Fr. John Jay Hughes’ very fine piece at today’s First Things web site, “Proclaiming The Good News,” has many good things to say to preachers. Being one myself, I found much to appreciate in his remarks. What especially struck me though was what I take to be a yet distinctive difference between Roman Catholic and Lutheran styles of preaching. We do it backward.
He cautions preachers against exposing listeners to an exhortation to goodness and morality before first having laid the groundwork of reassurance that God loves them beyond their failures. Exhortation from the pulpit “belongs at the end [of the sermon], when the overwhelming message of God’s unmerited love and goodness has prepared the hearers’ hearts and minds to respond to his love through grateful obedience and worshipful self-sacrifice.”
Talking Lutheran, uh-uh. We never think too much of exhortations to goodness. A classically wrought Lutheran sermon begins with the law, the exhortation on failure, if you will, finely detailing how “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”—especially those listeners within hearing of the preacher. There is no “grateful obedience” being sought because there is none that can be offered. Exhortation in this use is the task of exposing the willful disobedience in which these worshippers have indulged over the past week.
The positive—the Gospel’s good news—comes in the second half of the sermon, and always as declaration: “You don’t deserve it, but here’s the good stuff God has done for you because of Christ.” There’s the love that reassures, after having been first informed they need it, badly.
I’m not a pastor who believes that the “message of God’s unmerited love and goodness”—whether it comes at the front or at the rear of the sermon—necessarily produces “grateful obedience and worshipful self-sacrifice,” but, shoot, I’m always willing to give it a try.