In response to a student question after class yesterday, I crowdsourced the following on Facebook: “Would you agree more with the statement a) that every sermon needs to be about Jesus Christ, or b) that every sermon needs to be gospel?” The answers were numerous and, in the process, helped me sort through the shape of the question.
I realize, of course, that as posed it creates somewhat of a false dichotomy–as if gospel and Christ can ever be fully separated. But then the question isn’t about rejecting either one of these things. It is about the way the preacher prefers to describe their homiletic task.
Some of my query comes from reading Timothy Keller’s new book Preaching, wherein he states that there is “one key” to “the two tasks of preaching.” That key? “Preaching Christ.” Keller is one of today’s top preachers, and is deserving of respect. But as he says that “preaching Christ” is the one key to the sermon, I wonder if I should take this to mean that every message has to be about Jesus. Please don’t misunderstand me on this point: I am a Christian and love Jesus Christ. I believe Jesus is our one and only Savior, fully God and fully man. But to preach from the standpoint that he is the overt theme of every sermon is not the way that I tend to approach the homiletical task.
I realize, of course, that Keller is not ham-handedly saying that every time you stand behind the pulpit you need to preach about the New Testament, nor that Jesus should be unartfully shoehorned into Old Testament passages as some modern-day deus ex machina. I have not finished reading his book, but I’m certain he understands things in a much more nuanced way. For me, though (and I’m stepping away from Keller here), I think that the potential implications of saying one is making every sermon about Jesus are such that I’d prefer to say instead that every sermon should be gospel.
Before I’m deemed a heretic, let me explain. My understanding of the sermon is that it needs to take the biblical text seriously and expound upon its meaning, both in its original writing and in the way that it connects with the contemporary hearer. All of this is mediated through the person of the preacher and the work of the Holy Spirit. Insofar as both my hearers and I are Christ-followers (or at least living in a time following the Advent of Christ) the biblical text must be preached in light of the life, work, and teachings of Christ. Primary amongst these is what the Scripture calls gospel, or good news: in Christ there is redemption and all things can be made new.
Understood this way, sermons exist in order to help us understand God’s Word to us here and now in light of God’s redemption. And it is only redemptive because of Christ. (This, of course, is the part of the discussion that appears to come off as simple semantics and needless dichotomy). I’m not debating that at all. What I’m asking is whether it is helpful for me to say that every sermon needs to be about Jesus Christ. You see, at a theological level I understand the truth of what that means, but the bare statement itself could be taken to imply that every sermon needs to be focused on Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John or some theological discussion of Jesus Christ. Or that every sermon, if it didn’t read Jesus into the passage upon which it was based, had ultimately failed. As a friend of mine stated during yesterday’s Facebook thread, it is possible for a sermon to mention Jesus an awful lot without ever getting around to being a gospel message. You could preach about some obscure historical point of the life of Jesus. You could use Jesus as a condemning weapon only. Neither of those would be gospel. A sermon is not a Christian sermon just because you mention Jesus. It is a Christian sermon because it is about “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1).
I would prefer to say, given the choice between the two statements at the beginning of this post, that every sermon needs to be explicitly gospel/good news–even if it only briefly mentions the name of Jesus. And what is this good news? In the words of Jesus “…to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4). Our brokenness–both physical and spiritual–is met and redeemed in Him. The gospel points to and embraces this redemption.
Sermons, therefore, ought to speak a redeeming word of gospel to the listening community. And yes, insofar as all gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, every sermon is about Jesus. But sometimes that focus on Jesus can look different depending on the text at hand. He is always there as we discuss the gospel, even if we’re preaching from Genesis or Song of Songs or Revelation. Jesus Christ may just not be as overt or directly the focus of the sermon at some points. But the gospel of Jesus Christ? It must always be.