Thursday, May 08, 2008

Sermon Mis-match

I've begun to pay attention to sermon titles. Sometimes it tells you something about the philosophy of ministry, sometimes it doesn't. Othertimes it just makes you wonder what the pastor was thinking.

One example would be a pastor I know (love and respect as a friend). If you look at the listing of his sermons on the website, you notice two oft-repeated words: "How to". The comforting part to me is that if you listen to the sermons, they are not the typical "how to" sermons you think of. They are generally good expository sermons... it just happens to be that he titles his messages quite often with "how to".

Another example would be my pastor, whose sermon titles read like the section headings in your Bible, usually with a "Part #" attached to the end. Nothing wrong with that either... just the way it is.

Yet there are many who feel that they have to title their sermons like you would a newspaper story, hoping that the title itself will make someone interested in listening. Personally I find this a bit odd since no one is likely to leave if they don't like the title of your sermon, nor are they more likely to stay if they know it. I seriously doubt people check the title of the sermon before deciding whether to go to church.

Today I listened to a sermon with this title "Cleaver vs. Simpson". The subtitle is "Busting the Myth of the Perfect Family." While many churches would offer sermons where the content would largely reflect the main title (with many illustrations of the Cleavers and the Simpson), this one did no such thing, thankfully. Instead, after a few introductory remarks the speaker (I have a hard time calling some people pastors or preachers when they don't preach the Word) said almost verbatim, "The Bible says that God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love." Then he went on about how we need to be like God and gave a number of illustrative examples of what the means in our lives.

To some degree the practical aspect of the sermon was fine, but I was highly disturbed by the fact that the did not tell the listener: 1) where in the Bible it says that, and 2) why it says that.

The where is very important because almost everyone thinks that in the Old Testament God is mean, wrathful, quick to judge, kills everybody, doesn't forgive, etc. But in the New Testament God is gracious and merciful and loving and all the good fluffy stuff. What people need to know is that when God described Himself in the Old Testament, He said, "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation" (Exodus 34:6-7). What is amazing is that this is literally within minute of almost wiping out the nation of Israel and starting over with Moses. Therefore when God describes Himself that way, we need to ask how can he say that, and be right?

There is an answer, and people need to be shown. This is the why that I mentioned before. People need to be shown because they don't have a mental picture of a gracious Old Testament God. Telling someone that in the Old Testament God is merciful and gracious is like telling a three year old right after he has been spanked that daddy loves him! If that three year old's recollection is limited to the moment of discipline he will not accept the love of the father. People need to know what God does in the Old Testament that qualifies Him as compassionate.

Another issue is that in the New Testament we find many passages that go something like God did this, so you must do that. Case in point would be 1 John 4:19 (hover over to read). If you just say God is love, so you should love, there is no experiential backbone to that command. It is a legitimate command, but it has less power than if you say, "God has forgiven you all your sins, therefore you ought to forgive others."

This particular speaker didn't give any Biblical examples of what makes God compassionate, merciful, full of love. I left the sermon without any reason to thank God for who He is, and felt very uncompelled to do anything myself because God was not put on display.