Karl Barth, the famous 20th century theologian, preached two very different sermons during times of crisis. When he was young, inexperienced, and his theology was not yet fully formed he preached a sermon on the sinking of the Titanic the Sunday after it occurred. You can imagine what a shock to the Western world the Titanic’s demise must have been. The Titanic was not just an illustration or an aside, an application or an implication. It was the compelling reason for the sermon.
Later in his life, with his theology more fully formed, and his spirit tested by battling the rise of Nazi Germany, he preached a very different sermon. To put it simply, his resistance to the Nazis caused him to lose his job. He would be required to flee the nation. The sermon he preached on the occasion of his departure was built upon a biblical passage, did not mention the clouds of war or the Nazis, and never spoke about his own troubles or concerns.
Barth famously was concerned with avoiding theology from “below.” Anything that rose from the ground of human experience rather than from biblical revelation was suspect. After all, Nazi thought rose from ground up observations and experience.
There are the two opposite poles of how people approach crises. The first option is the option of extreme relevance. This who preach according to this extreme, name the crisis up front, speak to it directly, and only come to the scriptures as a resource for directly addressing the issue at hand. The result? A Titanic sermon the Sunday after the Titanic. A Twin Towers sermon after 9/11. A covid-19 sermon in March of 2020.
The second option is the option of extreme focus on past revelation. Preach the Word in season and out of season, we might say. After the Titanic sinks, point people to the need to forgive their brother and sisters for that is the text assigned. After 9/11, preach about the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God at Caesarea. Because that was the chosen passage. During Covid-19, preach about the conflict in the Jerusalem council, because that is where we were planning to be. Do not mention the Titanic, do not address the towers, do not preach about a virus, preach the Word and the Christ to whom it points. That is the opposite pole.
The problem with the “relevant” pole is that we end up giving thin advice and hollow sounding gospels based upon the times. Here is a key test for your sermons during this season to discern if they are overly focused on relevance. Sermons focused on extreme “relevance” do not last because they are only worth listening to for the moment. Will your sermons be worth listening to five years from now? Fifty? In short, there is no enduring revelation. The problem with the “revelation” pole is that we do not speak to people where they are. They cannot hear what we are saying, because what we are not saying speaks too loudly. To be silent on loss and insecurity after the Titanic is to miss the moment. To be silent on fear and hatred after 9/11 is to miss the moment. To be silent on fear and death, even loneliness during Covid-19 is to miss the moment. Here is a good test of your preaching to see if it is too legalistically focused on revelation. If all your people had was your sermon, would they felt you understood their fears, struggles, and situation? If not, there may not be any endearing relevance.
Somewhere in between preaching extreme relevance or extreme revelation lies pastoral preaching. All preaching is pastoral to a degree, but this preaching is uniquely and primarily pastoral. It is preaching that serves a healing function, a priestly role. It can even be called therapeutic in its function, though it is not bound by psycho-therapy as such. It simply is intended to heal what is not well, to mend what is torn, to shepherd the sheep who have a broken heart if not a broken leg.
How do we steer the preaching ship between the hidden shoals of relevance-without-revelation or revelation-without-relevance?
Here are some ways of preparing to preach that help us find the way.
1. Study the passage deeply, apply it contextually.
It is a standard and worthwhile canon of communication that we need to start where people are,not with where we want them to be. Yet that is not a canon of biblical study. The passage will eventually have something to say directly to the situation we are in but that is not where we begin. We begin with the original author, the original hearer, and the meaning of the passage that endures across time.
Only once we have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the passage that addresses us in surprising and new ways have we moved through this process. Preaching pastorally does not meant that we start our biblical study with a human need and look for the answer. Rather, we start with revelation and allow it to reframe our perspective on our human needs.
In rhetoric we might call the difference between these two “discovery” and “arrangement.” In discovery of our sermons, revelation comes first. Human concerns second. But in arrangement of the sermon, human needs often come first, revelation second. If we find our meaning in scripture by starting with the Titanic, or Covid-19, or a current political crisis, we have already begun to twist the Bible to meet our needs.
