What’s the Point of the Sermon? The Proclaimed Word of God.
The Proclaimed Word of God
Too often when I enter the pew on a Sunday morning, I dread the coming sermon. Like many raised in Evangelical circles, the singing and musical part of the service seems the most natural. It is easy in our modern culture to connect emotionally and spiritually to music, perhaps too easy. Yet I know that after 20 minutes or so of beautiful hymns, I will have to endure 30 to 45 minutes of a person speaking to me about things that I have studied my entire life. I wrote about this in a previous piece. The driving question behind all of this writing is this: what am I looking for when I sit and listen to a sermon?
The previous piece gave no positive answers, but rather background and setup. I hope in this piece to start answering that question: what the point is of a sermon. Too often, I find myself sidetracked by questions about whether or not the pastor is entertaining, funny, eloquent, serious, or other adjectives that I think describe a good speaker. In the internet age, I can download a podcast or watch a video of some of the best speakers in the world in an instant. It has made me wonder about the value of suffering through a much weaker speech. Why subject myself, week-in and week-out, to someone who not only has responsibilities to speak every Sunday, but also has to care for the needs of an entire congregation? Wouldn’t it be easier if churches just decided to outsource preaching to the best speakers and let the pastors do other necessary work? Why should pastors try to do the impossible and match the most captivating and winsome personalities the internet has to offer?
This is a consummately 21stcentury mindset. We are given more options for toothpaste than my grandfather could ever conceive. We walk into the grocery store and every single aisle is overflowing with options all competing for our attention. If the Church is not careful, we will fall prey to the same mentality. We will ask our pastors and preachers to cater to our every whim and when he or she does not meet the exacting standard of every particular taste, we will walk out. What if there was a different way to think about the act of preaching?
I submit that the Church’s proclamation of the Word of God has a different aim and intention. When the pastor stands before the congregation, their goal cannot be to satisfy every single preference of every single person sitting in the pew. They cannot compete with the multitude of options available for iTunes download in an instant. What follows is a theological exploration of why the Church must continue to preach. It will also hopefully offer a few points of encouragement for the next time I, or the reader, finds themselves captive to a preacher that might not fit all their qualifications of a perfect speaker.
Karl Barth, a 20th century Swiss-German theologian, says “The Church stands or falls by this function which is enjoined upon her.”1 That “function” is the Proclamation of the Word of God. With this sobering statement in mind, the next three pieces will hope to contribute to the Church’s sustained commitment to the local preaching of the Word of God. I will look at all three forms of the Word of God because the sermon is just one part of a Trinitarian structure. Barth says:
The revealed Word of God we know only from the Scripture adopted by Church proclamation, or from Church proclamation based on Scripture.
The written Word of God we know only through revelation which makes proclamation possible, or through the proclamation made possible by revelation.
The proclaimed Word of God we know only by knowing the revelation attested through Scripture, or by knowing the Scripture which attests revelation.
There is only one analogy to this doctrine of the Word of God…. the doctrine of the three-in-oneness of God. (CD I/1 p.136).
The first piece will deal with the actual preaching of the Word of God. The second will explore the medium of the preaching of the Word of God, the Scripture. The third will deal with what all of this is based on, the only true Word of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. These three are intimately linked, so if it seems like I am missing something in what follows, it is only because it will be covered next. In the final installment, I will look at the reason anyone preaches or listens: the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
I draw most of what follows from my favorite Church Father, St. Augustine.Augustine was a gifted North African preacher from the 4th and 5th century A.D., who wrote a manual for preachers and preached for 30 years in a small North African town on the edge of the Roman Empire. He is the only person from the first five centuries of the Church who has left to history much by way of instruction regarding early Christian proclamations of the faith. His manual was the first of its kind in the ancient world, written in two parts over the course of his adult life. He wrote some of it when he began his life as a preacher, and some of it after having preached for 30 years, every Sunday, twice a day, and on special days throughout the week. It is believed that Augustine preached as many as 4,000 sermons in his lifetime. Augustine has inspired preachers throughout Christian history, especially in his work On Teaching Christianity, which became the medieval manual for preachers. The other great preacher from the same time period, John Chrysostom, left us no such manual, just copious amounts of sermons that he delivered to his people in the Greek East, admonishing them to serve the poor and remember Christ’s sacrifice.
Ever the Trinitarian, much like Barth above, St. Augustine mentions three essential elements of the preaching moment in a sermon from A.D. 410 on the plagues of Egypt. He writes:
So in the name of our Lord I have undertaken to explain [the plagues] as best I can, with his grace to help me and the devout attention [pia intentione] of your hearts to support me. Those [congregants] who made the suggestion know what they suggested…the exegesis I serve to you as your minister [literally servant] will provide nourishment for them. I am sure that [God] will help me, if not for my sake then certainly for yours, to say what is right to say and useful to hear, so that we may be found worthy to walk together on the way of his truth and hasten homeward together.2
This one dense quote gives us much to think about when considering what takes place in the proclamation of the Church, and what we should be listening for as congregants.
First of all, Augustine calls on the grace of God to help him. It should be little surprise that this “Doctor of Grace” does not want to lean only on his own abilities. In a manual on preaching he writes that “the speaker who is awash with the kind of eloquence that is not wise is particularly dangerous because audiences actually enjoy listening to such a person on matters of no value to them, and reckon that somebody who is heard to speak eloquently must also be speaking the truth.”3 Sometimes a speaker can lead us astray if they are merely gifted, given to much ethos and pathos and no Logos. 4 Even someone as eloquent and profound as Augustine knew that he could not deliver his messages but for the grace of God. Just because someone is a gifted speaker does not make them a preacher of wisdom. These preachers might have charming words and winsome personalities that bring people to hear them, based on outlandish promises that can never be fulfilled. Their words sound good, but their content is empty. But it’s not only prosperity-gospel eloquence that deceives those not paying attention. If you preach love and tolerance without an awareness of the God who embodies that for us, and teaches us the content, the Logos, of love, but does not convey the deeper truths of the Word of God made flesh in the revelation of Jesus Christ, this too is a misused eloquence. Many preachers will stand before large audiences with good intentions, but still fail to proclaim the enduring truth of the Word made flesh.
