The Reformation gave centrality to the sermon. The pulpit was higher than the altar, for Luther held that salvation is through the Word and without the Word the elements are devoid of sacramental quality, but the Word is sterile unless it is spoken. All of this is not to say that the Reformation invented preaching. In the century preceding Luther, for the single province of Westphailia ten thousand sermons are in print, and though they are extant only in Latin they were delivered in German. But the Reformation did exalt the sermon… The reformers at Wittenberg undertook an extensive campaign of religious instruction through the sermon. There were three public services on Sunday: from five to six in the morning on the Pauline epistles, from nine to ten on the Gospels, and in the afternoon at a variable hour on a continuation of the theme of the morning or on the catechism. The church was not locking during the week, but on Mondays and Tuesdays there were sermons on the catechism, Wednesday on the Gospel of Matthew, Thursdays and Fridays on the apostolic letters, and Saturday evening on John’s Gospel. No one man carried this entire load. There was a staff of the clergy, but Luther’s share was prodigious. Including family devotions he spoke often four times on Sundays and quarterly undertook a two-week series four days a week on the catechism. The sum of his extant sermons is 2,300. The highest count is for the year 1528, for which there are 195 sermons distributed over 145 days.
His pre-eminence in the pulpit derives in part from the earnestness with which he regarded the preaching office. The task of the minister is to expound the Word, in which alone are to be found healing for life’s hurts and the balm of eternal blessedness. The preacher must die daily through concern lest he lead his flock astray. Sometimes from the pulpit Luther confessed that gladly like the priest and the Levite would he pass by on the other side. But Luther was constantly repeating to himself the advice which he gave to a discouraged preacher who complained that preaching was a burden, his sermons were always short, and he might better have stayed in his former profession. Luther said to him:
If Peter and Paul were here, they would scold you because you wish right off to be as accomplished as they. Crawling is something, even if one is unable to walk. Do your best. If you cannot preach an hour, then preach half an hour or a quarter of an hour. Do not try to imitate other people. Center on the shortest and simplest points, which are the very heart of the matter, and leave the rest to God. Look solely to his honor and not to applause. Pray that God will give you a mouth and to your audience ears. I can tell you that preaching is not a work of man. Although I am old [he was forty-eight] and experienced, I am afraid every time I have to preach. You will most certainly find out three things: first, you will have prepared your sermon as diligently as you know how, and it will slip through your fingers like water; second, you may abandon your outline and God will give you grace. You will preach your very best. The audience will be pleased, but you won’t. And thirdly, when you have been unable in advance to pull anything together, you will preach acceptably both to your hearers and to yourself. So pray to God and leave all the rest to him.
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, 272-74 (1995 Meridian ed.).