Sermon: The Will of God
Preacher: Dr. Elaine Bernius is a beloved Professor of Old Testament at Indiana Wesleyan University and an ordained minister. She is one of the most respected leaders of the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana Wesleyan, a parent of 3 young children, and an author of biblical commentaries.
Here at wesleyansermons.com, we feature preachers because they demonstrate replication-worthy perspectives. We highlighted this sermon because Dr. Bernius shows us that:
Tragedy and Comedy Work Together: Dr. Bernius begins her sermon by describing the plot line of action-adventure movies, and concludes her sermon by discussing an occurrence at her mother’s funeral. By taking the congregation through this emotional journey, Elaine subtly reminds us (even in her delivery) of emotional highs and lows emerging from faithful living. She makes us laugh about our usual conception of God’s will and cry about the impact of a life well-lived. Great preaching helps us recognize how God’s work inhabits a range of emotions. This emotional ride in some ways reminds us of Frederick Beuchner’s reflection on tragedy and comedy in his much-beloved book Telling the Truth in which the metaphors of comedy, tragedy, and fairy tales are used to understand the gospel better.
Descriptions are Colorful: “He’s gotta figure it out because if he steps on the wrong one, he falls into the bottomless pit, or the poison arrow darts come and kill him, and he never gets to that thing he’s going to. That scene could totally be a picture of God’s plan in our lives. I think we could even go to the Bible and see how that works.”
From her very first sentence, Dr. Bernius beckons us into a landscape of adventure, tension, and difficult decisions. Our minds race as we consider Indiana Jones’ adventure across a grid, or Harry Potter’s perilous steps around Hogwarts. Because Dr. Bernius includes thick descriptions in her message, the congregation not only hears what she’s saying… we feel it. This sermon doesn’t have a video attachment, but Bernius’ descriptions provide a rich enough backdrop to help the sermon “stick” in our minds. Great preaching “sets the stage” by using artful form to augment excellent content.
When I (Dave) was teaching preaching at Princeton, I taught a beginning sermon delivery workshop. My mentors in teaching preaching asked me to challenge the preachers to deliver a sermon with only words: no video, no images, no props. The challenge was to paint a picture with words so well, that it created even more vivid images and emotions in the hearer than an actual picture would do. If a preacher can do that, the image or video or prop is not a crutch. It is an enrichment. Too many preachers use media as a crutch because they have not taken the time to paint with words.
The Familiar is Reexamined: “Esther got where she is out of circumstances completely outside her control. The evil plan of someone else was forced on her, and now she’s living a life she never would have chosen for herself. It’s like if you’re on the grid and all the sudden, a big giant sumo wrestler comes out of nowhere and knocks you off.. and you land on the wrong block; and that’s it—the floor drops out from under you. Decisions get made for me, I hit dead ends, I lose someone, I receive a diagnosis…. game over, end of story; I can’t get to the right place at the right time for that moment. If that’s our picture of God’s plan—that everything has to align—then how did Esther get there?”
Esther is not a straightforward story; but our renditions usually clean it up. Dr. Bernius artfully disentangles Esther from the flannel graph-laden misconceptions, implicating us in the process. What if we viewed Esther as a victim of sex trafficking rather than the winner of a beauty pageant? Dr. Bernius implicitly asks this question—reexamining a story we might have otherwise brushed over; noting Esther reminds us of God’s faithfulness in unchosen circumstances. By doing so, Dr. Bernius invites the congregation comes to grips with their misconceptions of the bible and relearn a better way of interpreting scripture. In the same way, our presentations of Scripture must avoid the cliche and delve into deeper (and unexamined) meanings of the text. Later in the sermon, Dr. Bernius does the same with our life interpretation, saying: “The circumstances of my life do not equal God’s plan for my life; and I think Esther can help us understand that.” Great preaching transcends the cliché and delves into the uncomfortable. Usually to get there, we have to recognize that we have taught this passage less-than-perfectly before, and practice repentance from our past interpretations.
Interpretations are Anticipated: “There’s one more thing I need to tell you about God’s plan: it’s happening right now. Relief and deliverance for this world was signed, sealed, and delivered in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And you can hear this as a ‘Better get on board, because this is happening with or without you,’ or you can hear that God’s plan is an open constant invitation.”
Words are open to interpretation; so are sermons. In our sermon preparation, we must design how we want to be interpreted; Elaine does this well. Before preaching this message, Dr. Bernius anticipated the congregation’s response. Instead of resigning herself to misinterpretation, she invites congregants to follow her in discovering the hope of the open invitation in God’s plan. This slight adjustment changes the congregation’s approach to her message, maintaining the tonal integrity of her message.
Great preaching attends to the hermeneutic of the hearer. How will the listener hear this message? How will they interpret it? What will be the tone they walk away with in their hearts? How can we focus them on the main form of the gospel, the good news in this message?
Sermons Facilitate Partnerships: “Esther lived into God’s plan for her life when she experienced relief and deliverance, but also when she brought it into the world—she became an agent of restoration–a bringer of relief and deliverance. God’s plan is for relief and deliverance… the details are where and how I’ll bring both relief and deliverance in this world. How will you bring deliverance to this world? Will you be bringing deliverance from disease, from oppression, from poverty, or despair, or ignorance, or hatred? When you do this, you are living God’s plan.”
God’s work is not finished. He invites us to participate with our whole lives. Dr. Bernius mirrors this invitation—reminding the congregation of their responsibility to be carriers of the relief and deliverance they receive. Elaine asks a question: “How will you bring deliverance to this world?” In doing so, she reminds the audience of the dignity in their work as a partnership with God. Great preaching facilitates our work’s partnership with God’s work.
- Partner with Someone: Before you can preach the value of work, you may need to experience your listener’s context. In the next month, ask one congregation member if they could show you around their workplace. As they do, think of how differently you might preach if everyone in your congregation worked there. Journal about the experience particularly related to how your preaching can address that place, that work, that life. Shift your preaching in that direction one week.
- Use the (Emotional) Force: As you preach your next sermon, ask: “Does my sermon speak to those experiencing both joy and tragedy?” If not, adjust your sermon so it gives hope to the hurting and direction to the joyful.
- Assess Your Congregational Interpretation: While preparing your next sermon, ask: “How might my congregation misinterpret what I’m saying?” Try to anticipate their interpretation as you build your message. By anticipating it, redirect the misinterpretation to the good news.
By Ethan Linder and Dave Ward