Across his career, Martin Luther preached more than 4,000 sermons and, in so doing, indelibly marked the Lutheran preaching tradition. But 500 years later and in this age of social media, video and 24/7 news flashes, do Luther’s commitments regarding public proclamation still have the capacity to speak to contemporary hearers? I believe they do, and will highlight three elements of Luther’s preaching that continue to be not just relevant but also crucial to our lives of faith.
Law and gospel
Luther believed that preaching is the very word of God, and that this word doesn’t only say things, but does things. In particular, the sermon ushers you into God’s presence, an experience that characteristically has two movements. The first, usually described as “preaching the law,” is an encounter with the reality of our human condition and confronts us with our mortality, finitude, vulnerability or sin, thereby making us aware of our need for Christ. The second element, “preaching the gospel,” is the proclamation of God’s gracious and life-giving response to our condition in and through Christ that empowers us to live in the freedom of the Spirit.
While sometimes executed rather mechanically, law and gospel preaching at its best helps us identify God’s response to our deepest needs. In response to fear, God creates courage. For those struggling with meaninglessness, God grants meaning and purpose. For those on the brink of despair, God offers hope. And to those burdened by their sin, God promises forgiveness and an open future. In this way, those who hear a creative and clear law and gospel sermon experience the move from death to new life and are propelled to live in the world with faith, hope and confidence.
Luther’s preaching was animated by a fundamental conviction: the God we encounter in Jesus Christ is consistently and completely “for us.” Moreover, God has come to love and redeem us here and now. In this sense, Luther believes that in preaching we experience the “present-tense election” of God.
While other theologians have debated when precisely God’s redemption takes place—before the foundations of the world, at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross, when the believer professes personal faith—Luther felt that God’s saving activity happens in and through the sermon whenever and wherever the gospel is proclaimed. For it is in the sermon that we hear the life-altering good news that God not only knows we exist but cares—and cares deeply—about our ups and downs, dreams and disappointments.
This makes preaching a present-tense encounter between hearers and the God who will go to any length to communicate God’s profound and life-changing love. In preaching, we realize that God sees us now, accepts us now, loves and forgives us now, and sends us out in freedom and hope now. In the sermon, God is at work—here and now—choosing us as God’s beloved emissaries and equipping and sending us out to care for the world God loves so much.
Luther’s “intended audience” wasn’t the many professors or students of theology from the University of Wittenberg gathered to hear him preach, but rather the farmer, milkmaid, shoemaker, common laborer and all the families that also attended services. Why? Because Luther perceived in the incarnation of Jesus, the Word made flesh, God’s intention to be fundamentally available and understandable to us. Therefore, he wanted his sermons to be similarly accessible.
To achieve this, he characteristically embellished the biblical story to bring it alive and regularly employed folk stories and everyday illustrations. The sermon wasn’t a lecture but rather good news, and good news had to be understandable by the common person.
For this reason, Lutheran preaching at its best is lively, creative and down-to-earth. It connects the cosmic significance of God’s activity in Christ to our everyday lives, helps us understand and perceive how what we experience on Sunday relates to our lives Monday through Saturday, and makes the presence and work of God we hear about in the Scriptures something we can imagine experiencing in our day-to-day lives.
Luther once declared that the church “is not a pen-house, but a mouth-house.” What he meant was quite simple and still important: We don’t come to church to read about God or be given information about God but rather to hear about what God is up to in our lives and world today and to have that good news addressed to us personally.
Yes, there are manifold images and videos coming at us in greater volume and magnitude than Luther could have ever imagined. Given that, it may be that there has never been a time when we need the simple but profound act of one person speaking directly and clearly to others about God’s ongoing commitment and continued work to love, redeem, and bless us and the whole world.