The form of sermons has become this week’s focus with students in Preaching 501 with preacher and teacher Tom Long. I’ll soon be listening to my students preach, some for the first time; and when they preach, their sermons will probably take on diverse forms.
And, in case you’re wondering and your wondering is causing you to lose sleep, the options for sermon form abound. Homileticians, from Fred Craddock and Eugene Lowry to Paul Scott Wilson, have spent their time studying the most effective forms of communication and refining these for the discipline of preaching. They each have their proposed model for conveying the “Good News” of Scripture.
There, of course, is the classical outline form. Then there is the problem-solving form and the homiletical plot form and the “trouble and grace” form. The movement form is another.
I could go on, but you get my drift.
In much of life, I suspect that form is as important as content, if not more so.
Tomorrow’s presidential debate is a good case in point. If one of the candidates for president trips over his words or looks with too much steely eyed glare at the cameras or forgets how many American troops are in Afghanistan or uses the term “un-ladylike” to describe women in politics, his support in the polls will probably suffer- regardless of how much substance are in his words.
Maybe we can tend to downplay the importance of form because it sometimes coincides with image (how we present ourselves); and so many of us have become cynical about a world in which image reigns over substance.
But form, as the way we approach something, is critical.
If, for example, my husband had chosen to propose marriage to me by standing in the streets wearing a hair shirt and looking like John the Baptist, saying “Repent! For the time for us to marry is near!,” I would have run in the other direction and not looked back. The fact that he chose to propose on a day when we were hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains and I was complaining about my sore limbs and didn’t have an ounce of make-up on, and he did so, anyway, by kneeling down near a look-out point drenched in the setting sun and asking, “Kristina, will you marry me?,” was far more convincing. The substance behind the form became not just more appealing but real.
Similarly, the fact that God chooses to come in human form is more than mere coincidence or sheer “image.” It testifies to a God who glorifies God’s Self in the very act of becoming one of us. The particularity of this form is also important: Jesus is Jewish, a descendant of king David, to be sure, and therefore fulfills Israel’s God-given mission of being a blessing to all the nations; Jesus is also a carpenter, building his Father’s kingdom not with nails and wood but with a people called to follow Him into a heavenly gateway to life as it should be and was meant to be from the beginning. All those who were once outsiders, and all creation in fact, now find their return ticket to God and God’s plan of restoration through Jesus.
What forms do we take, and what do these reveal about the stuff we’re made of? What do they say about what we believe to be true about God and life?
It seems to me that form and substance must agree with one another.