As I have stated before in these columns, I spent 28 years of my scholarly life attempting to teach people how to preach. Over those years I heard some 3,000 sermons twice (once live in class and then via tape or disc in my office). Either I had my faith strengthened by these homiletical experiences or I was pushed hard to hang on to a semblance of faith in light of what I was listening to. You may be the judge of which way it went for me.
I taught Introduction to Preaching 60 times in those years, and I began each of those classes with a reading from Is.55:10-11. This to me is the ultimate preacher verse; it encapsulates for me both the reasons for my preaching, indeed the reasons for anyone’s preaching, and the gift that makes any preaching possible at all.
There is little doubt that preaching in 2017 is an especially absurd and dangerous task. Why should anyone listen to one person expound from an ancient text, attempting to express an enlightened wisdom in a time when experts are pooh-poohed, the world is awash in “fake news” and “alternative facts,” while the influence of the church is decreasing alarmingly? It seems a fool’s errand to stand in a pulpit, or to strut in front of a stationary crowd, and narrate or orate to people who simply never have to listen to such stuff at any other time in their lives. And these are people who have spent precious little time thinking about any of these “divine” things in the previous days leading up to this address, being concerned with the things of the world like making a living, paying a mortgage, teaching their children, keeping those children and themselves as safe as they can in a dangerous and eerie land. My hat is off to those of you who do this work week after week for people who rarely if ever respond in ways you hope they will.
I spent well over half of my scholarly life trying to help preachers do this particular work of preaching. Some of the time I imagined I was being helpful, but I admit that much of the time I was not useful at all. I needed to be harder on those I coddled too much, and I needed to praise those who really “got it” more than I did. I often thought, in the presence of a wise and clever and thoughtful student, that I simply needed to get out of her way and let her do what she clearly knew well how to do. As for those who were challenged by the task—and they were certainly the majority of those I tried to teach—I too often felt helpless in the face of their shortcomings and my own. “Silk purses, sows ears,” I muttered to myself, “pearls before swine,” but it was me I was really talking about far more than they.
But then Is.55 would float into my cynical soul. “Just as surely as rain and snow water the earth, and bring forth seed for the sower and finally bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it will not return to me empty.” There is the promise of preaching, the guaranty that my words, both halting and eloquent, are at the last filled up with the word of God.Several observations. This promise does not let anyone off the hook concerning the needed work to be prepared to preach. One cannot get up in front of thirsty folk poorly prepared and “wait for the Holy Spirit to show up.” More often than not, the Holy Spirit calls us once again to read the text, to get off to the library, to search harder for the right word and phrase to say what we mean. But the promise is that God will be in the words, somehow.
God is still speaking, and is on occasion using us to be God’s mouthpiece. To stand and claim that somehow I am speaking for God is a kind of arrogant madness, but speak I must, once I have really been called to do so. Jeremiah wished to goodness that he could do anything other than preach, but when he tried it his fire-riddled bones would not let him shut up. God was speaking through that old prophet, and he just had to go on and speak. So it must be with us.
Because it is God who is still speaking, and who promises that our words will have power because of God’s presence in them, we simply cannot get up and waste people’s time with pleasant generalities and pleasing or hard words about trivial things. Old prophet Micahsaid once, “If someone were to walk about uttering empty falsehoods, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine or strong drink,’ such a one would be a preacher for this people” (Micah 2:11)! In other words, to dwell on smaller matters of personal morality while the world cries out for justice for all God’s creatures is to belittle God’s word and to make small the work of the preacher. Yes, amazingly, preaching is still needed in our time, and perhaps even more amazingly it still has effect.
Now, do not expect hundreds streaming to the mourner’s bench a la Billy Graham. There was always something unseemly about counting blubbering bodies after a preaching event. Yet, even there God’s promise of a fulfilled word was kept, however oddly, however unexpectedly. Yes, God is still speaking and is still bidding us to speak. We do that with the promise of Is.55, and we do that with the dire warnings of Micah about trivializing that speech.
So, keep up the work of preaching, my friends! It still has its place, even in our jaded 2017 church. For God still speaks and promises that our words will not return to God empty. There is a promise on which to live; there is a promise to take with you as you ascend your pulpit, as you move in front of your people