The current inquiry into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, has taken my mind back to that remarkable time. I remember it chiefly for the fact that my wife went into hospital to give birth to our second daughter the day Diana died. I also recall going to preach the Sunday after that in a church I had never been to before- nor since. My overwhelming impression was that I was expected to have as the theme of my sermon the death of Diana. That was not my theme. I also recall preaching the day after the Omagh bombing in which 29 people died and adjusting my sermon accordingly. It seemed I couldn’t do otherwise. Incidents like this raise the question of how far our sermons should reflect the headlines.
CH Spurgeon pointed out the dangers of constantly looking to our newspaper for our sermons rather than looking to the Word of God. The danger being of course that it is the world rather than the Word that sets our agenda. John Stott also warns of this danger whilst making the case for what he calls ‘double listening’- that is listening to both the word and the world so that we might bring the word to bear upon the world in a way that is culturally relevant. Recently I heard David Jackman suggest that we should try and have a sermon illustration from something that has happened in the last week just to remind our hearers that we live in the same world. However Phillips Brooks cautions against this same practice. He argues that recent events are so raw that our congregation may end up thinking about the event rather than the Scripture we are seeking to illustrate.
The question of preaching from the headlines is a pressing one today with the constant pressure to be ‘relevant’ in our headlines. My answer to the quest for relevance is that the Word of God is relevant, we don’t have to make it relevant. The problem I have noted with many relevant sermons is that whilst they are hot on the contemporary they have little of the Word of God in them. Indeed they often descend into moralising pap like a column in a woman’s magazine. What I, and others, have discovered is the power of the Word of God as His living Word. As such it often addresses people in ways that neither they nor the preacher anticipated. Indeed it confounds the agenda that the world sets and calls them to a new set of concerns and priorities.
On the one hand we should not distance our preaching deliberately from what is going on in the world. But we should not let the headlines determine what we preach. It is one of the strengths of consecutive expository preaching that it allows our preaching programme to be determined by the Word of God.