It’s a two-part question, so let’s take the first part first. The answer is connected to last week’s Q and A about worship styles. Last week, the subject was addressed of liturgical worship which follows an organized Church Year, with seasons and festivals that annually review the works of Christ on our behalf. Paul told the elders in Ephesus, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” (Acts 20:27) The annual seasons of the Church Year help to accomplish that same goal. In a similar way, the Christian Church has long ago compiled a list of weekly readings that can be used for worship services and that ensure that all the truths of the Bible are touched upon throughout the year. As a general rule, though free to make adjustments at times, our pastors follow those selections when choosing the Scripture readings and the sermon texts week by week. That’s why you may have heard a relative or friend, even from a congregation of another denomination, say to you, “We had a sermon on that same text as you did last week.”
Here is a quote from an old sermon text book: “The practice of assigning certain Gospel and Epistle readings to the various Sundays, festivals and saints’ days, has been followed from at least the time of Jerome. (an ancient church father from about 400 A.D.) … With slight modification, these Gospels and Epistles were used during the Middle Ages. They were taken over by Luther with minor adjustments … The use of these texts makes it possible for a preacher to accept an assignment and carry it out in a disciplined way. It relieves him of the task of searching for suitable texts week by week. It helps him to avoid any tendency to concentrate on a pet subject. …. It provides him with texts that are rich in doctrinal content … They help him and the congregation to grow in the knowledge of Scripture.” (“Sermon Texts”, E.H. Wendland editor, 1984)
If you’re interested, you can find a listing of these readings just before the first hymn in the hymnals that we use in our congregation. Sometimes the pastors may find good reason to make an adjustment on a given Sunday. It’s not a command in the Bible that we use any particular text week by week, just that we preach God’s Word faithfully. However, for the most part, our pastors find it wise and useful to follow the schedule for precisely the reasons given in the paragraph above. Some congregations and pastors do it differently. Some come up with their own series of topics or readings. But in our setting, we usually use the scheduled readings in the services, and simply choose one of them as the sermon text.
“How do they prepare a sermon?” is the second part of the question. That’s easy – and hard at the same time. The answer is easy. The pastors study the text as carefully as they can, and then they pray for the wisdom to take the truths of the text and apply them to the lives of the church members in a clear and organized way. The work needed to properly do that is hard, however. Long years of training, learning even the original languages of the Bible to delve deeper into the text, reading and studying the context of the surrounding chapters and verses, paying attention to the culture and setting in which congregational members live so that applications are meaningful – these are all part of preparing a sermon. Then, there’s memorizing it as well as praying for the courage to stand up and speak it faithful - even boldly- in front of a church full of fellow believers!
But, what’s most important in all of this – choosing texts and preparing sermons – is that the hearers see their Savior Jesus! All of the Scriptures point to him. Jesus said, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me.” (John 5:39) The Scripture lessons each week, as well as the sermon, will point out our need for a Savior. And the readings and the sermon will somehow lead us to see again how God so loved us that he sent his one and only Son! Sin and grace. Law and Gospel. Each week you’ll hear it. Our forefathers for hundreds and hundreds of years tried hard to make sure of it when they put the scheduled readings together. We still want to make sure of it to this day. Whether we make use of long-standing scheduled readings, or if the pastor chooses to substitute other readings or series of readings as some congregations regularly do and our pastors occasionally do, the goal is the same. We want our hearers to be able to know as Timothy knew, who from infancy had “known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (II Timothy 3:16)
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor Ethan Steinbrenner