Preaching When Words Have Lost Their Power

This is a blog I wrote for the Center for Pastoral Leadership at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Here is a preview of the work: “Preaching from a posture of Wisdom requires dying, which relinquishes the need for acclamation, control, power, violence, and conformity. Wisdom is the way of Jesus.”

You can find the rest of the article at the Center for Pastoral Leadership’s blog: https://cpl.nts.edu/index.php/component/k2/item/430-preaching-when-words-have-lost-their-power

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Jeremiah 31: “A New Covenant”

Judah’s sin was political and religious violence wielded against the most vulnerable in society.  The economy was organized so that the rich grew richer and the poor were buried in credit card debt.  Families’ homes were foreclosed when they couldn’t pay off the loans.  Political leaders conscripted boys and men for war and women and girls for servile labor, paying them a mere pittance.  The religious leaders proclaimed a health-and-wealth gospel that blessed the nation’s “progress” and supported the king’s agenda to “make Israel great again.”  But, in the end, Judah’s religious and political life is deemed to be idolatrous.  Judah imagined itself to be immutable, invincible, and perpetually chosen by God.  They couldn’t imagine God had a different agenda – not to make Israel “great again,” but to be humble in its walk before God.  As such, God sends Judah, like Israel before it, into Exile, into captivity, into Babylon.

The year 587 for the Jewish people was a living “hell on earth.”  Babylon swept out of the North like boiling water surging in tidal waves over Judah.  Jerusalem was ransacked, its people all but annihilated, the Temple toppled.  You can imagine the acrid smell of burned crops and land, tiny tendrils of smoke rising from the charred grass.  The ground was barren.  The people were destitute and broken.  Those left in the land were generally the weak or the sick or the very poor who couldn’t travel.  The very best and brightest, the rulers and leaders were marched off to Babylon in shackles.

In the scriptures, Babylon takes on a life of its own.  It represents the way of Empires, particularly when they begin to be machines of war and social and economic injustice.  Their way of life results in death.  Babylon embodies, like Pharaoh’s Egypt, an alternative life and narrative to God’s life-giving, life-blessing, life-sustaining way in the world.  Babylon is more than a geographical place.  It is an all-consuming way of life that seeks to shape everyone’s identity to be good Babylonian citizens, to give allegiance to Babylon alone.  Although Jeremiah sees Babylon as an instrument of discipline in God’s hand, nobody ever imagines that Babylon’s way of life is God’s ideal.  Babylon disorients and destroys Judah’s entire way of life and desires to mold the captives into Babylon’s own image.  Babylon wants everyone to look like them, either by choice or under threat of violence: dress like they do, eat like they do, worship the same gods of commerce and power and pleasure, take on Babylonian names, serve the Empire, and revere the King.  The imminent danger for Judah in Babylon is further forgetting their peculiar identity as God’s people in the world and enrolling as full-fledged citizens tutored in the ways of Babylon.

The event of Exile puts into question everything about Judah’s life as God’s covenant partner.  Everything has been uprooted and torn down.  They are thrust into a world that is unfamiliar and threatening.  Their Temple is gone.  Does this mean God has abandoned them?  They are now servants to foreign powers.  Does this mean they are forever cursed?  Their king and kingdom has been destroyed.  What does this mean for their future?  Has God trashed the covenant and all of its promises to make them a great nation?  The Exile is a time of crisis and a questioning of identity.  The future is in jeopardy, if there is a future.  Hope seemed just as shackled as they were in Babylon.

The world I grew up in has seemingly fallen apart.  Society around us is undergoing immense upheaval and lives in deep anxiety about the future.  So much has changed that I no longer recognize the landscape.  The world has shifted and morphed.  I no longer feel at home.  I feel dislocated and out of place, even though I’ve lived here all of my life.  I’m hardly marginalized or oppressed, but I feel like I’m being pushed further to the edge because I can no longer identify with American nationalism, which is so deeply grounded in violence and greedy consumerism.  The pursuit of the American Dream has been more like a nightmare for so many – and the anger, disappointment, and angst are boiling over in society.  For many, Babylon is not a past historical reality, but a living, breathing monster that continues to grab, hoard, oppress, silence, violate, and destroy lives.  So many times I must recognize I not only live in Babylon, but I have been seduced by her ways.

