March 3, 2011 § 4 Comments
The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.
Have you ever counted on something to last forever? Not that you really thought it would last forever, but you lived as if it would? Right before I started going to Seminary, I thought it would be a good idea to buy a new laptop. I had owned a few before, but they had always let me down—their battery-life was unreliable, they overheated, they crashed. So, I decided I would pay a bit more money to get a Mac. Sure, they were a bit more expensive, and sure, there was a bit of a learning-curve, but at least I knew they were reliable. For three years of school, I used it for all my assignments. Three years of theological essays, book reviews, biblical research, and personal reflections. Three years of sermons I had written and songs I was working on. Three years of music and software I had bought. Three years of pictures—including our engagement and our wedding photos. I had poured a pretty good portion of my life into my computer. I trusted it to store important work, record thoughts, and keep memories.
As I’m sure you’ve already anticipated, my computer didn’t last forever. One evening, I was using it and everything locked up. I couldn’t move the mouse and the keyboard wasn’t working. I turned it off. I turned it back on. Nothing. Uh oh. The next day, I brought it to the Mac store to see if it could be repaired. The technician told me: “Looks like your hard drive crashed.” “Excuse me?” I said. This is a Mac, I was thinking, I thought they were supposed to be reliable! He looked at me and said, “So . . . you have everything backed up, right?” Um, to reiterate, I thought this thing was supposed to be reliable!
Long story short: I had a new hard drive installed, but I was never able to recover my data. I was able to find some of it—like our most important pictures—on discs, but most of it was gone forever. And yes, I now back everything up.
Now, if you had asked me, “Joel, do you really think your laptop will be around in 50 years, or even in 20 years?” I probably would have told you, “No.” And if you had followed up by asking, “Well, is there anything on your laptop that you do want to be around in 20 years?” I would have said, “Absolutely.” And if you had concluded by asking, “So, what are you doing to guarantee that you won’t lose that important stuff?” I wouldn’t have had an answer.
But honestly, even now, I have a backup drive, but I don’t really think that’ll be around in 20 years. I print off my assignments now, but there’s no guarantee that I won’t lose them (especially with how I am with organization). In the end, I actually can’t guarantee that all the irreplaceable things in my life will be around as long as I am. In some sense, I have to admit that I am trusting my life to things that I know won’t last forever.
In Scripture, we read, The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever. If this is true, then I’m very interested in what it might mean to trust my life to God’s word. In other words: In a world that is constantly trying to convince us to put our trust in that which fades away, what might it mean to trust in God’s word, which never fades?
I think we can start to answer this question by addressing three others: (1) What is God’s word? (2) In what sense does God’s word endure forever? (3) How does God’s everlasting word touch my own life? These are the questions that emerged for me as I studied our passages for this morning. This phrase, the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God endures forever, occurs twice in Scripture: First in Isaiah 40, and then again as a quotation in 1 Peter. This poetic expression is used in slightly different ways in either passage, so I think it’s helpful to look at each of them in turn.
First to Isaiah 40. This passage is found in vv. 6-8. But one of the most important keys to understanding it comes by reading what comes on either side of it.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for.”
If you’ve ever read through Isaiah, chapter 40 is like a big sigh of relief. For a good portion of the first 39 chapters, all we hear about is God’s judgment, the unfaithfulness of the people, and their punishment. Chapter 40 starts a drastically new section of hope, beginning with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people!” The tone shifts from judgement to hope, from anticipation to announcement. The opening words indicate that the message is no longer judgement but forgiveness. The time of punishment and bondage is over. Israel has endured the full—even the double—retribution for her sins. Now it’s time to deliver a message of peace and comfort.
These verses are all about preparing for a message of good news. Verses 3-5 use the imagery of a great highway: Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! The otherwise difficult terrain of the wilderness is made smooth to make a great road that the exiled Israelites will return on. Valleys are lifted and mountains are lowered so that all the land is leveled and flattened. We all live on the prairies; we know exactly what this looks like. (Basically, the idea was to transform the Middle East into Manitoba.)
The image of this great highway is just one of several images that form a larger overall picture of rescued Jerusalem. In addition to the great highway, there are also allusions to Israel’s exodus from Egypt, and descriptions of the wilderness turning into a garden, reminding us of the Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Jerusalem has been in exile across the wilderness, but now they have been freed, the highway has been paved for their return, and even the wilderness has produced water to drink and trees for shade.
So, as we move into the next verses, we read about God’s eternal word in the context of comfort and hope—and not of some vague comfort and hope, but a specific hope and comfort that is tied to the expectation of Israel’s return.
6-8 A voice said, “Shout!” I asked, “What should I shout?” A voice has already cried out for the building of a massive highway through the wilderness. Now, a voice shouts for someone to shout. What should I shout? Remember that the message to be proclaimed is not some random set of propositions or predictions, but it has to do with God’s word for his people, and specifically God’s word for his people in the midst of new comfort and in the expectation of return. So what is the message?
