The images coming out of Oklahoma City are so painful to see that it is hard to say anything about them without somehow trivializing the tragedy. It seems better to hear from someone who has lived through a comparable experience. I was reminded of a passage from Helmut Thielicke’s series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor who preached these sermons to his congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the collapse of the Third Reich and as allied bombs rained down on the city.
In the sermon based on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke writes:
When we, inhabitants of a severely damaged city, walk through a flourishing undamaged section, almost involuntarily our eyes perform a little trick upon us and suddenly the intact facades are transformed into horribly mutilated walls and horror dwells behind the bleak and empty windows. We know what a house looks like beneath its sleek surface, and it is shockingly easy for our imagination to produce this little inversion in which the order system of beams are seen as a chaotic confusion of bizarre and splintered fragments of wood. Again and again the face of death peers out from behind the features of the living, and the shadow of ruins leers at us from the ordered peace of respectable homes…In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come! We pray it more than ever.”
In his sermon, Thielicke goes on to say that God’s kingdom is to be sought at the point where two lines of the Bible intersect. One is the descending line of divine judgment. This rarely consists in God’s destroying offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven but rather in leaving them to their own wretchedness. “There is nothing more terrible than the man who is left to himself,” Thielicke observes.
The other line is the ascending line of God’s kingdom. This is not a matter of evolution, human development, or the gradual Christianization of the world. Rather, it is a mysterious exercise of God’s dominion which is simultaneous with and contiguous to the other. Thielicke explains, “The manifestations of God’s will are emerging ever more clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay, and God’s sovereignty rules in power above all rebels and usurpers, bringing his great and ultimate plans for the world to fulfillment.”
This is as true of those natural events which shake the foundations of our world as it is of human affairs. Jesus is the one of whom the disciples said, “the wind and the sea obey Him” (Mark 4:41). Perhaps it is not so surprising that instead of being comforted by such a thought, they were filled with fear. Jesus controls the winds. He is the living one who died and is alive forevermore. He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18).
In a new book about creating sermons based on hymns, music and poetry, Thomas Troeger observes that today’s church suffers from an imagination deficit. Troeger notes that “the starved imagination of the church and the resultant drought in the soul have driven many people from the community of faith.” He cites Fred Craddock’s observation that many parishioners “are not so much evil as they are bored, and their entire Christian experience has never provided them a chair in which to sit for an hour in the heavenly places with Christ.”
Troeger’s assessment agrees with my experience. In my thirty-seven years of serious attendance at worship, I have come to the sad conclusion that church is the location least suited to the contemplation of the heavenly places. The predominant temper of my experience in church has been one of boredom. Worship is for the most part dull. There have been exceptions, of course, rare moments when some hymn or song transports me into the heavenly realms. Or when the word of God causes the scales to fall from my eyes and I see God’s truth or myself in a way I have never seen before. But those moments seem few and far between.
It does not help that all the church has to offer worshipers these days is a boilerplate experience. Overly familiar songs and chatty sermons are served up with the monotonous homogeny of a fast-food franchise. The music of worship is Christian “top-forty.” The observations from scripture are trite and garnished with cute stories from the margins of Reader’s Digest. It is a corporate experience that at best promises to be mildly interesting but it hardly ever offers a taste of the transcendent.
Looking back on my experience, I suppose this boredom was one of the primary factors that propelled me into ministry. I am rarely bored when I am the one doing the preaching. Unfortunately, the same cannot be so said of my listeners. Time and again as I have been held fast by the grip of my own words, I have looked out over the congregation with an unsettling awareness that I do not have their undivided attention. They look bored. As bored as I must look when I am seated among them.
As long I am the one doing the preaching, I am tempted to blame the congregation for their boredom and for good reason. Listening, like reading, requires focused attention, and not everyone is willing to pay the price. But on those Sundays when I return to the other side of the pulpit as a listener and participant, the old ennui comves over me and I do not know who to blame. Indeed, blame is the farthest thing from my mind. On those Sundays when I am not the one doing the preaching, I take my place in the pew beside my fellow worshippers. I turn my gaze toward the front and wait. I am waiting for the music of worship to give me a glimpse of the heavenly realms. I am waiting for the word of God to arouse me from my slumber like a lover’s kiss. I am waiting for God to show up.
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.
I once heard a pastor lament, “My prayer is better than my preaching and my preaching is better than my life.” One of the great challenges of the pulpit is that of preaching beyond our experience. We are the first to feel the sting of the sermon’s reproach. In preaching against the sins of others, we censure ourselves. This is not hypocrisy. Those preach to others must preach to themselves first (Ro. 2:21; 1 Cor. 9:27).
Preaching also takes me beyond my own experience because by it I offer hope for those whose sin or suffering may exceed my own. I do not have to have personally experienced all that those who hear me have experienced in order to speak with authority about their situation. I do not need to become an alcoholic to offer hope to the alcoholic or an adulterer to speak with authority to the adulterer. Jesus has already “been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). The word of hope that I have to offer is based on his experience not my own.
One obvious implication of this challenge is that those who preach must do so with humility. We do not speak as those who have mastered all the disciplines of grace. There may be many in the congregation who are further along in their walk with God than we are. But we need to be just as wary of exaggerating our sins for the sake of credibility as we are of exaggerating our victories. We do not preach ourselves but Christ. It is God’s word not our personal experience that is the standard by which others should measure themselves.
I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.
The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 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” (Heb. 5:1).
Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them. Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.
The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?
Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.
Pastoral work is cyclical work. It is work which is marked by rhythm and repetition. There is the weekly cycle of sermon preparation. It doesn’t matter how well the sermon went on Sunday. When Monday comes, the process must begin again. The better the message, the greater the pressure we feel to repeat the experience. As much as we love sermon preparation, even the best of us must sometimes feel as if we are on a treadmill. Sunday night leaves many a pastor dreading the approach of a new work week just like the factory worker or office employee.
Our ministry of leadership is also cyclical, subject to the ebb and flow of life within the church. Every congregation has its own seasons. In some churches summer is the time when things slow down. Attendance dips and committees or programs go on hiatus as members leave for vacation. In other churches summer is the busy season. This rhythm of congregational life can frustrate a pastor whose planning cycle and expectations are out of sync with the rhythm of the church. Ignorance of this aspect of the church’s culture is a recipe for misunderstanding and mutual frustration.
On the surface you might wonder how pastoral counseling could ever feel routine. The church is filled with a variety of people whose background and circumstances differ from one another. Yet after a few years we discover that even when the faces and the names change, the problems are the same. We must confront the same sins. We are asked the same questions. Our preaching, too, begins to feel monotonous as the a few fundamental themes resurface in passage after passage. Or as the same holidays demand our attention year after year. It doesn’t take long before we begin to feel that we have only a handful of sermons and that we preach them over and over again.
Our first step to addressing this challenge must be to recognize the value of rhythm and repetition in the life of the church. Repetition is a necessary to growth and learning. Rhythm and repetition are evident in nearly every aspect of created life. We live in a world marked by the returning rhythm of work and rest, seed-time and harvest as well, as the need to hear the same things over and over again. It is only our frenetic leadership culture, afflicted as it is with the spiritual equivalent to attention deficit disorder, that sees these things as a detriment.
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?