I also serve the Church as a pastor, but sometimes I have trouble feeling at home there as well because everything has become so politicized that it is exceedingly difficult to have charitable conversation with each other.  I feel like a “resident alien” living in this place as someone who just doesn’t quite belong.  Babylon has marked the Church, we have drunk the wine, and found ourselves intoxicated with her promise of power.  It has often left me wondering where God is present in our world and in the Church.  Has God abandoned the Church?  It has created an identity crisis among us, including myself.  What does it mean to be God’s people in places where the culture is trying to shape us in its image?  Where is there any hope?  We have often tried to find our hope in American political systems, politicians, and policies – to no avail.  The more we have pursued these avenues of maintaining power, the more we have become exiled from our Source – Jesus.  When the Church is exiled from Jesus, our identity is easily manipulated and molded to reflect the gods of this age – or, what Jeremiah calls “idolatry.”

The Exile as the further fracturing of identity in God’s people is Jeremiah’s context of mission and ministry.  He has watched his people travelling down a destructive road until it finally implodes in on itself.  What can you do in those moment?  Where can you find hope when it seems like God has abandoned you?  Where is there any solace when the ground is torched, the trees broken down, and the air smells like acidic charcoal and there is no hope for life?  In the midst of this barrenness comes the slightest sliver of hope.  The slightest bit of sunshine in the darkest night.  Exile has happened; the world has changed and cannot be reversed.  Judah has been torn down and overthrown and plucked up.  God has watched over that project the whole time.  But, that is not the final word God offers to Jeremiah or the people.  There is life beyond destruction.

God intervenes in a surprising way.  Where we thought God was gone, God shows up again to our amazement.  God does not finally abandon us in the midst of that dark, dark night.  Instead, God says, “In those days…”  A future promise.  It can’t be seen quite yet, but the seeds have already been planted.  “In those days, they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth have been set on edge.’”  In other words, we no longer have to be captive to the past.  We no longer have to be captive to our present.  There is coming a time when the past no longer determines the future for everyone.  God is unfolding this new future, this new opportunity, this new life – even in the midst of death.  The slightest sliver of hope – but it could be just enough.  Hope has been unchained and unleashed in God’s coming future.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I am going to make a new covenant with Israel…” And, remember, Israel is gone and destroyed about 200 years before Judah.  This promise encapsulates them, too.  It goes to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  But, it’s not going to be like the covenant made in Egypt.  Do you remember that covenant?  God’s people had been delivered out of Egypt, given this new freedom, this new promise of life outside the bondage of Egypt.  God gives them the Law, the Ten Commandments, this Teaching, this Way of life that they are to embody together as God’s people living in the world.

But, we find out very quickly they are incapable of keeping the covenant.  Moses comes down from the mountains and sees them worshiping the golden calf, an idol.  As soon as the covenant has been made, the covenant has been broken.  That is the cycle of Israel’s life together with God.  God calls them into a new way of life in this covenant.  Yet, Israel finds itself time and time and time again falling into sin, falling into faithlessness.  It doesn’t seem to get any better.  The Book of Judges shows that it gets worse and worse and worse.  It’s the same song but a different verse.  That is the story of Israel’s life.

This new covenant is not going to be like that.  It’s not going to be this external thing that Israel has to accomplish under its own power and piety.  Instead, God is going to do this new thing to the heart.  God is going to “tattoo” it on our hearts.  God is going to engrave it on our character.  The covenant is not going to be an external set of rules but will deeply shape out character so that we can’t help but live out of the very depths of our lives as faithful reflections of the God who has delivered us from death.

