Angles on Preaching IV: The Whisper of God on the outer fringes – 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.

By chapter twenty-six in the Book of Job, Job is coming to the end of his argument and defence to his friends. He is running out of words, energy and patience – even though the ‘patience of Job’ is proverbial. And here in Job 26, there is a sublime and succinct summary of the work of God in creation. In nine verses (vv 5-13), Job surveys the power of God in dealing with death, destruction, the vastness of space, the mystery of earth hanging in space, the science of cloud formation, the establishment of horizons, the relationship between light and darkness, and the harnessing of monstrous sea creatures.
All this is but a glimpse of a day-in-the-life-of-God. This short but comprehensive survey of God’s power contains the message that God being God is wondrous and beautiful and not to be trifled with. Yet, as a preacher, it is not the description in verses five to thirteen that I find striking as much as Job’s commentary (v 14) on his own survey:

Job 26:14
And these are but the outer fringe of his works;
how faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?

Wait! What?!

The things we see and experience in creation and the things we cannot see but understand God to be in control of – is all this “but the outer fringe of his works”?! Is all this best described as “how faint the whisper we hear of him?!”

These words of Job force me into silence. And in the silence, some questions emerge for me as a preacher:

If all this seen and unseen world is but the outer fringe of God’s work, and is but God whispering – what is God doing when I preach the Scriptures? Are the words of Scripture also but the outer fringe of God’s work and God whispering? Is Jesus Christ, Who being in the very nature God but humbled and emptied Himself (Phil 2:6-7); but God on the outer fringe whispering to us? Is God saying this is all we can handle as human beings?

Maybe. Job finishes his observation with the question:

“Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”

There are at least four occasions in the New Testament when Jesus thunders:

  • The Mount of Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-9). The three disciples fall to the ground terrified.
  • The Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:5-6). The mob draw back and fall to the ground.
  • The Resurrection (Matt 28:11-4). The soldiers fell to the ground like “dead men.” And that was just the angel opening the door to the tomb![1]
  • The appearance of Jesus on the Island of Patmos (Rev 1:12-18). John falls down as if dead.

So, what has all this to do with preaching?

When we preach the Scriptures – is God whispering or thundering? Are the words of Scripture “the outer fringes of his work” or the heart of God’s work?

Let me put it like this.

Just a couple of nights ago the moon rose and it was a big, bright and beautiful half-moon. I grabbed my binoculars and trained them on the moon. However, I remembered that when viewing the moon, the best place to look is not directly at the light side of the moon but at the terminus. The terminus is that line between the light and dark side of the moon. There, at the terminus, you will see the clear detail of craters, mountains and valleys. There, at the fringe between light and darkness is the best view; the most beautiful view. There at the fringe, due to the angle of the sun and the interplay between light and darkness, you will be awe-struck. There at the terminus God whispers.

So, what has all this to do with preaching?

The Bible begins with darkness:

Genesis 1:1-2

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

The Bible ends with light:

Rev 22:5

There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

Everything in between is the outer fringes of God’s work. Everything in between is God whispering. Although on occasions (as itemized earlier concerning Jesus), God clears his throat and sometimes thunders.

So, what has all this to do with preaching?

In the main, Scripture between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22 is the terminus. The description of the work and the sound of the voice of God at the fringe between light and darkness. There on that boundary you will be able to see the detail and beauty of God’s work and life most clearly. There on the outer fringes of God’s work, the Spirit will whisper through your sermon. And as people lean in to hear, sometimes God will thunder. God is playful like that – and majestic.

[1] It could be said that the Resurrection is the greatest demonstration of God “thundering his power” and yet at one level, it needs to be whispered to us so that we can bear to live in the aftermath of its purity, majesty and power until the kingdom is consummated : “Nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of the Resurrection; it was beyond the capacity or the intention of the writers to describe it, and all they offered their readers were descriptions of the effects of the Resurrection on believing humanity, or indeed (in the Book of Revelation) of its effects on the cosmos. The New Testament is thus a literature with a blank at its centre, whereof it cannot speak; yet this blank is also its obsessive focus.” Diarmaid MacCulloch, Silence: a Christian history (New York: Viking, 2013), 40. Even that mysterious text in 1 Peter 3:18-20 appears to be referring to the effect of the Resurrection rather than a description of the Resurrection itself.

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