How To Recognize A Gospel Message H. Mark Abbott October 1, 2005 1 Corinthians 1:20-25 Most Thursdays last winter, I went to a classroom and listened to sermons. Does that sound like fun or what? I teach a class on preaching. Each of the class’s 24 students had to submit two manuscripted sermons. They had to preach one sermon before the whole class – and me! I enjoy the experience of teaching. I even enjoy listening to 24 sermons, though five or six is a little much in one evening! What I do NOT enjoy is grading “the Word of the Lord.” Grading sermons IS difficult. But some of you may have wished you could have that opportunity. There are some sermons to which you would love to give a C or even less. Maybe you wish you could hold up a rating card – like 1 to 10 – not just at the end but after each main idea or after each joke that wasn’t funny. Worse yet, there may have been some sermons to which you had little if any reaction at all. They just didn’t connect. Years ago, inquiry was made of a Methodist bishop regarding a preacher in his area. “Why,” said the bishop, “he is dull, he is supernaturally dull.” Then, he added, “No man could be as dull as he is without divine aid.” Charles Spurgeon, Victorian preacher referred to one of his contemporaries as a preacher who would make a very good martyr. He was so dry he would burn well, said Spurgeon. On the other hand, sometimes pastors might wish to give their congregations some instruction in how to listen to sermons. What should people listen for and look for in a sermon? How should you assess the impact of a message? I want to suggest how we can recognize a gospel message. What makes a sermon truly a message of the gospel? What preaching should we accept as appropriate for God’s People? Is it possible that sometimes people get the kind of sermons they will accept? Maybe churches and church people need to have a clearer idea about what kind of preaching is indeed faithful to the gospel. Did you hear Paul’s references to preaching in the I Corinthians passage just read? I read this passage to every class of preaching students. “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” I suspect some of you have heard sermons that sounded like foolishness to you. And you may have wondered how anybody could get saved from that kind of preaching. We may wonder at God’s choice of this method for getting through to men and women. After all, don’t human brains have an attention span of no more than ten minutes? And some preaching is many times that long! “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” How to determine whether a sermon is really a gospel message? I) First, WHEN IT HONORS GOD RATHER THAN DRAWING ATTENTION TO THE PREACHER. Listen to the apostle: “I did not come to you with eloquence or superior wisdom…I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling.” Paul continues: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.” Paul’s preaching pointed beyond himself to “Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” There is evidence that Paul visited Corinth on three different occasions. The Corinthians had plenty of opportunity to hear him preach. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul reports on some less than favorable opinions of his preaching: “In person,” people said, “He is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” Paul’s preaching did not attempt to draw attention to himself. Paul’s preaching honored God by pointing to Jesus. In this, Paul did not mirror the Greek orators so highly esteemed by Corinthians. As one writer observes, “Paul did not fit the popular stereotype of the dynamic orator, and he did not employ artful rhetoric – so he says – to sway his hearers.” Now, it is true that preaching does involve human instrumentality. The classic 19th century definition of preaching given by Philips Brooks is “the communication of truth through personality.” God took on the human flesh of Jesus. The Bible is filled with the writing of human authors. And truth takes on the human voice of the preacher. There’s no way to avoid that. In fact, that IS the way God seems to work. Preaching is “the communication of truth through personality.” Thus one preacher will not communicate truth in the exact same way as another. One of the most dangerous things preachers can do is to try to copy someone else. Years ago, when I was young pastor in Western New York, a man now famous began to give seminars. In these seminars he would illustrate how he thought preachers should preach. He tried to get people to preach like he preached. So when I would see one of my colleagues pace back and forth with a huge Bible draped over one hand, extended in front, I would say to myself: “O dear, so and so has been to the seminar!” My preacher friends were trying to copy this very talented communicator. Preachers speak in a voice and manner appropriate for who we are. And effective preaching usually lets people see how God is working in the life of the preacher. So there’s no way to eliminate the human instrument. At the same time, the goal of preaching is not to draw primary attention to the human instrument but to Jesus. Preaching can be dangerous, you know – dangerous for the preacher’s spiritual health. The