It’s a new covenant, a new way of being, a new way of life that God is going to accomplish.  No longer is this covenant going to be so dependent on God’s people to fulfill.  Instead, God is going to be the One that accomplishes it.  The death of Judah and Israel is not the end of the relationship.  Instead, God is doing something far greater than anything Judah or Israel can imagine.  New life is made possible through the way of death.  They actually have to go through death in order to get to life.  That was God’s plan all along.  God put the old Israel and the old Judah to death, in order that they might be opened up, humble enough to receive God’s new promise of the covenant – this new way of life that isn’t simply a list of rules.  Instead, it will grip our very hearts, shape our very character, and change our very nature.

God’s going to put God’s Law within them and write it on their hearts so that God will be their God and they will be God’s people.  No longer are they going to have to teach each other, “Know God!”  Each one of them, from the weakest to the most powerful, the richest and the poorest – all the community will know God.  There will no longer be an imbalance of power in terms of knowing God.  God will reveal God’s Self to all, equally.  This intimacy with God will be embodied in communities that seek everyone’s well-being.  It will be marked by justice and mercy.  It will be unveiled in worship of the true God which then marks us with God’s character lived out together for the sake of the world.  What a gift!  What a gift!  This is a new, living way for God’s people.

Not only that; but God will no longer remember their inequity.  It’s not that God doesn’t cognitively know, but to “remember” it as in God will not hold it against them.  God’s not going to continue to drudge up the past and hold it over our heads.  God’s not going to continue to look back and say, “Look what you did here!  You should be ashamed now!”  Instead, God is going to put the past in the past so that a decisively new future will emerge in which we have been given freedom from the past.  That doesn’t mean we forget the past, but it means that there is a new way forward where the past no longer has to be our future.

But, this future was not easy to see in the streets of Babylon.  Israel couldn’t deliver itself out of Exile.  Judah couldn’t deliver itself out of Exile.  They could not open up a new way of life.  God had to do it for them!  In the midst of Judah’s societal upheaval, the prophet Jeremiah begins to spout poetry about Creation.

Thus says the Lord,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the Lord of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me forever.[1]

The promise of the covenant is rooted in God’s creative power and love manifested in the Beginning.  This is the God who has created the sun, moon, and stars and put them in a fixed order, the One that rules over all Creation and ordered toward that which is Good.  God is in control of life when it is in order.  But, even as the seas are stirred up and the waves roar and the breakers threaten to crush us, God is even in the midst of the chaos.  God even rules over the chaos.  God rules over both the order and the chaos in our lives.

Therefore, regardless of what life looks like around us, whether it seems to be going well and orderly and right or whether it seems to be going in a disorderly, chaotic fashion; God can use any of those circumstances in order to make us into a new community.  You may not have noticed this, but Israel and Judah were named at the very first of this passage and then suddenly it’s just talking about Israel.  I wonder if that’s because that which had been broken apart, the relationship between Israel and Judah which had been broken apart because of its own sinful ways, has now been brought together.  In other words, God is re-forming that which is broken so that a new people, the covenant people, will be able to live out God’s covenant purposes together.  And God is inviting God’s people to remember their story, remember their identity, and to begin to live in the world on God’s terms.

I think it would be wonderful, in the midst of the chaotic upheaval around us, to recall our story and our identity as the Church.  We need to again hear our poetry about God’s work in Creation by which we know God’s promises and future to be true, even if we cannot see it in the moment.  Let us sing together the hope of our faith, to unleash our imaginations toward the possibilities of God’s redemptive work in our lives and in our world.  May we raise our voices to proclaim again that we are God’s people, marked by God’s covenant being inscribed on our hearts and lives.  Let us be reminded of God’s creative power that will ultimately fulfill God’s covenantal promises.  Let us proclaim our faith, hope, and identity together as we sing “How Great Thou Art!”

 

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder

Thy power throughout the universe displayed

 

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

 

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander,

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.

