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Soul Deep (pt. 2)

O for the sermons that change lives.

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one, Gordon began to explore what a soul-deep sermon is and the part the preacher plays in producing it. Click to read part one.

The Word made fresh

A soul-deep sermon has to do with one's insistence on taking scriptural truth and casting it in a 21st century frame. A challenging but not impossible task. Scholarship and imagination work together here to cultivate the curiosity of the congregation so that they are willing to crawl into the text with the preacher and appreciate why and how it was written and what the author was trying to say as he responded to the impulse of the Holy Spirit.

Soul-deep sermons take the powerful gospel and place it in the context of the streets of this world where life is tough and people need courage and wisdom.

Having done that, it's to work with the assumption that ancient truth is trans-cultural: it speaks to the present time. And what does it say? How will that truth translate into life on Tuesday or Thursday in the marketplace, in the home, at school? What difference will it make? What does life for the biblical person look like?

I have loved telling the story of a ferret named Bandit that our college-aged son brought home years ago. After some months we had to ask Bandit to leave (behavioral problems), but no one could tell us how to appropriately evict him. When I suggested to the pet store people that we simply let Bandit go in the New Hampshire forest, they were horrified.

"He can't defend himself or survive," they said. "He's trained to live in a cage."

We must beware of sermons that teach people to survive only in the protected cage of the church and among Christianized people. Soul-deep sermons take the powerful gospel and place it in the context of the streets of this world where life is tough and people need courage and wisdom.

Urgency (I think we prefer the word passion today) is an interesting word when it comes to the consideration of soul-deep preaching. It is used to describe a preacher who really believes that the eternal destiny of human beings is caught up in the issues a sermon might address. This is a scary thought. Truth be told? I don't get the feeling that most preachers really believe that eternal issues are in the balance when they preach.

Readying the crowd

You get the possibility of soul-deep sermons when congregations are prepared to listen at soul-depth. An Augustine, a Luther, a Calvin, a Wesley, a Spurgeon, and a Graham were effective when their audience was strangely ready. But here's an opposite case in point: "(Jesus) could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith." So Mark writes of a preaching day in the life of Jesus that could be labeled (forgive me, Lord) a strike-out.

A strange readiness, I say. Because there are times when God—for reasons we cannot understand—cracks through the hardness of souls and sends a sermon deep within. People repent; people change; people become, well … wonderful people. What readies a congregation? These moments are most often prefaced by large amounts of prayer.

A worshiper in a Welsh church (1859) writes of such a strange moment when people would have been satisfied with a routine meeting. The pastor, having read some Scripture, made "a few passing remarks thereon, (and) an influence was felt by all present, which we had never experienced in the like manner before. There was a beauty, a loveliness about the Holy Word which we had never hitherto perceived. New light seemed to be thrown upon it. It electrified us, and caused us to weep for joy. The feeling became general. All present were under its influence. The hardest hearts were forced to succumb … and then we sang, aye, sang with the Spirit, and repeated the hymn again and again—we could not leave off. Every heart seemed inspired to continue, and the last two lines were sung for full a quarter of an hour." Poof! The second Welsh revival was under way.

Results of soul-deep preaching

We must not load on to the idea too much, but certainly some of the following attributes must be among its distinctive marks. A sense of the holiness and majesty of God might be one mark. This is a God with whom we must not trifle. He is to be respected and heard.

Then we might look for a sense of the deep, deep love of Jesus—a love that is virtually irresistible and which overcomes every barrier of the hardened soul. Jesus must be preached so that one cannot imagine living without a relationship with him.

Add to that the imperative of repentance. How could people leave a soul-deep sermon without being impressed with their unrighteousness and their need to make things right with God? Beyond that: the intent to change—a realization that this attitude or that conduct must be altered under the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

One more result: the listener imagines a way to go out the door and make a difference in the name of Jesus. Serve people; introduce someone to Jesus; right a wrong; protect a vulnerable person. Categories like these.

I wonder if soul-deep preaching isn't also characterized by a persuasive close. Salespeople use the word close to describe the moment when they ask a customer for a sale. Crass words for a preacher, but there does have to be a defined closure to a sermon, a clear description of the kind of response the preacher believes God expects. It has to be spelled out so that no one can escape the challenge.

Joshua had a great closer: "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve … as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." He got a good response.

There's a spectrum in closing. At one end is the immediate response—when a preacher ends the sermon with an invitation. I like to do this occasionally. But I always warn people ahead of time. At the beginning of the sermon I say: "You need to know that at the end of this sermon I am going to give an invitation. It means that I'm going to invite you—if God is speaking into your life—to leave your seat, come to the front, and kneel and let someone pray for you. So as you listen to this sermon, keep in mind that I'm going to challenge everyone of you to think through whether or not God is speaking and if you are one of those who should respond to my invitation."

I have never had such an invitation go without response. People so warned are people thinking with great seriousness. And they come, and often it becomes a milestone in their spiritual journey.

At the other end of the spectrum is an open-ended response, when you tie a truth to something people will experience during the coming week. Here the key is provocative questions or ideas that linger in their minds.

Not long ago, I preached a sermon on perseverance and quoted Yogi Berra, "It's not over until it's over," and then made some appropriate applications. A few weeks later a couple approached me with a family story.

"Our ten-year-old daughter," they said, "was in a soccer game this week, and they were losing by a goal in the last five minutes. She heard the opposing team's coach say to his girls, 'It's almost over, and you're going to win.'"

After the game—which ended in a tie—she told her parents, "I heard that coach say that the game was almost over, and I remembered when Pastor Mac said, 'It's not over until it's over.' So I decided to play harder." She went on to score the tying goal.

Maybe that's not exactly the best illustration for soul-deep sermons, but if a ten-year-old can make a direct application days later, then anything's possible.

Remember why you're there

The founder of the Quaker movement, George Fox, was a soul-deep preacher. When he reflected upon what made him a person like this, he simply answered, "I took men to Jesus Christ and left them there."

There was a time years ago when (I'm embarrassed to admit this) I grew a bit bored with preaching. While it was important to me to preach good sermons, I began to forget that there was a purpose behind it, that there were results to seek.

"I'm not sure that anyone's going to change because of what I say," I told my wife, Gail. "I need to remind myself to preach for change."

She heard me. And from that point forward, whenever I arose from my seat next to her to go to the pulpit, she would (and you would see her do it this next Sunday if you were with us) grab my arm as I stood up and say in a half-whisper, "Be a man sent from God; preach for change!"

She makes sure I remember the purpose of our preaching.

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

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O for the sermons that change lives

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