privilege of standing before people week after week and claiming to speak for God can dramatically enlarge a preacher’s ego. And you don’t listen for long before that enlarged ego becomes all too evident. When I first heard Bill Hybels of the “mega, mega” Willow Creek Church, I was prepared to shut him out. But I found his preaching remarkably humble and sincere. And I find that though I don’t always agree with him, God speaks to me through Bill Hybels. That isn’t always the case with big-time preachers. So a sermon is really a gospel message when it honors God by pointing to Jesus rather than drawing primary attention to the preacher. That’s the way it was with Paul. That’s the way it is today too. II) A second criterion by which to assess whether a sermon is really gospel preaching: WHEN IT SPEAKS GOD’S WISDOM, NOT MERELY THE WISDOM OF THIS WORLD. Paul contrasts “the wisdom of the world,” (i.e., merely “human wisdom”) with what he calls “the foolishness of God which is wiser than human wisdom.” In chapter. 2, Paul continues: “We… speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age…” In fact, says Paul, “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are, SO THAT NO ONE MAY BOAST BEFORE GOD.” The wisdom from God leaves no ground for human boasting. The wisdom from God leaves no ground for human elitism. That may be intellectual elitism-I know more than you! Or it may be educational elitism-I’ve been to school more than you! Or economic elitism-I have more than you! Or ethical elitism-I have done better things than you! Or even moral elitism-I am a better person than you! There is no room for boasting with the wisdom from God. And it is God’s kind of wisdom which comes through in genuine gospel preaching. Yes, preaching DOES involve teaching. But gospel preaching is not merely a lecture on sociology, psychology, politics, etc. One of the big dangers we American preachers have is baptizing American ideals and acting as if that is wisdom from God. Preaching Christ and the cross will run counter to much of the prevailing wisdom of today’s culture, even of American culture. “The weakness of the cross,” for example, contradicts our exaltation of power. Self sacrificing is the opposite of self-seeking. Those who truly follow Christ crucified will live and act differently from most other people. This doesn’t mean we are merely odd, out of step and out of style. It means that we model our lives after the One who was crucified. Wisdom from this world is what I think and what I want. Wisdom from God is revealed through what God has done for us in Jesus. According to one commentator, “Paul is in effect saying to the Corinthians, ‘You want wisdom? All right, here is the wisdom that God has provided us: Christ Jesus. And remember, that means Christ Jesus crucified.’” (Hays, p. 33) A message, then, is really gospel preaching when it speaks God’s wisdom, that is Jesus and Him crucified, rather than merely the wisdom of this world. Here’s a third way to know whether a message is really gospel preaching: III) WHEN IT PROCLAIMS WHAT GOD HAS DONE IN JESUS. The very word Paul uses for preach or proclaim has to do with the announcement or proclamation of good news. the gospel, the good news, is not primarily what WE must do. The gospel is what God has done. “Gospel” means “good news.” The gospel is the good news of the victory God has won in Jesus. Among the ancient Greeks, a messenger or herald might be sent from the field of battle to people awaiting news, news of victory or defeat. As he approached people waiting anxiously, the herald would raise his hand and cry out “Greetings, we have won!” This is what happened when the runner from the Battle of Marathon covered the 26 and a half miles to Athens to deliver the good news that the Greek army had won. It’s that picture behind the word Paul uses for preaching. Preaching is primarily heralding the good news of what God has done in Jesus. Preaching is an invitation to participate in what God’s victory in Christ means. Preaching is proclamation of GOOD NEWS. But does preaching ever communicate bad news? Yes, but it’s always in the light of good news. Does preaching ever enunciate what we must do? Of course, but always in the context of what God has done. Later in this same letter, Paul reminds the Corinthians “of the gospel I preached to you…By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you…” And what was this gospel, this good news? As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…” The good news is the story of what God has done for us in Jesus. And this story comes to dramatic climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sometimes we preachers use the privilege of preaching to lay on pretty thick what we think people should do. Sometimes preachers major on their own personal agenda. Sometimes preachers beat people over the head with guilt and obligation. Sometimes preachers tell people how they should vote, how they should think, how they should live their lives. But gospel preaching centers not in what we must do but in what God has done. But…someone says, aren’t there ethical, practical demands of the gospel? What about the Ten Commandments? What about the Sermon on the Mount? What about all the