All people are like the grass. All their glory fades as quickly as the flowers in a field. The grass withers and the flowers fade beneath the breath of the Lord. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.
You’ll see that there are actually two comparisons going on here. God’s word is contrasted with the grass and flowers, because, unlike them, God’s word lasts forever. But the real contrast isn’t between God’s word and flowers, but between God’s word and people. People are like the grass; God’s word is not like the grass. People are frail; God’s word is not.
So back to some of the questions I had at the beginning: (1) What is God’s word? and (2) In what sense does God’s word endure forever? In Isaiah, God’s word isn’t “the Bible” per se. Most obviously because while Isaiah was prophesying, there was no “Bible.” They would have had some writings, probably at least Genesis through Deuteronomy, and a growing collection of Psalms used in worship. But in Isaiah, this isn’t what is meant by “God’s word.” In the context of Isaiah 40, God’s word—the word that endures forever—is what God has said.
What has God said? We’ve just been reading it. “Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Her hard service has been completed and her sin has been paid for. The glory of the Lord will be revealed. The Sovereign Lord comes with power. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that are with young.” This has to do with God’s everlasting covenant promise. God’s word endures forever because God is always faithful to the covenant. God has promised to redeem Israel, and this word is true forever.
This passage serve an important function in the larger context of Isaiah 40-55. This section declares a new promise from God: that God will come in glory and save his people. Yet before this promise can be understood and believed, it is important to emphasize that God actually does what he says. God’s message of comfort is good news, but it is only good news if God’s word is actually true, if it actually stands as it is spoken.
Maybe we’re too used to the emptiness of words. We’re used to “reading between the lines” when people talk. We assume that there will be some level of disconnect between what people say and what they actually do. This isn’t only true of politicians and used-car salesmen, but also of people who genuinely want to be true to their word. People who say they’ll do something, with full expectations of being able to do it. When I tell Rebekah that I plan to do the dishes while she’s away at work, I (almost) always mean it. But sometimes schoolwork gets away with me, and before I know it, I’ve made my own words false.
But God isn’t like that. There is no disconnect between God’s word and God’s action. This is clear from the very beginning of the Bible, where God creates the world by speaking it into existence. There is no disjunction between “God said, ‘Let there be light,’” and the result, “and there was light.” When God says, “I will do this,” in a sense he has already done it. God’s word doesn’t come true—it is true.
The contrast is made between human frailty and God’s enduring word. God’s promises are not like our promises. God keeps his covenant through all generations, even to this day. This passage emphasizes God’s eternal faithfulness (contrasting it with our consistent faithlessness) so that the new message of comfort and hope is actually heard as a message of comfort and hope, because it is proclaimed with the certainty that God’s promises are always true.
When we talk about trusting our lives to God’s word, it’s not about trusting in a book but about trusting in God. God’s word is what God says; and what God says God does.
But let’s be careful not to forget the other side of the comparison: Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever. God’s word stands forever, unlike us. In Isaiah, this isn’t just about comparing God’s word with our mortal bodies, but about comparing God’s faithfulness with our faithlessness. In verse 6, when it says that all people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field, the word for ‘glory’ is actually one that is generally used to speak of God’s covenant-faithfulness. The NIV usually translates it as “kindness” or “lovingkindness,” but it’s a bit more specific than that. God’s “kindness” isn’t about God being “nice” but about God acting with favour toward his people, toward the whole world. His word is the revelation of his active kindness toward humanity, expressed in the Old Testament in his covenant with Israel. This word is eternal because God is eternally faithful to what he has said.
My point of saying all this is this: When we talk about trusting in God’s everlasting word rather than in things that pass away, we are trusting in God’s generous and faithful kindness toward us. But the contrast is between God’s faithfulness to us and our faithfulness to God. We need to be careful not to turn that trust itself into something that depends on us. In other words, we need to trust in God’s word; as opposed to trusting in our trust in God’s word. You see this kind of thing when you hear people tell you that you would be healed, if you only had enough faith. If only you would give up a certain sin, God would show you more love. As soon as we trust in our own faithfulness to God, we’re right back where we started: trusting in that which fades away.
In Isaiah, God’s word is God’s covenant promise, and God is faithful to his promises for all generations, which means he is even faithful to us. That is how we can say that God’s word endures forever. But the question remains: What does it mean to trust our lives to God’s word? What is the relationship between God’s trustworthy promises and our personal trust in those promises? How does God’s eternal word touch our own lives?
1 Peter 1:24-25
This leads us directly into Peter’s use of this passage. I always find it interesting to see how New Testament authors use the Old Testament. 1 Peter is full of Old Testament quotations, and many come from Isaiah. Maybe this is because Peter’s audience was strikingly similar to Isaiah: both wrote to people who were strangers and aliens in their land, people displaced from society and despised. Let’s see how he uses Isaiah 40:6-8 (1 Pet 1:22-25):
You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart. For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord remains forever.” And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.
