The Amazing Appearing Man and the Disappearing Jesus
Who is the real hero in your sermon?
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The preacher was accomplished and confident; he held the concentration of the crowd, and he certainly had my attention. Although not for the reasons he would have wanted.
He had taken one of the stories about Jesus, and explained it from the perspectives of the different characters involved, which is not necessarily a bad tool for analyzing the story as we work out who we are supposed to identify with (hint: we're not usually the hero).
What blew me away was that he took as the main lesson of the sermon, the climax of what he was saying, someone who wasn't even mentioned in the story. I'm concealing details here, but imagine the story of the young boy bringing the fish and loaves to Jesus, and the preacher majoring on the fisherman and the baker. You get the idea.
Why would you do such a thing?
Maybe out of a desire to look clever?
There are some preachers who delight in producing rabbits out of hats. They leave you dazzled and dependent, because you could never replicate the trick, but you think what they have done is so amazing you keep going back for more. Self-diagnosed cleverness is a horrible thing to see.
Maybe out of a desire to keep attention?
This man was preaching on a passage that everyone in church knew well, and most will have led Bible studies, children's groups, or even preached sermons on. So did he fear losing us unless he produced something new?
Maybe out of a loss of confidence in the way the Gospels tell the story?
Perhaps out of a desire to make a familiar tale come alive in "fresh" ways, he ceased to submit to the contours of the narrative, and the gospel writer's authority. He was using the Bible as a source book, rather than the ultimate and final authority for our lives.
There is a terrible price a congregation pays if it sits under this kind of ministry. It ceases to trust the Scriptures as they stand, because they are taught to listen to the preacher rather than to look at the text. The text would not and could not have produced his ideas. But that's not the worst price. Here are some additional consequences when our sermons don't focus on the text and the big story of Christ within the text:
- The congregation becomes less discerning. They loved this sermon, and responded well to the jokes and stories, and the direct application. It was well done. I didn't hear anyone say, "Hang on—that's not in the text." Because they had been trained, or massaged, out of that habit. But that's not the worst price either …
- This preacher is on the staff of a seminary, training the next generation of pastors. Which means that students who pass through his care will pick up this method, and they too will give their churches in the future similarly well-meant but weak food. Even that, though tragic, was not the worst price …
- We were denied Jesus. The mighty and true hero of the story was placed in a queue of characters, and his saving work relegated to a sidebar. The story which preaches him so wonderfully became a morality tale which could save no-one.
Don't cut corners
Now there are a dozen reason to cut corners. I've preached string-and-duct-tape sermons, and I am sure you have too. But I know the safest route is always to the Savior. but this sermon strayed from that safe route to Jesus.
So assume I had been preaching that sermon, and that the pattern was consistent. How would I have diagnosed myself? Here are some things I try to keep in mind so I don't lose the sweetness of finding Jesus within the sweetness of Scripture.
Jesus is the personal center of Scripture, and not a piece makes sense without reference to him. That is objectively true, and also our subjective experience. One of the surest marks of the Spirit's work is an increasing delight in Jesus within his Word.
This is a heart issue. Someone asked an old preacher whether it wasn't possible to preach biblically without mentioning Christ. “Of course it is!” cried the preacher—and then slyly added, “But why would you want to?”
So I would feel an urgent need to read and re-read my Bible and this preaching text. I'd ready some great Biblical theology from the last decades, and dive into rich commentaries to press into the text. Rediscover the weight the Bible can take, and with what dizzying variety it tells its same story.
One pulpit I used for many years was engraved, facing the preacher: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” So, preacher, as you ramp up for Sunday, make sure that Jesus is the real hero of your sermon, however foolish, ordinary, repetitive, and unoriginal that makes you look. Don't make him disappear.
Chris Green is the Vicar of St. James Church in London, England and the author of 2 Timothy: Finishing the Race. He blogs regularly at ministrynutsandbolts.com. He is the author of Cutting to the Heart: Applying the Bible in Teaching and Preaching.