Monday, March 5, 2012

Fespredigten: Twenty Festival Sermons – A review

One of the websites that I frequent is  It is a place where readers and books connect.  You can create an online catalog of your books, read book reviews, connect with people who read things similar to yourself, and do who-knows-all-what-else related to books. 

One feature that they have that I take part in is called Early Reviewers.  Each month there is a list of books that are available, free, in exchange for writing and posting a review of the book.  There are often quite a few books to choose from, fifty or more, and from a variety of genres, although the overwhelming number of them are fiction.  And people like free books!  There are often ten times as many people requesting each book than there are copies available for review.

Early Reviewers doesn’t usually have any big names available.  Nothing by anyone you would automatically expect to be on a best seller list.  The books available for review are supplied by publishers as they attempt to build publicity for their authors. 

And that is how I, a Protestant Christian of the Reformed persuasion, possessing a seminary degree and having done some preaching, acquired a copy of Festpredigten, a collection of twenty sermons preached in Germany by Rabbi Dr. Isaac Rosenberg, from 1897 to 1902.

I requested this book for several reasons.  One is that I am a bit of a geek for reading sermons.  I like to read what others have learned and taught as they have dug into God’s word, and to consider how their preaching can shape my own.  Secondly, roughly two-thirds of the Bible has its roots in Hebrew scripture and I was curious as to how a preacher from the Jewish tradition would study and apply God’s word to their own congregation.  I wanted to see what similarities and differences were present in the art of preaching between one example of a Jewish preacher and my own understanding of preaching.    

Festpredigten was originally written and published in German and has been recently translated in to English.  It contains twenty sermons, all of which were preached for festivals, or special occasions in the Jewish liturgical year.  Eighteen of the twenty sermons are for Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and Pesach (Passover).

Rosenberg’s method was to begin with a short piece of Biblical text, then draw out one theme from the text and apply it to the contemporary situation.  He doesn’t clearly state it but his sermons show that he believes the Biblical text continues to speak vibrantly to his own time.  His translator, Fred Gottlieb (who is also Rosenberg’s grandson), writes in his introduction, “The preacher tries valiantly to have his people carry some of this holiness with them into their everyday lives.  These sermons reveal the intense love of the preacher for his flock, as he makes it clear that even those attending synagogue once a year on Yom Kippur are part and parcel of the Jewish people.” (xv)

I agree that the task of preaching is to touch God’s people deeply with his word, and that the preacher should strive to do this to the best of their ability each time they step into the pulpit.  The primary religious holidays are excellent opportunities to speak of God to people who may otherwise rarely attend worship.

One thought Rosenberg expressed, in a sermon from 1898, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is “if you will not accustom your children to sacrifice on the altar of our religion, they will one day bring offerings on other altars, whose incense will not be sweet smelling either to you or to God.” (16)  This is really the essence of idolatry, placing something other than God in the place that is rightly his alone.

While Rosenberg’s preaching shows a deep love for his congregation I found that his content was often lacking.  That may be, in part, because I come from a different faith tradition altogether.  In some cases I may be reading his preaching too literally.  I also believe that the “point” of all preaching should in some way proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, which would clearly not be the intent of Rosenberg.  And I do believe that occasions that draw the otherwise absent into a place of worship, such as holidays, weddings and funerals, are particularly well-suited to point towards God in preaching, rather than providing some sort of moral lesson.

As an example, as he moves towards the conclusion of one sermon, he says, “If you, dear parents, wish the best for your children, teach them early on to lead a modest life, even when you can afford to give them material pleasures.” (42)  As a parent myself I believe that the best thing I can teach my children is to love God, with all their heart, in all the circumstances of life.  While I can admire the intent to encourage people to live modestly, when life gets hard, as it will, and often in painful and disorienting ways, our bedrock is on God, who is unchanging in all his attributes, remaining fully God even as our world falls apart.  I am sure that some of Rosenberg’s hearers would live into the horror of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, when perhaps the only thing that they could be certain of was that the God who spoke creation into existence was still their God.  Rosenberg does know the unchanging nature of God, saying in a Passover sermon, “Our devotion to God has remained firm, whether a loving sun smiled upon us from blue skies, or we lived in the shadow of the valley of death.” (67)  I just don’t think that in these twenty samples from his preaching career that he makes the most of his opportunities to preach the depth of God’s love for his people.

So what I take from this collection to shape my own identity as a preacher is the deeply personal love that the preacher can have for those to whom he is being used as God’s messenger.  History knows many great and powerful preachers, some leading large congregations and some spending many quiet years amid a small group of God’s faithful.  Perhaps the best thing that Rosenberg teaches in these sermons is the preacher’s faithfulness in bringing a word from God to his people, week after week, year after year, leaving the final results in the hands of God.

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