A few months ago, I delivered a sermon that caused quite a stir – I had a wide range of comments both positive and negative. Now I am not naive enough to know that everyone will agree or appreciate all of your sermons, but as a member of your rostered staff, we do evaluate all of our sermons – We call is Monday morning quarterbacking!
After the feedback I received, I thought it would be prudent for me to brush up on my preaching skills. I bought this book called – Preaching Lessons from John the Baptist. I thought you might like to listen to what it has to say:
Chapter one states: When preaching like John the Baptist –find a sturdy soap box.
That isn’t a problem- I usually carry it with me wherever I go – I love soap box sermons. I have one in every liturgical color! You never know when it will come in handy.
Chapter 2– Throw away that soapbox.
Wait, What? Rule number one just said to find that soapbox. Oh, if I keep reading it states: People often tend to get off course when they are preaching from a soap box and can fall into the trap of preaching repentance of sin and forgetting to preach about the Gospel.
Ok, I guess that makes sense. I guess I will scratch new soap box off my Christmas list.
Chapter 3 – Recognize that everyone will hear your sermon differently.
Everyone’s personal experiences will help color what and how they hear your message. Even your own personal experiences will shape how you deliver a sermon.
Ok that makes sense – I do tend to preach on what I am passionate about. I want others to be passionate about my concerns as well. Growing up I had experienced a lot of verbal and emotional abuse from a mentally ill parent and had always hoped that someone would have advocated on my behalf. I am sure that is why I feel called to be the voice for those crying out in the wilderness who need an advocate.
John probably just didn’t care what people thought of him – I mean come on, the man wore clothes that even a second or third hand thrift shop wouldn’t sell. What experiences shaped his preaching? Eating locusts and wild honey. Maybe playing second fiddle to Jesus – being the cousin that announced the impending ministry of the Messiah – was he just like Jan to Marcia Brady? I’ll be secretly when he heard everyone praising Jesus – he said Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! If he was upset, he sure didn’t show it.
Chapter 4: Always put Jesus as the main focus of your sermon.
Oh, that explains why John’s message always had a Christological focus – Love those fancy church words! John focused on preparing the people for the ministry of Jesus, the son of God. John chose to take a back seat to his cousin –and he carried out his role as a prophetic voice. Sometimes I do wonder, if people ever get tired of the message of Jesus – love God, love neighbor – how many different ways can this message be preached? Especially since we have the same readings every three years.
How did he manage to capture the attention of so many? After all they heard these messages before from other “so called prophets” preaching about coming messiahs. They had to be very tired of hearing and seeing the same song and dance.
Chapter 5: How to preach to the masses-
As a minister of word and service, I tend to preach through a service lens and I guess I have to remember that not everyone is on board with my personal mission. But John has a mission, his mission was to prepare his audience for the impending ministry of Jesus. I think if he were alive today, he might have a thriving television evangelist following.
It also says “recognize that not all people will be “fed” by your message and some may disagree.” Remember what Chapter 3 said about personal experience and how it shapes how we hear the sermons. Ok – I get it – I may not like it, but I understand it. I guess it is no different from one my least favorite Christmas Carols “O Holy Night” –While I cringe every time someone sings “Fall on your knee” – others may have a warm and positive reaction to those words.
So just like we can’t refuse to sing Christmas carols that we personally don’t like, we need to remember to preach even those messages that may not resonate personally with us. Let’s continue to Chapter 6
Chapter 6: How to preach gloom and doom – or if you are Lutheran go directly to chapter 7….
Oh, ok, but I still want to come back later and read this chapter!
Chapter 7 –Always preach LAW and GOSPEL
Sin is all around us and while sermons may highlight that sin, the Gospel is needed to balance the message. Because we are Law and Gospel Lutherans – we need the Law to remind us that we will sin and the Gospel to remind us that the life, death and resurrection freed us from worrying about condemnation when we do sin.
And as Lutherans, we believe in God’s unconditional love and Grace, which means we don’t HAVE to engage in any type of works– just have Faith in Christ Jesus.
Oh,,, I am not sure I like where this is going! So– we don’t have to serve meals at Grace Lutheran, pack meals for power packs, sort clothing for Lydia’s closet, donate to those affected by the wildfires, or advocate for those who are oppressed. It pains me to no end to admit that we don’t have to do service, outreach, mission work for God’s grace. It contradicts everything I believe I am called to do, especially as a minister of word and service –someone called to bridge the church and world.
However, I do recognize that we are called to do service out of gratitude for that love and Grace, not because it will get us closer to the right hand of God. That is what true service is all about. And that is what St. Peter’s is all about. So I will remember that Sermons are a hybrid of law and Gospel.
Chapter 8: Preaching the Gospel
This should be an interesting chapter –What is the Gospel of John the Baptist? Seems like his main goal was having people repent for their sins. Maybe he carried a sign that read “Repent for the end is near” –you know those scare tactics to get people to mend their ways.
Ok it says – when preaching on a particular scripture lesson – look for the good news of Jesus Christ. Ok, let’s see – our lessons says:
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
John does have good news for us and this advent season we remember the promises of God –that Jesus will make our rough roads of life smooth and straight and we will all see the salvation of God. We need the law to convict us of our sin, but as Christians we have good news that the wages of sin do not equal death and despair.
Chapter 9: Preaching In the Wilderness
Wow, that’s an odd title – It says here that we are all voices crying out in the wilderness, but we all reside in different wildernesses. And no wilderness is better or worse than another’s. Preaching can help acknowledge the wilderness, it may even convict us of placing others in a wilderness, but it should always come with a message of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation.
In my experience, Wildernesses don’t really go away, we may just move to a different address. We can go from mountaintop experiences to the lowest valley. This is part of our cycle of life. Christians are not immune and we only need to read scriptures to know that even the most devout and faithful disciples suffered hardships. What is different for us as Christians than non-Christians? We have Jesus! Jesus goes along with us to our deepest valleys of despair and to the euphoric mountain tops! Jesus never leaves us and we know that when we leave this wilderness called life, we will enter God’s eternal kingdom where every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Like John the Baptist, we are all wilderness dwellers. We do our best to prepare ourselves and prepare others for the return of Jesus. We speak truth to power, risk stepping outside our comfort zones. We all just do it a bit differently through the lens of our personal lives and experiences. And all of our callings are as valid as anyone else’s.
Chapter 9: Listening Skills or Learn to discern the voice of God.
Really? How exactly do we do that?
One of our challenges as Christians is determining what voices we need to listen to – is it the loudest? Is it the one with whom we most agree? Is it from the street preacher dressed in dirty clothes? This is a hard one – hopefully this book has an answer….oh, here it is…
We do have a vetting process – we just need to hear through a Gospel lens – does it conflict with the teachings of Jesus? If it does, then we know that this voice is one that needs to be turned off. If it lifts up the teachings of Jesus – lifts up love for neighbor, lifts up love for God, than we know we are on the right track.
I will speak for myself when I say as a preacher, I am always learning. Seminary doesn’t teach you everything, even though it should for the amount of money I have invested! I too am always discerning the voices around me calling out in the wilderness and I am in constant prayer that I will be open to those voices with whom I disagree as well as those voices who confirm my experiences.
Thanks for reading this book with me this morning. I am grateful for the lessons I have learned by John – We are called to preach truth to power, we are called to point out sin, but the greatest gift a preacher and all of us really can deliver is the promise that no matter what wilderness we are living in, we are unconditionally loved by God, there is nothing we can do to earn that love and in the end Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’’ Amen.