A Chorus of Witnesses

According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”

This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is.  Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”

“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”

Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”

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Biblical Text and Specific Situations

Elizabeth Achtemeier once said that all sermons should be firmly anchored in a particular text or texts and should grow out of the biblical Word of God.  “Otherwise the sermon is all too likely to end up proclaiming the preacher’s or society’s opinions, and those have no transforming power or lasting authority about them.”

Achtemeier goes on to emphasize that the preacher must understand how the particular text fits into the context of the Bible as a whole.  “The entire biblical history of God’s saving work, from the call of Abraham to the time of the New Testament church, informs every sermon and sets every individual text in the context of God’s whole self-revelation.”

Perhaps the most notable thing about these statements in that they occur in her book Preaching About Family Relationships.  This was one in a series published by Westminster Press to focus on preaching and the problems of the people.  The obvious benefit of such a series is the reminder that the Gospel addresses specific situations.  The danger of such a series is that we may be tempted to think that some passages are not addressed to particular people who do not find themselves in that particular situation.

I think that Achtemeier would agree that the purpose of preaching is not to improve relationships.  Preaching expects to shape followers.  Relationships may improve as a result.  But, growth in relationship is not the good news we showed up to proclaim.

One of the things that stands out to me as I read her book is her recognition that there are many passages in the Bible that do not directly discuss family matters and yet are applicable to family life.  “In fact, there are almost no biblical texts that cannot be applied to family life, because the whole of the Christian faith bears on the way we relate to one another in our homes, just as it bears on everything we do and say in our neighborhoods and society and world.”

I don’t think she would mind if I tag onto her statement that there are almost no biblical texts that cannot be applied to any of our situations, because the whole of the Christian faith bears on each of us and all of us.  Amen Elizabeth.