Saturday, March 03, 2007


Best Sermons Ever

Christopher Howe (compiler), Continuum, 2001

Some people - I'm one of them - actually enjoy reading others' sermons.

When John Claypool used to publish his each week, and sent them out once a month, I often found myself dropping everything to read them.

I've done the same with other contemporary homiletical "greats" like Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, Fred Craddock and William Willimon. And, a generation ago, W. E. Sangster and James Stewart. And before that, F. W. Boreham. And if you add the black preachers Martin Luther King and Gardner Taylor, that just about completes the list of English-speaking/writing "greats" in the 20th century, in my view.

So how would you select the Best Sermons Ever? Here's Howe's list: Peter the Apostle, John Chrysostom, St Augustine, Aelfric, St Bernard, The Homilies, Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, John Bunyan, Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Lawrence Sterne, Sydney Smith, John Henry Newman, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther King, H.A. Williams, and Pope John Paul II.

Now, class, what does that list suggest to you? We'll come back to that.

In addition, Howe offers excerpts from other sermons and prayers from people ranging from St Francis of Assisi, George Herbert, John Keble ... to moderns like Mother Teresa and Billy Graham.

First, a little introduction to the "practical theology" of preaching. What is preaching supposed to "do", if I can put the question into a utilitarian frame of reference? I'd suggest the best preaching is didactic, prophetic, and dramatic (see for more on that).

Christopher Howe would, I think, prefer three other adjectives: erudite, scholarly, and/or "literary". In other words, he comes to this exercise as a litterateur, rather than as a homiletician.

Notice the absence of modern American mainline preachers in his list? Yes, perhaps Jonathan Edwards, M. L. King and Billy Graham deserve a place, but what of the others most theologically-sophisticated Americans are reading, like those mentioned above? (The answer, from my experience of eight to ten trips to the UK for pastors' conferences: on that side of the Atlantic they've never heard of them). And I'm surprised Sangster and Stewart are missing.

So, frankly, most of these sermons are of classical - rather than devotional - interest only. Some of them are heavily impregnated with Latin phrases and other obscurantisms. And some fit into the category of "Why use ten words when 100 will suffice?"

One of the best is a homiletical essay - Jonathan Swift's "Upon Sleeping in Church". The text, of course, is about Eutychus falling out of the window, Acts 20:9: "The accident which happened to this young man hath not been sufficient to discourage his successors." But, frankly, I'd go to sleep in some of these sermons - especially Laurence Sterne's on "Evil Speaking".

And some are both brilliant and scary. How about this, from Jonathan Edwards' 15-page sermon (without a title - but from one version of his famous "Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God" - see
Warnings/sinners.htm ): "If you cry to God to pity you, he will be so far from pitying you in your doleful case, or showing you the least regard or favour, that instead of that, he will only tread you under foot. And though he will know that you cannot bear the weight of omnipotence treading upon you, yet he will not regard that, but he will crush you under his feet without mercy; he will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment. He will not only hate you, but he will have you, in the utmost contempt: no place shall be thought fit for you, but under his feet to be trodden down as the mire of the streets."

No wonder "revival" broke out when people heard this sort of diatribe!

Some excerpts and notes (many of these are in the category "they don't produce them like this anymore!"):

• Wesley travelled on foot or horseback 225,000 miles and preached 40,000 sermons!

• Lancelot Andrewes mastered 15 languages!

• "In Lapland witches sell winds" (John Donne).

• "Celibate, like the fly in the heart of an apple, dwells in a perpetual sweetness, but sits alone, and is confined and dies in singularity; but marriage, like the useful bee, builds a house and gathers sweetness from every flower ... and feeds the world with delicacies" (Jeremy Taylor).

• "It is my duty - it is my wish - it is the subject of this day to point out those evils of the Catholic religion from which we have escaped" (from Sydney Smith's 'The Rules of Christian Charity' !). Another profundity from that sermon: "The evil of difference of opinion must exist - it admits of no cure."

• "When people say that I acted charitably towards so and so, what they generally mean is that in fact that I hate his guts but managed to behave as though I didn't" (H. A. Williams).

An inspirational note from Martin Luther King to conclude: "Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love ... Let us have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realise that ... we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves."

This book reminds me of the November 9, 1895 Punch cartoon, which showed a timid curate having breakfast in his bishop's home. The bishop is saying, "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones," to which the curate replies, in a desperate attempt not to give offence, "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

If you are a theological or literary sophisticate who reads sermons without wanting to be "spiritually challenged" by them, this book is widely available.

