There have been some great sermons preached in history. Within the pages of the Bible, we have Ezra, Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul and of course Jesus. It is “through the foolishness of the preaching of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18), which is the power of God for salvation, that people come to know Christ.
In Church history we can still read the sermons of the ‘prince of preachers’, John Chrysostom (try his homily 21 on Ephesians 6:13). Or those of Aquinas, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Moody and Spurgeon. Three of the most influential sermons in history are Jonathan Edwards’ ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ in 18th century America, Thomas Chalmers’ ‘The Expulsive Power of a New Affection’ in 19th century Scotland, or CS Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’ in 20th century England.
The evangelist Billy Graham is reckoned to have preached to more people directly than any other person in history. Today, because of modern media, the sermons of people like Tim Keller, Alistair Begg, Joyce Meyer and many others are heard throughout the world.
But in terms of sheer viewing figures, I suspect that three ‘royal’ sermons have probably reached the largest audiences. I have already written about Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the wedding of Harry and Meghan. Then there was Justin Welby’s sermon at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. And this past week he was once again able to preach to billions at the King’s coronation.
It was unquestionably a great opportunity to proclaim the Gospel in front of billions and it was set up beautifully. The building, the music, the Scriptures (with a Hindu Prime Minister even reading about the supremacy of Christ!) and Cranmer’s liturgy, with all its depth and biblical richness. In contrast, the sermon was disappointing.
Archbishop Welby told us that the Kingdom of God was about freeing the poor from injustice; that good government was about service; that King Charles had already shown his active love in caring for the most vulnerable, nurturing the young and the conservation of the natural world. He, like many others, lived their lives for others. He needed the Spirit of God to carry the weight. We are all called by God to serve. The prayer for grace in service is something that opens us all to the transforming love of God.
In the grandeur of the setting and the glory of the occasion, it was easy to think that we were being told something profound, but if you stopped to think about it there was little challenge, little to stimulate and little to point us to Christ, rather than Charles. The message was at best moralistic therapeutic Deism.
In the best soundbite of a short sermon, we were told “His throne was a Cross. His crown was made of thorns. His regalia were the wounds that pierced his body.” But we were not told why that happened to him. There was nothing about the Cross being because of our sins.
Instead, Jesus was set up as an example of what we are apparently already doing. We don’t need a Saviour, we just need a mentor. And surely there is a special lack of self-awareness in speaking of the crown of thorns whilst placing a crown worth millions on a King’s head?
We were then told that the way to salvation was to earn it by service: “Each of us can choose God’s way today. We can say to the King of Kings, God Himself, as does the King here today, ‘give grace that in thy service I may find perfect freedom’.”
This is not the Gospel of Jesus. None of us can earn our own salvation by serving. We are saved by faith in the one who died for our sins. Only by admitting our need and our sin, will we then look for a Saviour. In the picture of the world painted by the archbishop none of us need a Saviour.
As I watched the whole service, I wondered what would have happened if the archbishop had done a ‘John the Baptist’ and challenged the King. We certainly live in a changed world from one where King Edward was compelled to abdicate because he wanted to marry a divorcee. Even the Church of England changed its doctrine of marriage in order to be able to accommodate the new circumstances.
The American commentator and Baptist minister Al Mohler summed it up well: “In our world today marriage has been so subverted, adultery has been so celebrated, and divorce has become so routine that no one seems to have noticed just how jarring the images of King Charles and Queen Camilla should appear.”
I hear Christians justify all of this by saying that at least the archbishop mentioned the Bible. Indeed he did, but the trouble is that he made it sound banal and clichéd, as though it were a combination of a Hallmark card and a Lib Dem manifesto. As someone quipped, it was the banal leading the banal.
Others argue that God can use it. Of course he can. The God who can speak through a donkey is perfectly capable of taking even the most banal of sermons and causing people to think about Him. We pray that happens, but nonetheless the confusing and banal nature of the sermon means that it must be marked down as a missed golden opportunity.
I think of another sermon preached on a snowy Sunday in a small Primitive Methodist church in Colchester, England, in 1850. There were around 15 people present, including a 15-year-old teenager called Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
We do not even know who the preacher was (the minister was unable to make it because of the snow) but we do know that the poor tailor/shoemaker who gave that simple sermon on Isaiah 45:22 had a profound effect.
He exalted and lifted up Christ and proclaimed the Cross and as a result, Spurgeon was converted and went on to preach weekly to thousands directly and to millions through his published sermons.
The effect was incalculable on this earth and glorious for eternity. Perhaps those of us who preach this coming Sunday could remember and contrast these two sermons. Would we rather be with the rich and powerful in the Abbey talking about serving the poor, or serving the poor by telling them about Christ?