Some of you may have seen or at least heard of Sophie’s Choice, the 1982 film for which Meryl Streep won an Academy Award for Best Actress as she played the title character.
I am old enough to have seen the movie, in person, in a theater, over a Christmas break while in college. But what I remember most about the film is its conclusion – when the awful depravity of the choice Sophie actually had to make was revealed, then BOOM!, the credits rolled and the curtain closed.
And the audience gasped. Audibly.
And then sat. Stoically.
We were stunned into silence and immobility – I suspect it was five minutes or more before we could muster the energy to gather our things and depart the theater. I’ve never had a movie experience as profoundly moving as that one.
All because the makers of Sophie’s Choice knew to end when they were finished.
What’s true of a great movie is true of a great sermon.
End when you’re finished.
Recently I heard a friend deliver a sermon. The message was good – engaging opening, sound exegesis, compelling bottom line. And shortly after revealing that bottom line, my friend shared an anecdote that made it come to life. The story mixed wit and pathos in a memorable way. I got the bottom line through that story. My friend was finished making his point.
But unfortunately, he wasn’t finished with his sermon. He kept talking. Some of what he continued to share was very good … but it detracted from the point, which was much better.
His sermon didn’t end when it was finished and so it was only good when it could have been great.
How do you know when you have a good ending? These days I have two main criteria:
An ending in which the sermon moves from being TO PEOPLE to ABOUT JESUS. Elsewhere I call this from exhortation to exaltation. In a sermon from Matthew 5:38-42, where the temptation is to moralize the congregation with “turn your other cheek” and “give your extra coat,” I chose a different track. Here’s what happened:
But before I tell you what that pattern is, do you see what else is going on here? Do you see how Jesus becomes the stories he tells? Notice how all the little examples in Matthew 5 are conditional? If if if ? Guess what? For Jesus they became not hypothetical but actual. Do you see, again, how Jesus BECOMES the stories that he tells? He’s the one who is beaten and doesn’t fight back. He’s the one who is stripped naked. He is the one who is conscripted to carry his own cross. He’s the one who GIVES. This little avalanche of non-sensical demands becomes so much more about him than us. What a story teller! What a Savior! Because at every point Jesus had the right – legal and divine – to assert his power. To insist on his respect. And at every step – trial, sentence, scourging, road trip to Golgotha, crucifixion – he didn’t use the power available to him. He refused to assert his rights because he had to win our redemption. He was never more assertive than when he refused the power at his command, when he ignored the rights that were his.
Boom. The end. The sermon finished and so did the preaching.
An ending with an anecdote that empowers people to “feel” the point. In a 2020 message from the book of Ruth, I explained that many of us are Ruth “need-ers” while others are Ruth “become-ers.” (The point was Logic leaves but love clings.) Anyway, I told the story of a dark time early in ministry at Good Shepherd, a time when I legitimately did not think I was going to make it – I wouldn’t last here. And one day during that season, a Good Shepherd friend brought me a “shoe last” – a wooden device that keeps the shape of shoes – with the note: “these shoes will last and you will too.” Then I simply said, “That day, I found my Ruth. Have you found yours?” Amen. Then end. The sermon finished and did the preaching.
It’s always better to leave people longing for a little more than feeling like they’ve had too much.
Make sure that when your sermons end, so does the preaching.