When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur

And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art!
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing;

Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;

That on a Cross, my burdens gladly bearing,

He bled and died to take away my sin.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art![2]

 

 

Bibliography

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Sing to the Lord: Church of the Nazarene Hymnal. Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing, 1993.

 

[1] Jeremiah 31:35-36, NRSV.

[2] Stuart K. Hine, “How Great Thou Art,” Sing to the Lord: Church of the Nazarene Hymnal (Kansas City: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1993), #33.

“Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology

Rev Levi Jones wanted to present a fifth post in order to discuss preaching practice in the proposed theological framework of the first four posts. You won’t find here a one-size-fits-all method for every sermon. Instead, Levi offers some suggestive insights into the proper posture of the preacher in preparing for the task, as well […]

via “Preaching in Practice: Moving Beyond the Violence of Our Words:” Preaching — V Practice — Explorations in Theology

New Life from the Barren Womb: Words that Burst Forth

The setting of 1 Samuel 1-3 is one of spiritual blindness, deafness, and barrenness.  Both spiritual leaders and the community are impotent.  Eli, as one set apart to lead the community to God, fails in his duties as servant to the community of faith.  He sees but does not perceive what is happening.  He hears but does not understand what God is doing.  Even when he does see or hear, he abdicates his responsibility to guide and correct.

The story is eerily similar to the “post-Christian” context in which we preach, teach, and minister.  We recognize the barrenness of our culture and congregations.  Syncretism nurtures apathy.  The erosion of trust in authority and a surge in relativism create a difficult environment in which to preach.  We may wonder if God has gone silent or if anything can be said to make a difference.  Can proclamation be filled with pregnant potential for new life?  Is the pastoral task of proclamation a tomb of dead ends or a womb of new possibilities?

In this paper I will explore how the story of Eli and Samuel provides a framework for the task of proclamation which brings new life from barrenness.  I will primarily focus on what it means to “see and hear” as the gestational requisite for new birth proclamation.  “Seeing and hearing” are the capacity to imagine new possibilities which enable faithful preaching empowered to birth new life.

The Book of Judges concludes: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”[1]  The spiritual and political leadership in Israel is on a downward trajectory.  Judges rise and fall, leading the people in temporary reform, only to fall deeper into the mire of covenant infidelity.  The community is increasingly divided and privatized, each looking to their own interests.  The community called to be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation”[2] has largely neglected this calling.

The story moves from the wide-angle view of the culture at the end of Judges to the deeply personal story of Hannah.  Hannah is the object of ridicule and scorn.  Although she is beloved by her husband, Elkanah, Hannah is unable to bear children – a deeply troubling plight.  Barrenness forecloses any future.  Elkanah’s other wife harasses Hannah continuously.[3]  Hannah is utterly speechless, dejected, and powerless.  On the occasions her family travels to Shiloh for the yearly offerings, Hannah finds herself groaning in grief-stricken, desperate prayer.[4]

This vivid picture of barrenness in Hannah is a disjunctive metaphor depicting the larger social reality of God’s covenant people.  First Samuel 3:1b declares, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”  This is a damning statement of the most serious magnitude for a community that must be reminded that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”[5]  First Samuel 1-3 wrestles with two issues deeply intertwined: God’s silence and the community’s barrenness.

It is instructive that the story of barrenness begins by focusing our attention on the voiceless and powerless one: Hannah.  A childless woman in this society is particularly vulnerable.  Hannah’s deepest sobs of prayer are wordless mutterings.  We only know about Hannah’s predicament from the narrator, not from her own mouth.  The cries of the oppressed for justice are often cast in silent, wordless groans.

On one occasion of prayer, Eli, the priest, stands watching Hannah pray, but he mistakes it for drunken ramblings.[6]  Eli misunderstands what he sees and hears, leading him to false conclusions about Hannah.  He accuses her of drunkenness, although Hannah corrects his false assumption.  Perhaps embarrassed by his mistake, he quickly blesses her with a pious, formulaic blessing.[7]  Eli appears unable to differentiate between earnest praying and drunken speech.