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries




Reading: Matthew 12: 1-21

Being an itinerant ('hit-run') preacher has some advantages. I remember a Sunday evening service in a conservative church in rural Victoria, Australia. They had big black Bibles and severe expressions... And they knew their Bibles, and were proud of that. It was a smallish group, so I decided to engage them in dialogue:

'Who knows who the Pharisees were?' They did. 'The Pharisees got a pretty nasty press in the New Testament - particularly Matthew.'

'Now tell me all the *good* things you can think of about the Pharisees.' I wrote them up on a blackboard:

The Pharisees knew their Bibles; were disciplined in prayer; fasted twice a week; gave about a third of their income to their church; were moral (very moral); many had been martyred for their faith; they attended 'church' regularly; they were evangelical/orthodox; and evangelistic (Jesus said they'd even cross the ocean - a fearful thing for Jews - to win a convert).

There was a deep silence. I asked 'Peter' sitting at the front: 'What's wrong?' He pointed to the list and said 'That's us!' 'Is it?" I responded. 'Then you've got a problem: Jesus said these sorts of people are children of the devil!'

Then we did an inductive exercise on the question: 'What's so wrong with this list of admirable qualities?' Short answer: it omits what was most important for Jesus. Whenever in the Gospels he used a prefatory statement like 'This is the greatest/most important thing of all...' none of the above were emphasized by him.

What were they? Yes, loving God, loving others, seeking first the kingdom = obeying God the King ... And, from two Gospel verses the evangelicals/orthodox have rarely noticed - Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42 - justice/love, mercy, faith.

None of these were on the Pharisees' list. But they're the most important of all, according to Jesus. Have you noticed items like justice/love don't get into our creeds or confessions of faith or 'doctrinal statements' either :-) ? (I've written a book about that: Recent Trends Among Evangelicals, if you want to chase that line).

Back to the Pharisees. Our text (Matthew 12:1-21) is about the problem of religious 'scrupulosity'... Jesus and his disciples were walking on the Sabbath through the fields on their way to the synagogue, to church, and they were hungry. So as the law (Deuteronomy 23:25) allowed, they plucked some ears of corn to eat. The Pharisees had problems with their 'reaping' on the sabbath. In fact, the disciples were breaking four of the Pharisees' 39 rules about work on the sabbath: technically they were reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal!

Now the modern picture of the Pharisees almost certainly trivializes - or demonizes - their piety These were good people with good motives. But they were 'good people in the worst sense of the word'. More of that later...

Jesus' response is to argue from two precedents (lawyers/legalists are at home there) - precedents about necessity and service. David and his friends were hungry, so ate the forbidden bread (though note that when King Uzziah invaded the sacred area from another motive - pride - he was struck with leprosy, 2 Chronicles 26:16). Then the priests did a lot of 'work' on the sabbath - killing and sacrificing animals: so Jesus is saying that if sabbath-work has to do with the necessities of life and duties of sacred service, it's O.K. and the *spirit* of the fourth commandment is not violated. Then Jesus reinforces all this with thr ee arguments: someone greater than the temple is here; God wants mercy to have priority over sacrifice; and 'the Son of man is lord of the sabbath'. Or, as the New Interpreters' Bible Commentary puts it (in a way that would appeal to a rabbinical way of arguing): 'Since the priests sacrifice according to the law on the sabbath, sacrifice is greater than the sabbath. But mercy is greater than sacrifice... so mercy is greater than the sabbath' (Abingdon, 1995, p.278). I like Eugene Peterson's translation of this section in The Message: 'There is far more at stake than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant - "I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual" - you wouldn't be nitpicking like this.'

Then we have the story of the man with the withered hand. Jerome, the fourth century bishop-scholar, says some ancient Gospels tell us his name was Caementarius - a bricklayer - and he said to Jesus: 'Please heal my hand so that I can earn a living by bricklaying rather than begging'. The Pharisees challenge him: 'Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?' Now there's a technicality behind that question, and Jewish scribes used to debate it: is it lawful for a physician to heal on the sabbath? If the answer's 'yes' how about someone else, like a prophet? The Shammaite Pharisees did not allow praying for the sick on the sabbath, but the followers of Hillel allowed it. Arguments, arguments: 'arguments by extension' to which Jesus answers with an 'argument by analogy'. If the sabbath laws allow you to help a sheep, why not a person? (But then, the Essenes wouldn't have rescued a sheep either: gets complicated!).

So Jesus healed the man. Two notes at this point: # Jesus asked the man to stretch out his hand, to do as much as he could. Jesus often did that in his healings. It's the same today: we get help any way we can, and do what we can. Jesus still heals: sometimes slowly (always slowly in cases of sexual/emotional abuse), sometimes instantly; sometimes with, sometimes without, the help of medicine... # I was a co-speaker at a conference with the Dr Paul Yonggi Cho, pastor of the largest church in the world. He said: 'Every miracle recorded in the New Testament, including the raising of the dead, has also happened in Korea: we are praying for some miracles not mentioned in the Bible, nor recorded in Christian history. Like the replacement of a limb - an arm or a leg - that's not there . We're believing God for that...!' Do what you like with that one!

