Are Sermons Enough to Preach the Whole Counsel of God? (Part 2 of 2)

Ezekiel valley of the dry bones header

In Part 1 of this two-parter (you can read it here), I talked about how the overwhelming majority of the pages in the Bible are devoted to showing the truth through narrative and poetry, over against telling the truth in expository teaching. There are two questions that arise from this—is it possible that God endorses different kinds of preachers and preaching than what we have become accustomed to in the contemporary church? And if so, what does that mean for the importance of the arts in, for, and from the church?

How Will They Hear Without a Preacher?

What does it mean to preach? Our first thought when we hear “preacher” is of someone behind a pulpit explaining some biblical truth. But is that the only way to preach? Again, going back to the Bible, it becomes clear that the biblical prophets and preachers employed a variety of methods in a variety of venues to deliver God’s message. Some of these methods seem quite unorthodox to the contemporary Christian: marrying a prostitute (Hosea 1:2), preaching naked (Isaiah 20:2), naming children (Isa. 7:3; 8:1–3), building a 450 ft. boat (Gen. 6:13ff; 2 Pet. 2:5), eating bread cooked over dung (Ezek. 4:12f), and various other acts of sacramental symbolism and prophetic theater.

But aside from their extensive use of performance art and drama to incarnate the truth, the Old Testament prophets recorded (and probably preached) their “sermons” as poems, stories, parables, and songs. Furthermore, there are multiple places in the Bible where God called people to prophesy with things other than words. Some were specifically called to prophesy with musical instruments (1 Chron. 25:1ff). Some were specifically given callings and wisdom for the sacramental art of the Tabernacle and Temple (Exod. 35:30ff; 1 Chron. 22:10).

Looking even beyond God’s revelation of himself in Scriptures to his expansive work in creation and history, we can see that the incarnation of truth has a profoundly fundamental place in the work of the Gospel. According to Psalm 19, the celestial spaces declare (preach) the glory of God. They preach without uttering speech. We can see from Romans 1 that God’s revelation of himself in creation is enough to convict/condemn the unbeliever (Rom. 1:19f). Beyond mere conviction, God used David’s “new song” to actually convert unbelievers (Ps. 40:3). We see from this that the Gospel works of conviction and conversion can be done entirely by showing God’s character, without much reference to explaining God’s character.

Truth: Invisible and Incarnate

In fact, preaching, at its root, is heralding the truth. And the truth is multi-faceted—both incarnate and invisible. Since God gives us incarnational truths, it would follow that we also need incarnational heralds of that truth. The architecture, songs, and sacraments of the worship service are clearly incarnational heralds of the invisible made visible. And it is no surprise that our churches, so thoroughly non-incarnational, place little competent emphasis on these things.

I’m not saying explanation isn’t helpful, and at times even necessary (he explains), but explanation cannot be built on nothing. There has to be something there to explain in the first place. And the substance of what needs to be explained (in God’s creation, history, and art) vastly outweighs the explanation itself (at least in quantity).

Why have we reversed this divine balance? Don’t you see this as a problem in the church? Our explanations vastly outweigh our incarnations. We explain faith, hope, and love in doctrinal terms—often quite elegantly. But where are our deeds and displays of faith, hope, and love? We’re giving answers before people have even asked or understood the questions. How do you get them to ask the important questions at the heart of the Gospel? Incarnations of truth.

Consider the memorial stones (Josh. 4:6) and the Passover meal (Exod. 12:26). God says both incarnational heralds prompted questions from covenant children: “What do these things mean?” When confronted with Jesus’ parables, the disciples asked, “What do these things mean?” (Mark 4:10). This was actually a common response to the oracles, art, and poetry of the prophets (Ezek. 17:12; Ezek. 24:19; Zech. 4:4ff).

