A few days ago I began a blog tour on Kent Eilers and Kyle Strobel’s 2014 book Sanctified by Grace. Over the next few days I will be posting some highlights from various chapters, concluding with a review of the book as a whole. Today I turn my attention to the chapter on preaching.
As a college minister I preach quite regularly. At times it can be a challenge (because preaching is always challenging)! But its extra challenging because I straddle the two seemingly opposing worlds of academic theology and pastoral/spiritual theology. Now most people would say, that these sorts of theology should never be in conflict – and I agree! I agree in principle, but in reality it doesn’t often work out as neatly as we would want it to work. Thankfully Eilers and Strobel have put together a book that helps straddle that gap. Here is what they say about this project:
Coordinating the doctrine of the Christian life to God’s economy of salvation and the practices which are fitting to redeemed existence is not one option among many. Rather, we suggest, this coordination between doctrine and life, belief and practices is integral to life within the movement of God’s Spirit. Within the dynamism of the Spirit’s formation, doctrine and life are pulled together in the broader picture of grace. (7)
Doctrine and life! Belief and practice! Pulled together! This is exactly what the church needs – and this is exactly what should be happening in our weekly preaching….
Preaching – William Willimon
Theology, the editors tell us, is never an end in itself; knowledge of God always breaks fort in love to others. A central outlet for this love is in preaching. (17) In the chapter on preaching Willimon emphasizes several things. First is that preaching revolves around
hearing a God who speaks. The task of listening is often overlooked when talking about preaching, but it shouldn’t be! Not only does the congregation listen, but the preacher listens as well! The preacher must listen faithfully to the biblical text just as the congregation must listen faithfully to the word being proclaimed. Listening is not just a skill to be developed though. Listening is a spiritual exercise that hinges on the conditions of our hearts.
But perhaps even more central than listening is to preaching lays the notion that God speaks, and that somehow we speak because God has spoken, and that somehow in our own preaching God speaks! We have a loquacious God – who in our day primarily reveals himself in preaching.
One thing that I really appreciated about this chapter is the importance Willimon places upon the task of preaching. Nowadays many people tend to see preaching as superfluous or as belonging to a bygone era. But according to Willimon this should not be so. A primary way that the Christian life is formed and sustained is by preaching. Willimon rightly points out that in our culture, where preaching is charged with being authoritarian, archaic, or a one-way act of communication, Christians must learn how to be properly attentive to preaching. (227) Thankfully Willimon lists out some helpful practices which will aid in our faithful listening to sermons. Here are a few:
- A willingness not to receive an immediate, practical, pay off from the sermon.
- The expectation that a sermon could disrupt one’s received world by verbally rendering the coming Kingdom of God.
- A patient willingness not to have every single sermon speak to you.
- An understanding that preaching is a communal activity. A sermon is public speech.
- A desire for a preacher, a pastor, who cares more for the right division of the Word of God than for the love or ire of the congregation.
- A relinquishment of our prerogative to talk about what we are obsessed with discussing (sex, family, security, health and a docile willingness to engage in a conversation with a living God, talking about what God wants to talk about.
- A vulnerability to the mysterious comings and goings of the Holy Spirit.
Life with a loquacious God demands disciplines of listening. These words from William Willimon are sure to help make us better listeners of this loquacious God.