Angles on Preaching V: What we might be missing in our preaching? – 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.

Allow me several lead-ins to the one topic. I am still collecting my thoughts on the subject and so to help clarify my thoughts, I need to meander through some doorways.

The first is from Jeremiah 4:16

This is what the Lord says:
‘Stand at the crossroads and look;
            ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
            and you will find rest for your souls.’

Here is a message to the people of Jerusalem who were fast losing the plot. In context, it is a divine plea for them to heed God’s voice. As a text before us in this blog it is an invitation for spiritual reflection. What constitutes ‘ancient paths’ for us? Where is the “good way” that we might walk in them and experience rest for our soul?

The second doorway is a story told by Marsha Witten at the beginning of her book All is Forgiven. One Good Friday she is listening to a broadcast of classical music centred on the passion of Christ when she hears the snail-mail arrive. In the mail is a flyer from a local church advertising what they have on offer. The experience is jarring:[1]

On the one hand, a radio station . . . dramatizes the meaning of Good Friday by airing Bach’s intensely spiritual rendition of the suffering and fallen Jesus, drawn in the stark words of Matthew’s Gospel. On the other hand, [a local church mimics] the slick direct-mail solicitation of a credit card or insurance company, the letter contains a cheerful, practical list of the social and psychological pleasures one might receive from affiliation within its church – with no mention whatsoever of faith or God, let alone of suffering or spiritual striving.

The third doorway is like the previous one. It is a quote at the beginning of one of the chapters in Witten’s book:[2]

‘Secularization presents Christianity with a nasty choice between being relevant but un-distinctive, or distinctive but irrelevant.’ (David Lyon, The Steeple’s Shadow)

In short, in the pursuit of relevance we run the risk of losing our distinctiveness.

The fourth doorway is Paul’s ‘yes, but . . .’ presentation of the Cross:

1 Cor 1:22-25

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

There is a point in the presentation of the Gospel where we hit limitations. Regardless of our eloquence, intellect, wisdom, skill with PowerPoint and even our faith – there still is that point whereby the Cross remains a ‘stumbling block and foolishness’ humanly speaking.

So, for all those doorways, exactly where have we arrived?

The constellation of these quotes speaks to me of the challenge of preaching the Scriptures and making them understandable to people (at best) 2000 years removed from the time they were first penned. The constellation of quotes speaks to me of the kind of ministry modelled by the preachers in Nehemiah’s day:

Nehemiah 8:8

They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.

We stand at a crossroads looking for ancient paths (Jer 6) attempting to reach the world today (relevance vs distinctiveness) by proclaiming a message with a shameful and glorious image at its centre (the Cross).

Consequently, at risk of making the task seem even more difficult, I suggest there are some Biblical images/titles/vocabulary which need to be retained when preaching the Scriptures. Even though they do not translate easily into 21st Century life. I suggest that retaining them goes some way of redefining 21st Century life. I suggest that in the preaching of Biblical passages where these words appear, to airbrush them out of the story in the name of ‘relevance’, is to run the risk of consigning that passage to being indistinct and irrelevant.

To retain these words requires more effort to explain them in a sermon but the effort is better than replacing them. In fact, I think that to remove some of these words is to lose a sense of mystery and majesty in what God has done through the Son by the power of the Spirit.

So, my list (in no particular order and not comprehensive let alone complete):

Selah

We don’t know quite what this word really means. But there it is punctuating the Psalms time and again. The best guesstimate is that it relates to stillness/quietness/silence. I was at a seminar once run by a staff member from Regent College (Vancouver). She claimed she had overheard Eugene Peterson at lunch translate it: ‘shut up!’ The latest NIV translation has dropped the word. I’m not.

Son of Man

Another tricky one. The origins appear to be in Daniel 7:9-14 whereby ‘one like a Son of Man’ is led into the presence of the Ancient of Days. This description culminates in the declaration that:

Daniel 7:14

He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

In the Gospels, this title is the most frequent self-reference by Jesus. It crops up in some very important places such as in the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:10).

Angel of the Lord

This Old Testament being/presence/appearance invariably begins ordinarily enough (as far as angelic appearances go anyway) but invariably finishes with someone covering their face crying out that they are going to die because they have seen the face of God. They don’t die because the Angel of the Lord invariably shows grace and marks a major turning point in the previously-freaked-out-person’s-life. Who is the Angel of the Lord? Opinions range but this is no garden-variety angel. Just ask Abraham, Hagar, Joshua, Balaam’s donkey, Gideon and Samson’s parents. I think many people in the Gospels would love to compare notes with these Old Testament folk (and farm animal).

Exodus

This is not simply the name of one of the books of the Bible; this is the name of life. We all are either one of two states: slavery or on an Exodus. This Biblical trajectory arcs throughout the entire Biblical testimony (including Luke’s account of the Mount of Transfiguration and Peter’s final counsel to the church in 2 Peter).

Exile

This is not an exclusive Biblical term but it in the Bible it enjoys a unique application. Exile is another word for slavery and while it is the judgement of God it is also another excuse for God to show just how great he is at leading people in an Exodus.

Cross

Selah

Resurrection

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1 Cor 15:4).[3]

Sin

I find the image of sin at the beginning of the Bible chilling and salutary:

Gen 4:6-7:

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Like a crouching animal sin lurks at our door. I find it helpful to retain the name of this animal and not because we think we can own it as a pet.

Repentance

See previous entry. This word is especially important when you discover people have been deluded into thinking that thing lurking at the door is the family pet.

Judgement

See previous two entries. This word is one no-one wants in a sentence with their own name and/or as a descriptor of our way-of-being-Christian (i.e. judgemental etc). Maybe the problem is that in examining the noun we have misused it as a verb. Jesus seems the best grammarian and wordsmith concerning ‘judgement.’ He does a lot with it and does it so well. I suggest you look at Christ’s usage in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), the Gospel of John and Revelation.

Satan

. . . and various other names by which this ‘ruler of the power of the air’ (Eph 2:2) goes by. I like the balance found in the Lord’s Prayer as observed by Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas; while temptation and evil are mentioned, Satan is not mentioned by name.

I realise that seems to contradict what I am advocating in this post – retain these words/titles etc. My point is, let’s retain the memory and spiritual awareness but not at the expense of the next key title . . .

Hell

. . . the difference between the previous point and the next point . . .

Lord

While the Roman context in the first century gives a lot of the New Testament engagement of ‘Lord’ its colour and complexion; there is something about ‘Jesus is Lord’ which transcends ALL.

Phil 2:9-11

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

And here ends the sermon. For now . . .

 

[1] Marsha G. Witten, All is Forgiven: the secular message in American Protestantism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 3-4.

[2] Witten, Forgiven, 129.

[3] For a refreshing, challenging, inspirational and no-holds barred treatment of this, see Richard Hays, “Reading the Scriptures in the Light of the Resurrection”, in Ellen Davis & Richard Hays (eds), The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 216-238.

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