In the past couple of years, I have noticed that periods of social unrest are often accompanied by a corresponding outbreak of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am referring, of course, to the accompanying blizzard of memes on Facebook and Twitter that display a quote famously (and probably incorrectly) attributed to Bonhoeffer: “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
One of my former students recently asked me how I thought the COVID-19 crisis was affecting pastoral ministry and preaching in particular. How do you preach in an environment like this? The simple answer is that you do the best you can, given the circumstances. Preaching is challenging enough under ordinary conditions. The nature of the current crisis has completely upended our normal patterns of meeting and communicating. Preachers are speaking to empty seats and recording their messages for broadcast over social media. As one popular meme observes, we are all televangelists now.
The answer to my student’s question involves more than the medium, though much could be said about that as well. The medium of delivery matters, but the content of the message is always primary. Whether we preach live or by means of a video, we are still saying something. What should we say? The Sunday school answer to this question, of course, is that we should preach the gospel. There is a sense in which preachers only have one message to deliver. Our determination, like the apostle Paul’s, is to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Yet as true as this may be, to put it this way in answer to this particular question seems like and oversimplification. It is not.
Preaching More than the Facts
The gospel offers hope for the present life as well as for the future. It is about living as much as it is about dying. Living the Christian life is more than a matter of willpower and information. The Christian life is Spirit-driven and grace enabled. It is a life that is lived not only in response to the gospel but through the power of the gospel. Paul’s letters are proof that the saints do not need to hear a different gospel after they have believed than the one that was preached to them prior to faith. The apostle was just as eager to preach the gospel to the saints at Rome as he was to proclaim it those who had never heard Christ named (cf. Romans 1:15 with 15:20). While the saints do not need a different gospel, they do need a gospel which is explicated in terms of their experience.
This means that preaching the gospel to the saints during this season of COVID-19 demands that we do more than state the facts of the gospel. What is especially needed is gospel preaching that demonstrates priestly sensitivity. In the Old Testament priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Leviticus 10:11). The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Hebrews 5:1). Preachers, like the priests of the Old Testament, do not stand apart from those who hear them. The default disposition of every sermon is one of sympathy. Priestly sympathy is not pandering but a compassionate ministry that is born of shared experience. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers, or simplistic explanations. Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense–too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what he himself has not explained.
Similarly, it can be tempting for preachers to use a crisis like this to leverage their favorite rebuke. If the posts I see from pastors on social media are an indication of what we are saying in our sermons, not a few of us have seized the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to teach the church a lesson about our favorite cultural or congregational irritation. We are saying that this crisis has come upon us because of abortion or that it is God’s judgment because of homosexuality. Some suggest that God sent it to show us that we are spoiled or that He allowed the churches to be shut down because we took worship for granted. Some are saying that God has forced us out of the building so that the church could be the church. The intent of these assertions, I think, is to be prophetic. Unfortunately, such varied explanations merely gives the impression that God cannot make up His mind about why He is angry with us. He is just mad. I am not saying that God would never deal out judgment on a national or even global scale. The Scriptures show that He has done so in the past and will do so again. What troubles me is the underlying note of smugness that seems to attend so many of these kinds of statements. Perhaps before we try to call down woes upon the nation like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to learn how to weep like him first.
Some of this comes from the pressure we feel to exonerate God. Like many others, I have had more than one person ask me what I thought God was up to by allowing such a devastating pandemic to occur. In our effort to provide an answer, we may overreach. We can make the mistake of thinking that since we speak for God, we may also speak as God. Like Moses at the rock, we speak rashly or out of spite (Numbers 20:10). We jump to conclusions about God’s intent. We make statements about God’s motives and reasoning that sound like certainties but are really only speculations. It is not wrong to address the questions that people ask. One of the preacher’s most important responsibilities is that of leading the congregation in the collective practice of theological reflection about the questions and challenges which are peculiar to their context. But they must do this with what I describe as priestly advocacy.
The key to priestly advocacy is identification (Hebrews 2:17). This means that the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in the place of our listeners, we ask the questions they would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates for them, we must also ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not. We can give voice to the questions that plague our listeners, but we cannot always answer them. Our priestly role demands that we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with them to the awkward silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken. It is not our job to answer all the congregation’s questions. When we try to say what God has not said, we inevitably replace God’s judgment with our own.
