29 August 2007

Preaching the Beheading of St. John

The recent flurry of blogversations about preaching invites reflection and consideration of this most important and definitive task to which I have been called. Preaching is the preeminent Christian activity, because everything depends upon God the Father’s preaching of the Word, His only-begotten Son, by whom all things are made, and without whom there is nothing. The Lord’s Supper is the culmination and pinnacle of this divine preaching, because the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, but the Voice of the Lord must ring out in the wilderness, and the preacher of repentance must ever go before His face to prepare His Way (and prepare us for His coming). For the Church on earth, it is always Advent, in order that it may also be Christmas and Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost. So, too, in each Divine Service, the proclamation of the Word precedes the enfleshed Word of the Supper.

Thinking out loud about preaching is not unlike talking about Jesus. All of this must finally give way to the real thing, that is, to the actual preaching of Christ Jesus. Nevertheless, it is surely helpful for us preachers to sharpen each other, as iron sharpens steel, and to stir each other up to more faithful preaching. If we feel threatened by comparisons, humbled by evaluations, or envious of brethren who are able to set the bar higher for all of us, what does any wounding of our prideful male egos matter, if we are thereby helped and encouraged to be better preachers of Christ? What matters is the Gospel, the forgiving of sins, the comforting of terrified consciences and trembling souls, for whom the Son of God has died and shed His precious blood. None of us will ever do this too well, nor as faithfully and well as we ought.

There are no works or merits of supererogation in the office of preaching. We have not yet come to the shedding of our blood and the giving of our lives to the point of death for this work. If we have lost our heads, it is not yet in the manner of the witness of St. John the Baptist. Rather, until we die, we are not only finite and frail creatures, but fallible and flawed in our own sinfulness. Of course, the power of God is made perfect in our weakness, but that is by His grace and mercy toward us and our hearers, not by any virtue in our weakness! So we ought to spur each other on to better and more faithful preaching. If the weakness of our sinful pride pushes us to "compete" in such preaching, well, Christ be praised, if only His Gospel is preached.

I know and admit that I often put more effort into my preaching when I consider that my colleagues are listening and paying attention. Shame on me for that, but it does help me to overcome the perverse laziness of my old Adam. Still, I generally find that my best preaching, if I may dare so speak of any such thing, is driven not by competition or ego, but by a love for Christ and His Gospel and, what always flows from that, a love for His people.

What makes any preaching the best sort of preaching is not rhetorical eloquence or poetic artistry, although these good first article gifts of God are often taken up into the service of His Word and the preaching of it; but the best preaching is that which delivers the better second article gifts of Christ and His forgiveness of sins into the ears, into the minds, into the hearts and bodies and lives of poor sinners. Sometimes it is the faltering, stuttering, stumbling sermon, by the preacher who is tired and beleaguered and hurting himself, which speaks to the heart of the matter without any flourish or garnish or impressive mastery of the English language. Sometimes the Lord allows the preacher to go hungry (and I don’t just mean his belly, but sometime his belly, too), in order that he would come into repentance and live out in the wilderness by nothing else but that Word which proceeds from the mouth of God. Not only because the Lord cares about the preacher and desires to strengthen his faith and life in Christ; but also because He cares about the congregation, and He desires to purify the preacher’s preaching, as if by fire, that it may become more precious than gold or silver. If anyone wants to be a good preacher, it is finally the Cross that teaches that art. It was the Cross, I am convinced, that taught Paul Gerhardt how to sing so well; it is the Cross that teaches me how to preach.

The thing about the Cross is that you cannot master it or package it, nor market it or sell it. It will always crucify you, and thank God for that. To preach the Cross, really, is first of all to be crucified by it, and then to crucify the hearers with your preaching. To preach the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is to be thrown into prison, to languish there, to wrestle with your doubts, to question everything, to wonder what is true, and to wait upon the Lord and His Word; and then, finally, to be put to death and laid to rest, that Christ may be all in all, and that you may be raised to newness of life in and with Him. To preach the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is to remove the heads of your hearers, that they be given to live no life but that of Christ, to have no body but His, to find no peace or rest but His Gospel. I can’t tell anyone else how to do this, no more than I can figure it out for myself by my own reason and strength. The Lord will use my reason and strength to serve the preaching of His Word to His people, for these are His gifts and they are at His disposal. But it is His Word and Spirit that teach me how to preach, that take hold of me and train me and sanctify my reason and strength, my lips and my language.

Aside from the fact that all of this is from the Lord, and always dependent upon Him, it also remains the case that every preacher is different; and every congregation is different; and each Lord’s Day, whether Sunday or some other Feast, has its own propria; and these are proclaimed and heard within a unique context and set of circumstances, not only from place to place, but from one week to the next. What will it look like to preach a particular Gospel in a particular place on a particular occasion? I don’t know ahead of time, and I can’t really tell you, even after the fact, because there will always be a difference between the preaching that actually takes place and any attempt to describe it or talk about it. I remember Dr. Scaer making that point once, that a sermon is not really the manuscript (whether one uses one or sticks to it or not), but it is the preaching that sounds from the pulpit into the ears of the congregation.

Listening to recorded sermons is a lot closer to the real thing than reading the words, but even a recording (or a broadcast) is not yet the same as the proclamation that occurs in the Church. Let us rejoice wherever and whenever the Word of the Gospel is given free course, whether by radio or recording or reading material, but let us not lose sight of the liturgical significance of preaching. It is not liturgical because it references the rites and ceremonies or propers of the Service, but because it is an integral part of the Liturgy. Liturgical preaching moves the congregation from the Lectern to the Altar, from the Apostolic Scriptures to the Word-made-Flesh and the New Testament in His Blood. That sort of preaching can only be completed within the Divine Service itself, wherein it is preached.

