Prophet (part 1 of 3)
This is part one of a three part series that attempts to express my personal theology of preaching. It’s adapted from a paper written for a class on preaching at Asbury Theological Seminary. It’s not complete. It’s not exhaustive. It’s simply a reflection of where I’m at right now.
Prophet: The Preacher, Part 1
Sometimes truth can pop up in the strangest places. Like for instance, from the mouth of a politician. In his farewell address to the nation, one of my favorite Presidents, Ronald Reagan, summed up his eight years of service in these words: “In all that time I earned a nickname, ‘The Great Communicator.’ But I never thought it was my style or the words I used that made a difference. It was the content. I was not a great communicator, but I communicated great things.”
In this final address I find the first rule of preaching. Communicate great things. And, as a preacher, my calling in life is to communicate the greatest of things- the very Word of God. In this sense, my first role as a preacher is that of Prophet.
Now, please understand what I mean when I use that word. I am not referring to someone who predicts the future, or anything like that. I am working from the following definition: A prophet speaks to the people on behalf of God. Prophets carry a message that is not their own.
This is at the same time freeing and frightening. It is freeing in the sense that it does not depend solely on us- we deliver an ancient message that rests on God’s power and authority, not our own. On the other hand, it is frightening in the fact that it does not depend solely on us- we must rely on hearing from God. That part of the process is always tangled up with danger and mystery.
Who am I to handle the holy things of God? That is not only a good question. It is the right question. I must approach my preaching with a deep humility and healthy fear. But at the same time, I should be bold as I remember that God has called me to preach, and gifted me to walk in that call. As my preaching professor Dr. Ellsworth Kalas (cool name, even cooler old man) charged us in class, “We must be confident that we speak God’s Word and careful because we speak God’s Word.” This is a difficult, yet crucial balance. It is with this balance that I begin my searching of the Scripture, listening for what to say.
Barbara Brown Taylor describes this stage as “hunting for God” in the text. She says, “The process of discovery begins with the text. Whether I like it or not, I approach it believing that God is in it and I commence the long, careful discipline of panning for gold.” This discovering and digging has become one of my favorite parts of preaching.
I love to live with the passage for a few days…reading and rereading it and the surrounding context…I underline, circle, draw arrows, and make notes of the key words and phrases. It’s always interesting to see which words or ideas rise from the wreckage of red and blue ink and start to shape the direction of the message. In all of this, I have developed an image that reminds me of what is taking place. I see the text as a deep pool of water, and dare myself to sink down into it. Not to run impatiently along the edge and dive head first with an obnoxious splash. But to sink down slowly, wading through the shallows, and ending in immersion. My prayer in the process is that God would help me hear and see what is hidden in plain view.
As I approach the platform then, I can do so with the courage and confidence that is formed from walking in deeper places, with the words of Another still ringing in my ears and spilling from my mouth. The people to whom the message is delivered should sense this rightly directed strength. As Dr. Kalas writes, “something particularly significant is at stake when the preacher takes the pulpit. This is a time for strength and assurance.” This strength should not be confused with arrogance. It does not mean that our hearts won’t be heavy with the task at hand. Personally, I am nervous every time I preach. But I always remember something my dad told me. He said, “Son, the moment you stop being nervous is the very moment you should start getting nervous.” Good point. If I were not a little nervous under this great responsibility, then something would probably be wrong. So, I take to the platform with a confident nervousness, and preach with a powerful weakness.