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The Move to Grace

Winter 2008
PAGES 10, 11
[original publication]

Many people come to church each week teetering on the edge of hopelessness. Some are on the verge of losing their jobs. Others have fallen behind in mortgage payments and fear losing their homes. Still others know that the medical condition they have been trying so hard to ignore probably signals something bad. Marriages are falling apart. Addictions have tightened their grip. The fog of depression thickens. The gathered congregation waits for a word of hope, a word from God, but too often sermons fail to deliver what the congregation so desperately needs.

Some while ago the father of a friend was dying of lung cancer and yet still managed to make it to church week after week. But at the time, the preacher was firmly locked into an extended series on the book of Job. This might seem fortuitous. True, as one who suffered, he identified with Job easily enough. And he appreciated the futility of ill-conceived pastoral care on the lips of Job's three friends. But week after week, as the preacher worked his way through Job, this dying man listened in vain for a word of hope. Perhaps hope was coming toward the end of the series, but the problem was that he was dying a little each week and needed a word of hope all along the way.

Pastoral need requires that sermons preach both the word of God and the hope of the gospel. Doing anything less is pastoral malpractice. Preaching hope every now and again is not enough. Fortunately, preaching hope and preaching a biblical text never need to work at cross-purposes.

The Bible is full of hope. A person cannot help but notice that the larger story line of the Bible moves from disaster to hope. Evil intrusion and human rebellion set God's good creation on a path leading to suffering, pain, and death. But God is not content to leave his ruined masterpiece to its own destruction. He promises hope and eventually makes the decisive down payment on that promise in the death and resurrection of Jesus—a down payment that points to the final healing of all creation. Important episodes in the Bible also move from disaster to hope within the larger narrative: from enslavement to exodus, from wilderness to conquest, from captivity to restoration, from barrenness to babies, from Good Friday to Easter, from old creation to new creation.

Our approach to preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary equips students to look for hope in the text and so to preach grace in the sermon—because the message of the gospel is finally always a message of hope. We have chosen to use Paul Scott Wilson's "four pages" approach to preaching (The Four Pages of the Sermon, Abingdon, 1999), an approach that places hope at the center of the sermon. The kind of sermons that Wilson recommends use four basic moves as they progress from trouble to grace. Wilson uses the image of "four pages" to characterize the four moves that work to carry the sermon from trouble to hope.

In the first move, "page one," the preacher identifies and presents what might be characterized as trouble in the selected biblical preaching text. Trouble inevitably focuses upon some sin or human broken-ness resulting from sin. The sermon begins in the biblical text, attending to the questions, issues, or events that have something to do with our fallen condition. For instance, a sermon on Matthew 19:16-30 probably would feature a pious, wealthy young man with a bit of an attitude. The preacher would present him waltzing up to Jesus looking for a pat on the back. The congregation would watch as his conversation with Jesus exposes his wealth as his highest priority and greatest love. Page one closes with the rich young man sulking away, unwilling to change.

"Page two" then explores how the sort of fallen condition that infected the rich young man might appear in the world of the listeners today. Here the preacher offers examples of the same or a similar trouble and explores its implications for the listeners. The preacher might notice how many today exhibit a loyalty to and love of wealth similar to that of the rich young man. These two trouble pages, a page of Bible and a page of application, constitute roughly half of the sermon.

From here the sermon moves on to good news—hope. Hope always springs from God's initiative in addressing the trouble identified in the first half of the sermon. "Page three" moves back to the biblical text looking for grace or good news. Sometimes finding this good news requires that the preacher move beyond the immediate preaching text into the larger text of the Bible. The good news of the gospel is that God is never content to leave his people in trouble or bereft of hope. Preaching hope means looking past the rich young man as he sulks away from Jesus. Page three probably will feature Jesus' offer of hope: even though it is impossible for rich people to enter the kingdom, with God all things are possible. God promises the kingdom to disciples of Jesus who would never be able to enter that kingdom through their own efforts. "Page four" features the saving action of God in our world, an action that parallels the hope identified and explicated in the text. In this final part of the sermon, the preacher gives voice to the words of God, who speaks hope to his gathered people. God opens up possibilities of repentance and love for people impossibly mired in their wealth and materialism. The preacher will highlight the seemingly impossible action of God by citing stories or testimonies of those who have experienced it.

So "page four" in a sermon on Matthew 19 might tell about multi-millionaire Tom Monaghan, the founder of Dominos Pizza. Tom drifted away from God while becoming a fabulously wealthy man. He owned the Detroit Tigers baseball team, his own yacht and helicopter, a huge vintage car collection, piles of antique furniture to die for, and his huge pizza franchise. Then one stormy night as he read C. S. Lewis at his cottage, God called Tom back to the love from which he had drifted. The Holy Spirit prompted Tom to begin to use his wealth to serve God. He sold practically everything—the pizza business, the cars, the helicopter, the ball team—and started building churches and orphanages while funding various other kingdom causes as well. He even said in an interview that he hopes to die broke and to assist as many people as possible in finding God and getting to heaven. Page four preaches a God who is active not only in the Bible but in our world, bringing hope to the hopeless and salvation to the dying.

Elders (and others) who encourage and guide the preacher need to understand the priority of preaching hope. They also need a way of talking about it together with the pastor (as suggested in other articles in this issue of Forum). This "four page" approach offers a way of evaluating sermons. For instance, if the preacher consistently speaks only of trouble and of our need to change, he might be said to preach only pages one and two—and then the hope of the last two pages is missing. Or if the preacher does a bang-up job presenting the text, both its troubling features and the hope God gives, but fails to apply it to today, the sermon will present pages one, two, and three—but will stop short of that all-important fourth page where God's present-day action shines through. The language of the four pages can help elders and others to talk about the essentials of the sermon—what was missing or anemic in the sermon, or, conversely, what was done well.

As they supervise the preaching of the word, elders will want to be encouraging at nearly every turn. This will mean noting specific features of the sermon that were helpful, interesting, or convicting. When features that are not as helpful appear or when important aspects of the sermon seem absent, the elders will want to be ready with suggestions for ways in which the sermon might be improved: "If you had been able to show us how God gives hope to people in danger of becoming lost in their wealth, your sermon would have been even stronger." As elders learn the language for speaking about what characterizes a good sermon, they will prove much more helpful to their pastors. And as they learn to help the preacher, this helps also the whole church.

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