Why A Really Great Sermon Just Isn't Enough

November 17, 2019

This morning I preached a great sermon. I preached one as good or better last week. And I have done a lot of them in the past six months. But increasingly, I am not satisfied.

Telling you why this is so is important not just to me but to you. So give a listen.

By way of definition, let me say first that a good sermon, or a good teaching is one that conveys God’s truth competently, clearly, and in a life-changing manner. I did that. After many years, one knows when this is so, and frankly, I hope I don’t freak you out when I say that one gifted and called to teach and preach knows when he or she senses the presence of the Spirit in the preaching act. It happens to me all the time, and it means everything to me.

But still, I am not satisfied. Worse than that, I am discouraged.

Why is that, you ask. Simple. As any preacher of teacher of holy things will tell you, the frustration we have is that we have no control over what happens to that truth after it is communicated. We have no control over whether people take the ball of transformational truth and run with it, or whether then just leave it there, inert on the field of play. No control.

And its discouraging. Why?  Because people like me know about the transformational power of God, the inner glee of experiencing his presence, and the joy of doing what he has gifted and called us to do. And to contemplate people out there who freely report how much they liked the sermon, and how much it touched them, while knowing that except for rare occasions, not one of those people will do anything with it, not one of them will experience a deeper flow of the holy lava and the volcanic power of God, all of this is discouraging.

Well, is there any solution, you ask?  Well, if you are looking for a magic bullet, no. And it is not enough to simply say, “Well, the LORD will work in their hearts, and we have to prayerfully leave things up to him.”  That sounds good, but I think it’s a comforting failure to face the inadequacies of our current spiritual models which fail to widely and consistently unleash the transformational dynamics provided to us in all of holy history, and most recently in the atoning death, victorious resurrection, and triumphant resurrection of the Son of David, whose spirit has been sent to us for than occasional “liver shivers,” transcendent spiritual highs. No, that is emphatically not enough. Nor is it why Yeshua died and rose. Not by a long shot.

As best as one can know these things, I know that God has called me to mobilize, teach, and advocate for a step in the right direction, a step toward a more transformative and dynamic encounter with the potentialities purchased for us and sent our way.  

What is needed is a modality that enshrines such a teaching ministry within a context of intimate accountability. We need a modality whereby people will treat each others like family, not only taking care of each other, but also growing together in the things that such a family stands for.

We need a for-our-time-and-place reincarnation of the havurot and home groups that existed in the Jewish and Yeshua believing communities of the first through the third centuries. These were the kinds of communities that turned the world upside down—but first they turned people’s lives right side up. Coming into a big room, singing some songs together, and hearing an inspirational speaker, which is what passes for believing communities in our place and time is not enough. We need something more and something other.

I have a lot to say about this. And a lot to do. Recently God has been sending people my way who want to know more.

You can expect to read more about this here on these pages. But be forewarned. I am not talking about kaffeeklatsches, study groups, or discussion groups. I am talking about learning what it means to form communities  where the people of God act like family, with all the comforts, and more than occasional discomforts that entails, maturing together into what Paul called “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah.” It’s a tall order, and I am responding to the call to give it my best shot. I started experiencing this in the earliest 1970’s and researching it beginning in 1990.

I am stretching myself in that direction. And already I am learning there are others who feel the need of that kind of stretch themselves.

How about you?

(If you want to know more about what we're doing and planning to do, subscribe to our free bi-monthly e-letter, SIGNALS. And if you want a weekly exposure to household spirituality and a discussion guide to help you experience a touch of it from week to week, subscribe to our weekly Shabbat Home Discussion Guide, SHULCHAN SHELANU).

3 comments on “Why A Really Great Sermon Just Isn't Enough”

  1. Allow me to remind you of a feature of the decades-old modern havurah movement in the USA, which was also a feature of the movement of haRav Yeshua's Jewish disciples. They met and celebrated Jewish lifestyle events as an extended family, it is true, but they were not mere isolated enclaves. They were involved in the activities of the wider Jewish community. The modern havurot were generally attached, loosely or firmly, to a larger synagogue community, whence they obtained common Torah-informed teaching and general Jewish-community interaction and participation. Their ancient counterparts could attend services in the Temple, or interact in the prayer-and-study activities of local synagogues. They could and did also meet independently and discuss such teachings and elaborate them in light of Rav Yeshua's teachings and history. In Acts 15, we see a recommendation for gentile disciples that would ensure their purity from idolatry and make them eligible to pursue, alongside Jews, the implicit activity of verse 21 whereby they would participate in local synagogues or "batei midrash" to learn Torah each shabbat. Thus they, too, would have a starting point for regularized further study in their own assemblies.