Don’t skim the text looking for words that give you a “jumping off point”. Study it deeply. Apply it contextually. It is not wrong to occasionally look for texts that speak to certain needs or situations.
If you do this though, once you have chosen the text, pretend you forget the topic, need, or situation. Study the text until you hear it’s own voice, it’s own concerns so strongly that your primary concern becomes the passage’s primary concern. Then return to your question or topic and see what they text might say in unexpected ways.
2. Name the revelation and the current resistance.
One of the primary questions we should always ask when studying scripture is, “What does this teach me about God?” Scripture is a book whose subject is God. But we do not stop there. For the object of scripture, is the human race. Scripture also unveils and exposes our human weakness, temptations, common failings and faults. So our sermons should be seeking out the goodness of God’s character in his thoughts, actions, promises, and even warnings. So we look first for God. But scriptural study should also point out human needs, weaknesses, failings, and common faults. Our common humanity defines our resistance to God’s revelation. A sermon is not yet fully born that only names God’s character. A sermon is born when the gap between God’s character and our fallen condition is diagnosed and understood.
It is here that pastoral preaching begins to emerge. When we are humble enough to admit our own weakness and resistance to what God has to say, we can begin to be empathetic to others’ weakness and resistance.
If the passage after the Titanic is forgiveness, then we must ask, “How can we forgive leaders who were more concerned with setting time records than saving lives? How do we forgive those whose arrogance and over confidence sunk women and children in freezing waters? How do we forgive grown men who fought for lifeboat spaces that could have saved helpless children?” The passage will reveal us, diagnose us, and bring good news to us if we allow it. But it won’t be a shallow therapy. It will not be a surface application of “calm” in the midst of a crisis. It will reach deeper than that.
If the passage after 9/11 is on the revelation of Christ’s messianic identity, then we have to ask what that means for us today. We have to ask, “If Christ is the son of God, why doesn’t he do anything for us? Why does he sit idly by while enemies attack, terrorize and destroy? And they are not just our enemies, they despise anyone who follows Christ. They are Christ’s enemies, and he does nothing,” The passage will speak to that. After all, Peter immediately corrects Christ for saying he must suffer and die. We are constantly taking up Peter’s role, correcting God, and letting God know what we think he should have done and when so that we do not suffer, and so that we do not die. We reject the cross now for ourselves, for our families, for our culture. We reject the cross as much as Peter rejected the cross. It was unthinkable.
If the passage during the Covid-19 crisis is the Jerusalem council, we need to figure out our resistance, not just a simple application point. The council asked us to do one primary thing as Gentile believers, do not forget the poor. The rich and the middle class seem perennially focused on their own well being. How is their company going to make it, will the 401-k hold up, do they have enough savings to make it through this time without feeling any pinch? How do we stay entertained in the long isolation of a lockdown?
These are not the questions the Jerusalem council wants us to ask. Speaking of the council, Paul says “they only asked us to be mindful of the poor. The very thing I was eager to do.” But that is precisely what we tend not to do. When we struggle financially our impulse is not to think that others might be struggling for their lives. We worry about our own situation. When we have fear and insecurity, we do not stop to think that others might have much greater fear and insecurity. Google searches for stock market reaction to Covid-19 far outweigh the searches on the plight of the minimum wage worker. They only asked us to be mindful of the poor. How mindful of the poor have I been during the Covid-19 crisis? Here is a relevant word.
In this way, revelation has a deeper relevance than a search for relevance alone. The relevance of the gospel comes to us most clearly as it speaks from the perspective of God to the human condition, not as it speaks from the human condition to the perceived character of God. Truly pastoral preaching speaks directly to our human condition, but from the perspective of the character of God.
Do preach the revelation of the text, but be sure the application of it resonates with the current moment. Don’t assume they can see the connections between then and now.
