Edward F. Marquart, Quest For Better Preaching: Resources for Renewal in the Pulpit (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1985), 239pp., $10.95 pb.
Most major books on preaching are directed to several classes of readers; seminarians, teachers, and preachers. Quest for Better Preaching stands among the very few directed toward the working preacher, and the preacher alone.
Marquart, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Des Moines, Washington, produced this work as the fruit of an impressive search for resources helpful to the preacher. The burning question which launched his search, and was the impetus for the present volume, is found as the title of the first chapter, “Why Can’t We Have Better Preaching?” That this question is often heard in the pew is common knowledge. Marquart suggests that the question should be asked from the pulpit as well.
After a brief epigraph of Luther on preaching, the volume quickly takes shape as a masterful distillation of homiletic helpfulness. Chapters are relatively short and usually quite to the point. Practicality and utility are clearly Marquart’s intentions.
The author’s first suggestion is that the preacher read widely and carefully. Marquart’s quest led him through numerous works of varying helpfulness, ranging from the classic Beecher lectures by Phillips Brooks to contemporary works on narrative and liberation preaching. A brief list of suggested reading is included. To this list should be added the recent works by Cox, Craddock, and Killinger recently reviewed in this column and unavailable to Marquart at the time of his writing.
Marquart is powerfully convinced of the power and promise of preaching, yet mournful of the low estate into which much contemporary preaching has fallen. He quotes with approval Paul Scherer’s challenging dictum: “The only thing in God’s economy that can ever take the place of preaching is better preaching.” Just what constitutes better preaching is revealed in Marquart’s chapter on the criticisms of preaching. First among these is boredom, the root of a plethora of related ills. The author reviews the significant work of the late Ruel Howe of the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies. Howe identified eleven deadly sins of the pulpit, a list based on detailed research among congregations. Though such a list seems at first quite negative, reflection on the deadly sins can produce positively better preaching.
Successive chapters deal with the preacher as person, theologian, textual exegete, prophet and storyteller. In each Marquart includes several practical and relevant suggestions. As a person, the preacher must be an individual possessed by a passion for preaching. Looming in the background here, but largely unnamed by Marquart, is the Lutheran notion of vocatio. A quick glance at the contemporary scene reveals a goodly number of ministers who look upon preaching as a job — but miss the calling of a vocation.
Marquart warns the preacher-astheologian against the desire to sound theologically erudite. He includes Luther’s explanation of the focus of his own preaching: “I don’t think of Dr. Pomeranium, Jonas, or Philip in my sermon. They know more about it than I do. So I don’t preach to them. I just preach to Hansie or Betsy.” This insight is plainly sound, yet we would do well to note carefully the distinction between sounding erudite and being theologically informed and insightful. Though the author’s injunction is appropriately directed toward a considerable element in the church, other elements suffer from a lack of any desire to be or sound erudite. Luther’s intention to reach to the volk (people) is mandatory for the contemporary preacher, who, on the other hand, must resist the temptation of mere folksiness.
Marquart’s chapter on the preacher as textual exegete and interpreter is one of the most helpful and insightful in the volume. This is the point at which many sermons fall prey to a cursory reading of commentaries and shelf-worn resources. The author mentions almost in passing his participation in a text-study group of some 25 fellow preachers. Though this would function most easily among preachers using a standard lectionary, it would also profit others to meet regularly to discuss texts for preaching.
Preachers do well to be reminded of their roles as prophets and storytellers. The neglect of either of these roles reduces the effectiveness of the pulpit. As prophet the preacher stands over against what Douglas John Hall terms our “officially optimistic society” with the word of the cross. Marquart presents a vision of the preacher as a prophet with a firm message but without a scowl. The enduring problem of evil at all levels of existence calls forth a word from the Lord’s forthteller.
As storyteller the preacher reaches the depths of understanding available only through the medium of the story. Marqaurt reminds the reader of the importance of form and structure to the sermon. The greatest preachers were often individuals skilled in rhetoric and speech. The story must be told — and told well.
Perhaps the central contribution of the volume, Marquart’s sections on SAIs (stories, analogies, and images) prod the reader to consider one’s own messages in terms of understandability. An SAI (pronounced “sigh”) is “a contemporary story, analogy, or image which is used to communicate God’s message about the kingdom” [p. 143]. SAIs are bridges of understanding beyond mere descriptive speech.
