A Feature Review of
Lights a Lovely Mile: Collected Sermons of the Church Year
Eugene H. Peterson
Reviewed by Leonard J. Vander Zee
When I first began to page through this book and read a few of these sermons by one of my theological and pastoral heroes, I felt a little underwhelmed. I was expecting a book of highly polished, thoroughly engaging sermonic gems. But at first glance, they seemed, well, kind of ordinary. There were some abrupt dives into the heart of things, lacking the clever introductions I’ve learned to expect from the “best” preachers. There were some clunky illustrations, some rough hermeneutical leaps.
Then it dawned on me. I had just been reading Reversed Thunder, his brilliant meditation on Revelation. That was the PhD-informed, beautifully crafted prose of the Eugene Peterson who I so treasured. But here in this book is the working-solo pastor of a Presbyterian church plant in the Maryland suburbs. He’s been up late this week with his sick kid, visited the hospital twice, written a required report for the Presbytery, met with a couple wanting to divorce, and has just enough time to somehow squeeze a sermon out of his soul.
This is not a volume of carefully edited, highly polished sermons from some great college Dean of the Chapel. This is a collection drawn from the “barrel” (as I used to call it) in the basement of dog-eared, yellowing sermon pages from a working pastor. So, the best sermons I ever read? No. But these are the sermons of the man who wrote Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, and The Contemplative Pastor, books I have returned to over the years for refreshment.
Reading these sermons carefully, you will recognize a pastor who is conversant with the flock, the husbands and wives, the professors and carpenters, the anxious and the depressed in his congregation. He is constantly exploring the intersections of Bible and culture, theology and sociology, exegesis and existence as he speaks very openly and directly to a real congregation.
In one of my favorites, “Angels long to Look” from I Peter 1:10-12, he talks about what the word salvation means. It begins with a reference of a Rembrandt painting, “A Woman Cutting Her Fingernails and moves to a long lection giving thumbnail pictures of various moments in the history of salvation, from Abraham to Jesus. Then he goes back to the fingernail by pointing to how salvation is nothing if it’s not also as discreet as what happens to each of us. And finally, to that strange image of what angels long to look at.
“The word used literally means ‘lean over to look into.’ That little detail builds a whole landscape for me. You have to imagine heaven as a kind of circular balcony stretched out over the earth, and behind the balustrades the angels are stretching out, leaning over, trying to get a look at what’s going on. Salvation is what’s going on…. It provides the sake spectator pleasure for the angels as an athletic event or parade does for us. But for you it is no spectator sport. You are right in the middle of it. Amen.”
I love that closing image and especially the “you are right in the middle of it” at the climax. That, in fact, characterizes a lot of the sermons here. They are often focused like a laser on “you.” Seldom does Peterson stray too far from that urgent personal address. He knows that in the sermon, like the sacrament, something deep, something sacred is happening in the encounter of Christ, the Word, with his people.
Another sermon, “Love Lessons,” on the famous love passage in I John 2, begins with one of his best introductions. He talks about a pastoral visit (I like to think the woman described was in church that morning). While she’s making some coffee he notices an array of athletic trophies, so when she returns, he remarks, “Your husband must be a very good athlete and spend a great deal of time at it.” She replies, “O yes, he’s very good at it. It’s his second love.” Peterson asks, “What, then, is his first?” “Me” she replies.
Now I can imagine some pastors bloviating on about how God should be our first love. But Peterson latches onto this wonderfully human response (that also made this woman and her husband feel really good) and launches into a sermon on how we so deeply want and need that kind of love, from God and from other people.
One more revealing example of this preacher’s artistry together with a laser focus on the listener’s heart response. In a sermon called “You are the Christ,” from Mark 8:29, Peterson recalls a BBC documentary on the world’s religions called, “The Long Search.”
“That is wrong,” he says, “We don’t hunt all over the universe for God. We don’t stay up late in libraries, poring through books to find God. There is a scene in one of Peter Devries’ novels that goes something like this: A man came up to another man on a street corner and said, ‘Have you found Jesus’? And the man replied, ‘I didn’t know he was lost.’” Now, I remember using that joke in a sermon, but I started with it. But, wisely, I think now, Peterson uses it for the punch line. That’s plain good preaching.
Another characteristic of Peterson’s preaching is that while being profoundly biblical, and even on occasion, expository, they are also theologically engaged. Long before the movement toward a theological reading of the Bible, this was already in Peterson’s toolbox. Nearly all his sermons have a theological substrate. People at Bel Air Presbyterian are going to have some theological heft along with their biblical knowledge.
As you can tell, the more I read these sermons, the more I admired them–as real sermons performed on a Sunday morning. Also, while they do not display the same polish as his published writings, they were obviously still carefully crafted sermons, which I so much prefer to the 45-minute meanderings and that go for “teachings” these days. I think a seminary homiletics class, assuming there still is such a thing, could fruitfully study them to discover what real preaching in a congregation looks like. This good work will help shape aspiring preachers better than most homiletical texts.
Leonard Vander Zee
Leonard Vander Zee is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, married to Jeanne Logan, and father of four and grandfather of 12. Besides serving as occasional Interim Pastor he loves playing tennis, pickleball, and golf, and reading the theology of the church fathers. He is author of Christ, Baptism, and the Lord's Supper (IVP, 2004).
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