There is preaching that happens at the daily offices of Matins and Vespers, of course, and in the classroom, at the hospital, in the confessional, around the table, in the car. Each of those contexts will call for its own particular preaching. In every case, preaching may include the teaching of facts and information (a didactic element), because the Gospel is rooted in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was crucified, died and was buried, and who rose again, in a particular place at a particular time in history. What is more, the Word of God says stuff, it makes assertions, it draws lines in the sand, it speaks the truth and makes it so. Anyway, Jesus commands His sent ones to baptize and to teach all that He has spoken; so there you go. But teaching facts and information does not yet make for preaching, not by itself.

Preaching is also catechetical, Sacramental, and Christological, but not simply by quoting the Catechism or referring to the Sacraments or saying a lot of nice things about Christ Jesus. Preaching is catechetical in so far as it puts the sinner to death with the Law, and raises the dead sinner to life with the forgiving of his sins (the Gospel), which is the preaching of repentance. That is what St. John the Baptist was called and sent to do, and what the holy Apostles were called and ordained to do, and what the called and ordained Ministers of Christ are called and sent to do within His Church to this day. Preaching is Sacramental when it returns the baptized to the significance of Holy Baptism by preaching repentance, and when it brings them to recline at the Lord’s Table to eat and drink His Body and His Blood in faith and with thanksgiving. And preaching is Christological when it is not simply about Jesus, but is the preaching of Christ Jesus, His Word of Holy Absolution sounding in the ear as from heaven itself.

Whatever components may go into a particular sermon (and I tend to think that each sermon will be, and ought to be, unique in this respect), preaching must be the proclamation of the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel. Not instruction in what these things are, but the Law and the Gospel themselves as they are, doing what they do, and God thus having His way with His people.

The Law is rightly preached when it is addressed to the hearer, in the Name of the Lord, as His divine command and prohibition, demanding obedience and threatening punishment. The Law always accuses, but not because it is phrased accusingly (or spoken with a "tone" of accusation or a wagging finger), but because it commands the hearer to do what he is not doing, does not want to do, and is not capable of doing (leastwise not with the perfection that God requires); and because it forbids the hearer to do what he is doing or would like to be doing.

The Gospel is rightly preached when it forgives the hearer’s sins. It is a real Absolution. It does not simply remind or reassure the hearer of something in the past, but it does something in the here and now: it heals the sick, it raises the dead, it opens the eyes of the blind, it opens the ears of the deaf, it makes the lame to walk, it comforts the weary and heavy laden. It isn’t about Jesus. It is Jesus, the Word of God, preached into the ears of His own people.

Good preaching of the Law and the Gospel is all of the above, yet not in the same couple of sentences with each and every sermon. The challenge is in preaching the particular Holy Gospel of the day, in such a way that it addresses itself to the congregation as the Law of God and the Gospel of Christ. So, for example, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist is preached in such a way that the hearer is Herod condemned by the Law, seduced by Salome, guilty of adultery and bloodshed; and the hearer is in prison with St. John, and beheaded for the sake of Christ, and raised with Christ in His Resurrection. Whatever details of history, whatever teaching, whatever rhetorical devices may serve and support this preaching, all of that is fine and good, but it is the accusation and condemnation of the Law, the call to repentance, and the forgiving of sins in the Name and stead of Christ that actually constitutes the preaching per se.

The good news for the preacher (along with his own forgiveness of sins!) is that the same Word and Spirit of God that called and sent and supported and preserved St. John the Baptist, the Prophets and Apostles, and all the holy martyrs, attend the preacher in his office and task of preaching. The Lord gives such gifts for the sake of His Church, because He loves us, and He desires His Gospel to be preached and heard, because He desires to give to His little flock the Kingdom of His beloved Son. It does remain true, to the glory of His holy Name, that His power is made perfect in our weakness. The surpassing grace and benefits of Christ are all the more manifest in our frailty, lest we boast in ourselves or in anything other than the Cross of Christ.


Moria said...

The Gospel actually forgives sins. Yet this is more than just saying the absolution from the pulpit. The forgiveness of sins occurs because of who Jesus is and what he does. He is the gospel. He accomplishes forgiveness, and preaching now makes this forgiveness also the forgiveness of the hearer. It is the story of Jesus. It is narrative. That's why the Gospels are fundamentally narratives. Our preaching, too, then, if it really delivers the Gospel, is a narrative, a narrative that places the hearer into the story of Jesus, and Jesus into the life of the hearer.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Yes, this is well said. Thank you.

I would only add, as a bit of a wrinkle on your general point, that, just as not every Holy Gospel is a narrative (or as much a narrative), so the "narrative" character and quality of preaching is going to vary, as well. This goes along with the reasons why I resist the urge to fall into any one particular "formula" for preaching. There are too many variables, and they are always changing from one week to the next, from one text to the next.

I appreciate your clarification, by the way, that when I speak of preaching as an Absolution, I don't mean simply saying, "I forgive you," or "Your sins are forgiven," from the pulpit. Rather, I mean exactly what you indicate: the Gospel actually forgives sins. It does so in the here and now, in the speaking and hearing of the Word of Christ, and not simply as reminding the hearers of something that was already true but maybe forgotten.

Having said that, there are times when an explicit, "Your sins are forgiven," is called for in preaching from the pulpit. It's only that preaching the Gospel as an Absolution should not be reduced to that sort of statement.

Thanks again. I like the emphasis on the narrative of Jesus, and on bringing the hearer into that narrative by preaching Jesus and His "story" into the hearer's life.

Moria said...

Right -- not that narrative is the only way of preaching, but that it provides an overall structure to the preaching. There will be didactic moments, proclamatory moments, but, it seems to me, these are generally set within a narrative.