Authority Incarnate


In the early days of New England, societies drew strength from sermons, because sermons were central to the life of everyone—Christian and non-Christian alike. Holidays and even elections were accompanied by a special sermon from the pastor of the local church. More than any other, his influence helped establish virtuous homes and communities. Yale historian Harry Stout reveals how the sermon had such impact.

Besides dominating Sunday worship services, sermons were delivered at every significant event in the life of communities. In the Old World, social habits and institutions were legitimized by a broad range of authorities and rituals, such as royal processions, coronations, and martial parades. In New England there would be no competing voices or rituals, and the sermon would become as important for social meaning as for spiritual enlightenment. It not only interpreted God’s plan of redemption and told the people how they must live as a church but also defined and legitimated the meaning of their lives as citizen and magistrate, superior and inferior, soldier, parent, child, and laborer. Sermons were authority incarnate.1

I like that phrase, “authority incarnate.” This is the inevitable result of God’s word going forth to confront the mundane affairs of life. Things change. They can’t help but change. It is the modus operandi of God to bring transformation through this word. Therefore, we have a great opportunity. It is unlikely in our day and age that we will have a chance to deliver a formal sermon in every context of society, as was true for the early days of New England. We can, however, embody and communicate God’s truth in other ways. A little creativity is required, but the question of how to clearly, lovingly, and prophetically speak God’s word into the issues of life ought to guide our personal lives and church ministries. Why? Because through such communication we have the privilege of observing the authority of God at work.


1 Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul (New York: Oxford University Press,1986), 23.

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