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Tyler died on a Sunday morning. I had just walked in the door when someone called to say there had been an automobile accident and that I should come to the hospital right away. Details were sketchy, but the caller thought it was bad. During the twenty-minute drive to the hospital, I tried in vain to recall Tyler's face. I knew he was one of the children who participated in vacation Bible school, but I didn't think we had ever talked. His mother, Gail, attended our church on and off. His dad, Mike, did not come at all.
I got to the emergency room just as they wheeled the gurney bearing Tyler's lifeless body through the door. Gail gave me a pleading look and a hug. Mike and I shook hands awkwardly as I searched for something comforting to say. What do you say to a mother who has just watched her seven-year-old child die in her arms? How do you explain such a tragedy to a father who on his best day is suspicious of God? How do you tell them that God has not forsaken them? That he is working out some mysterious purpose in their suffering? The only phrases that came to mind seemed trite. So I mumbled a few words of condolence and spent most of the time sitting with the couple in silence, watching them weep and listening as they voiced questions for which I had no answer.
When the time came to preach Tyler's funeral, I stepped to the podium, cleared my throat, and preached the way my homiletics professor taught me in seminary. I did my best to hold out the hope of heaven as the large crowd, most of whom did not attend our church, sat stiff-backed in folding chairs and listened politely. The atmosphere was thick with grief. As I told them about Christ and the cross, my words were interrupted by sobbing. The audience groaned and shrieked, their scattered cries punctuating the gospel like exclamation points. It made me think of accounts I had read of the preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Only in this instance, they were cries of despair, not conviction.
Anyone who has served as a shepherd of God's flock will understand the ambivalence I felt. I was, after all, only a preacher. And what does a preacher have to offer in the face of death besides words? Under the dull-eyed stare of death, all words seem inadequate.
What Is the Matter with Preaching? Why does it feel as if our preaching seems to accomplish so little, no more potent than a puff of air? Harry Emerson Fosdick, a theological liberal who served as pastor of the historic Riverside Church in New York City, asked this question of the pulpit in his day in a landmark article written for Harper's Magazine in 1926 titled "What Is the Matter with Preaching?" The article was notable not only for its content but because of its intended audience. Harper's was not a theological or professional journal but a popular magazine. Instead of writing for the pulpit, Fosdick addressed himself to the pew, explaining that listeners far outnumber preachers in the church. "Whatever, therefore, is the matter with preaching is quantitatively far more a concern of laymen than of clergymen," he wrote. "Moreover, if laymen had a clear idea as to the reasons for the futility, dullness, and general ineptitude of so much preaching, they might do something about it. Customers usually have something to say about the quality of goods supplied to them."
Fosdick believed that the sermon should do something. He was convinced that every sermon ought to have as its main goal the solving of some human problem. Fosdick, however, did not think that the way to do this was to place the primary focus on the biblical text. Instead, he argued that the preacher should focus on the problem of the audience. "No matter what one's theory about the Bible is," he explained, "this is the searchlight, not so much intended to be looked at as to be thrown upon a shadowed spot." This metaphor is compelling enough to make expositors blink twice. Have we been so blinded by the searchlight of God's Word, intent as we are upon the text, that we have failed to turn it in the direction of the shadows in our listeners' lives? This might have been true a generation or two ago, but it certainly is not the case with most expositors today. Despite Fosdick's low view of expository preaching, his "project method" is the norm for most modern expositors. Whether we start with the audience or the text, most expositors recognize the importance of identifying congregational needs and addressing them in the sermon. Relevance is not the issue. If anything, we have overcorrected in this area.
