Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The hard job of sermons today. . .

There was a time when sermons unfolded the mystery of God in the plainest yet most poetic language possible, when the preaching task was not to explain God or defend Him or make Him relevant, or even re-invent Him when He was forgotten or had grown passe.  People listened because they wanted to know this God, because they cared about meeting Him where He had decided to reveal Himself, and to approach the mystery on the bended knee of faith.  Today is not that time.

Today the hard job of the sermon is to engage a people who have learned to be passive about nearly everything except how they feel or what they want.  Today the hard job of the sermon is to entertain a people who have raised entertainment to the highest value and more important pursuit of modern life.  Today the hard job of the sermon is to make new what is old, make relevant what nobody thinks applies any longer, and to inform in a way that confirms what people already knew.  No wonder preaching is so disappointing.  It has become captive to the faults and foibles of our modern day world and is just another effeminate voice trying to seduce or bald white man flapping his gums because he is in love with himself.

Worship has become about words because too many Christians no longer believe that hidden in humble forms God is present doing what He has promised.  Words and too many of them dominate much of what passes for worship.  The words are mostly about people -- how they love God and just want to worship Him and just want Him to hear them and give them what they want.  The words are captive to the moment and do not connect us with the Church of the past or the future Church (as the words of the creeds and the liturgy and the great hymns of faith do).  The words are either slogans or cliches, sort of like the 30 second sound bites that define the world events of the day in our news broadcasts except in this case they reduce God to about as many characters as the old Twitter rules allowed.  We know nothing of the great fathers of the Church but because of social media we know everything we thought about, whispered about, and felt about during the whole time we spent at Church.

Those who traditionally did not hold preaching as essential to the Mass, in particular the Roman Catholics, have been seduced by the dark side and follow the example of Protestants who reduce the liturgy to warm up for the pulpit time and who transform the whole act of worship into something for the mind.  The old words of fear, wonder, awe, reverence, and humility have been traded in for new words of comfort, convenience, relevance, and rights.  We no longer approach God with fear and wonder and certainly not on bended knee.  Such is the state of Christianity, at least in America.

The priesthood of all believers has come to mean I don't need anyone to tell me what God says but the primary responsibility of this priesthood in the home, displaying and raising the faith to spouse and children has been largely abdicated.  The priesthood of all believers has come to mean I can interpret my Bible as I choose and if it makes sense to me it much be right but the primary responsibility of this priesthood to esteem the Scriptures as the living voice of God and to pray His Word into our hearts and minds has been abandoned.  The priesthood of all believers has come to mean I can find my own way to God and I get to say what is meaningful to me but the real responsibility of this priesthood to hear and heed Christ the Way, the Truth, and the Life and to listen to Him has been discarded.  For the vast majority of people in America, God is unapproachable because He is not where we want Him to be -- not because He has reneged upon His promise placed in the Word preached, the absolution proclaimed, the water poured, and the bread and cup eaten and drunk according to His institution. 

Preaching is hard because we have lost confidence in words, we have lost confidence in the Gospel, and we no longer want to approach God in fear and wonder, awe and reverence.  However, the miracle is, where preachers refuse the new kind of preaching the world approves, God is still opening stopped ears, still engaging dull minds, and still directing hearts to trust in Him.  Preaching is hard and preachers and sermons face many obstacles but the Word of the Lord still endures and still accomplishes its purpose.  Do not give in to the world's estimation of what ought to be and do not give in to the doubts about the relevance of that Word.  Preach it, in and out of season, faithfully according to God's Word and promise, speaking both Law and Gospel, and God will do all the rest.  Once we believe this, the job of the preacher is made so much easier and the job of the hearer is as well.


Carl Vehse said...

In order that the priesthood of all believers doesn't become associated with any negative, Lufauxran descriptions given it, I recommend that Lutherans read the 4-page article, "The Priesthood of Believers and the Divine Service," by the Rev. Dr. George Wollenburg (1930-2008). Rev. Wollenburg states, in part:

"With the exception of the biblical doctrine of justification, perhaps no biblical teaching is more dear to the hearts of Lutherans than the priesthood of all believers.

"To say that all believers are priests is not the same as saying that everyone is a minister. The word "minister" has traditionally been reserved for those persons called to serve the priesthood in the pastoral office.

"The priesthood gathers to listen to the word which God speaks through his prophets (Old Testament), through the Apostles of Christ (Epistles), through his Son (Gospels), and through their minister. The Holy Spirit instructs and forms the priesthood through the forgiveness of sins given through the Gospel, the Holy Supper, and the word preached by his minister.