What We Can Say
What, then, can we say? We can affirm the congregation’s questions and fears. To admit that we don’t know what God is doing is not the same as saying that God is doing nothing. To acknowledge fear, grief, or uncertainty can itself be a great relief in times like these. Of course, it is crucial that we not stop here. More needs to be said. We do not want to only point at the problem. But if preaching aims to facilitate an encounter with God, a precondition must be that we face God as we truly are, with all our doubts, fears, and questions in plain sight.
If our aim in preaching really is to help our listeners meet God through His word, then the second thing we can do in the sermon is to speak of God. More particularly, we can speak of God as He has revealed Himself to us through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. This may sound too simple, so let me make clear what I do not mean. I am not talking about hawking God as a product by selling the audience an airbrushed version of the Christian life. Such sermons try to resolve every serious problem within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that so often provide contemporary pastors with their themes. This “airbrushed” portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the gospel. Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener’s life is forever changed. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that every problem can be solved in a matter of moments simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances where this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long standing habits leave the sermon miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others–perhaps even most others–the experience is different. For them transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but “toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow.”
Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? In order to be true to our audience’s experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post–Eden world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Times like these, where not only our congregation but the entire globe must deal with the collateral damage that sin has wreaked upon us, are uniquely suited to such a task. Never has Paul’s statement that creation itself is in bondage to decay as a consequence of Adam’s sin been made more vivid (cf. Romans 8:21).
Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. The root of our fear in this current crisis is the fear of sickness and death. Some would like to promise that Jesus will protect us from all such threats. But this is not the hope that the Bible offers us. The message of the gospel is not only the story that Jesus died and rose again. It is the good news that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The gospel does not assure us that we will be able to avoid the experience of physical death. It tells us that Christ will meet us on the other side. This promise is no small hope.
A Distanced Congregation is Still the Church
A third thing that we can say, especially at a time when our normal community life has been so disrupted, is to remind the church that they are still a church. Some Christians seem to feel a kind of glee over the fact that the church cannot meet together during this season of social distancing. “At last,” they seem to say, “the church can finally be the church.” I find this reasoning odd. The language that the Bible uses to speak of the church implies proximity. This aspect of the church’s nature is best expressed by the phrase Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church.” The fact that the church comes together is not a weakness. It is not an indulgence. The church is, by its nature, an assembly.
I find it ironic that while some Christians seem to be celebrating the fact that the church cannot meet, the rest of the world recognizes the need for a sense connection. Nearly every commercial I see on television that mentions the pandemic also says, “We are in this together.” They assure me that “We will get through this.” What surprises me the most is how moved I am by such assurances. Those who record their sermons while preaching to empty seats need to remind the congregation that the bond they share with one another in Jesus Christ has not been diminished by physical separation. They really are in this together. The church will survive, and one day we will come together again as a church. But even though we are now separated, we continue to be “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).
The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unusual but the experiences of fear and uncertainty are not. If you doubt this, just take note of how many times God tells His people not to be afraid in the Scriptures. Those who preach often speak to people in crisis. While not as massive as a pandemic, each individual crisis a listener faces under ordinary circumstances can be just as shattering. Pastors and teachers were not an invention of the church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that they are Christ’s gift to God’s people. The church needs its preachers. What is true during this singular time of crisis will still be true when things return to normal. How should you preach during this season of the coronavirus? You should preach like someone whose hope is cast upon the word of God. Speak the truth with priestly sensitivity. Point your listeners to Jesus Christ. Do the best you can. You can do no more.
Last week the Evangelical Homiletics Society (http://www.ehomiletics.com/) held its annual meeting at Trinity International University. I don’t attend the EHS conference as often as I should, partly because they meet at a difficult time in the semester and partly because I don’t enjoy traveling (probably more the latter than the former).
This year, however, I not only attended, I presented a paper entitled “Prophet, Priest or Stand-Up Comedian? The Priestly Role of the Sermon.” The environment of the EHS is wonderfully supportive, not at all like some other meetings where academics gather. Perhaps this is because the EHS isn’t made up solely of academics. It is a society of preachers. The atmosphere is collegial and the attendees are interested and encouraging.
Still, I found the experience unnerving. I finished feeling a great sense of ambivalence, torn between a desire to run away and hide in shame and a compulsion to stand at the door with a sheepish grin in a desperate bid for compliments. I walked away promising myself that I would “never try that again.”
But then, if you ever done any preaching, you know exactly how I felt. It’s pretty much the same after every sermon. I finish the message feeling a curious mixture of relief, self-loathing and insecurity. Basically, preaching is like being in the 8th grade…FOREVER. Lately I’ve been thinking about giving it up. But I doubt that would make me feel any better.
