What is most important?
Read the headlines of a daily newspaper on a regular basis and it becomes clear what the editorial priorities are.
Follow someone on social media for a few weeks and it soon becomes obvious what makes that person tick.
When it was possible to have a dinner party, the conversations around the table reveal the things that people care about.
Sometimes it can take the breath away to see how strongly people can express what they feel about a topic.
What about when we regularly listen to preachers?
After a while we might begin to detect favourite biblical genres, texts and themes.
There can be the tendency of speaking in the same tone in every sermon.
The danger of this is that the hearer begins to tune the preacher out. Human beings crave the variety of tone that Scripture itself models.
There can be a tendency to give a disproportionate time to matters that could be handled with a lighter touch.
The danger is that what we say does not seem vital and urgent but pedantic and over the top!
There can be the tendency of always drifting back to a small collection of pet themes.
The danger is that if everything is spoken of as all important nothing is important.
There is real value in learning how to maintain a sense of proportion in our speaking.
I was struck by this quality of eloquent understatement in watching the Memorial Service for Prince Philip. The Prince had chosen all the components of the service himself. In the music there was a nod to his Greek Orthodox Church background and his years of service at sea. Yet it was all very understated, as was the use of a classic Land Rover, adapted under the Prince’s direct supervision, to carry his coffin to the service.
There was no sermon and no formal tribute to Prince Philip. Yet the service did communicate Christian hope and had the Duke’s fingerprints all over it.
The Prince took a careful interest in sermons, taking notes for future reference. He had a preference for eight-minute sermons.
Maybe there is good reason to pause and reflect on sermon length? Some sermons are too loud and too long. Maybe all preachers ought to try an eight-minute sermon from time to time. What such brevity requires clarity in our focus and the need to make every word count.
I often turn back to the words of the prophet Isaiah which are quoted concerning Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.
“He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Matthew 12:20)
“Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone. If you find honey, eat just enough — too much of it, and you will vomit. Seldom set foot in your neighbour’s house –too much of you, and they will hate you.” (Proverbs 25:15–17)
Now that is what I call having a sense of proportion. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. We need to know when to pause, when we have said enough on a topic and how to finish.
We do not need to be loud and in people’s faces to get people’s attention and make things happen.
Think about it, “ … a gentle tongue can break a bone”.
Preachers need to learn how use their carefully chosen words to apply the minimum pressure to gain the maximum effect.