I was recently asked to preach a sermon about preaching sermons.
Sermons do not have a good reputation. The novelist Anthony Trollope wrote in Barchester Towers:
There is no greater hardship inflicted upon mankind in civilised countries than the necessity of listening to sermons.
Must it be so? Do sermons have to be boring?
I don’t think so. But, in order to avoid being boring, preachers need some guidance. The following thoughts come from Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. They’re meant to help those who preach to know how to preach and those who listen to know what to listen for (and how to pray for their preachers).
The first requirement of a sermon is relevance – that is, it must reach people where they are, it must scratch a real itch. Peter’s sermon at Pentecost did just that. He gave a commentary on the outpouring of the Spirit which had drawn a large crowd wanting to know what was going on. The crowd was already engaged, seeking an explanation. Above and beyond that, as the sermon would in due course make clear, this was the crowd which had played a shameful part in sending Jesus to the cross at the hands of the Roman authorities. Peter had little trouble in making his words relevant to his audience.
Relevance comes in various forms. A preacher is relevant when addressing someone’s already-aroused curiosity about God. I started listening to sermons because I made a friend at university who had something I didn’t have but wanted to have and which clearly had a lot to do with his Christian faith. I was primed and prepared to listen to a preacher with due attention. His testimony created openness in me; testimony in the context of worship can make the difference between relevance and irrelevance for the preacher who follows it.
A preacher is relevant when addressing an issue of current concern: where is God in the pandemic? what about assisted dying or climate change? Some of these are complex problems without easy answers. But scripture and Christian theology still have something important to say.
A preacher is relevant when addressing the perennial concerns of human beings: relationships, sex, gender, marriage, family, work, money, what the future holds…
The second requirement of preaching is revelation. A sermon is not an opportunity for the preacher to air their own opinions and prejudices. A sermon should reveal what scripture has to say on the topic being addressed. On the day of Pentecost Peter tells the crowd: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel”. Here, before your very eyes, scripture is being fulfilled. Not many of us get to speak so directly into the fulfilment of scripture but we can still relate present experience to the story of God’s purposes in the Bible, where he is taking us and how he works in our lives.
Chrissie Chapman spent twenty-five years working as a nurse and midwife in Burundi. For thirteen of those years she lived through the country’s long-running and brutal civil war. Here she tells of one night during that time:
One evening, David [her co-worker] and I were sitting on the front doorstep of my small mud house, gazing at the moon and the stars and wondering what the future held. Gunfire sounded all around us and we could hear crying and terrified screaming coming from the hills. You could feel and almost touch the terror in those screams. As we sat praying and crying out to God for His help, peace, and protection, David suddenly stood up and began to praise God. He was saying over and over, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.” He cried out to me, “Chrissie, just look on the walls.” I couldn’t see anything and didn’t know what he was talking about. David put his hands on my eyes and prayed that God would open my eyes to see what he was seeing. As I opened my eyes, I saw dozens of huge angels standing shoulder to shoulder on top of the six-foot high wall that surrounded the perimeter of our healing centre. These strong, shining heavenly beings clothed in full armour with gleaming breastplates were standing on top of the wall in a complete circle with their backs to us, looking outward. They looked so huge and strong. I was filled with so much awe that every bit of fear drained out of my body and could no longer touch me.
What do you make of that? Is it credible or just too fantastic to take seriously? How are such things to be tested and evaluated?
What makes the story credible to me is the close parallel (to which the author makes no reference) between this account and the account in 2 Kings 6 of the time when Elisha, surrounded by the horses and chariots of the hostile king of Aram, prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes to the hills full of horses and chariots of fire – the Lord’s army come to protect them. Preachers need to look for those times when scripture and contemporary experience match and mutually corroborate each other. The scriptural text and the missionary’s testimony reinforce each other and confirm to us what God can do.
A sermon should reveal good news to the hearers. The punchline of Peter’s quotation from Joel is:
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.Acts 2.21
God has a good purpose for the hearers in the extraordinary events they have witnessed. He is calling them to receive God’s forgiveness and the gift of the same Spirit that they have seen poured out on the disciples.
A sermon should reveal the presence and power of Jesus Christ. Peter moves on from his quotation from Joel to talking about Jesus, about the crowd’s complicity in the travesty of his crucifixion and then on to his resurrection and current reign as Lord of all. Wherever we are in the Bible, whatever topic we may be addressing, Jesus is already there and we need to make clear his presence. That’s what he himself did as he talked to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. If, for instance, we are talking about the pandemic we need to be remind people that – despite all that has gone wrong and may yet go wrong in our world – Jesus is Lord. That doesn’t solve all our problems or produce easy answers, but it does give us a hope that is sure and certain. Preaching is primarily good news not good advice. If preaching doesn’t turn us to Jesus then it is little more than human wisdom.
Finally, preaching is meant to generate a response. Having listened to Peter’s sermon, the crowd ask:
Brothers, what shall we do?Acts 2.37
Peter then tells them what they must do. A sermon is an event. It makes things happen; or rather, God speaks through his word and he makes things happen.
Ideally, the response should be immediate. Telling people to go away and think about what they’ve heard may sometimes work, but too often I suspect the moment is lost and the impact is wasted. The response can take different forms. It may be to get up and do something – a symbolic action perhaps – which has been carefully prepared by the preacher. It may be to invite the Holy Spirit to come and do what he wants to do in the congregation, creating a safe space for him to work in people’s lives as they open themselves to receive.
Some ingredients of a good sermon:
- good news
- Jesus Christ
There may be other important ingredients. But these seem like a good place to start.