What makes a good preacher? What makes a good sermon?
Many preachers do not understand why they are good, nor why their sermons are effective. It is easier to see the effectiveness of another preacher. That is why every preacher ought to try to listen to other preachers from time to time. Over the years I have found it most helpful to immerse myself in the preaching of another preacher by listening to or reading hundreds of their sermons. These preachers have included John Calvin, C.H. Spurgeon, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Timothy Keller.
Recently I have been captivated by the sermons of the fifth-century north African preaching giant: Augustine of Hippo.
I have been familiar with him for a couple of decades through his famous book on preaching ‘On Christian Teaching’. Over the years I have dipped into his extensive range of sermons. In the past year I have started to read though the ten volumes of these sermons published in a fresh translation by the New City Press.
The following extract gives a flavour of Augustine’s style:
“You … never stop hoping for temporal things, and yet are frequently disappointed in your hopes. You never stop being excited by them before they come, being corrupted by them when they come, being tormented by them when they’ve gone. Aren’t these the things that glow brightly when coveted, grow dull when acquired, fade away when lost. We too make use of them, according to the needs of our journey; but we don’t set our hearts joy on them, in case when they collapse, we should be buried in the ruins. You see, we make use of this world as though we were not using it, in order to reach the One who made this world, and remain in him, enjoying his eternity” (Augustine sermon 157).
The genius of Augustine is that he has something to say and he knows how to say it. The message is clear is this sermon: we hold the things of this world lightly, because we know that they are rapidly passing away. There is a measured wisdom in this that helps us to see “stuff” as for our temporary use but not our permanent possession. Augustine’s preaching manages to be at the same time world-affirming and world-denying.
It is important that preachers help us to navigate what it means to live in a world of desirable things, without our hearts being totally captivated by them, so that we learn to look for our significance and security in God rather than in them.
Preaching in Covid times has meant helping people to anchor their lives not so much in the moment but in eternity. We have to learn that all things must pass, apart from the One “who is, who was and is to come”.
What makes Augustine’s sermon so striking is how he communicates these truths.
Read the extract again and notice how Augustine uses the rhythm of three-part sentences to carry the listener with him. When reading Augustine, I find myself not only understanding what he says but feeling what he says.
Why not choose yourself a preacher, then listen and learn?