The Sermon and Its Content

by Runar Eldebo and translated by Tommy Carlson

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." Mark 1: 14-15

A sermon is an announcement of a new time. The suspense is not so much between "a then" and "a now," as it is between "an already now" and "a not quite yet." The time is at hand, God's kingdom is near. The Greek word for time, kairos, challenges our chronological thinking. The sermon's tense is therefore open toward the future and in the words there is a parallelism: the time is at hand because God's kingdom is near. The same with regard to the implications of this: convert and believe in the message. The sermon is a word about conversion. But conversion and belief are like two sides of the same coin. Perhaps one can say that conversion from something is the negative formulation of the positive in meeting the living God. The sermon is defined Biblically by Mark as he observes Jesus Christ preaching for the first time: the time is at hand, convert. God's kingdom is near, believe in the message.

A few years ago, the city of Chicago had a very colorful mayor. His name was Harold Washington. He came to the city from the future, so to speak. He came to a city that had been a city of race riots, that had been a city of shop keepers, and that had also been a city of the mafia. It was a city that had been governed for years by a powerful mayor, Mayor Daly, and the men of his powerful political machine. The new mayor was black. He lived alone on Lake Michigan's shore in a simple apartment filled with books. He bowed and spoke a word here and there to the people he met on frequent walks to his office. Harold Washington succeeded by means of his modest and enormously dynamic personality in uniting the city of Chicago as never before. When he spoke in his close to charismatic way, he spoke out of the depths of Chicago. When he died suddenly of a ruptured heart, people cried openly. Funeral events were covered by TV for several days and many people were heard to say that such a person comes to Chicago only once. He came from the future to a city that did not initially cherish him and in a few years he accomplished what was practically impossible. There was unprecedented sorrow in the city during December 1987. Like the sermon, Mayor Washington came from the future.

The sermon is a keeper of secrets. It lives from the preacher' s own struggle with God and from the preacher's meetings with people whom God makes available. To support these poles in the preacher's life is the Bible and the large, beautiful literature. The preacher is reprieved because he or she is generally supported by a full-time salary. There is not a sharp division between work time and free time. And it means, in part, that preachers are paid to commune with God, and, in part, to drive around to meet people. There, someplace, the sermon is born.

For fear of God and to win people, the sermon's basic manifestation often is "in between." The sermon lives between two worlds or epochs. The sermon's time is the time between Easter and the parousia [the coming of Christ in fullness]. It is often said and written that the one who preaches must know several languages and know many worlds. There is a big chasm between the world of the Bible and our world. And there are many preachers who have made their listeners into Palestinian shepherds in their enthusiasm to proclaim the word!

John Stott's excellent book on preaching has this point as the title: Between Two Worlds. Preaching takes place between two worlds, the Biblical and now. The preacher's job is to be a bridge-builder. I can see and understand the point in this reasoning. But is this schism the most important and the most challenging? Does not the sermon live in a field of suspense toward the future? Is not the appeal for conversion a consequence of the nearness of God's kingdom? And is there not another act between epochs, between the future and now? Ernst KSseman calls the apocalypse "all theologies' mother." And David Butrick in his work Homiletic Moves and Structure says that "the hermeneutic of Christian preaching is social and eschatological (p. 16)."

We do not just retell the Biblical texts. We do not just try to look at Sweden and America from a Biblical view. We do not yearn for the time when we stand in the pulpit. We stand there because the time has come. We preach because God's kingdom is near. The Christian sermon continues the work that Jesus Christ began by calling, liberating, and shaping a new person. Is that not the way Allan Boesak's preaching functions? To build a bridge to that world and epoch which does not yet exist? To come from the future as Harold Washington did?

On Broadway, not long ago, there was a play in which two scenes were played at the same time. In one scene the actor played and in the other the author wrote the play while the actor was playing. Once in awhile the author would intervene to correct lines and other things. At some points he would play a part in the play.

My thesis is that a sermon finds itself between two worlds and two epochs. But that the situation the sermon is in transcends the boundary lines between the two because the time is at hand, God's kingdom is near. Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, meets and deals with us from his future. I want to close this section with a quote from P. T. Forsyth: "We must all preach to our age, but woe to us if it is our age we preach and merely hold up a mirror to the time (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, p. 5)."

The Sermon is Kerygma

The essence of the sermon can be grasped by defining what the sermon is not. The sermon is not, in its essence, teaching. It does not begin a thought, does not penetrate every nook and cranny, does not give those gathered different possibilities of interpretation, and does not lead the discussion to a Biblical summary with reasonable and possible application. This is good. This is perhaps what our Christianity needs more than ever, But this is not the essence of the sermon. The sermon is kerygma.

