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Proclamation and Theology
By William H. Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Preached Word Is the Word of God
"I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions." (Joel 2:28 RSV)
John Wesley, father of Methodism, ignited a revival that swept across the world. A major aspect of that revival was Wesley's preaching. He preached sometimes in open fields, sometimes in little Wesleyan chapels where the common folk of eighteenth-century England heard him gladly. Early on in his movement he published a book of his sermons that were transcribed by faithful followers and edited for publication. He insisted that his lay preachers read, inculcate, and imitate his Sermons before they attempted to preach on their own. In fact, Wesley's Sermons comprise an essential part of Methodist doctrine to this day.
And yet for most of us, reading Wesley's Sermons is an unedifying activity. (I have had the same disappointing experience in reading the sermons of Luther or Calvin.) The language sounds stilted and dry. The sermons are overly formal, devoid of illustrations and connections with everyday life, or any of those characteristics that we think are essential for sermons today. Of course they are not Wesley's sermons as they were actually preached. These are transcriptions for publication. Something was no doubt lost in the move from oral to written form. Still, one is baffled that thousands heard Wesley with such gratitude and to so strong an effect.
Perhaps Wesley the preacher possessed an impressive presence in the pulpit. A stirring voice and imposing stature command the respect of an audience. Wesley must have been a strong figure when he preached.
Well, forget it. Wesley had a tiny physique, even for his day. He stood about five feet two and had delicate features. His voice, while said to be pleasing, was rather frail. What was there about the man that made his sermons rend the hearts of his hearers? A Swedish visitor came all the way to England to hear him preach in 1769 and, after hearing him declared, "He has no great oratorical gifts, no outward appearance."
What did Wesley have that made his sermons so powerful? The answer is nothing. It was not the man who made the message move people with such power, nor even the message itself, though Wesley's sermons are well crafted and theologically substantive. Wesley's sermons "worked," they taught, they moved, and they delighted (three characteristics that Augustine demanded of good sermons) because of God's speaking rather than Wesley's.
The reasons for any sermon speaking to the hearts, minds, and souls of the hearers are always more theological than anthropological, due more to the nature of God than the nature of the preacher or the hearers. "Theology" means literally "God words" (theos = God; logoi = words). But theology does not just mean words about God, our talk about the meaning of God. Theology also means God's talk, God's talk about the meaning of God to us. Christianity is a "revealed religion," which means that it is based upon the conviction and the experience of a loquacious God. Preaching is not merely what we say, even what John Wesley said, or what we hear, even the most astute of us listeners. Preaching is what God says.
Wesley's sermons spoke to people because the God of Israel and the church deemed it right to speak to people through Wesley's sermons. I cannot capture or completely reproduce the sound of the divine voice, or its effects, in my reading of Wesley's sermons, not because Wesley is of the eighteenth century and I am of the twenty-first but because preaching is something that God does rather than something that either I or John Wesley does. We preach because God speaks, and a primary way for this God to speak is through preaching.
We preachers are subservient to the power of God to speak. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 3:7, "So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth." We preachers, when compared with the mass of public speakers of various stripes, are distinguished by the rather unique quality that we do not work alone.
If you have never had your soul seized by God in a sermon, if you have never been surprised that through the frail, inadequate, poorly delivered, not fully comprehensible words of an ordinary woman or man preaching your life was changed, if you have never been swept away by the rush of divine revelation coming to you in a homily, then you may think that this talk about God speaking in preaching sounds silly.
Yet for the multitudes, which no one can number—who have been enlisted in God's great movement to take back the world, all those who heard their name called by God through a preacher, all those who risked life itself on the basis of nothing more than words heard in a sermon, the saints who have gone before us and who even now stand among us—the preached word has been, still is, the very Word of God.
I'm saying that God in Christ became incarnate in John Wesley's sermons. The Almighty God, who hung the stars and flung the planets in their courses, came close to humanity in preaching. The evidence for that outrageous claim is not in Wesley's sermons. The evidence is in the people he produced through his preaching, or more accurately, in the undeniable work God did through a preacher named Wesley. Our God talks, and talks a great deal, mainly through preaching.
