God is a speaking God. It’s how he acts, how he creates, how he reveals himself. Throughout the Bible, God reveals truth and creates by speaking truth. As Glen Scrivener says, God is an external processor, he is never without his Word. At the very start of all things, God spoke the Universe into being. God is a preacher.
When we preach, we speak God’s words after himself, we both reveal the truth, and create God’s kingdom by speaking the truth. By ‘speaking God’s words after himself,’ I mean that we get on with the business of proclaiming the truth that he has already proclaimed, in the way that he has proclaimed it. God has revealed himself to us in Christ, who we meet in the pages of the Bible. The Father and the Spirit’s greatest desire is to demonstrate Jesus as ultimately glorious to the cosmos.
To preach is to proclaim Jesus, and by that to demonstrate him to be the beautiful centre of all things.
This means that for the hearers, preaching is primarily about encountering Jesus. If you ask most people what they think preaching is—and I’ve tried this a few times—the most common answer you get is something like ‘teaching.’ We think of preaching in an educational paradigm.
I would love us to get away from that. I believe in the Ephesians 4 gift of the Teacher in the church, but that isn’t what most preaching is or should be. Sometimes a preacher might teach, but that’s not meant to be the main thing that’s going on.
In my sort of setting sometimes we talk about preaching as ‘teaching:’ “come to our weekend away for great teaching, time to worship together and loads of fun,” or something along those lines. I’m not sure how helpful that is. There are meant to be very few parallels between a lecture and a sermon—it’s an entirely different genre of event.
Or be specific, it’s an event, and lecturing is information transfer.
I’m using the word event in a specific way we probably don’t most of the time, but I mean an occasion when we encounter Christ by the Spirit. My Charismatic doctrine of the church is that it’s constituted in four events—the two sacraments, preaching, and the worshipping body seen in what we typically call contributions.
This is a Charismatic doctrine of preaching: preaching is nearer what happens in the Lord’s Supper than to what happens in the lecture theatre or at a TED Talk. There’s something almost sacramental about it: we will encounter Jesus in the text as the preacher declares the word.
For Charismatics, I’m really just saying: treat preaching the way you treat your sung worship. We expect that to be a time of encounter with Jesus and treat it like an event, despite there being little historical warrant for this—though I think some strong Biblical and experiential warrant.
That also means that preaching isn’t a place where we can expect people to learn to read the Bible by copying the preacher. This doesn’t practically work anyway in my experience, though hopefully the preacher shows enough of their working to allow the congregation to challenge them if they’re concerned about a particular point, we have to create other community contexts for reading the Bible together for this to work.
Instead, what’s meant to be happening is simply this: we hold up Jesus as glorious. We see him as the answer to our deepest questions, as they arise in that particular text. I’m all for practical application in preaching: it’s vital. Except, I don’t think this means what I often hear it described as.
It can be helpful to spell out things that people could do in their lives to better follow Jesus, certainly if we never do this then we’re doing it wrong, but the sermon is not meant to mostly be about what happens after Sunday is over, it’s meant to be about what happens on Sunday.
What I mean is that preaching must have practical application and the most practical application you can give is to adore Jesus right now. That’s what it means to encounter Jesus in the text while the preacher preaches. That’s practical. That’s preaching.
So, the goal of the message is not to explain the passage, though you might do that along the way, but to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ lordship and rescue of us from the text in front of you. We announce Jesus’ victory to the people, and weirdly enough to the Powers as well. There’s a spiritual warfare angle to this. The listeners are equally engaged in this warfare, and their hearts are the battleground. When the victory of Christ is proclaimed and applied, much like Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 1, we would expect the preached word to be accompanied by signs and wonders.
This argument is one of the reasons I’m very cool towards the trend to refer to a sermon or message as a ‘preach.’ The other reason, as part of my natural proclivity for pedantry, is that ‘preach’ is a verb, not a noun.
When we speak of preaching as something you can ‘do,’ because you ‘do a preach’ rather than ‘preach a sermon,’ I think it makes the act less. Do is such a weak slippery verb, a container for meaning but therefore a blank canvas for us to write what we want on. Using verbs that tell us what something is help us remember what something is. Language makes reality. What you call something becomes what it is. That’s how God did it too.
I’m not a big fan of calling sermons ‘talks’—though this is a taste thing because the word sermon is Middle English for ‘talk’—and while you’re unlikely to ‘preach a talk’ like you might a sermon or a message, at least you ‘give’ them, which is a perfectly appropriate verb for what we’re talking about: receiving Christ the Word in the words of his word.
And the aim of preaching? Virtue. Or, in more modern familiar Christian language: becoming like Christ. In Charismatic parlance: everyone leaves changed.
When we meet Jesus in the text, just like when we meet him in the prayers of the gathered church, in the waters of baptism, and in bread and wine, he will change us, inch by inch, to conform to his image.
So, dear friends who are preachers, proclaim him! And friends who are the hearers of preaching, receive him!
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash
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