The Sermon is not the final word. It should be authoritative, to be sure. The preacher does not have to tip toe around issues, pad his convictions with fluff words like “think,” “perhaps,” “probably.” Often this is the insecurity of the pastor more than just following the modern linguistic flavor which tends to be more round-about than up-front. But the sermon has never meant to be the final word. It has never claimed such authority.
The sermon does not pick a subject so it can close all conversation on that subject with the gravel of the preacher’s fist and sealing it with the stamp “thus says the Lord.” The Bible itself is not the final word. The Bible is not comprehensive, not even about its primary subject, Jesus. As a matter of fact, the Bible itself admits that it does not contain everything about Jesus. This does not mean it is not reliable. It gives us more than enough to see Jesus in our own journey, and pick up the pretenders. So if the Bible never claims such exhaustiveness for itself, why should the preacher. The preacher preaches with authority but not like a god. He brings a subject into a theological light –something which is unique to the pulpit — and sends it out to the congregation for the congregation to converse about the subject in that new theological light.
I understood this more clearly today after I preached about sleep and sat in on the Sunday Connections — the time when the congregants break off into small groups to reflect on the sermon together. Their reflection-conversations are more than application process of the sermon. They are refining, adding, even subtracting from the sermon. They are experts in their own rights in that they all have struggled with sleep. They are experts in that everyone of them sleep every night. And all of that experience adds layers and nuances and depth to the subject of sleep. Of course the theological light is what was missing in most of the previous conversations, and certainly in any of the conversation they read and heard in the media. The media will talk of the physiological and psychological reasons for sleep deprivation, but never the theological reasons of sleeping.
This is the unique contribution of the pulpit, recognizing theological reflection as a crucial means to understanding reality. The pastor is not preaching merely to change a thought but to affect the whole thinking process. So the sermon allows the conversation to happen, it makes people talk about it, the subject of the message. Moreover, it lets the people talk about it at church, empowers them to theologize. It gives them the authority to begin to think about these issues that might have been in the back of their mind, together with brothers and sisters as theologians, people to whom God matters. That is the real lasting power of a good sermon.
I do not know how often I accomplish it, but I pray I do.