My friend and former coworker Charles Wiese, who blogs over at The Lamb On the Altar, has lately been occupied with a most interesting exercise in sermon evaluation. After tracking down and listening to several sermons on St Mark 9:30-37, he grades each on the basis of the following criteria:
1. Does the pastor explain the text correctly? (+1 for explaining the text correctly, 0 for not explaining the text at all, -1 for explaining the text incorrectly)
2. Is the law preached lawfully? (+1 for preaching the law in all its sternness, 0 for not preaching the law at all, -1 for preaching the law as if it is doable)
3. Does the sermon mention Jesus? (+1 for saying true things about Jesus, 0 for not mentioning Jesus, -1 for saying false things about Jesus)
4. Is the sermon about what Jesus has done for us? (+1 if the primary focus of the sermon is about what Jesus has done for us, 0 if the sermon does not mention Jesus, -1 if the sermon is all about what we do for Jesus)
5. Does the creation of a wordle show a Christian focus in the sermon? (+1 for yes, 0 for sort of, -1 for no)
Thus far the series has proved to be rather enlightening, and not a little entertaining: quite frankly, I was thoroughly amused that a sermon by John Piper earned a measly 35% F by such Christocentric standards! I look forward to many more sermon evaluations from Charles in the future.
The above criteria got me thinking, though. Charles is a confessional Lutheran, and it shows. So, what if we tried to apply some of these same criteria to an ancient Christian sermon that has historically made confessional Lutherans uncomfortable? Yes, you guessed it. Let’s look briefly at the Epistle of St James.
Needless to say, we are beset with difficulties from the beginning. To ask whether St James expounds his text correctly is to raise the bugaboo of his use of the Old Testament, which at least in one notable instance seems to be at odds with the use of the same passage by St Paul (cf. St James 2:14-24; Romans 4). The rest of his examples and allusions (some quite unclear) are likewise riddled with exegetical problems, and as often is the case, the modern reader can’t help but wonder how could the Apostles use the Old Testament in such a way. I suppose, then, that this earns St James a -1 in this department.
What about the lawful preaching of the law? Even a casual reader of the Epistle can’t help but notice St James’ insistent call for his audience to be not only hearers but doers of the word. Indeed, he explicitly exhorts his audience to fulfill the royal law (another questionable application of the Old Testament; cf. St James 2:8; Leviticus 19:18), and goes on at length what manner of behavior constitutes this fulfillment. I’m afraid that here, too, St James earns a -1.
At long last, and with much difficulty, we reach a criterion which St James passes with flying colors, for he indeed mentions “our glorious Lord Jesus,” and says nothing false about him. Here, then, we may finally award him a +1.
Regrettably, however, the fourth criterion takes us back to where we started. Allusions to the saving work of Christ are notable for their absence, and there is a rather heavy emphasis on behavior throughout the Epistle. Again, here we must ruefully give St James a -1.
The final criterion calls for a wordle of the sermon, which I created on the basis of the RSV text of the Epistle:
Here we see that the chief words used in the Epistle are “God” and “Lord”; the latter is on the main a Christological term for St James (but see 3:9), and so we may safely conclude that, all appearances aside, the main focus of this ancient sermon is indeed Christian. This clearly merits a +1.
The grand total for St James, the Brother of God, is -1 or 40% F. He did slightly better than John Piper, who may find consolation in the thought that St James was an Apostle, and was therefore bound to do better!
Of course, there is a gulf between the way we should read a New Testament writing and the way we should evaluate a contemporary sermon, and the above is nothing but an affectionate jab at my good friend Charles. But I do commend to all his ongoing series of sermon evaluations for an insightful (and sometimes alarming) look at contemporary Christian preaching.