"To preach is to assume the role of a herald or town crier and to publicly proclaim a message (Between Two Worlds, p. 83)," writes John Stott. The sermon lives when it is spoken to someone. Teaching carries another mark, it is another art form. The sermon lives when it is spoken to someone by mouth and lips, using one's whole expressive arsenal. The journalist Bo Stömstedt had a feeling for the secret when in a conversation he compared the pentecostal sermons from his childhood to today's sermons: "Then the preachers were close to what they said. That presence I am missing now!"

The sermon is, therefore, neither a lecture, nor fact information, nor good advice for either politics or co-existence. Lars Ake Lunberg, in a lecture at Sigtuna Foundation, reformulated the essence of the sermon trying to move the sermon away from emphasis on artistic locution requirements. The sermon is the word for the congregation which cannot be expressed any other way, That is why we preach! Otherwise we could not!

Our experience is consistent in that we find it remarkable when some sermons happen to be faithful to their distinctive character, Some are merely exegetical expositions! Some do not express moral guidelines, merely political directions!

I remember one summer with Bo Giertz. I remember how I followed him among the churches on Oland. Sometimes I heard him several times the same Sunday and, I believe, almost twenty times that summer. I remember how he stepped forward in that idyllic atmosphere on Oland with his little Novum in his hand, gave a 15 minute confession, and then preached for 30 minutes. And one swished for just a little more, "But you don't agree with Bo Giertz" said my friends. "Is he not high-church and fundamentalist?" It has nothing to do with that! I am not listening to that! He can preach!

I remember a different setting one Sunday in Storkyrkan in Stockholm. I remember how Ludvig Jönsson took the pulpit in that always crowded cathedral. The text was about the one who was born blind. The text was read with all the anguish o~ this world by Ludvig Jönsson, who then started his sermon~ ' saying that it is common to expound this text by observing that we are all in one way or another blind or born blind and that we are politically and morally blind. "All over Sweden people will be exhorted to test this symbolically interpreted blindness. But that is not what this text deals with," said Ludvig Jönsson. "The text talks about a person who was blind. Period. And received sight." Then the preacher with God's grace began a gigantic struggle with God and with the possibilities for God's kingdom to intervene today!

Not exegetical, not moral, not political is the essence of the sermon and its content. The sermon is kerygma. Its content is spiritual.

Nils Mjones gave his farewell sermon at Imanuelskyrkan in Stockholm shortly before he died of cancer. He told of the Chinese artist who painted a landscape, forming the mountains and lakes under his skilled artist's hands. Finally he put down his brushes, and walked into the landscape. "That is how I have wanted to preach," said Nils Mjones, "so that people would like to stand up and walk into the world of belief and faith that I have painted with my words." The sermon is kerygma!

The Sermon's Crisis Today

There is talk at times about a crisis regarding sermons and about the lack of possibilities today — that the Word or the words cannot communicate. There is talk that no one can sit and listen to a one-way-communicator for more that ten minutes, and that drama and subject, liturgy and dialogue must come to assist that poor, lonely, and aging preacher. I do not believe in any of this crisis. Nothing today communicates like words. Those who have words in their power, among business people and the well-to-do, are offered incredible remuneration. There is nothing as fascinating as listening to and observing one who can handle words and is present in them.

Yet, one can still talk about crisis. It is valid to place the crisis in areas that are clearly defined so that good continuing education and and adaptation can take place. The crisis of the sermon is a crisis of content! The crisis of the sermon is a crisis of experience!

A quote from Sten Philipson:

The church has come to a point in its development where it seriously has to reconsider its fundamental outlook and try to find new ways to develop its thinking and its experience — if it is not to lose completely its meaning for inspiring to a conscious religious life among people today and among future generations. As an established community institution, the church can perhaps continue to maintain its justification to exist without being renewed, but not when it concerns its spiritual function in people's lives (Bryta Upp! [Break Up!] pp. 7, 8).

As John Stott says in his book: "The most important secrets of preaching are not technical but theological and personal (Between Two Worlds, p.l0)." Perhaps you remember from Luther: "A good preacher should be sure of his doctrine." (Quoted by Stott, p. 24).

Christina Grenholm wrote recently in Svensk Kyrkotidningen with the headline: "The Sermon Is The Pastor's Most Important Task." "The pastor's task is not to start religious feelings in motion, but to help people to find a faith for which one can live and die."

Therefore, a preacher need not have a bad conscience because he or she believes, belief is the essence of the sermon. Someone has said that three vocations deal with life and death on a daily basis: the soldier, the surgeon, and the preacher. The assignment is about life and death, nothing less complicated, or less fascinating. This became very clear to me a few weeks ago when I was in Tjörn preaching. The people told me that they are out at sea for five days at a time — the big and sometimes rolling sea. When they come home, they dress up and go to church. Then they want the preacher to match that week's life and death which they have experienced. As they said: "Then common froth is not good enough!"

