Because of other things happening later in the week, today is day one of two days of sermon preparation. It feels a bit strange because I do not usually tackle a sermon until later in the week and I will have had longer to ponder. It remains to be seen whether or not this is a good or bad thing.
I have also taken my car to the garage to have a new cam belt fitted. It seems that it is about due a new one, and given what happened to a previous car when we did not get a new cam belt and it broke, freeing up the valves in the engine to go and play in new places (fatal for the engine) it feels that this is an important thing to do (albeit an expensive one!).
In my weird and wonderful world I think that the two things are linked. I will try to explain why with the help of some correspondence to a newspaper (The Times I think). A while ago someone wrote to the Times (for the sake of argument) and said that they had been to church each week for thirty years and could not remember one sermon. What was the point, it was clearly not doing him any good. Perhaps he should stop. A lengthy and sometimes humorous correspondence ensued, which was ended by another letter. The final correspondent wrote to say that he had eaten meals every day of his life for the previous fifty years but he could not remember one. Clearly they were not doing him any good. Perhaps he should stop.
In an interactive world where you can find almost anything with the click of a mouse sermons may seem an outdated and unlikely way of communicating. But I believe (and, yes I would say that) that a sermon is more than just someone talking at a congregation for a while. I believe that God, who inspired the Bible-writers to write, is just as present when I prepare a sermon. And he’s equally present when it is preached. He takes the words and applies them to us (preacher included). It is another way in which the word becomes flesh (for theologians and pedants the lower case letters are intentional to distinguish from John 1.14).
Last night I was at a prayer meeting with our deacons and they helpfully reminded me that the spoken word is more powerful than the written word. Apparently it was a nineteenth century American preacher Phillips Brooks who described preaching as ‘communicating truth through personality’. I think there’s a lot of truth in that! But it’s more than that. It is incarnational. It is a meeting place between God and humans in which his Spirit is as fully involved as well as we are.
That places an onus on us (word play unintended but enjoyed). The preacher needs to ensure that we are preparing prayerfully and seeking to hear what God’s Spirit is saying today through the words he inspired centuries ago. The preacher needs to ensure that we communicate that truth clearly and relevantly today. And the congregation need to come having a desire to hear, a willingness to listen and an intention to respond.
So what has this got to do with car cam belts? Well… Sometimes it seems to me that sermons are like emergency rescue organisations like the AA or RAC (other emergency rescue organisations are available). They come when we are in a crisis and show us how God can help. Others are like a cam belt change. There is no obvious problem but it helps us avoid them later on. The amazing thing is that because God is involved the same sermon can do both of these simultaneously without the preacher being aware of it at all!
An elderly woman walked into church. The friendly steward greeted her at the door and helped her up the flight of steps.
“Good morning,” he said, “It’s lovely to see you today. Is this your first time with us?”
“Yes, my dear, it is,” said the old lady.
The steward handed her a hymnbook. “Where would you like to sit?” he asked.
“The front row please.” she answered.
“You really don’t want to do that”, the steward said. “The minister’s sermons are really boring.”
“Do you happen to know who I am?” the woman inquired.
“No.” he said.
“I’m the minister’s mother,” she replied indignantly.
There was a pause.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked.
“No,” she said.