The pulpit has fallen on hard times in today’s evangelical churches. While I don’t have scientific data to back this up, it’s my personal observation that the pulpit has fallen into disfavor. Of course pulpit furniture, like any other kind of furniture, is subject to the whims and vagaries of designers’ tastes. The pulpit furniture of some churches seems dated, like the stainless steel and sputnik inspired décor that filled many of the homes we grew up in during the 50’s. Still, as a preacher, I have always had a great affection for pulpits. I am disappointed that they seem to be becoming a relic of the past.
The place of the pulpit in worship is more than a merely pragmatic decision. It has always had theological as well as aesthetic significance. Many churches that come from a sacramental tradition locate it to the side, so that the altar where Eucharist is served can have center stage. This is no accident. This is a way of focusing worshipper’s attention on what is considered to be the most important aspect of the service. In these churches the sermon is important but not as important as the sacrament. Some churches in this tradition actually use two pulpits, located at each end of the chancel, one for the reading of Scripture and the other for the sermon, with the altar at the center. Following the Reformation, churches in the Protestant tradition relocated the pulpit to the center. This was intended to symbolize the centrality of the word of God and highlight the importance of the sermon in the worship service.
My favorite pulpits are in the classic style. Massive and sturdy, they are broad shouldered and look as if they were intended to bear weight. They are dark and imposing, as if their designers expected the word of God and the sermons they were meant to cradle to bear down on them. I like a pulpit that is wide enough to grip and durable enough to support me. I want a pulpit I can lean on. Like the tree from which it was carved, I want one that feels as if it has immovable roots. I want a pulpit that has an air of dignity and history. I want a pulpit worthy of the title “sacred desk.”
Sadly, the church treats these old pulpits as if they were an embarrassment. They have been hidden away, relegated to dusty closets, musty basements, and the occasional out of the way Sunday school class. They have been replaced by spare, anorexic imitations of their forebears. Undernourished and gaunt, they are not pulpits at all but really only lecterns. Many modern pulpits are designed to be invisible to the worshiper. Made of Plexiglas and plastic, they are built to disappear, in the hope that they will not be perceived as a barrier between the preacher and the people. While I understand this sentiment, I think it is foolish and wrong headed. It implies that the preacher ought to be the focal point of sermon. I disagree. The focal point is the message not the messenger.
Even worse is the tendency to replace the pulpit with a music stand. This substitution is often not only functionally inadequate; I believe it sends the wrong message to the congregation. It treats the Bible and the sermon as if they were merely afterthoughts. It gives the appearance that the word of God has been shoehorned into the order service, squeezed in after its most important elements have been completed. I am not suggesting that our churches will be transformed if we dust off the old pulpits and restore them to their former place. That will depend upon what is done with the Bibles that are placed on them.
I was once asked to perform the funeral for a neighbor’s son who had committed suicide. He was a hard living man who plied the waters of the Illinois River working on a barge. During his life he expressed little interest God.
God alone knows the heart, but by all outward appearances, this lack of interest did not change on the day he took his life. Like so many others in this sin torn world, he lived without God and died without him.
I felt nervous when his parents asked me to officiate at the funeral. They were not church going people. They did not want church music. Instead, they asked the funeral home to play “Proud Mary,” the song made famous by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I breathed a sigh of relief when the funeral director politely informed the family that he didn’t have a copy of that particular song on hand. But I worried that they might ask me to recite the lyrics like poetry. I imagined myself standing before the coffin chanting:
Big wheel keep on turnin’,
Proud Mary keep on burnin’,
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.
Instead, I preached a sermon about the foolish man who built his house on the sand: “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matt. 7:27).
How do you offer comfort to people who have no reason to hope for it? What can you say to those whose loved ones have ordered their lives in such a way that they have left little room for God? I thought about the advice we had been given in seminary for dealing with situations like this. Back then an old school preacher with a booming voice and a soft heart who taught courses in preaching and pastoral care had urged: “Gentlemen, don’t say anything about the destiny of their loved ones. Leave that to God. Just preach the hope of the gospel and make the condition of faith plain.”
I confess that at the time I wondered if this approach was a little soft. “After all,” I reasoned, “if these people have rejected Christ, why not come right out and say it? The shock might do the mourners some good.” That was when I was young and brash. It was only after pastoral ministry took me to the bedsides, emergency rooms, and funeral visitations of my congregation that I really learned to look into the hollow eyes of grief.
