Did anyone sleep through the sermon on the mount?

Imagine a preacher, sitting down to prepare an irrelevant sermon for the following Sunday. On the desk is a Bible, open at the passage of scripture that will form the text on which the sermon will be based. The preacher has spent some time in prayer and contemplation, beseeching the Lord to assist in the writing of this irrelevant sermon. This preacher reads again the Bible passages that will be used in worship on Sunday, and turns to a number of resources that will assist in the preparation. The Greek text is consulted in conjunction with a lexicon and commentary. The resource material used by those who help with Children’s Church is referred to and subsequently ignored, ensuring that the sermon shall be as irrelevant to as wide a group as possible. (It is important not to forget the children if you are trying to be irrelevant). This minister of the gospel knows the congregation well, and works hard at ensuring that the message that will be brought on Sunday will speak to absolutely no one.

Of course this scene is imaginary. There has never been a preacher who has set out to be irrelevant in their preaching. They may achieve this by accident, never by design. Those who are called to this ministry, either as lay-preachers or as clergy, seek to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in as relevant a way as possible. This chapter aims to encourage those for whom the proclamation of the gospel is part of their Christian ministry. It sets out to ask whether in this multi-media age, preaching is still an appropriate tool for Christian ministers to use. It will also encourage those who have to prepare sermons Sunday by Sunday, to consider ways in which their preaching may be as relevant as possible to their congregations and communities in which they are placed. It will also encourage preachers and church congregations to consider other opportunities for the message to be proclaimed at times and occasions other than the main Sunday service. 

A preacher once said from the pulpit to a woman in the congregation, ‘Would you mind waking up that man next to you?’ She smiled and answered, ‘You wake him up. You put him to sleep!’ Sermons and preaching in general tend to have a bad press, both inside and outside the church. Politicians are encouraged not to preach at people, for fear of being seen by the electorate as overstepping the mark in their involvement in people’s lives. A nanny state of preachers is not welcomed. Martin Wroe’s books helpfully poke fun at the church and what Christians get up to. In ‘God: What the Critics Say’ he includes a section entitled ‘Church, Worship, Sermons and Boring Stuff Like That’. It seems that even within the church, there are not high expectations that sermons will be relevant, life changing or even life enhancing. They are too often seen as something to be endured by the listener.

There is a classic scene from Mr Bean, often used as a training resource in preaching and evangelism. Rowan Atkinson plays someone obviously unfamiliar with church. On entering the church he sits next to a member of the congregation, played by Richard Briers. Mr Bean doesn’t know when to sit down or stand up; neither does he know the tune to the hymn. The preacher drones on to such an extent that Mr Bean falls asleep, and slips to the floor. Although a caricature of what sermons and the experience of church may be like, it carries some truth and is a warning for any who preach. 

It is hard to believe that anyone would have fallen asleep whilst listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Of course in the New Testament preaching has nothing to do with the delivery of sermons to the converted, which is what it usually means today, but always concerns the proclamation of the ‘good tidings of God’ to the non-Christian world. The word ‘relevant’ as a word is entirely absent from the New Testament, but there are three words used for preaching (euangelizesthai, to preach good tidings, katangellein, to declare, announce, and kerussein, to proclaim as a herald). These words for preaching must be distinguished from the word for teaching (didache), which in the New Testament normally means ethical instruction, or occasionally apologetics or instruction in the faith. This distinction between preaching and teaching is found within the ministry of Jesus himself. Jesus preached (i.e. proclaimed the Kingdom of God) and he taught. The instruction that he gave to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount is didache (teaching) rather than preaching. The apostolic church took the message of the Gospel and presented a kerugma (‘thing preached’, ‘proclamation’) to the world. This kerugma is the apostolic gospel that may be summed up as the message of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus used a number of ways to preach the gospel; he didn’t rely on one form. He used parables as a medium by which the mystery of the kingdom message may be conveyed, drawing on images that people would readily have associated with. The message itself may have been a mystery, something to make people puzzle over. But the images and stories were life-related. Jesus used images that would have been familiar to people living in a rural environment: sheep, shepherds, seed and harvests. He told stories that drew on life experiences that all individuals and communities would have had first hand experience of: illness, children running away, difficult family life, mugging, poverty, and death. Jesus took these pictures and stories and used them as a base in which to weave the gospel message. Here can be seen a model of relevant preaching that can help today’s gospel messengers.

This is an extract from Importance of relevant biblical preaching by Bob Callaghan. Originally published in ‘How to Become a Creative Church Leader’ (2008) published by Canterbury Press

Still figuring out what being a disciple might mean. Anglican priest and cyclist. One of the founders and editors of New Roots - partly as a way of hanging on in there!

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