Creation through Words
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (John 1:1-3)
Thus begins John's Gospel. In this majestic, poetic beginning we hear an echo of an earlier text, Genesis 1:1, "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth...." There are gods who create worlds by having sex with other gods, or through a primal, cosmic battle between good and evil, chaos and order. But this God creates through nothing but a word. All this God has to do is to say the word, "Light!" and there is light. "Animals!" and there is now something where before there was nothing but formless void.
On a cloudless night this God called Abram, a nomadic desert sheik, out of his tent and promised to make a great nation from this childless old man and his aged wife Sarai. Though the world considered the old couple to be "barren," God promised Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars and would comprise a nation that would be a "blessing to all the nations" (from Genesis 18). And all this would be on the basis of nothing more than a promise, nothing more than words. That's the way this God works.
When that promised people became numerous, they found themselves as slaves in Egypt, under the heel of the most powerful empire in the world. Moses is out in Midian, watching over his father-in-law's sheep. (Moses had killed a man back in Egypt and was hiding out in Midian.) Before an astounded Moses, a bush bursts into flame but is not consumed. Even more astounding, the bush speaks! (Exodus 3)
"I am the Lord your God. "Now you go to the Pharaoh and say, let my people go."
Is that all? God is going to free the Hebrews on the basis of nothing but a command from a none-too-talented and untrained speaker like the murderer Moses? As Moses wants to know, "Who am I that I should go to the Pharaoh and say ...?"
But that is the way this God works, creating something out of nothing, a people out of nobodies, free women and men out of slaves, all on the basis of nothing but words.
Those people, now free, are given a land "flowing with milk and honey," just as God had so sovereignly promised. But they wandered. They consorted with other gods, forgot their origins, forgot the God who had liberated and blessed them. So God sent a peculiar set of preachers called "prophets." These God-obsessed individuals were personally chosen by God to give the people of Israel the bad news of their coming exile, then to sustain them through the horrors of their Babylonian captivity, then to announce that they were going home, then to direct how they would reconstruct themselves as God's people—all on the basis of nothing but words. The prophets of Israel were poets who were preachers, preachers who were poets. They deconstructed old worlds and envisioned new worlds, with some of the pushiest, poetic, figurative, and powerful speech ever uttered, all on the basis of nothing but words.
In a 1551 sermon series on the prophet Micah, reformer John Calvin said that the whole purpose of the church is to preach. The reign of Christ is established, not by swords, says Calvin, but by the preaching of the Word. Calvin bases this assertion on the words of the prophet:
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. (Micah 4:3-4 RSV)
Peace on earth, swords transformed into plows, all on the basis of words from the "mouth of the LORD." As a contemporary commentator said of the preaching of Martin Luther, "By the power of his mouth hearts were melted like snow by the breath of spring as he showed the way to heaven's goods which had been closed for centuries."
The Word of the Lord not only creates but also devastates. For something to be born, something must die; for there to be transformation, there must be dismantling. The Word of the Lord destroys what has been so that something new may come.
In the Bible, word precedes world. There is nothing until there are words to create something. The names are not necessarily connected to the thing but rather arise from the one who does the naming. Reality is linguistically constructed. Word precedes world. Words do not arise from things, but rather things are evoked by the Word. Word precedes all things. God said, "Let there be light." And there was. Yahweh allowed the earthling, Adam, to enjoy a bit of divine creativity by naming some of the cattle and birds (Genesis 2:20). Creativity is a word-derived phenomenon.
The New Testament opens with John the Baptist standing in the Jordan, calling people to get washed. John tells those who take comfort in the old order, "God can raise up a people out of the stones in this river if God must" (Matthew 3:9 author paraphrase).
God had done this before. From out of formless void, the tohu wabohu, God had spoken and there was life and light. On a starlit night, God called Abraham out of his tent, promising to make a great nation to bless the world from a man and woman as good as dead. And all this newness was created by nothing but words. Word makes world.
And then there came One among us, born as we are born, who was named Emmanuel, God with us, Word Made Flesh. And what did he do? He came preaching (Matthew 4:17). Luke records his first great assault upon the world-as-it-is was in a synagogue, in a pulpit, quoting his favorite prophet, "'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ... to bring good news....'" (Luke 4:18).
