Go Ahead - Take the Penalty Flag

Football season is either long over or a long way off—depending which direction you are facing on the calendar. But watching college bowl games during the 2010 season got me thinking about preaching. (Try telling that to your elders!)

In case you missed this particular game, Kansas State was matched against Syracuse in the debut of the Pinstripe Bowl played in Yankee Stadium. Late in the game, with Kansas State marching down the field, the quarterback threw to wide receiver Adrian Hilburn, who ran in for a touchdown. Dropping the ball, he faced the fans and raised his arm in a salute. “Big mistake, buddy!” said the referee as he threw the yellow flag for a 15-yard penalty.

Is there something in our Reformed DNA that makes us hesitant, reluctant (dare we say “guilty”) about anything that hints at happy celebration?

In what will likely be remembered as one of the worst interpretations of the rule, Hilburn was charged with “illegal celebration.” What?! There’s actually a penalty for illegal celebration?! Isn’t there already a scarcity of celebration in the world?

Preachers may think we’ve been given an unfair rap over the years, but our reputation as stern, pulpit-pounding killjoys must come from somewhere. Although the image may be more caricature than reality, could it be that we sometimes preach cautiously, afraid that some pulpit referee is going to throw a yellow flag and call us out for illegal celebration? Do we worry that the serious and earnest message of God will be lost if we proclaim it with too much joy and delight? Is there something in our Reformed DNA that makes us hesitant, reluctant (dare we say “guilty”) about anything that hints at happy celebration?

Going Overboard?

Several years ago, our church celebrated its centennial anniversary. A few members of the planning committee were cautious. They declared that one big dinner and worship service featuring all the surviving former ministers would be sufficient, and they were standing by with yellow flags to call illegal celebration penalties if we went overboard.

As we talked through their concerns, it became clear that they weren’t trying to squelch the party; they just didn’t want to draw too much attention to the church or its people. The attention and adulation, they rightly pointed out, belonged to God. Unfortunately, they threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. In an honest attempt to curb self-promotion and avoid the pride that can sneak into these types of celebrations, they were willing to cut back on the number and intensity of joyful anniversary events in the coming year.

The illegal celebration rule in football has the same intent. Rule 9-2-1d forbidding excessive celebration is intended to “eliminate actions by which a player attempts to focus attention on himself.” That’s an honorable goal. We might even call it a spiritual discipline and the type of thing the apostle Paul would say about his own preaching. “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7). “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness . . . so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:2-5).

That’s what Adrian Hilburn says he meant when he saluted the fans in the stands. He said, “It’s something you do out of respect for your teammates or fans.” It was intended to acknowledge their participation in the game and thank them for supporting the team.

But, like our anniversary committee, the NCAA is so afraid that the salute will get out of hand—that someone might hug a teammate or do a backflip or break into a happy dance (now that’ssomething to fear!) that they’ll throw the flag even at celebrations that focus attention in the right direction.

Pastors and Party-Starters

We need to take back the role of party-starters in our churches. As preachers, we are tasked with the delightful mission of proclaiming the gospel—not just “good news” but the best news in all the world—to people who sometimes have little to cheer about. We are messengers of a living and life-giving truth.

If anyone should be guilty of excessive celebration, it should be us! If we go by the strict standards of the NCAA, Reformed preachers ought to have yellow flags thrown at every sermon for all our saluting and celebrating. After all, we are the ones who hold to confessions that—from the first word—are all about celebration. We are the ones who know that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” We are the ones who celebrate the comfort of knowing that we belong to Jesus Christ—“body and soul, in life and in death.” That’s our confession. Is it not also our celebration?

I am not suggesting that we cheapen the powerful message of grace with a “don’t worry, be happy” approach to sermons. We have no time to waste on counterfeit joy when we have so much to say about the real thing. Our story, the one we proclaim week after week, gives us ample material to demonstrate an amazing God who lovingly made us, longingly pursues us, and lavishly redeems and renews us.

A Declaration of Celebration

From beginning to end, the Word of God we have been given to preach is a declaration of celebration. We teach the beginning miracle of creation. Out of the imaginative depths of his mind and heart, God spoke a world and a people into being. Then God said, “It is good!” And we retell the end of the story with as much delight—that God, in all power and authority, restores justice, renews the earth, and reconciles people. God invites all people to celebrate at the marriage feast of the Lamb and enjoy basking in his presence, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

Like a good inclusio, the middle of the story reflects the same delight as the beginning and the end. We proclaim that our God, rich in mercy and overflowing with kindness, has rescued us from the darkest depths and given us a life worth celebrating. No text—and therefore no sermon—escapes the need to be seen and expressed through the deep and abiding joy of the story of salvation. Christ has died. Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

So let us be earnest and serious, focused and reverent in the work of proclaiming truth. But let us also be joyful and exuberant, passionate and delighted in declaring the many-splendored character and work of our God. Focus the celebration on God—and then go ahead and take the penalty flags!

Check the Celebration Quotient in Your Sermons

  • Does this sermon reflect the marvelous beauty of one of the characteristics of God?
  • Have I chosen words that evoke delight in God’s mercy, justice, power, knowledge?
  • Do my face and posture demonstrate confidence and joy in the message of grace that is being proclaimed?
  • Would someone low on hope find enough hope in my words to get them through the coming week?
  • Would someone in need of repentance know without a doubt that even the words of correction in our sermons are invitations to a new life of redemptive celebration?
  • Does this sermon inspire joy and celebration in God’s people so that their lives are turned to him in worship and toward each other in service?
This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.

Rev. Joy Engelsman is a multivocational pastor in the Christian Reformed Church. She preaches frequently in Denver-area congregations, provides ministry coaching throughout North America, and serves as a missionary with Youth for Christ/Africa developing staff and leaders.