Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Sounding Symbols” first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Touchstone.
Paul Gregory Alms on Sermons That Survive by the Grace of God
Who, among the X-Box children and Fox News parents in our pews, can be expected to sit still for twenty minutes to watch and listen to someone . . . just stand there . . . and talk . . . about God? So many other ways to “share the gospel” seem better suited than the sermon to reach the visually minded, relationship-oriented citizens of the digital age. We have no expectation that they will be able to profit from a rhetorical discipline already ancient by the time of Augustine and Chrysostom.
“Shock and awe” Jesus campaigns that assault every sense organ with overwhelming data are the order of the day. The experts on “sharing the gospel” advise emotional appeals, humor, entertainment, practicality. Denominational headquarters peddle such things. Large churches routinely replace the sermon with skits, and small churches scurry to keep up by turning the preacher into a performer.
Yet in countless churches this coming Sunday, near the middle of the service, someone will stand up to talk, soberly, even didactically and exegetically, about and for God.
Talking for God
But one never knows exactly what is going to be said. If the sermon is losing its grip on the imagination of the church, it is not because “experts” and technology have surpassed it. It is mainly because preachers are not preaching well.
Preachers are often the first to lose faith in the sermon as a tool of the church’s mission. Some lose faith because they are bored. They are bored with the Bible, with the church, and therefore with having to climb into the pulpit week after week. Their sermons devolve into semi-religious talks on subjects ranging from funny anecdotes, the news, the weather, some email the preacher received, to the goodness of human nature or the importance of doing good.
Some preachers feel the “outdatedness” of the sermon acutely and so drag in videos clips or PowerPoint or object lessons to grab the people’s attention. Others turn the sermon into a time of personality fulfillment. The congregation is berated; the latest push from denominational headquarters is hyped; the next great program is employed to revitalize the parish. The ego of the preacher is pumped up by his fishing for laughs or sympathy.
Many preachers will do almost anything to lessen the dreadful weight attached to speaking God’s word from the pulpit, to get out from actually preaching the gospel, what someone once called “the power of God for salvation.” They string together a generic batch of religious words to get to Monday as quickly as possible.
The people sit in the pews, impassively mostly, laughing on cue, squirming now and then, daydreaming, while a dutiful few compliment the preacher on the sermon week after week. But they must share the blame for the evisceration of the spoken word in the church.
Attention spans shrink almost weekly; demands grow louder for changes; and people, like preachers, get bored. The TV and Internet, high-speed and high-definition all of it, do not prime us well to simply listen. Our ears are very itchy, and mere words do not scratch deep.
Our Verbal Deity
Yet pastors still preach and people still listen. This cannot be due to simple inertia or traditionalism. The sermon, the spoken word, is at once basic and, potentially at least, transcendent. Speaking is at once the most human and the most divine form of communication.
The God we meet in the Bible is the most verbal of deities. Once he enters the stage in Genesis chapter one, he hardly stops speaking until the end is glimpsed by St. John many chapters later.
“Let there be light” addressed to the dark Easter-vigil nave of the universe began a series of homilies that ordered the cosmos. God spoke with Abraham as if the two were old friends. The Lord spoke to Moses at the Burning Bush, on Sinai, and throughout the wilderness. The frail voice of the prophets was Yahweh’s trumpet, much to the chagrin of the so-often wicked kings who tuned their ears to the idolatrous babble of other gods.
The second person of the Trinity himself is a sermon, the Word of God, the Logos. John says the Son is a word spoken to the world by the Father. God’s sermon took flesh and off he went, preaching the kingdom, healing with his voice, calling forth the dead and crying out in anguish in his dying moments.
The apostles displayed a crazy compulsion to speak out from Pentecost onwards, even if prison or death awaited them. Paul explains: Faith comes by hearing. Salvation requires ears to hear and a word to be received, a divine word delivered by human mouths.
Which brings us back to preaching. If speech is a most divine mode of communication, it is also a very human one. Speech is what we use to complain, to communicate with strangers on the phone, to tell our families we love them, to call the dog in from the yard.
Speaking is the most human thing we can do. It is lowly and normal and profound all at the same time. We can send email or string video images together on YouTube, but speech makes us human. Despite the circus claims of scientists and charlatans, animals such as chimps and dolphins cannot talk. Only men, made in the image of the Triune God, the God who speaks, do that.
Which means there is hope for the sermon. If the Word became flesh, if God created with his voice, if men are at their most human when talking, the sermon can never fully wither away. For we crave such face-to-face talk. The more we retreat to lonely computer stations and darkened dens, the more empty we feel. Our ears are hungry.
The human voice, aligned to the truth of ancient, biblical, credal patterns of speech, is not an outdated mode of some sort of generic “communication,” it is itself a Christian message. To talk Christ, to proclaim, to “evangelize” in the original sense of the word, is itself a radical Christian message.
When a pastor steps into the pulpit and addresses people with his voice, he is not simply imparting information that might be imparted in multiple other ways, he is showing people how to be human and how to be Christian.
The church, in holding onto the sermon, is not engaging in blind preservation and refusing to change in response to the new realities of the digital age. She is holding onto a bit of what it means to be made in the image of God, to truly be a person. We were made to speak and to listen. The gospel is not bare information; it is a living proclamation that, in its declaration and reception, restores us to our true humanity.
Preachers have filled the world with their chatter. And the people of God listened, they opened their ears, and they responded. How? By speech, by saying “amen,” by singing, praying, chanting. Their God spoke to them, and they spoke back. The Holy Trinity, that most verbal of deities, raised his voice, and his children, made in his image, raised their own.
In this divine-human conversation, we are strangely fulfilled. We are not information receptacles, downloading bits of “God data” along with all the other material we process. We are creatures called into being by the voice of a living God.
Normal & Miraculous
The sermon is not just one media stream among others. It is a central way of being who we are, of being a hearer, and of knowing our Creator and Savior as he wants to be known: as a speaker.
So the sermon survives by the grace of God, despite poor preachers and bored people. The experience of hearing even great sermons remains a mundane and often trying event. Even at the best of times, our minds wander, the preacher fumbles, the babies cry. It does not feel extraordinary; we are not transported to the heights of spiritual awareness.
It just feels normal. It is part of our routine.
And perhaps that is as it should be. For at our most typical and average, hidden in human speech and hearing is God himself, imparting his wise foolishness into our stubborn ears. The powerful voice of creation, the incarnate call of Jesus, pushes its way into our ears, and miraculously, we hear.
Paul Gregory Alms is pastor of Redeemer Lutheran Church (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Catawba, North Carolina. A graduate of Concordia Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, he has written for Lutheran Forum Letter, Logia, and Portals of Prayer, and writes a weblog called Incarnatus Est (www.incarnatusest.blogspot.com). He is married and the father of four girls.
“Sounding Symbols” first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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