Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: Sermons

   What is a sermon? We’ve heard lectures and watched TED talks. But there is some strangeness, an inadequacy, even the impossibility that in the sermon, the talker dares to speak for God, and the listeners are just daffy enough to think that through the preacher’s words they might actually hear what God is saying to them, and to the world, right there and in that moment.

Preachers try to entertain, inform, impress, motivate, make points, teach, or be funny or charming, and the people try to stay awake, slake the boredom, search out points of agreement or make note of where they disagree, maybe even be moved, inspired, or motivated. But what if everyone would pause, just before the preaching commences, and ask King Zedekiah’s question to the prophet Jeremiah? “Is there any word from the Lord?” (Jeremiah 37:17).

The smoothest, most eloquent words any mere mortal can muster are laughably incapable of rising to the level of “Thus saith the Lord.” In fact, the more clever the rhetoric, the slicker the oratory, the less likely we are to overhear the voice of God. Despite our Hollywood preconceptions, God doesn’t have the sonorous, resonant voice or the handsome, wizened face. God looks like Jesus, bruised and battered, “one from whom men hide their faces” (Isaiah 53:3), silent before his accusers, crying out in agony on the cross. The impressive orator can wow listeners with brilliant speechmaking, his brightness casting a shadow where God lurks, unnoticed.

Karl Barth put it beautifully: “As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory.” Perhaps if laity were as aware of this quandary as the clergy, we could all live into the tension. On better days, the preacher sighs, grimaces a little, blurts out something, apologizes silently, and then becomes even more daring – and somehow, miraculously, God’s Word gets overheard.

Some church people are deluded into thinking that the preacher is somehow especially holy, or has some direct pipeline to God. The clergy bring some training, and more time to focus on what God might be saying – and of course, a calling. But there is no peculiar sanctity in the preacher. Clergy who preach are, as Timothy Radcliffe put it, “professional hypocrites. We preach best about what we do not succeed in living, but long to.” The preacher reminds us all to long, and to long together.

For preaching to happen, the pressure shouldn’t all be on the preacher, or even on God. The people have a weighty responsibility they often aren’t aware of. Where is your mind when the sermon begins? How riddled with distraction are you? Have you read the Bible or prayed all week? Have you cluttered your mind all week with half-truths and political invective? Are you in a feisty, critical mood? Are you fidgeting with your sleeve, or checking your phone? Can you take a deep breath, imagine the laying bare of your soul, and join young Samuel by uttering “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10)?

The very art of listening: this weekly discipline of sitting still and being quiet to listen for an extended period of time to someone talking can be thought of as training in an increasingly lost virtue. Fixated on the screens of our gadgets, with ever shorter attention spans, and in a culture where there is so much jabbering past one another, we are not good listeners. And yet to be able to listen to another person, really to hear them, and then to be able to listen to God: this is the foundational Christian disposition. Jesus was such a good listener. The wise listen more than they talk. Every person who has loved you has listened to you. We want to be heard. The sermon cultivates the holy habit of listening, and thus loving, in our souls.

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