    The goal for all of them, in one degree or another, was personal maturation in the spiritual and practical disciplines that enable the redemption and moral development of their respective societies, and by extension, of the entire world. Their structure fostered connectedness, both inwardly, and outwardly in nested circles of increasing radial distance.

    1. Shalom, and thank you for your input. I am well aware of the modern havurah movement. I have a cousin who was involved with its earliest leaders and beginnings, and long ago, when I was about 20 I visited one in NYC. I also was part of a house group before I left for California. I have been researching the model since 1990 when I did two independent studies on the model with world class scholars. But thank you for supplying information generally in keeping with my research.

      I will not argue with you about your interpretation of the passage from Acts 21, except to say that my understanding is that the Shaliach is saying in effect "It is not our business to teach Judaism to gentiles. If they want to learn Judaism there is a synagogue on every corner." As flattering as it is to Jewish sensibilities, God was not bringing Gentiles into subservience to Jewish institutions and authority structures but was birthing among them structures appropriate to their cultures and in full fellowship with the root ekklesia in Jerusalem. If you wish to dispute this, I am not likely to spend any time here discussing it. A search through my prior blogs will supply ample argumentation on the matter.

      Another point. There were a variety of havurah models extant in the late 1960's and 1970's. It was Rabbi Eric Shulweiss of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA, who first proposed the synagogue based havurah, There were other models extant that were not rooted in affiliation with a synagogue institution in the manner I see you suggesting.

      Finally, as to Batei Midrash (Study halls), see my monograph on the subject, "The Jewish Advantage." available on Amazon.com


  2. Shalom gam l'chah, Stuart! -- Regarding "subservience to Jewish institutions and authority structures", if Rav Yeshua could command his own Jewish disciples to obey the scribes and Pharisees, with whom they had already a more than passing acquaintance, why should these same disciples have any qualms about recommending local synagogue attendance on Shabbat to gentile disciples whose only exposure to such Torah teaching would be in that venue? That is not subjecting these gentiles to any sort of subservience, but it is hinting at their potential participation in Jewish institutions -- authority structures notwithstanding. How else could such gentile disciples be expected to elaborate their understanding of even their minimal obligations (Acts 15:28-29) to what would later be considered a "Noahide" approach to Torah responsibility? It was not a matter of "learning Judaism", but of learning what the Torah means and how to "unpack" applicable meanings from a densely-packed conceptual framework.

    Indeed, the very notion that unconverted gentiles could be redeemed by HaShem but remain unobligated for the whole of Torah observance is a Pharisaic perspective that existed already in that era. I'm not sure if we can place a date on the midrash that envisions the Torah as having been offered to other nations and refused for one reason or another, and that only Israel accepted it with the declaration that they would hear and obey, and guard and keep it; but certainly the notion existed that the Torah was given specifically to Israel and was not required of other nations -- to whom Israel would nonetheless serve as a "light".

    Nonetheless, since the Torah's principles were viewed as the expressed reflection of HaShem's redemptive intentions for all of humanity, some means of adopting them had to be made accessible to everyone. Rav Shaul's appointment as "the apostle to the uncircumcised" established him as a key teacher of such principles for the non-Jewish context, but he was only one man and there were an awful lot of gentiles to be educated.

    Now, you mentioned havurah models that were not rooted in affiliation with a synagogue. Are you advocating any such model? Are you advocating isolation from Jewish institutions or the wider Jewish community? I would certainly recommend against such an approach for Jewish disciples of haRav Yeshua ben-Yosef; and I suggest that it would be unhealthy even for non-Jewish disciples. Past history, all the way back to the Nicene Council, has shown that gentiles who cut themselves off from Jewish ties and authorities become arrogant, inconsiderate, merciless enemies of Jews and Judaism. Practical considerations may limit or inhibit interactions between non-Jewish havurot, and their gentile disciples, and Jewish institutions; but modern Christian Zionists have demonstrated an orientation and affiliation for at least one Jewish institution, the state of Israel, which offers a potentially useful example or pattern for isolated or remote havurot vis-a-vis other Jewish institutions. But the field is wide open for consideration of recommended activities within these various havurot, and how they may reflect patterns of honor toward their members and toward Jews, Judaism, Israel, and the teachings of the Tenach and the apostolic writings.

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