What a good preacher does


Sermon for December 4th, 2022

The Second Sunday of Advent


There was an architectural trend in many Anglican churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of making the pulpit the central focus of the congregation’s attention. So instead of the altar being front and center, as is the case here and in almost all Episcopal, Anglican, and of course, Roman Catholic Churches nowadays, what you had was a large prominent pulpit right in the middle from which the scriptures were read and the sermon was preached. A sermon, I hasten to add, which could have gone on for an hour or more. There are a few old Anglican churches around that still have this arrangement, and today in many, if not most, Congregationalist and Baptist churches you will see this setup with the pulpit in the center. Now the reformers who proposed this trend in church design had the best of intentions. They wanted the scriptures to be at the heart of religious life. The written word of God was so precious to them, it was such a powerful encounter with God, that they wanted to make that encounter, the encounter of God in scripture, the central focus of their worship life. So the pulpit, the place from which the Word of God is proclaimed and preached, it in the eyes of the reformers ought rightly to command the most prominent place in the church. It ought to be the focus of the congregation’s attention. That was their thinking. That, I think, is an admirable intention. The scriptures are sacred, holy. They are an encounter with God. They deserve to be respected and revered by the faithful. The intentions of the reformers were good, but you know what they say about good intentions…

The reformers may have wanted to exalt the scriptures, but very often what they ended up doing was exalting the preachers, and that’s really not something that you want to do. It’s very dangerous actually. Most priests are already prone to being egomaniacs with delusions of grandeur to begin with, they don’t need the building helping them out. But you put someone on a platform in the middle of the room with all eyes on them; with a congregation hanging on their every word; laughing at their jokes no matter how bad they are; you put someone who already thinks that God talks to them in that situation, and what you end up with is clergy, preachers, who come to work thinking that they are the star of the show. You get priests who have the audacity to think that you came here on your sacred Sunday morning to see and to listen to them. Incidentally, this is another reason why I think that altars should be firmly mounted against the East wall like ours is here. Making eye contact with people while celebrating the holy mysteries, it’s the devil’s trap I tell you! You are likely as the priest, to get a little confused about who the congregation is there to see and worship. But I digress…the reformers tried to do a good thing, but even they underestimated human sinfulness. Things didn’t always turn out quite the way they hoped. So the reformers, and their re-fashioned buildings, needed a little re-forming. 

One of my ecclesiastical heroes, a priest named John Keble, lived in England in the early nineteenth century. He was appointed to a church in a quaint country village named Hursley, just outside of Winchester, and when he got there he found a building much like I just described with a prominent pulpit, and what was even worse in his eyes, it had a huge memorial in the front of the church to Richard Cromwell, the son of the famous puritan and regicide Oliver Cromwell. Well, in Keble’s eyes both had to go. To Keble, both of those things represented a departure from the good traditions of England and the English church. So he spent quite a lot of his own money, rebuilding and refashioning the church, so that once again the altar was the main focus of the congregation’s attention and not monuments to the egos of priests and politicians. The pulpit was placed at the crossing, similar to this one, where the nave of the church, where the congregation sits, meets the more sacred choir and chancel, where the altar sits and where Jesus meets us in the sacrament. And the pulpit was also placed off to the side, again like this one, and not in the middle of the room. That was the old tradition and Keble wanted it back. You see symbols meant everything to him, and the placement of the pulpit symbolized the role of the preacher. He didn’t want the preacher to be the main focus of the congregation’s attention; he wanted that to be Jesus. The preacher’s role is to be a witness; a witness to God’s presence in the midst of his people; a witness to an encounter with God; a witness to Jesus. That is why the pulpit, in Keble’s eyes, should be right here: If the altar is the place where we as Christians most fully encounter Jesus, then the pulpit should be here, so that the preacher can point people to Jesus, but not get in the way. Because that is really what the preacher is meant to do: point people to Jesus, and get out of the way. The preacher can’t solve all your problems, but he or she can point you to the one who can. The preacher doesn’t have all the answers, but he knows the one who does. The truth is, I can’t do much for you at all: I can’t live your lives, or make decisions for you. I’m not even that good at changing lightbulbs. The more I try to do, the more likely I am to just get in the way. The one thing that I can do is make an introduction. I can direct you to Jesus. I can keep my eyes peeled, looking for signs of the Lord’s presence and say to you: here is your God. The Lord is right here in your life, only you may not be able to recognize him. The Lord is just over the horizon; can you see him coming? That is what the preacher is for: to help you see the Lord; to help you recognize the signs of his presence; to prepare you to meet him. That’s what a good preacher does.