Failure to correctly interpret circumstances diminishes our capacity to speak an appropriate word for each situation.  Humility lays a foundation for discerning an appropriate word.  We are adept at self-deception, thinking we are not complicit in the world’s brokenness.  A lack of humility will lead us to look down on those we are called to serve.  We, like Eli, may sit at a distance misjudging situations we think we see clearly.  Without engaging our community, understanding their pain and fear, we may very well speak irrelevant clichés.

Eli’s leadership is symbolic of the political and spiritual ideology – faith and politics – engrained in the community.  In 1 Samuel 1-4, three times it mentions Eli is perched on “the seat (hakkissē’).”[8]  First, he is seated by the sanctuary doorposts while Hannah is praying.  Eli is also on “the seat” when given news of his sons’ death and the capture of the Ark.  It is from this precarious perch that Eli plummets to his death.[9]

This “seat” is not a common chair; it indicates authority.  Most typically this “seat” signifies a human or divine royal throne.[10]  Although there are other instances where kissē’ is not meant as a royal throne, it typically implies a seat of power.[11]  This “seat” makes an appearance in 1 Samuel when David is crowned king and enthroned.  Eli is not simply acting as priest.  He’s building a religiously sanctioned dynasty with his sons, Hophni and Phineas.  One might say Eli has traded in pastoral service to build a cultus of personality.

Hophni and Phineas utilize their power in pharaonic ways.  As priests serving under Eli, they use their authority in rapacious acts against their neighbors.  They take advantage of the young women at the Tent of Meeting.[12]  They stick their forks in other people’s meat pots and steal the offerings to God.[13]  Power intended to serve the community is utilized in self-serving aggrandizement at the community’s expense.  Any protest is silenced under threat of violence.[14]  Hophni and Phineas are “forking” everyone and yet Eli only feebly attempts to assuage the abuse.[15]  Notably, Eli’s sermonic words fall flat.  His words are sterile.

Eli’s preaching to his two sons fails to move them.  Perhaps the best sermon would have failed.  However, Eli’s sermon sounds like a Surgeon General’s warning.  Despite understanding the damage smoking causes, the desire for cigarettes overrides the warning.  Eli tells his sons quite explicitly what they “ought not” do.  Although Eli protests his sons’ activities, he fails to recall Israel’s tradition or to point to a better future.  Hophni and Phineas possess more knowledge concerning what they should not do, but their desires find no re-direction.

Moralistic sermons may name God and outline expected behavior while failing to empower transformation.  Whereas Hannah’s song names God’s saving activity as a lens in which to see a future hope, Eli fails to remember God’s work in the past and thus is unable to imagine any new future.  Eli’s inability to imagine a new world is imaged in his sons.  God is effectively quiet in Eli’s sermon, despite being named.

It seems God’s silence is in response to or the result of the hegemonic powers of Eli’s house.  Either way, God is coopted as the guarantor of status quo power and privilege.  Yahweh, a God of surprising freedom and ferocity on Mt. Sinai, is reduced to the inactive god of Shiloh – neither moving, speaking, nor acting.  Eli’s house interprets the silence as divine legitimation of their socio-political order.  Rigid certitude of God’s favor, however, is unable to trust the God of freedom to speak.  If permitted to speak, this emancipatory God might visit the same fate of Egypt upon the faithless covenant community.  Thus, God is muted and immobilized, drowned out by the barren voices of Shiloh’s theo-political institutions.

Although writing about Babylonian Exile, Walter Brueggemann’s Hopeful Imagination offers a cutting analysis: “The empire, Babylonian or any other, wants to establish itself as absolute, wants the present arrangement to appear eternal in the past as in the future, so that after a while, one cannot remember when it was different from this, which means having available to our imagination no real alternative.”[16]  Of course, the language of faith is employed to sustain this seemingly inevitable reality of Empire.  Talk of God is not always abolished, rather it is re-oriented to claim our allegiance for the Empire, sometimes from the pulpit.

