Sugar or Mustard
I received an interesting question from a student at a preaching class this week:
“How can we avoid sugar coating our sermons?”
Sugar coating sermons can be a temptation for the preacher who wants to be liked.
Mary Poppins suggested that, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down …
in a most delightful way.”
Could there be half a truth here? If we have got unpalatable things to say, might it help if we combine them with something that is a bit sweeter?
Yet if preachers use too much sugar, the end result will be people who can’t listen to us without the anticipated sugar rush.
The question also got me thinking about whether there might be a polar opposite to preaching that is sugar coated. Perhaps there is also a form of preaching that we might call mustard coated. Instead of making everything seem sweet and more palatable, this preacher makes everything more bitter and harsh.
The first biblical example of a mustard coated sermon was preached by a preacher called Serpent in Genesis 3:1
“Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?”
The woman, Eve, who formed the congregation for this sermon realised that this sermon was harsher than the message that the Lord God had given. The Serpent says, “all the trees,” which makes God look mean spirited. What God had said was one tree, which highlighted his remarkable generosity.
The Serpent, having failed with the mustard coated sermon, decides to try the sugar-coated approach,
“You will not certainly die,’ the snake said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Now instead of making God’s words appear too harsh, the Serpent attempts to tone them down.
Preachers are called to preach the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They do so because they realise what happens when they fail to do so.
“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11)
The preacher is lying if by their sugar-coated preaching they obscure the message.
There is a further twist to this theme of sugar-coated sermons. Sometimes it is not the preacher who drenches the sermon in sugar, it the hearer. Listen to what the prophet Ezekiel has to say concerning the people of his day,
“As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, “Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.” My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.
When all this comes true — and it surely will — then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:30–33)