Eugene Peterson makes this argument when he suggests that our real problem is a matter of deafness rather than blindness. God's Word is opened. The sermon is preached. But somehow the voice of God is not heard. Peterson argues that the triune voice of Scripture has been drowned out by a chorus of other voices, a different trinity that is of our own making. "The new Trinity doesn't get rid of God or the Bible," Peterson explains, "it merely puts them to the ser vice of needs, wants, and feelings." Instead of listening for God's voice, we seek to bend the Scriptures to our own will. Peterson warns, "It is entirely possible to come to the Bible in total sincerity, responding to the intellectual challenge it gives, or for the moral guidance it offers, or for the spiritual uplift it provides, and not in any way have to deal with a personally revealing God who has personal designs on you."
Pornography is analogous to the depersonalization and objectification that Peterson is describing. Pornography is the product of the worst kind of utilitarianism. The pornographer's subjects are not really subjects at all but objects. When someone indulges in pornography, he relates to the one in the photograph not as a person but as a thing. Any "relationship" with the image is purely functional—with the gratification of one's own desires as its sole purpose. The human being behind the image remains unseen as far as their relationship to God and to others goes.
Pornography further depersonalizes its subjects by presenting a false face to the world. What is seen is not the true person who posed for the photograph but an airbrushed and unrealistic version of them. Advertising does the same thing by presenting us with images of the body and of life that are beyond unrealistic. In most cases, the body shapes displayed in advertisements are impossible to attain, even for the models who appear in such ads. The photographs have been doctored, as have many of the models themselves, evidenced by supermodel Cindy Crawford's famous remark that she wished she looked like Cindy Crawford when she got up in the morning.
Advertisers practice a kind of reverse objectification by offering the false promise of a relationship with the products they sell. "Ads have long promised us a better relationship via a product: buy this and you will be loved," Jean Kilbourne observes. "But more recently they have gone beyond that proposition to promise us a relationship with the product itself: buy this and it will love you." The problem with this, according to Kilbourne, is that it exploits human desires and needs while promoting a bankrupt concept of relationship.
Preaching does something similar when it hawks God as a product and presents listeners with an "airbrushed" version of the Christian life. This kind of preaching is exemplified in the comment made by one of my son's friends after attending a nearby megachurch. When asked how he liked the ser vice, he complained, "They're just a little too happy there." I knew exactly what he meant. The music is always perky. The sermons are always upbeat. Every serious problem raised during the message is neatly resolved within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that provide the pastor with his themes. This airbrushed portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the sermon.
The Trivial Sermon
Jeremy S. Begbie identifies three primary characteristics of what he calls "the pathology of sentimentality." Sentimentalism is marked by a lack of realism, emotionalism, and an avoidance of costly action. Sentimentalism does not ignore the presence of evil, but it cannot bear to look at it in the full light of day. Instead, the sharp contours of tragedy are softened by viewing them in the rosy glow of romanticism or through the sepia-hued filter of nostalgia. Preachers do this when they paint a portrait of Christian experience with the brush of denial, neatly rearranging the shadows in a way that obscures the pain and questioning that often accompany it. Trivialized sermons smooth out the rough edges of the Christian life and offer pat answers to the audience's problems.
Fosdick's approach seems particularly vulnerable to this, assuming as it does that the chief purpose of every sermon is to solve the audience's problems. God is interested in our problems, but preaching does not always solve them. Indeed, it is entirely possible that some preaching, if it is true to Scripture, may actually create problems. When Jesus sent the Twelve out to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, he gave this warning: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man's enemies will be the members of his own household' " (Matt. 10:34–36).
Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener's life is forever changed through an encounter with God through his Word. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that any problem can be solved simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances when this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long-standing habits leave the church miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others—perhaps even most others—the experience is different. For them, transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but "toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow."
Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? "We live between Eden and heaven, the God who was and the God who will be," Don Hudson reminds us. "In the story that God is telling in our lives, he asks us to live in the stark reality of the cross while we sight the glimmer of the resurrection." To be true to our audience's experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post-Edenic world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Our sermons need to explore the full scope of the redemptive experience, encompassing not only the triumph of resurrection Sunday but the brutal pain of Good Friday and the divine silence of Holy Saturday.