Tell me, when was the last time you showed a young person or an unbeliever a piece of Christian art and they replied, “Tell me, please. I really want to know. What do these things mean?” The thing is, most “Christian art” is so obvious, you’d never be tempted to ask anything more about it. Even if you cared. Because, for the most part, it tells rather than shows. And that is fundamentally contradictory to the nature and power of art.

Wisdom probes “dark sayings” and “riddles” (Ps. 49:4; Prov. 1:6). Wisdom often requires a holding on to two opposing things at once (Eccles. 7:18). Wisdom requires a beholding of the truth, not just a hearing. Notice Job’s testimony to this effect:

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;
But now my eye sees You;
Therefore I retract,
And I repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42:5–6)

When we are confronted with the incarnations of wisdom, we should be prompted to ask—“What do these things mean?” And God might just reply, “Meditate on it for a while. Pause in the question for a time. Behold me in my ungraspable mystery for a little longer.” But what is clear from the Scriptures: preaching the truth is bigger than explanatory propositions.

Show Before You Tell

Consider the current American worship service (especially in Protestant circles). In most cases worship consists of songs, sacrament(s), and a sermon in a church building. The building is often merely utilitarian; the sacraments are often rare, minimal, and under-emphasized; the songs are sparse, repetitive, saccharine, and telling; and the sermon often takes up the majority of the service.

No questions need to be asked. Everything is told. Questions are viewed as a challenge rather than an opportunity. There is little entering into mystery. Mystery and paradox are in fact considered the doormen to doubt, and thus they are discouraged. Answers are abundant, but few unbelievers and youths are even asking questions that need to be addressed.

That is why there is a great need in the church for the arts to be liberated from their current restrictions. Because of the extremely narrow perspective on what constitutes “preaching,” so-called Christian art largely concerns itself with telling the truth rather than showing it. And because of this, much of God’s biblical truth is simply not being explored by the church.

Many Christian filmmakers, poets, novelists, visual artists, and musicians believe they need to basically produce “sermons” (in the contemporary sense) in order to produce God-honoring art. Consequently, most “Christian art” has become redundant, ornamental, and useless. Based on the testimony of Scriptures alone, it seems the church’s unbalanced partiality toward explaining the Gospel rather than incarnating it may be at the heart of our current backsliding and irrelevance.

We need to return to a view of the Gospel that is first incarnational and then explanatory. We need to show the Gospel before it means anything to tell it. Don’t get me wrong: the tell of the Gospel is vital and necessary. But it is short. And it’s best when it’s solicited.

The long of the Gospel—the lion’s share of its work—is the show. It is the incarnation of truth that convicts the unbeliever and draws them to Jesus, who is the ultimate incarnation of God’s wisdom and truth. God has given us parables, stories, poetry, symbols, sacraments, music, sculpture, and a host of other arts applied to all our senses in order to flesh out and display his glory. We should be using them according to their strengths and according to God’s greatness. In other words, we should be exploring God’s truth in and through the arts. Quite simply, we are not.

When the church abandons its Platonic single-minded obsession with abstract and certain answers and recognizes the humble power of the arts to incarnate the truth and its questions, I think we will find to our great surprise that huge numbers of thirsty souls are coming to us ready to listen:

“Who is this Jesus? Tell me, please. What do these things mean?”

  • Martin Selbrede

    Perhaps we should at least consider the question, Why was Johann Sebastian Bach deemed “The Fifth Evangelist”? While we’re asking that question, we should also ask ourselves, Why haven’t we seen that kind of thing since his death? Setting aside the question of whether or not the article above strikes the right balance or simply pushes the pendulum in reaction to perceived omissions, it seems fairly uncontroversial to me that the bar has been lowered in regard to cultural engagement. Were it not so, we’d not have to look back nearly three centuries (as with Bach) to point out the putative high water mark. Resting on our laurels in this arena is, in my view, unacceptable. That we continue to do so is evidence of slothfulness and capitulation — of giving the Lord back His talent without having improved its value, but having only buried it.