When Is A Sermon Not A Sermon?

I am not normally this combative. In fact, I’ve taken a bit of a sabbatical from blogging because the combative nature of the comments section has become increasingly repulsive and seductive to me. I can’t explain the contradiction; it’s just there.

But yesterday I managed to get myself in up to my neck on the microblogging platform Facebook. There, a simple question from Wade Hodges turned into a bit of a go-round.

Wade just asked:

True or False: Cutting 5 minutes of content from most sermons would improve them greatly.

And I answered:

I think if the objective is a better sermon, then the greatest improvement to most sermons would be to draw them to a close on the subject of Jesus, the Christ. I don’t really care if there’s an altar call/invitation or not – if the message doesn’t have some pertinent connection to Christ, it’s not a sermon; it’s just another lecture. And the speaker has wasted his/her own time and that of the audience.

Another reader responded:

There is more to preaching than just Christ…. as silly as that sounds. What about teaching? What if a sermon was on the 3rd person of the Godhead? Do you conclude talking about Christ? Some things can be taught separate from Christ to give perspective on the matter. Other things, (Adam/Eve, Grace, Life, and redemption) cannot be explain completely without Christ. But to explain sin and the ramification of sin, I wouldn’t have to talk about Christ.

I answered,

Respectfully, H—–, I disagree. If you talk about sin, you must talk about grace and redemption, and you can’t really talk about grace and redemption without talking about Jesus. If you talk about the Godhead, you can’t avoid talking about Jesus. If you talk about the first Adam, there’s no good reason you should leave out the last Adam. If the purpose of preaching is to bring others closer to God through Christ, you cannot leave out Christ.

He returned with:

W. Keith Brenton- I could preach a 2 hour sermon on the origins of sin, without any fluff whatsoever, and never say a word about Christ. Moses knew a LOT abo…ut sin, but knew nothing of the Christ (very little that was foretold, but nothing specific- just the promises) So I am confident in saying that I you do not always have to go back to Christ.

I posed this question:

Again, respectfully, H—–: How would that be different from ant lecture that a Jewish history professor might deliver at Hebrew University?

Another reader, K——- added:

You make some good points Howard but I’ve got to agree with W Keith here. Any sermon without Christ is just a lecture, better suited for a class you can take if you’re interested in the subject. As his disciples we are to imitate him and …make new disciples “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (somehow we tend to neglect this second part of Jesus’ command and see conversion/baptism as the end of the process–different conversation) The church is to be about making new disciples and you can’t do that if you don’t talk about him often and with obvious love for him and passion for his glory so we come to love what he loves. This should be expressed from the pulpit. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. And he is above all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” How can you not preach him, sing him, talk about him, think about him!

Still another, B—, had this to say:

Jesus’ sermons rarely talked about Jesus.

I responded:

Well, if I were Jesus, I could teach with authority and wouldn’t need to quote him. In fact, I could do miracles and would live sinlessly. I would talk about God and, oh, I’d say things like “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” and “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” I’m sorry; what was the point you were making, B—?

Wade tried to defuse my antagonism:

Wow. I guess sermons aren’t the only things that sometimes go a bit longer than necessary. 🙂

B— responded:

Keith, my point, though I love to preach about Jesus, is that you are overstating your case. I think we get your point, but not all sermons have to be about Jesus to be connected to Him or to point people to Him. It’s all connected to Him because it’s from Him. But according to your statements here, the sermon on the mount was a waste of time for Jesus and His hearers.

Unfortunately, I could not let that pass unanswered:

Forgive me, Wade, for chewing up more pixels, but Brad’s charges demand a response. I never said every sermon has to be about Jesus to point people to Him. But you can’t make His name known among those listening who may not know it by failing to even mention it. Virtually all of scripture points to Him. The evangelist’s challenge is to uncover how for his/her listeners; go a little deeper. Second, no twist of logic can make what I’ve said mean that the sermon on the mount was a waste of time. It was all about Jesus: who He was and what He did and how we can be like Him. I guess what’s really shocking to me is that folks are defending the right to preach a Jesus-free sermon. What’s the blinkin’ point of that, except to leave the audience blinkin’ and wonderin’ why they came to listen to it? I confess I am frankly jealous of people who have more opportunities to speak. I’m on the ministry support staff of a good-sized church (about 2,000). I’ve been asked to speak twice in the last five years. Every chance I get, I’m going to preach Christ and Him crucified – either directly or indirectly – because people who don’t know Him need to and people who know Him should never tire of hearing more about Him. The length of that message will depend entirely on what needs to be communicated about Him. I’m not going to squander any opportunity. People I listen to who have a burning in their bones about Him — I don’t tire of listening to them. That, I think, was what I was originally trying to say in response to Wade’s question.

I guess it’s just not negotiable with me. A sermon isn’t a sermon if it doesn’t come around to the subject of Jesus Christ. I may well be guilty of overstatement. I don’t think so. I don’t think that Paul, or Peter, or Stephen would think so. But I have no way of knowing that for certain.

So I ask you:

When is a sermon not a sermon?