Peter quotes this passage while speaking about new life in Christ. This is a pretty radical reinterpretation of Isaiah’s words. Peter is interpreting the Old Testament prophecy through the lens of the gospel. The key to Peter’s reinterpretation of Isaiah is that he identifies God’s word—the word that endures forever—as the message of the gospel. God’s word is still about God’s faithful action in history, but Peter knows that now God’s word has entered history so completely that it became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, and now it is truthfully proclaimed by the apostles.
This is integral to Peter’s message. Because he is writing to strangers and aliens, the outcasts of society, he shows a great concern for showing them how their true home is in being part of Christ’s family. The church is a home for the homeless. Peter speaks about being born again into this new family—and this is not just a new family, but a new sort of family. Unlike our human families, through which we are born into mortality and sin, in this new family we are born of God’s eternal and incorruptible word. God’s word is the foundation for our new life. And our new life is eternal because God’s word is eternal.
Yet this word isn’t just any word. In Isaiah, we saw that God’s word is God’s promise to his people. That the eternal God will be eternally faithful to his word, and so we rightly say that God’s word endures forever. Peter understands that God’s word has found its full expression in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. So after he quotes Isaiah, he adds one simple line of commentary. After affirming that “the world of the Lord remains forever” he adds, “And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.”
So, to return again to my questions, (1) What is the word of God? and (2) in what sense does God’s word endure forever? (1) For Peter, the word of the Lord that endures forever is none other than the message of the gospel. In fact, it is not merely the words about Jesus, but Jesus himself. (2) This word endures forever because it is spoken by the eternal God. Peter can still understand God’s word in light of God’s covenant promises, but in the Word made flesh, in Jesus, we can see the full extent of God’s covenant-faithfulness to us. How do we see God’s faithfulness in the Word Jesus? We see it in the most remarkable way. Not only does God extend his faithful hand to us in Jesus Christ, but in Christ’s life of obedience—from his temptation in the wilderness to his final surrender on the cross—Christ is the faithful human response to God’s faithfulness. In Christ, God is both faithful to us and he takes up our own unfaithfulness in his unending faithfulness.
One writer explains it this way: “Many years ago I recall thinking of the marvelous way in which our human faith is implicated in the faith of Jesus Christ and grasped by his faithfulness, when I was teaching my little daughter to walk. I can still feel her tiny fingers gripping my hand as tightly as she could. She did not rely upon her feeble grasp of my hand but upon my strong grasp of her hand which enfolded her grasp of mine within it. That is surely how God’s faithfulness actualized in Jesus Christ has hold of our weak and faltering faith and holds it securely in his hand” (T. F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, 83).
That illustrates what I mean when I say that Christ’s own faithfulness takes up our weak attempts at being faithful. God has always been faithful. 2 Timothy says that “If we deny him, he also will deny us; [yet] if we are faithless, [God] remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2:12-13). Here we see that for God to go back on his faithfulness would somehow be tantamount to God denying his own self. In other words, God cannot be faithless because God is faithful. It’s not just what he does; it’s who he is. We can be faithless (“if we deny him”) and he can accept our faithlessness (“he also will deny us”) but he cannot go back on his faithfulness, “for he cannot deny himself.” Paul understands this when he tells the church in Rome, “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? Of course not! Even if everyone else is a liar, God is true” (Rom 3:3-4). God’s faithfulness is not somehow contingent on our faithfulness. So even though we are like the grass, even though we wither and we fade, still the word of our God endures forever.
This brings us to the final question: (3) In what sense does God’s word enter my own life? For Peter, God’s word enters our lives because our new life in Christ is born of God’s everlasting word, the gospel of Christ. In fact, he quotes this passage as a way of supporting his moral instruction: Love each other deeply with all your heart. For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God. Our new life in the Word Jesus is the foundation for all we do as Christians, for all we do to show love to one another. It’s the foundation for our faithfulness to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. And it’s the foundation for our faithfulness to God as his children.
Isaiah teaches us how God’s word endures forever in God’s everlasting faithfulness to us; Peter teaches us how we receive life eternal in this same word, Jesus Christ. God’s word is living and eternal, and in this word, we are born into new life. This is explicit in Peter, but it’s already hinted at in Isaiah. In ch. 55 (as the major section that began with ch. 40 comes to a close) the prophet says this:
Come to me and listen to my words,
hear me, and you shall have life:
I will make a covenant with you, this time forever,
to love you faithfully as I loved David. (Isa 55:3)
God’s word is the revelation of God historically in speech and action, and it is this eternal word that causes the grass to wither and the flowers fade as it blows over. Yet, paradoxically, this same word that reveals our own frailty is also the word that gives us new life. Our eternal life in the Word Jesus comes from the eternal outpouring of God’s life to us in Christ. This is how we can be “born again,” as Peter says, “but not to a life that will quickly end. Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God.”
The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.
