What is it we think we’re doing during the preaching moment at Bloom? What’s going on? Theologically, how do we understand what’s happening? And how does that connect to and serve the work that God is doing in our midst?
These are important questions, not least because – let’s face it – the “state of the pulpit” is not exactly great these days, and as with respect to our worship (see this post), without a clear and theologically informed working framework for understanding what we’re doing when we stand up (or sit down, whichever you prefer) before God’s people, we’ll surely miss mark. Further, it is my conviction that if our framework is unsound, over time the pressure of preaching will ultimately damage us preachers – not because it’s a lot of work per se (although there is a fair amount of work involved), but because when work is done and weight is lifted from the wrong “position”, invariably we’ll pull a muscle or two. (Thank you Edwin Friedman for that insight.)
With that in mind, here’s what’s going on in my head when I stand up (actually, I mostly sit down 🙂 ) to preach:
1) I begin with the premise that God is a speaking God, and that his speaking matters. The Scriptural narrative opens with the living God speaking his “word” into the primeval chaos – “Let there be light! And there was light…” His speech apparently does things. The Psalmist declared, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, the starry host by the breath of his mouth…” (Ps 33). The “word” of God appears to be the main means by which Creator God does things. No surprise then that the Hebrew word for “word” – dabar – means both “word” and also “thing.” God’s word is not a vaporous suggestion. It is ACT.
So what is it we’re doing when we preach? We’re gathering around the Creator God’s speech, his “dabar”, trusting that as the chaos of our lives is spoken into by His Loving Voice, His “order” will come and life will take root in all kinds of beautiful and surprising ways… We trust that “Genesis moments” are never far off when the people of God assemble to hear God’s voice.
2) I move from there to the premise that God speaks not just generally (Creation) but specifically to his people, and that this speaking is the absolutely indispensable foundation for their life. In the same way that the Creator God spoke into the chaos and brought order, and in the same way that this God spoke to the dust and brought out Adam, so, the Old Testament record tells us, did God speak and bring forth his people. That is to say, Israel (and us) is a “word”-generated, “word”-sustained people. In receiving his specific “word” to them (I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt… You are my treasured possession… You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… etc etc), Israel daily receives anew her identity from Yahweh and so is given the resources to live faithfully into her divine vocation.
In Deuteronomy 6:4 Moses says “Hear, Israel! The Lord your God, the Lord is one…” Hear! Shema! Listen up! Daily as Israel recited that prayer, she would be reminded that the “first word” of her life – shema – was one that beckoned here to attune herself to the divine voice. How fascinating. That the first word to Israel was not “go and do this!” or “stop doing that!” or “knock that thing off!” but “listen…” Israel is begotten in the word of God. From that word she receives her identity. She rises from the dust as a second Adam. And when she fails to attend to the word, she slides into chaos, dust, exile.
So what is it we’re doing when we preach? We’re calling the People of God to turn their ears back to the One who has redeemed and delivered, begotten and commissioned them in love to be a kingdom of priests in a world that knows not God… we’re reminding them of WHO and WHOSE they are.
It’s amazing to me how easily we lose sight of this. In the quest to be “relevant” we wind up making preaching about something other than what it seems to me it clearly MUST be about if we’re going to stand any chance of being the faithful people of God in the world. Invariably our preaching winds up being glorified motivational speaking which inevitably goes to fund our basically narcissistic, consumeristic, individualistic, godless, American Dream-centered lives. (Ahem.)
That is not to say that our preaching shouldn’t be “relevant”… not at all! It is simply a question of what our preaching is “relevant TO”… I think that faithful Christian preaching strives to be relevant TO our fundamental identity as the people of God, which will obviously be manifest in a variety of ways – how we talk, shop, eat, pray, worship, serve, work, parent, engage politics, etc etc etc. So I’m ALL FOR RELEVANT. Provided we understand it right. But if our preaching would pass without problem as a TED Talk, then something is wrong.
