Every sermon has a hero. Every message points to some kind of rescue from financial, relational, or ethical plight. Few would argue that someone other than Christ should be this rescuer - this hero - in every sermon. But many of us think we are pointing people toward Christ, when in fact we are not. We may talk about Jesus a lot in our sermons, but ultimately we point our people toward something or someone else.
Let's examine a few counterfeit heroes that prevent us from pointing to the Ultimate Hero in our sermons.
1. You can be the hero of your sermon
I once wrote in large letters on the whiteboard in my office: YOU ARE NOT THE STANDARD. This sparked several conversations, to say the least! Many preachers are guilty of this without knowing it. You would never tell your people "Be like me!" when you preach. But the way you use personal illustrations, particularly about your marriage, may imply you are the standard.
Or, if you are a natural exhorter who aggressively attacks sin and disobedience, you need to work on transparency to allow others to see your own struggles with sin. Otherwise, your people will feel scolded and undermined, not exhorted and encouraged. You will end up looking like the hero. If you often preach on biblical masculinity (which I agree you should), be careful to avoid lifting yourself up as the ultimate man.
You should be an example to your people, not the example. Point your people to Jesus Christ, who is the only God and Savior. Paul said, "For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord" (2 Cor. 4:5). We would do well to think through how we lift up ourselves, instead of Christ.
2. They can be the heroes of the sermon
Many sermons make the listeners the hero of the message. Rather than leaving them resting in the finished work of Christ, we exhort them to do more. We communicate that the key to a better marriage, meaningful work, and financial contentment is more action and increased effort. For many, this takes the form of using Old Testament stories for moral instruction. While the stories of David, Abraham, and Joseph certainly offer us moral examples, we must grapple with whether or not this was always the author's intent.
Other preachers make missions and evangelism the thrust of nearly every message. The church is exhorted every week to summon all their resources to reach non-Christians. Still others can elevate issues such as giving, praying, Bible reading, and church activity. The point is simple: do more!
All of these issues, and countless others, matter. We must work for the church. We must expend effort. We must evangelism our communities. But a Christian who almost exclusively hears imperatives every week will either fall into despair or puff up with pride.
Brothers, we must not separate the do from the done! Only to the degree that your people understand what Christ has done will they be able to do anything for Him. But when they rest secure in His finished work, opportunity for action abounds! Therefore our exhortations must be wrapped in declarations of what Christ did for us. You don't tell someone drowning to swim harder. Rescue them!
3. Your church can be the hero of the sermon
Among the three, this is the hardest to see. The tension is between wanting to advance the kingdom and wanting to grow your church. Pastors want both. The problem occurs when we try to "sell" our congregation during our sermons. A little talk about our particular church can go a long way. We may also, without recognizing it, subtly undermine other churches in the area. In addition, preaching too many "vision and values" sermons can steal the spotlight from Christ.
While we must preach vision and be clear about what we want our church to accomplish, we cannot make our local setting the hero of our sermons. One simple way to avoid this is to pray publicly for other congregations in the area. Ask Christ to magnify Himself through them and advance His fame in your community and city. Pray God's blessings on other pastors and their preaching. Align yourself with the psalmist who wrote, "Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory" (Ps. 115:1).
Great sermons make listeners think, "Oh wretched me! But thanks be to God for Jesus Christ!" John Stott said, "The main objective of preaching is to expound Scripture so faithfully and relevantly that Jesus Christ is perceived in all his adequacy to meet human need" (Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today, 325). In other words, make Christ the hero of your sermons every week. Only He is sufficient to save and satisfy us.