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don't take the sting out of the tail

[this post origianlly appeared here at the Kiwi-Made Preaching blog]

Nearly two years ago I was reading a book by John Wright, Telling God’s Story. One of the book’s valuable observations is that as preachers we tend towards comic rather than tragic sermons.  This has nothing to do with being funny or not, but is rather the tendency to resolve our sermons on good notes rather than leaving the listeners hanging and feeling bad.  So, for example, we might preach on the story of the rich young ruler, but we will make sure by the end of it the congregation doesn’t feel the need to sell everything they possess.  For Wright this has the effect of letting the listeners off the hook. Scripture confronts them with a harsh challenge but the preacher does his or her best to soften the blow so that the congregation can end the sermon feeling good, rather than convicted.  The comic sermon has a happy ending, and so it seldom provokes a response.  The tragic sermon leaves the listener unsettled and thus provokes transformation (in theory at least).

Providentially, as I was reading the book an invitation came up to preach at another church, which gave me an opportunity to try out Wright’s tragic ending without jeopardising my relationship with my home church.  Even more providentially, the text I was asked to speak upon was James 5:1-6.  I could not have dreamed of a passage more amenable to tragic preaching! During the sermon I fastidiously avoided the urge (and it was strong!) to mitigate or moderate the withering fire of James’ diatribe.  I gave it to them with both barrels.
I half expected to get run out of town at the end of it, or at least have them take me to the top of a cliff and threaten to throw me off (is my messiah complex showing?).  To my amazement, in my discussions with people after the service I realised that they had all supplied their own comic endings to the sermon that I had deliberately preached without one.  The congregation didn’t need me to let them off the hook, they knew how to do it themselves.  My conclusion then was that people are so used to the comic sermon that if one is not provided they reflexively soften the message regardless.

About two months ago I was pleased to be invited back to that church.  An invite back can either be understood as approval or a gracious second chance.  I took this as the latter.  This time the story of Naaman was my text.  I had preached on this text before, but as I prepared it this time I realised that previously I had ignored the story of Gehazi which concludes the narrative sequence.  The seemingly comic story of Naaman’s healing is subverted into a tragedy by Gehazi’s sin.  Once again I preached a tragic sermon (you can read an outline here).  This time though the tragic ending seemed to bite home, I certainly felt in conversations afterwards that the point had gone across much better.  It was a long time between the two sermons; it couldn’t have been a cumulative effect.  Besides, half the congregation didn’t even remember me.  Then I began to wonder if the problem with the first sermon had not been so much a congregation unable to receive a tragic sermon as a preacher who was not used to giving them.

Let me know what you think :)


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