We ought to make a little excursus at this point. What's the Sabbath all about? Two things, basically: faith and rest. Faith that God will supply our needs if we don't have to work all the time; and rest so that our lives will be in balance. As you know, I counsel clergy: that's what John Mark Ministries is about. They're often burned out. But when they are, it's almost always associated with a failure to take the idea and practice of sabbath seriously. They don't take a day off: a day off is any day (for pastors it's often Thursday) when from getting up to going to bed at night you are not preoccupied with your vocation. Isn't it interesting that in our leisure-oriented culture, there's also more fatigue? A lot of people are just plain tired. The five-day work week is a recent innovation, but 'leisure' and 'sabbath-rest' are not the same. Gordon McDonald, in his excellent book Ordering Your Private World has a chapter 'Rest Beyond Leisure' which I urge you to read. He writes: 'God was the first "rester"...Does God need to rest? Of course not. But did God choose to rest? Yes. Why? Because God subjected creation to a rhythm of rest and work that he revealed by observing the rhythm himself, as a precedent for everyone else... [For us] this rest is a time of looking backward. We gaze upon our work and ask questions like: "What does my work mean? For whom did I do all this work? How well was my work done? Why did I do all this? What results did I expect, and what did I receive?" To put it another way, the rest God instituted was meant first and foremost to cause us to interpret our work, to press meaning into it, to make sure we know to whom it is properly dedicated' (Highland, 1985, pp.176-7).

The Pharisees had lost sight of the essence of the sabbath. Alister McGrath says in his NIV Bible Commentary: 'The Sabbath was instituted to give people refreshment, rather than to add to their burdens' (H&S, 1995, p.242). Precisely how you keep the Sabbath today will be governed by love for God and neighbour, and the kind of work you do. If you're a manual worker, rest. If you're sedentary, do something physical. Make sure it's 'recreational' for you - re-creating your body, mind, emotions and spirit.

Jesus healed... and 'the Pharisees conspired... how to destroy him' - destroy the One through whom we have life. (When you're beaten by goodness, reason and miracle, you have no other option but rage). And 'great crowds followed Jesus'. They knew he loved them. He taught them and healed them. While the Pharisees were into destroying, Jesus was healing. The Scottish Baptist preacher Matthew Henry makes a good point here: though some are unkind to us, we must not on that account be unkind to others.

Sometimes I talk to a pastor who is being 'destroyed' by Pharisees. They are still with us. Why? It's all about what American social scientists call 'mindsets': the mindset of the Pharisee and that of the prophet are antithetical: they can't get along. Let me explain.

The Pharisee is concerned about law: how to do right. Now there's nothing wrong with that as it stands. Except for one thing: you can keep the law and in the process destroy persons. I have a friend who lectured in law in one of our universities, before he got out of it all in disgust. He said with some conviction: 'The whole of our Western legal system is sick, unjust. For one thing: if you're rich, and can afford the cleverest advocacy, you have a pretty good chance of not going to gaol; but not if you're poor.' There's something wrong with a system supposed to preserve 'fairness' when double-standards operate...

There's a tension between law and love. Law is to love as the railway tracks are to the train: the tracks give direction, but all the propulsive power is in the train. Tracks on their own may point somewhere, but they're cold, lifeless things. But love without law is like a train without tracks: plenty of noise and even movement but lacking direction. Both law and love ultimately come from God. We need God's laws to know how to set proper boundaries and behave appropriately: without good laws we humans will destroy one another. Prophets, in the biblical sense, try to tie law and love into each other. The O.T. prophets were always encouraging the people of God to keep the law of God. But the greatest commandment is love: love of God and of others.

The recent Australian Uniting Church Interim Report on Sexuality looks at these two issues. It answers one of them very well and the other poorly. The question: 'How can homosexuals (etc.) know they're loved by us?' is addressed with deep compassion. Marginalized people ought to feel they're accepted in our churches. But they don't, generally, so we're more like the Pharisees than Jesus in that respect. (I once discussed the issue of the legalization of brothels with a couple of women from the Prostitutes' Collective on ABC TV. In the middle of it, one of them turned to me and said, 'You Christians hate us, don't you?' How would you have responded?)

But the other question: 'What is God's will in God's word-in- Scripture about all this?' is answered poorly in the UC report. Not just poorly, but heretically, I believe. It gives us permission to be revisionist when it comes to the clear mandates of Scripture, and that's not on, for a follower of Jesus. He came not to set aside God's law, but to fulfil it, by embodying the great law of love in himself.

