Does every sermon have to end with Jesus?

When I studied theology in the early seventies, we followed the centuries-old tradition of calling the Hebrew Bible the "Old Testament". It wasn't, in fact, the same as the Jewish Scriptures. After the coming of Jesus, Christians somewhat reordered the books of the existing Bible, to reflect the conviction that the story of the Hebrews was the precursor to the story of Jesus, and that Jesus was the Messiah long-expected by the Jews. In its over-arching Messianic paradigm, Christianity saw the Old Testament as preparation for the New Testament, and not as a revelation complete in its own right. (This is called Supersessionism).

Ten years later, I noticed that there was a change in emphasis. In order to respect the integrity of the Jewish Scriptures as valid in their own right, the first section of the Bbile was now referred to as the Hebrew Bible, or the First Testament. This was felt to avoid the implication in the word 'Old', that these writings were invalid or at least incomplete. Although I have no idea where the sensitivity came from, I'm guessing it was much more of an issue in places like the US, UK and Austrialia, where the Jewish academic community is larger and more influential than in New Zealand. Nevertheless, theological teachers here adopted the convention, although I notice now, a generation on, Carey Baptist College and Otago University have reverted to using "Old" Testament. We still however, have the legacy of the Revised Common Lectionary devised in 1992, where the Old Testament passages selected often do not have any obvious connection with the gospel readings. I was told this was so the Hebrew Bible could stand in its own with integrity, rather than being seen as the servant of the Christian texts.

These thoughts are on top for me this week, as I reflect on one of the questions asked in a Feedback Form we are using this term, as we give some new preachers a chance to do their first sermon. The question is"Does the sermon connect with the good news of the Christian Gospel?" and picks up the issue I heard discussed at a Langham Preaching forum last year, "Does every sermon have to find its way to Jesus?" When you are preaching on, say, a parable, its fairly straightforward to connect the story with the good news of the gospel. But what if you are are preaching, as I have a few times, about 'Justice in the Holy Land'? How does the sermon find its way back to Jesus? Does it need to?

I recall hearing a very erudite sermon in Taupo on Waitangi Day a few years ago. The preacher was well-prepared and gave us a fascinating insight into some of the nineteenth century Christian missionaries in that area, and the different views on Maoridom they espoused. The connection was made with twenty-first century Kiwi politics, and the place of the Treaty and Maori tikanga today. At the end though, I felt something important had been left unsaid. Jesus was not mentioned, nor the word gospel. Where did those missionaries get their respect for Maoritanga, and the grace with which they dealt with issues of race and culture? Why did (some not all) Christians view "natives" with different eyes than the colonial government of the time? Surely, it was from the character of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and reflected in the values of one of his servants? And surely our attitudes, as followers of Jesus, to Treaty Partnership today are formed by our faith, and its values of respect, integrity and valuing the image of God in others? The sermon was really more of a lecture and, for me, left too many questions hanging. The familiar maxim that a sermon is meant to be "about transformation rather than information" came to mind.

That is not to say that we should force the connection, and make every sermon lead to Jesus in an artificial way. Some Old Testament passages do not readily point to the New, and making them do so is confusing. And when the audience is one that includes the "unchurched" we may just wish to share a message, for example on wholesome practical values such as "Keeping your Marriage Healthy," without having to make an evangelistic point. But as a rule, most Sunday sermons can at some juncture connect with the gospel of Jesus Christ, even if it is just by telling a story and including the fact that the main character was a follower of Jesus, who experienced the presence of Christ in his daily decisions. But usually you can do far more than that. Jesus makes everything look different. The Bible itself is careful to make the connection over and over again,

"In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe." Hebrews 1: 1.

So when we hear about a character in the First Testament, such as King David, who wrote about sin and repentance in Psalm 51, we must, in my view, look at how things have changed for us, post-Cross and Resurrection. Yes we still muck up, just as David did, and we are still called to confession and repentance, but there is no risk that God will ever "take the Holy Spirit from me" as David rightly feared in those days when the Spirit was not yet democratised. Still, sometimes there is a continuity, rather than a discontinuity, between Old Testament and New. The character of God is the same, and the way Daniel, for example, reflected the Light of God in his commitment to obedience is an example to us of 'Letting our Light Shine' today.

At that forum last year, Mark Strom said

Where did (the New Testament authors) start and finish? Jesus.
Pick any OT theme: what did they do with it?
They reworked it in light of the Gospel; the events of Jesus.
Pick any description of God: how did they expound this?
By anchoring it in Jesus.
How absolutely gobsmackingly huge and central and crucial and radical and dramatic
was the cross and resurrection to these writers!
They couldn’t talk about anything without weaving in and out of these astounding realities.
Did they ever run an argument – ever – without starting from, wrapping it around,
and finishing it with, Jesus?
This didn’t mean they didn’t talk about anything else. Of course they did.
But could they talk about anything without talking about Jesus? No.
For our earliest brothers and sisters, Jesus’ resurrection had changed everything
So how do we fare? Does our preaching look like the wonder and brilliance fuelled in the NT writers by what happened in Jesus?

I'm not sure how we fare. I have certainly heard some ghastly "Readers Digest" motivational messages that sound more like a promo for Deepak Chopra than a Christian sermon. And others that are so generic they could have been preached by a godly Jew or Muslim. I try to apply a test each time I preach, one that looks at the message through the eyes of a "seeker" coming to church that day with a heavy heart and/or a searching soul. Will they go away knowing more about the Jesus we love and serve, and why he is such an awesome Friend and Saviour? Sometimes the answer is 'No', but at least I come away knowing that was a message for the faithful and that I must attend to that unchurched listener more proactively next time.

Mark Strom finished with these challenging words: Jesus is still the greatest story on earth. His story is still changing people. He is still changing people.... why would we finish anywhere else?

And Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go?

You have the words of eternal life.'