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“A good sermon turns even known truth into profound realization.” That is one of many striking lines in a fine New York Times Book Review essay by Marilynne Robinson published on Christmas Day. Robinson’s point in the piece was to assert that the Bible plays a larger role in our common culture and especially in its literature than we mostly realize these days. Near the end of her essay she pointed to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and the sermon delievered near the end of that book in which a pastor points to Matthew 25 and Jesus’ words about how even “the least of these” is Christ to us. This sermonic comment made one of the characters in the novel realize afresh that the developmentally disabled boy, Benjy, for whom she had long cared had been Christ in her midst all along, even as she had been Christ to him. She had at some level known this all along, of course, but the sermon brought this profound realization home to her on a very personal, existentially moving level.
As usual, Robinson makes a trenchant point. As someone who has preached well over 1,000 different sermons in his life and who now spends as many days as not in the average week pondering how to help others in this same craft, those words about making the commonplace profound have stuck with me these last few days and will likely echo in my mind for a long time. Because, indeed, the main things preaching has to say were said already in something close to their dear Gospel entirety by Peter on Pentecost a couple of millennia ago. And if Peter did not quite exhaust what there is to rehearse in sermons by way of basic biblical, Gospel truths, then surely Chrysostom and Augustine got it done very nearly two millennia ago. All preachers know that novelty in a sermon is generally not the goal. Novelty actually trends toward heresy in very many instances and so homiletics at its best–like systematic theology at its best–aims to traffic in the well-worn truths encased inside something like the Nicene Creed and–in my Reformed neck of the woods at least–the Heidelberg Catechism. Sermons don’t need fresh ideas or truths never before heard on the earth. No, no, the old, old story will do, thank you very much.
And yet . . . that old, old story can be and is always new precisely because by the power of the Holy Spirit that story wings its way into profound realization inside as many different hearts as there are different people hearing the same sermon. Over and again what that profound realization amounts to is the revelation–the reminder really–that what makes that story and its truths delightful is that these things are not simply floating “out there” to be admired or affirmed. These things are true because by God’s power they are true for me.
Years ago when I was young, my mother pointed to Jesus’ words near the end of John 20 where the resurrected Jesus affirms Thomas’ faith following his personal encounter with the living Lord but then Jesus goes on to say “Blessed are all those who do not see me and yet believe.” My mom assured me that Jesus was talking about us. He meant us. And I was amazed to think that I was in the Bible! Some years later I came to the conclusion that my youthful exuberance at seeing myself in the Bible was probably a little silly. Still more years later I circled back: I was right when I was little: I am in the Bible, and so are you. This is not someone else’s story. It is my story, your story, our story and we are living characters in the drama.
This struck me again on Christmas Day with two little words in Luke 2. The angels tell the shepherds not that a Savior had arrived and not that a birth had taken place off yonder somewhere. No, the angel said that on that day in the city of David a Savior had been born “to you” (the plural “you” in the Greek). The Savior was not about other people but about those people, those shepherds (of all people!) and he had been born to them and for them just as assuredly as he had been born to or for anyone else who had ever lived or would ever live. Jesus was born to you. To you.
A sermon takes that known truth and turns it into profound realization every time the thoughtful preacher is able to look 248 people directly in the eyes and–as though he or she were talking privately to each and every one–is able to say that Jesus is still born to you, to every one of you and for every one of you. All those parables that Jesus told, all those miracles he performed, all those promises that he uttered: those are not for people in far off places you’ll never meet. This is about you. You’re in the biblical story.
And that is profound to realize, indeed.