This is not a recent sermon, but a sermon I preached some time ago which many worshipers said that they found helpful. Since I’ve been on vacation the last couple of weeks, I thought I’d post an old sermon here for your reading.
WHAT SHOULD I GET OUT OF THE SERMON?
Not a dynamic speech … but a dying Savior
Text: 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (NIV)
All sorts of people are going to church this morning. Some of them are church shopping. They are walking into churches they have never attended and finding out what worship is like. They’re coming with expectations. They’re coming to see if this church will meet their needs. Do they have children’s programs, a preschool, or a grade school? Do they have support groups, social activities, and people like me? Many people may be checking out a church this morning to see what it has to offer, but many are also checking out a church to see what the pastor has to say. What is his message all about? Is he eloquent, or does he trip over his words? Is he persuasive, or will he be unable to convince me to listen? Is he liberal or conservative; is he calm and quiet, or fiery and energized; is he real and relevant, or is he boring and stuffy?
You know what the big buzzword is today among church shoppers and popular preachers? Dynamic! If your church wants to attract people today, you need dynamic members carrying out a dynamic ministry and you most certainly better have a dynamic preacher. I can’t tell you how many times I have come across that word, “dynamic,” in church-related advertising. That seems to be what people want in a church, and what they want in a sermon.
All of this raises an interesting question. What should I get out of a sermon? What should I expect when I go to church and hear the pastor speak to me? What should I take home from the message? Is the best spiritual message for my soul always dynamic, or should I be looking for something else? Our Second Lesson for this service deals directly with this very real and relevant issue, an issue that many people are wresting with this morning as they visit churches and decide whether or not they have found a new church home.
If there was ever anyone who could tell us about preaching, I think the apostle Paul would be near the top of the list. Saint Paul was the greatest missionary the Christian church has ever seen. He was a frequent preacher, whether it was in the Jewish synagogue or out in public. He’s the author of 13 of the 27 total books in the New Testament. Certainly anything that the great apostle Paul had to say about preaching should bear lots of weight with us today.
With those kinds of credentials, Paul must have been a dynamic speaker and personality. Surely he would advocate the popular, exciting preaching trends in the Christian church today. Right? Well, maybe not. It may come as a big surprise to hear what Paul had to say about his own preaching and witnessing. Our reading says this: “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.” Isn’t this the exact opposite of what you would expect the greatest world missionary to say? He said that he didn’t use eloquence – the translation of a term that meant scholarly, rational speech. He said that he didn’t use wisdom – the translation of another term that referred to someone who was clever with his use of language and had a way with words. Paul believed that preaching wasn’t about a slick, scholarly style, or a dynamic speech.
And he didn’t just say that. That’s how he operated. It’s hard to imagine that such a great missionary would be an average preacher, but that’s how Paul described his own preaching. “I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words.” Now maybe you think he’s just humble like a good pastor is supposed to be. But there’s evidence in the Scriptures that Paul was hardly a dynamic speaker. Our reading comes from a letter Paul wrote to Christians living in ancient Corinth. Paul later wrote them another letter, 2 Corinthians; in that letter, Paul talked about people who had complained about him because he was a mild-mannered speaker. In 2 Corinthians 10:10, Paul describes his critics’ complaints when he wrote this: “Some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.'” Pretty harsh criticism! But if that’s still not enough to convince you, check out Acts 20:7-12. There’s a story about Paul preaching to a group assembled on the third story of a building. Paul went on so long and he was so “boring” that someone sitting in an open window actually fell asleep and fell out of the window! No, Paul meant what he said. He didn’t consider himself a dynamic speaker, some of his critics criticized him for not giving dynamic speeches and sermons, but in spite of that, God used his simple message and his humble style to bring the gospel to more people than any one person has ever done in the history of the Christian church.
About a year and a half ago, there was a news story about a Sacramento radio station contest that was incredibly maddening. Some of you probably may remember the news about the radio station’s morning program that had a water-drinking contest. The contestant who drank the most water before going to the bathroom was supposed to win a new Nintendo Wii gaming system. Instead, the contestant who drank the most water without going to the bathroom died of water intoxication. But what was most frustrating was that a listener to the show, a nurse, called in and warned the hosts of the show that this little contest stunt could be deadly. According to a news report, one of the show hosts said, “Yeah, we’re aware of that. They signed releases so we’re not responsible, okay?” They essentially ignored her warning. After all, what this concerned caller had to say wasn’t cool, it would put an end to the contest, it would end the excitement, and it would probably cause some listeners to turn to another station with something more entertaining than a cancelled water-drinking contest.
It was not very thrilling to say that this radio contest was deadly. The nurse who called in probably didn’t say what she had to say in a very dynamic way. But now that there’s a dead mother of three who lost her life for a $250.00 gaming system, what seems more important: a wacky, entertaining radio contest, or a sober and serious radio caller?
I’m afraid that the same kind of frustration happens in the spiritual realm today. I’m afraid it happens when people ask themselves what they want to get out of a sermon. There are lots of calls for dynamic preachers, for entertaining worship, for slick presentations, for moving music and messages, but is a dynamic speech the number one thing we need in our churches?
