The day of Pentecost was a day of considerable wonders. When the Spirit came in power as had been long prophesied—and more recently predicted by Jesus himself before ascending to the Father—the result was a sight and sound spectacle that left most onlookers gobsmacked. But for all the rushing winds and tongues of flame spectacle of it, the fact is that the very first thing that happened once the Spirit got unleashed on the apostles was—drumroll please—a sermon. Peter stood up, cleared his throat, overcame his feet-of-clay recent past, and preached a sermon.
In one sense his text was the whole Bible. But he narrowed it down to a few specific passages, and so became history’s first exemplar of preaching Christ from the Old Testament, as well as of using the whole Bible to bring people face to face with the good news that is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was a pretty effective sermon too, as the Spirit worked through the message to convert about 3,000 folks. After only one sermon, Peter formed history’s first megachurch. Not bad.
As I often tell students and fellow preachers, one of the hazards of being really familiar with the Bible is that everything in it feels inevitable.
So also with Acts 2: the Spirit came in power, and Peter preached a sermon. The sermon was inevitable. But I wonder . . . might we have expected something different? Suppose you had been there that day. And suppose that about an hour or two before the Spirit arrived, someone had come up to you and said, “God’s Holy Spirit—the Spirit of power, the Spirit that helped create this entire cosmos—that very Spirit is going to roar into this place very soon. What do you suppose will happen next once the Spirit gets here?” What might you have predicted? Miracles of healing perhaps. Jubilant choruses of singing maybe. Going to the local graveyard and raising the dead perhaps.
It seems unlikely that the average person would have said, “Well, I think the people will all fall quiet and listen to someone talk about the Bible for a while. I’d predict a good old-fashioned sermon!” Nope. When you think about it, not only was Peter’s sermon not inevitable, it actually counts as extremely surprising.
Yet that’s what the Spirit inspired as his first act in the newborn church. Make no mistake: the Spirit also eventually helped the apostles to perform wonders, raise the dead, heal the blind, and establish worshiping communities where jubilant singing and the celebration of the sacraments took place. That all would come in time.
But it all began with a sermon.
Today, though, people sometimes wonder if preaching still has a future. In a multimedia age of dazzling communication technologies when just about everybody who attends church is exposed to skilled speakers and professional oratory all week long, do people still have—now and in the near future—the patience to sit down and listen to someone speak for 15, 20, or 25 minutes, or more? Isn’t that just dull and boring? Aren’t there better ways to convey the gospel in the 21st century than the outmoded method of preaching a sermon?
No one can predict the future, and so no one knows if the 21st century will see the demise of the preached Word. But I doubt that preaching is dead or that it will die anytime soon. The Holy Spirit who inspired that first sermon at Pentecost seems to be doing the same thing yet today. And it seems likely that the Holy Spirit will continue this two-millennia-long pattern into the foreseeable future.
To support this claim, let me lay out a few ideas. Some of these have historical backing—including from recent history—some of these ideas are deeply theological in nature. A couple are anecdotal, so readers can take them for what they are worth.
Throughout church history, preaching has been a mainstay. Starting on Pentecost with Peter, the preached Word continued on through preachers like Augustine and Chrysostom (the latter was named “Golden Mouth” because of his renowned preaching), St. Francis and Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Martin Luther (who used to preach daily), Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield (of whom it was said he could make women faint and grown men weep just by how he pronounced the word “Mesopotamia”), Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.
But of course, the lion’s share of preachers throughout history have been people whose names no one remembers anymore. Pastors, priests, and parsons all over the world labor in quiet obscurity. Even The Beatles knew about such things: their song “Eleanor Rigby” includes lyrics about a backwoods priest named Father MacKenzie, week after week “writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear” because “no one comes near.”
But if it’s true that most of history’s sermons have been preached by people whose names are now known only to God, it is also the case that some of history’s sermons have been, well, probably not very good. There has been boring and badly structured preaching in the past, and this pattern continues to this day. In fact, so much preaching has probably run the gamut from the ho-hum to the terrible that you might have expected the Church either to have died out long ago—died of boredom, that is—or to have re-tooled the whole worship enterprise to center on something—anything!—other than a sermon.
About the only thing that could account for the fact that neither of those alternatives have happened is the Holy Spirit’s ongoing role in undergirding preaching—the eloquent and the fumbling, the powerful and the humdrum. The Spirit still nurtures faith, still keeps people close to God’s Word, still builds the Church through preaching. The Spirit, as William Willimon once said, is really skilled at taking the sermon from the preacher’s hand every week and saying to the preacher, “Well, (sigh), let me see what I can do with this thing.” And then the Spirit does some powerful things through even some of the weaker sermons preached in churches on any given Sunday. The Spirit likes to work through the Word preached. Always has, and, so far as we know, always will.
This might also explain why even in the last 20 or 30 years—precisely during a time when first television and then computers have filled our lives with alternate forms of communication—preaching has continued to flourish. In fact, not long after people in the 1980s were predicting that drama teams and film clips would replace the boring old spectacle of one person standing on a stage talking to folks, sermons in some places—including in the largest churches that formed in the 1990s and early 2000s—actually got longer.
