Stick it in Your Ear!

March 26th, 2012

Someone once attributed to Martin Luther the delightful quip, “Christianity is a Word and someone has to stick it in your ear!” I’ve searched a fair cross section of Luther’s writings trying to find the context for that line and for the German phrase for which it must surely be a loose translation. In any event, it is the sort of thing he would say (it is entirely consistent with his theology of the living word) and closely related to another image for which he is well known.

The church, Luther said, is a “mouth house,” not a “pen house.” He was making a couple of important points. First, Luther was suggesting that the living Word of God was a word preached by way of a human being to a gathered congregation of God’s faithful folk. In other words, one understanding of the Word of God takes the form of a dynamic transaction between God and God’s people by way of the living voice of the preacher. Luther was also reminding us of something else with his use of this image: The church had a witness, a Preached Word, before there was a collection of sacred scriptures. The viva vox evangeli—the living voice of the Gospel—was the precious treasure of the church that called together a community of faith in the Name of Jesus. The church proclaimed Christ crucified, risen, and coming again before it had a text. The church had a Word of the Risen Savior before it had a book.

There are many implications of this for the work of preaching. Luther’s image forces us to consider the nature of preaching itself. When we preach are we participating in an interhuman conversation—talk among people (even if about something as important as the resurrection of Jesus)—or are we active participants in a divine-human transaction of sacred speech? Are we simply talking about God (or salvation, or eternity, or whatever) or are we captured by the vital sense of living word so visible on the pages of scripture that it is impossible to distinguish speech and action? “Let there be light!” declared God, “and there was light,” records the writer of Genesis. God spoke and it was done; it was done by speaking! Luther’s image helps us contemplate the nature of what it means to preach.

If we take Luther’s image one step further, we must ask the question, “What are we to preach?” What was the Preached Word of the Church—the apostolic preaching—before the Church collected the body of sacred texts we know as the New Testament? What was the sacred word before the sacred texts? What was in circulation “mouth-to-mouth” before it was in circulation on the written page? What was the news, teeming with the power of the Spirit, that called the faith community into being? Most of us would say that “the news” was Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, died, buried, risen, ascended, and coming again. That’s the news! Nothing more, nothing less. And the sacred texts that live at the center of the Church’s life are the record of all the head-scratching that went on in the apostolic communities about what they were going to do in response to that news. Capturing this dimension of Luther’s image for preaching is incredibly important. It goes right to the question of the content of our preaching—not the what, but the Who. The Sunday eucharistic assembly pulsates with an eschatological energy that pulls us toward God’s future, and as preachers we stand between the font and the altar to preach Jesus Christ, to preach the news that was before the text.

At this point you might be wondering if I am reducing the role of scripture in preaching. Absolutely not! Far from it. In fact, when preaching focuses more clearly on “the news,” then it is possible to break open the texts with a fresh alertness to their message. The New Testament, for example, gives us inspired insight into the what of Christian faith and the how of Christian discipleship, but both are to be seen and interpreted against the background of the Who (the news!) of Jesus Christ. Think about it this way: When a jeweler is going to set a precious stone, the craftsmanship will be totally devoted to casting light properly on the stone at the center of the setting. Precious metals—silver, gold, and platinum—will be chiseled and shaped and polished to reflect the light to give depth to the precious stone. And a variety of semiprecious stones will be cut and turned so that they will refract the maximum amount of light and illumine the centerpiece. An artistic setting is one that attracts attention to and enhances the beauty of the precious stone at the center of it all. I believe the writers of the New Testament were like fine jewelers. Their ultimate concern was for us to see the Hope diamond (or the pearl of great price, if you prefer) in all its glorious splendor. Our preaching must take a clue from them: The precious metals and semiprecious stones of the New Testament witness reflect and refract the light so that we see clearly Jesus Christ. We must trust those texts and use them in our preaching in the way they were intended: to cast a bright beam of light on the one who is risen from the dead.

Mary Catherine Hilkert, a fine Roman Catholic scholar, has written a book that I value as one of the strongest expositions of “homiletical theology” in recent years. The book is overflowing with sound theology for preachers in liturgical traditions. Almost everything in the book would be a great starting place for further development and discussion. Let me take just one of her ideas and work with it here to give you a taste of the riches that are in store for you when you tackle her work. In a discussion of the power of human words, Hilkert notes that human words essentially accomplish two things: They carry information and they have the capacity to create immediate change with lasting results. Words that convey information are important to the daily transactions of human community but do not necessarily carry with them large amounts of raw power. For example, “The closing banquet for the preaching conference will be held this evening in the Hoffman Refectory on Chelsea Square.” That’s important information for participants in the preaching conference because it tells them when and where they will get something to eat, but it is hardly life-changing information.

