Preaching is an audacious act. It is strange that a person might claim to speak about God. It is exponentially presumptuous to proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord.” It is an audacious act. Yet, when we speak under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it is a faithful act. And, it says far more about God’s character and nature than it does about the character and nature of the human mouthpiece – after all, God spoke to Balaam through an ass. God speaks, which is to say, God acts and interacts directly with and in this world. But, God always empowers and acts through agents. That God entrusts us with such a great gift suggests that God is less concerned about getting something accomplished but is concerned with relating with all of Creation. As such, preaching is not simply about communicating information (although that does happen). Nor is preaching simply about accomplishing a task (say, “getting people saved”). Instead, preaching is about communicating the heart of a God who invites us into relationship with God’s Self and brings us into engagement with our world.
Preaching is such a large task. After all, how might a person actually communicate the mind of God or the heart of God, especially if we are finite, limited beings? It is an impossible task, an exercise in futility. It is beyond our capacity to know God when we struggle to even know ourselves! Add the brokenness of a sinful world, of which the preacher is a part, and you’re more likely to scale Mount Everest in biker shorts and tank top than communicate a genuine word of the Lord. Thus, preaching begins with the recognition that only God can speak on God’s behalf. Apart from God nothing can be communicated about God other than perhaps vague generalities (i.e., God exists). But, vague descriptions about God do not allow us to know God’s character and nature intimately.
Yet, thanks be to God, God has tangibly revealed God’s Self to humanity. John’s Gospel gives us insight about this proclivity in God to move toward God’s Creation. The prologue of John ventures into a world of new creation. Darkness gives way to Light. What was once barren now teems with life. God speaks into the void and amazing possibilities now are opened up. The fourth Gospel opens with focused intention on the Word. It is a Word that was with God in the beginning and, to our surprise, is also God. This same Word has power to create ex nihilo. And, it is a Word that has become flesh (incarnated) and “tabernacled” among us. This Word is the glory of God made manifest in our midst. The Word, whom we discover is Jesus, gives new birth, opens blinded eyes, restores broken lives, and even conquers death. Through Jesus the world is reconciled to God.
As a community that has experienced God’s redemption, we testify to God’s work in our lives. We are a community rooted in praise and engaged in proclamation, announcing God’s salvation to the world and living it out as ministers of reconciliation. Language is the tool for the craft of preaching. Language is learned in community and is a way to comprehend the world and to live into that world. Language is not simply the communication of ideas, although that’s part of it. More than that, our words are embedded in a culture and embodied in actions. Language describes and prescribes a way of life. Each culture re-tells its story, holds up exemplars, and implements practices that mold identity toward a particular telos. On a practical level, that’s what preaching is about. It’s about forming a community’s identity (culture) and creating disciples (identity) by rehearsing God’s story of redemption, remembering exemplars of the faith (both positive and negative), and reflecting God back in the world (practices or cultural liturgies). After all, the very meaning of theology is “God words.” It is the language of the community about God.
The old adage says, “Knowledge is power.” Typically, that is how our world employs language. It is used to control, coerce, and command. The media and politics have become particularly adept as using and changing language as a means of transforming culture. Because our people and pastors participate in the world’s culture, they are susceptible to being shaped by that culture. We can name powerful influences in our culture: consumerism, nationalism, militarism, traditionalism (tradition for tradition’s sake), and other such labels. When this happens, the Church’s language (and life!) are infiltrated and shifted to mean something entirely different. Thus, our culture (sometimes positively but often negatively) infiltrates the Church’s culture by changing its language. The world’s telos replaces God’s telos in our lives, although we may maintain a thin Christian veneer over the world’s culture.
For this reason, language must consistently and constantly be re-energized and re-vitalized. In this effort, preaching must take into account that we are not simply “preaching against” the world. In fact, preaching must name God in the world! But, neither does preaching assume that the world’s (or our country’s) motivations are God’s desire. Thus, preaching must communicate redemptive engagement and prophetic disengagement with the world. Another problem arises at this point for the preacher. Preachers have acquired a reputation for preaching condemnation while placing themselves on a pedestal. Brueggemann calls this “triangulation.” Basically, in any relationship of three individuals, if two side together there is a power shift which leaves the lone individual in a defensive posture. Preaching has a similar dynamic with preacher, congregation, and Scripture. When the preacher sides with the Scripture, there is a power shift which leaves the congregation defensive. However, if the pastor joins with the congregation as one standing exposed before the Word, the congregation is able to hear the Word in a non-defensive position. Of course, in order for that to happen, the pastor must be humble, willing to be open and listen to the Spirit, and honest and open before the community. This does not mean that the pastor needs to air out all of their dirty laundry. Yes, there should be transparency. But, too often pastors simply use this as another way to draw attention to themselves rather than the Word. The preacher shouldn’t be the “hero” of the sermon. Christ and the Gospel are always central in the sermon.
