The proclamation of the Word of God in the reading of the appointed lessons and the preaching of the sermon are often considered to be two separate and different aspects of the Divine Service. But they are not, for the reading of the lessons and the preaching of the sermon are both parts of the same act, namely the voice of Christ being spoken to His people through the mouth of His undershepherd, the pastor.
Sadly, an awareness of the reality of the real presence of Christ in the preaching of His Word is oftentimes lost these days among many preachers and hearers of the Word. There is an idea about preaching held by many that its primary, if not sole purpose, is to teach a lesson, be it a lesson about morality or about the way of salvation. Lutherans have always viewed preaching differently, though. While teaching is certainly not to be discounted and is indeed an important part of the preaching of God’s Word, the primary activity going on in the sermon is the impartation of the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus speaks to us with His own voice through the pastor in order to tell us that, for His sake, our sins are forgiven. Because of the mistaken notion that the reading of the lessons and the preaching of the sermon are merely teaching sessions in which the pastor imparts all his accumulated biblical knowledge to those who manage both to stay awake and follow his train of thought, the very real presence of Christ our Lord in His preached Word is largely not even considered.
At the very beginning of his Gospel account, Saint John tells us that Jesus is the Word, the “in the flesh” Word of God. John writes: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word of God is truly living and active—not merely dead letters on a page to be read—and He comes to us in the preaching and proclamation of the Word in the Divine Service. Martin Luther firmly believed that the preached Word was nothing less than the viva vox Dei, the living voice of God.
At Our Saviour, the sermons preached are based upon the Gospel Reading appointed for the particular day upon which it is preached. It also draws on the other appointed readings for that day and appropriate portions of Scripture. This is called pericopal preaching, referring to the pericopes, or appointed readings. At Our Saviour, the pericopal system used is called the historic one-year lectionary. What this means is two-fold: first, that the sermon will not serve as an occasion for the preacher to grind his axe on a particular topic and essentially make the sermon all about himself and what he thinks; and secondly, that hearers will hear a particular text preached upon every year, and this is good for the didactic or teaching aspect of the sermon.
Another distinctly aspect of good Lutheran preaching is what has been called a “proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel.” Luther referred to this as the “art” of preaching, meaning that it is a difficult task but one that is necessary for the eternal welfare of those who hear the preaching. The Law is that aspect of the Word of God that informs, or to be more accurate, accuses the hearer of his or her sin. This is absolutely necessary, for as our Lord says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” In other words, until sin is acknowledged, the person will feel no need for a Saviour from that sin. Having said this, however, it is the Gospel that is to predominate in preaching. And what is the Gospel? It is more than just a recitation of the historic facts of the incarnation, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus. It is that all of this is for you, the sinner, to rescue you from your sin and death and give you life that does not end—life in which the Father calls you blessed for the sake of Jesus.
A proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel is so vitally important because it communicates to the hearer what Saint Paul taught in Ephesians 2:8-9 when he wrote: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” When the Law is confused with the Gospel and not properly distinguished, the message communicated is that our good works are what save us, either fully or in part. When the sermon is all about what you are to do as a Christian and not about what Christ has done for you and continues to do for you, it is a sermon that has confused the Law with the Gospel. A sermon that properly distinguishes between the Law and the Gospel will inform (accuse) you of your sins and tell you that your sins are forgiven in Christ; it will exhort the doing of good works to show how you utterly fail in doing them and how they are already perfectly done in Christ who is joined with you, and you with Him, through Holy Baptism. A sermon that properly distinguished between the Law and the Gospel will bring you everything that Christ, our Lord, earned for you on the cross with His innocent suffering and death: forgiveness, life, and salvation.