THE ART OF PREACHING AS AN ACT OF WORSHIP
No sermon, however homiletically artistic, is ever complete if considered solely as an individual effort by the preacher. It is the congregational context, as well as the sermonic content, that must be taken into account.
Immediately we are hard against an issue that is increasingly to the fore in wide areas of Protestantism: shall we revive liturgy in order to enrich worship? This is not the place to explore the ramifications of the debate. It is the place, however, to point out—and to protest against—a false antithesis. Granted that in evangelical Protestantism, particularly of the “free church” variety, the tendency has been to misconstrue and undervalue those forms of congregational prayer and praise which precede the sermon. In this distorted perspective we look upon these exercises and offerings as “preliminaries.” The word should be an offense to us. The abandonment of its absurdity cannot be too swift.
But now an opposite peril threatens. Protestants, we are told, have become a sermon-tasting breed who, whether fascinated by a pulpit star or bored by a hack, are strangers to the art, the beauty, the dignity, the sacramental mysticism, of “worship.” On the whole, those who exalt ritual denigrate preaching. Whether by accident or design, it is generally and obviously true that the heavily liturgical service is the service of the ten-to-twelve-minute sermon.
Again, the numerous facts and facets of the current discussion are beyond the range of our purpose. The extremists in both camps can ill afford to be unteachable. But again what one does deplore is the fallacy of thinking of the sermon as something apart from worship. It is implied—and occasionally declared—that in the liturgy God is acting, while in the preaching it is man.
This is dangerously opaque thinking, the corrective answer to which is a series of insights which one ventures to describe as follows:
1. Preaching is a redemptive event. “True preaching,” says Dr. Donald G. Miller in Fire In Thy Mouth, “is an extension of the Incarnation into the contemporary moment, the transfiguration of the Cross and the Resurrection from ancient facts of a remote past into living realities of the present.” What we have in authentic preaching is not a repetition of Calvary (since that is unrepeatable) but a contemporizing of it. The Holy Scriptures having dependably recorded it, the Holy Spirit now dynamically reveals it; and in the preacher, if he be the man of God he should be, both the record and the revelation find a claiming voice. This makes the sermon vastly more than something said: it is something done. It is the saving, healing, strengthening God in action through his servant. To separate this from a church’s worship experience is perilous nonsense.
2. Preaching, moreover, is actually a congregational function. In an essay on “Preaching As Worship” P. T. Forsythe makes the observation that “true preaching presupposes a Church, and not merely a public.” Reading this, my own mind leaped back to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. The account of it begins with the revealing statement, “But Peter, standing up with the eleven, said.…” The proclamation of the Gospel to an unbelieving “public” was made in the context of a believing “Church.”
Furthermore, on any right reading of the situation it will be seen that in Peter’s preaching that day the Church was preaching. A New Testament sermon, far from being a parade of the opinions of a man with a clerical title, is the congregation witnessing to its faith—both for its own edification and for the persuasion of those who are without faith. It is the congregation “hearing its one hope,” not with “an empty wonder” but with illuminated adoration, not “sadly contented with a show of things” but discontented with anything through which the eternal is failing to show.
To say that such preaching does not have in it the dimension of worship is to be under a strange illusion.
3. Preaching, we should not hesitate to say, has a sacramental character. Not sacerdotal, mind you, but sacramental! The sermon is not a communication of grace in which the transmission is guaranteed by the mechanics of the investiture in which the preacher was given the insignia of his office. On the other hand, the sermon is indeed the visible and audible sign of the grace that is given when, to borrow the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “the word preached” is “mixed with faith” on the part of those who hear. The pulpit should be seen as a sign of the grace of God standing within the divinely created community of faith—the Church.
4. A further insight is this: preaching is an oblation. It is an offering of prayer. The preacher’s? Yes. And the congregation’s too. A sermon not steeped in prayer is unworthy of the name. It is an offering of the intellect. Read Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, on the relation between prophesying and intelligibility. It is an offering of the volition. First the preacher’s and then the congregation’s. A sermon is, in Forsythe’s unforgettable phrase, “the organized Hallelujah” of the Church, joyously confessing its faith in the Gospel, obediently submitting to its claims.
If such offering is not worship, then nothing is!
PAUL S. REES
We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20; read vv. 1–21.)
This British sermon begins with a well-known case from life. At a critical stage in the recent World War Sir Samuel Hoare went to Spain on a special mission. There by skill and tact he kept France from coming out directly on the side of the enemy. From this example the interpreter draws four lessons. As an ambassador for King Jesus the Christian:
I. Represents His Ruler in an Alien Land. There his official residence belongs to the country to which he himself belongs. Are you really an ambassador of Christ? Is your home an embassy of heaven? Is this church, as far as you can make it, a “colony of heaven”?
