The Response to a Sermon

“The word of God promises results, and preachers have always wanted to see them with their own eyes.” So says Richard Lischer in his introduction to The Company of Preachers: Wisdom on Preaching. What is the desired response to a sermon? What is most appropriate?

“Is it sanctification and the pursuit of perfection, as Wesley preached, or the solution of personal and social problems, as counseled by Harry Emerson Fosdick?” How about the terrors “induced by one of Edward’s sermons, the mass conversions of a Finney revival, or the ecstasy of a Pentecostal meeting?”

It is a good question, what say ye?


Billy Graham

Billy Graham died last week. He was 99 years old. During his lifetime of nearly a century he demonstrated influence in arenas where preachers do not usually travel. Graham preached a simple evangelical message—give your heart to Jesus, and you will be “born again.” It is likely Graham preached to more people than anyone else in history, a claim that we may not have data to prove. But who could argue?

In 1945, at age 26, he addressed 65,000 in Chicago’s Soldier Field. The 1949 crusade in Los Angeles had a cumulative attendance of 350,000. (A interesting footnote to that tent crusade, one night he preached Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” nearly word for word). In 1957, a May-to-September rally in New York had attendance of 2.4 million, including 100,000 on one night at Yankee Stadium. A five-day meeting in Seoul, South Korea, in 1973 drew 3 million.

In fact, we may think of Billy Graham when we hear the word crusade. He was likely the most well known preacher on the planet during our lifetime. I remember my parents watching him on primetime television. I remember attending a crusade in Cleveland, OH. Billy Graham made preaching part of culture unlike anyone else.

Not many preachers attain the title of knight. But Billy Graham did. He was knighted by the British ambassador in 2001. He was known to be good friends with Queen Elizabeth. Not many preachers are given a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Not many preachers serve as spiritual advisor to presidents. Graham offered counsel to all of them from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.

Upon learning of his death, the presidents began to speak. George H. W. Bush said “I think Billy touched the hearts of not only Christians, but people of all faiths, because he was such a good man. I was privileged to have him as a personal friend.” And Bill Clinton “Billy Graham lived his faith fully, and his powerful words and the conviction they carried touched countless hearts and minds.” Barack Obama stated “Billy Graham was a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.” Even Donald Trump chimed in “The GREAT Billy Graham is dead. There was nobody like him! He will be missed by Christians and all religions. A very special man.”

Billy Graham was known for a strong stance on segregation. He insisted on racial integration at his crusades. He told a Mississippi audience in 1952 “there was no room for segregation at the foot of the cross.” In 1953, he personally removed the segregating ropes at a Chattanooga crusade. In 1957 he invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach with him at a revival meeting in New York City. Later, he would post bail for King when he was arrested.

Graham simply preached the Gospel; he did not worry about intellectual challenges to the faith. His own claim was “I’m an ordinary preacher, just communicating the Gospel in the best way I know how.”

Billy Graham’s success had little to do with skill or showmanship. He preached a simple message and had influence because he believed what he said. That he believed this message is evident from a line he borrowed and adapted from another great American evangelist, D. L. Moody, “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead, Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”

Jonathan Edwards and Preaching to Culture

In Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, Tim Keller shares much of what he has learned about preaching. One of my favorite parts is found in the footnotes. In case you do not read footnotes, you might want to read the following about Jonathan Edwards. Namely that he changed his preaching style when he moved to Stockbridge, MA in 1751.

Yes, the author of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” became gentler when he began preaching to the Mohican and Mohawk Indians on the edge of the frontier. According to Keller, his sermons became briefer and more compressed. He began to use more images and metaphors. Not only that, he started to choose images he hoped would resonate with the Indians. This is evident in his sermon “Warring with the Devil.” From the text in Luke 11 he depicts the strong man as Satan who is fully armed and a powerful warrior who has taken us captive. “Sin is therefore imaged as the state of being in thrall of an armed enemy.”

And then Edwards introduces grace and salvation. These of course come through Christ “A greater armed man, who can liberate us.” We are told that Edwards did not often discuss warfare, yet, “The Indian warrior culture provided his rhetorical opportunity.”

