Sermons are Food: Nutrition (Part 2 of 4)
In my last article I shared with you some insights regarding the importance of the “presentation” of a sermon. In that reflection on the importance of sermon delivery, I promised that this article would talk about the “nutrition” or “content” of the sermon.
As stated at the beginning of my previous article. The goal of a sermon is to feed the hearers with God’s Word because the sermon is, in many respects, a spiritual meal prepared by the pastor for his hearers. This means that the content of the sermon is actually more important than the delivery. Once again the analogy of the sermon as a spiritual meal proves helpful. The nutritional value of a sermon is more important than how pretty it looks on a plate.
Avoiding Empty Calories
As it goes with food, so it goes with sermons. In human nutrition, empty calories are calories from food and drink that contain no nutrition. This can happen in preaching as well. It is possible to preach to your hearers without actually giving them the nutrition they need. This is what preachers need to avoid.
Sermon’s need to be nutritious. They HAVE TO BE. If the goal of a sermon was to make sure that everyone who came to worship left the service happy, I could accomplish that very easily and it’d make pastoring so incredibly less complicated. However, it’s unhealthy.
Think of preparing a meal for children. If the goal of feeding children is for them to leave the table happy, then just feed them grilled-cheese sandwiches every day with a side of cupcakes and some Kool-Aid. My son would eat that for every meal, every single day. And every single day he would leave the table happy as a clam. He might even compliment me as he left the table. He might say to me, “That was the best meal you’ve ever made, Dad! Thank you!”
But as a dad, I know better. It wasn’t a good meal. It had no redeemable nutritional content. The only thing it did well was assure that my son left the table in a good mood.
It is a common story among pastors. The story where they feel like they really preached a truly bad sermon, but as someone left the church, he or she said, “That was a great sermon pastor.” Even Martin Luther confesses to such experiences. Typically these stories are told as a testimony of the Holy Spirit’s power to work in spite of us. I will never deny the Holy Spirit’s power to overcome a pastor’s homiletical inadequacies—for how else would a sermon accomplish anything at all? I am also reticent to criticize Luther, but I don’t find these compliments following a “self-diagnosed bad sermon” to be encouraging, nor are such compliments an infallible testimony of the Holy Spirit’s power. If the pastor knows that his sermon had the nutritional content of grilled cheese sandwiches with a side of cupcakes before he ever stepped into the pulpit and then as he left he was complimented him for a “great sermon”…well, you can see how that might not be the most encouraging thing for the pastor to hear. A compliment from my son leaving the table does not magically infuse his grilled cheese sandwiches and cupcakes with the nutrition of a light salad and a lightly crusted tilapia served on a bed of perfectly cooked quinoa.
Learning to Love the Good Stuff
Let’s be honest. When it comes to meals, sometimes the most nutritional food isn’t the most flavorful. Sometimes you just have to force people (usually children) to eat their vegetables. My son needs to eat cabbage and carrots and grapefruit and squash. It’s important. He needs to do that. He won’t always like it. He almost always pouts about it, and he certainly isn’t going to compliment me when he leaves the table, but as a parent I’m confident that I provided the best nutrition for him.
The temptation as a parent is to avoid the battle. Parenting is exhausting. Sometimes, parents don’t want to expend the energy to make their kids sit at the table and finish their broccoli. It’s much easier to have a pizza delivered. But good parents stick with it. And when they do, they are rewarded for it. When children grow up on a steady diet of fresh fruits and garden-grown veggies and balanced meals, the idea of going back to eating grilled-cheese sandwiches with a side of cupcakes every day is repulsive to them.
So it is with a preacher and his hearers. That’s why it’s important to consistently deliver sermons with high spiritual nutrition. It might not go down the first few times as easy as the empty calories delivered with flashy oration by the guy on TV or the new church down the street, but after a few liturgical seasons, the hearers will develop a spiritual palate for spiritually nutritious food and the thought of going back to fluff sermons or self-help diatribes will be repulsive to them because you’ve served them well.
What then is this Nutrition?
What should the “nutritional” value of a sermon be? The nutritional value of any sermon should be “Jesus” who is named “The Word of God” (Rev. 19:13). A sermon needs to be about Jesus. And it needs to say the right things about Jesus; namely, that even though you are a rotten sinner Jesus loves you anyway and loves you so much that he died for your sins and rose from the dead. The sermon should also discuss that Jesus is Lord and will conquer death and raise the dead. A sermon should have Jesus on the cross. A sermon should have Jesus raised from the dead.
Please read what I’ve said thus far charitably. As a pastor, I am aware that the pastor can’t say everything there is to say about Jesus in every sermon. That’s just another way that the sermon is like a spiritual meal. The chef doesn’t put the whole pantry on the dinner table every time people sit down to eat. The chef carefully chooses from among the pantry and provides a quality meal for his guests, and on the next day, the chef will do it again with different ingredients.
The nutritional content of a sermon is Jesus Christ proclaimed in his truth and purity. A sermon about Jesus’ Lordship over all creation might be thin on the vicarious atonement. That doesn’t mean it was a sermon lacking nutrition. You can emphasize the vicarious atonement in the next meal sermon.
- A sermon about Jesus for sinners is a sermon with good nutrition.
- A sermon that directs people to find Jesus where Jesus has promised to be found; namely baptism, confession and absolution, and the Lord’s Supper (i.e., Word and Sacrament) is a sermon with good nutrition.
- A sermon that addresses the hearer’s sinful condition and need for Jesus is a sermon with good nutrition.
- A sermon that proclaims Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone is a sermon with good nutrition.
- A sermon that delivers Jesus Christ to sinners with no strings attached is a sermon with good nutrition.
- However, a sermon that preaches Christ as though he is a genie from a lamp who wants to give you stuff like greater finances, better sex, longer health, and a ‘fulfilled heart’ is a sermon with no nutrition, or worse—is poison.
You get the idea. A sermon’s nutritional value needs to be Jesus Christ—for sinners.
I hope this conversation about the nutrition of sermons has been helpful in getting you to think about your sermons and how you prepare and evaluate them. Next time, we’ll look at sermons as a spiritual meal with an eye toward the cooks who prepare them; namely, the preacher.
Rev. Timothy Koch is pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Cresbard, SD and Immanuel Lutheran Church in Wecota, SD.
 “I have often wanted to spit on myself when I left the pulpit; ‘Pfui on you! What did you preach?’ . . . But just this sermon the people praised the most, that I had not preached so wonderful a sermon in a long time.” Cited from Robert Kolb, “Luther’s Suggestions for Preaching,” Concordia Journal 42 nos. 1 & 2 (Winter/Spring 2017): 113.