Not all sermons need a double dose of urgency, but every sermon needs to be full of conviction—not intensity, necessarily (and many confuse these two features of public speech)—but conviction: the feeling that the speaker is giving voice to what he or she really believes, to what is true and useful and important, to what will make a difference in life and death.
It was an emotional moment when Moses declared to the people: “Today I set before you life and death.” The perennial popularity of the Psalms lies primarily with the emotional way they give voice to the highs and lows of life, from “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (103:1) to “How long, O Lord, how long?” (35:7) Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet and Amos was intense in his demand the “justice roll down like waters” (5:24). Jesus quoted Isaiah when he turned over the tables, saying “My house is a house of prayer for all people” (Matthew 21:13).
Peter must have been as full of emotion as he was of the Spirit when he stood on Pentecost to declare, “You killed Jesus but God raise him from the dead” (paraphrased from Acts 2:22-32). And even today we cannot read the powerful words of Paul to Apostle without absorbing the emotion: “Who can separate us from the love of God?…I am persuaded that neither life nor death, nor angels or rulers, nor things present or things to come, nor powers, nor height or depth, not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Of course, with passion as much as any other of these nine marks of a good sermon, how something is said is secondary to what is said. If there is no substance, so seriousness, no truth, no relevance, no genuine gospel, then all the enthusiasm, emotion, and passion available to the human is of little good; it is like the fog that the sun drives away for the meringue that adorns a pie but does not nourish the body or assuage the hunger. Don’t Shakespeare describe something as “full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”? He could have been talking about some preaching! I certainly have heard many sermons that fell into that category (and I myself have preached a few).
Passion does not require volume or length or anger or a demand that people think or live in a certain way. This is important to note for some people, preachers and parishioners alike equate passion with perspiration— if the preacher is not constantly reaching for the handkerchief to mop his brow he has not sufficiently put his soul into the sermon. Or if she has not raised her voice high enough or marched around the platform far enough. These may be signs of passion but not necessarily. Passion does require a level of enthusiasm and a wellspring of energy—enough to convey to the congregation that the preacher is speaking from the heart as well as the head.
Passion is an emotion, and preaching that suppresses the emotional element of speaking or hearing is not doing justice to the gospel ministry. Some traditions seek to suppress emotion: in preaching, in worship, and in religion in general. But this is a mistake. Nothing of importance ever happened without a level of enthusiasm, a good deacon used to say to me; and I believe it.
Good preaching—as the rhetoricians stated long ago—has an appeal to the reason, the will, and the emotions, and the good preacher will leave none of these gospel stones in her purse when she stands to preach.