The Four Pages: Trouble in the World

This is the next post in a series on writing sermons according to the method outlined by Paul Scott Wilson in The Four Pages of the Sermon. Before I get to this post's topic, you may want to see what the previous posts in the series were about.

Sermon Composition as Making a Movie
Ensuring Sermon Unity
Trouble in the Bible

The first two posts talked about the reason for using this method and the first major step in writing the sermon; the next four deal with each individual 'page' of the method; the last will be the sermon I wrote following this method, with requests for people to analyse it according to the method and see how well it does and - this is perhaps most important - where it falls short and could use improvement. I should point out that I preached the sermon on Sunday, December 5, so it was a real sermon for a real audience (congregation, to be more accurate); it was not only an exercise for fun.

On to the topic for this post, which is the second 'page' of Wilson's method, the page which deals with 'trouble in the world'.

Wilson discusses the need for trouble to be preached in a passage (pp. 108-9) which, although worth quoting in full, is too long to do so. In short, his point is that (and remember that this is from the perspective of preaching a sermon, in which one proper object of speech is the relationship of humans to God) we frequently aren't living as God wills us to live; not only that, but:
[M]any in society and the church are victims of suffering, oppression, and evil. They endure ongoing hardship because of natural disasters, accidents, illness, or violence; or they are denied opportunities because of race, gender, poverty, or nationality. Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). God is on the side of those who are in need. Suffering continues, often on broad societal levels, and is a judgment against all in that society, even though the action may be unintentional and there may be no immediate or obvious solution to the problem. [pp. 108-9; this is a portion of the passage to which I referred above]
'Trouble in the world' takes many forms, then. Wilson breaks ways of preaching about trouble into three: transcendent or vertical trouble (visualised as a 'hammer'; pp. 110-2); immanent or horizontal trouble (a 'mirror'; pp. 112-5); and human trouble, which 'flows from the first two [kinds of trouble] and is often preached yet is overlooked as trouble. [p. 115; Wilson discusses human trouble on pp. 115-7]' This third kind of trouble is the realisation that we can't solve our (or the world's) problems by ourselves, and Wilson's point is that many sermons make it seem as though that's what we have to do. Wilson suggests that being unaware of this latter dimension of trouble, even if the 'trouble' of the sermon is rather lightweight, is likely to instil anger and despair in congregations. (As you might expect, one of the goals of Wilson's 'four pages' method is to remedy this difficulty.)

There are a number of other factors to take into consideration when writing the 'page' on 'trouble in the world'. Two which are of particular importance are for preachers to choose stories which reflect a broad range of people in the congregation (in other words, to be 'inclusive'), and for preachers to choose 'trouble' which raises awareness of worldwide issues of justice and poverty among members of the congregation, since they tend to focus too much on the needs of the congregation to whom they are addressing the sermon.

Probably the most important thing for the preacher to do is to make sure that the 'trouble' of the second page reflects and draws upon the Biblical text from the first page. To ensure this, the preacher should compose a 'theme sentence' for the second page (just as he or she will have written a theme statement for the sermon as a whole, which is the sentence for the third page, and will have derived from that and from the text a sentence for the first page).

So, in my sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, I came up with the revised theme statement, God chose the people of Israel to be his people. Then, for the first page, the sentence I picked was, The people of Israel had to repent to be God's people. So, for the second page, which deals with 'trouble in the world'; with, that is, the sin and brokenness or burden on humankind identified in the Biblical text, the theme sentence I would, and did, choose, is, We have to repent to be God's people.

Thus, in addition to evaluating the sermon for how well it emulates the perspective of film, for how well it draws its trouble from the text (page one) and makes it clear, we must evaluate the quality and relevance of the stories it tells on page two to illustrate 'trouble in the world' and how well that trouble is actually drawn from what we wrote about it on the first page.

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