I do not want to keep perseverating about the tweets of Dr. Kevin Young (not to be confused with those of Kevin DeYoung) because I am like to be blocked soon, but the way he puts things seems to be…I can’t quite find the word…maybe so 2011. They are the sorts of tweets that seem to be written in a Mind Blown style, but then when you look at them again, you see that they are the usual kind that pits two things against each other that aren’t meant to be in opposition. Witness the one I came across yesterday—
“Any pastor who thinks the point of Sunday Gatherings are the sermons is altogether missing the point of gathering together.”
Dr. Young is responding to someone else’s tweet [“Guess his sermons must be terrible”] on the thread that I blogged about on Friday. Before you beg me to stop telling you what people are saying on Twitter, because you’re right, it literally doesn’t matter, let me just defend myself by observing that this sort of little exchange has been happening all over American Christianity for the last fifty years. It is wearisome, but it is also a bad direction to keep tripping along, be the steps ever so mincing.
In the first place, Dr. Young’s tweet is an easy gotcha that puts the already disheartened believer on the defensive. The average Christian twitter-lurker has been languishing in the watered-down soup of cultural evangelicalism for decades now. He can’t remember any of the reasons he used to have for going to church. Now, however, he sees clearly that he doesn’t want to be “that kind” of Christian who goes just to hear a sermon. As he scrolls through Dr. Young’s feed, he finds many better things to do on a Sunday morning, things like being the Good Samaritan. In other words, Dr. Young is demanding that ordinary Christians be as sophisticated and “thoughtful” as he is, a person who has discovered not only better reasons to go to church, but even more reasons not to.
It is convenient for Dr. Young that so many American Christians are so spiritually malnourished, if not actually starving. They lack the very sustenance this sort of tweet warns them away from. When they do happen to wander into a “Worship Space” (Sanctuary or Nave in bygone times), the very way the architecture is designed, rather ironically I think, announces that the reason for which the gathering gathers is, in fact, the sermon. If your church has a stage, for example, with a podium right in the front, and then a table has to be carried up there for communion, though you might say that the “point” of the gathering is not the sermon, the arrangement of the furniture says otherwise.
Likewise, you can say that your church is “all about worship,” but if your worship is comprised of a song set of 45 minutes and then a sermon of equal length, and then everyone goes to Applebee’s, you will be catechizing your congregation in such an anemic kind of worship that they will often accidentally worship themselves, and also think that the sermon is literally the point of the service, no matter what you tweet about it.
More essentially, look at what Dr. Young calls the thing we’re talking about—a “Sunday Gathering.” I would have rather called the hour when particular Christians come together in groups on purpose, “Worship” or “Service” or even, what most people colloquially say, “Church.” “I’m going to church today,” you might say as you dig into your pancakes and bacon at the diner, “I really am…oh crud, looks like I’m 45 minutes late, should I still go?” It’s not just a “Sunday Gathering.” That could be anything from a potluck to a Superbowl party. “Gathering” isn’t a robust enough word to make Dr. Young’s point, which is that the sermon isn’t that big a deal.
Why would he think that? I don’t hear anyone creditable saying that the point of a church service is the sermon—not with words anyway. Worshipping God is the point. But what price the sermon? Why does the pastor have to spend so much time on it during the week? Why does it hold such a central place in properly organized liturgy? Why does the shape of the service build up to it so dramatically? Why is the congregational response—the Great Thanksgiving—the same every week? Of course, you’re going to look forward to the sermon in a different kind of way than you do the Liturgy of the Table. The two are married together and ought not, as they so often are, to be put asunder.
Take the lections apportioned for this Sunday, as an example. Preachers had an embarrassment of riches to sort through as they considered what they would say when they climbed up to the steps of their various pulpits, or perched on their bespoke stools and sipped their coffee. They could have gone with The First or The Second Sunday of Christmas (the second has two options for a gospel lection) or The Circumcision and Holy Name Day. That’s a total of thirteen different Biblical texts to study and then preach, some of them exquisitely and heartbreakingly beautiful. Like this bit:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
and her salvation as a burning torch.
The nations shall see your righteousness,
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
One of the reasons that Christians look forward to the sermon every week, as the centerpiece of their worship of God, is that God is the one speaking. It is such a strange mystery. Mortal men, even those very adept at the use of human language, don’t very often amaze the whole room with their deathless prose. And look how infrequently God calls the brilliant and lucid to the pastoral office. Therefore, ninety percent of those preaching this morning face an impossible task. They have to read the scriptures themselves—something Dr. Young doesn’t think is easy or worthwhile for ordinary people—and, in the words of Nehemiah, “explain the meaning.”
The preacher, then, has to discover what the text means in itself. When he reads the line “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,” he has to figure out who the “I” is and who “Zion” is. Who is speaking and to whom? Is it Isaiah? Well, no, it is God. God is the one speaking, though Isaiah is the one to write the words down. To whom is God speaking? What is he saying? The preacher has to faithfully and clearly answer the questions that the text presents. He has to do this work knowing that there are true answers to these questions that God means for him to find. God does not intend to be silent. He is able to clearly speak. The preacher can’t shirk the duty of figuring out what it is he is saying. That’s the first task.
The second is that the preacher has to know who he will be preaching to. It’s all well and good to know what the text says, but who is the person in the pew? Is it a professor? A tweeter? A person who collects shopping carts at Walmart? An anxious mother? A widower? But the people in the pews are not just types of people. They are particular people. The preacher has to proclaim the Word to those actual people. That’s why the sermon is better not done by telescreen, or by a visiting celebrity all the time. The preacher should have spent some time with the people listening to him. He should know them. He should be able to anticipate how the scripture will sound in their ears.
This is part of the mystery of the Word. We are not talking about ordinary communication, for God is in the middle of it, complicating and troubling the souls of those who may or may not have ears to hear.
There is yet a third task, and one as essential as the others. The preacher has himself to be a hearer of the Word. He cannot stand up and preach about a God he has not seen or heard. He cannot talk about someone he doesn’t know. As he studies, he himself has to be rent open. If he has a heart of stone, he had better give up and let it be a heart of flesh or he will be failing at his one job.
The fourth task of the preacher is to accept what God does with the Word he has proclaimed. If he has done his job—however badly—God will have been the one speaking, which means that he, the preacher, is not in charge of the results. Some people will hear the Word and will be angry and go away. Others will be cut open and filled with grief. Others will be comforted and strengthened. Often the preacher will be surprised by who is who. He will go home in anxiety and grief himself because God worked a work he did not want to see or hear about. In this way, over time, he is painfully bound to God’s faithful people. It is a faithfulness wrought by the mystery of God speaking, week after week, to a particular group of people.
So no, the point isn’t the sermon. But the sermon is the way that God brings people who were far off near, it is one of the ways that he makes you who were not a people into a people. It is the means by which you, who were called Forsaken, gradually discover that your name is My Delight is in her.
Is it the only way? No—there are lots of means of grace. There are a thousand ways individual strands are woven together. You shouldn’t forgo Coffee Hour, for example, or Home Group. More importantly, having suffered through the sermon, you should stagger forward and put your hands out for the bread and wine, where Jesus promises to feed you with himself. But, and this is the point, you shouldn’t try to make a choice between the Word and the Sacrament. If you think one is more interesting and important than the other, you are confused and should pray to have your ears and eyes opened.
More to the point, when someone tries, even jokingly, to tell you that God is someone you can know without the Word, you should close your eyes and say out loud to anyone listening:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash