One of disparities between apostolic preaching and our own is the degree to which we have marginalized the gospel. We have not abandoned the gospel, only relegated it to the outskirts of our Christian experience. As a result, the message of the cross is primarily reserved for those who are on the threshold of faith. The gospel has become one of the “elementary truths” believers expect to “leave” when they are ready to “go on to maturity” (Heb. 6:1).
This is a conviction shared by our listeners, whose hearts often sink if they suspect that the sermon is “just a gospel message.” The gospel is something they have already heard. They believe and appreciate it. But now they want to learn about the God who gave the gospel. They do not want to be like those about whom the writer of Hebrews complains, who should have been teachers but needed someone to teach them the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.
These assumptions, while understandable, are problematic. It is true that there is more to God’s word than the gospel both theologically and practically. The horizon of subjects upon which the Bible touches is as wide the scope of human experience. Its concerns span all the theological categories from theology proper to eschatology. But if our goal in preaching is for people to know God, it must be asked whether this is possible in any meaningful way apart from the gospel.
Preaching, since it has to do with God, is dependent upon divine self-revelation. We could not know anything about God if he had not taken the initiative to reveal himself. It is, of course, possible to know things about God apart from Christ. The heavens declare the glory of God. Our consciences reveal his eternal power and divine nature. But it is not possible to know God relationally except through Christ. The God who in the past spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, has in these last days spoken to us through his son (Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is God’s final and best word about himself. This side of the incarnation, all that we know about God must be seen and understood through the lens which Christ provides.
In The Preacher, His Life and Work, John Henry Jowett warns that one of the great pitfalls of ministry is that of over familiarity. “You will not have been long in the ministry before you discover that it is possible to be fussily busy about the Holy Place and yet to lose the wondering sense of the Holy Lord.”
The fact that we have been given the privilege of dispensing God’s word week after week can result in a kind of over familiarity that causes us to take undue liberty with it. Not in doctrine so much as in our disposition. “Our share in the table provisions may be that of analysts rather than guests” Jowett warns. “We may become so absorbed in words that we forget to eat the Word.”
The responsibility of exegesis makes us especially vulnerable to this. Instead of being hearers of God’s word we easily become handlers of it. We mistakenly conclude that effectiveness in the pulpit is evidence of personal holiness. Jowett warns of the danger of assuming that “fine talk is fine living, that expository skill is piety.” A good sermon does not necessarily guarantee a good life and outward success is no sure sign of God’s favor. Mastery of the word will never make us masters over it. Those who proclaim God’s word to others must themselves remain under it.
Something happened to Bob during the sermon yesterday. He got saved. I’d like to take the credit, but I am afraid that I had very little to do with the whole affair. As he explained the experience to me after the service, it seemed to me that what he heard had little correlation with what I actually said.
I do not blame Bob for this. He was doing his best to pay attention. But a third party distracted him. At some point the Holy Spirit drew Bob aside and resumed a conversation that the two of them had begun earlier. When it was over, Bob was in tears. He prayed with one of the church’s elders after the service and committed his life to Christ.
It would be nice to think that the incisiveness of my reasoning, the power of my delivery or the clarity of my outline pushed Bob over the line. But the more he thanked me for the message, the more I felt like an awkward bystander who has stumbled upon someone else’s intimate conversation.
I am not saying that my words played no role at all. I was, after all, preaching about Christ. I think the outcome would have been entirely different if I had been reading recipes from a cookbook. But I have been preaching long enough to know that the power does not lie in my rhetoric or my structure, as important as those things are to my preaching. This is not the first time that the Holy Spirit has stolen my thunder.
In his book Preaching and Preachers, Martyn Lloyd Jones speaks of the “romance” of preaching. One dimension of this, according to Lloyd Jones, is the element of surprise: “…you never know who is going to be listening to you, and you never know what is going to happen to those who are listening to you.” I would add that you never really know how it will happen. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:8, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Thanks be to God.
I have often heard the church criticized for its lack of interest in theology. The church, we are told, is theologically illiterate, more interested in entertainment than in doctrine. But if there is any truth in this complaint, I do not think the church is entirely at fault. I hold the church’s theologians at least partially responsible.
In his book A Theology of Preaching: The Dynamics of the Gospel, Richard Lischer quotes from an article by Walter Wink that was published in The Christian Century over thirty years ago. In the article, Wink criticizes the theological scholarship of his day saying, “The American scholarly scene is one of frenetic decadence with the publication of vast numbers of articles and books which fewer and fewer people read. Most scholars no longer address the lived experience of actual people in churches or society. Instead they address the current questions of their peers in the professional guild.”
After thirty years, this tendency has not diminished. If you doubt this, simply scan the topics scheduled to be presented at any meeting where professional theologians gather. If the average church member is disinterested in theology, it is partly due to the fact that the church’s theologians are mostly in conversation with themselves. Indeed, it has been my experience that many church members are interested in theology but don’t label it as such. They are asking fundamental and profound questions about the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, the origin of evil, and about their own personal significance. Meanwhile, the church’s theologians, who have been reflecting on these questions for over two millennia, are talking among themselves.
Nowhere is this more evident to me than in our seminaries and Bible colleges, where practical theology is treated as a “soft-science” and preaching is seen as primarily the domain of those who intend to be pastors. Most of the theology majors I meet aspire to be professors rather than pastors. They are not terribly interested in preaching. Yet most church members get their theology from the pulpit. It is in the home and the workplace not the academy that the battle lines of theological controversy are drawn. Those who step into the pulpit are the church’s first line of defense.
Preaching is an exercise in inflection, one that involves much more than pitch, volume and tone. In the sermon the preacher makes God’s written word incarnate by speaking the biblical author’s words into the contemporary context. This is an inflection not merely of the preacher’s voice but of the text itself. The task of inflection places a dual responsibility upon the preacher. One area of responsibility is to the text itself.
The preacher’s aim in the sermon is to animate the text without altering it. The written word has been detached from its original context but is not freed from it. We who preach must speak to circumstances that the biblical writers did not originally envision. But this does not give us liberty to wrest the Scriptures from their original context and make them say whatever we please.
The other area of responsibility involves the audience. An uninflected text is a dead text as far as the listener is concerned. “Somehow or other, every other agency dealing with the public recognizes that contact with the actual life of the auditor is the one place to begin” Harry Emerson Fosdick chided. “Only the preacher proceeds still upon the idea that folk come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.” Fosdick’s point has been heeded, perhaps too well, by contemporary preachers. But this does not make his assessment less true.
Inflecting the text requires application and application is local in nature. Despite this, preaching cannot afford to ignore what happened to the Jebusites any more than it can afford to overlook those who are actually present. A sermon which focuses only on the concerns of the contemporary audience and pays no attention to the historical and literary context of Scripture also removes the biblical text from its living voice. Such preaching co-opts the text instead of inflecting it, turning the living and active word into a ventriloquist’s dummy, a caricature whose hollow voice merely echoes the preacher’s own (or that of the audience).
Question: Do you think the preacher is important to the sermon? Why or why not?