In my last post, we looked at some of the inadequacies in what we’ve been taught about sermons. Today let’s explore another way to imagine them.
God flows into and through our world like an infinite ocean. Scripture is like the pulse of a wave in that ocean. When we read or hear it, we experience God’s motion. The impulse is not just about the water itself; the force of the wave and its effect on the surroundings demonstrate its reality. Those things are an inherent part of the story.
A good sermon will do a few things.
The old, not-so-good sermon doesn’t do any of these things. The “just tell me what this means” sermon is like scooping up a pail of the water, carrying down the beach, and asking everybody to come and look at it. There’s a connection still; that is ocean water! But it’s defined, contained, and in possession of the sermon-giver. It doesn’t move, nor does it move anybody else. You’re just supposed to look at the pail of water and nod. If you’re especially good, you might get your own pail and fill it with water to show others. This isn’t faith, but repeating the mistake.
We’re not meant to gather inward, around a small pail of water, admiring the person who carried it down the beach to us. We’re meant to move along the beach, looking outward, getting pushed by the wave to new and more amazing things. Being together in faith doesn’t mean standing in a circle, pointing at a pail and saying, “That’s it!” It means admiring all the things God does with all of us and letting our faith life get expanded accordingly, as we move in different ways.
The advantage of the not-so-good sermon is that it’s easy to digest and clear. That doesn’t mean it’s right. We must always ask the questions, “For whom is it easy? And for whose sake is this being said?” Usually the answers are, “For the people who already think like the preacher.” One person’s simple answer is another’s bar to understanding.
The “wave” sermon may not give such easy answers. Who knows all the forces the wave brings? Who can tell how it’s going to move us until it hits? The “wave” sermon should leave you walking away with as many questions as answers. Those questions aren’t just about your understanding, but about how God is moving and where the wave is carrying you today. This can be frustrating.
The wave DOES build knowledge and understanding, though. Each wave that hits the beach leaves a little bit of water behind. Not the whole amount! The beach isn’t sufficient to contain that. But after the wave recedes, down deep in the sand, the water level is a little higher than it was. Things are moving slightly differently down there than they were. Eventually, wave after wave changes the beach, and thus the people on it.
It’s certainly possible to get a revelation that changes your life in obvious ways in an instant. It happens, and it’s valid. When it happens, you also have to ask whether that revelation is all God, or if there isn’t a fair amount of you and what you already wanted in there. We all tend to hear the things we want to hear. Like a tsunami, obvious life-changing revelations might only happen once or twice in a lifetime. They don’t happen every Sunday, with every sermon. Making that a goal warps scripture for both the hearer and the speaker.
We get changed more often, and I’d argue more permanently, as we struggle with little revelations day by day, Sunday by Sunday. We don’t experience the true majesty of the ocean through any given wave, but through the awesome accumulation of all the waves together over time, bigger than all of us and never ceasing. Each sermon becomes a small part of that story, continuing the motion until the next wave comes in to move and inspire us again.
I’m glad I get to experience this journey with you. I hope you love riding the waves with us.