Stephen Wright’s Alive to the Word, which features in our Winter Sale, offers a constructive reflection on the practice of preaching – from its basic theological rationale right through to the dynamics of live communication and its aftermath. In this extract, Wright explores what an ethic of preaching might look like:
The preacher as listener
If it is the case that as creatures and children we can have no pretension to initiate genuine God-speech that is both loving and true, but can only repeat, echo and imitate that which God himself has already said or is saying, then it follows that the preacher’s first task is to be a listener to God. If, in addition, it is the case that only together in human community are we destined to bear God’s image, and that together in Christ we are ‘being renewed in knowledge after the image of the creator’ (Col. 3.10), we are called also to be listeners to others, and especially those within the body of Christ.
We will listen for God in those places and in that manner that are suggested by our account of how God has revealed himself. We will hear him first and above all in Christ: the Christ who is alive, who speaks through his Spirit, who is more than Scripture and over Scripture, yet is also the Christ of Scripture, those books where through humility and prayer the Church has discerned that he is especially and normatively to be found. But at the same time, in Christ we discern that God’s creation itself, the world of nature and of history, are also vehicles of God’s revelation, so we shall not neglect to look and listen for his word there too.
To claim that God in Christ both continues to speak by his Spirit and continues to speak through his creation (which, of course, is imbued and enlivened with his Spirit) will sound risky to those who wish to guard the preacher’s words – and the Church – by tying ‘the word of God’ in a strict sense to Scripture itself. Yet, as we have seen, a living Christ and a creation of which Christ is Lord forbid us from thus narrowing the field within which we may listen out for God’s word. This does not mean that we may presume to discern in events or culture or nature a ‘word’ from God that is inconsistent with the trajectory of Scripture. It is rather that a respect for the dynamism of the word of the living God forbids us from confining that word to Scripture or thinking that careful Bible study, principled exegesis and prayer will somehow guarantee the faithfulness or appropriateness of our message, or that it will be a means of encounter with God or teaching from God.
Listening only in Scripture for ‘the word of God’ may sound a safe option, but in fact it is not. Significantly different readings of Scripture as a whole are offered by different Christian groups. When we get down to individual passages, a glance at the commentaries or a discussion with Church members will quickly reveal that even on matters of some importance, the implications of the text are received in a wide range of ways. ‘Refuge in Scripture’ may end up, therefore, being a mask for refuge in the preacher’s own construals – delivered as if they were the authoritative guide to the authoritative word.
Openness to the Spirit who speaks in the present, and to the creation too as a vehicle for God’s speech, may seem to make our discernment of God’s word less secure and certain, but in fact it acts as a bulwark. Scripture is our central, definitive channel for this word, but it is not the only one. Another difficulty with the view that confines God’s word simply to Scripture is that it offers no help with drawing out Scripture’s import for our own times, which in the nature of the case cannot be found within the pages of Scripture itself. To recognize that there are other channels for God’s revelation is to allow the impact of Scripture to be felt in an authoritative way, as its witness is confirmed, clarified and applied through God’s speech through his Spirit and his world.
Another vital check on our preaching is the calling to listen to others, especially those within the Christian community. This is far more than a merely pragmatic matter, as if this were just a good way to ‘communicate better’ or ‘make the gospel relevant’. It is the ethical consequence of the shared character of our calling to bear the image of God and echo his voice in the world. As we have seen, this is perfectly compatible with the calling and gifting of some individuals to be special ‘voicers’ of the word of God. But such spokespeople are called not just to listen to God in the silence of meditation or Bible study, nor only in the careful discernment of God’s ways in the world, but also among God’s people themselves (cf. 1 Cor. 14). In all these ways the preacher must listen out for the voice of God, as he or she prays: ‘Lord, speak to me, that I may speak / In living echoes of thy tone.’
The preacher as gospeller
If we as preachers are fundamentally creatures, called to echo the tones of the creator, what may we further say about the kind of voice we should be listening out for, the kind of tones we can expect to hear?
The key reality here is the gospel itself. The gospel is the proclamation of God’s good news for the world, and it concerns Jesus Christ. It cannot be reduced to a formula, or simply summed up in a guaranteed form of words. It is God’s own pronouncement and decree, and as such belongs to God himself. It cannot be domesticated any more than any of his words can be. But as we read the Scriptural testimony to the gospel, we discover that, amazingly, it is precisely this good news to which all his other words point.
We may say, therefore, that it is both illogical and unethical for a preacher to preach anything but ‘good news’. There are countless ways to ‘preach the gospel’, for different occasions and groups, and these will be modified as the gospel is unfolded for each new generation. We shall look at some of the classic varieties of the sermon in Chapter 8. But the essential gospel character of God’s revelation, and therefore of our attempts to echo it, have certain implications which must apply to all our preaching. Especially, it is important to hold together certain realities that at first glance may be seen as incompatible or even as opposites.
First, to preach the Gospel is to announce what God has done in Christ, in fulfilment of his promises, but also to relate it to the contemporary world. If we preach a vaguely comforting but timeless message about (say) God’s present care, we are not preaching the good news, which is unambiguously tied in the New Testament to the Christ-event. Equally, if we preach a historically sound message about what God did in Christ, but demonstrate no sense of what God in the living Christ can do and is doing now, we are not preaching the good news, whose climax is not the death of Christ but his exaltation to the Father’s right hand as living, present, Lord.