Though this passage is used in slightly different ways in Isaiah and in 1 Peter, maybe we can summarize it like this: God’s word is what God says, and what God says is true forever. Ultimately, this is about God’s faithfulness, God’s active kindness toward us. The word of God is true forever because God faithfully and continually makes his word true.
By contrast, we are like grass because we are ultimately incapable of being faithful. Our words, like our lives, are short-lived. But we see that God’s eternal word touches our finite lives: Isaiah showed us that God’s word is his covenant faithfulness to his people. Peter was able to see this fulfilled: God’s spoke his faithfulness to us so completely that he became human. God’s word touches our lives because God spoke into our very lives in the person of Jesus Christ. And through this word of God, we are born into eternal life.
I spoke at the beginning about how I had, in a sense, poured my life into my laptop, even though I knew wouldn’t last forever. It seems ridiculous to think that I had counted on something so transitory to sustain even a small part of me. But if you use your imagination and think about it from my laptop’s perspective, the situation is rather different. My laptop could never sustain me, but in a way, by pouring myself into my laptop I was actually sustaining it. By using it, I gave it some kind of “life”. Without me, it was essentially dead. Similarly, we have no life apart from God’s word. God sustains us by pouring his life into us in Jesus.
This isn’t a perfect analogy, but hopefully it helps illustrate the point a little. When we think about the eternal nature of God’s word, we need to understand that God’s word both endures forever and is the source of eternal life. Apart from God’s word—without God pouring his own life into ours—we pass away like grass. We are sustained by God’s word Jesus Christ. Not just our minds or our morals, but everything we are.
The problem is, we don’t hear God’s word like Isaiah or Peter. Isaiah received the word of the Lord in a special way. Peter spent three years with Jesus himself. Even if we believe that God will be faithful to his word, how do we hear it? Maybe that would be a good question to take with you this week: How do I hear God’s word? To give you a place to start, I would say it’s always best begin with where you know God’s word has been revealed and proclaimed: in Christ, in Holy Scripture, and in the church community. But still ask yourself (and be specific): How do I hear God’s word?
But more important than this question is the truth that is attested in Scripture: God has spoken in Jesus Christ. God continues to speak to us through his Spirit. God’s word simultaneously reveals his faithfulness and our unfaithfulness. Yet, in Christ, God’s unending faithfulness takes firm grasp of our weak and feeble faith, so that we can cling to God’s word of promise—even if it means mostly God’s clinging to us. In Christ, we can endure forever by holding to God’s word that endures forever—even if it means mostly God’s holding onto us. Yes, we are like grass. Yes, our faithfulness is like the flower of the field. And yes, the grass withers and the flowers fade, but—but the word of our God endures forever.
December 16, 2010 § 1 Comment
As a way to round off some of the discussions about preaching that have been going on here lately, I thought I’d post my (provisional) theology of preaching. I’ve tried to keep it as positive and constructive as possible. It was originally written as my final paper for homiletics class, and I’ve left it relatively unchanged. So here it is, the fruit of a few months of thought on the subject and several hours of writing. I’ll probably rework it as time goes on, but this is where I am right now.
Preaching is the word of God proclaimed, an event wherein God’s word is mediated through the words of a sermon. As an act of divine communication, it has its origin in Christ, its basis in Holy Scripture, its efficacy in the work of the Holy Spirit, its context in the church, and its end in doxology. As an act of human communication, it is a theological address delivered by an individual within a community.
1. The Essence of Preaching
1.1. Preaching as the Word of God
The first epistle to the Thessalonians describes the nature of Christian proclamation in rather startling terms: “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (2:13). Preaching is not merely an explanation of God’s word or an application of God’s word but it is God’s word. The Second Helvetic Confession directly affirms this: “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” A natural question arises: how can the words of a preacher also be the word of God?
A word is only the word of God if God himself speaks it. We must therefore distinguish between the sermon itself and the act of preaching it. The sermon is an address that has been composed on the basis of scripture and prayer; preaching is the event in which the Holy Spirit mediates God’s word to the church-community through the words of the sermon. Preaching is thus the word of God proclaimed because through it God speaks to the hearts and minds of his people.
1.2. Preaching as Mediation
When we speak of the knowledge of God as coming by God’s word, we understand that it is never immediate, but that it is always mediated. We cannot know God as God knows himself, we can only know God as he has chosen to reveal himself. This means that the knowledge of God must be mediated to human beings in a way human beings can understand. Calvin describes this as accommodation, that God accommodates himself to our limits as an adult does for a child. God has done this and continues to do this through his word, incarnate, written, and proclaimed. It is with the latter that we are currently concerned, yet it will become clear that the proclamation of God’s word is based upon and cannot be separated from the written or incarnate word.
We can say that the preaching of the word of God is the word of God only if we say that it is actually God who speaks through the preacher. This is why the preacher is a mediator, because God speaks his word through the words of the sermon. The preacher cannot manufacture mediation by crafting a particular type of sermon. It is always God and God alone who reveals himself. As Barth says: “God will make himself heard; he it is who speaks, not man. The preacher only has to announce the fact that God is about to speak.”