A few days after hearing a sermon, the average layperson would be hard pressed to recall the structure of the message. Nevertheless, stories, and analogical comparisons may remain — with transforming impact upon the hearer. Good SAIs, Marquart suggests, exhibit several characteristics. Good SAIs serve God’s message, are vivid and memorable, inform and teach, help move a sermon along, and are often personal. The author concludes with a brief chapter on the importance of language.
Throughout the volume Marquart draws extensively from others interested in the preaching task. Names such as Achtemeier, Craddock and Stott appear often. Some chapters are, in fact, largely selections of brief passages from other works. Marquart tells the reader to expect this from the onset. As noted above, the book is directed to fellow preachers from one who has surveyed the discipline to cull what has been most helpful and share this with his readers. To this end Marquart follows the old adage, “If you borrow, borrow from the best.” Throughout the volume Marquart borrows honestly, with ample and helpful documentation. This would be even more helpful had the publisher placed the notes on each page as footnotes, rather than as endnotes in an appendix.
As it is, Quest for Better Prencliing is a most helpful and creative volume, offering much to the preacher, young or old, who aspires to better preaching. It represents a helpful introduction to current work in homiletics from the perspective of a practitioner. Its readability and reasonable cost should appeal to a wide readership.
A few minor matters may catch the eye of some readers. At a few points the writer’s political views are apparent in rather pronounced form. In addition, though this reviewer was pleased to see mention of Clarence Jordan, the translator of The Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament, one should note that Dr. Jordan has been dead for several years, thus is not a current practitioner of creative preaching as suggested by the discussion within this volume. Nevertheless, these matters are of little consequence and do not detract from the positive qualities of the volume.
Robert Hughes, A Trumpet in Darkness: Preaching to Mourners. “Fortress Resources for Preaching” (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 109 pp., $5.95 pb.
The funeral sermon often represents the single most challenging homiletical challenge for the preacher. Any congregation is a challenge, but a congregation of mourners is especially so. Those seeking a thoughtful discussion of appropriate models for preaching to mourners will not be disappointed in this volume.
Robert Hughes, Professor of Practical Theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, writes out of his expertise as both pastor and theologian. Faced with the task of preaching to mourners in his first pastoral charge, Hughes felt frustrated by his own funeral preaching. When called to teach at the seminary, Hughes resolved to give careful consideration to the problem which had vexed him as a pastor. Hughes intends this volume as “an attempt to share my findings with parish pastors who face the regular challenge of sounding the trumpet in darkness.”
Hughes laments the fact that few funeral sermons are the natural product of long intimate knowledge with the deceased and the family. Likewise, the ideal pastoral situation of the pastor present with the family in the midst of acute grief is often not possible. The author suggests an “exegesis of listeners” as well as attention to biblical texts. That is, the preacher should carefully listen to the mourners to determine the shape and substance of the message. The message itself is a mixture of reality (death) and hope. The story, Hughes suggests, must be told and retold. The mourner brings his or her story to the funeral. The sermon is the pastor’s turn to tell the gospel story as it responds to the event of death and the experience of grief.
Hughes wisely suggests the primacy of images in the structure of the sermon. He notes that grieving persons “feel more than they think.” Likewise, the sermon offers an opportunity to provide “theological clues” to the questions which accompany and follow acute grief.
A Trumpet in Darkness is an intentionally practical book, an appropriate approach given the practicality of the need. One of the most helpful chapters discusses different types of death and the characteristic pastoral challenges represented by each. Each type of death is discussed in terms of the dynamics of the event and the implications for pastoral preaching. Prolonged death, such as cancer, usually leads to prolonged grief. Hughes suggests a thoughtful and biblical approach directed toward this experience. Similar consideration is given to death by accident, the death of the young, the death of the old, suicide, and the death of an unbeliever. Lastly, Hughes gives attention to “anonymous death,” that is, the death of one unknown by the preacher.
The central theological motif woven throughout the volume is the theology of the cross. This is not surprising given the author’s Lutheran heritage. Readers will be pleased to find a carefully written chapter dealing with the cross in the face of death.
The theology of the cross, suggests Hughes, “affirms that God is unconditional love.” The images of redemptive suffering and love are combined in the cross as nowhere else. It is no accident that the cross remains the central image of the church. Every genuinely Christian theology is a theology of the cross. Hughes repeats Luther’s statement: Crux probat omnia, “the cross is the test of everything.” Preaching the message of the cross to mourners entails a careful correlation of their questions and the eternal message.