II. Enjoys Direct Access to the Ruler He Represents. The ambassador’s mail-bag is ever inviolate. The Christian has even more immediate access to his Ruler through prayer. To keep from being “denationalized,” the ambassador has to keep in constant touch with his King. Is this true of you?
III. Serves on a Special Mission for Christ. “Be ye reconciled to God.” What a task! What a task! Have you felt the critical character and all the responsibility of your mission as an ambassador of reconciliation? Also, have you studied the minds of people outside the Church? Do you know the craft of personal evangelism? Do you know how to plead the case of your crucified Lord, the Reconciler?
IV. Some Day Is Relieved of His Post. His task well done, the ambassador hears the call to come home. There he receives the thanks of Christ as King, and then takes his place near the throne. However sudden the call, may it find us gladly fulfilling our ambassadorial duties. Meanwhile the ambassador is waiting to be called home, there to see the smile of his King. Will it be like that with you some day as an ambassador of King Jesus?—From Can I Know God and Other Sermons (Abingdon Press, 1960).
SERMONS ABRIDGED BY DR. ANDREW W. BLACKWOOD
W. E. SANGSTER: An Ambassador of Christ; PAUL S. REES: The Service of Silence; BRYANT M. KIRKLAND: Praying When Prayer Seems Dead; HENRY GEORGE HARTNER: The Gospel of Ascension Day; and DR. BLACKWOOD’SA Psalm that Luther Loved.
Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still (Ps. 4:4).
Other translations prefer the word “silence.” For our noise-dumb age could anything be more timely? A silence pregnant with God makes you feel that even one audible word would be sacrilege. What then is the service of these quiet yet creative interludes in the life of God’s child? Think of such silence as:
I. An Aid to Memory. When we are still, the past comes back to haunt, perhaps to humble, or to make us happy. In the psalm when David is quiet his memory goes to work. He looks back on troubles at the time seemingly unbearable, but troubles that have left him a bigger man, with a richer soul and a finer faith. Yes, silence is the setting in which memory has its best chance, and does its noblest work.
II. A Response to Mystery. Before any mystery, “Stand in awe, and sin not.” Among the mysteries consider the holiness of God. Do we stand in awe of his holiness? “As he who has called you is holy,” cries Peter, “so be ye holy in all matters of conduct.” There is a hushed response that should be evoked by the unsullied holiness that our poor eyes behold in God. This response is a part of worship, of penitence, of sensitive discipleship. In the presence of such mysteries how useful to be silent! When no other response is ready, “in silence reflect.”
III. A Form of Ministry, not least to ourselves. Without some such concern against evil, and protest against it, something is missing from our moral fiber. Silence is even more a form of service to others. In another sometimes a hurt is too deep for words; it calls for loving silence. Often I have gone to a funeral parlor, or to a home, to face a friend to whom grief has just come. My first ministry there has been with no smoothly turned sentences, no glib and conventional condolence. No, just a clasp of my hand and whatever of Christ’s tender care I could convey with my eyes. When a heart is throbbing with its most acute anguish it is not speech that is needed, but our Lord’s healing silence.
IV. A Symbol of Mystery. When Christ hung upon the cross, how did he reply to cruel taunts? With a silence so noble and noteworthy that the centuries reckon with it as sublime. Like the Saviour we too can not escape occasions when the noblest weapon of moral dignity is silence.
Silence! Let no one think it useless! Give it a larger and a more meaningful place in your soul. Whatever you do, don’t treat Christ with such carelessness and flippancy that he can return you nothing but his awful and dooming silence. His silence to you can be terribly fatal. Your silence to him may be tremendously fruitful.—From Evangelical Sermons of Our Day, ed. by A. W. Blackwood (Manhasset, N. Y.: Channel Press, 1959).
For this thing [the thorn in the flesh] I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me (2 Cor. 12:8; read vv. 1–11).
What a confused world this would be if God answered all our prayers affirmatively! For this reason the Scriptures teach what to do when a prayer seems dead. Paul had his thorn in the flesh. For its removal he prayed three times. But God said No, lest the Apostle become conceited, forgetting that this is God’s world. He may refuse a prayer because he has better things to give than we dare to ask. So let us turn into modern language these lessons about the conditions of prayer.
I. Clarify What You Seek. “Watch out when you pray! Are you ready to receive what you really cry for in your unconscious? When you pray for peace, are you prepared for the costs of peace? When you pray for brotherhood, are you able to stand the involvement of brotherhood?” Your prayer is not what you say but what you think in your subconscious mind. When Elizabeth Barrett was with her father he prayed: “O God, make Elizabeth well.” But she did not get well. Robert Browning won her heart, and took her to Italy as his wife. There he prayed: “O God, make Elizabeth well.” She was healed. The father’s prayer was obscured by the desire to keep his daughter at home. Browning’s prayer was the devoted identification of a husband with his wife.
