One does not preach for forty years without undergoing some changes in the ways one preaches. At least one shouldn’t.
I have recently noticed a change in the way that I end sermons. I put it that way because I don’t think I planned it.
For thirty-nine or so of my forty preaching years I ended all of my sermons with a period, an exclamation point, or a question mark.
I ended with a period if the sermon closed with a declarative statement. So a Lent sermon ended like this: “On our way to the Cross, let’s remember that it is the Lord Jesus—and not the institution of the church—that we worship, because it is his crucifixion and resurrection that have made all the difference.”
I ended with an exclamation point if the sermon closed with a thought that seemed to call for a little extra emphasis. So a Christmas season sermon ended like this: “Jesus, then, took on our life with all its suffering and pain and struggle—and he did that throughout his life, not just at the end. He did so as one of us but he also did so as God; in Jesus Christ God entered into and defeated the troubles that threaten to defeat us. Thanks be to God!”
I ended with a question mark if the sermon closed, of course, with a question. So a sermon I preached on the Trinity ended this way: “We are loved by God in God’s fullness. We are saved by God in God’s fullness. We are indwelled by God in God’s fullness. How can that not make a tremendous difference in our lives?”
All of those types of endings are fine and effective in their own way.
I have noticed, though, that most of my recent sermons are ending with an ellipsis, which is the punctuation mark consisting of three dots (…) that is most often used to indicate that words have been left out of quotation; for example, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth … a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
An ellipsis can also be used at the end of a sentence to indicate that a thought is trailing off …
So my most recent sermon, preached on Transfiguration Sunday, closed like this: “Jesus is the Messiah and his way is our way. The Spirit of God is working in us to form us into the image of God. We can make a little progress every day. As we grow in grace and love we will grow in serving and giving and sacrificing. Let’s be grateful for all the ways in which that is happening in us. Let’s be grateful for how it is going to continue to happen …”
And a sermon that I preached during the season after Epiphany ended this way: “Be very glad for the joy and fulfillment you have in Christ. Be very, very glad that you can share it with others, whether they have prepared for it or not …”
I think one of the factors contributing to this change in the way I end my sermons is my activity on Facebook and Twitter. Somewhere along the way I began to end most of my posts and comments with an ellipsis because, given that such statements are necessarily brief, there is always more to be said that is not said.
So it is with my sermons; so it is with anyone’s sermons.
There are always words left out that could have been said.
There is always much more that could have been said.
Another couple of factors are in play, too.
First, the story goes on and on and on; in fact, it will go on forever so, properly speaking, it has no end and our sermons need to indicate that truth.
Second, one purpose of preaching is to help our listeners to be drawn into the sermon. Having the sermon trail off (something that we can indicate with our voice inflection) can help to create that dynamic.
I have found it valuable to preach toward the ellipsis. Perhaps you will, too …