As noted earlier, a theological understanding of language is rooted in the drama of Creation. God breathes, speaks, and inspires (ruach) the world into existence. Space is opened up where life is created, sustained, and blessed. This same breath or spirit both enlivens Creation and empowers the disciples for their commission (the story of Acts). The Spirit descends on the disciples as they are gathered together in worship. In that moment, they are emboldened and equipped to preach and proclaim the Gospel. And, most importantly, it is a proclamation re-presented in both word and deed in and through the community of faith. As such, it is important to note that preaching is not merely what we say. Instead, preaching must arise out of a life of faithfulness lived before God. In other words, it is only through communion with God lived out with the community of faith that we can preach a faithful word.
Preaching is situated in worship. The pattern of worship historically has been four-fold: Gathering, Word, Table, and Sending. It is a dialogical pattern – invitation and response. God initiates the encounter (prevenient grace) and we respond back. God calls us together, gathering us as the Body of Christ. We respond through praise. God speaks through the preached Word. We confess our sins. God offers us fellowship and forgiveness through communion. We receive these gifts and are then sent out into the world to represent God. As the gathered community, the Church is a microcosm of the Kingdom present in this world. That is what God is doing through worship – forming and shaping a people (“kingdom of priests and a holy nation”) that proclaim the glory of God among the nations.
Preaching plays an important role for the community. Preaching opens up the Scriptures and proclaims a word from the Lord for today. In preaching, we remember God’s work in redeeming the world and we are called to re-member as God’s people living into God’s future. The sermon is one of the most poignant opportunities for the community of faith to be shaped theologically together. Faithful preaching re-presents the Gospel. Some have understood the sermon to be a means of apologetics. But, the early Church’s apologetic was kerygma, the story of salvation. As such, preaching must continuously communicate the Good News of the Kingdom of God. When this is our motivation, we join in the work of Jesus who came to proclaim the in-breaking Kingdom of God.
When God is at the heart and center of preaching, when there is a genuine Word of the Lord communicated, we do not need to provide conviction. We don’t have to “twist the screws.” We need not use fear tactics to generate salvations. Nor do we need to use emotional manipulation to make converts. Rather, when the Gospel is communicated, the Spirit convicts those who hear and is able to cleanse them! The pastor is a vessel. The pastor that attempts to play the role of the Spirit has succumbed to the sin of pride. Again, as discussed with “triangulation,” the pastor must stand in a position before the Word to be convicted first and foremost by the Spirit. If we are not open to the conviction of the Spirit, it is likely that our preaching (and our walk) will lack power (1 Cor. 2:3-5).
Romans 10:14-15 highlights the importance of the preaching ministry: “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” Preaching is at the heart of the Church’s ministry. Preaching is intimately connected with evangelism (“good news” in the Greek). Preaching, in this sense, shoulders the task of sharing what God has done to redeem the Creation with a world desperately needing God’s healing touch.
Paul charges Timothy, and thus all preachers: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:2-3). Preaching is also for the community of believers. The preached word serves to correct, rebuke, and encourage the community. Furthermore, it continues to hold up “sound doctrine” for the congregation. In other words, preaching continuously holds before the community a picture of God’s faithfulness and what we are called to embody as the faith community!
Acts records several sermons and mentions “preaching the word” seven times throughout its pages. Acts’ testimony of the Church empowered by the Spirit, helps us easily recognize that preaching is at the heart of the Church’s ministry. That has not changed, though the methods certainly have changed. All that suggests is that preaching remains vital to the life of the Church while it must always be re-contextualized. This is no easy task, but it is the task that we are called to by God. In addition, this is the charge given to ordinands – “Preach the Word.” Ordination is the call by God from within the community of faith to be devoted to the proclamation of the Gospel and the preservation of true doctrine. Ordination, in many respects, is the handing down of that ministry to each new generation of pastors – extending the ministry of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church into the future. Thus, we are called to preach a faithful word, not a novel word.