Surprised by Joy: preaching from November 2018 to January 2019
Surprised by Joy – the title of C.S. Lewis’ 1955 account of his conversion to Christianity can serve as the desired goal of effective preaching.
Reading through the three articles in this issue, key themes that emerge that are essential for serving such a goal. The first of these is the importance of preparation combined with a clear aim for the sermon. Next, that the preacher be faithful both to the message of the Scriptural text and be able to connect that message to the lives of the worshippers, communicating a sense of conviction and urgency.
Michael Baughen urges a discipline of sermon preparation that is both intellectually rigorous and spiritually alive. Such attention to preparation is echoed in Christopher Burkett’s article ‘Why Preach’, as he insists, ‘By its dependence on scripture and the spirituality of preacher and church, it cannot but be prepared.’ Michael Baughen counsels us to ponder the text and to ‘pray for God to lay on our hearts what He wants us to focus on and to draw from in this passage.’ Even when the preacher has approached the same text before, ‘It is for that day, in the context of the times and with awareness of the life situations of the congregation. We might come in the same way to the same passage a year later and find God lays a different emphasis on our hearts.’ Advising us to use ‘every commentary we can’ he then urges us to ‘make notes of all the thoughts coming to us as we research and think and we go on praying … preparation on a Monday and coming back to it for parts of each day is the way to marinate, meditate and become thrilled with what God is opening up to our hearts and minds.’
For those who neglect to marinate the ingredients of their sermons, Michael cites the 17th Century Puritan divine Richard Baxter: ‘”I earnestly beseech you, in the name of God and for the sake of your people’s souls, that you will not SLUBBER over your work”!’ This reminded me of Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium (Good News of Joy), urging that ‘a preacher who does not prepare is not ‘spiritual’; he is dishonest and irresponsible with the gifts he has received …’ This wise admonition might have been enriched even further if there had been a Latin word for SLUBBER!
A Clear Aim
For those who refrain from slubbering, and who prepare their sermons seriously, a clear aim emerges. At one level this aim is always the same. Michael finds it summed up in Ephesians 4.12: ‘to equip the people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach the unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ Michael then exclaims …’What a task! What an aim! What an outcome!’
Every sermon writer for the Preacher is asked to state an aim for his or her sermon. An examination of these largely express one or more of the objectives set out in Ephesians. Thus, by way of example, Robin Gibbons states the aim for his All Saints Day homily as an awakening and as ‘a call to holiness by radical action and presence’ which equates with ‘attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’ and equipping ‘the people for works of service.’ And Deirdre Brower Latz in her introduction to Mark 12:38-44 for 11 November, aims ‘to encourage the congregation to continue to give of themselves, alongside giving time for them to reflect on their lives and their use of all that they have.’ This, surely, is an application of ‘attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’
But as Christopher Burkett emphasises, in order to achieve their aims ‘preachers must speak of God’s universal grace, but in a way that focusses it in the needs and longings of those who are being addressed.’ Or, as Lorraine Cavanagh tells us in her article ‘Preaching the Good News: What do we really want to say?’ we ‘are engaging with people who live in a world of change and uncertainty … we must connect with their fears and anxieties, or what we say will not have the ring of truth about it. It will not be Good News for them.’ For Louise this Good News ‘is always a SURPRISE, resonating as it does with the hidden truth and desire for God lodged, often secretly, in the human heart.’
Among examples of such connections in sermons, Brett Ward’s homily for Advent 2, connects the baptism of John in Luke 3:1-6 with new beginnings in the experience of his congregation, ‘Moving to a new house, starting a new job or a new school, getting married, being baptised or confirmed or ordained: life is full of occasions when it feels like we’re beginning again.’ So too, Adrian Cassidy, connects the preaching of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4 to ‘the emerging society issues such as child protection, GDPR, dealing with abuse, etcetera – and indeed world political events, even Brexit – against the Spirit’s anointing to bring the good news to the poor, and release to the captives.’
And as we connect, Christopher reminds us, ‘We speak as those with something urgent to say.’ Or Lorraine, that preaching is about telling the congregation ‘what they long to hear in order to be healed and made new, so that Christian joy may be released from within them and do its transforming work in the world.’
We can sense this note of urgency more clearly when we hear the preacher’s voice, but even when we only have the text, we can often feel caught up in the urgency of the message. Thus, in Francis Agnoli’s homily for the Mass of the Dawn on Christmas Day: ‘something new has happened. A new day has dawned; the light is just beginning to peek over the horizon. We are still in shadow, but we can begin to see more clearly. A new day is promised but isn’t in full bloom yet. Dawn is an in-between time; a time of hope. And that is where we find ourselves. I think that’s why we’re here …’
So too, in the pace of the pilgrimage of the imagination described by Sergius Halvorsen for the Baptism of Christ on the Orthodox Feast of the Theophany: ‘a voice came from heaven saying, “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.”’
In this moment, God reveals the Messiah, the Christ … and he’s one of us. The Christ is not some disembodied spirit that swoops down from the stars and lays waste to the unrighteous. He’s a human being, just like you and me, except he’s perfect—sinless—perfect God and perfect man ... The voice from heaven says to Jesus and to each one of us, ‘You are my beloved.’ This is not a message of condemnation and vengeance. It is a message of mercy and forgiveness. It is an invitation to discipleship and communion. This is not the message I was looking for, but it is better than I could have possibly imagined.’ Surprised by Joy, indeed!
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