A Timely Sermon
You expect a sermon of present interest when you go to church. Basically all who attend church will agree on this.
But that agreement soon vanishes when we approach the topic of what a timely sermon actually is.
Is “of present interest” the same as that which the media dishes up as timely? Is it timely when the sermon expounds in detail on present political or economical situations? Or must we seek the “present interest” a bit closer to home, so that the sermon presents recognizable examples from our daily lives? Or, should the concrete situation of the congregation be presented?
When we speak about timely sermons, our thoughts soon begin to circle around these types of questions. On the one hand, this is right; the sermon is not independent of time. On the other hand, in this manner, our own feelings about life or view of the world can become the standard whereby we evaluate the timeliness of the sermon. Clearly in that case, much will fall away that, according to God’s measuring rod, is timely for us.
The Bible and the Sermon
In order to test our expectations in this matter, it is educational to first open the Bible. Not that the Bible and the sermon are interchangeable, but they do share a similar perspective.
When we read the Bible, we do not expect a message which borrows its timeliness from the specific situation in which we live. On the contrary, we know that it comprises words which were written down twenty or more centuries ago. Still, the conclusion is not that the Bible therefore has a message that is no longer of concern to us.
Yet, how often people complain that it says nothing to them when they read the Bible. It is of so little benefit to them because it appears to originate from a totally different world. The world of our experience seems so out of step with what we read in the Bible that it is often difficult to make a connection between the two. And you therefore see in practice that quite a number of people have trouble acknowledging that God also speaks to us today in the Bible.
Then, naturally, you easily come to the longing for the sermon that translates the message to today’s world. The timeliness of the sermon means that, in fact, you receive the old message dished up in modern shape. The sermon then rewrites the Bible so that the message becomes timely.
To Become or to Be?
With this, an important question is brought to the forefront. Is the gospel timely, or does the gospel only become timely when presented in sermons adapted to today? Without delving deeply into all kinds of theological background to this question, it should still be clear that this is a critical question in the desire for sermons of present interest.
Now, among us, there is in fact no difference in insight about the answer to this question. The Bible is timely, because God speaks to us in it. When he allowed his apostles and prophets to proclaim and write down his word, he also had all future generations in mind, including ours (Rom. 15:4).
The Bible is not a book of which the message is applicable only to the time of its origin. The gospel fundamentally breaks though all time barriers, even if only in that the lives of all the New Testament congregations take place within the expectation of Christ’s return. The timeliness of the Bible is therefore always emphatically pointed out.
Still, it does not appear superfluous to repeat this once more in so many words. Practice indicates that many people become confused by their Bible reading because they, reading against the background of their own life situation and experience, cannot understand what they should do with many portions of the Bible.
Of course we live in a time that questions the relevance of all that you have to say. But when we look at that question with our twentieth-century (and western) eyes, the answer will be inconceivably short-sighted. That will be acknowledged by anyone who understands that, in history, after “today”, there was a “tomorrow” in which so many other things determined the opinion of the world and occupied their thoughts. What was relevant yesterday may appear to be of much less importance today. That introduces serious questions about the relativity of our thoughts about timeliness.
In contrast, the Bible teaches us our riches in the message which encompasses all ages. When we look at timeliness within this framework, we see that the topic is much deeper than we, with our limited field of vision, thought. That is not, in the first place, because God’s children in all ages (therefore also in other times than ours) had to work with this word. Rather it is because God gives himself in his word. His salvation is real in our lives and that timeliness cannot be measured with our time-constrained insight, but is determined by his eternal plan.
It does not hurt to realize this as we read the Bible and listen to a sermon. It protects us from receiving scantily what God wants to give us.
One who only wants to see and hear that which is of his own time will no longer have an eye or ear for that which is of all ages.
In the above section, we see that the eternal word and the present physical congregation are not two equal poles between which the sermon takes place. The word is the source, not the congregation. Timeliness is then not governed by the situation of the congregation, but by the word. That is the reason why I wrote the previous week, that I do not believe in a choice of text from week to week, based on happenings in the congregation. Whoever chooses his text in this manner “finds the sermon in the congregation”, but (his vision of) the situation of the congregation then governs the timeliness of the sermon. The risk is great that the minister and congregation, being so busy with the gospel application, become short sighted.
