By Chuck Sackett
Traveling along the Danube, I was enthralled as Dr. Robert Lowery explained the way Matthew’s Gospel traced Israel’s history. He highlighted the parallels between Israel’s failure in the desert and Jesus’ success, and the connections between Matthew’s five teaching sections and the five books of Moses. It was kilometer after kilometer of “Aha” moments.
While I treasure that experience, I’m a bit haunted by it. I preach 45-50 sermons a year, each 25-30 minutes long. I average 160-200 words per minute when I’m preaching, so I launch nearly 270,000 words per year. What preoccupies me is whether or not I say anything with all those words. Are there “Aha” moments for my listeners?
What should listeners expect? Could they be more effective if they knew what to expect? If they intentionally listened for key insights, would they be less critical of mistakes in grammar, articulation, or style? What kind of “Aha” moments should occur?
“I didn’t know that.”
Connor was my object lesson, illustrating how hard it is for Jesus to stay in front, leading us. I fought to keep Connor behind me while I spoke to our high school students in the mountains of West Virginia. He did everything he could to get out from behind. The entire time, I was explaining Jesus’ comments in Mark 8:33, “Get behind me, Satan . . . if anyone would come after me.”
Few of us want to let Jesus lead. We’d rather he be our copilot than our pilot. We fight to get in front while he seeks to keep us behind so he can set the pace, give us direction, and show us the way. That morning I watched as otherwise sleepy high school eyes awoke. I could see it in their faces: “I didn’t know that.”
All listeners benefit from sermons when they are open to being taught. No matter the quality of the delivery, the age of the speaker, or the circumstances of our lives, there is room for new insight into the life of following Jesus.
“I can do that.”
In the movie Facing the Giants, high school football coach Grant Taylor convinces a blindfolded student who is crawling with a fellow player on his back that he can go a little further. It’s one of those soul stirring scenes that caused thousands of viewers to believe they could do more than they thought they could. Only the most stoic of persons could ignore the pulsing of their hearts to keep at it.
The homily we know as Hebrews seeks this same motivation. By the time listeners come to the end of the faith chapter’s litany of witnesses, they are convinced they also can shut the mouths of lions, quench the fury of flames, face jeers and flogging, endure prison or anything else that comes our way.
We stride away from some messages believing, “I can do that!” And even though we may have entered worship convinced we could barely continue, we’ve heard a message that moved us to try.
“I want that.”
Stories of epic Sundays have recently emerged from our churches about hundreds having come forth for baptism. In some cases it’s reminiscent of that early scene in Acts with Peter preaching and 3,000 identifying with Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter announced the evidence and established the need, and God convicted the listeners. They responded, “I want that.”
A chapter later, the sermon is far more brief, but no less inviting. Peter and John simply said, “In the name of Jesus, walk.” Sermons are good news. Sermons are the offer of God’s best, whether that is forgiveness of sins or power to overcome some debilitating condition.
Unfortunately, many people are not looking for good news when they sit in that familiar seat. Is it because they haven’t heard any good news in so long they don’t recognize it? Could it be the only “real” sermon swings a two by four at the head?
“I can accept that.”
I ate while he talked. Outwardly, he related the situation. Inwardly, I grieved. This young preacher was in trouble because he had moved a picture of Jesus to a new location in the sanctuary. His worshippers “needed that picture” or they “couldn’t worship.”
In his book Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (Abingdon Press, 2002), William Willimon encourages preachers to
address real needs. We live in a world where an age spot is debilitating, not getting instant access to the Internet is unacceptable, and having only 3G wireless service is a major hinderance. We’ve come to believe life’s inconveniences are legitimate needs. They are not.
Paul’s sermons to the Galatians ranged from “Remember the poor” to “You are deserting.” Those were matters with substance. They weren’t popular or pleasant; they were real. A preacher preaches the truth and prays people will respond, “I can accept that.”
“I remember that.”
We’re a forgetful lot. Adam and Eve proved that when they couldn’t find an answer to the serpent’s question, “Did God really say?” Memorial stones, feasts, fasts, Sabbaths, and other institutions were used to help. In the New Testament, Jesus calls us to the table with the words, “Remember me.”
It is little wonder that Paul would begin a sermon on the resurrection with, “I want to remind you of the gospel.” Or that Jude would say, “Though you already know, I want to remind you.” So wouldn’t it be natural for a local church to hear, “Remember this truth,” “I remind you of this command,” or “Don’t forget that”? J.K. Jones preached in the Lincoln Christian University chapel from Psalm 119. No one left without being reminded of the simple truth, “We should read our Bibles.” We all walked out that day thinking, “I remember that.”
“I needed to know that.”
In his distinctive English inflection, John Stott proclaimed to an Urbana missions conference audience, “Our God is a global God.” In a sermon titled, A Night in Persia, Donald Sunukjian reminded his audience there are “no coincidences with God,” even though God is never mentioned in Esther. Jonah reluctantly declared, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” It’s the simple announcement of truth, the most common voice in which preachers preach.
Like the prophets of the Old Testament, the preacher’s primary task is to identify who God is, what he is doing, and how we are to respond. And, like Israel of old, listeners have committed to hear and obey. It’s the commitment we make when we say yes to Jesus. In fact, the only reason most of us who deliver those 270,000 words each year do so, is because we believe our listeners are as committed to hearing those words as we are to saying them.
I used to worry that I would spend hours planning, preparing, and preaching sermons to which no one would listen. Just the other day, Kevin reminded me that is not the problem. I walked into the store and he shouted over the noise of the shoppers, “Hey, you know what you said about . . . ? I tried it. It works.”
The problem with preaching isn’t that people don’t listen; it’s that they do. They listen to hear what they need to know, to be, and to do. They listen for “Aha” moments that inform, correct, move, or remind them. What does preaching do today? Whatever we expect it to.
Chuck Sackett is a minister and freelance writer in Quincy, Illinois.
Preachers from History
Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present
Edited by Martha Simmons & Frank A. Thomas (W. W. Norton and Company, 2010)
Tozer Speaks: 128 Compelling & Authoritative Teachings, 2 Volumes
by A.W. Tozer (Wingspread Publishers, 2010)
Spurgeon’s Sermons, 5 Volumes
by Charles H. Spurgeon (Hendrickson Publishers, 2011)
Sermons of George Whitefield
by George Whitefield (Hendrickson Publishers, 2013)