Sermons are Food: Presentation (Part 1 of 4)
As a pastor, I get a lot of questions about sermons. How long does it take you to prepare a sermon? How do you come up with something to say each week? How do you decide what text to preach on? How long is your average sermon in minutes and seconds? Etc.
If you are also a pastor, I suspect you get these types of questions too.
One of the most helpful ways that I’ve found to think and talk about sermons is to think and talk about them as food. Over a series of four articles, I’ll explore this “sermons are food” analogy. I will look at (1) presentation (2) nutrition (3) the cook, and (4) table settings.
A Sermon is a Spiritual Meal
This article is primarily about “presentation,” but first allow me to establish the following presupposition: a sermon is a spiritual meal prepared by a pastor for the feeding of a Christian congregation. Deuteronomy 8:3 says, “[the Lord] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” I consciously reflect this "sermons are a spiritual meal" reality in my preaching by introducing every sermon I preach with the words, “The Word of God that feeds us this day is from…” I use that introduction because it's true. My sermons are spiritually feeding those who are gathered to listen.
Notice that Deuteronomy 8:3 says that we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For that reason, a sermon must be God’s Word to be a spiritually enlivening meal. I could, I suppose, preach my own words, and this too would be a spiritual meal. But it would be a bad one, and you wouldn’t live by my words—you’d die by them. Thus, the good preacher is only good insofar as he speaks God’s words and not his own.
Because a sermon aims to “feed” those who “live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” writing a sermon is a lot like preparing a meal.
When you are preparing a meal for the dinner table, it’s more than just slopping food down on a plate. The presentation of the food also matters. If you go to any restaurant or watch any TV cooking show, the presentation of the food is taken into account. Likewise…the presentation of a sermon matters. Eye contact matters. Gestures matter. Pace of speaking matters. Volume of speaking matter. Inflection matters. Tone matters. All these things matter. Significantly so. If you need proof of this truth, talk to the people in your pews, but if you don’t respect their thoughts enough to take seriously the presentation of your sermon, I remind you that the venerable C. F. W. Walther said in his First Evening Lecture on the proper distinction between Law and Gospel, “I do not want you to stand in your pulpits like lifeless statues” and Wilhelm Loehe said of tempo, “It is unbearable to listen to someone speak always in the same tempo, be it always slow or fast. A change that is appropriate to the matter is desirable in preaching.”
If the delivery of a sermon didn’t matter, then I could just email my parishioners a copy of my manuscript each week, and they could read the sermon on their own time. But that’s not what happens. A sermon is more than a manuscript, it is “authoritative public discourse based on a text of Scripture, centered in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for benefit of the hearers in faith and life.” Sermons actually need to be preached.
Have you ever known people who won’t try food because it doesn’t look appetizing? Kids are like this. We call them “picky eaters.” Even if the food set before them is really tasty and really good for them, there will always be some kids (and more than a few adults) who won’t touch it because it doesn’t look like something they want to eat.
Preaching can be that way. It is possible for a sermon to have solid, nutritional content, but to be delivered/presented in such a poor way that people get no benefit out of it—because they won’t listen to it! For this reason, a significant part of the task of sermon preparation is the rehearsal of a sermon.
However, in order to rehearse a sermon and work on eye-contact, gestures, pace-of-speaking, and volume, the sermon actually needs to be prepared far enough in advance to rehearse it. Consequently, just as “presentation” is the last thing to get done on a plate of food, so too is “presentation” the last thing to get worked on in a sermon. And furthermore, because it’s the last thing to get worked on, it’s also the first thing to suffer when time runs short. Inevitably the time comes when a sermon needs to be delivered. Sometimes that sermon must be read. This isn’t ideal, but it does happen (and I assure you I feel terrible about it when it happens with me). This happens with food too. Sometimes food just needs to be put on a plate and there isn’t time to worry about how it looks.
The key in these situations is to repent. The alternative is the development of a bad habit, and we don’t want to make the neglect of sermon presentation a bad habit for at least two reasons. First of all, preachers have a responsibility to attend to the presentation of their sermons as it is part of the homiletical task, and secondly, if presentation is neglected for too long, a false-preacher who does attend to the “presentation” of his sermons will have an easier time distracting the weak of faith, which leads to my next point.
Presentation without Proper Nutrition Is Worthless
The presentation of a meal is a wasted enterprise if the food isn’t any good. I watched a cooking show where one of the contestants was a “food cosmetologist.” They made the food that restaurants photograph for their advertisements and menus. The contestant admitted, “The food I make for a living is inedible. It’s not designed to be eaten, it just needs to be photographed. Now I want to learn how to make food you can eat.”
This can happen in preaching too. And sadly, it happens a lot in churches across the world. I’m talking about the pastor who is such a gifted orator that nobody notices that the content of his sermon is lacking in all nutrition, or even worse, is poisonous to his hearers. In a lecture at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA, Joseph Sittler once said, "It is sadly true that a very little may be said so well as to create the momentary illusion that something is really going on."
This is what prosperity preachers do. This is what almost all your tele-evangelist preachers do. There is no denying that they are gifted in the art of oratory. Unfortunately, they preach filth, and people are gobbling it up like it’s the tastiest thing they’ve ever had. The worst orator in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is a better preacher than anyone you’ll find on TV, because at least the poor orator is giving you nutritious spiritual food. But the nutrition part of this analogy I’ll explore more fully in my next post.
There is a scene in the movie The King’s Speech where King George VI is sitting in a room with his daughter and together they are watching a speech of Adolf Hitler. His young daughter, who doesn’t understand German, asks her dad, “Dad, what is he saying?” King George VI looks at his daughter and says, “I don’t know, my daughter, but he is saying it very well.”
Saying something very well is a powerful tool in the hands of enemies. How much more powerful can it be then in the hands of our God who created the world in six days and raised Jesus Christ from the dead for our justification and accompanies the proclaimed word with His Holy Spirit?
The presentation of a sermon is an important task. May you men whom God has called to preach the gospel in its truth and purity take care to preach that gospel well and attend to all its demands, even the demand of presentation.
Pastor Timothy Koch is pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, SD.
 C. F. W. Walther, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel. trans. W. H. T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1929), 5.
 Wilhelm Loehe, The Pastor. trans. Dietrich Knappe and Charles P. Schaum (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 243.
 David R. Schmitt, “The Tapestry of Preaching,” Concordia Journal 37, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 108.