The Word Made Flesh was the embodied, active Word, healing the sick, embracing the untouchable, enlightening the blind, turning over the temple tables, and riding into Jerusalem in triumph. But mostly he spoke. He assaulted the world, not with violent deeds but with a barrage of words—parables that shocked, evoked, amused, and disclosed; sermons that often ended with a riot; blessings, curses, proverbs, and prophesies. He said he brought a new kingdom and some—not that many, not many of the wise and powerful, but enough to attract the worried attention of the authorities—hailed him as "King." He sure talked often enough of his present and coming "Kingdom of God," but that was about all he did to inaugurate his reign. He just talked.
His talk was enough to get him tried, tortured, and horribly, publicly, humiliatingly executed. His metaphors were sometimes obscure, his parables hard to follow, and his meaning elusive, but he spoke clearly enough for the governmental and religious authorities to get his point. They crucified him in their attempt to get him quiet.
For three days the silence was deafening.
The accounts of what happened on the third day after his crucifixion, the first day of the week, are diverse and confusing, as if the witnesses did not know how to bring what they had seen and heard to speech. Some women (where were the men?) who loved him came to his tomb in the early morning darkness and in grief, and there they were met by an angel. "'Why do you seek the living among the dead?'" the angel impudently asked them (Luke 24:5 RSV). "He has risen, he is not here.... he is going before you to Galilee" (Mark 16:6-7 RSV).
And the startled women race all the way back to the male disciples and announce, "He is risen!" They thus became the first witnesses to the resurrection, the first evangelists to spread the good news, "He is loose! The story is not over; it is just beginning!"
Why Galilee? It is an undistinguished location by any account. Why, on the first day after his resurrection, did he go there? Galilee is where his preaching began. He has gone back home, back to the hinterland where his movement began, to resume his preaching, this time as resurrected Christ.
Luke says that while a couple of the disciples were walking that very afternoon from Jerusalem to a little village of Emmaus, a stranger appeared and walked with them. The stranger "opened the scriptures to them," revealing all that the prophets had said (Luke 24). That evening, seated around the dinner table, when the stranger took the bread and broke it and gave it, they saw. The stranger vanished, and they ran all the way back to Jerusalem shouting, "The women were right! He has appeared to us!"
John says that very evening the disciples were gathered "behind locked doors for fear." They had good reason to fear, having witnessed what the authorities did to Jesus. And now that they were alone, and Jesus dead, with they themselves as his betrayers, fear is what they felt (John 20).
John says that the risen Christ stood among them and said, "Peace." He spoke to them. He offered them his risen body as validation of his resurrection. He gave them power to forgive sins, and then he vanished.
Why would the risen Christ appear first to these fearful ordinary men and women, his disciples, who had demonstrated so conclusively their failure to follow him and be his courageous disciples? Why would the risen Christ not appear to some powerful, influential, public figure like Pilate or Augustus?
He came to the ones who had fled the conversation once the going got rough. He came to the very ones who had so disappointed and forsaken him, those whom he had so patiently taught and yet who had so patently misunderstood his every word. He came to them and said, in effect, "Let's talk. As I was saying...."
And thus was the church born, and thus were we all made witnesses of resurrection and preachers of good news. The sermons are not over. They are just beginning.
And the conversation was resumed. Time and again in our history with the God of the church and Israel, when we have betrayed the love of God with our infidelity, when we have misunderstood, when we have fled into the darkness or stopped up our ears and hardened our hearts, this God has returned to us and has resumed the conversation. Thus Paul prayed that God might "open to us a door for the word" (Colossians 4:3), acknowledging that the means of this conversation are at God's initiative, not ours.
In that divine-human dialogue, in that conversation, this God has proved to be remarkably resourceful and imaginative, full of stratagems and devices—the Incarnation, Word Made Flesh, being the most imaginative of all. There is a relentlessness about the speech of this God, an effusive loquaciousness, a dogged determination not to rest, not to fall silent, not to cease striving until every single one of us is part of the conversation.
Therein is our hope. Here is a divine-human dialogue that is initiated and, at every turn in the road sustained, by a living, resourceful, long-winded God, thank God.
Excerpted from Proclamation and Theology by William H. Willimon Copyright © 2005 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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