A Sermon to the Wind
Preachers and religious writers often wonder if their messages are simply sermons to the wind. Without a doubt many are. What makes an article or sermon have a constructive impact upon an audience? Is it the quality of the message or the attitude of the individual receiving it . . . or both?
by Kenneth Westby
“I might as well be talking to a brick wall,” is a common comment from exasperated parents after an encounter with their teenage kid. I’ve heard many preachers, teachers and writers express similar frustrations believing their spiritual messages go in one ear, and without slowing down to visit the grey matter, exit the other ear. They wonder, is the audience dull, deaf, or just dumb?
Of course, the blame for fly-over sermons may need to be equally shared with the preacher whose poor content and delivery make their messages easily forgettable. Simply being able to talk louder than people can snore isn’t the top talent required of a preacher. More on a minister’s responsibility later.
I borrowed my article title from Thomas Jefferson’s words in a letter of June, 26, 1822 to his close friend, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse. Jefferson wrote;
I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. . . .
Jefferson went on to wish his friend success in his efforts, but warned that people don’t always heed advice given in their best interests. You might as well be speaking into the wind as to attempt to change a mind already set. I know that has often been the case with good advice I’ve ignored. How about you?
The Made-Up Mind
Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true. –Demonsthenes, Greek statesman, 384-322 B.C.
“Believing what we wish to be true” is a human flaw as common as rain in Seattle and we see examples every day; Politicians, commentators, scientists, preachers all spinning facts or cherry-picking facts to “prove” what they want to be true. It should be evident to all—but isn’t—that there is a slant to the news both in how it is reported and in what is selected or omitted for reporting. We all operate—including enlightened believers—with assumptions and preconceptions that govern our world view and how we process information.
The truthfulness of our preconceptions, however, will govern our ability to learn and apply truth to our lives. If we have erroneous assumptions in biblical and spiritual matters our ability to grow in grace and knowledge will be compromised. Our ability to be objective with the Scriptures will suffer. Faulty assumptions can skew beliefs, doctrines, mix truth with error and detour our Christian walk. One need only look to the seven churches described in the book of Revelation to see how commonly Christians can be detoured into dangerous error. Only one out of seven wasn’t singled out for rebuke by Christ.
The audiences of Jesus all heard the same words, but processed them differently. He used the parable of the sower to illustrate just how differently people receive the Gospel, the Word. To some Jesus was giving a sermon to the wind. Can you think back to a time when you heard profound truth but paid no attention, or didn’t perceive its value, or didn’t even recognize it as truth? I can. Do we continue to make that mistake?
Jesus said God’s Word is ultimate truth. When he told Pilate, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” Pilate asked rhetorically, “What is truth?” Pilate didn’t really want to know the answer to his own question. Those of us on the side of truth need to listen to Jesus and heed the Word of God. But we should ask Pilate’s question of ourselves: What is truth?
When we read an article like this or listen to a sermon in church or on tape or on TV are we equipped to spot and receive the truth of it? Or are they simply sermons to the wind? What is that critical ability to discern truth from error, diamonds from cut glass? Wisdom is certainly a requirement and a brief description of wisdom is the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight, common sense; good judgment. Ultimate wisdom is the mind of God, and for man, the beginning of wisdom is the fear or reverential awe of God. Wisdom is not subjective, narrow, prejudiced, but combines understanding, knowledge, experience and righteous judgment into an integrated savvy of people and things. Wisdom is such a valuable gift we are invited by God to ask him for it and then passionately pursue after it.
It isn’t wise to maintain a closed mind. We are told to guard the door to our mind, but not nail it shut. Unfortunately, a lot of Christian folk sit on their favorite pew each week already knowing everything and having their trusty, well-marked Bible locked shut with preconceptions and doctrines set in cement. Anything that is different from the “faith once delivered” is suspect or given a deaf ear. The only expectation from the preacher’s sermon is to interestingly repackage what the pew-sitter already believes, entertain a little, titillate with some “new” slant, serve up a portion of spiritual meat, and for desert, make it easy to stay awake.
Why don’t we question this “faith once delivered” concept. Does it mean the doctrinal teaching we grew up with, or what we have traditionally believed, or what our church teaches? Not necessarily. The Apostle Jude (the Lord’s brother) exhorted Christians that they “should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). He went on to immediately warn that false teachers and doctrines were already a threat to what was the very first generation of Christians.
Did you and I receive our doctrine directly from the Apostles of Christ? I think not. Jude’s audience received the unalloyed truth of God first hand. They were soberly warned to hold it fast against all attempts to corrupt it.
