A Great Sermon is in the Eye of the Beholder

Margaret Wolfe Hungerford famously said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We all know what that means. One person may think a piece of art is horrendous, while another may be completely taken away by it in awe and wonder.

Another way of saying it is, “One person’s trash in another person’s treasure.” I say this to myself every time I have a garage sale. It is amazing to me what some people will buy! They see it as a treasure. I see it as trash.

As much as it pains me to admit it, the same is true for sermons. There are tons of really good sermons preached. There are many sermons that are well articulated, well communicated, well organized, good introduction, good conclusion, and good illustrations all the way through. They are good sermons. You’ve been there.

Unfortunately, there are also tons of really bad sermons. Dry. Lifeless. Boring. Chaotic in thought. Forced illustrations. You’ve been there.

But what makes a sermon great? What makes a sermon beautiful? What makes a sermon someone’s treasure?

I’ve been doing this preaching thing for right at 20 years. I have studied it. I teach it. I have written papers and dissertations on it. I grade sermons. I long to preach a great sermon every time I stand behind a pulpit or on a platform with my Bible open in front of a group of people.

But you know what I’ve noticed about great sermons? You know what the difference between a good sermon and a great one is?

The listener in the pew.

The soul in the seat.

The mind in the middle of the row.

You see, there have been times I have preached what I thought to have been one of the greatest sermons of all time. One of those the annals of Christian history will look back and think changed the course of evangelicalism for 200 years. But when I am finished, I hear crickets from the congregation. Nothing. Zilcho. Silence. No “great sermon” compliment after the service. No emails. No shoutouts on Facebook. No tears. No repenting in sackcloth and ashes. Nothing. I wonder if my microphone was turned on.

And there are other times when, halfway into the sermon, I want to sit down. No one is excited. Even the preacher. The tenor in the room is just flat and without any sense of life. I will hurry up with the invitation so I can pack my bag and get home as fast as possible without having to face anyone for the humiliating effort I gave.

Then it happens. I will check my email or get a phone call the next day about how a life was changed by a truth that was spoken from “that” sermon. It will be a message or phone call of gratitude for preaching. For preaching “that” sermon.

One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

Preacher, you and I have NO IDEA what is going on in the hearts and heads of the people who sit under our preaching. We can do our best (and should), and we can prepare diligently (and should), and we can work at becoming a better preacher (and should) – but at the end of the day we can never forget: this is a spiritual calling. This is a supernatural work. There is much we have control over and must work to be our best. But the real work – the soul work – we have no control over. Our job is trust the work of the Spirit, try to get on base with the sermon for the day, and let God do His work in who He is working in that particular day at that particular time.

Before you stand up to preach this Sunday, pray for the Spirit of God to work in a heart – taking the water of a good sermon and turning it into wine of a great one.