2. The Nature of Preaching
2.1. Origin in Christ
The preaching of the word of God is the word of God. This means that it has its origin in the first and last word of God: Jesus Christ. Christ is the origin, norm, and purpose of Christian proclamation. We speak because God first spoke to us, and God has spoken most clearly and definitively in his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Preaching has its origin in Christ like rivers have their origin in the ocean: the clouds that rise from the ocean waters rain on the land and fill the rivers that eventually flow back into the ocean. All comes from Christ and flows back into Christ. The preacher’s primary task is not to expound in detail the original meaning of a text, nor to give the congregation five easy steps to a biblical lifestyle, nor to wax eloquent about this or that doctrine; the preacher’s primary task is to preach Christ crucified and risen, to preach that Jesus is Lord. Bonhoeffer is worth quoting at length here:
The proclaimed word has its origin in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It neither originates from a truth once perceived nor from personal experience. It is not the reproduction of a specific set of feelings. Nor is the word of the sermon the outward form for the substance which lies behind it. The proclaimed word is the incarnate Christ himself. . . . The preached Christ is both the Historical One and the Present One. . . . He is the access to the historical Jesus. Therefore the proclaimed word is not a medium of expression for something else, something which lies behind it, but rather it is the Christ himself walking through his congregation as the Word.
To speak of proclamation as Christ himself is simply to accept that the New Testament means what it says when it calls Jesus the Word. Where once the meaning of “the word of God” might have been confounded into ideas of language, now we understand that the Word is a person, Jesus Christ. The act of proclamation is participation the person of Christ. The event of proclamation—the movement of the Spirit from pulpit to pew—is the presence of Christ himself.
2.2. Basis in Holy Scripture
If preaching has its origin in Christ, then it has its basis in Holy Scripture. The Bible can be called the word of God because it testifies to the one who is the Word. The whole Bible is normative for Christian belief and practice—and therefore for Christian proclamation—because by the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit it bears faithful and sufficient witness to the gospel of Christ. Like John the Baptist, the Bible is not itself the light, but it bears witness to the light (cf. Jn 1:8). We can rightly call Holy Scripture the word of God because it has been and is continually taken up by the Holy Spirit, who breathes life into its words. As the word of God written it is the basis for the word of God proclaimed. This is why sermons should have as their basis a certain biblical text. Yet regardless of which text it is, whether from the New Testament or the Old, no matter what its so-called “original meaning” might be, the sermon should always seek Christ in God’s written word. The field of biblical studies might treat historical or linguistic analyses as legitimate ends in themselves, but the congregation must hear the gospel proclaimed.
2.3. Efficacy in the Work of the Holy Spirit
The preacher works hard in the study and in the pulpit, but if the word of God is to be preached it must be God who preaches it. Therefore the efficacy of preaching is in the work of the Holy Spirit alone. Sound biblical exegesis, though indispensable for sermon preparation, will not guarantee that God will speak. Careful organization and delivery, though crucial for the congregation’s comprehension, will not guarantee that people will hear God’s word. Specific contemporary application, though useful for exhortation, will not guarantee that lives will be changed. Unless God says it, it is not the word of God. We cannot preach words and hope that God will add his voice to ours; we must believe that God will speak and add our voice to his. The Holy Spirit, not effective preaching, is the real point of contact between the text and the congregation.
If the goal of preaching is to produce faith and obedience, then it must ultimately be the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not stand above the word as its master but beneath it as its servant. Preaching, though the medium of God’s word, is blind to the event of proclamation. God’s word is not a force to be subdued and controlled but a person to be trusted and obeyed. If the preacher has managed to change minds by sheer force of eloquence, then proclamation has not occurred; it has only been a motivational talk. However, if preaching has resulted in changed hearts despite bumbling words and stuttering voices, then surely the Holy Spirit has spoken.
2.4. Context in the Church
The Bible and preaching are the word of God, but this is true only in the context of the church. This is because all human words, written or spoken, are a dead letter apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. This occurs both at the moment of conception—in ancient words or in the pastor’s study—and at the moment of delivery—during the reading of scripture or at its proclamation. To say that preaching is God’s word only in the context of the church is simply to say that preaching cannot be divorced from Christ. For Christ is the Lord of the church, and his Spirit dwells among his people. Where Christ is preached and believed in the community of faith, there Christ also is. And where Christ is, there is the church. Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “I preach, because the church is there—and I preach, that the church might be there. Church preaches to church.”
This also emphasizes an important characteristic of preaching, namely that it is a communal effort. It is not merely the preacher but the hearers. It is not merely the hearers but the preacher. Preaching must occur within the “being-saved community.” A sermon is not proclamation until it is preached. The actual event of preaching occurs in the church-community when the Spirit takes up the words of the sermon and so uses the preacher as a mediator of the word in the community of the Word.
