The Pastoral Ministry class in seminary was of uneven value. I think the professor tried to make it valuable, and he was a very genial and likable fellow. One thing he said has stuck in my mind ever since. So here's what we'll do. I'll tell you what he said, I'll warn you against taking the wrong point from it, then I'll tell you the good truth I keep from it.
The professor told us to picture the most absurd-looking man imaginable. He said something like that we should make him round in shape, put him in a bright green suit with a bright orange hat, and adorn the suit with a big flower, and the hat with a big propeller. That way, you can't possibly miss him.
Then he said to put the man in the front row.
Then he said to imagine that the man only knew three words in English, and to imagine that he kept repeating those three words over and over, all the way through the sermon.
Now, the wrong way to take this exercise is to conclude that all sermons must be pragmatic, they must all be how-to sermons. It is possible that this is how the professor intended that we take his exercise. If so, I would disagree. Such a bent would cut out a lot of Scripture and a lot of truth. Arguably, one might never preach the Gospel, let alone the doctrines of the triune God, or prophecy, or a host of other truths found all over Scripture.
However, that is not the way I apply the exercise. I take it to mean that I should tether myself to reality, to my hearers. My goal is not to soliloquize the Word of God, to speak for my own amusement or edification or aggrandizement. My goal is to preach the Word, to communicate it.
My goal in studying is to connect with the Word myself, heart and mind and soul. My goal in preaching is to connect the Word with my hearers, heart and mind and soul. To do that, I need to aim for where they are. Whether I am preaching on "Husbands, love your wives" or "God is light and in Him is no darkness at all," whether on "Flee fornication" or "God is Spirit," whether on the fruits of the Spirit or the seals, trumpets and bowls of Revelation, my job is personally to connect with the text myself, and then to connect my hearers — the sheep entrusted to me — with that same text.
If I don't understand it, I fail. If I don't help them understand it to the best of my ability under God, I fail.
Beyond argument, God has done exactly this, hasn't He? That is what Calvin was talking about when he said that God "lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children." He did not mean that Scripture communicates error, but that all words from God to us are necessarily accommodated. The Infinite is speaking to the finite. How does He do it? Well, you have read the Book, right? What do you see? Narratives, legal documents, letters, parables, poems, songs, often featuring the most striking and arresting and inescapably bold figures and images and turns of speech that one could ever hope for. God, we could say, is all over the map in assuring that we can connect with His truth.
So, shouldn't we do the same?
Do I dumb it down? Sure, I have to — in order for me to understand it! Don't tell anyone, but that's my secret, in writing and in preaching: I'm very, very dim. (Not much of a secret, the reader might observe unkindly.) So that makes it easy. Once I understand it, I'm ready to explain it to anyone, whether by book, blog or sermon.
So: should our sermons be pragmatic? When the text is, sure — and it often is. So should we preach on God's aseity, on the hypostatic union, on the Trinity, on predestination and election and the effectual call and the atonement and a hundred other lofty Biblical truths? Absolutely.
Just never forget the odd little man, and make sure that you do all you can to connect God's truth to his own understanding.
That's pretty much what you're there for, right?