The Temptation of the Godless Sermon

By Judy Paulsen
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Some time ago I visited a church in which the sermon, delivered by a guest preacher, concluded with the sentence “If you do this you’ll be happy, and your neighbour will be happy.”

The Gospel reading that morning recounted the calling of the first disciples. The sermon asked the listener to consider if they would have responded as quickly to the call of Jesus as the first disciples did. It then moved to consider what it took for those first disciples to leave their old livelihoods behind and what it meant for them to live the life of a disciple. The preacher then suggested that disciples are people who try hard to serve God, especially by being responsible for their neighbour, and by doing so we too can help create the kind of world God wants. The final movement of the sermon suggested that such a world can make both us and our neighbour happier, which is obviously not without its benefits. So, why did this sermon feel so vacuous?

I’m always cautious to criticize sermons. It’s easy for people to misinterpret what you thought you were saying, and perhaps I did that on this particular Sunday. Anyway, I’ve delivered a few dud-sermons myself, which even years later I wish I could revise and re-deliver. It’s not easy preaching week after week, and then year after year, and every preacher has weeks in which other pastoral duties chink away at the time they set aside for sermon writing. Maybe this was one of those weeks.

But this blog isn’t really a critique of this particular sermon. It’s a critique of this particular type of sermon. More specifically, it’s about the temptation, seen across every denomination and facing every preacher, to preach a Godless sermon. This temptation is stronger than we preachers like to admit.

A Godless sermon is not one which fails to mention God. A sermon can be Godless in far more subtle ways.  These are sermons in which God, although mentioned, is not the real focus. Rather, such sermons make the listener themselves the primary focus; their feelings, their calling, their spiritual growth, their behaviour, their service, and the benefits they can realize.

In both conservative and liberal churches such sermons are usually grounded in moralism; a call to adhere to a specific moral code, although the specifics of the code will differ across the conservative – liberal spectrum. Conservatives tend to focus on adherence to a set of individual behavioural norms while liberals tend to focus on adherence to a set of social behavioural norms. But in both cases, moralism comes with the promise that if you adhere well enough, you will be happier, and your neighbour will be happier. This is where the ‘therapeutic’ part of therapeutic moralism comes in, as the listener is told what they must do to be better, in a world that will also be better.

The chief problem with sermons focused on therapeutic moralism is that we already know that human beings aren’t very good at rising to a high moral standard, even when they are people of faith, and no matter how beneficial that moral code might be for them and for the world. The Old Testament is full of such stories. Noah got roaring drunk and embarrassed himself in front of his kids. In a moment of panic, Lot offered up a daughter to a depraved and violent gang of men. To protect his own skin, Abraham told a lie (twice) about his wife Sarai being his sister, putting her in danger of sexual exploitation. To steal his brother’s first-born blessing, Jacob cunningly deceived his own elderly and blind father. Joseph’s brothers were so jealous that they sold him to a group of slave traders. King David quietly arranged the death of a man because he wanted that man’s wife.

Moving on to the New Testament, we read how James and John privately plotted for positions of power. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Peter abandoned and denied Jesus when he needed him most. Paul and Mark couldn’t get along. Ananias and Saphira claimed they gave more to charity than they really did. The church in Galatia were a bunch of legalists, and there was some hanky-panky going on in the church in Corinth.

Human beings are pretty bad at adhering to moral codes of any sort. Ask yourself, have you ever kept your New Years resolutions past the end of January?

We come to church not to be told to try harder to be holy, but to admit that we’re lousy at it, and to ask for the Holy One’s forgiveness, and the transforming work of his Holy Spirit.

We come to church not to be asked how we feel about a passage of Scripture, but because we long to know more deeply the One whose story it tells.

In short, sermons should spend most of their time focusing on God, who he is, what he is like, what he is doing, who he has told us we are, what he hates and loves, and the plans he has for this world.  We listen to sermons because we want to better know “the Son, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all of creation” (Colossians 1:15).  We want to be touched by the one who touched lepers. We want to draw close to the person who has boldly told us he is the Good Shepherd, the Living Water, the Bread of Life, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. We want to hear again that he is with us and that he will never leave us.

Apart from learning about and knowing God and God’s ways, we will only be doomed to repeat the same sad performance that humanity has been putting on across the ages. It is only after we have caught a glimpse of who God is that we can possibly see clearly who we are and what we are to do. This is the problem with Godless sermons, and this is why the best preachers are those that ask, “What does this text want people to know about God?”

In many Anglican pulpits across Ontario there is a small plaque screwed into the top railing, and which the congregation cannot see.  This plaque faces the preacher and simply reads “Sir, we want to see Jesus”. I still remember the first time I (although not a ‘sir’) preached from such a pulpit. It stared back at me, reminding me of what was what.

The temptation to preach a Godless sermon may arise from the fact that life is busy and it’s always easier to talk about ourselves than it is to talk about God. It may come from our own spiritual lives being a near-empty well. It may come because it’s less threatening to teach about a list of rules or principles than it is to teach about the Creator of reality itself. Who is to say what might happen if people start to know God and be re-shaped by Him.

On the one hand God doesn't make it easy for us preachers, does he?  He is so different from us. So powerful.  So mysterious. So pure. So gracious. So righteous. So present. On the other hand, God has made it very, very clear who he is. God is the calling and sending God shown to us in Scripture, the written Word, and most especially in Jesus, the Living Word. The Father has sent the Son, and together they send the Spirit who joins in sending the Church. But it is God, not us, that is reconciling the world to himself, and joining God in that work doesn’t promise us happiness. It promises us something better, eternal joy.