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13 thoughts on “When Is A Sermon Not A Sermon?

  1. keith, all i can say is this, “i agree with you.”

    as to the comment of how Jesus didn’t talk about “Jesus” in his sermons is just too funny to me. why would He talk about Himself? He lived a sermon.

  2. i think a perfect sermon would be something like this:

    “Jesus came to this earth in order for you to be able to make to where He is: heaven.

    “some people asked peter, ‘what should we do?’ he plainly and succinctly stated, ‘Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’

    “how many of you want what they were asking for? if you want it, come forward as we stand and sing.”

  3. I’m coming with a curveball. I don’t learn/garner nearly as much wisdom and encouragement from traditional lecture-style sermons as I do from honest, Christ-founded roundtable discussion with eclectic groups of believers. I’m a small group guy I suppose. I love to hear the input and testimony of others, and I learn or am humbled by the comments (mini-sermons, if you will) of fellow Christians each time we meet together. I suppose it could be the way I’m wired, but this style of learning is definitely my preference.

  4. There is a pretty established homiletical debate about this—one that involves some very nuanced thinking on both sides.

    I think I would add a couple of things here. First, Keith while I agree with what you’re saying in terms of “evangelism”, I don’t know that there is a 1:1 correlation with evangelism and preaching—our usage of “evangelist” as often synonymous with “preacher” notwithstanding. In other words, how much of your argument depends on the assumption that the sermon is always going out to “those listening who may not know [Christ’s name]”? I often think of the sermon within our normal worship context as being primarily targeted towards the life of disciples. Thus, perhaps I take too much for granted, but I often assume that the sermon is part of what we already share in Christ. It is—like in some of Jesus’s teachings and parables (although not, I think the SOM, which explicitly does talk about the importance of obeying Jesus!)—implicit. It is incomprehensible without the commitment to Jesus that provides the first layer of context to the conversation. So I think you’re right in that a sermon without Christ is simply a lecture, but I also think that a sermon can be quite full of christ without explicitly saying “Christ”.

    Beyond that, and this is perhaps the more important point, I think it is extremely significant to see the sermon as one particular point in the context of worship. In other words, the sermon may leave implicit what is explicit in the prayers, songs, and table of the Lord. This, is, I think just an extension of what is already recognized in the argument—the sermon may have a particular rhetorical point such as an element of discipleship or a point of wisdom or eschatology, as long as it comes back to a simple word about Christ. I think that the word about Christ may already be proclaimed in the assembly through the table of the Lord, praises sung or prayers prayed. Thus it may be implicit in the sermon, but not throughout all of the assembly’s worship. I’m all for viewing worship as a whole, rather than laying all the responsibility in the sermon.

    All that said, I would never want it said about me that I refused to preach Christ. Indeed, I believe Christ lives in the Hosea sermons I’ve been working through just as much as in the Matthew sermons coming up.

  5. I think some of the answer to this question may have to do with the purpose of preaching – and while I agree that preaching can be didactic (teaching), I feel strongly that the evangelistic aspect should never be neglected. There could be a soul whose face is not common among the listeners who needs to hear the name Jesus in the context of something other than an epithet in order to have the epiphany and put two and two together and realize that “Jesus = Son of God.”

    So, some more of the answer may have to do with the size of the congregation and the speaker’s familiarity with them. If the church gathering is small, and no such face is present, perhaps it’s acceptable to preach an implicit Jesus. At the same time, there are likely to be children present – or spiritual children – who need to have what is sufficiently implicit for some to be emphasized by explicit expression.

    And I’m not certain it’s ever safe to rely solely on the lyrics of songs or the words of prayers at the lectern or table to communicate the context. I have this kind of nightmarish sense that there are worship gatherings every week where Jesus could appear before the saints and say, “You forgot something,” and in astonishment they could conscience-free ask Him, “What, Lord?” and His response would be “My Name.”

  6. “I have this kind of nightmarish sense that there are worship gatherings every week where Jesus could appear before the saints and say, “You forgot something,” and in astonishment they could conscience-free ask Him, “What, Lord?” and His response would be “My Name.” ”

    Keith if you see Jesus in this way, You don’t see the same humbled servant the gospel speaks about. I noticed where one of the commenters said “he came” and I also noticed in the gospel Jesus said “I was sent” by someone greater than I.

    • I’m not trying to paint a picture of a Jesus who always returns in anger or vengeance – but surely there are times when He must shake His head in disappointment when He’s seen someone coming our way and we’ve failed to reach them with God’s perfect expression of live, His Son.

    • Both are accurate; why would He prefer one over another?

      I’m not sure we perceive the full import of Jesus being called “Lord” by His disciples … or how much it meant to them to be called by Him “friends” rather than “servants.”

  7. Unfortunately preachers today treat the word sin like it’s a bad word. Jesus is forgotten alot too! I thought that was the point! Why even have a sermon. Even during life group I’ve seen people act uncomfortable at the word sin. If we can’t talk about sin then why fellowship? How can I be of any help to my brother or sister in Christ? There is a denial for our need of redemption going on in the hearts and minds of people today.

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