You know one of the greatest sermons ever given was given by a different preacher named John. Standing in the midst of a crowd of people who thought he had all the answers, he pointed to another man off in the distance and said simply: Behold the Lamb of God. Short and to the point, just like a good sermon should be. John the Baptist was surrounded by people who came to him looking for salvation and answers, but he pointed instead to Jesus and said: “there’s your answer.” Follow him. John is the preacher who introduces the real preacher. His job was to make the introduction. His role was to help people see that their God was coming to meet them, in fact he was already in the midst of them. But to do that, John had to first deliver some news that most people didn’t want to hear. John’s words weren’t always sweet. In fact, sometimes they were pretty bitter. 

Brood of Vipers! He calls his congregation today. Snakes. I mean I get the temptation to call folks that, but calling people out for being a bunch of sinners, isn’t what I would call a winning marketing technique. Folks don’t want to hear that. Folks want to be told that Jesus loves them and that they’re ok just the way they are. Folks want to be told that they are beloved children of God; that he is always on their side; and gosh wouldn’t it be great if they leant God a hand now and then. What folks don’t want, is to be compared to chaff. You know, chaff, that’s the part of the wheat straw that is basically useless, at least for nutrition. The wheat is the seed with all the nutrients that we use to make flour and grow new wheat. The chaff is garbage that just has to be separated out. That is what John compares some folks to: chaff and fruitless trees. You just try preaching that message nowadays and see what happens. It didn’t work out so well for John either, but you know what maybe it was a sermon that had to be preached. Maybe folks needed to hear the bad news before they could receive the good news. Maybe folks needed to recognize their need for a savior, before they could respond to the savior when they finally met him. 

John’s job wasn’t a pretty job, but it was a necessary job. The truth is, folks probably already suspected deep down that everything wasn’t alright in their lives. Maybe I’m not completely chaff, I may have a few wheat kernels in the granary, but I know there’s a lot of chaff in my life. And what is more frustrating is that no matter how hard I try to sort it and sift it out, there’s still chaff in my life. I can’t seem to get rid of it. And I look around, and I know the world is full of it. Stuff, junk, garbage that has no future life and no lasting value. Maybe it’s the same for you too. It would be easy for me to just smile all the time, say everything’s all right; I’m doing good. I’ve got my life together and my priorities straight. Everything is beautiful and even if it isn’t we can just go and clean it up and fix it. That’s all the world really needs: a little hug and some dusting off. That’s all I really need, right? I’ve got a pension plan. I live in a nice house, in a nice village, in a great country. What more do I need? If I’ve got a little money and power do I really need God in my life? Do I need someone to save me? Would I bother looking for him? Maybe that is why we need people like John to tell us the truth that we don’t want to talk about: sin. Insidious, pervasive sin. None of us are living the lives that God desires us to live. None of us. That is the bad news that John has to deliver. We cannot take it for granted that we are alright in God’s eyes. We cannot presume that we are always the wheat. I suspect that it’s not really news though. I suspect that you already knew that, deep down. But John makes us face the bad news. Why? So that when the good news comes, we are ready to receive it. 

Something good is coming. That is John’s ultimate message. Something good is coming. There is a savior coming, and boy is he going to sort through some things. Are you ready to meet him? 

John doesn’t just point people to Jesus, he prepares them to meet the saviour, by helping them to understand how much they really need him. John gets people’s attention with bad news and then directs their eyes to Jesus who has the good news. And he managed to do it without a pulpit at all. Now that’s a good preacher.