“When was the last time you heard a sermon on hell?” It’s a question that raises as many questions about preaching as about hell. Why has God graced his Church with the gift of preaching? Is it essential that we learn the great truths of the Christian faith by hearing a great sermon about each one of them?
In fact, current popular demand expects us preach sermons on hell, sermons on work, sermons on current affairs. And members are led to feel short changed if they have not had sermons devoted specifically to these issues. The implication is that we slot these issues into tidy compartments that will fit into sermons that are nicely delivered, with the commendable result that our people will then be properly informed and equipped. Job done. We can then move on and enlighten people on the next blind-spot in their Christians.
Part of the difficulty with this approach is the question of whether people remember a sermon. There are those who think that a good sermon is a memorable one – but if, like me, you have the knowledge retention of a sieve, even the most memorable sermon won’t find a home in the exclusive area of your long term memory.
A good sermon might not leave its outline forever emblazoned on the memory, just like a good washing machine might not leave un-dissolved powder on the clothes. As the old illustration goes, what matters is that the clothes are clean, not whether you can still see the powder – and what matters in a sermon is not whether we remember it, but whether our lives have been transformed.
Jesus did not preach so that people would be able to recite snappy sermons when necessary, but so that their worldview would be radically re-shaped. We don’t listen to sermons to acquire nuggets of knowledge, marvel at eloquent delivery or appreciate sound theology. Although, occasionally, a single sermon will be a major life-changing event, this doesn’t seem to be the way most people learn or grow.
Unfortunately, the ideal of a memorable or life-changing single sermon is often presented as the archetypal pattern of what a sermon should be, and if only we could get better at it, the life-changing sermons would be heard more often. But is that really what preaching is all about? Sure, there are glorious moments when a sermon becomes a flash-point, a milestone of growth in our relationship with God. And because it has this dramatic (though occasional) effect, it is regarded as an excellent sermon with an effect that ought to be often repeated by all good pulpeteers.
And through all the ‘flash-bang-wallop-what-a-sermon’ mentality, we can forget that we are called to walk with God. Yes, praise God for glorious and spectacular moments in our growth, but let’s praise him as well for the miracle of our every day gradual and almost imperceptible growth in grace. Thank God for the occasional great sermon, but praise God above all for the on-going ministry of preaching.
We have become so enthralled by the glossy one-off super-sermon, that we fail to see God’s miraculous, life-changing action through a preaching ministry. What seems to me quietly miraculous is the life that is changed gradually over the course of years as a person has been transformed by the spirit, through plodding on with God under a faithful preaching ministry.
It is the type of growth you can’t easily stick a label on, because few people will have been aware of a process of change. They may perhaps one day wake up and realise that their understanding of God, themselves and the world is not what it was ten years ago – and this may largely be down to a good preaching ministry.
It’s not good sending preachers on guilt trips because they haven’t devoted a sermon to the latest Christian moral imperative. If we measure Jesus by that standard I’m afraid we’d be most disappointed. Throughout his preaching ministry Jesus didn’t preach ‘a sermon’ about hell, or about work, or about contemporary issues. And yet, through the course of his ministry, all of these themes were knocked down and rebuilt.
Jesus did not come to inform us, or impart memorable information or offer philosophical profundities. His proclamation would shake the very ground beneath our feet by drawing our attention to the Kingship of God.
There is no shortage of calls to preach relevant sermons on topical issues. But we could have a great deal more emphasis on the centrality of the Kingship of God without the slightest fear of overkill!
Published in the Baptist Times, May 2, 2002