A Note on the Seriousness of Preaching

A Note on the Seriousness of Preaching

The recent death of retired professor and priest, James V. Schall, prompted me to reread his delightful 2001 book, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs. It is a wonderful compilation of essays, many quite short, on education, work, and leisure, and all entirely fresh in their ability to address contemporary obsessions with the same.

Schall considers his Georgetown Law students and undergraduates — burning out studying and building their resumes by cramming more demands into their overfilled lives — and says to them, “You are taking yourselves, your careers, and even this institution too seriously.” Now Schall was not advocating the shirking of responsibility or eschewing ambition, much less effort, but rather he called for them to put such things in proper perspective — a cosmic perspective. In light of the affairs of God and the trajectory of all human life — death and judgment — human affairs, be they ever so serious, seem pretty unserious. Simply, the affairs of God greatly outweigh even the most fascinating of human affairs. He writes:

It is this which causes us finally to “go out of ourselves,” to be what we really are because we realize that we cannot be “self-sufficient.” “In every age,” as Tolkien said, “there come forth things that are new and have no foretelling.” This is why human affairs are ultimately “unserious,” for we do not “control” all that we are. We remain beings to whom much is given, including our openness to the highest things. The fact that we realize, with Dante, that “the Maker” may be the only one to “enjoy it all” only means that our own joy exists in a freedom that makes the affairs that so absorb us seem utterly “unserious” by comparison.[1]

The comparative unseriousness of human affairs is the consequence of understanding the primacy of God and the great work of redemption. Schall explains:

If the whole of what we do—if the whole world—is merely “child’s play,” as Plato also intimated, it is not because there is no drama among us. Rather, it is because we are already included in a drama of infinitely greater grandeur than anything we could possibly make or even imagine by ourselves.[2]

Schall is talking about the drama of the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension of Christ Jesus and the Holy Trinity’s governance of the Church in the preservation and ultimate consummation of creation. Now, all of sudden, huge entities like Microsoft® and the United Nations are not such a big deal when the most basic aspects and needs of our nature are eventually transformed into something higher, into something that exists at a more rare and consequential level, the eternal level before God.

This reflection parallels Robert Jenson’s brilliant First Things 2010 essay, “How the World Lost Its Story.” In it, Jenson says we all live a narrative existence – we have our stories and these stories furnish our lives with meaning and purpose. However Jenson, like Schall before him, says our stories pale in comparison to the meta-narrative – the grand overarching story of God creating and entering our world to remake the world and, shockingly, doing so through incarnation and crucifixion. Or, put differently, our stories are decidedly unserious when viewed through the lens of the seriousness of God’s affairs. Jesus put the matter succinctly: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). Human affairs are not serious in and of themselves. Rather, they are consequential because they garner meaning and significance within the overarching story of God and man.

What then about preaching? What sort of business is it — serious or unserious, a human affair or a divine affair?

While it cannot be denied how the truth is joyful (after all, the Gospel is good news) and the being of things is rooted in delight, yet knowledge of ourselves and of God comes with an element of, first, dread and fear (for all but the delusional who repudiate human sinfulness), then the delight of the Gospel — grace and mercy through Jesus Christ and the joy of receiving a sheer gift. This, without a doubt, is the great seriousness of divine affairs. The proclamation of it too, is serious, solemn business, although it yields rejoicing and merriment. But it does so precisely because the condition of mankind and what was necessary to redeem us are so literally, deadly serious. How could it not give rise to love, joy and peace?

To be specific, it is not the Law that is serious and the Gospel unserious, but rather both Law and Gospel are profoundly serious. The Law is serious because, “through the law comes knowledge of sin,” (Romans 3:20) and therefore our guilt (Romans 3:19), with its deadly consequences (Romans 6:23). The Gospel is serious because it declares, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law to redeem those who were under the Law” (Galatians 4:4-5), through, “a propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:25). Stated together, the preaching of the Law and the Gospel — that is, the full counsel of God — is serious business since:

“…we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life (Romans 5:9-10).

Again, it is this seriousness which causes not an unserious response, but the serious joy of the solemn truth received: “More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:11).

And so, the message is serious, while the response moves from guilt and dread with the Law to rejoicing and delight through the Gospel. Yet the Gospel itself is a most serious proclamation, though it be thoroughly infused with joy — both divine and human joy. The way to our hearts and minds comes by way of connecting our lives to the primary divine drama – God’s story.

The Lord God has claim to all humanity. He gives life and all life is accountable to Him at the appointed time of death. So there is an in-built and inescapable connection all people have with the seriousness of God’s creating and redeeming affairs. Since this is true, all sermons can proceed to disclose from Scripture God’s claim to-all and over-all by the revelation of His holiness, righteousness, love, grace and mercy through Christ Jesus.

