Chapter 57

Why the Sermon?

What is the eternal purpose in this weekly exercise in elocution?

A little girl riding on a bus was overheard asking, "Daddy, where will we be when we get to where we're going?"

That question ought to be asked by preachers and congregations regarding sermons. Where will we be when we arrive at the place the sermon is supposed to take us? Confusion over that question has ruined more sermons than all other kinds of homiletic incompetence.

As a matter of fact, I've heard sermons that failed despite sound exegesis and polished delivery. They failed because the preacher had no clear idea of where the hearers should end up.

Where should the sermon take the hearer? To what end was the gospel given? I propose that Paul's answer in the first chapter of Ephesians remains the best. After listing all the benefits of the gospel, he concludes that we have this great salvation "in order that we … might be for the praise of his glory" (Eph 1:12). If the Book of Revelation teaches us nothing else, it confirms Paul's assertion. The saints of God in heaven are shown to be doing just what Paul said was the purpose of God's saving us in the first place: continually praising, adoring, and thanking God. If anything, eternity appears to be one interminable and joyous concert performed in God's honor by his redeemed people. Both he and they seem to enjoy it immensely.

Sermons are to be preached to the end that the hearers might praise, adore, and give thanks to God. They are not preached that people should repent. They are not even preached that people should believe the gospel is true. They are preached so that men and women should repent and believe the gospel so that they may praise God's glory.

Several methodological implications flow out of this view.

A different kind of preparation

Number one on the preacher's agenda should be rigorous preparation to preach. I was told in seminary that good preaching would demand roughly one hour of preparation for every minute preached. That is a good enough dictum, I suppose, but that is not what I have in mind. The men who gave me that guilt-producing advice were academicians, and what they meant was hours of research, writing, honing the manuscript, and practicing delivery until what was said on Sunday morning was worthy of one's dissertation committee. What I have in mind are the personal disciplines necessary to behold the God whose gospel will be preached on Sunday. If the preacher is going to call people to adore God, the preacher had better have been adoring God!

I am weary of books and seminars on preaching these days. Actually, I am weary of seminars period. They betray our fascination with technique instead of substance, methods rather than integrity. In my more sanguine moments I concede the value of learning the techniques that make for excellent writing and delivery. But that is a distant second place to the fundamental imperative of familiarity with the God whose gospel we preach. We must learn to pray before we ever learn to preach.

Jack Sanford tells the story of an old well his family used during their summer vacations in rural New Hampshire. The water was cold and pure and refreshing, and it never dried up, even in the worst summer droughts. When other people would be forced to go to the lake for water, the Sanford family had only to walk out the front door to the old well, which faithfully gave them its cold, clear refreshment.

The years passed, and the family decided to modernize the vacation house. Kerosene lamps were replaced with electricity and the old well with indoor plumbing and running water. The well was covered in order to have a reserve should the occasion ever arise. More years passed by, and one day Sanford became nostalgic for the old well and its water. He uncovered it to look inside and taste again. He was shocked to find the well bone-dry.

He made inquiries to discover what had happened. He learned that kind of well was fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets. When water is drawn from such a well, more water flows into it through the rivulets, keeping them open and clear. Otherwise, they clog up and close.

Sanford observed that the soul is much like that well. It dries up inside if the living water of God does not flow in. What makes it dry up is not the absence of God's Spirit, but disuse. Unless we preachers go often and regularly to the well, unless we draw up the nourishment of God, our preaching will be dry and hollow. It may be brilliant intellectually, it may have the people laughing and crying, it may be filled with marvelous insight and delivered with style and energy, but it will be empty. The objective of the sermon is that God be praised. That will not happen unless the preacher is a beholder of his glory.

The Gospel in context

To declare God's glory, the sermon must face those things that challenge his glory. It must face squarely all the shattering questions of life. It must set the bleak context into which God's glory is made known. The Good News is not really good news to people until they have come to terms with the bad news of life.

A young couple's first child was stillborn. I went to visit them in the hospital and later met with them in their home to conduct a memorial service for the child. They were understandably distraught and grief-stricken. Again and again they asked, "Why? How could God allow such a thing to happen?"

I am never quite sure what to do in those situations, whether I should attempt to answer their questions or just put my arms around them and pray for peace and comfort. I usually do the latter. But after several weeks of these questions, I began to talk theology with them. Of course I was not able to offer any neat solutions. What began to impress me, however, was how unprepared both the husband and the wife were to think about the problem of evil and suffering in the world. Whatever prior instruction they had received in the faith had not so much as even raised the issue.