The problem for us, in many respects, is the opposite of that of Jude’s audience. We have come up in a world of doctrine alloyed with myriad errors—some so long-taught and believed that they can be easily assumed to have come straight from the apostles. They didn’t. Yes, we have the Bible, but unless it is properly interpreted it can be “spun” into a host of disagreeing doctrines as the presence of hundreds of denominations attest.
Our job is to contend for the truth of Scripture which requires us to ask serious questions of our beliefs, regardless of how long we have held them. We need to ask basic questions of Scripture: What does it really say (not what I assume it says or wish it says or my favorite teacher says it says)? It is amazing how much can be learned simply by asking good questions.
The purposes of a sermon (or an article) will vary. Some will be to simply inform; to impart helpful and important information a Christian can use to better understanding Scripture, for instance. Others are appeals to change behaviors in directions the speaker deems more righteous and harmonious to God’s will. Some are inspirational in purpose. Yet others may attack perceived heresy, sinful practices, or cultural trends. Some are specific to particular areas of spiritual growth and understanding. There are other types of sermons, but probably the most common is simple expository preaching—taking a particular biblical text, explaining its context and meaning, and drawing from it a current or practical application.
Jesus, the prophets and apostles preached with an inductive accent to involve their listeners and engage their minds. They challenged people to think, question, and analyze. The inductive reasoning process differs from the deductive in that it involves the listener in the process.
Deductive preaching starts with a declaration of intent and proceeds to prove the validity of what the preacher says is already determined to be true. Perhaps most sermons are of this genre. Inductive preaching, on the other hand, lays out the evidence, the examples, the illustrations, and postpones the declarations and assertions until the listeners have had a chance to weigh the evidence, think through the implications and then come to the conclusion with the preacher at the end of the sermon.
Among the greatest teachers to use the inductive style were Socrates and Aristotle. Characteristically, inductive teachers ask many questions in the course of their presentation and reason from practical particulars familiar to the audience to more general conclusions or principles.
Jesus is regarded as a master of the inductive teaching approach—which is sometimes called “the reversible why”—which gives listeners a part in the sermon process. Inductive learning is more easily internalized since one has stepped through the reasoning process for ones’ self as opposed to passive acceptance of the preacher’s predetermined conclusions. Does this make sense?
Some sermons (and articles) are duds—poorly prepared and poorly given. Some are partial duds—shallow on content, but entertaining. The sermons we all want to hear are those rich in important information (preferably new) and expertly delivered, entertaining, and not too long. As members of the audience, we don’t want to work too hard to get something out of the message. We want the preacher to make it easy to listen and learn.
There are some preachers and writers who have that special communication gift that make their messages easy to receive. Some even have something worthwhile to say. Every speaker has a responsibility to aid the audience by making his message easy to receive. He can do that by mastering the skills of his profession. He owes it to his audience—and to God before whom he has willingly committed himself to be a servant of God’s people.
But most importantly the preacher must have something truthful and important to say. We can get style and entertainment from a host of fine novelists and movie stars, but what the world needs is the Wisdom of God revealed by Jesus. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God summarizes Yahweh’s grand plan for mankind and makes clear the way to participate in it. In an ideal church/world we would have preachers expert in the Word of God and possessing gifts of communication to make every listener attentive and responsive to the message.
Alas, we have no ideal churches, no perfect preachers preaching perfect doctrine with perfect style and delivery. Nor do we have perfect consumers of sermons and articles. My purpose in this article has been to assist us imperfect consumers of sermons and articles to get more value from them; to develop an objective mindset to sift wheat from chaff; to be sufficiently open-minded to be challenged to change behaviors, beliefs, opinions, and correct erroneous understanding. That’s a big bite to take for an article, but I’ll try not to choke.
Preachers and writers have a responsibility to have something worthwhile to say and the ability to say it effectively. But our emphasis here is on why some good sermons and articles end up given to the wind. Why they have no effect upon those if us reading or listening to them. Thomas Jefferson said to his friend Dr. Waterhouse that the big abusers of tobacco and booze would just tune out his message and leave him talking, as it were, to the wind. Why is that so?
God gave Isaiah the difficult task of preaching to people who would not listen.
Go and tell this people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes….
Jesus quoted this passage in his parable of the sower. Spiritual deafness and blindness are chronic problems not just for ancient Israel or the unconverted world, but even among those of us who warm the pews and subscribe to religious publications.