Preaching in the Light of Suffering
This may sound strange to us. Protestants have long criticized Roman Catholics for "keeping Christ on the cross" in their theology of the sacraments. Shouldn't evangelical preaching be marked by an emphasis on Christ's victory over the grave? The answer is yes and no. Certainly Christ's resurrection is the heart of Christian preaching. More will be said about this later when we consider the relationship between preaching and the gospel. Nevertheless, suffering is also an integral aspect of the church's experience.
One reason suffering cannot be avoided in the Christian life is because we live in a world that has been broken by sin. Christ's offering of himself on the cross is the true and only remedy for this problem, one that will eventually eradicate sin from our experience. But for now we must live "in-between" in a world that longs for a transformation that is yet to take place (Rom. 8:22–23). Christ's shed blood cleanses us from every sin, but it does not immunize us from the ravages of sin. The same Bible that declares Christ's victory over the grave describes a world in which those who follow Christ also struggle with their sins and suffer the consequences of the sins of others. Paul rebukes Peter for his hypocrisy, and James condemns rich Christians for treating the poor with contempt in the assembly (Gal. 2:11–14; James 2:1–4). Members of the remarkably gifted Corinthian church fight with one another over their favorite preachers and live morally inconsistent lives (1 Cor. 3:1–4; 5:1). All of this takes place after Christ's resurrection.
Indeed, Christ's victory over the grave guarantees a measure of suffering for those who follow him. Devotion to Christ may lead to persecution and death (Acts 12:1–2; Rev. 6:10–11). Far from expecting Christ's victory to exempt him from suffering, Paul saw what he experienced for the sake of the gospel as an extension of Christ's suffering (2 Cor. 1:5; Col. 1:24). Suffering is part of the chain of grace that Paul describes in Romans 5:1–5.
Preaching which calls for no sacrifice and prepares for no suffering is both dishonest and dangerous. Preachers whose chief aim is to offer neat solutions to their audiences' problems risk replacing truth with caricature. Instead of preparing God's people to live out their redemption in the real world, they offer a theme-park vision of what it means to follow Jesus. This view does not resemble the true Christian life, any more than Disney World's Main Street resembles life in America today (or at any time). Such preaching may offer a kind of cheap comfort to those who hear it but ultimately provides no real help. It will not prepare a young mother to face the death of her seven-year-old son. Nor will it prepare her to face her own death.
Preaching as Call and Response
Preaching that celebrates the victory of Easter Sunday without forgetting the pain of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday is preaching that refuses to ignore Christ's terrible cry of dereliction from the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Helmut Thielicke describes these words of Jesus as "more of a shriek than a saying." On the surface, Christ's words sound as if they are in sharp contrast to those he uttered just a few hours earlier when he took bread and gave thanks before breaking it and distributing it to his disciples (Matt. 26:26). Jesus also took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to the disciples, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:27–28). Do we really believe that the Savior did this blindly, without having in view the bodily suffering he was about to undergo?
Jesus gave thanks for the bread that represented his body, which would be pummeled and torn for the sake of others. He gave thanks for the cup that represented the blood he was about to spill. This heavy cup of sorrow and distress would eventually make his knees buckle and drive him facedown on the ground (Matt. 26:39). Jesus gave thanks for the cup.
In Christ's passion, we see sincere gratitude mixed with the sober anticipation of suffering. The Son of God didn't divorce these realities of joy and suffering, and neither should we as the children of God today. If our sermons are to genuinely reflect the experience of those who have received the grace of Christ, they too must carry both lines. Our sermons must proclaim the hope of the gospel even as they give voice to the hard questions our listeners are afraid to speak aloud. The preacher may stand alone behind the pulpit, but with him are all the weighty and tragic realities of the lives of the worshipers in the pews. Preaching may sound like a monologue, but it is really a dialogue between the preacher and the listener.
Excerpted from FOLLY, GRACE, AND POWER by JOHN KOESSLER Copyright © 2011 by John Koessler . Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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