I left their home wondering if they had really ever heard the gospel. They were good-looking, affluent young people who had made a connection in their minds between the good fortune they had experienced in life and the God they believed in. When the good fortune left them, so did the god. They dropped out of church.

So much popular preaching today is what I call the "things-go-better-with-Jesus" variety. Like the soft drink that is the perfect complement to the meal or the recreation, so is Jesus to the rest of our lives. He adds just the right touch. That is blasphemy. He is not the complement to the meal; he is the meal. Far too many "practical" sermons are being preached in America's pulpits on how to "win over worry," how to "defeat depression" or make it through your midlife crisis. There is nothing inherently wrong in the church addressing itself to these important issues. But it should be done in Sunday school or a seminar instead of in the sermon. To preach these things is to preach not the Evangel but the Wisdom Literature, not John 3:16 but Proverbs. God gave us his Son not that we might become better people but that we might become the New Humanity, not that we might get on better in this world but that we might be transformed for the next.

The gospel must be preached and heard against the somber background of death, tragedy, world hunger, and nuclear peril. Otherwise it is neither preached nor heard. God's glory does not come to us in a vacuum but in the midst of the pain of living. Those who would avoid the pain will also avoid the gospel. There is nothing so sweet as the sound of praise and thanksgiving that comes from the lips of those who have looked unflinchingly at the agony of this present age and have been able to shout, "Nevertheless, I know that my Redeemer lives!"

Praising God's glory

Because the objective of preaching is that men and women might praise God's glory, preachers must labor with all their might to present the gospel in all its glory. Lord Kenneth Clark, narrator of television's Civilisation, once told a reporter, "I still go to Chartres Cathedral each year and to the Parthenon every three years. Very good. Keeps your standards high." That is what authentic preaching does; it keeps people's standards high.

Perhaps that is obvious. But I think not, because of what I hear and read from popular preachers in this country. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their motives are good, that all they trying to do is preach to people in a way that will be understood. As one put it, "I put all my cookies on the lowest shelf so everyone can grab them." It is a sin, they feel, to make the gospel so obtuse or intellectual it cannot be understood.

I don't disagree. But I must add that there is an equal and opposite error, and that is making the gospel too accessible and acceptable. The first error locks up the gospel in obscurity; the second locks it up in familiarity. The gospel and the glory of the God it proclaims are both near to us and far from us. We do God no favors when we so domesticate him that he becomes virtually unrecognizable, indistinguishable from whatever it was we already believed when we walked into church.

Paul spoke disapprovingly of those who "peddle the word of God" (2 Corinthians 2:17). The word refers to people who vended wine in the Greek marketplaces. It was usually sold at bargain prices and was often watered down. There could be no question that these peddlers were making their product accessible to the common folk. Some may even have made a case for watering down the wine so as to make it affordable. Of course, all that is self-serving rationalization. In their efforts to make wine available, they were really impoverishing their customers and making themselves rich.

Good preaching should always be a little hard to take, not only because the word of judgment accompanies the word of salvation, but also because it proclaims a gospel that is wilder and richer and more engaging of our minds and spirits than we could ever imagine. People should be stretched in all directions when they hear us preach. God must be looked at with wonder and amazement before he can be truly praised.

An old Hasidic tale tells of a man named Bontscha. He was called Bontscha the Silent because he had never known anything but blows, loss, pain, and failure, and had never complained or expected anything better. When he died, he appeared before the heavenly tribunal. God the Judge declared, "There in that other world, no one understood you. You never understood yourself. You never understood that you need not have been silent, that you could have cried out, and that your outcries would have brought down the world itself."

The Judge then offered him a reward: absolutely anything he wanted. All he had to do was ask. Bontscha opened his mouth for the first time to reveal his deepest desire … and told the Judge he would like "every morning for breakfast, a hot roll with fresh butter." Heaven was ashamed and wept.

Bontscha's greatest impoverishment was that he had been rendered incapable of dreaming for anything worthwhile.

The preacher must present the glory of God as clearly and compellingly as human language will permit. Otherwise both preacher and people will be reduced to dreaming little dreams and attempting for God only little things, when they could be doing so much more. Otherwise they will succumb to what Annie Dillard terms "the enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end." The trouble with that, says Dillard, is that God and "the world is wider than that in all directions, more dangerous and more bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus" (Pilgrim of Tinker Creek).

Calling people to praise the glory of God by facing all the shattering questions of life and presenting God's glory in as unadulterated a way as possible will not always be popular. But it will be, pardon the expression, real. It will continue to call out a people who will be salt and light in a world whose own glory is tawdry and fading.