Don’t misunderstand. I do not want to suggest that a pastor with a dynamic personality shouldn’t be who he is. I do not want to suggest that pastors shouldn’t use good rhetoric, or that there’s a biblical excuse for sloppy, lazy preaching. God calls those who serve in the church to use their gifts to the best of their abilities; if there’s a pastor with dynamic preaching gifts, then by all means he should use those gifts faithfully. But let’s keep this in its proper perspective. When Jesus returns at the end of time, if he were to ask you why he should let you into heaven, will an answer about dynamic sermons get you there? “Well, Jesus, I really felt pumped up when I can to church. That pastor’s sermons really set me on fire! I learned all sorts of neat, practical advice to live a happy and successful life.” And Jesus will say, “Wrong answer!” Then hell is in your future.
A dynamic speech will not save you. Don’t come to church looking for a spiritual pep-rally in the Sunday sermon. In fact, if we go back to the apostle Paul’s words again, we’ll discover that some people will look at Paul’s central message as kind of a “downer.” “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Of all the things in Jesus’ life that Paul could have focused on, he chose the biggest downer of them all. He didn’t primarily focus on the angel’s stunning song on Christmas night. He didn’t zero in on all the fantastic miracles Jesus performed throughout his ministry. Paul certainly defended and preached the resurrection of Jesus, but even that wasn’t the one key thought he wanted to emphasize here. “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” A guy who bled and suffered and groaned and died on a Roman cross around 30 A.D. – that was Paul’s central message wherever he evangelized and whenever he preached.
Why did Paul operate that way? Was he stuck in a preaching rut? I don’t think so. Listen to his words and we’ll discover why Paul focused on a crucified Jesus more than anything else. “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” Paul did not worry whether or not he was the best public speaker his listeners had ever heard because he didn’t want the church to be about him. He didn’t want the church to be about the preacher. I feel the same way. If this church ever becomes all about Pastor Strey, when happens when Pastor Strey leaves? But if this church is about Jesus Christ, then it doesn’t really matter who the man is in the pulpit, does it? Paul’s preaching and his ministry focused on the death of Jesus that paid for the sins of the world and brought forgiveness to all who turn to Christ in faith. Paul’s preaching was all about a dying Savior whose death brings us peace with God and eternal life in heaven.
I think this point is absolutely crucial for us to comprehend. Christ crucified is the central message of the Scriptures. A dying Savior is the one thing we need to get out of the sermon each week. It’s not enough for a preacher to say that he bases his sermon on the Bible. I know that almost sounds wrong to say that, doesn’t it? But allow me to explain what I mean, because this point is so important.
A few decades ago, many Christian church denominations in America had their battle for the Bible. Some said that this book was nothing more than religious fiction with moral lessons. Others said that everything in the Bible is factual, true, and reliable. The battles waged on, but finally each church body ended up on one side of the aisle or the other. Our church body, along with many others, continues to proclaim that the Scriptures are factual and true. But now, among all those churches that believe the Bible is historical fact, there is a new battle being waged. Among all those churches that still believe the Bible is historical fact, the new battle centers around this question: What is this Bible all about? Is it primarily about what I’m supposed to do, or is it primarily about what God has done for me? Now new lines are drawn. Now there’s a new question. Is our preaching about giving a dynamic speech, or is it about sharing a dying Savior? Is our preaching about relevant advice for today, or is it about a real sacrifice that took place 2,000 years ago?
If the sermon is dynamic, that’s fine. If the sermon is based on the Bible, that’s the way it should be. But remember: the Bible was not crucified for you. The dynamic preacher was not crucified for you. Jesus was. Just because the sermon is based on the Bible doesn’t mean that the preacher has pointed you to Jesus. The Bible-based sermon needs to point us to the cross of Jesus. “Christ crucified” is the sole, simple message that we need to hear week in and week out. Jesus Christ was born into this world only to die for you and I, who were born with a sinful condition. Jesus lived a sinless and holy life only to later die for all the sinners on earth, and among those sinners are you and I. Jesus became a human being like you only to die as if he was a sinful human being, yet he was innocent. Jesus Christ is the one who died on the cross but who was raised to life on the third day to prove that his death really did pay for all your guilt and sin.
You have heard this message countless times in our services. You are hearing this message multiple times in this service – in absolution, in the Lessons, in this sermon, and in the Sacrament. But that is what we must hear, because this message about a dying Savior is the only thing that saves us from hell and the only good news that can – and has – opened heaven.
The host of a Lutheran radio show I occasionally listen to often gives some good advice about sermon expectations. He tells his audience to ask three questions when they listen to a sermon, and these questions will tell you if the sermon is really focused on Christ crucified. Question one: Did the pastor mention Jesus’ name? If Jesus wasn’t mentioned, you know the sermon wasn’t about him. Question two: If Jesus was mentioned, was he the subject or object of the verbs? Now you have to think about grammar. If Jesus is doing something for us (i.e. Jesus is the subject of the verbs), then we might be on the right track. If we are doing something for Jesus (i.e. Jesus is the object of the verbs), then we’re not really hearing the gospel. Now, question three: If Jesus was mentioned and is the subject of the verbs, what are those verbs? Is Jesus teaching, inspiring, coaching, and encouraging, and educating? That’s not Christ crucified. Or is he saving, ransoming, redeeming, forgiving, dying and rising? That’s the gospel. That’s what God has done to save me from my sins. That’s the one message I need to hear. A sermon with a dying Savior is the one and only message that forgives my guilt and comforts my soul.
I encourage you to use those three questions. They’re very useful. They might show you when the most important message of Scripture is missing from a sermon! Those questions help us remember what’s most important: not a dynamic speech, but a dying Savior.
So now, when you come back to church next Sunday, what should you get out of the sermon? Let Paul’s answer be your answer: “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Amen.