(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)
If you pushed me and said, “Andrew, what is the single biggest, the single most important thing you’ve learned about the craft of preaching over the last ten years?” at first I’d bluster about for a bit trying to tell you that there are all sorts of important things and it’s really hard to artificially say which is more important than the other, since in so many ways they all rise and fall together… and then if you were really persistent and kept pressing the issue, I’d have to answer this:
You’d better, at an absolute minimum, have a clear idea of what it is to preach… what a sermon is, what it does, how it functions within the life of the community of faith.
Failing to have a clear grasp of this, your preaching is likely to careen wildly between motivational speech (for those so inclined), theological or biblical history lecture (for those so inclined), angry rant (hahaha, also “for those so inclined”–you know who you are), pep-rally talk (they’re so exhausting, aren’t they?) or insipid, cliche, Christian greeting card drivel (ouch, and once again, you know who you are).
In my early years of preaching, I’d say that my sermons tended to be some combination of theological lecture and angry rant. Though the sands of time have largely eroded my memory on this point, I have a vague recollection of patting myself on the back in congratulations for being “prophetic” in my preaching, when in point of fact I was an immature egghead with a chip on my shoulder who had no idea what a good sermon actually was. The result of this was preaching that didn’t help people very much, and often wore them out. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, when folks would come up to me after messages and say, “Man, I love your passion” or “Wow, you really are smart”, as often as not that was simply their way of being nice to a kid who had a long way to go (and was probably the only person in the room who didn’t realize it… ugh).
Over the years, time, experience, and some measure of study have taught me that at its heart, the sermon is none of the things I listed above.
- Though it includes motivational elements, it is not a motivational speech
- Though it includes teaching moments, it is not a theological or biblical lecture
- Though there are times when prophetic passion erupts, it is not an angry rant
- Though here and there you will need to do a little “pep rally” talk, it is not at its core a “mobilizing the base” moment
- And do I need to say anything about Christian greeting card drivel?
Instead, I have come to the firm belief that at bottom, the sermon is this:
It is a WINDOW into an alternative reality–one based on the claim, and all that goes with it, that “Jesus is Lord.”
When I get up to preach now, I stand there knowing that what the community of faith demands of me are words that will remind them of how the world really is now that God has established his reign in the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The reason the community of faith demands this of its preachers is that more often than not, this is difficult to see, and therefore our lives tend to slip into other narrative construals of reality–that Death has the final word, that America is God’s chosen nation, that God doesn’t love me, that reconciliation is impossible, that justice will never be realized, that my guilt will never be assuaged… etc etc etc.
These narratives, you understand, literally PULVERIZE people’s lives, trapping them in stories that are fundamentally unlivable. What the preacher does, then, is the preacher stands up, and out of the vast resources of the Scriptural tradition (which provides the fundamental linguistic elements that the preacher will creatively construe), tells the truth that it’s all false. In announcing the kingdom of God, the preacher is exposing the lies that are driving people’s lives, ripping them to shreds, sapping them of strength and energy. With great love and passion, the preacher is saying, “Peer into this alternative reality. Imagine yourself into a world that is saturated with the goodness and justice of God. Know yourself afresh to be one who is loved, called, chosen, bought, forgiven, and promised an indestructible future in God’s good world through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You don’t have to live in the lie anymore.“
That, brothers and sisters, is preaching. It is standing up in a tradition that reaches back to Moses and Isaiah and finds its consummation and climax in Jesus of Nazareth and saying, “The reign of God is here. Change your mind, and believe yourself into this shocking good news.”
The thing that I think we must grasp as preachers is that in the economy of salvation, God does very little, arguably almost nothing, apart from the verbal announcement of his reign. Amos 3:7–“Surely the Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” God, whose Son is literally called his “Word”, his self-expression, makes worlds available through words. He overthrows empires, brings down kingdoms, frees the oppressed, and liberates slaves, all through human speech. As Walter Brueggemann puts it so well, in discussing the oracles of salvation in Isaiah chapters 40ff:
The news is theological, but it is world-changing, with both a permit and a requirement implied. Note well, that if the Jews go home, it will be because they accept the world that is available to them only on the lips of this messenger… (Cadences of Home, 47)
We messengers are called to this–to employing all of the resources our speech to construct alternative modes of understanding for the people of God so that they can leave every dehumanizing Egypt and Babylon they find themselves in. Week after week, we summon them saying, It is time to go home!
This, of course, will help put all the other bits of preaching in their proper place. We will often motivate, we will frequently find ourselves needing to instruct on the finer points of theology or biblical history, we will sometimes kick into a passionate rant, we will on occasion find ourselves rallying the troops… but all in the service of and within this core call: to open up a window into another reality.
Once you begin to understand preaching in this way, one of the “practicals” that you’ll likely notice is that your sermons will become cleaner, clearer, and often shorter. Though I’ll be getting into those items and more in following posts, for the time being I’ll just say that if and when your preaching is done in the service of opening up windows, as we’re saying here, you’ll find that there will be a lot of things you once thought (or were told were) important in preaching that no longer are.
As an example, my time in seminary had me convinced that really good sermons thoroughly “explained and applied” each and every item in a given text of Scripture. Because I was really committed to biblical preaching, I felt a profound weight of obligation to translate every passage, do thorough word and background studies, etc etc., and then bring the better part of that to bear on the message, explaining, illustrating, and applying every little detail. It didn’t take me very long to realize that because the text of Scripture is fundamentally inexhaustible, it was an unreasonable goal to think that my preaching should even adequately “explain and apply” each bit of text I was asked to preach on.
A better goal, when dealing with discrete bits of Scripture, I soon learned, was to try to understand the heart of God as revealed in this or that text… to ask how it throws open a door to the kingdom, how it’s unique vantage point flings wide one of the windows of eternity, letting the fresh breeze of God’s infinite love pour in. If I could connect with THAT, then all the other elements would find an organizing center.
Good preachers understand this and have honed an ability to execute messages that give people a glimpse of an alternative reality. People walk away having had their imaginations drawn, even if just for a few minutes, into the possibility that life under the reign of God in Christ could be different… and those moments hold the power to change everything. Change perception, change reality.
So the next time, preacher, you’re begin preparation for a sermon, do this: in the midst of all your study, brainstorming, mind-mapping, praying, and whatever else it is you do to get ready, ask yourself this question–“How is this text a window into the kingdom? What is it inviting people into?” If you can identify and articulate that with clarity and passion, you’ve at least cleared one important hurdle to giving a coherent and compelling sermon.
What about you? What have you learned? What kinds of questions does this raise for you?