel inspired to do so, but every plan has to be open to revision and every pattern must be receptive to interruption. Sometimes God is going to want you to chuck the theme, skip ahead, go back, change books, or interrupt some other part of the service to speak some last minute addition. With God, we must be fluid, because He is wild and He enjoys being unpredictable. We listen, and then we repeat His message without changing it in any way: this is what it means to speak for God.

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Praying for Your Flock in a Way that Honors God (Guidance for Pastors & Priests)
Shepherd Burnout: Help for Pastors
The Offense of Relevant Preaching: Stop Editing God