Symphonic Sermonic

Hello Baysiders! Hope all is well in your souls this Lent season. May your efforts to refrain and perfect self-control draw you close to Christ.

“Evangelicals don’t do sermons. Evangelicals do Bible readings. The idea of a sermon as a rhetorical performance which is people coming face to face God, not just through being guided with scripture but through a direct encounter doesn’t really happen.” – Samuel Wells, ethicists and priest

I am a nerd. Not with math or Dungeon & Dragons but with sermons. I can listen to a sermon series like it’s Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” album. I often wondered why, is it my personal affinity or geeky hobby as a pastor? I used to think it was subjective but then realized that the way I hear sermons is the way all people hear beauty. When you hear beauty, the sound captivates you to your core and brings you out of yourself into the realm of the transcendent. Whether that sound is music, voice acting, laughter, birds chirping or singing in a cathedral, beauty in the ear is universally felt. There is an objective standard to beauty that encompasses our senses. I’ll say it this way, art is not subjective. If we know it or not, deep down in our souls there is a universal standard for beauty.

Let’s go back to Pink Floyd. That album is not just good but great. Talk to any rock enthusiast and they all would tell you it’s great. Anybody who studies and is familiar with the rock genre will tell you it’s not just “meh,” but a beautiful piece of art. No one experiences the Sistine Chapel and says, “It’s a masterful work of art and beauty, but that’s just my opinion, to each his own.” The beauty is in the eye of the beholder idea is not really accurate and it has unfortunately clogged our culture from seeing true beauty. I propose sermons are works of art. All of them. Not one is artless. The question is not, “Is the preacher a good speaker?” But “Is the preacher a good painter?” More to the point, is the sermon beautiful? If a sermon can reach the objective beauty standard then it’s qualified as good and I can then say with objectivity that it’s not only good according to my opinion but good for all people to hear and to behold, regardless if others don’t see or understand the beauty. There are lots of reasons why people don’t hear a sermon as beautiful. It can be due to sin in their hearts, or from not wanting to be at church, or because the person is hungry and distracted. But one main reason beauty in sermons is not a lens Christians utilize is we see sermons as lectures and subjectively entertaining. “If it speaks to my way of learning than I like it and it’s good.” “If the preacher is funny and practical for my daily life, than I will take notes and say amen!” But the problem is that’s a fickle and precarious way to worship. Every week the sermon can be good or bad or boring or entertaining which leads to the quality of a sermon being solely based on a person’s feelings about it. This happens because fundamentally that person thinks sermons are subjective to how one listens. But if sermons are art, and if art is objective, then sermons are not subject to my personal standards or bias. The best and objectively correct way to hear a sermon is how you hear a symphonic by Mozart or a rap by Kendrick Lamar or song by Bob Dylan. Sermons are primarily to edify and not educate. It would be strange if I listened to Mozart in order to learn about the town he grew up in, Austria. It would be weird to pause the music and take notes about the city of Compton in Kendrick’s rhymes. Of course you can gain knowledge through the style and content of songs but the point is to be swept away by the artistry of sound. When we behold great artists in whatever craft that is, we experience beauty. Image what your worship would be like if you came to church to behold a sermon rather than just listen to a pastor give a five point speech on a Bible passage, which you can get from a commentary.

I distinguish between listening and beholding. Listening is audible intake for function and self-interest. Think of a student listening to a professor in order to get a good grade instead of trying to understand the subject. Or listening for your number being called at the DMV. This type of listening is normal and also needed in daily communication. On the other hand, beholding is not just audible intake. Beholding something or someone involves not just the ears, but also your eyes, nose, hands, and with your whole body being engaged. Beholding touches your soul deep down which breaks through the physical and lands at the depths of your immaterial self. Think of beholding the Grand Canyon at sunset or beholding your child being born as you hold him in your arms. Consider the pandas you see playing around in the zoo on your visit, or you beholding the movie scene from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar where Matthew McConaughey’s character is driving away from his house having tried to say goodbye to his daughter and she comes running out. Everything about it – Hans Zimmer’s score, van Hoytema’s cinematography, the actor’s performances – is absolute beauty. Imagine who we would become as God’s people if we started to behold sermons.

Modernity has taught us to throw away beauty and only value our intellect to learn and experience life. The challenge today for God’s people is learning to start beholding sermons again. Our spiritual ancestors experienced God’s word this way. We already know how to do this (we do it with our favorite musicians all the time). All we have to do is change our sermon perspective from listening to a lecture to beholding a beautiful work of art. This means we give all of ourselves to engage the preacher and his sermon in hopes to experience beauty. We come to church believing God will actually speak through the preacher. Preaching is a tango and not a solo performance because the congregation needs to do their part for the dance to succeed. The members are to behold the sermon in faith to actually trust it’s really God’s voice in that very moment descending upon them. When this is done, beauty happens. Worship happens. Change happens. The cool part about beholding sermons is it acts as a filter for bad sermons. When a sermon is bad art, you’ll see no beauty in it which causes you not to take anything from the sermon, discerning the sermon was full of ego, superficiality, propaganda, and poor scripture exegesis.