2.5. End in Doxology
The chief end of preaching is to effect faith and obedience. Paul says that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). These three words, “Jesus is Lord,” are the most concise expression of Christian faith. When the Holy Spirit speaks to the hearts and minds of the church-community through the words of a sermon, the result is a faith that can confess these three words. This confession must lead to obedience, for no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” without saying, “Jesus is my Lord.” Faith and obedience are inseparable: “Only the obedient believe, and only the believer obeys.” This unity of faith and obedience is the expression of doxology. Doxology is the worship of God in spirit and truth, and it is the primary end of preaching. The appropriate response after a sermon is not, “That was interesting,” or, “That was challenging,” but, “Praise be to you, O Christ!” A life of doxology is a life of faith and obedience, a life that believes Jesus is Lord and lives with Jesus as its Lord. Indeed, preaching itself is an act of doxology. The compulsion to proclaim that Jesus is Lord exists only in the one who has already confessed it and continues to confess it. The Holy Spirit, who has worked to produce faith in the preacher and who will work through the words of the preacher to produce faith in the community, is the same Spirit who asks, “Whom shall I send?” The preacher is the one who has responded, “Here I am; send me!” (Is 6:8).
3. The Practice of Preaching
Formally, preaching is unavoidably a form of public address, an act of communication. To say that God speaks his word through the words of the preacher is not to say that the preacher can simply say any words and hope that God will speak through them. (Of course, God can and does choose to speak through whatever means he sees fit, but just because God can speak through a bad sermon does not mean that this is what we should endeavor to produce.) Preachers are both passive and active, passive because they have no control over if and how God’s word will be spoken to the people, but active because their task is one of faithful and obedient proclamation of the gospel.
As an act of communication, preaching is practical theology. This is because theology is the human attempt to communicate intelligibly about the word of God, and a sermon is the attempt to proclaim the word of God. Theology gives us the language; preaching is the conversation. All theological reflection must therefore be normed by event of proclamation. Theology leads directly into preaching, which leads directly into faith and practice. When theology goes bad, preaching goes bad. Any theology worth doing is worth preaching, so when theology cannot be preached, it should be seriously questioned.
As public address, preaching takes the form of an individual speaking in a community. It is not an abstract set of propositions delivered to an abstract group of people; it is a real human person communicating with other human persons. Oration and rhetoric are for the detached individual speaking at a group; honesty and humility are for the person who speaks within a community as one of them. Preaching a sermon in context means knowing the context both of the biblical text and of the ones who will hear it. A sermon attempts to communicate God’s word in a specific community at a certain time. That is why you can never really preach the same sermon twice. God’s word remains the same, but the world in which it is preached is in constant flux. As soon as the preacher becomes detached from the community, preaching will suffer. If we believe that God speaks through his word—incarnate, written, and proclaimed—then we must hold that God speaks through his word to us today. Therefore, preaching can never be divorced from the people who hear it.
Thus far, we have asserted that preaching is God’s word proclaimed precisely because it is God who proclaims it. Yet the readiness of God to speak should never produce laziness in the preacher. On the contrary, the fact that God might speak should terrify the preacher all the more. For if God indeed is ready to speak through a sermon, the preacher should fear lest God’s word be drowned out with the noise of human words. In the end, the words of the sermon should seek to be transparent to the word of God; the voice of the preacher should endeavor to be silent before the voice of God. Far from making preaching an easy task, the reality of God’s word means that preaching will be an unavoidably rigorous exercise. Perhaps the best advice is this: “Pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit—and then work like stink.”
*1* All scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
*2* The Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 1. It explains as follows: “Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good” (http://www.ccel.org/creeds/helvetic.htm, accessed 30 November 2010).
*3* A lengthy discussion of this assertion can be found in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. II, part 1, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. T. H. L. Parker, W. B. Johnston, Harold Knight, and J. L. M. Haire (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010), 9ff.
*4* For example: “The truths of revelation are so high as to exceed our comprehension; but, at the same time, the Holy Spirit has accommodated them so far to our capacity, as to render all scripture profitable for instruction” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson, vol. 2, Calvin’s Commentaries 500th Anniversary Edition 5 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009], 239).
*5* This is the well-known trifold expression of the Word of God as described at great length in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. I, part 2, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. T. Thomson and Harold Knight (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010).
*6* On preaching as mediation, see David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 251ff.
*7* Karl Barth, Prayer and Preaching (London: SCM, 1964), 66.
*8* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Proclaimed Word,” in Clyde E. Fant, ed. and trans., Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1975), 126 (emphasis added).
*9* So, Bonhoeffer: “The word, to be specific, is present in the church-community as the word of scripture and of preaching—essentially as the latter. There is no intrinsic difference between these two forms, for they remain a human word so long as they are not inspired by the Spirit of the church-community. The Spirit is not linked with the word of the Bible like a substance. Thus effective preaching is possible only within the sanctorum communio” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford J. Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 1, Wayne Whitson Floyd Jr., general ed. [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998], 232).
