In my last post I commented on three aspects of preaching as Karl Barth described it. Today I continue my comments on four additional aspects of preaching.
4) “to express in his own words”
Preaching is not just repeating what is written in the Bible. It is retelling the biblical story or explaining biblical concepts with contemporary language. I recently heard a sermon about the the Israelites wandering for forty days in the desert that was retold with humor and a contemporary application. Just yesterday I heard a fine sermon on the book of Jonah that brought it to life with contemporary applications.
5) “and make intelligible to the men [and women] of his generation”
The preacher’s speech needs to make sense to the preacher’s contemporaries. Good sermons deal with the issues of the day. There is a well-known quote from Martin Luther that I have not been able to track down. He reputedly once said, “If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”
The great temptation of preachers is to avoid the issues of the day because they are usually controversial and may upset some people in the congregation who may decide to leave the church or worse yet, gang up against the preacher and force him to leave the church. Issues like abortion, global warming, immigration, and homosexuality are just a few of the contemporary issues most preachers are afraid to touch. So much preaching today is bland and boring because it fails to address the issues of people in the pews.
In March of this year I attended a conference called “A Stirring – Conversations About Loving and Including Gay Christians in Our Churches.” One of the impressive speakers was Danny Cortez, pastor of New Heart Community Church. Pastor Cortez told us that when he came to believe that gay people should be fully included in the fellowship of the church, he felt impelled to tell his congregation, but feared that he would lose them. He preached on this issue anyway, but the church members didn’t leave. Most of the congregation stayed with him and, after a period of intensive study of the issue of homosexuality in the Bible, decided to become a church that fully accepts gay people into its fellowship. Nevertheless this decision was not without cost because Pastor Cortez was summoned before leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention which ultimately decided to dismiss the entire congregation from the denomination.
6) “the promise of the revelation, reconciliation and vocation of God”
Here Barth mentions some of the content of Scripture. These are a few of the big, important themes of the Word of God in the Bible that preacher’s should address. Barth writes about these themes in great detail. The Doctrine of Reconciliation alone takes up four volumes of Church Dogmatics.
7) “as they are to be expected here and now”
The purpose of preaching is not to satisfy our antiquarian interest, but to help us understand what God is doing now. Early in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, narrator Huck tells about his Aunt Polly’s attempt to give him some Bible history:
After supper she got out her book and learned me about
Moses and the Bulrushes; and I was in a sweat to find
out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses
had been dead a considerable long time; so then
I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take
no stock in dead people.
Good preaching is not simply about dead people, but about how God is working in the lives of the living. By the way, Mark Twain’s casual reference to Moses in the bulrushes introduces a central theme in his novel. There are obvious parallels between Huckleberry Finn and Moses. Both Moses and Huck Finn are wards of women of the upper class, the slave-owning class. Moses freed the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt and Huck aids a Southern slave in his flight from his master. Both Moses and Huck Finn are outlawed boys who escape by a river: Moses in a basket of bulrushes on the Nile and Huck by a raft down the Mississippi. So Mark Twain’s famous novel is like a good sermon in that he deals with the controversial issue of slavery by retelling a story of liberation in his own words.
Before reading Church Dogmatics, I don’t think I regarded preaching as the word of God. I have now started to listen a little more intently to sermons. I listen with with more of an expectation that God may use this ancient human art form to speak directly to me.