Specific Grace – Relooking at the Prodigal Son – Lk 15:11-32

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There are a number of points I review and judge a sermon on. Being cut and thrust personality, I like criteria for evaluation that are as crunchy (vs. squishy) as possible. Coming out of a number of sources (CFW Walther’s Law & Gospel, Dr. Schmitt my Homiletics Prof at Concordia, Robert Dabney through T. David Gordon, St. Gregory’s Pastoral Rule and a few others) I’ve got three big criteria, and some small ones.
The big ones
1. Textual Fidelity – by this I mean did I fairly proclaim the text itself or did I abuse it to serve my own ends. Given our understanding of 1st century culture (or 10th – 5th century BC for the OT) and the original language, can I accurately translate the main point of the passage especially in the larger context it is set within.
2. Evangelical Tone – by this I mean is the Gospel prevalent. Have I pointed to Christ for the listener as the savior, or have I just shown them where He is accusing them and with-held the gospel?
3. Have a Point – does what I am saying have a purpose, or is it just meaningless air. Was it the equivalent of Chinese Food and you are hungry again 15 mins later, or might the hearer think about what was said beyond the confines of the hour.
Some smaller ones
1. Rhetoric – by this I mean the nuts and bolts of how the sermon was put together. Was it logical, did the structure move along, was the argument valid and the supports actually help
2. Audience engagement – did the length fit the audience, did the sermon address issues the audience would care about, was the physical presentation adequate
3. Instruction – was there something being taught, would the average listener go away with something new
4. Confessional expression – has the sermon strengthened a true confessional worldview of the hearer or helped to demonstrate that coherence of church doctrine and teaching, has it helped the hearer think theologically
Some of those smaller ones are really pre-requisites. Rhetoric and an understanding and appreciation of the audience are necessary things. We’ve all sat through sermons that were poorly delivered, didn’t move or the points didn’t make logical sense. This is usually a failure at the rhetoric level. The preacher’s toolbox wasn’t used correctly be it from lack of ability, lack of use or lack of time to prepare correctly. We’ve also all been in places where the speaker has completely missed the audience. They go on for 40 mins in a sit-com world of 15 min attention spans. The high-brow examples used with lunch-pail people, or the talk filled with emotional stories given to 50 something men.
I tend to be more intellectual, so I will find myself constantly checking that audience engagement line. Do I really need to use this $5 word? Is that story or support really as logical and easy a jump as I think it is? I’m also male, so I naturally shy away from the emotional content. I find I need to intentionally ask the emotional questions to force myself to look that way.
Assuming that I meet minimum standards on rhetoric and audience, then the big criteria take over.
That is a large lead up for the following observation. The sermon for last week (posted under Deep Lent below) I think failed to balance textual fidelity and evangelical tone. It had a point, and it was textually faithful, but the accusing function of the law overwhelmed the hope of the gospel. It was a sermon that would have been appropriate for an audience of unbelievers, but not for the gathered church.
In contrast, I believe this week’s sermon balanced things better. The prodigal son is a text that from my study last week I became convinced that most sermons are not being textually faithful. Most sermons want to use the characters as moral examples – “see, live your life this way or not that way”, or they want to proclaim the overwhelming grace of the Father. But the purpose of the text is an invite to see the world and yourself the way the Father sees it and you. It is an invite into the eschatological banquet. And that invite is a specific grace. It is not a cheap grace that just accepts you as you are. It is specific in that it requires repentance and acceptance of the Father’s view as real.