What Makes for a Good Sermon?

The rabbi of Rizhyn said: “As when someone prepares to split a tree with an ax, and takes a great swing at it but misses, and the ax goes into the earth, so it is when a zaddik talks to the people in order to rouse their hearts to the service of God, but they do not heed him, and admire only the cleverness and artfulness of his sermon.”


What makes for a good sermon?

I’ve heard many sermons in my day, as I’m sure you have.

But, regrettably, I must say that I have found many of them – especially in recent years – to be about all sorts of things other than rousing the hearts of congregants to the service of God.

I’ve heard sermons that were geared to rouse the hearts of congregants to the service of one political cause or another. I’ve heard some that were full of pretty words and others that were full of weighty words, heavier than rousing. And, as the Hasidic rabbi suggests, there were still others that evoked admiration only in their cleverness and artfulness.

But where is the preacher who effectively rallies his or her flock to seek God’s presence? Where are the sermons that motivate congregations to multiply their study of God’s word through expanded programs of education? Where are the sermons that move congregants pervasively to live lives truer to Divine expectations?

I don’t ask these questions rhetorically. I would love to know of rabbis and preachers who, in the rabbi’s terms, “split the tree” with the ax of their words. I’d like to come hear them.

Let me not leave a false impression. I’ve witnessed some pretty darn good “tree splitting” over the years. In fact, all the work I’m currently doing was inspired, in large part, by extraordinary rabbis and preachers, including a few who are active today.

Simply put, I just worry there isn’t enough of it.

The rabbi makes another point we shouldn’t miss. Is the failure due to the preacher or the congregation? The rabbi’s wisdom suggests it might be both. When we demand politics, sweet words, cleverness, or artfulness, and that’s what we get, should we be able to lay all the blame on the preacher?

In many ways, it’s the congregation’s choice whether to receive and heed words that call us to service of God. When we prefer other things and demand them in the words we want to hear, the miss is surely due to us as much as it is to the minister.

There’s one extremely lovely touch to this wisdom I want to identify before we close.

Why is reference made to the use of an ax to split a tree?

Here’s my thought: There’s a festival within Judaism that celebrates, among other things, the breaking of the ax. When the Temple stood, the annual cutting of firewood for the altar was concluded on a certain day. That day was celebrated with events of feasting and rejoicing, and a ceremonial breaking of the ax.

The wood that was felled from the trees was used to create the fire that “carried” offerings to God. People brought their items of value to the priests who then facilitated the Divine encounter through fire on the altar. Yes, offerings are very much different in our own time. But, whether then or now, the endeavor was all about coming to serve God.

The true measure of spiritual leaders, the rabbi teaches, is the extent to which they rouse our hearts to serve God. Either their axes yield wood for the fire that arouses, or they miss the mark.

What can we do to help them be sure it’s not a swing and a miss?

2 thoughts on “What Makes for a Good Sermon?

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