In subtle ways, the line between God and Empire is blurred beyond distinction.  Our language, and thus our vision, is diverted from God.  The appearance of religious orthodoxy is sustained, yet subverted.  When God is co-opted as a mouthpiece for status quo, God is substituted for an idol unable to speak, see, or hear.  Eli is unable to see, hear or speak with potency because the god he worships is not living.  We resemble that which we worship.  Preaching is unable to bear life if it is disconnected from the Giver of life.

Fred Craddock notes:

’In the community of Christianity, where the situation is qualified by Christendom, there is no direct or straightforward relationship, inasmuch as a vain conceit has first to be disposed of.’  That vain conceit lies in the illusion that ‘knowing about’ is knowing.  To break that illusion, one does not add quantities of more information; rather, one stirs up and elicits what is there, taking away in order that what has been so often heard can truly be heard.[17]

 

There is an abundance of religious talk, but a scarcity of prayerful, discerning, theological reflection.  Preaching that fails to name the illusions only reinforce those illusions, which is the greatest travesty.

First Samuel 1-3 draws a significant parallel between God’s silence and the silenced voices of the marginalized.  Perhaps God refuses to speak because those in power refuse to hear the voice of the oppressed.  Ignoring the cries and pleas of the desperate, Israel’s leadership turns a deaf ear to Yahweh.  Yet, it is the cry of desperate hearts which seemingly awakens God from the deep slumber of silence to speak a life-giving word.  It is not, finally, the powerful that rouse God to speak.  Instead, God speaks new life into those deeply aware of their barrenness.

John Chrysostom draws the deeper connection with Hannah’s seeing her barrenness and God’s extension of grace to her:

Instead of saying anything at first, she began with wailing and shed warm floods of tears.  And just as, when rain storms fall, even the harder ground is moistened… and easily bestirs itself to produce crops, so too did this happen in the case of this woman: as though softened by the flood of tears and warmed with the pangs, the womb began to stir in that wonderful fertility.[18]

 

Hannah, as model for those delivered from barrenness, does not remain silent but is given voice.  Lamenting her barrenness enables new vision and new utterance.  Hannah’s poetic proclamation announces the dethronement of regimes built on fear and domination.[19]  A decentering, destabilizing word comes from the margins, undercutting the certitude of hegemonic power and the accompanying pride that assumes divine blessing.  Hannah envisions, through her own barrenness and deliverance, Israel’s barrenness, which must be purged and engulfed by God’s life-giving, life-blessing, life-sustaining word.  Lament tills the hardened soil of the heart, preparing it for God’s world-creating word.

Hannah’s prophetic announcement sheds light on the preaching task at hand.  Fred Craddock frames it this way:

in a context of long tradition, common assumptions, and high predictability in messages, there is much room for the illusion of participation where little or none exists… We are up against an illusion that breeds in the dark, unswept corners of institutions well furnished by custom, repetition, and assumption.  And the task of any communicator who would seek to shatter this illusion is made doubly difficult by the fact that victims of an illusion do not realize they are victims.  Such is the nature of an illusion: it caresses; there is no pain.  It is the communicator who succeeds in breaking the illusion who brings pain, who is the troubler in Israel.[20]

 

Prayer for Hannah is the womb from which new life emerges, from which new sight is given.  “Ludwig Wittgenstein spoke of language being understood only within a certain form of life… In other words, in the final analysis listening is a quality of character.”[21]

Hannah’s prayer leads to poetic, praise-filled proclamation, which breaks open the closed womb of illusion to birth, in painful ways, a new available world previously hidden.  Her speech finally enables others to also speak out.  A surprising word comes from an unidentified “man of God” to Eli and his house.[22]  It is a word of judgment destabilizing the current regime and its attendant religious sanctioning.  This word is possible because it is rooted in the living, although nearly forgotten, memory of Israel’s story with God.