II. Clear Up Your Human Relations. Before we speak our prayers we need to clarify our human relationships. With those who stand out at odds against us we may first need to make restitution and receive forgiveness. With a married man the way to start praying effectively for his wife and children is to love them more tenderly. For a young married man with a mother-in-law critical about his lack of money, the way to start praying for her is to show her clearly that he loves her. What woman with wrinkles on her face wants to remain bitter?
III. Cooperate with God. Your prayer may be denied so that God can give you some greater blessing. Paul said, “I will glory in my weakness that the power of Christ may come upon me.” Like Naaman the leper, instead of seeking to do something great, accept the little deed that God desires. Like Samuel in the night, when he heard the voice of God and thought it the voice of a man, learn to know the voice of God. Like Tagore, the Christian philosopher of India, learn to say: “I thank Thee, God, for Thy hard refusals, which have been my salvation.”—Pastor, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, N. Y.
Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:11; read vv. 1–11).
Ascension Day brings into the songs of the Church Militant the final note of victory. Ever since then the Church has kept looking up, and will do so until He comes again, as come he will. Meanwhile the Church should sing: “Glory, glory to our King!” The Ascension Gospel is:
I. Glorious in Direction. Twice our text says: “up into heaven.” In the light of Ascension Day our prayers ascend in the assurance of God’s love. By faith we now have up there the One who lives to intercede for us, the One exalted far above all earthly things, able to govern his Church and finally lead her to glory forever. “Glory, glory to our King!”
II. Glorious in Meaning. For our King this was Coronation Day. At the end of his earthly sojourn it was fitting that he should return to heaven in triumph. For those who now walk the way of the Cross and with all their heart believe that no one cometh to the Father but by Him, the ascension of Christ has built a free bridge to heaven. The Ascension is the crowning finale of all his words and works for our salvation. Here is the final and complete assurance that God the Father has accepted the work of his Son for the redemption of men from the guilt and punishment of all their sins. Glory to our King!
III. Glorious in Hope. For believers here on earth the highest blessings of the Ascension may be in the realm of hope. Hope is the keynote of our text. The idea of our Lord’s return was not new. But in view of the Ascension the message of the angels brought to believers a new impetus both to work and to wait for the Saviour’s second coming. Time for the winning of souls is limited. God wants all believers to be filled with the sort of energy reflected in the words of his Son: “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day, for the night cometh, when no man can work.”
We call this our hope, and “we are saved by hope.” Hope here means faith as it concerns the future. To be of lasting worth one’s hope must have a sure foundation.
If any man says: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” that man has a blessed hope. It rests on the everlasting Rock of Ages, Christ and his unchanging Word.—From The Concordia Pulpit for 1962 (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1962).
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? (Ps. 2:1; read vv. 1–12).
“The Second Psalm is one of the best. I love that psalm with all my heart. It strikes and flashes valiantly among kings, princes, counsellors.” Why did Luther the Reformer so love this difficult psalm? What does it mean to common folk now? Note the dramatic element, with different speakers, here shown in parentheses.
I. The Rebellion against God (The Psalmist, vv.1–3). A favorite Old Testament idea of God as King, and of sin as rebellion against him. A. The Folly of Rebelling against God. B. The Conspiracy against God. C. The Defiance of God. In history with Toynbee study such nations, notably Russia now.
II. The Laughter in Heaven (The Psalmist, on behalf of God, 4, 5). A. The Irony of God. B. The Anger of God. Here we behold “the dark line in God’s face.” When the powers of earth set themselves to defy their Maker, He knows, he cares, he shows righteous indignation. If he did not, how could we continue to bow down and adore him as the Holy One? Is this the grandmotherly God of some American pulpits today?
III. The Kingship of Christ (God as King, 6–9). Here is no Absentee Monarch, sitting on a distant star, indifferent to the woes of earth’s suffering saints. A. The Kingship of His Son. B. The Dominion of this King.—What a vision of World Missions! C. The Judgment on God’s Foes.
On an ocean liner a Scottish divine and one of our past statesmen were discussing our country and her corrupt cities. The minister: “What does America need?” “America needs an Emperor!” “You a distinguished American leader, highly honored at home and abroad! Do you confess that your Government is a failure?” “Sir, America needs an Emperor, and his name is Christ!” So does the world. Our earth has an Emperor, but alas, countless hosts still rebel.
IV. The Call for Submission (The Psalmist, 10–12). A. The Voice of Wisdom. B. The Fear of the Lord. C. The Call for Submission. “Kiss his feet with trembling” (Moffatt), or else make ready to receive his judgment.
After such a heart-searching message from God, the hearer longs to cry out: “What can I do, right here and now?” My brother, dedicate yourself anew to God, as Luther did before the Reformation. Then let the Lord guide in Christian warfare, according to the spirit of the psalm that Luther loved.—(After a prayer of dedication, have the people sing: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”)
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