Then, too, it is not good enough to be short of experience. The sermon can require the preacher to have a good and prolonged relationship with God. It is terrible to fall into the hands of the living God and it is out of this fall that the one who preaches preaches. Lars Ake Lundberg writes in this context:

We talk about God — how can we do that without trembling, shaking, being frightened, just to take the word in one's mouth time and time again — not so surprising if we seek shelter once in awhile... about God — who led the people of Israel out of Egypt, the one the prophets talked about, the one who raised Jesus from the grave. The one who lets a bush burn in the desert without burning up. Moses sees it and is frightened — a common feature for the experience of God when placed before the incomprehensible. Who should not be frightened? Is this what we so often change to small coins so that it can be managed? (Sigtuna-stiftelsen).

This experience does not come from preaching nor from highchurch nor free-church activities. This matter has to do with the experience of God — experience like what the Roman Catholic Church fosters in its new coming preachers by training them in spiritual (religious) exercises for a daily and constant relationship with God. Is this the presence that Bo Strömstedt is seeking? Is it the absence of this experience among preachers that makes people prefer to visit an empty museum-church rather than a preaching church-room?

Spiritual Tradition

It is fantastic to preach when one is not preaching alone. At the same time I am preaching, so are others. Preaching is done in large, magnificent cathedrals. It is done in small mission houses in Varmland with a crackling organ and a draught between the benches. In those and in all places proclamations and administrations of secrets take place. Time is at hand and God's kingdom is near, Bridges are built between our world and the world which is not quite here. South African worship is united with American suburban churches.

I, the preacher, am part of the spiritual tradition. The content of the sermon is part of spiritual tradition.

The sermon does not stand in the crossroads desperately trying to find the gospel for people who are searching. The sermon just stands where it is. It stands in and refers to a tradition that has lived and died for nearly two thousand years. Obviously, that sermon fails which talks past people. But that sermon also fails which only listens and is not able to meet the existential situation with spiritual tradition, with the church's well-tested message that people have lived beautifully on and have died blessedly in for almost two thousand years.

Our texts are structured after the church year. With these texts and our regular church calendar, the sermon has very good instruments for opening a reality in which people can become absorbed. In dealing with two calendars, one for religious seasons and the other for natural and social seasons, people stand the risk to mature and to grow. When the summer stands around us in all its glory, our regular calendar is empty because of vacation. Then the church year challenges us with all the serious texts about "God and the world" and about "genuine and false piety." Then we have the time to think, to absorb, and to refine. When the year turns to fall, and the trees and nature get undressed, we also undress who dare to go to worship and to sermon. Close to Judgment Sunday the trees are naked and so, also, the people. During Advent the four candles are lit in the darkness and in those short, dark days a defenseless child is born who is the salvation of the world.

When the light returns, the church calendar goes squarely against the other calendar and the people toward Lent and Easter. "Do you have the energy to pray with me?" asks the Lord. "Can you drink from the same cup from which I drink?" Right now the calendars interplay and they enrich and deepen us. Pentecost strikes us with love anew while the Spirit continues to speak to our senses. Holiday and Church Year are more than a time to relax. They are also a time to add on to our lives, drawing from the same structure the Bible texts and sermon live in so that our lives grow and mature.

Our sermon's content must for its well-being, incorporate the Church Year with the rhythm which has carried the church for so long and which has been born from that church's experience. Let us not make fools of ourselves by saying no to such a well proven spiritual tradition! Let us not make ourselves lonely by standing outside that tradition.

The Content of the Preacher

Who then is worthy to preach? A few thoughts about the content of the preacher.

The one who preaches ought to be a mystic in the world. Nothing else is really good enough. Being a mystic in the world means to strive inward as much as possible with one's time and to live in the world as much as possible with one's time.

The one who is to talk a lot must order one's life for quiet. Otherwise the talking will fall into pieces. One used to say that the evangelical who abuses his or her time becomes sentimental around the age of 40 and an official in the Church of Sweden. A mission friend, then, becomes an administrator! The point is how one cares for one's instrument! The point is also how the spiritual tradition IS mine and how more and more I am its.

The homeletic literature I have read during the past few years talks a lot about this commission to spend time in quiet. The typical minimum proposal seems to be:

  • To study and pray at least one hour a day
  • to study and pray at least one morning/afternoon every week,
  • to study and pray at least one day every month, and
  • to study and pray at least one week every year.

That is 600 hours every year and, as it is said, "Who can accomplish this assignment with less?"