*10* So, Calvin: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the church of God has some existence” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge [Peabody: Hendrickson, 2008], 678 [4.1.9]).
*11* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Causality and Finality of Preaching,” in Bonhoeffer: Worldly Preaching, 138.
*13* Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Geffrey B. Kelly and John D. Godsey, trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 68.
*14* Haddon Robinson appropriately quotes an old adage: “The text without the context is a pretext” (Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd edition [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001], 59).
*15* Kim Fabricius, Propositions on Christian Theology: A Pilgrim Walks the Plank (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic, 2008), 147.
August 3, 2010 § 1 Comment
Here’s another little excerpt from Bonhoffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.
By the way, I notice more and more how much I am thinking and perceiving things in line with the Old Testament; thus in recent months I have been reading much more the Old than the New Testament. Only when one knows that the name of God may not be uttered may one sometimes speak the name of Jesus Christ. Only when one loves life and the earth so much that with it everything seems to be lost and at its end may one believe in the resurrection of the dead and a new world. Only when one accepts the law of God as something binding for oneself may one perhaps sometimes speak of grace. And only when the wrath and vengeance of God against God’s enemies are allowed to stand can something of forgiveness and the love of enemies touch our hearts. Whoever wishes to be and perceive things too quickly and too directly in the New Testament is to my mind no Christian. (213)
July 3, 2010 § Leave a Comment
I am currently reading through T. F. Torrance’s classic book, Theological Science. It functions more or less as his prolegomena to theology, many tidbits of which are found scattered through his other books. It has made me start thinking more about how we can know God, how we can know we can know God, and why it matters.
Most people would reject theology as a science with haste and probably a condescending smile. “It’s nice that you’re trying to take your religion seriously,” they might say, “but the realm of science is reserved for the study of things we can actually measure and observe.” Probably what they have in mind with this statement is a sort of speculative or natural theology, wherein human thinkers conjure up a more or less arbitrary picture of God, based on a transcendental projection of the natural world or, worse yet, based purely on their own desires – a God in our own image. This empty speculation they contrast with hard science, which takes concrete observable data, subjects it to repeatable and reliable tests, and draws conclusions based on fixed behaviour.
Science is an inquiry into the reality of an object as it presents itself to us. Theology can thus be considered a science only insofar as it deals with an objective reality as it is presented to us and as it yields observations that are true to the nature of the object of study. The observations must conform to the nature of the observed, yet this nature cannot be known so long as it remains unobserved. All sciences, therefore, require something of a “leap of faith” wherein an inquiry is made as to the nature or behaviour of a particular object that presents itself to the observer, and if the conclusions reached on the basis of this inquiry are incongruous with the nature of its results, the mode of inquiry must be exchanged for a new one. If, however, the inquiry yields results and conclusions that are congruous with one another, then this method may be pursued further until either it proves to be inappropriate or it becomes recognized as a suitable method. All of this, however, presupposes that we are dealing with a concrete reality. This is the difference between hypothesis and speculation. Hypothesis, like speculation, may or may not prove correct, but, unlike speculation, hypothesis is always directed by reality.
How do we speak of reality in the realm of theology? After all, it seems to stand apart from all other sciences by having no ultimate claim to truth, not only in its findings (in this respect all sciences are open to reevaluation), but even in its own validity. Can we call something “science” if the reality of its object of inquiry cannot be confirmed? Indeed, the theological question, “who is God?” assumes the postulate, “there is a God.” So perhaps it will be said, “first prove that there is a God, and then we can talk about whether or not this God can be known.” But this sort of argument departs from science altogether. Even mathematics, the purest of the sciences, the one which often lays exclusive claim to absolute truth, cannot survive under this scrutiny. “First prove that numbers exist, and then we can look into their study,” will be to no avail, for it would seem that numbers only exist as they are studied, and it is only after we have come a long way in their study that we can determine whether or not they “really exist.” This is why “epistemology has its proper place not at the beginning but at the end, for the logical questions it raises have normative rather than constitutive significance for knowledge” (Torrance, 3). All the sciences, in this way, are “self authenticating.” They assume their own validity, and any query thereinto always points back to the science itself.
So, when we speak of “reality” in theology, we do not refer first to proofs of God’s existence, but rather we refer to the objective reality of God as it is presented to us. This is why speculative theology cannot lead to knowledge of the true God; it does not correspond to any objective reality, but only to the endless fancies of the imagination. The objective reality on which all theological reflection must fix its eyes and to which it must conform is the concrete acts of God in history. For it is only here that we encounter the true and living God in a true and living way. In this way, theological science is always an encounter and interaction with God’s living Word. Apart from God’s Word – incarnate, written, and proclaimed – no amount of theological reflection can produce real knowledge of the reality of God.