The “man of God” begins his oracle, “Thus the Lord has said, ‘I revealed myself to the family of your ancestor in Egypt when they were slaves to the house of Pharaoh.’”[23]  The first word God utters identifies God’s self with the vulnerable – slaves in Egypt.  The community is to recall the cries of the enslaved prodding God to act against Pharaoh and Egypt.  The powerless are unearthed as blessed for the living God acts on their behalf.

Now, through the tradition and memory of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, we are empowered to hear and see anew Israel’s current circumstance as barren.  Israel’s leadership resembles Pharaoh more than the freed slaves of Exodus lore.  God warned Israel to resist becoming another Egypt when they entered the Promise Land, yet that is Israel’s social embodiment under Elidic leadership.[24]

Amnesia of God’s past work creates an environment where current arrangements of power are beyond reproach.  The Shema cautions against this loss of memory when Israel enters the Land of Promise: “…take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”[25]  Forsaking the covenantal memory has devolved into abusive spiritual and political leadership.

Eli’s house has re-purposed Israel’s narrative to sustain the current social order.  However, the Exodus is a dangerous memory revealing the God of wild and unyielding concern for the compromised persons of this world.  It is a frightening memory for those benefiting from oppressive power.  Yahweh undermines politics as usual and erodes the bulwark of privileged power.  Such a God of freedom is exactly what empires cannot imagine, for to do so imagines their own finitude and accountability.  It is easier to control a God of silent acquiescence than to entertain a God of relational freedom.

Israel’s narrative memory, as with Christian tradition, is always intended to be a living memory.  The memory is imaginatively recited so that the faithful might view the world anew.  This recital enables the story to be a personal and social experience in the present, not simply the past.  However, the community of faith is always in danger of forgetting or misunderstanding the memory.  This presents a unique challenge for preaching, especially when the community believes it is living faithfully to the memory.

Craddock highlights the challenge: “Not only are chances very good that they will say even of good sermons that they have heard it all before, but if what they hear is different from what they have been accustomed to hearing, in manner or in matter, they will suspect that it was not a sermon or not Christian.”[26]  As such, our task as communicators will include disorienting our hearers in order that they might be reoriented to the living memory.

The man of God’s sermon to Eli shifts the Exodus story from God delivering Israel to God judging Israel for their Egypt-like behavior.  This is a radical interpretive shift, opening up new hermeneutical perspectives for those “who have ears to hear.”  Bear in mind that this is not twisting the story to fit our agenda.  The “old story” speaks in new ways by shifting the community’s identification to a new character within that story.  No longer are they the freed slaves, but Eli’s house must identify with the Egyptian task-masters.  Stories that have become stale are possibly stale because we only allow ourselves to identify with the heroes or the receivers of grace in the text.  We avoid the discomfort of judgment by assuming roles which end in our favor.  Preaching should at times bring comfort.  However, when comfort no longer comes as grace-filled surprise, we are preaching cheap grace.

Prophets emerge in moments of deep spiritual blindness.  We find Samuel and Eli sleeping in the temple.  Visions are not widespread and God’s word, as mentioned previously, is rare.  To complicate matters, Eli, as spiritual leader, has diminishing eyesight so that he no longer sees, despite the light from the lamp of God.[27]  Although serving before the Lord, Samuel does not yet know (yada) the Lord.  There is no intimacy with God.  Eli and Samuel are surrounded by the things of worship and yet they are shrouded in darkness.

In the midst of their slumber, God calls the young boy.  Three times Samuel goes to Eli, asking him why he called.  Finally, Eli realizes God is calling Samuel and instructs him to answer.  “Learning to discern the difference between human words and God’s word is basic to [Samuel’s] prophetic and priestly life.”[28]  This does not happen immediately, but is a learned practice.  As with Hannah, Samuel’s prophetic vocation begins by learning to listen.

