“Wow, that was a great sermon today, wasn’t it!”
“Yeah, and last week’s was really good too!”
“Oh really? I missed that one.”
“It was mad! One of the best I’ve heard.”
“The one two weeks ago wasn’t so good though. Not enough oomph, you know? I thought it was really dry.”
“No, I remember that one. Yeah, they let the standard drop a bit sometimes, don’t they?”
“I’ll tell you what, though, I went to St Fruitious Church a while back – not happy Jan.”
“Oh, the sermon was a real dog. No life in it, you know? Doesn’t rate compared to our sermons we get. I don’t really know how the people at St Fruitious put up with that.”
“Yeah, I know. We’re really lucky here. Nothing but the best quality, hey?”
The dialogue you’ve just read is fictitious, but I am sad to say it’s not far off some real world discussions I have heard. Attitudes like this bring a question to my mind: What is the purpose of a sermon?
Having heard the two parishioners above, you might be forgiven for thinking that a sermon’s main goal was to entertain you. Change some of the nouns in that dialougue and you could be listening to two people discussing the latest movies. That is what film critics do. Their job is to assess the value of a movie, and then report on it to the public. I am not a professional film critic, but I imagine it must make it a little hard to just sit back and enjoy the experience when you have to be on the lookout for faults and shortcomings, and make sure you remember them for future reference. When I hear people talking about the ‘quality’ of a sermon, and comparing sermons, and so on, I get a little worried. I wonder whether they have benefitted from the hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit, or whether they missed out on hearing that voice because they were too busy being merely ‘critics’.
Most of the priests and servants I know have a very simple rule about speaking in public (and in private too, most of the time!) It is this: DON”T SPEAK. Don’t let yourself speak. Pray with all your heart that God will be kind enough to put you to one side, and let His Holy Spirit speak instead of you. It is remarkable what a difference this principle makes.
I have had the experience (all too often) of going into a talk all full of confidence, based on my hours of careful preparation and research, only to find that it fizzles into a whole lot of gibberish, and no one gets anything out of it. On the other hand, I have also had the experience of finding myself forced to give a talk I haven’t prepared, realising that I am totally incapable of doing it, begging and pleading for God to come to the rescue of these poor people who must endure sitting and listening to me, and then finding that it turns in to one of the best talks I have ever given. In these situations, it is not uncommon for me to find that I myself needed to hear those words the Holy Spirit brought out of my own mouth – it’s almost like I too am in the audience, listening to His words attentively.
Now please don’t get me wrong – I am not describing some sort of mystical trance state here! I am simply remarking that the Biblical principle of “When I am weak, then I am strong” applies really well to this situation. Which makes me think a little further … who are we little humans to be critics of the words of the Holy Spirit? Is it our place to come out of a talk or sermon and give the Holy Spirit a mark out of ten?
“Great sermon today – I’d give it 8 1/2.”
“Oh, come on. Surely not! The stories were old and that’s the fifth time he’s used repentance as his theme in a month. I’d give it 6 1/2.”
Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right…
Perhaps a better response is to do what all true movie lovers do – just sit back and pay attention, and let the sermon seep into your consciousness. Open your heart and mind as well as your ears and eyes. Be on the lookout for that phrase or idea that God wants you to hear today. Don’t get sidetracked with irrelevant details like how the speaker delivers his speeach, or whether he has a nice voice or not, or whether you’ve heard this before, or any of the multitude of other criteria that critics use.
God speaks to us in many ways every day of our lives. Some of these ways are subtle and hard to pinpoint, while others are quite obvious. We all expect to hear Him speaking to us in a sermon or talk – that’s a pretty obvious place for Him to speak! Don’t waste the opportunity by being critic.