There is a danger that, in these days of the almost universal failure of the church and the consequent loss of nerve that goes with that failure, that preaching becomes an exercise in damage control. In an age in which preaching is thought to be about filling spiritual needs, which is another way of saying that we want to stay in our sins, only the bravest preacher will take the outrageous claims of the gospel seriously.
Time and again I listen to confronting readings that threaten the whole view of our lives only for them to be carefully avoided in the sermon. The gospel is thought to be too hot to handle.
When Israelites was encamped around Mt Sinai the fear was that the Lord would break out and destroy them. Contemporary preaching aims to still that fear and offer instead profound insights, helpful suggestions and cute uplifting stories. The Word of the Lord no longer goes out like a roaring lion; it is carefully shut away for fear of offence.
Part of this domestication of the Word may be put down to the church being so much on the back foot and the concern not to frighten the punters. This means that the preacher has to be “oh so careful” not to say anything in particular that would discomfort his audience. People do not come to church to be discomforted but to be comforted, assured, patted on the head and sent out to spend another week of the grind of modern living. So preaching has become pastoral in the weak sense of the word.
Along with this comes a necessary anthropocentric theology in which the love of God for all and all conditions of men is the main and only point. The possibility of judgment is excluded as is the reality of universal depravity. The result is universal boredom, for who would want to come to hear a message so banal and so irrelevant to the troubles that we all experience in life?
One of my pet hates is the sermon illustration. This is a story that has a vague connection with an element of the readings and is told in order to bridge the gap between the reading and the hearer. The thing is, much of scripture consists of story and so the preacher uses a story from the contemporary world to illustrate a story from the ancient world. What happens, of course, is that the interpretation that results goes the way not of the ancient story but of the modern. So our view of the world and of ourselves is confirmed and the teeth of the dangerous stories of scripture are pulled.
Cultures may have changed during the last 2,000 years but fundamentally, human beings have not. We are still subject to false hope, still nervous about death, still struggle with our worth and our righteousness and our lives are still largely a mystery to us. Try as we might we still find our closest relationships the most difficult and we still find much of our work pointless. This means that the concerns of the writers of scripture are still our concerns and the stories told meet us directly with familiarity. So to place an illustrative story between us and the scripture is both unnecessary and confusing.
Preaching is an extension of the incarnation; it is the fulfilment of the promise given at the end of the gospel of Matthew that he will be with us until the end of the age. So the preacher is no commentator on the Word, he stands in the place of the prophet and says, “Thus says the Lord”. The words of the preacher are generated directly from the Word made flesh, who dwelt among us full of grace and truth. It is the failure to understand the gravity of what the preacher does that disarms him.
This is no time for false modesty. It is no time to protest that such a role is beyond us or even blasphemous because in preaching we make ourselves like God. Unless the preacher understands that in his mouth the Word is enunciated then he will only ever utter trivialities, and tell cute stories, always opening with a joke.
Preaching is serious talk because it creates a new reality, it raises us from our graves, and it gives us a hope that is not false. To listen to many preachers it is as if this were not the case and that it is the duty of the preacher to explain using historical critical method how the text came about and in what cultural environment. Such scholarship is useful but not at the expense of the strangeness of biblical texts. It is not the role of the preacher to give a lecture on the culture of the Middle East but to speak anew that Word that goes into the world and accomplishes its purpose in us.
We must become accustomed to the fact that scripture is not only culturally alien to us but that it is alien to us fundamentally as a Word that is spoken over and against our intuitive grasp of what life is about and how to live it. To hear the Word is to find that your most certain conclusions about life are overturned.
Karl Barth used to say that God meets us vertically from above. This saying is not the result of an unreformed cosmology but articulates the alien and threatening nature of a God whose thoughts are not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways. If the preacher is not prepared to countenance an encounter with such a one but rather seeks to gather enough satisfying material to fill the gap on Sunday morning, then he betrays his calling. The preacher’s desk during the week is a place of crisis. This is the blessing of sustained ministry that each week we dare to read the allotted readings with fear and trembling, not knowing where they will lead us.
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