What’s the first sermon you can remember? I have a vivid recollection of the first message that impacted me enough to stick with me forever.
I was probably 12 or 13. The sermon was by Rev. Anthony DeJager, a minister who served Sarnia’s Second CRC from 1963-1970. DeJager was old-school, a dominee with a clerical robe, dignified demeanour and authoritative tone. But, surprisingly, his presence on the pulpit was not severe. He projected a lively love for his flock. I remember that . . . in addition to the sermon.
It was an Ascension Day message with one simple, memorable image. DeJager explained that Jesus, although ascended, was not far away nor too preoccupied to care about us. He’s in heaven and we’re on earth, said DeJager, yes, but it’s like living in a two-storey house. You’re the kid in the kitchen, but you can hear your mom or dad walking around upstairs. Somehow that solemn dominee conveyed an infinitely cozy and homey assurance to a gawky teen just learning to pay attention . . . Jesus is nearby.
That’s it. But how amazing that I’m still touched and comforted by that picture! That I have a resilient grasp on Ascension Day from a sermon in my childhood! My guess is every pastor hopes to leave such an indelible imprint.
Which brings me to a neat book I just read, A Little Handbook for Preachers: Ten practical ways for a better sermon by Sunday by Mary S. Hulst, current chaplain of Calvin College. It’s a quick and easy read with a spritely style and spot-on advice. Hulst is collegial and humble, never arrogant. I’d recommend it not only to preachers, but to those in the pew.
Let me highlight one chapter that particularly resonated. “Grace-full Preaching” moved me precisely because a good chunk of my adult life was spent under the opposite kind of spiritual direction. A couple of my pastors were enamoured of the kind of “congregational parent” preaching model Hulst critiques, hooked on the idea that the congregation needs to be “told what to do.” It was the 90s, that bitter stretch of endless conflict about women in church office, and my pastors were intent on persuading our congregation that we needed to leave the CRC. There was a relentless emphasis on what we needed to do: we needed to “stand up” for the Word, prove our commitment to Jesus, witness against worldliness. From Sunday to Sunday our willingness to defend God’s honour was measured and found wanting. I dragged myself to church for the weekly scolding. By way of refreshing contrast, “grace-full preaching” is not about what we do or don’t do. It focuses on God’s faithfulness and what he has done, inviting us to respond with gratitude. Our response, however, is not the main point of the sermon. God gets top billing. “The gospel, thanks be to God, is not about a transactional relationship,” reminds Hulst. “The gospel tells of a God who so loves us that he sent his only Son to save us. This is important. We do nothing. God does everything.” Or, as she succinctly summarizes in another chapter: “Preach about God. There’s nothing better.”
Hulst’s Handbook provides sensible guidelines for rookie or veteran pastors wishing to refine their sermons in terms of content and delivery. Salient topics include appropriate dress (“Our chief goal is to minimize anything that may be a distraction from the gospel message”), cross-generational preaching (“A helpful practice can be to walk through the text from the perspective of the different age groups in your church”), and boundaries for anecdotal “selfies” (“We don’t want our sermons to teach people about us”).
For her peers, Hulst’s expertise is pointed and useful. For people in the pew, like me, her guidance imparts a better comprehension of what goes into sermon preparation, perhaps even inspiring us to pray for pastors more intentionally and to listen more sympathetically.
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