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The cultural evolution of sermons

Sermonizing is never easy.

The word "sermon" is never mentioned in the Scriptures. This is the first challenge, because it suggests something of a conventionalized practice commonly understood as a church-authorized person speaking from the Scriptures to an audience.

And this is fine as far as it goes; many well-established truths are not explicitly enumerated by Scripture, but are nevertheless unassailable as Christian doctrine or practice.

But sermonizing is not easy for this simple reason: it doesn't mix well with established culture.

This is seen in the very first recorded sermon, the one given by Jesus himself, the one conventionally referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Six times in that sermon, Jesus said:

But I say unto you ...

It is part of a formulaic contrast between what the culture had come to expect in the way of life and practice, versus what God is saying now via his spokesperson. Here is one of the six times Jesus invokes the contrast in his famous sermon:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment..."

And so on for six categories of the most commonest issues we all deal with. The culture says this about anger; but I say unto you something different. The culture says this about adultery; but I say unto you something different. The culture says this about divorce, but I say unto you ...; About oaths, but I say unto you ...; About taking revenge, but I say unto you ...; About hating your enemies ... but I say unto you...

... love your enemies...

Taken together, the list is an impossible bar to attain to. And so the kingdom of God must be lived by the grace of Christ, not by our own efforts; this is the difference between the bondage of the regime of law and the freedom of the regime of grace.

But to return to sermons and sermonizing: most of the sermons today are not of the but-I-say-unto-you variety. They are not that disruptive.

They are, shall we say, kinder and gentler.

If we look to history, we see that there is something of an evolutionary pattern that can be discerned about sermons and sermonizing, depending upon the cultural venue into which sermons are spoken. The pattern can be roughly divided into three stages:

1. At the beginning of a work of God, sermons tend to be disruptive in relation to how cultural life is conducted. This certainly applies to the Sermon on the Mount: the culture tells you this, BUT I SAY UNTO YOU ... that.

And it applies not only to the heathen; it applies to the devout, to the simple, to the innocent. All are shaped by their culture. Thus it is to all that the word of God comes as a DISRUPTION. This is the first stage.

2. And then, as the news of the disruptive word becomes incorporated into the lives of the people, sermons at the second stage tend not to be so disruptive. They tend more to be informative.

Let's see now ... what was it that Luther and the first Reformers found? Oh yes: they found that we can live by faith alone. Now, here are the ways we can do that ...

And so disruption becomes INFORMATION. Sermons as information are what they are. But they aren't what they aren't. They may have the stamp of God's mind. But they may not have the force of his Word. These kinds of sermons inform; they hardly ever convict.

3. And then, in the third stage, sermons become evaluative. By this stage, the onus shifts to the audience -- who are, at this point of the evolution of sermons, comfortably in their pews, perhaps dressed in their Sunday best. (In America, even Sunday best has gone by the wayside; jeans and shorts will do).

Sermons at this stage are merely for evaluation. Did he have three clear points? Did he follow the accepted rules of exegesis? Wasn't he just a tad too funny this morning? Hey, where do we go for lunch?

This stage of the process often coincides with divine re-adjustments of cultural complacency.


Matthew 5.22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Matthew 5.28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

Matthew 5.32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Matthew 5.34 But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne...

Matthew 5.39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Matthew 5.44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you...


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