3) I move from there to the premise that God’s “word” is truly revealed to us in the text of Scripture, so that when we encounter Scripture, we’re encountering, REALLY ENCOUNTERING, the “Word” of God. It is said that in exile, after the Jewish people had been stripped away from all the visible symbols of their identity as the People of God (land, temple, sacrifices, monarchy, wall, etc), they became, in a way that maybe they weren’t before, a people of the Book, such that when they read the text of Scripture, they saw themselves as interacting directly with Yahweh, in much the same way that they would have had they been worshiping at the Temple (which now lay in ruins). In their sacred writings, they knew that Yahweh, the Creating and Redeeming God who had called them to be his chosen people, was speaking to them… and working to bring an end to their state of exile. “Let there be light” would happen again as they encountered the Text.
The Apostle Paul later said – referring to those very writings – that “all Scripture is God-breathed…” Scripture, in other words, is HOLY. More than that, it is GOD SPEAKING. The writer of Hebrews, when quoting the Old Testament, will preface it with, “As the HOLY SPIRIT SAYS…” (Heb 3:7). “SAYS!” As in – right now, right here, God is talking! Where? THROUGH THE TEXT. God’s speech is EXPLODING over us.
What a tragedy that we don’t read the Bible in our worship gatherings in this way. We don’t handle it as holy. We don’t listen to it as the “now” speech of God over us. Instead, we DISMISS it as the product of cultural bias and prejudice. Or we simply “salt and pepper” it into our messages – messages that, were Scripture left out, could STILL BASICALLY STAND ON THEIR OWN. Or, and maybe this hits closer to home for some of my readers, we analyze the text into oblivion. We take this living thing, this “Word” of God, put it on the operating table, and slice and dice it till we KILL IT. In your quest to be an “expository” preacher (whatever that means), for GOD’S SAKE, don’t KILL THE TEXT! Don’t analyze it into oblivion. Have some spine and ANNOUNCE IT!
One of the primary reasons we practice Lectio Divina in our house churches is because we want to cultivate a posture towards the Scriptures at Bloom which easily and naturally apprehends them as the Living Word of God. That is to say, there is no fundamental spiritual difference for us between what we do during Lectio and what we’re doing when we preach. The only thing that changes is that during the preaching there’s a person who’s been pondering the mysteries of the text all week and leads us as a community through an experience of those mysteries by lovingly and faithfully declaring them over us, inviting us to embrace them as a lived reality.
So what is it we’re doing when we preach? We’re encountering the Scriptures as the Living Word of God to us NOW.
4) All of this culminates with the premise that God’s “dabar”, his Word, has become a Person who lived, died, rose, reigns, and is coming again (John 1). That is to say, no preaching deserves to be called “Christian” which does not derive from or lead to Christ. One recalls the marvelous scene in Luke 24 where Jesus, walking with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things said concerning himself” (v. 27). One gets the impression that Jesus is doing MUCH MORE than just proof-texting himself with certain isolated “messianic” prophecies and whatnot. It seems what he’s doing is deeper, more subtle than that. It’s like he’s picking up the whole of the Old Testament, slipping it on like a garment tailored specifically for Him, and saying, “LOOK! ME! IT FITS ME AND ME ALONE! THIS TEXT WAS ALWAYS A GARMENT MADE FOR ME! I AM THE POINT!”
The foundational “word” of Christian preaching is always the “Word” himself, Christ Jesus, his Person and his Work.
But Luke tells us more. Apparently, while the Risen Christ was giving this Bible lesson to his disciples, they were “kept from recognizing Him” (v. 16) Wild stuff. It wasn’t until this moment that things began to come together:
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
And then later:
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
How fascinating. The Scriptures, the Person, the Meal. In the convergence is revelation.
I think that on some subconscious level, maybe more like an intuition than anything else, Luke 24 is in my mind whenever I get up to preach.
“We’re going to engage the Scriptures” I think to myself, “and every page SCREAMS His name, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.”
Further, “The One of whom we speak is HERE, with all His power to save and redeem and deliver, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see… He is PRESENT among us… God help me announce HIM!”
“And,” I think to myself, “we’re headed to the Meal” (we take Communion every week). “Lord, lead us to the Cross and to the Empty Tomb, to the Broken Body and Shed Blood, to the Lamb who lives and has conquered…” I groan in my heart.
And oh how sweet it is… when preaching comes from and leads to real “communion” with Jesus. THAT, to me, is why we preach.
So to my fellow preachers: may God, the speaking God, give you utterance, so that you may lead your people – lovingly, faithfully, boldly – to the Living Christ, through your preaching, OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER AGAIN.
Trust me, they will thank you.
Grace and Godspeed.