February 25, 2010 § 2 Comments
I mentioned in a previous post that most people learn their theology from two main sources: songs and sermons. Interestingly, most people change churches for these very reasons – either they don’t like the preaching or they don’t like the singing. I’m not interested for now in the latter, but as a seminary student right now I’m very interested in how to write a sermon that has a chance of being heard. Any number of things cause people to stop listening: its too long, its too boring, its too complicated, its too fluffy, this message is irrelevant for me, or (my personal favorite) I disagree with one of his comments so he obviously has nothing good to say. I had thought of writing what I thought made for a good sermon, but I realize that different people have different takes on this. So I thought it would be better to ask you: what is most important for you in a sermon, in both style and content?
For some inspiration, here is a quote from a very young Bonhoeffer, talking about the relationship between preaching in the church, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God. (See my previous post, Spirit and Letter, for some thoughts on the relationship between the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.)
The Bible is the word only in the church-community, that is within the sanctorum communio [communion of saints]. The word, to be specific, is present in the church-community as the word of scripture and of preaching–essentially as the latter. There is no intrinsic difference between these two forms, for they remain a human word so long as they are not inspired by the Spirit of the church-community. The Spirit is not linked with the word of the Bible like a substance. Thus effective preaching is possible only within the sanctorum communio. Such preaching has the promise that the word shall bear fruit (Isa. 55:11). The preaching of the word of God is the word of God (Sanctorum Communio, 232-33).
January 30, 2010 § Leave a Comment
School has again begun, and left me in the irksome position of having many new thoughts but having almost no time to express them. For the two or three of you that actually read my blog, I apologize for the wait. I’m taking a course right now about Holy Scripture, and here are some thoughts that have been tossed around.
What does it mean to say that the Bible is the Word of God? One extreme position is the fundamentalist belief that all the words in the Bible were dictated by the Holy Spirit to various passive human agents. This view takes the divine nature of Scripture very seriously, but it essentially must ignore any human activity in the Bible’s production. A more liberal position holds that the Bible is strictly a human book, full of human thoughts about God. If any divine inspiration is admitted in this view, it is limited to the Holy Spirit’s work within the person who would one day write his thoughts about God, drawing from the Spirit’s influence. This view emphasizes the human nature of the Bible. Even the middle ground between these two views, which would suggest that Scripture is partly human and partly divine, fails to do justice to the mystery of divine inspiration.
The Bible is indeed a fully human book; the great mystery is that this doesn’t detract from the fact that Scripture is also fully divine. It doesn’t contain some spiritual truths here and there, scattered in the midst of flawed history and primitive ethics; it is in every word and letter bound by human culture and language, and it is no less in those words and letters penetrated by the revelation of the one true God. It is, as Karl Barth called it, “the Word of God in the words of men.”
What, then, are we to do with the Word of God? The fundamentalist view would have us extract principles and laws which would be binding for all people at all times. The liberal view would leave us free to reinterpret God in any way we choose, perhaps using the Bible as a guide from the ancient (if not somewhat irrelevant) past.
A better question than “What do we do with God’s Word?” is “What will God’s Word do with us?” The perennial attempt to reduce the Bible into a concrete and stable set of ethical principles for right living, based on an appeal to the eternal nature of the truth of Holy Scripture, appears at first glance to honour Scripture’s truthfulness. But it really does no honour to infinite truth at all. Packaging the infinite in strictly finite terms is a necessary part of leading a historical existence. But as soon as we make it static, as soon as we reduce eternal truth into a fixed historical reality, we have emptied eternal truth of its eternity and compressed it into an infinitesimally tiny point, condemning ourselves and any who might listen to us to be sucked into its gravity. The Word of God is eternal in a way that is wholly other than being frozen or static. God’s eternal Word enters finite history not as a series of once-for-all statements, but as the incarnate Word. Not as dead letter, but as living and resurrected Word.
What was Jesus’ quarrel with the Pharisees? That for the sake of their traditions, they had rendered the Word of God void (Matt 15:6). They had converted the eternal Word of God into historical existence by sorting out each law in every possible situation and determining the fixed action that best accords with that particular meeting of law and history. They had established a reliable ethical formula by which to judge themselves and judge others, and in so doing they had appropriated the judgment of God for themselves. They had not the knowledge of God, but the knowledge of good and evil. They were ministers of the letter that brought death rather than of the Spirit who brings life (cf. 2 Cor 3:6).
The Bible is not a rule-book that fell from the sky, but a witness to the living and resurrected Christ. Apart from the Spirit, it becomes a dead letter. Through the Spirit it becomes life-giving. It is the Spirit’s work, in the production, preservation, and proclamation of the Word that allows us to say after reading it, “The Word of the Lord.”
Here’s a thought that I’m still wrestling with. What would it mean if instead of saying that the Bible is the Word of God we would say that the Word of God is in the Bible? That would make a big difference in how we interpret it. Instead of asking what the Bible says, we might rather ask what God is saying through his Word and Spirit. This would mean a lot less “proof-texting” and a lot more inhabiting of the Word and allowing it to inhabit us.