Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Pastoral Theology

Here’s To Substantive Sermons

Monday mornings I sometimes compare notes with others who have survived the terrors of a Sunday pulpit to live another day. I ask how they are faring. A secondary question is whether or not our congregants survived. Did they hear a word from God? Did the Spirit show up? Were they rocked out of their minds, or did the message bore the eyeballs right out of their lids? Did the truths of God get down into life? 

Sometimes a pastor shares how he is taking parishioners through a dense part of Scripture, teaching them to think theologically. I commend his courage. We live in a superficial age that is less inclined to go deep, more concerned to be inspired and moved by the emotions. We do, however, need solid foundations. Still, I like to probe—did you speak into the heart of the desperate mom? Into the weight of the worn out executive?  Into the fears of a man who is contemplating going on dialysis? Into the frustration of a father who at the end of his rope with his son?

It matters little if the text doesn’t get into the fabric of one’s life. Did people experience something of God’s presence? But all of these questions must come on the backside—not the front side. Life–and sermons–must be first be rooted in theology.

CS Lewis, in his The Joyful Christian, speaks to this necessity. He tells the story of an old, hard-bitten RAF officer who once remarked of theology: “I’ve got no use for all that stuff. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt him. Who needs all of those neat little dogmas?” Lewis found himself agreeing—in part. Having a personal experience of God is essential. Knowing God is with me while I face life issues is critical. It is more real. But there is also a necessary place for creeds and confessions and theology. This is the frame that holds up life.

Lewis uses a helpful analogy to underscore the necessity of both experience and doctrine: “If a man has once looked at the Atlantic from a beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he will also be turning from real waves to a bit of colored paper.  But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only colored paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more useful than walks on the beach if you want to cross the ocean.”

Gravitating to sermons that are all about practical living and worship that is all about experience are attractive. But they are like watching the waves from the beach and not getting anywhere. As Lewis notes, “You will not find eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.”

No wonder Paul begins his letters with lots of theology (e.g. Romans 1-11; Ephesian 1-3; Colossians 1-2). He is drawing maps, clarifying the route we need to take, the shoals and sandbars to avoid. He is telling us what Christ accomplished on our behalf, unpacking the ways of the Spirit, and how we have died to sin when Christ died and arose to life when Christ arose. And then he takes us into life experiences—our moments by the sea (Romans 12-16; Ephesians 4-6; Colossians 3-4). These are the passages that get into the stuff of life, into the mess of covering wounds with love (Rom. 13), exchanging foul language for that which builds up (Eph. 4), and putting to death ungodly passions (Col. 3).

To those who attempted to persuade Lewis that people are disinterested in theology, he responded: “I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God,’ and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would have to would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?”

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