Based upon his presentation to this point, Hughes suggests a structure for the funeral sermon in terms of two major movements. First is the reality of death and loss. The second movement is the good news of the gospel. This “symphonic” structure appropriately correlates the situation with the text.
In a final section Hughes offers several suggested homilies with analysis. The book ends rather abruptly, yet this seems oddly appropriate. That is, it would seem, the nature of death itself. This volume is sixth in the “Fortress Resources For Preaching” series, and a worthy addition to that endeavor. This is not a resource best read in the process of preparing a funeral sermon. It will assist the preacher in the development of a model of funeral preaching appropriate to the event and the message.
D. W. Cleverly Ford, The Ministry of the Word (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1979), 256pp., n.p., cloth.
Those appreciative of the great contribution made by English preachers in the past two centuries will look gladly to this work by D. W. Cleverly Ford. Senior Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and a Chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen, Ford is author of fourteen books on preaching. This volume, in print since 1979 and relatively unknown, is a solid introduction to his work.
The preacher, suggests Ford, is in danger of becoming a museum piece, known for dead certainties about questions no one is asking. Nevertheless, Ford presents a vision of preaching relevant to the age and faithful to the gospel. The author insists that “the preacher must preach to the church in order that the church may preach to the world.”
The book itself is divided into three major sections. Section One deals with the biblical and historical justification for preaching. Interestingly, Ford includes a unique consideration of sermons found within the Bible as guides for understanding the role of the preaching in the church. A second section considers the appropriate theological content of Christian preaching. Ford gives considerable attention to the concept of the Word as the basis of the sermon. All preaching, he suggests, comes from the fount of the Holy Spirit. This section, like the other two, is solid and insightful.
The final section — “Practical” — deals with the preparation of the preacher, the preparation of the message, and the delivery of the sermon. From beginning to end the book is a call to biblical preaching.
The publisher suggests that the book is “destined to become a classic on preaching.” It has not yet reached that classic status, but it is well worth the reading.
Book Notes
Vance Havner. Playing Marbles With Diamonds. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985. 97 pp, hb.
This book offers a series of sermons by a popular evangelist. While there’s nothing too heavy in this collection, pastors will find a variety of interesting stories and some practical treatments of texts from a gifted communicator.
W. Herschel Ford. Simple Sermons for Saints and Sinners. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986. $3.95. 128 pp, pb.
A reprint of a volume in Ford’s popular “Simple Sermons” series, this collection of sermons covers some broad territory in offering sermon ideas for the busy pastor.
Howard W. Roberts. The Lasting Words of Jesus. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1986. 125 pp, pb.
In these sermons by a Southern Baptist pastor from Maryland (and a contributor to Preaching), the words of Jesus are used to address several basic human struggles. There are some worthwhile treatments of several passages from the gospels. Pastors will benefit from some of Roberts’ insights.
Kenneth W. Osbeck. 101 Hymn Stories and 70 7 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1982 & 1985. $8.95 each, pb.
Some of my favorite sermon illustrations have come from the great hymns of the faith. Now I have 202 more, thanks to these enjoyable volumes. Each entry includes music and text, along with information about the author, composer, tune name, meter, and Scriptural basis or reference, and a brief story about the hymn’s background. Any preacher will draw some rich illustrative material from these two books.
In Sure and Certain Hope. Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Publishing Co., 1985. $5.25, pb.
This anthology of funeral messages offers helpful models for a variety of circumstances, such as funerals at holiday times, for suicide victims, for cancer victims, and other special needs. There are a number of excellent contributions here. It is regrettable that the editors) of this volume receive no credit in the publication.
Joe E. Trull. The Seven Last Words of the Risen Christ. Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1985, $4.95, pb.
Here is a unique series of messages for the post-Easter season, drawn from the post-resurrection sayings of Jesus. Trull, who teaches ethics at New Orleans Baptist Seminary and is former pastor of First Baptist Church, El Paso, Texas, offers several excellent treatments of these often-overlooked passages.
Alan B. Bond. The Sevenfold Path to Peace. Lima: CSS Publishing, 1986, $3.75, pb.
This small volume contains seven lenten sermons with titles such as “Is Peace Attainable?,” “Peace as Shalon,” and “Peace Through Sacrifice.”

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