Recently Stephen Colbert and Director Christopher Nolan did an interview. Colbert asked, “Do your films have meaning or being? In other words do I need to get your film or can I experience your film?” Nolan replied, “If you experience my film you are getting it. Where people encounter frustration with my narratives are missing the point. It’s not a puzzle to be unpacked but an experience to be had.” This is the core of preaching. Like all good art, good sermons are to draw you into something bigger and greater outside yourself (ie God). This is what the preachers of the Bible did. They preached in such a way to paint an image of God and his action in our world. At times their preaching was clear and to the point but most often their words were abstract and convoluted like a Picasso painting. You had prophecy that was black and white and then you had prophecies that were colored like the rainbow with so many shades of vibrancy. Prophets edified God’s word to beautify God’s grace and power in and out of the scriptures and used familial metaphors to speak about the relationship between God and His people. For example, Jeremiah 18 paints a relational one in a sermon of his: God as a potter, Israel as the clay. God as the craftsman with a design plan, Israel as the malleable substance under review. I don’t see any prophet educating Israel with a five point lecture and a syllabus but I do see all of the prophets edifying God’s people by painting images of God so that they will respond in true worship, whether that manifested itself in offering, sacrifice, song, social justice, thanksgiving, dancing, joy, eating and drinking, repentance, confession of sins, obedience and service to one another. Look at scripture as a catalog full of art pieces and paintings of God’s action in history. The Bible at church should be used like a theater program, not a textbook like you’re at school. Each sermon is a play script and the preacher is the actor performing the holy text; in this manner, church is entertainment. And it should be felt that way. Not in the consumeristic Rotten Tomatoes way where you stand as critic but in the lover of art that galvanizes your attention to the beauty that you are beholding. In this way, a preaching can be entertainment through the performance of the sermon. You’re not a passive listener, vegetating with your brain turned off to be served some shallow provoking stimulation. Entertainment in the classical sense is for the purpose to capture your mind and explode it with new imagination for personal enjoyment and change. When a sermon is made beautiful by the preacher’s painting you naturally are glued to that image of God and suddenly a holy ground moment erupts in your standing, wanting to dive deeper into this wormhole of eternity. This is the essence edification preaching because it’s worship that leads to more worship. On the other hand, educational preaching leads to self-amusement. If you leave church primarily thinking how you can improve on life or what to do to fix yourself, you’re either listening egotistically or the preacher is a bad artist who drew you into yourself and failed to paint a picture of Christ that draws you out into the transcendent. Christopher Nolan says you’re not meant to understand everything in his films as they are not all comprehensible. A good preacher knows this about God’s word. There needs to be some mystery, tension, and unanswered provoked questions. A good sermon leaves you with an experience with God that makes you want to seek him more. This is the power of beauty. Sermons are essentially not about giving you new understanding on facts and knowledge for theology or the Bible but are works of art to mold you into the Christ image you are designed to be. That’s how you see change in your life. Don’t misunderstand me, there is personal reflection and life application to beholding beauty in sermons but it’s the result not the reason. When you listen to a sermon primarily to get life tips, you’ll miss the beauty and make yourself the point of the sermon. Beholding beauty absolutely leads to change but you need to first see sermons as works of art.

Beautiful preaching is a spiritual experience because that’s when God is made present just like a burning bush. Consider the beautiful strange yet scary image of that? Flames and heat but the bush was not consumed! When Moses beheld the burning bush, his reaction was to remove his sandals as he entered God’s presence on holy ground. It would have been hilarious and cringy if he brought out a ruler to measure the bush and started to write down it’s dimensions to study it later. We would all eye-roll at him if he brought out his smart phone to snap a picture of it and post it on his Instagram story. God’s presence was so beautifully powerful, all he could do was to behold it. The burning bush wasn’t for him to listen and watch for some educational purpose or to take a selfie for a conceited purpose because the purpose for Moses was worship. This burning bush was beautiful, mysterious and ominous. These are some beautiful qualities in a good sermon and are evidence of the presence of God. When listening to sermons as merely lectures, motivational speeches or as entertainment, we don’t actually grow in our intellect or soul because there’s no gravity that pulls us out of ourselves. We might think listening to pragmatic content is easier and more efficient to apply but the problem arises when there’s no confrontation with mystery, no calling to go beyond oneself; the sermon is cloaked in Biblical jargon for the convenience to our carnal felt needs. We have adopted an aesthetic of convenience, simplicity and comfort. I’ve heard it said, “Beauty is the angel of death that almost threatens to kill you but doesn’t.” Beauty is terrifying because it shocks you, wakes you up, rattles your core, its overwhelming powerful. It’s the same feeling I got when I saw a grey whale jump out of the water ten yards away from the boat I was on while whale watching. The whale’s presence engulfed me. This can happen by beholding sermons and not just listening to them. Genuinely try beholding a sermon next time you’re in church, because you might experience a beautiful burning bush and a voice telling you, “The place where you stand is holy ground.”

Grace and peace,

Pastor Aaron (;^)