What are some things I would like changed in sermons? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
As readers should know, I am in therapy here recovering from my divorce and learning social skills for dating. My therapist was asking me about how I’m doing spiritually and one thing we talked about were sermons I attend. I mentioned some concerns I have with them and I would like to write about them now.
The first point I want to make is that too many sermons seem to focus on the experience of the pastor. I get especially concerned when I hear them talk about things that God told them. Those are dangerous words. That is giving divine authority to whatever you say next. Are you willing to do that? While I realize we don’t live in Old Testament times, in those times, the penalty for saying “God said” when He did not say was death. We can say that that won’t happen anymore, but are we to think God doesn’t still take seriously people claiming to say what He didn’t say?
I often hear people who give announcements at church say the same thing. “Well, God brought in enough money for us to do XYZ” or “God laid it on our hearts to build the new building” or “God put this idea in us for the new Vacation Bible School.” How do you know? I always want to ask that question. It’s not just a Protestant thing. I have heard it in Catholic and Orthodox churches as well.
Pastors. If you spend too much time on your experience, you will be the focus. It will not be what the church is to do in Christ. It will be about what you think Christ is doing in you. I don’t come to church to hear about you. I come to church to hear about Jesus.
Second, is that too often we focus on application which boils down to advice. I am not saying application is not part of a sermon, but it should be the minimal part after the main message has been given. Lewis once said the world is full of good advice and if all Jesus came to do was give us good advice, it was a wasted effort. We have rejected much advice before. Why not the best of all?
If this is all we do, then we are not different from many other groups except we sprinkle a little bit of Jesus in there to sound spiritual. We’re pretty much a club at that point. Now I get that part of coming to church is community and we should have that, but the main draw should not be community. The main draw should be Jesus.
There’s a reason we have negative terminology for preaching and a sermon. If someone starts telling us what to do over and over we say “Don’t preach at me” or “I don’t need to hear a sermon.” Those are negative terms and really, they’ve been sadly earned. If you’re a pastor, do you want your sermon to sound like that?
Finally, present the grandeur of God in Christ in all your sermons somehow. For instance, when I was at church Sunday, the sermon I heard was on Mark 4. What’s it about? Jesus calming the storm. You know what we too often make the sermon about? Jesus can calm the storms in your life!
Well, yes, He can. But He won’t always. However, before saying that Jesus can calm the storms in our lives, let’s look at what this text is actually about.
Jesus calming an actual storm.
I’m going to wager a hunch that very few of you reading this have successfully gone outside to face a horrendous storm of some kind and calmed it down by your words alone. I’ll even say most of you have never attempted such a thing before. Who are we to calm storms, after all? Yet Jesus did it!
What does that tell me about Jesus? What does that show me about who He is? What does that tell me about the power that He has?
Another passage like this is David and Goliath. The passage becomes about facing your giants. What are the Goliaths in your life? Can you take them down? Let’s look at what the story is about.
It’s about the covenant God of Israel having a faithful servant in the next king, David, who trusts so much in YHWH to fulfill His covenant promises if one is faithful to Him that he is willing to face the giant on this God’s behalf.
The story of the three Hebrew boys thrown into the fire is about three Hebrew boys being faithful to YHWH in a pagan kingdom against a pagan king not even knowing if they would be spared. The miraculous preservation of them showed that yes, God can deliver, but it also showed something else. God is superior to the will of the pagan kings.
We could go on and on easily. In all of these stories, by jumping to application, you miss the message. Do you think Mark really wrote the story of Jesus calming the sea to show that God can calm the storms in your life? No. He wrote it to tell us about Jesus. The writer of Samuel did not write to tell us God can overcome your Goliaths. He wrote to tell us about faithfulness to YHWH by David in a time when Israel was under oppression by an evil foreign adversary.
The story of the Hebrew boys was not written to show God can deliver you from your furnace. It was written to show that God was faithful even in a foreign land and greater than the gods of the most powerful empire on Earth at the time. It was written to show His covenant had not been abandoned.
Think back to a time when you fell in love with someone. Did you need to hear advice about how to love them? Not saying it wouldn’t have helped, but generally, when you were presented with the loved one and who they were, you wanted to do the good automatically. There’s a reason the saying was that the face of Helen of Troy could launch a thousand ships. Present a man with the beauty of the woman and he will tend to want to do great things. Beauty is very inspirational.
What will a man do when presented with the glory of Christ?
Now if you want to say God can calm the storms in your life and other things, make sure that is secondary. The primary thing is what God has done in Christ and in the lives of the saints of the past. Present them this God that they are to trust in and if God calms the storm, great! If not, He will be with them through it.
For those of us who are Protestants, we stand on a treasure trove of great theology. I am part of an Aquinas Zoom meeting on Thursday nights and I hear good theology as we discuss what Aquinas says about God. That’s our theology also. The Reformers and immediate predecessors would have no problem with much of medieval theology. It’s only in more recent times that we started having people seriously question simplicity, impassibility, omniscience, etc.
We have a great God. Let people see Him. We have a great savior in Christ. Let people see Him.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)