The seriousness of divine affairs and its bearing upon each person should be expressed and manifest in the Divine Service/Liturgy (i.e., worship services and practices) through a solemn approach. In Scripture, this approach has been written about in this way: “Let us worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). In this vein, Alan Noble writes:

[I]ntentional solemnity is important to convey the sacredness of the Word. By solemnity I do not mean sternness. The church is good at being stern about sin, but it’s often less good at being solemn before God’s holiness. In part, this is because self-discipline is perfectly compatible with the spirit of detached rationalism of our age. We learn the law, judge ourselves and others, and take rational steps to improve our behavior. But solemnity is different. It does not require us to be grim or harsh, and its focus is not on self-improvement. It asks merely that we recognize the sacredness of the act of opening God’s Word—the fact that it is a means of grace for our sanctification.[3]

Noble makes the point that preachers can be solemn and yet find room in a sermon for appropriate humor, a moment of levity, and certainly joy, but all this must be done without trivializing the Word, its subjects, or the one heralding the Word. “The mood of a Christian worship service, including the sermon, should capture the truth of the living God and the exclusivity of the path.”[4]

Perhaps the closest thing approximating Biblical expectations of reverence and awe with respect to preaching may be the courtroom. A courtroom bespeaks of solemnity. It is not the place for, well, anything unserious. Goofing, gags, attention-getters, joking, and silliness have no place within a courtroom. I recall once my watch accidentally sounding its alarm amidst traffic court, only to be promptly escorted into the hallway by the bailiff. Nobody in the gallery laughed. The judge was not humored either. It was not the time or place. In between hearings, however, the judge brought levity into an otherwise silent courtroom by asking me what time it was, akin to an acutely-placed bit of humor amidst a well-crafted sermon treating the serious affairs of God. Everyone relaxed for a moment, refocused, and got back to the serious business at hand.

In a courtroom, both the proceedings and the juridical pronouncement at the end are solemn, that is, serious affairs. The mood is one of reverence and awe, and rightly so: there is going to be a judgment and it may or may not be welcome news. Likewise with preaching the Word of the Lord. It will always include some damning accusation, some violation of the Law, but it will also conclude with good news, a favorable declaration — pardon and liberty — for all who receive it. The pastor, then, is to the service as the judge is to the courtroom, embodying dignity and solemnity proportionate to the proceedings and pronouncements taking place in their respective forums.

Pastors, therefore, contribute much to the seriousness or unseriousness of the forum for proclamation. Pastors condition the forum by their demeanor, representation, and conduct of the service/liturgy. One’s demeanor and conduct begets a sense of anticipation for the news about to be announced during the sermon. While we may feel more comfortable with a fireside chat or a TED Talk (perhaps because of their association with self-improvement and, so, self-referential address and, perhaps further, self-justification), neither format ferries the solemnity of the content in quite the same way as a courtroom, recalling Schall’s juxtaposing the great seriousness of God’s affairs with the comparative unseriousness of human affairs. Chats and TED Talks, or even teaching for that matter, recede into the background when the Gospel of our Almighty God is declared.

Preachers take time to consider, then, whether cliché ice-breakers may be setting the wrong tone or compromising the environment for royal proclamation. Reflect on how environmental conditioning suggests the kind of address you will be making. For example, does the availability of coffee suggest a café conversation? Do bulletins outfitted for notetaking and PowerPoint presentations intimate classroom teaching as opposed to sanctuary preaching? Is your personal presentation entirely informal? If so, then what does that suggest when it comes to the nature of His proclamation? Does visual media lend itself toward the social obligation to entertain and stimulate? Do you take on another persona when preaching, that is, one as called and ordained royal ambassador heralding the King’s announcement to His people? Have you been overly-familiar with your auditors for purposes of likeability and warmth and thereby perhaps muted the seriousness of the affairs about which you are to speak and proclaim?

Martha Dawn, reflecting on her expectations of a serious sermon once said to the affect that, “Instead of pillows, ushers should distribute crash-helmets before the sermon begins.” How much more so, since the content of preaching pertains to life and death, eternal life and death, for all people whose stories are enveloped by God’s serious affairs? Puritan Divine, Richard Baxter (1615-1591), expressed the seriousness of preaching with these memorable words: “I preach as never sure to preach again, as a dying man to dying men.”

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[1] James V. Schall, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2001), xv.

[2] Ibid., 14.

[3] Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth In A Distracted Age (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2018), 142.

[4] Ibid.

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