The last section of our Gospel reading takes all this further: Jesus the prophet was fulfilling the Scriptures. As God's chosen servant whom God loves and in whom God delights, Jesus was a meek Messiah, not a warlike one. And he 'proclaims justice' (v.18), indeed 'brings justice to victory' (v.19). Now why is justice so big for prophets - and for Jesus (but not for Pharisees)? Hang in there. Fasten your seat-belts. There's some turbulence coming as we close.

First a word to the prophets in this congregation. 'Prophets'? 'Here?' Sure. Well, who are they, and why don't they - or the church - know who they are? Why don't we recognize and commission them? Why don't we hear them speak a special revelation of God to us? Ah, there are several answers to that. Mainly, of course, prophets are somewhat unpredictable. I'm studying the second half of Jeremiah at the moment to write some Scripture Union notes: here's a guy who tells the king and the army to surrender to the enemy, otherwise they'll be wiped out and/or carted off into captivity. Not the sort of message to stiffen the resistance of your armed forces! So they tossed him into a septic tank. Prophets disturb the comfortable; pastors comfort the disturbed. But we don't want to be disturbed. And so the church organizes its life - its doctrines (like 'prophecy isn't needed anymore, we've got the Bible, and preachers') and its structures (by-laws and committees to cover everything) to exclude this more spontaneous 'word from the Lord.' And prophets tend to major on social justice which isn't nice for middle-class people - more about that in a moment.

But you can't get away from the high priority the early church and the Hebrew people put on prophecy.

What is this gift? 'The gift of prophecy is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to receive and communicate an immediate message from God to his people through a divinely-anointed utterance' (Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, Regal, 1979, p.228). Prophecy isn't just predicting the future, though it can include prediction. Prophets aren't always right: so they ought to be in submission to the leadership of the church (I ran these ideas by our senior pastor during the week). Prophets aren't adding a 67th book to the Bible. The canon of Scripture is closed: the prophet is simply bringing a biblically-relevant message from God to us today, for our situation. Are prophets sort of carried along by the Spirit? In a sense, yes. Michael Green writes: 'The Spirit takes over and addresses the hearers directly through [the prophet]. That is the essence of prophecy' (I Believe in the Holy Spirit, Eerdmans, 1975, p.172). Do prophets tend to be political activists? Often yes - as in the Bible. And today, therefore, such people are unlikely to be pastors of churches - if a pastor has a prophetic gift they'd better have also an independent income! 'Since their message is frequently unpopular, they would feel restrained if they were too closely tied to an institution. And many church institutions feel uncomfortable with such prophets around too much... they tend to shun church bureaucracies and prefer to be outside critics' (Wagner, p.230). Now there are varying points of view - between and among Pentecostals and Evangelicals about the ministry of prophets, and this is as much as I want to say about it all here. Except for this: if God gives you a special message for your church, write it down, and give it to the leadership: and hold the leadership accountable about praying over it, and then leave the decision about whatever happens with it to them.

Let us go back to those two Gospel texts evangelicals (like me) have ignored for 500 years: Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42. Jesus is inveighing against the Pharisees, and saying that despite their religiosity they've missed the point - which is justice/love, mercy and faith. Justice comes first (as with the prophet's message Jesus is quoting: Micah 6:8). Why? Simple: justice is all about the right use of power; it's about fairness; it's about doing right - particularly for the poor and oppressed. Social justice is all about (it's *only* about) treating others as being made in God's image; human beings with respect and dignity and infinite worth. Justice is about the most important characteristic of human beings - their Godlikeness. Homosexuals, for example, aren't just individuals who parade their gayness in Mardi Gras festivals. They're made in the image of God. Hitler was made in the image of God; so was Stalin; so is Pol Pot and Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein... And so are the people in church next to you this morning. CSLewis says somewhere (The Weight of Glory?) that if we realized who the others really were with whom we were worshipping, we'd be tempted to fall down and worship *them*!

There's probably something of the Pharisee in all of us. We take two good gifts from God - law and truth - and create all sorts of legalisms and dogmatisms to save us the trouble of loving people we don't like. What is your spiritual 'achilles' heel'? How does the devil get to you? One of our '19 questions' (see our home page) for retreatants asks: 'for what non-altruistic motives are you in ministry?'

Have you noticed that in the ministry of Jesus, the message of repentance was mainly aimed at religious people, church-folk, like us? When we elevate law over love; rules and precedents and structures above persons; when social justice is not at the top of our agenda; then we've got some repenting to do. Pharisees are people who know the Bible and miss the point. Lord help us!

(P.S. The statement about 'trivializing the Pharisees' refers to several problems biblical scholars have about the Pharisees in the NT in general and Matthew in particular. See, eg. the excellent article on the subject in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday, 1992)

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries


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