a sermon on Jonah 3:1-10 and Acts 20:7-12
In our wanderings through the parts of the worship service this summer, we’ve finally made it to the center of everything about Presbyterian worship: the sermon. If you look at our bulletin each Sunday, you will see headings that show us that everything has something to do with “the Word:” gathering around the Word, proclaiming the Word, responding to the Word, sealing the Word in baptism and communion, and bearing and following the Word into the world. Since worship stands at the center of all that we do as a community of faith and the Word stands at the center of our worship, the Word of God is very much at the center of everything that defines us as God’s people. So as we think about all the various parts of our worship each week, it seems very important to spend some time thinking and talking about the sermon—but it does seem a little bit strange to have a sermon about sermons!
All this isn’t quite as surprising if we remember that the Bible itself describes a number of sermons as it tells the story of God’s life with God’s people. A lot of these sermons show up in the New Testament. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is probably the best-known sermon of all time, though I wonder if people have ever really heard what it says, because we very often end up doing exactly what Jesus says we should not in it! Before any of Jesus’ sermons, though, let alone the Sermon on the Mount, John the Baptist offered his own words of proclamation, calling the people to repent and prepare the way for one who was coming to open a new and different way. The book of Acts contains a number of sermons by Peter, Paul, and the other early apostles of the church, and it seems reasonable to think of the epistles of Paul and others as written sermons intended for oral proclamation when they were read to the communities that received them.
But even before this time, the Old Testament prophets and others also delivered messages that are quite reasonably also considered sermons. Much of the book of Deuteronomy is cast as a farewell message—a sermon—from Moses to the Israelites as they prepared to journey without him into the promised land. The message of many of the prophets in calling God’s people back to God’s ways is very much like what might be shared in a sermon today. And even God seems to offer Job a bit of a sermon at the end of the story of Job’s encounter of trial and testing at God’s hand.
But even with all these interesting sermons in the Bible, it is hard to forget the two stories of sermons that we heard this morning once we have heard. First, we hear of the prophet Jonah, who so famously avoided God’s call to preach a word of repentance in the great Gentile city of Nineveh and ended up spending three days in the belly of a big fish, and then was astonished when the city actually listened to his message and changed their ways! In a day and age when the audience for sermons seems to be shrinking a bit, when fewer people in our country make their ways to a pew on Sunday mornings to hear the Word proclaimed, when sermons seem to be getting shorter and their content less notable, it is good to know that at least a few people over the years have listened and taken what we preachers offer seriously! And our second story today from the book of Acts is a little-known but very surprising story about the consequences of falling asleep during the sermon! Even in the early church it seems like preachers tended to drone on a little longer than they should have and leave their hearers to nod off, though the primary lesson here seems to be, “don’t sit in an open window if you’re sleepy during the sermon!”
But these two stories mostly provide a jumping-off point for us to think about why it is important to take time out each week as we gather to hear God’s Word proclaimed in our life together. After all, wouldn’t it be good enough if we just read the Bible each week and endured a little less commentary from people like me? Can’t we get everything we need to respond to God’s Word in faith, hope, and love simply by reciting a portion of these ancient words? Wouldn’t it work just as well to finish worship ten or fifteen minutes earlier and give me three or six or eight hours of my time back during the week to just make things a little simpler and let our readings, songs, and prayers speak for themselves? The consensus of the church over the centuries has been that such simple reading is not enough—we need someone to proclaim the Word of God to us and help us connect it to our lives in this world.
From its very roots in the work of John Calvin, our Reformed tradition has made it clear that the true church is first and foremost marked by the proclamation of the Word. In our tradition, from its earliest days in Switzerland and Scotland, the first mark of the true and faithful church has been the true preaching of the Word of God. As it is well-put in our most recent revisions of this nearly 500-year-old statement,
The Church is faithful to the mission of Christ as it proclaims and hears the Word of God, responding to the promise of God’s new creation in Christ, and inviting all people to participate in that new creation. (Book of Order F-1.0303)
And so the proclamation of the Word still stands as central to our faith and life together.
So what exactly is this Word that we hear proclaimed each week? The great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth helped us to see that there are actually three different meanings of the phrase “Word of God.” First, Barth reminded us that the gospel of John identifies the Word of God as Jesus Christ, the “Word made flesh,” as John describes, “the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death,” as Barth and others put it in the Theological Declaration of Barmen (Book of Confessions, 8.11).
Then, we know the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit as we read and hear and seek to understand the words of scripture. Scripture is the Word of God shared with us in our human words, inspired and revealed by God to point us to Jesus Christ. Our reading of scripture relies upon prayer and discernment, grounded in the prayer for illumination that asks for God to light our way as we read together, so that we might see the wonder and grace of Jesus Christ in these words.
And the Word of God finally and perhaps most surprisingly comes in the sermon itself, where the Holy Spirit is at work in these most human words to help us to hear and understand and believe and act in our lives and our world, where the words of mouths like mine are transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit to become the Word of God in and for this day and age.
So in our worship, the sermon offers us the proclamation of God’s Word in and for this time and place. Sometimes it will include the call to repentance that Jonah so reluctantly yet effectively offered to the people of Nineveh, and occasionally it needs to go on a little longer than might be comfortable for all of us, as it did with Paul in Acts, though I certainly hope that no one gets hurt along the way! But what I think really and truly matters about the sermon in worship is that it is always only the beginning of our proclamation. We do not hear God’s Word and leave what we have learned within these walls. Instead, we go forth from our time of hearing and sharing in this place to live out this divine Word in our lives. We act differently as we encounter others along the way, joining in the work that God is already doing in our world to bring transformation, renewal, peace, hope, and love to reality. And we continue the proclamation of the Word begun here as we live in justice, peace, and reconciliation with all creation.
So as we hear God’s Word proclaimed here this week and every week, may the Holy Spirit send us out to live and proclaim it in our lives so that all the world might know the fullness of God’s glory in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.