"No aspect of the corporate life of a community is more important than its public rituals.

"The only divine mandate given for the ritual of the holy priesthood is the proclamation of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.

"The very nature of the priesthood precludes making this gathering a marketing tool to increase the membership of the organization. When the public ritual becomes 'meaningful' to people without faith in God, it is false ritual, a betrayal of the priestly gathering, and a betrayal of the God who has chosen them as his own purchased possession. It is idolatrous."

John Joseph Flanagan said...

Being an optimist and skeptic at the same time is a tenuous place to be, however, I believe that we can change, abandon misguided habits and views, and start over. When it comes to preaching the word, every pastor has a new opportunity to teach the faith each time he steps up to the lecturn or podium. Each day is a new day. The verse I have in mind is found stated similarly in many places in the Bible, but essentially says that Our Lord has not given us a spirit of fear, but a sound mind. If we trust Our Lord to empower His people, than we must pick ourselves up from the state of resignation and apathy which keeps us repeating bad habits. Good solid preaching should begin now, and our pastors need to determine within themselves to be preachers of the highest order, not content with superficiality, and it should start this Sunday.

Anonymous said...

Sermon preparation for pastors needs to be a priority, It requires
self-discipline and takes blocking out the time to prepare. Ultimately,
the pastor must give sermon prep his best concentration and effort.
His craftsmanship will be revealed in his exposition of Holy Scripture
that includes both law and gospel. To apply God'w Word to the lives
of people in the pew is a difficult task but it is worth the effort.
Bible-based, Christ-centered, Grace-proclaimed is the goal.

Anonymous said...

"Those who traditionally did not hold preaching as essential to the Mass, in particular the Roman Catholics, have been seduced by the dark side and follow the example of Protestants who reduce the liturgy to warm up for the pulpit time and who transform the whole act of worship into something for the mind."

Roman Catholics and other Protestants indeed view the sermon as a matter of the mind. Thank God the LCMS proclaims the sermon, (which unfailingly must proclaim the Gospel) as a means of grace: the divinely instituted means by which God offers, bestows, and seals to men the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Properly speaking, there is one means of grace, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God bestows his saving grace only through the Word and with the external and proceeding Word. (SA-III VIII 3; Jn 8:31–32; Ro 10:14–17)

David Gray said...

The entire magisterial Reformation identified the preached Word as a means of grace.

Anonymous said...

It has been stated many times that the sermon is to afflict the
comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Yes, in many of our church
pews are people who are heart-broken and need to hear God's Word
for them. Christ heals broken hearts. He restores broken lives,
and He renews our faith in Him.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Pastor Gray, but you and I both know that a Reformed understanding of the conditionality of the means of grace is not the same as the Lutheran assurance that we receive God's saving grace through the Word. Reformed sermons are simply didactic, and the sacraments are only possibly efficacious signs for the elect alone. For Lutherans, God promises justification for all through his promise of grace and faith through the power of the Word.

David Gray said...

I'm not a pastor but I do use my real name. Back when I was Reformed my pastor said it wasn't a proper sermon unless it had Law and Gospel. I better let him know he's required to be didactic. I don't think you are probably that well acquainted with confessional Reformed theology and practice. Don't feel bad, a great many of them think the Book of Concord is about grapes.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gray, I enjoy your regular grouchy posts as much as anyone, but you are being a contrarian here to no real purpose. The Reformed have a long history of cloaking their theology under Lutheran terms, and with good reason: prior to the peace of Augsburg, it was icefall to be anything but Catholic or Lutheran in the Holy Roman Empire. The Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Confession may speak of "means of grace," but they do not mean the same thing nor operate in the same way as in Lutheran theology. For the Reformed, Christ died for the elect alone, who are predestined to salvation through irresistible grace; hence means of grace do not forgive sins, nor do they regenerate. Calvin taught the third use of the law as its primary function, whereas the Book of Concord explicitly rejects this view. Thus the Reformed do not rightly divide Law and Gospel, mingling the two to ensure a lifetime of uncertainty and "fruit checking." To assert that Lutheran sermons and Reformed sermons are the same is to be ignorant of the theology behind each.

David Gray said...

It kind of makes you wonder why, if the third use of the law is the Reformed's primary use of the law, why they also number it the third use (although the first and second swap places). Ooooh, those tricky Reformed people who don't even think about Lutherans these days.

But you can lead a man to knowledge, you can't make him drink.

There are real differences. Exaggerating them pleases someone but it isn't God.