Jesus Christ in the Sermon–Presence or Absence?

Sally A. Brown’s work, Cross Talk: Preaching Redemption Here and Now, makes this stunning assertion:

“The subject of this book is one that theologians are discussing more and more, while preachers seem to speak of it less and less; the death of Jesus (1).”

I could not agree more. In fact, I wonder: “Is Jesus Christ present at all in the sermon I have heard?  In any given sermon can one hear the words, deeds, and power of Jesus Christ expressed? At our seminary we have a question on our sermon critique sheet which reads: “Was God the subject of this sermon?”  Was God in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit, preached as the reality, the chief instigator of the text’s narrative?

Often I hear in preaching–classroom or otherwise–a great deal of sound information without reference to Jesus Christ. There are good efforts to do a thematic sermon from lectionary texts that actually have something in common. There are sermons which delightfully focus on the question of ‘Which character in this biblical text are you, the listener?’ 

Amidst the prolixity of Pentecost Season sermons, one hears much about mission: what people must do, figures to imitate (e.g. Mother Theresa), local soup kitchens in which to participate. The problem is that often these approaches tend to be stand alones. Where is the accompanying reflection on Jesus Christ, who is to inspire and elicit the listeners’ actions in response to the Gospel? Often there seem to be few connections made between the sermon’s proposals and the Lord who is to inspire them.

In fairness, it must be said that Jesus the Christ is, in one sense, always elusive.  We must rely on cultural contexts to form our interpretative efforts to image Jesus Christ, for that is the true work of incarnational theology. Yet, this can happen in both appropriate and inappropriate ways. Brian D. McClaren, in his book A New Kind of Christianity, lists some of the idolatrous forms of imaging Jesus Christ: “the colonial Jesus, the capitalist or communist Jesus, the slave-owning Jesus, the nuclear bomb-dropping America-first Jesus, the organ-music stained-glass nostalgic-sentimental Jesus….” (122). And those are only a few possibilities. But what McClaren is describing and the alternative faithful attempts to portray Jesus Christ are not my primary concern.  Instead, after hearing many sermons I wonder if Jesus Christ is present at all in the proclamation.

Why the sermonic absences of Jesus Christ?  There are several reasons. Biblical texts are troublesome. How are we to describe one who steps out of a boat in foreign territory and heals a demoniac, while the local livelihood of swine herders is demolished in the thundering of eight thousand hooves into the sea?  How are we to speak about one who causes a corpse to return to life so that the dead man starts speaking? What about the snarky responses Jesus gave the foreign woman who asked that he heal her child? What if the biblical texts figuratively and actually stay near the grave and go nowhere near Easter?

The challenges of the texts sadly seem to be the very reason preachers make little or no effort to ask the difficult questions they pose. Who is this?  Is evil a reality over which Jesus Christ has control?  Does Jesus Christ heal human beings physically today? Is Jesus Christ real and present now? Is Jesus Christ able to change human beings today?  Many sermons never go near such questions. The severe interrogations biblical texts put to the listeners and the preacher often leaves us avoiding the tough questions and, thereby, Jesus Christ himself.

Perhaps I am grieving this loss of sermonic presence because historically Christians have regarded the sermon as one of God’s means of grace. The sermon is one instance of where and how the real presence of Jesus Christ invites people to new life. For example, a basic Lutheran definition of preaching is found in Luther describing the sermon as “…the spoken word, in which the forgiveness of sins is preached to the whole world (which is the proper function of the gospel);” (Book of Concord, Smalcald Articles, #4, Concerning the Gospel, (319).  Luther’s qualification of preaching “for the forgiveness of sins” is biblically based as the Gospels describe Jesus’ preaching. Indeed, there are many definitions of preaching in Christendom. Those which have endured historically are firmly anchored in the presence and power of Jesus Christ through proclamation.

Do we serve these definitions peculiar to our own faith settings by preaching sermons which faithfully and explicitly respond to the agency of Jesus Christ, his presence, power, his call to repentance, forgiveness of sins and new life? Is Jesus Christ present in the sermons we preach and hear or is he tragically in absentia?