Angles of Preaching II: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness” – Geoff New

Rev Dr Geoff New is Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership and is based in Dunedin.  He has a particular passion for preaching and has been a director in the Kiwi-Made Preaching organisation since 2012.

I can’t remember where I read this quote but it has stayed with me for years since: “You’re not really preaching until people hear that Other Voice” (Billy Graham).

Sometime last year I was in church listening to the sermon. That’s not strictly true, I wasn’t listening. My mind was wandering and I was feeling increasingly frustrated. The Bible passage had been read just before the sermon but the preaching was not engaging with the text. I know it sounds harsh, but Proverbs 25:14 sum up these incidents:

Like clouds and wind without rain
is one who boasts of gifts never given.

Through the reading of the Biblical text the gift had been held out but the clouds and wind that followed did not rain the Word of God that day.

So, I sat there with my attitude deteriorating. And then through the sermon (go figure!) I heard the Voice! Or did I see it? I’m not sure. It was an instant of both hearing and seeing; I heard the text “a voice of one calling in the wilderness” (Mark 1:1-4) and I saw a desert place in my mind’s eye with John the Baptist standing there. With that hearing/seeing an avalanche of meaning and challenge tumbled into my soul. I felt called to that wilderness place as a preacher so that I might better hear the Voice to better echo the Voice.

Over the subsequent months, I deliberately chose not to overthink what was happening. I decided to gently engage with the narratives about John the Baptist; not to make it happen, but rather, to see what happened. Part of the dynamic is that I have never really warmed to John the Baptist as a character in the Bible. And yes – I know reading the Bible is not like Facebook where I get to select my friends, but even so, I always imagined John the Baptist as being a wild-man with spittle flying from his mouth with his denunciations and declarations. I guess Michael York’s portrayal of John the Baptist in the movie Jesus of Nazareth had a lot to do with that. But here are some of my initial ponderings as a preacher drawn to the wilderness to learn from the one who prepared the way for the Lord:[1]

“I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20)

As a preacher, your identity is not found in the applause or criticisms levelled at you; it is found in the Messiah Jesus Christ and the revelation that you are not Him.

“A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me” (John 1:30)

This is worthy of careful and prayerful consideration – your preaching never begins with you. You preach concerning the One Who comes after you but who has already gone before you and surpasses you. This is mysterious and maddening to try and think this one through. But it’s not linear; it’s all encompassing. Christ is supreme and the act of preaching must surrender to that. Always.

“I baptise you with water . . . He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matt 3:11)

When tempted by popularity and power, remember this: you can only baptise with water. Jesus reserves the right to use fire and Spirit.

“He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30)

The most stinging and accurate criticism I ever received about my preaching was “The problem with your sermons is that people leave thinking more about themselves than they do about Jesus.” The problem is not only elevating ourselves in the act of preaching but elevating the listeners at the expense of Christ. Two quotes help me with this:

No preacher can convince their congregation at the same time that they are clever and Christ is wonderful.[2]

[If you know you’re God’s beloved], you can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure without losing your identity, because your identity is that you are the beloved.[3]

“‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered . . .” (Luke 3:10-11)

Preaching leads to response. A sense of urgency marks our craft. In Luke 3 the crowds, tax collectors and soldiers responded to the message by asking “What should we do?” The three groups are representative of the life and times of 1st Century Palestine. John the Baptist’s replies were specific and grounded in the essence of the Torah and writing of the prophets. John the Baptist’s response is an early version of Jesus’ later summary of the law and prophets:

Matthew 22

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

If John the Baptist’s summary is representative of 1st century Palestine and the Torah; Jesus’ summary is representative of life and Word eternal.

Take some time and wander in the wilderness. May your voice be attuned to The Voice.

[1] These reflections are engaged with in more depth in a preaching workshop I am currently taking around Presbyteries. Through July to October I will be in Central, Kaimai, Northern and the Pacific Island Synod conducting the workshop. Email me at geoff@knoxcentre.ac.nz for dates.

[2] James Denney. This quote appears in various forms but the essence is retained here.

[3] Henri Nouwen, “From Solitude to Community to Ministry”, Leadership (Spring, 1995) 82.

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