Second, Augustine mentions the “devout intention” of the hearers that support him. Throughout his corpus of sermons, Augustine in several places encourages his listeners to be prayerful in their listening to the sermon. He desires that they come into church eager to hear what the Word of God will speak to them. Sometimes this can be quite difficult if our only measure of a good sermon is how eloquent the speaker is and whether or not the preacher’s words match our own notions about what they should be saying, or how they should be saying it. If we stand in judgment over the preacher, we cannot be humbly listening for God speaking to us. God has chosen to use preaching as one means of speaking to his people. As Luther writes, following Augustine’s many metaphors of preaching, “Now I and any man who speaketh Christ’s Word may freely boast that his mouth is Christ’s mouth. I am certain that my word is not mine but Christ’s word, therefore my mouth must also be His whose Word it speaketh.”5 When we sit in a sermon, we are listening for Christ’s mouth to speak to us. This requires us to let go of our own arrogance and stop assuming that we know best about the right way to deliver a sermon. One other aspect of humility that has taken much of my life to learn is that not necessarily every sermon is meant for me. God asks that I be present, but also be prayerful for the pastor and the community to hear what they need from God, even if that message is not meant for me.
Third, the preacher herself matters. Notice the very end of the above quote, “we may be found worthy to walk together on the way of his truth and hasten homeward together.” Augustine, in the person of the preacher, walks with his congregation towards home, in the way of truth. The preacher has to be deemed worthy herself to lead the congregation. Augustine says in his manual on preaching that the preacher must read the Scriptures constantly and be continually in prayer to prepare the sermon. Barth writes, “it is further a decisive test of our humility towards God that we learned to render obedience to His Word not as one spoken directly from heaven, but just as it meet us, in the mouth of a homunico quispiam ex pulvere emersus [a diminutive nobody who has emerged from the dust] (translation mine) who is in no relation better than ourselves.”6 We learn humility by not choosing to look elsewhere for someone who might say something we wish to hear, and by not simply eschewing the discipline of going to church to “look for God in nature.” Our first instinct should be to listen to how God may be using our preacher. We submit to the preacher in trust that the person God has chosen to speak from the pulpit brings us the Word, meant for us. That is not say that we should continue to submit to someone whose heart has strayed from the Lord; they too are to submit to the Word whom they proclaim, and that is what Augustine means in this third part of the triad. The preacher true will entrust herself to the God who we wait for to speak through the preacher.
On final interesting note is that Augustine regards the point of the proclamation as orienting both preacher and congregant to the true meaning of life: their path homeward. The home of the Christian is not found on this earth. Our daily lives at work, in school, or wherever we spend our days might distract us from the journey that we are on. Without the continual reminder of the sermon, we might forget to orient our lives to God. The sermon helps us see how all parts of our lives are aimed at our Creator and our sustainer. This helps us to make meaning out of the daily activities that can seem overbearing, stressful, or pointless. With the proper orientation, we learn through the Proclamation of the Church to find meaning in our lives through the resurrected Word of God.
In Augustine’s work on the Trinity, he writes that “the Holy Spirit is the love that exists between the Father and the Son.”7 Through the power of the presence of the Spirit—the Holy Breath is an equally valid translation—if a preacher seeks the Word whom he is meant to proclaim, the Holy Spirit is present among all in love. Preacher, Congregant, and God are all present in a trinitarian relationship at the point of proclamation—as Jesus even says in the Gospel of Matthew, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” Augustine is so aware of the lives of the community to whom he preaches that he knows when people are in mourning because of the loss of loved ones or the fears of barbarian invasion. His sermons evidence a man uniquely in tune with the concerns of his hearers. This is the power of a preacher proclaiming the Word of God to a people present to him. This does not happen at some remove, whether through online teaching or radio and television broadcasts. he preacher in those cases cannot know who specifically he or she is speaking to. How can they know if the people understand what is being said? How can they know if they communicate well what God moves them to speak if the preacher cannot see the congregation? Where is the love that exists between proclaimer, hearer, and the Word?
If there is one thing that I hope to come out in the next several pieces it is the place of love in the proclamation of the Church. As Augustine writes, “For if understanding brings delights in its purest recesses, it should also be a delight to us to have an understanding of the manner in which charity…witnesses that it has sought nothing from those to whom it has descended except their everlasting salvation.” 8 “Caritas” means the unconditional love of Christ, and it is the root of the word “charity.” That word is not commonly used in the way it was originally defined, but it should connote the abiding love of Christ, the Word made flesh, which dwells in the lover and the loved alike, the person giving to another and the person receiving from another. This very thing happens in the moment of proclamation of the Church. The guiding principle of what actually happens is that the love of God for His people is proclaimed for all to hear. Augustine says this love seeks nothing from them but their salvation: their wholeness, their wellbeing, and of course their deliverance from their own sinful natures. Understanding, learning, knowledge, these are fine things…but they are nothing without Caritas. This Caritas exists in a Trinitarian fashion between God, Preacher, and Congregation, made known in the Word, Jesus Christ. This is the proclamation of the Church.