So when the time came to do the funeral, I followed my old professor’s advice. I chose to trade in hope not despair. I preached the hope of gospel, making the need for faith in Christ clear, and left judgment of the deceased in the hands of God. I’m glad I did. He can handle the responsibility better than I can.
During the last days the Third Reich, as the Nazi terror struggled in its final throes and allied bombs rained down on Stuttgart, Helmut Thielicke preached a remarkable series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. These were days of uncertainty and death. On more than one occasion the shriek of air raid sirens interrupted the sermon.
Thielicke writes that during this period there were times when he felt utterly stricken: “My work in Stuttgart seemed to have gone to pieces; and my listeners were scattered to the four winds; the churches lay in rubble and ashes.”
In one of the messages from this series, based upon the petition “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke describes an encounter with a woman from his congregation. It happened as he was standing in the street looking down into the pit of a cellar–all that remained from a building that an allied bomb had shattered. The woman approached him and declared, “My husband died down there. His place was right under the hole. The clean-up squad was unable to find a trace of him; all that was left was his cap.”
What does a pastor say in a moment like this? “I’m sorry,” hardly seems adequate. But the woman had not come to Thielicke for sympathy. She wanted to express her gratitude. “We were there the last time you preached in the cathedral church” she continued. “And here before this pit I want to thank you for preparing him for eternity.”
This is as good a definition of preaching as I have heard. Better, perhaps, than many, because of its stark realism. Preaching is preparing others for eternity. Preaching is having the last word. To preach is to take your stand before the pit and bear witness to the rubble of this ash heap world that the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Preaching derives its authority from the text of Scripture. Our work of correcting, rebuking and encouraging all flow from a more fundamental command: “Preach the Word” (2 Tim. 2:4). Without the authority of the biblical text there would be no authority for preaching.
There are some who prefer to point past the text and locate the preacher’s authority in the ideas of Scripture, generally in the gospel or more particularly in the person of Christ. In his book Homiletic, for example, David Buttrick writes: “Of course, when we claim that the Bible is our ‘authority,’ we are pointing past text, and past even the gospel in scripture, to God-for-us in Jesus Christ.” Buttrick admits that there are many who believe that God has conferred authority on the Scriptures themselves and are convinced that “the Bible has been designated ‘Word of God’ by divine fiat to rule the church.” But he clearly sees this as a problem.
Buttrick is right to say that the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Christ. Jesus asserted as much when he told the religious leaders: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). But Jesus also testified to the authority of the biblical text, down to the smallest letter and to the least stroke of the pen (Matt. 5:18). He said that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).
It is certainly possible to misunderstand the Scriptures. We can intentionally twist the Scriptures. But we cannot put Jesus at odds with the text of Scripture without putting Jesus at odds with himself. To attribute authority to Christ but to deny it to the Scriptures is a contradiction. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ and Christ bears witness to the Scriptures. They both speak of each other and they both speak with the same voice.
The church’s suspicion of the practical value of theology, though misguided, is not without some basis in experience. Helmut Thielicke’s humorous portrait of the young theological student who comes home from seminary and unleashes his learning on an unsuspecting church reflects the perception of many laypeople when it comes to theology: “Under a considerable display of the apparatus of exegetical science and surrounded by the air of the initiated, he produces paralyzing and unhappy trivialities, and the inner muscular strength of a lively young Christian is horribly squeezed to death in a formal armor of abstract ideas.”
In its healthy form the speculative nature of theology can enable us to uncover hidden depths of God’s revealed truth. It is the role of theology to help us probe questions we have not thought to ask. But theology can also take unhealthy forms. It may elevate small points and magnify textual obscurities to the degree where all that the theologian has to offer the church are “paralyzing and unhappy trivialities.”
The use of academic language when discussing theology is only one of the factors which contributes to this. The root problem is the theologian’s aim. The goal of most theological writing today is not to theologize the church. The real prize is the recognition and respect of those in the guild and the best way to obtain these is by doing battle. Consequently, the theologian does not approach his subject like a shepherd who is concerned for the well being of the flock but like a knight arrayed for battle. Theological discussion is a jousting match with other members of the guild.
Furthermore, theology’s preoccupation with the interests of the guild breeds an air of condescension, if not outright contempt, towards those who are not members. The average church member senses this and concludes that the task of theological reflection is beyond his grasp. In this way the guild mentality actually fosters the very theological ignorance it condemns. Since the guild is made up primarily of academics, the perspective of the majority of pastors is excluded from the conversation. As a result, pastors read theology for their own personal benefit but do not know how to draw the congregation into the discussion.