People left churches that featured 20-minute sermons for congregations where “hip” preachers like Rob Bell or Andy Stanley preached for around 50 minutes. Whatever you may think of Rob Bell’s theology and career trajectory, he founded the Mars Hill Bible Church by preaching for almost an hour every Sunday. Not only that, but his first sermon series centered on no less than the book of Leviticus. I have also been struck by recent conversations with some Roman Catholic colleagues who tell me that especially younger people in the Roman Catholic Church—some inspired by the excellent preaching of Pope Francis—are asking their priests to move away from the 8-minute short homilies that have long been standard practice toward preaching fuller, longer sermons.
People, it seems, are still hungry to be fed by the heavenly manna that is God’s Word. As Isaiah asked in his chapter 55, why spend your money on food that doesn’t satisfy? It is listening to God’s Word that allows spiritually starving human beings to feast on what Isaiah called “the richest of fare.” You have to have faith, naturally enough, to believe the Bible is a living Word from God. But once you have that conviction of the Spirit, you do become keenly hungry and thirsty for what only that Word can provide. Preaching has been the Church’s weekly way of dishing out that Word, and God’s people have not stopped lining up for the homiletical buffet.
The Personal Word
Theologically, though, there may be a deeper reason why the proclaiming of God’s Word from someone’s physical larynx will continue: Christianity is the religion of the incarnation. The Word of God was made flesh. The good news of the kingdom came to this planet not when God wrote the gospel into the stars or sent startlingly bright angels to sing and dance in front of folks. No, the good news passed through Jesus’ very human lips as the incarnate Savior interacted personally with the crowds that gathered to hear him as well as with individuals and smaller groups who sought him out. That is, quite simply, how God brought the good news to the world.
Before Jesus left this earth, he also made it clear that this human-to-human pattern of proclaiming the kingdom was to continue. “You will be my witnesses,” Jesus told the disciples. Their first job was not to write information down—although the Holy Spirit eventually made sure to inspire the written witness to Jesus in what we now call the New Testament—but to sally forth into the world and preach what they knew to be true: that Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead, is the Messiah and the world’s only true Savior.
This is, theologically speaking, why I have a hard time with churches that have satellite campuses where the preacher appears only on a screen, beamed in live from the main church campus or by way of an edited, pre-recorded video. Something about the non-physical presence of God’s messenger as he or she proclaims the gospel just feels wrong. I am thankful God the Father did not just send us a DVD of his beloved Son in the first place—we needed Bethlehem’s stall, replete with the bloody, painful mess that is the birth of a real child. And even now, 2,000 years since Jesus physically departed the earth, I am glad the Spirit has chosen again and again to bring people the gospel in person rather than send us virtual images of Jesus from God’s right hand.
The Vital Word
Any given congregation is, and should be, more than the sum of a preacher’s sermons week after week. And most congregations have a long history that included many preachers of varying gifts and preaching styles. But through that long history, the fellowship of God’s people continued on. Ministry and mission took place. God-glorifying worship services were held every week. The church is more than the preacher, which is why people who leave a congregation on account of the preacher frequently express guilt over that decision. “I know that church is about more than hearing a solid sermon every Sunday,” people have said to me when explaining their transfer to a new church, “but I need to be fed. I need the strength the Spirit gives in good preaching, and I can’t make it very well in life if I don’t get that.”
Whether any such decision is rightly or wrongly motivated, the desire to feast on God’s Word through the weekly sermon makes eminent sense when you look at how the church has been operating for centuries. “How can people believe if they do not hear?” Paul asked in the agonizing chapter 10 of the book of Romans. “And how can they hear unless someone preaches?”
Today we might be tempted to respond by saying, “Well, they could hear about the gospel on Facebook or on Twitter or on YouTube videos. Or in lots of exciting multimedia ways that are way more interesting than just listening to somebody.” And if the apostle Paul could hear such an answer to his question, he might ponder it a bit. But I suspect he’d reply, “OK, some of those things might help. But I still say, how can they hear the gospel unless the Spirit uses somebody to preach it?”
The fact that we generally do not encounter “The First Church of YouTube Videos” or “Facebook Community Church” probably tells us that, as usual, the apostle was right. Somebody’s just got to preach! And when that somebody does, the Spirit goes to work—just like in Jerusalem one surprising day 2,000 years ago.
- The first thing the Spirit did on Pentecost was inspire a sermon, says Hoezee. What might you have expected instead?
- “People are still hungry to be fed by the heavenly manna that is God’s Word,” says Hoezee. What are some ways for people to be fed that manna? What makes sermons such an effective tool for “dishing out” God’s Word?
- What are you expecting to happen during the preaching part of worship? Do you usually experience these things as you listen to sermons? Can the Spirit use humdrum or boring sermons to nurture our faith?
- The good news passed through Jesus’ very human lips as the incarnate Savior interacted personally with people, says Hoezee. What does this mean for us as we share the good news with others?
- Many people believe that interacting with social media is changing the way we receive and process information. If that’s true, do you agree that sermons will continue to be an effective tool for building the church?