Still, we must entertain the question about who the sermon is addressed to. The sermon is directed to a specific congregation in a specific time. With what I said above, I did not say that the congregation as the addressed to receive the sermon, is of no consequence. The Bible shows us how apostles and prophets carefully applied the message they brought to God’s people. However, the timeliness does not lie exclusively in this application but is inherently present in the word which is brought. Only in this manner do we find a pure point of departure for a timely sermon. We do not decide what is timely, but God does. The gospel in itself is timely.
With that the framework is presented. Within that framework, the message does ask for specific application.
Exactly because it is about the administration of the gospel, you may expect the application.
The question about application of the sermon appears within the whole of the worship service. We believe that the church service is an important meeting with God, a service which has a place within his covenant. Then it is of paramount importance that this meeting is not a strange element in the life of the congregation. It must also be clear that this God who, with his eternal word, comes to the congregation, is today her God and desires to be so. Only then is it real fellowship.
That which happens in the church therefore, also has everything to do with what happens in the world because the Head of the church is the King of this world. Then the worship service may not be an isolated little spot where the congregation withdraws from that world. God calls her to live in the world. She must learn in the church, but then it must also be clear to the congregation what the role of the church service is in the life which they experience daily. That demands of the sermon that within the timeliness of the gospel, the message brings a clear application to our time.
You may expect a current sermon in the church.
What is contemporary?
Naturally, this is a concept that requires definition. There is so much that presents itself as contemporary. However, within the given framework, I think that two things are definitely important: you may expect that the sermon is dated and that it has a specific address.
The date of the sermon is, first of all, important. Naturally, a week earlier or later does not matter (usually). What is important is that the sermon displays a clear relationship to the time period in which the congregation is living. They must be able to see what it means to be a congregation of Christ in this world at this time. For this it is necessary that they receive an impression of what is driving the world and foremost, of what is moving the people of the world. In everyday life, they stand face to face with that world. Thus it is critical that they can clearly discern what is of God and what is not. Then it is also vital to be able to give an answer in word and in deed. Because of this, you may expect that the sermon gives insight on this point and sharpens your eyes to see what is critical in living for God in this time. This produces dated sermons, but that is definitely not a problem. It clearly shows the difference between the Bible and the sermon. The canon is closed, but we continue to make new sermons because each new time period makes new demands on the manner in which the congregation gives shape to her life in the world. But not only the date of the sermon is important; also the address requires special attention.
The sermon is not directed to an abstract audience, but to an existing, specific congregation. Instruction and pastoral care may go hand in hand within the sermon. It is noteworthy, how in the apostles’ letters (but also in the letters to the seven churches) the message is often clearly applied to the congregation to which it is addressed. Without having the situation in the congregation govern the timeliness of the sermon, it is apparent how the gospel does bring a message that applies directly to a congregation at a specific address.
Meanwhile, that word, so often used in connection with the sermon, “the application” has dropped into our discussion. I comprehend that, with this word, a topic has been opened, a topic about which there is much to be said. Most of it, I will non touch, since my purpose in this article is to present some considerations which might perhaps be useful in discussions about the sermon. For this reason, in this vein of thought, I will make a few remarks.
For many, the application forms the decisive criterion to determine whether they did or did not get anything out of the sermon.
The application then easily becomes something like an authentication of the actual sermon. Still, the thought proceeds from this that the message only becomes real when it is adapted to our time and situation. Admittedly, at times the preaching has given rise to this thought. For long periods of time, sermons were governed by the schema of explanation and application. First, the meaning of the text was explained in detail. After that followed the application, in which the “message-for-today” was given. In earlier times those two were clearly separated by a congregational psalm or hymn.
It is not surprising that, according to that pattern, the congregation has little realization of a meeting with the Lord, since, before the congregation truly hears how the Lord gives himself in the word that is preached, the gospel must be applied to be real.
The application must therefore, never occupy an isolated spot in the sermon. Too easily that gives the impression that in that spot we must look for the timeliness of the sermon. The temptation is then great to date the sermon on the way in which it presents political or church realities, or to justify the address of the sermon by recalling all sorts of practical examples out of the life of the congregation.
However, the authenticity in the present is not guaranteed by this. A dated sermon truly does not ask for a finished and polished discussion of the questions of the moment, but for a foundation of a Christian view on those questions. An addressed sermon does not ask for a detailed discussion of the issues of the designated congregation, but for giving help and support in dealing with those issues that are current in the congregation.
Therefore, the application of the sermon cannot be an unconnected appendix in the treatment of the text under discussion. You may expect a timely sermon which, in its engagement with the text, clearly shows how the eternal word of God is applicable in that place and at that moment.