Redemptive historical sermons are to the Canadian Reformed churches what bamboo rods are to fly fishermen. They’ve got the sort of strong and dependable reputation that comes about after years of honest service, but there’s enough subtlety, craftsmanship, and tradition that those who are prone to romance start calling them works of art. In other words, they’re useful, but they do attract the purists.
Some of our finest class discussions this semester were on the topic of redemptive historical preaching (RHP), and how much redemptive history a sermon should have. RHP is a method that was developed about eighty years ago in the Netherlands in response to what was called “exemplaric” preaching. Ministers would preach on one of Abraham’s exploits, for instance, and spend the bulk of the sermon pointing out how Abraham was either a good or bad example of faith for us. The work of God was pushed to the background, if it came out at all, while the life of the individual became the message. This was exemplaric preaching, and by cheapening the overall quality of sermons it led to a strong counter-movement.
That movement was led by Dr. Klaas Schilder, and in place of exemplaric preaching they developed RHP. This method, as you can imagine, focused very little on the individual and instead ensured that the main point was God’s work in His plan of redemption. So where an exemplaric sermon on Abraham in Egypt might have been a lesson on not lying, and on trusting God in difficult circumstances, an RHP sermon would teach that God preserved Abraham because of His promises to him, and because He is faithful even when we are not. Such a sermon would be sure to point out that by preserving Abraham and Sarah, God had kept safe the family that would eventually give birth to the Messiah. It was about drawing everything into the larger story of Christ. After the Liberation of 1944, the group of people that formed our churches were largely of the RHP bent.
However, in the last couple decades this method, too, has seen its share of criticism. Although, it’s not so much that RHP itself was a problem, it’s that some of its practitioners weren’t always balanced in its use. Some RHP sermons were masterpieces of intricacy, drawing out lines in Scripture that were original and intellectually satisfying; but these sermons didn’t always work very hard at reaching into the lives of the congregants. In addition, no minister wanted to be accused of being exemplaric, so some of them missed opportunities to speak a loving or an admonishing word into the often grimy and confusing lives of those sitting in the pew. After all, there’s no denying that in that tricky situation in Egypt, Abraham should have trusted God, and that we should as well when we find ourselves beset with the claustrophobia of a rock and a hard place. It doesn’t take a whole lot, either. The right word at the right time from the minister can dispel a legion of doubts and fears, and the congregant who needed to hear it gets to go home with a joyful heart.
There’s more for me to learn yet, but I’m of the opinion that the only way to preach from the OT is with the RHP method. But if a minister is preaching on the account of Hannah and Elkanah, for instance, he has to know that every couple in church who’s struggling to have kids is going to be thinking about it during the sermon. He has to be delicate, but he has the opportunity there to speak to some powerful sadness, and he should take it. That being said, I’m thankful that our issue is sometimes too much RHP, and not in the other direction. Because while exemplaric preaching is shallow, it can also be a message of real despair. For example, a minister might preach on David and Goliath and tell the congregation that with enough faith, they too can kill their Goliaths. A flock of Davids will stream out the of door after the service, go home, and that week sling their hearts out. And they’re going to fail. Whatever their Goliaths are – the fears, the addictions, the gnawing darkness – those giants will continue to mock them and oppress them. What’s worse, the minister’s words are going to make them think that these continued failures are the result of their own lack of faith. Because what he failed to tell them is that it wasn’t David’s faith that killed Goliath. It was God’s power. And it isn’t our faith that shatters the grip of sin, it’s Christ’s power.
The real beauty of RHP is that even when ministers overdo it, they’re still talking about Christ. Yes, if a minister jumps too quickly from Samuel’s being born of a hollow womb to Christ’s being born of a hallowed one, then he’s missed a good opportunity. But that’s a better mistake to make than using Hannah’s story to tell the congregation that if they’re struggling with infertility, they aren’t praying hard enough.
As I mentioned, some of our finest class discussions have been on this subject, and on how to achieve the right balance in a sermon. This will be different depending on the pastor and on the pastoral situation in a church, so it’s impossible to clearly delineate what that balance should be. But without question that balance is crucial to the art – to the finesse – of sermonry. The right sermons leave our hearts aglow with the hope we have in Christ, our thoughts riveted to the reality of what He has done; but they also leave us encouraged in the midst of our often undramatic sanctification, comforted to know that we have a God who delights to reach into our messy lives and to make His peace and His presence known.