Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Incarnational Preaching

This past weekend I was invited to speak at a workshop for our diocesan deacons on "the passion of preaching." The following is one of my presentations:

When we speak of the Incarnation it is understood that the reference is to the divine Son of God taking on human nature — fully God and fully Man, the divine and the human.

Incarnation is the very fabric of Christian identity. The Church is incarnate, both divine and human. Scripture is incarnate; as Peter says, men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2Pet 1:21).

This theme is stated and modeled throughout the Bible, from Moses taking down what God says to the prophets claiming that their message is the word of God to Paul saying all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2Tim 316).

It seems to me that preaching is also incarnational. It has both a divine and human expression. The divine gives preaching its calling, its gifting and a life-force that goes beyond human explanation. It is because preaching is infused with the divine that Saint Paul can say, Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (1Thess 1:5). The divine — the Spirit-infused — part of preaching is what can give the preacher confidence. Speaking through Isaiah God said,

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isa 55:10–11).

Surely this is why Paul can also tell the Thessalonians: when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe (1Thess 2:13).

The confidence, then, we have in preaching is that preaching is declaring and applying the written Word of God. The writer to the Hebrews says,
The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).
When done in the power of the Holy Spirit it is rightly explaining the word of truth (1Tim 2:15, NRSV). It is the infallible record of the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).

This means that the Bible is trustworthy. It is authoritative. It is without error in all that it teaches. [There is also the issue of interpretation, and one of the things that compelled my turn to the Catholic Church was recognizing that the Church in which and to which the New Testament was written, and the Church that had the authority to finalize the canon, was the Church that housed the Great Tradition of interpretation. The Bible alone — sola scriptura — breeds division over interpretation. Everything I am saying today about Scripture and preaching assumes the integral symbiosis — the inherent mutuality — of Scripture and Church.]

The Bible is true. The existence of truth has fallen on hard times in our post-modern world. Many are unsure that any final truth exists, and if it does, many more question our ability to know it. We are witnessing the unraveling of a society that despairs of, or rejects the authority of, truth. This only raises the importance of the Church proclaiming the truth that is rooted in Scripture. One way we do this is by preaching.

[I should say here that, especially because of the skepticism about truth, we in the Church should all the more be concerned to live the truth as well as proclaim the truth. While God can surely use preaching that tells the truth without practicing it (God spoke once even through a jack ass), the Lord of the Church intends for us both to live and proclaim the truth. It is when the Church fulfills the witness exhorted by Jesus — all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another (Jn 13:35) — that we can expect the question Peter’s letter prepares us for: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have (1Pet 3:15). Preaching is meant to nurture a distinctive people of God, people who let [their] light shine before men, that they may see [the] good deeds and praise the Father in heaven (Mtt 5:16).]

Declaring truth creates a divide. It divides those who believe it and those who do not. True belief also creates a divide for the way people live. This is not just an intellectual issue. Preaching is not merely the proclamation of concepts. Faith does not stop with the confession of the Creed. Preaching is at the crux of life.

Preaching helps identify and establish conviction. Jesus said this about John the Baptizer: What did you go into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? ... No (Mtt 11:7,8). Preaching needs to be done by people who will not be swayed so that the preaching can cultivate people who will not be swayed by the winds of popular opinion.

The biggest obstacle to preaching is nonchalance about truth. For some that is simply a skepticism that truth is real or knowable. But underneath everything is the opposition of The Lie. It is the lie that was told in the Garden of Eden. It is the lie that the Psalmist recognized, people who have the attitude that God either does not see or does not care (e.g., Psa 10:2–11). The lie is told by people described in Peter’s letter, scoffers who follow their own evil desires and make fun of any promised coming of our Lord (2Pet 3:3f).

Of course we recognize open scorn and defiant rebellion against God, but the Lie is more insidious than that. People come under the influence of the lie through advertising — all kinds of “stuff” promising to make life good. “Stuff” cannot make life good. “Stuff” can make life materially pleasant, but “stuff” cannot give meaning and purpose and, most of all, love. Bigger, better, and more — whether it’s money, sex or power — is part of the lie, and it surrounds us and competes with our preaching.

Part of preaching is telling the truth about the lies (and again, we have to be living it — modeling it — if the truth is to have full effect). But we do that, in spite of the fact that truth divides (and creates enemies — just think of the prophets and Jesus and the Church’s martyrs) because we also know that the truth heals. We preach in hope. We preach a new heaven and a new earth where all that is broken will be healed. We preach Jesus, who suffered the worst this world and its lies can do, and who still came back from the dead never to die again. We preach his promise that if we follow him to the cross he will lead us from the grave. This is what it means to preach the Truth.

And yet we preach while still broken ourselves. This is the other side of incarnational preaching — the human side. Having already achieved eschatological sainthood is not a prerequisite for preaching. All it takes is a person with faith, commitment and, ideally, the approval of the Church (of course, there are many “Christian preachers” running around, but Paul did tell the Philippians, But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice — Phlp 1:18). [I don’t care to go further down that bunny trail, but it’s good to keep a larger perspective in mind.]

The incredibly positive thing about the human side of preaching is the way it can add credence to the message. The message and the method are one. The message is Christ crucified for sin and risen from the dead to new life. The reason this is our message is because it is what Jesus did — the message and the method are one. This means that Christians are called to model the message, and if Christians in general are to follow their Lord in death and resurrection, all the more are those who proclaim through preaching to show in their own lives the death and resurrection of Jesus. The message and the method are one.

The Bible is full of people who proclaimed the Word of God and did so by modeling a weak, broken or even persecuted life. Noah was ridiculed. Moses suffered the rebellion of those he led to freedom. Elijah had to hide from Ahab and Jezebel. Jeremiah was despised for his message and finally lowered into a well and left to die (until delivered at the last moment). Jesus is the ultimate example of rejection. Paul refers extensively in his letters to all he suffered for the gospel. Perhaps one way to summarize the importance of this weakness is to hear the implications of Paul’s word to the Corinthians: We hold this treasure in earthen vessels , that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us (1Cor 4:7).

And yet it is that very expression of weakness that testifies to the truth and power of the gospel. How can we dare believe the apostolic record? It is because those men claim:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard (1Jn 1:1-3a, NRSV).

Acts tells us that the very people who put Jesus to death saw the courage of Peter and John and realized they were ordinary, unschooled men... and they took note that these men had been with Jesus (4:13).

The apostles did not turn the world up-side down by proclaiming Jesus risen from the dead — and pay for it with their lives — by spreading a carefully protracted lie. They were agents of Truth going against the “father of lies,” and they modeled the message they were proclaiming. The message and the method are one.

Preaching today is an extension of what the apostles started from the very beginning. Preachers today follow in their train. Apostolic preaching is incarnational because the Spirit of the risen Son of God indwells the human vessel who confesses Jesus with his mouth. God breathes his life into the human preacher so that Jesus is proclaimed. It’s the glory of preaching.

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