On the other hand, words with power to effect change will do two things. They will open up the future or close it down. Take a few examples. Imagine yourself in the “ritual dance” of getting to know another person. You notice each other across the room, meet at the punch bowl, flirt, exchange phone numbers, and go your separate ways. A few days later you meet to have lunch, take in a movie, or go for a stroll in the park. The time together was pleasant and later in the week the two of you get together for dinner and the opera, followed by a nightcap at your favorite tavern. You get the picture. It is the way human beings “dance” their way into relationship with each other, moments filled with anticipation and delight. Then the moment comes. One of you, perhaps with a tight throat and sweaty palms, says, “I love you.” Hmm. Power. These are powerful words with the capacity to change the relationship forever. If the hearer of those words is receptive, the future of the relationship may be opened up and deeper romance and relationship may be an immediate and lasting consequence. On the other hand, if the hearer is less receptive, the power of the words “I love you” may frighten and disturb and cause one’s friend to flee. Consider another example. A person has been ill for some time. Invasive surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy have been the order of the day. Placing significant hope in the results of the medical treatments, the patient anticipates a slow, but steady recovery. The doctor then enters the room and says, “I’m very sorry, but there is nothing else we can do.” Those words carry extremely raw power. The change is immediate and has lasting results.

Think for a moment about the implications of this for preaching the Gospel. If, in addition to carrying information, words have the capacity to open up or close down the future—and in preaching let’s consider that to be one’s future in God—it is not hard to see how much power is at the preacher’s disposal. (What an incredible stewardship. And what potential for abuse!) Ponder with me a sermon on forgiveness. The sermon may carry a large amount of information: biblical teaching on forgiveness, theological ideas that show how forgiveness is related to faith and grace, and perhaps some sacramental theology about confession and reconciliation. The point is, this sermon could be overflowing with information. That’s fine and that’s good. But given the power at the preacher’s disposal to open up the future, the preacher must move beyond the information, as important as it is, and declare God’s forgiveness. An informational sermon might conclude: “Given all of the texts we have examined in the last fifteen minutes, it seems reasonable to conclude that God wants to forgive us.” A more powerful sermon (with the capacity to effect immediate and lasting change) might conclude: “Friends, the Good News of the Gospel is this: In the Name of Jesus you are forgiven.” I am obviously caricaturing this slightly to make the point. We can talk about forgiveness or we can declare forgiveness. They are not mutually exclusive ideas, but it is the declaration of forgiveness that carries the power to change lives.

At this stage I want to return for a few moments to the idea of news and I want to make a bold assertion: People are changed not when words are spoken, but when they are heard. This is not a new idea—plenty of folks have called our attention to it—but it is a profound idea for the preacher to embrace. Allow me to raise the stakes. Consider this statement: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead never changed anyone’s life! Whoa! But think about it. Who was there? No one, basically. There was that angel-guy sitting on the rolled-away stone, but remember, angels are messengers; he heard it from someone else. So Mary and the other women make their way to the tomb. They lug their jars of embalming ointments, fresh cloth to wrap the body of Jesus, perhaps some incense to cover the odor of decaying flesh, and their prayer books. They make their way in the light darkness of early morning, overcome with sadness and despair, and filled with fear at the thought of everything that their future might hold. (Jesus by this time has already been risen for an hour or so and is on his way to the Galilee to surprise the other disciples.) Nothing about the resurrection of the Savior has changed anything in the lives of the women on their way to the tomb. Why? (“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”) Because they have not heard. (“He is not here. He is risen!”) News! Immediately their lives are changed because they have heard the news that Jesus is risen. And all the while, the other disciples are locked behind closed doors, and as far as they are concerned life is about as desperate as it gets. (Jesus is risen, remember, but they don’t know it.) So the women go in haste to the place where the disciples are in mourning with the news that Jesus is risen from the dead. And that news has spread from behind those closed doors to the ends of the earth.

Let’s bring this point a little closer home. Several months ago, a dear friend of mine was killed in an automobile accident. At the time of his death, I was frolicking on the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my family completely oblivious to the tragedy. I felt no pain, no sadness, no grief. The rites of Christian burial came and went without my knowledge or participation. His death had no impact upon me. No impact, that is, until last week. Last week, quite by accident, I heard the news of his death. I was shocked, distraught, and in enormous pain. By now many others of our friends were well on their way to healing and relief, but for me his death was as raw as if it had been yesterday. My friend’s death caused me no pain, but the news of it almost killed me.

And that, friends, is why we preach. Nothing is more powerful than words that carry news—not information alone, but news that changes our perspectives, reorients our lives, and never leaves us alone. What greater joy could there be than being the mouthpiece of news about God? “Christianity is a Word and someone has to stick it in your ear!” News!

This article is adapted from Preaching as Image, Story, and Idea  Copyright © 1998 Morehouse Publishing. The complete digital edition of this title is included in a subscription to Ministry Matters.

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