Preaching and theology were lovers once. Though inseparable and mutually devoted to one another at the beginning of their relationship, in these latter days they have become estranged. They are not exactly enemies, but they are hardly friends any more and they are certainly no longer partners.
As is so often the case in these matters, each is inclined to blame the other for the separation. And as is also so often the case, there is some truth in the complaint that they make. Both are guilty of mutual neglect. And both, sad to say, have at times been unfaithful to the other.
Still it must be recognized that if preaching and theology have since found more interesting companions, it was not their original intent. They began their relationship with a common sense of purpose, supported by vows of mutual fidelity. In order to better accomplish their goals, they decided to divide the work between them. Theology was to focus its attention on the higher matters of God, creation and redemption, while preaching would devote itself to the “lower” but equally important concerns of the flock. They did not at first see these tasks as being mutually exclusive. Indeed, they believed that they contributed to one another.
Yet in time the two “grew apart.” The noble questions which first occupied the attention of theology have given way to more obscure matters, many of which prove to be at odds with the bread and butter interests of preaching. Theology prefers the thin air and heady conversation of the classroom and the philosopher’s salon to the dishrag speech and knee scrape anxieties which so often seem to occupy the attention of preaching. Preaching, for its part, has grown impatient with the endless speculation and impractical theorizing that theology loves so much. Preaching criticizes theology for being too detached. Theology accuses preaching of being too parochial.
The sad truth is that neither is very far off the mark.
We are not the first to preach. In view of this, it seems reasonable that we should take our cues from those who have preceded us. Yet it only takes a cursory reading of the gospels to sense that the preaching we engage in week by week sounds very different from the preaching of Christ. How do we explain this?
This is the focus of William Brosend’s interesting book The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation Then and Now (Westminster John Knox). According to Brosend, “this study is not as interested in what Jesus said as it is interested in how Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as having said it.”
The rhetoric of Jesus is marked by four characteristics. The first feature Brosend observes is that it is conversational. This is not a feature of its volume or pitch but its responsive nature. According to Brosend: “almost everything Jesus says comes either in response to and/or in conversation with someone else.” Jesus’ conversation is not only with inquirers and disciples, “it is also explicitly with the tradition, and implicitly with the culture.”
At the same time, Jesus’ preaching is proclamatory. The intent is declarative and the tone is authoritative. Brosend explains, “Jesus is not asking, even in the middle of dialogue; Jesus makes claims, theological and soteriological.” In view of this, one wonders how Brosend can separate Jesus’ rhetorical technique from the content of his message. In this case the content of the message shapes the delivery.
It is the third mark which most clearly differentiates Jesus’ preaching and our own. This is Jesus’ apparent reticence to speak about himself. As Brosend puts it, the preaching of Jesus was occasionally self-referential: “The frequent use of self-reference in the Fourth Gospel is one of the main differences between the rhetoric of Jesus in John and in the Synoptic Gospels. But regardless of that comparison, it is striking how infrequently Jesus is depicted as speaking about himself directly in Matthew, Mark and Luke.”
This leads Brosend to characterize Jesus as “a Galilean Jew who proclaimed a kingdom and resisted a crown.” According to Brosend, “Jesus is consistently and persistently depicted as focusing the attention on God and God’s kingdom, not on himself.” The fourth mark of Jesus’ preaching is linked to this: “Jesus never misses an opportunity to elaborate, illustrate, or sharpen his message through metaphor (Matt. 15:24-26), hyperbole (Mark 9:42-50), allegory (Luke 20:9-19), and other rhetorical figures.” Jesus’ preaching is persistently figurative.
Jesus’ reserve in speaking directly about himself in the Gospels was noted by Thomas Dehany Bernard in his 1864 series of Bampton Lectures on the Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament. According to Bernard this reserve was shared by the apostles during the early stages of their ministry, when they were sent out to announce the kingdom but forbidden to tell anyone that Jesus was the Christ. A marked change takes place in apostolic preaching in the book of Acts. The essential difference is captured in the summary statement of Acts 5:42: “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”
Brosend argues that we can learn much from the rhetorical strategy of Jesus. Our preaching can be like the preaching of Jesus in some measure. But Bernard helps us to see why our preaching must also differ from that of Jesus. Jesus came not only to preach the gospel but to accomplish it. He did not preach a different gospel than ours but his place in those redemptive events put constraints on him that we do not share. There was an element of secrecy in Jesus’ preaching, an intentional obscurity which simultaneously revealed and concealed both his identity and his mission.
This is not true of us. Our task in preaching is to make Christ known.