I’ve been in the pulpit for thousands of messages and in the pews for even more. I know the syndrome from both ends. For almost 50 years I’ve conducted counseling sessions beyond count. At times I’ve come close to concluding that they were all a waste of time. Folks just ignored advice that they agreed was right and biblical, walked out and continued in the troublesome behaviors and attitudes that brought them in to begin with. Then, thank God, from time to time I would be shocked and encouraged beyond measure with heartening results of a marriage salvaged from the rocks, a bitter dispute between brethren healed, or a plaguing sin faced and overcome. Not all my efforts were to the wind.
I also looked in the mirror and saw my own reluctance to change and realized that the battle for righteousness and biblical truth was difficult and long. One cannot quit or give up on oneself or on others. The human condition is common to us all and moving Godward in life is a continual struggle against sin, apathy, error, and the entanglements of life.
But there isn’t going to be much growth into the image of God if our ears are dull and our eyes dim. Our spiritual growth will be sluggish or even worse, stagnant. What can we do to become keen of hearing and sharp of eye?
The Objective and Open Mind
Plugged ears and patched eyes will cut us off from the Word and Light God continually provides. All too frequently my wife JoAn and I will drop a glass on the kitchen floor. Immediately out comes the broom and dust pan to sweep up our mess. Being from Arkansas JoAn likes to be in her bare feet all the time so it is very important to get up all the class. Clear glass is a special problem because look as hard as you like, all the scattered slivers don’t reveal themselves until later and I’m not talking about those we step on. An hour or day later I come into the same room from another direction with light coming from another angle and low and behold I see a shining speck of glass I couldn’t previously spot.
Bible study is like that. A fresh approach, new light, coming from a different angle will reveal new truth previously passed over. That same objectivity can be brought to the reading of an article or listening to a sermon. Too often we blind ourselves to the possibility of receiving new spiritual insight, wisdom, truth…light. We judge the facts by what we want them to mean. We lazily trudge down the set paths of “what we’ve always believed.”
One of the reasons for the success of detective programs like Monk, CSI, Agatha Christie's Poirot mystery series, etc., is that these detectives don’t come at the evidence with predetermined, traditional, conventional approaches. They ask questions of the evidence and let it speak and tell the story of what happened. Asking questions of Scripture is the best way to learn what it has to tell us. Look at all the facts before coming to a conclusion and by all means don’t come to the facts, the text, with a predetermined conclusion.
A major reason for wrong doctrine or erroneously understood doctrine is how respectfully the whole body of facts is considered. One church teaches homosexuality is a sin and condemned by Scripture; another says Scripture teaches no such thing—and if certain passages seem to condemn it they are misunderstood or irrelevant. Two different approaches to the same body of facts can yield two different conclusions.
The Six Blind Men of Indostan
Speaking of different conclusions from the same body of facts, consider the story of six blind men’s encounter with an elephant as told by the American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887).
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The first approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! But the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! What have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk with his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
The world is full of spiritually blind men from Indostan arguing over what they only partly see. We have no excuse to grope in blindness trying to discover the will of God. There is no excuse for us to be so dull of truth that it becomes but a sermon to the wind.
Through the grace of God we can have our eyes opened to see God’s truth in all its shining clarity and moral purity. God wants to give us what we seek, but it takes effort on our part. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). We dare not let his words become to us a sermon to the wind.
[This Article appeared in July/August 2006 issue of The Sabbath Sentinel which is the publication of The Bible Sabbath Association. Write for your free subscription to BSA, 3316 Alberta Drive, Gillette, WY 82718; www.biblesabbath.org. ]
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 Taken from the book The Evolution of Christianity—Twelve Crises that Shaped the Church, Marshall D. Johnson, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005, p 155. Jefferson was probably the most religiously engaged of all American presidents writing extensively on doctrinal matters and involving himself in the hot Christological debates of the time. He wrote two books on Jesus: The Philosophy of Jesus in 1804, but it has been lost, and The Life and Morals of Jesus, sometimes called the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson was also enraptured by the beauty of the Psalms. The rest of the letter I quoted from above continued with an attack on the doctrine of the Trinity, Athanasius (the driving force behind the adoption of the doctrine in the fourth century), and John Calvin who perpetuated it into the Protestant world. He accused them of “teaching a counter-religion.” Jefferson was a unitarian stating in the same letter that “there is one only God, and He all perfect.”
 John 17:17.
 John 18:37-38.
 See Inductive Preaching—Helping People Listen, Ralph L. Lewis, Crossway Books, 1983.
 Isaiah 6:9-10.
 Mt 13:14-15; Mk 4:12; Lk 8:10; see also Rom 11:7-10, 25.