I went to church recently with family and friends. None of us had ever attended this church, but it was close and had the markings of a hopeful, helpful addition to our sabbath day: rural setting, educated pastor, many people, and a perfectly beautiful morning.
What could go wrong?
As it turned out, plenty. Not a single person spoke to us—five strangers who walked through a vestibule and found a row of empty chairs. Not one song was sung that we knew, although we collectively totaled almost two hundred church years. Not one prayer was offered for us, and for the 250 people gathered around us struggling with decision, temptation, failure, sickness, and disappointment.
But worse that these, the sermon: 54 minutes and 51 seconds of doom and gloom.
Yes, there was a short prayer at the beginning and one a bit longer at the end; but the latter was crammed full of words like suffering, judgment, darkness, sinner, and unrepentance.
In fact, the entire sermon was heavy on these words, plus others: degenerate, ignorance, propitiate, atonement, repentance, famine, substitute, iniquity, and sacrifice. Did I mention the word darkness?
When the dark-haired preacher with the dark-rimmed glasses wearing a dark suit and dark tie finished with those words, he used these: condemnation, denunciation, wrath, wickedness, rejection, sin, convict, doctrine, unbelief, bitterness, and yes, darkness.
How many times he used that word “darkness” I lost count. It anchored the first sentence and the last sentence of this 50-minute diatribe against, well, something, and that something was never quite clear. He wanted us to repent, but I was never certain of the sin from which I needed to turn.
Yes, he told a story: a story from 16th century Geneva about, yes, darkness. Yes, he used a metaphor, comparing Hebrew vocabulary to an “overpacked suitcase.” And yes, he asked a question: what does this have to do with us? But I was uncertain what anything he said had to do with me or with any of us in my gaggle of gospel-loving believers who walked in off the streets in hopes of hearing the Good News.
These elements of his sermon are three of my nine marks of a good sermon, and three others the preacher included: offering one simple idea; speaking from his passion, and mentioning Jesus, a few times, at least in passing.
But he failed to address the real needs of the people. There was no word of mercy to the guilty, no message of hope to the despairing, no invitation to trust for the floundering, no appeal to rest in the Savior or rejoice in the Lord. And none of his fleeting invocations of Jesus described our Lord’s compassion for the people, his powers to heal and redeem, or his prayers on our behalf.
Joy is the distinguishing mark of the Christian gospel: “I bring you good tidings of great joy,” the angels sang on that first Christmas day. “These things I speak to you,” Jesus said, “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full.” And did not Paul the great apostle of God write to us all, “Rejoice, and again I say to you, rejoice”?
But there was no joy in the ecclesial Mudville that day, when the dark preacher took 50 minutes to remined us of the darkness of the world and the darkness of our own souls. Not once did the glorious light of the love of God penetrate this cloud of condemnation, this fog of fear, this verbal darkness.
I love preaching, and nothing so stirs my soul as a good sermon, full of the gospel of God, crafted with care and served with warmth and skill. And nothing so depresses my delight in the things of God as a sermon such as we heard, so full of judgment, so casually composed, and so endlessly dark.
There was a small grace in this sad story. My grandson, my precious Sam now ten years old and wonderfully open to all things spiritual, leaned against my sagging shoulder and went sound to sleep. How often sleep is the gift of God, rescuing our souls from the burdens of life!
And it was his sleep, so sweet, so peaceful, so timely, that kept me in my seat, when at about the 35-minute-mark, I felt the desire to declare publicly my contempt and stalk out.
But I endured to the end, and does not the gospel tell us this also is a gift of God?