Thus all preaching must hold together these two poles of the decisive past action of God in Christ, and the claim that action makes upon us in the present. Fundamentally, that claim is simply that we should accept that past action for what it was and live out its consequences. But a preacher who is unable to discern or to communicate any particular ways in which those consequences are being or should be played out today will be a poor guide and gospeller to the world.
Too often Christian preaching has suffered from a dichotomy. The ‘liberal’ tendency has emphasized the present reality and possibility of human transformation – not denying Christ, but always in danger of relegating him to a timeless principle, and downplaying the uniqueness of his historical life, death and resurrection. Meanwhile, the ‘conservative’ tendency has emphasized the uniqueness of his historical life, death and resurrection, but has sometimes downplayed his power in the present by speaking of the impact of his work in purely inward and individualistic terms. A gospel that is faithful to the living Lord of Scripture will speak both of the historical story of Jesus and of how his transforming power remains for us not only as individuals, but as communities, and for the world itself.
Second, the gospel is both good news in the profoundest, most heart-warming sense, and a challenge to the most fundamental and radical reorientation of life. To drive a wedge between these two is to separate what God has joined. Both Jewish and Roman backgrounds of the word ‘gospel’ emphasize this, and it is confirmed in the way both Jesus and his early followers announce God’s ‘gospel’.
In Judaism, ‘gospel’ carries echoes of Isaiah 40—66. The ‘good news’ is Yahweh’s royal proclamation that his people’s sins are put behind them, and behind him, and that he is coming in power to give them a new start. This is a breathtaking, intoxicating hope. But it is also a profoundly, disturbingly world-shattering hope. There is no room left for the dreary, despairing settling-down which would seem the only option if the future were unchangeable and purposeless. The good news is an announcement demanding a response. The same is true of Roman imperial decrees: the birth of the emperor Augustus may indeed have been ‘good news’ for the whole earth, but this is not merely a benevolent reassurance (that people might or might not have found credible) that the emperor was the guarantor of worldwide peace. Such peace was dependent on submission to the imperial rule and system.
When Jesus goes public in Galilee proclaiming God’s gospel, it is demonstrably ‘good news’ for all who find themselves restored in mind, body and spirit, welcomed back into the community of God’s people, and joyfully encountering God himself in Jesus. But this is the gospel of a ‘kingdom’, a divine empire, a real state of affairs which demands a transformed attitude and praxis in all spheres of life. It demands ‘repentance’ (Mark 1.14). Jesus brings to fulfilment the hope announced through the ‘gospel’ of second Isaiah (Luke 4.16–21; cf. Isa. 61.1–4). It is intoxicating in its joy, and uncompromising in the new perspectives and actions it calls for. None is excluded by God, but only by their own hardness of heart.
So it is with the gospel concerning Jesus proclaimed by the apostles and their colleagues. It is good news of God’s eternal love (cf. John 3.16; Rom. 5.8; 8.31–9) but as the New Testament amply testifies, it is quite possible to remain in a state of resistance to it. It calls for recognition – not a merely passive response, but faith or faithfulness like that of Abraham, active trust in God that demonstrates one’s right relationship with him as a true member of his family (Rom. 4). God in his mercy has overlooked past transgressions, but now commands all people to repent. Jesus is not only Saviour, but the one through whom and by whose faithfulness to Yahweh the world will be judged (Acts 17.30–1).
So if the sum of God’s words is ‘gospel’, and our words are to echo God’s, all our preaching will have the two-sided character of ‘gospel’ as both genuine good news, and news which demands a response. Sometimes preaching has failed to hold these two sides together as Scripture does. The sharp Lutheran theological division of ‘law’ and ‘gospel’, for example, can push Torah away from gospel in an unscriptural fashion (though as Paul Scott Wilson has shown, this was not Luther’s own approach to preaching). There is good news in Torah – it is given as a gracious gift to guide God’s people, by the one who has redeemed them (Exod. 20.2; Ps. 119). And the gospel is, in important ways, the summation of the law. Jesus’ disciples are commanded to go and make more disciples, teaching them to observe everything Jesus has commanded them (Matt. 28.20). This closeness between Torah and gospel explains the tension seen in Paul’s writing between different statements about the ‘law’. It is good, yet on its own it is insufficient, because a fuller revelation of God has now appeared in the gospel. Therefore preaching which echoes God’s word cannot neatly divide up these ‘words’ of God, law and gospel, for the one is truly fulfilled in the other.
It is also quite possible to get the weighting of good news and challenge wrong even without a doctrinaire law/gospel division. Any sermon may fall into a trap of proclaiming a merely reassuring ‘gospel’ without the challenge, or a merely challenging ‘gospel’ without the reassurance. Some may genuinely try to do both, yet fall short, as when the good news of Jesus is followed by various unrelated or purely humanly inspired exhortations or demands. Hence the power of Eugene Lowry’s proposal that having allowed the congregation to experience the gospel, a preacher should simply ‘anticipate the consequences’. The ‘so what’ flows out of the gospel itself; it is not a mere add-on. Paul Scott Wilson’s schema of ‘trouble and grace’ in the sermon is also a helpful check to ensure that the preacher’s ‘gospel’ is really ‘gospel’.
Thus it is a part of the basic ethic of preaching that it is genuine good news which echoes that of God.
Stephen Wright is an Anglican priest and former Director of the College of Preachers, who now teaches biblical studies and preaching at Spurgeon’s College, London.
Alive to the World is available at a special sale price of £5.00 until Friday 17th February 2017. You can find a great range of other titles in our Winter Sale by clicking here.