But also, as much as possible, I live my life in the world. Rector Olle Engström used to say that the drapes in the pastor's home should always reek of smoke. And I believe he pointed in this direction — nothing worldly and secular shall be foreign to the one who shall speak of God's kingdom to the world.

To be a mystic in the world means that with my time, as much as possible, I strive inwardly and that with my life, as much as possible, I live worldly. Was it not St. Chrysostomos who was called "A man of the Word and a man of the world?" (Charles Silvester Horne, The Romance of Preaching, 1914).

The Content of the Sermon

While I was preparing these thoughts, I met one of my neighbors on Lidingö, one of my closest friends. I had taken a day off to go for a long walk and to work at my computer. My friend was home the whole week with his children. He said that two of his superiors had recently died of heart attacks and that he had re-arranged his life so that he could work one week and be home one.

Sten Philipson writes in his book Bryta Upp! (Break Up!):

We no longer have the energy for the demand in a high performance community. We have realized that a toil-and-moil culture can not last in the long run. Today we feel the need to find another way to structure our existence than by technical and scientific means. We wish that our feelings, our dreams, our visions instead could be the foundation for the development of tomorrow's community and the environment for people.

And Philipson says: "But when we try to indicate a new course... we stand irresolute. We know what we DO NOT WANT, but we do not know what we DO WANT (p. 9)."

(1) The content of the Sermon should not be detached from the world.

It is so easy to place a sermon in an area that has nothing to do with myself or the listener. The sermon should not turn away from the world in which the listener lives. It ought to be the keys to precisely that person's world, keys to that epoch, to that time, to that kingdom which is being created now but not yet completed. Liberation ought to take place here, not in heaven, not on any place on earth either. But here, in the now which transcends them both. I think that Ludvig Jönsson is, perhaps, the preacher who really shaped something which could be called "Swedish liberation theology." He talked liberation from his pulpit in the country's Capitol precisely to the people who sat below his pulpit. What the modern big-city people he knew were, he WAS, and he knew the spiritual tradition which alone could liberate. The life he painted again and again was for the pilgrim's welfare. It was not to deny the welfare, who can do that? But it was to help all of us not to put down our pilings too deeply, not to let our present welfare own us, but like the pilgrim in the letter to the Hebrews, be on our way!

The content of the sermon ought not be detached from the world! There is also the question of morality. Is not the sermon without moral guidance detached from the world? Such a sermon does not think about us as people — that this world is not ours or that life is our purpose, We, not only Allan Boesak's listeners, need to have the good road pointed out. Overstressing morality is not the dilemma of our time. Possibly it was yesterday' s. The dilemma of our time is a lack of good and genuine morality. But the only one who, as much as possible with his own time, has strived inwardly and also made his own life worldly can be there and point. Was it not in this that the liberating action of Ludvig Jönsson's sermons had their secret, their mystery?

The latest book by Bishop Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, challenges us in this direction. He maintains that it is time that the message challenge the western world. It needs to challenge, on the one hand, science which has reduced humankind's reality to the point where only what is measurable is real and, on the other hand, the atheistic materialism which is the basis for both capitalism and the Soviet ideology.

The content of the sermon should not be detached from the world. It ought to pry open and to take hold of people's reality because it is THIS time that is at hand and God's kingdom is near.

(2) The content of the sermon ought to be a fullness of mystery.

"I have a dream," the sermon of our times begins, wherein Martin Luther King Jr. paints the Chinese landscape so that a whole world wants to and can go in. What I call the fullness of mystery does not depend on the fact that we people are limited and do not know all the secrets. The fullness of mystery lies in the complexity of what we do know. We do not preach in a simple world. And it is not from a simple book that we receive our texts. I will let Karl Barth say it:

I sought to find my way between the problem of human life on the one hand and the content of the Bible on the other. As a minister I wanted to speak to the people in the infinite contradiction of their lives, but to speak no less the infinite message of the Bible, which was as much of a riddle as life (The Need and Promise of Christian Life, 1922)."

I remember a feature report by Claes Elfsberg. He stood at one of the gates at Arlanda and was welcoming a nurse home who had worked for a long time in the Middle East. She had married there and had had three children. Her husband had died during an attack on the refugee camp. One or two of the children had died as well. Now she stood at the gate and the reporter wondered if it was worth all she had suffered. She looked very surprised at the question and countered that of course it was. For there are more important things than what we hold dear, even our loved ones. I do not know if this woman was a Christian. But surely she pointed at our welfare with conversion and faith in her message.

Runar Eldebo is a Pietisten correspondent from the Mother land--Sweden--who teaches in the Swedish Seminary.

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Tommy Carlson remodels homes and is an editor of Pietisten.

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