Beware of Dissing the Preacher

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ʺHow was the service Sunday?ʺ one pastor asked another.

ʺWell, the guy preached a good sermon but he didn’t preach the text.ʺ

Now, in case you did not know, that is the typical manner by which one pastor disses another. (And I have lost count of how many times I have heard that short conversation.)

I thought of that practice while reading sermons by Martin Luther. In a sermon from Luke 2:41-52, for example, the great Reformer focuses on the conversation between Mary and her twelve-year old son, Jesus. You may remember that Joseph and Mary had lost track of Jesus and spent three days searching before finding him in the temple. Upon doing so Mary asked, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” Jesus responded, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”

Luther offer this exposition of those verses:

The parents of Jesus lost him, going a day’s journey and seeking for him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances, but found him not. They return to Jerusalem and after a search of three days he is found by them in the temple. Here God has pointed out how we can find consolation and strength in all our sorrows, and especially in the great trials, and how we can find Christ the Lord, namely by seeking him in the temple. Jesus said to his parents, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”

Then Luther asks, ʺBut what is the house of God?ʺ

His answer? ʺThe Holy Scriptures.ʺ

Finally, the great Reformer reminds his listeners that Jesus will not be found among friends and acquaintances, a group that, in his estimation, includes St. Thomas, the historic church councils, and the pope. Christ will only be found in the Scriptures. 

Would you conclude that Luther preached a good sermon but did not preach the text?

For help in answering that question, I scanned several contemporary sermons on Luke 2:41-52 where I found nothing remotely similar to the sermon by Luther. I also checked out my favorite sermon preparation web-site, where I found a link to some excellent sermon tips by Scott Hoeze for preaching Luke 2:41-52. Here is one:

Who knows what Mary and Joseph had been thinking or why they actually managed to lose God’s only Son for a time. In its own quirky way, however, this conclusion to Luke 2 provides us with a nice window onto the very human, very earthy, very mundane nature of the gospel. The same chapter in Luke that began with angels singing in the sky concludes with an utterly homely little story about parental error, deep panic, great relief yet with all of it played out on a very ordinary stage.

The Lectionary assigns this story for the Sunday after Christmas. It fits well then. After all the tinsel and the glitter, all the hyperventilating of the media (and even of the church sometimes) to make this season so “special,” we need to come back down to earth and watch God’s drama of salvation unfold quietly and steadily. We come back down to earth because that is what God’s Son did, too: he came down to earth in order to redeem that same earth and all the lives we lead here.

No mention of the Holy Scriptures there.

Suffice to write that in my research, albeit limited, I did not find another sermon on Luke 2:41-52 quite like that of Martin Luther. More specifically, I did not find another preacher leap from ʺmy Father’s houseʺ to ʺthe Holy Scriptures.ʺ

Be that as it may, why even make this point? Well my hunch is that if Luther had recently offered such a sermon during a chapel service at one of our seminaries, someone (perhaps me) would leave the chapel saying, ʺGood sermon, but he didn’t preach the text.ʺ

And therein lies the crux of the issue for me. This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a movement launched, in part, by the preaching of Martin Luther. So, while I maybe attempted to dis the preaching of Martin Luther, our Triune God used it in remarkable ways. 

That historical reality leads me to question my own preaching of which two things I am pretty certain. First, I am pretty good about preaching the text. Second, my preaching has not been used by God to help launch a movement.  

So, I think in the future, I will not be so quick to dis the preacher.

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And therein we have the crux of the problem... is it the preacher or the sermon that receives the critique?   What about the poor preacher who delivers a good sermon?  The unbelieving preacher who is still true to the text?  The drunkard who preaches true?   Or, the loving pastor who can barely put two words together coherently?   The juxtapositions and contradictions of life.   "He who is not against us is for us."  To give God the glory, rather than the preacher.....

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