3. Proclaim God’s surprising goodness in light of our unending weakness
We do not need to go to church to find out these are ‘unprecedented times.’ If it is a crisis, the paper editors, blog writers, and opinion posters have all made sure we know that. We go to church to remember that there is “nothing new under the sun.” We go to church to be reminded that wars and rumors of wars, pestilence and disease, conflict and hatred will continue until the time Christ returns.
Yet there is good news. God can help us forgive even our murderers. Christ did. God can enable us to see past our own needs to serve the needs of others. Christ did. So even on the cross he was able to lead a criminal to grace, and to care for an aging widow who was losing her son. The goodness of God stands out all the more strongly in a time of crisis.
These are only limited examples, but the focus of our preaching should not be on our human situation. Pastoral preaching reframes the human situation in light of the grace of God. It does not ignore the relevant moment, but it is not swept along by the moment either.
Don’t merely give people good advice for good people. Proclaim the goodness of God in the face of our weakness. God alone is good. God alone can make us good. No amount of works righteousness will get us there.
4. Give voice to others’ stories, not just your own
Many preachers in times of crisis forget a crucial truth. Pastoral preaching not only says things to people, it says things for people. Sometimes the most healing thing preaching can do is to name before God the struggle of being human. Something happens to us when we realize someone understands. David Augsberger once wrote, “To be heard and understood is so close to being loved, that most people cannot tell the difference.” When people feel heard and understood in the preaching moment they sense the love of God in real and relevant ways.
It is truly healing. When they hear only the pastor’s life, the pastor’s experience, the pastor’s stories, the healing power is limited.
Tell the story of the single woman living alone in the time of crisis.
Tell the story of the family business going under in the time of crisis.
Tell the story of the teenager whose view of the world is forever stamped in the time of crisis.
These stories can be as short as 20 seconds or as long as a couple minutes. Still, when we name what others experience we give them validity, weight, and meaning. No matter how focused we are on the biblical revelation, no one should be able to walk out of the sermon saying, “the pastor just doesn’t understand what we are going through.” If all we needed was the explanation of the biblical times we could play a recording of a lecture on the Bible every Sunday morning then go home. Preachers show us again and again that the song of the human soul before God was the same in 2020 BC as it is in 2020 AD.
Do share others’ stories. They do not have to be long or overtake the sermon, but sharing only our own experience limits the power of the gospel to a very narrow slice of people. People like ‘me.’ Preaching is not about ‘me.’
5. Match your tone to the moment
There is a tendency in some preaching traditions to build climactically toward a passionate raising of the voice, increased pace of speech, and direct authoritative language. This is not wrong, but it can be out of place. In the midst of crisis people need to hear the voice of a shepherd not a herald. And if a prophetic word needs to be uttered against our failings, it should be uttered in the broken voice of Jeremiah, not the bombastic woes of Amos. Even if we are perching from Amos, we should recognize his tone was a from a time before the suffering fully fame. Speak from a tone that communicates care and concern when suffering arrives.
Remember the preacher who pounds the pulpit with his fist while shouting “God loves you” at the people? Remember the preacher who grins like a kid who just found his favorite toy at the funeral? Remember the preacher who talks loudly in the hospital room, or tells stories of grief and loss at a wedding? Most of us avoid these mistakes most of the time. In times of crisis, we need to be extra vigilant to do so.
Don’t speak in a way that doesn’t fit the moment. Do speak in the tone of a shepherd caring for God’s sheep. Let them hear your caring concern, and your loving guidance in the tone of your voice.
Pastoral preaching seeks a revelation about the goodness of God that speaks to the resistant human heart. It names that surprising goodness in the face of the current darkness. Pastoral preaching tells the stories of people who remind the listener of themselves. And it does all of this with a tone of deep concern and care.
May God reveal Christ’s goodness to you in surprising ways, fill you with ever deeper compassion, and bring healing through your words of wisdom and care.