As much as I like these highlights from “Warring with the Devil,” I like what Keller tells about Edward’s first sermon to the Indians even more. In “The Things that Belong to True Religion” he does not begin with detailed exegesis, he does not add a treatise on doctrine or give multiple bible proofs. “He does something he had never done before – he begins with an extended story, the story of Cornelius… a racial outsider, a ‘heathen warrior,’ who finds faith in Christ.”

Edwards goes on to outline human history as the spreading of the gospel. From a family to a nation to Europeans like Cornelius. He talks about his own people, the English, who once worshipped idols but now follow Jesus. “Now, Edwards argues, the gospel is spreading from the Europeans to the Indians.” This is brilliant. Edwards identifies with the Indians. Even more, “This account puts the hearers themselves squarely in the middle of the great story of the world and of what God is doing in it.” Edwards shows his listeners that they are part of God’s plan.

Preaching as Invasion

There is a book on my shelf titled Invading Secular Space.  Something about that title always grabs my attention.  William Willimon writes about similar ideas in The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized.  While I am not convinced that Willimon would be willing to concede space as secular, he does make it clear how he feels about the way that God enters one’s life.  He might prefer that God interupts or invades or intrudes into one’s life.  He talks about the preacher’s role in this process.  He talks about a recovering cocaine addict named Velma who reminded him of these things.

People like Velma remind us that evangelism is not about getting new members for the church or finding deeper meaning in our lives as much as it is “a gracious, unmanageable, messy by-product of the intrusions of God.”  Evangelism may change the life of an outsider, but it will also change the church.    This is what I think Willimon is after.  He wants to see “the transformation of God’s people from an enclave of the culturally content into a beachhead for divine invasion.”  In the end, I am not sure that he writes about preaching to the unbaptized in any different way than preaching to the baptized (which by the way is another volume by Willimon).

He discards things that others may find helpful to communicate truth.  So preaching is no time for apologetics or worldly wisdom or marketing.  These things, despite their good intentions, may instead get in the way of the gospel.  Any starting point other than God and the Gospel of God carries some implication that those things are more important than God.

Willimon warns preachers not to promise what the gospel does not promise.  He might say that preaching that becomes too pragmatic borders on atheism.  After all, such pragmatism may not require God at all.  He might say that preaching that promises our lives to become easier is a move that sounds more like a salesman than a preacher.  Such promises are the wishes of the current regime and not of the gospel.

In contrast to excessive promises and practicality, Willimon calls on Jonathan Edwards as an illustration of preaching to the unbaptized.  While Edwards writes of “surprising conversions” Willimon suspects that Edwards was “genuinely surprised when anyone heard, really heard and responded to his preaching.  We ought also to be surprised.”  Willimon suspects this because of his belief that the gospel is so different from any other words that it is a miracle when it is really heard.

He calls on Easter as the miracle that drives our preaching.  Willimon states that “it is only because Jesus has been raised from the dead that I have confidence in preaching.”  And only because of his return to “disheartened followers after Easter that I presume that he has made me an agent of gospel subversion through preaching.”  While others may have different reasons or motives, Willimon concludes that “preaching in the service of anything less than a living, intrusive God is not worth the effort.”  I respond in agreement.

Preaching does not attempt to relax the tension between the way we are doing things and the way that God says to do them differently.  Preaching does not aim for agreement, but conversion.  Preaching communicates that we do not know what is really going on around us or to us until we are encountered by the reality of the gospel.

Willimon rightly challenges us with the reality that preaching is an assault, an invasion, an intrusion into a complacent, rational, and conventional world.  Preaching should not aim to improve lives.  Preaching should not encourage you to find deeper meaning in the things you already do.  Instead, preaching should come more like a collision in the intersection that causes you to stop because you were going the wrong way at the wrong speed at the wrong time.  Preaching grabs the map from your dashboard and tosses it out the window as a reminder that you do not have your journey figured out.  Preaching should remind us that we have been listening to the wrong channel and need to tune into a different voice in order to learn where we are to go next.  In short, Willimon desires that our contentment with the way things are is not ok.  He calls for an invasion by an intrusive word.