life-related instruction Paul gives the Corinthians and others? The challenges of the gospel always grow out of the good news of the gospel. What we call the Ten Commandments are really the Ten Words of Covenant. In Exodus 19, God tells His people of the covenant He has made with them. They are now His People, His treasured possession. Out of this covenant relationship, given by God, Exodus 20 speaks of how God’s People should live. First comes covenant (what God does for us). Only then comes commandment (what we do in response). The commandments of God grow out of God’s gracious covenant. The challenge of discipleship grows out of what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Preaching must always have good news in it. Otherwise it is not strictly speaking preaching. It may be a moral lecture. It may be a political pep-talk. It may be a psychological challenge to more healthy behavior. But if there’s no good news about what God has done, it’s not preaching. Brennan Manning talks about corrupting “the Good News into an ethical code rather than a love affair.” In a German prison camp in World War II, Americans secretly built a makeshift radio. German prison guards never discovered what the Americans had done. So these prisoners could listen to news without the guards knowing about it. One day, news came over the radio that the German high command had surrendered, ending the war. But because of a communication breakdown, the guards did not know this fact. As word spread among the prisoners, loud celebration broke out. For three days, the prisoners were hardly recognizable. They sang, waved at guards, shared jokes over meals. The prisoners celebrated victory even while they lived in the prison camp. The guards, not in on this secret, could not figure out what was going on. On the fourth day, the prisoners awoke to find that all the guards had fled, leaving the gates unlocked. Good news had transformed prisoners even though their outward circumstances had not yet changed. How to recognize a gospel message? When it proclaims what God has done in Jesus. That leads me to offer one more criterion for a gospel message. How do we know when a sermon is really a gospel message? IV) WHEN IT IS USED BY THE SPIRIT TO DRAW OUT A RESPONSE. Paul’s declaration is that God uses gospel preaching to save and change people. “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Gospel preaching invites even challenges us to respond. One of my favorite authors on preaching is Will Willimon. This United Methodist pastor, preacher, now bishop writes this: “If I join the Rotary Club, I’m handed a lapel pin, a membership card, and given a handshake. But if I join the church, the pastor throws me into the water, half-drowns me, brings me up, and then calls me ‘Brother.’ Baptism, which is nothing short of strange, is supposed to create a new people who look at the world quite differently than before….” If I did not believe that God is at work during gospel preaching, I would not be inclined for the hard work that goes into preaching. It is said that when Spurgeon approached the pulpit on Sundays he would say over and over again: “I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the Holy Spirit….” We know a sermon is really a gospel message when it is used by the Spirit to draw out a response. Will Willimon tells of a young woman named Ann in a church he pastored. Ann had finished college and was now enrolled in a graduate professional school. One Sunday after one of Ann’s visits home, Willimon received a call from her father. “Do you know what just happened? Ann just called to say she has decided to drop out of graduate school.” “Really?” exclaimed the pastor, “What on earth is leading her to do a thing like that?” “Well, we’re not sure, preacher. But we thought maybe you could call Ann and talk some sense into her.” So Willimon called Ann, reminded her of her hard work, of her achievements, and urged her to think carefully before throwing all this away. “By the way,” Willimon asked her, “How in the world did you come to this decision?” “Well,” she said, “it was your sermon today that started me thinking.” It can be gratifying, and sometimes scary to hear about changes people make as a result of a sermon. “You said that God has something important for each of us to do, in our own way.” Ann said to herself: “I’m just in graduate school to get a job, make money, look out for myself. I’m going to get out of here and get in the same meaningless rat race as everybody else. Then,” Ann said, “I remembered that good summer I spent working with a church literacy program among migrant worker kids. I think I was really serving God then. I decided, after your sermon, to go back there and give my life to helping those kids have a chance at life.” There was a long silence on Willimon’s end of the phone. “Now look, Ann,” the preacher said at last, “I was just preaching!” Willimon is being honest about our often minimal expectations of God will do through preaching. What might God say to us even today? What might God say even through the foolishness of preaching? AMEN! __________________ H. Mark Abbott is Pastor of First Free Methodist Church in Seattle, WA. Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.