Samuel receives a word from God which again calls Eli’s house and Israel to account.  God is going to act in ways that surprise all.  God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (emphasis mine).  Some messages, we know beforehand, will burn.  It will cause discomfort.  After receiving this painful, if not dangerous, word to proclaim, Samuel just “lays there.”[29]

“Laying there” is an imperative for preaching.  When God speaks, the word must simmer in us.  It is a gestastional space in time where God germinates new life in us first.  Birth is possible when an infant experiences discomfort in the womb.  Wrestling with God and the text should discomfort us to the point we are pushed out of our safe spaces.  Samuel is afraid to tell Eli the vision.  Fear of rejection can paralyze our voice.  But, if God’s word has done its work on us, we cannot help but proclaim it.

After the incubation is complete, Samuel bursts out of the “doors of the house of the Lord.”[30]  It is birthing language.[31]  As Hannah’s womb was opened, now the doors burst open and God’s word is brought forth into the community.  The temple, the place of worship, serves as deathly tomb for Eli and as fertile womb for Samuel.  The defining difference is an imagination enlivened and set free by an encounter with the living God.

This new birth imagination in Samuel does not end with Samuel.  Instead, as Samuel grows with God, he learns to see God at work and hear God’s voice.  The word comes to Samuel and through Samuel to “all of Israel.”  An inspired imagination breaks loose in the community.  New worlds are now possible, although the temptation always remains to fall back into old patterns.  But, at least for the moment, new life bursts forth as God’s word is proclaimed.

The Church’s prophetic and priestly ministry requires an imagination re-formed by a divine encounter.  Imagination requires the gestational practices of prayer; listening to God and others, especially the vulnerable; lamenting our barrenness; naming the broken systems of abusive power; and helping the scriptures to speak in new ways to communities that have become overly familiar with the old, old story.  The task appears overwhelmingly impossible.  Yet, when God speaks, death no longer has the final word.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Brueggemann, Walter. Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Craddock, Fred B. Overhearing the Gospel. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2002.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.

Janzen, J. Gerald. “‘Samuel Opened the Doors of the House of Yahweh’ (1 Samuel 3.15).” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 8, no. 26 (1983): 89-96.

Murphy, Francesca Aran. Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.

Peterson, Eugene H. Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Spina, Frank A. “Eli’s Seat: The Transition from Priest to Prophet in I Samuel 1-4.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19, no. 62 (June 01, 1994): 67-75.

 

[1] Judges 21:25

[2] Exodus 19:6

[3] 1 Samuel 1:6-7

[4] 1 Samuel 1:7-13

[5] Deuteronomy 8:3

[6] 1 Samuel 1:13-14

[7] 1 Samuel 1:17

[8] Frank A. Spina, “Eli’s Seat: The Transition from Priest to Prophet in 1 Samuel 1-4,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 19, no. 62 (1994): 67.

[9] 1 Samuel 4:13

[10] Spina, 68.

[11] Spina, 67-69.

[12] 1 Samuel 2:22

[13] 1 Samuel 2:12-14

[14] 1 Samuel 2:16-17

[15] 1 Samuel 2:23-25

[16] Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 112.

[17] Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002), 77-78.

[18] Francesca Aran Murphy, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 Samuel (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010), 14.

[19] 1 Samuel 2:1-10

[20] Craddock, 18.

[21] Craddock, 26.

[22] 1 Samuel 2:27-36

[23] 1 Samuel 2:27

[24] Not living as another Egypt is a major theme in Deuteronomy. Israel is reminded of their deliverance from Egypt so they will live in covenant fidelity to the God of deliverance, rather than in the deathly ways of Empire.

[25] Deuteronomy 6:12

[26] Craddock, 17.

[27] 1 Samuel 3:2

[28] Eugene Peterson, Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 38.

[29] 1 Samuel 3:15

[30] 1 Samuel 3:15

[31] J. Gerald Janzen, “Samuel Opened the Doors of the House of Yahweh (1 Samuel 3:15),” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 8, no. 26 (1983): 91-92.

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