And so to a flavour of some of Fleming Rutledge’s Advent sermons – which are eschatological through and through.
But first, one more post on methodology. In the Introduction she has a word of advice to preachers who want to take the task of preaching seriously.
What do you think of these three points? What, for you, are the ingredients of effective and powerful preaching?
1. Always do serious exegesis of the text
The preacher’s job is to preach the Word. To do that there is no short-cut, the text must be studied, understood and engaged with at a serious level.
The great error that lies treacherously before us all, especially as we feel we are growing stale, is the temptation to lose sight of the text itself … never fail to do a searching exegesis before you begin. (p.26)
This is not to say sermons are to be ‘academic’, regurgitating different scholars’ views, but it is to say that the preacher needs to have wrestled with the text’s meaning and what it is saying – otherwise the sermon will be just a collection of the preacher’s thoughts and opinions. While these may, or may not be interesting, it is not preaching God’s Word.
A practical question that Rutledge does not address is the practical implications of this sort of commitment. If you preach, what sort of time are we talking about here to do serious exegesis in preparing a sermon?
If, say, it is 16 good study hours (for sake of argument) that’s two days’ work per week.
And if that’s the case, what implications are there for pastors and church leadership teams in terms of realistic workloads, priorities and administration that pastor/preachers are expected to do?
2. Take yourself out of the sermon
A sermon may lead people away from the Word of God
unless the preacher can get herself out of the way. That, too, was important advice I received: take yourself out if it! (p.26)
This reminds me of a comment by Stanley Hauerwas on preaching.
The issue here is focus is off the text and on to the preacher. I like to think of a preacher like a referee – if he/she does her job well no-one particularly notices the ref. The game is not about them. If the match becomes all about the ref, something has gone wrong.
3. Announce the promises of God’s gospel (rather than moral exhortation)
Rutledge is again right on the money with a third observation – God is the subject of the verb. A sermon isn’t all about us – as if God can’t get anything done until we help out. Rutledge has strong words here:
If a sermon is an exhortation to help out a ‘dreaming’ God build the kingdom, as if he couldn’t do it without our efforts, it’s not the gospel. (p.27)
For this reason Rutledge is wary of exhortatory sermons (‘Let us …’ or ‘If only we can grasp this’ or ‘we should be doing justice, feeding the poor, fighting racism, marching for climate change etc’). Here’s why
When sermons end that way, the hearers feel defeated and powerless, except of course the few who are already doing whatever it is, who can then feel superior. For that reason, hortatory sermons are divisive. (p.27)
What’s your experience here? How does some preaching make you feel defeated and powerless ? What sort of preaching uplifts and inspires you? What place is there for exhortation in preaching?
Instead, she argues, sermons should be messages announcing God’s hope and promise. This speaks good news to everyone and such a word liberates and empowers. Good preaching happens when
Every person in the congregation should feel that a promise has been made to him or her by the God who, unlike human beings, keeps his promises. (p. 27).
Amen. Preach it sister.