Saturday, 2 February 2008

Encountering the Word of God: against effective preaching

A guest-post by Ray S. Anderson

The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God. It is an event in which speaker and listener surrender control to the other; it is like an act of love.

When the event of Word of God occurs, the blind can see what is often hidden from the eyes of the sighted – mere human words ignite the burning bush that draws both to the terrible truth of holy ground. One does not take notes when God speaks. When God speaks, a Word is worth a thousand pictures.

The effect of the Word of God is the Word of God (Isa. 55:11). When Jesus stooped to draw in the sand (John 8:6-8) he did not write something to be remembered but used the tactic to disarm and disturb the cynical power of his critics, and to assume authority for Word of God. No one remembered what he had drawn in the sand but all knew that his words to the woman were words of grace rather than judgment. A picture, a symbol, an icon, a melody can only enhance the event when they are consumed by the fire rather than extinguishing it, as they are sure to do when they become a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). Every attraction is also a detraction.

“The call to worship God can mean the temptation to idolatry,” wrote Karl Barth, but this is a call that cannot be avoided (CD II/1, p. 55). The very thing that is intended to serve the Word of God – including the voice and demeanor of the preacher – can detract or deflect from it. If we imagine that by using some kind of visual or audio aid the preaching of Word of God can be more edifying or even more believable, we may be indulging in cheap magic rather than encountering divine mystery. This is the fascination of idolatry – it is delightful but never dangerous. The idol is safe and even satisfying, but not transforming

“I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed,” wrote Annie Dillard. “In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger” (Holy the Firm, p. 59).

When we move from preaching Word of God to teaching Word of God, we move away from the mutual surrender of control (as in an act of love), to an active/passive situation where the one who teaches seeks to engage and activate a passive listener. But the passive can be engaged only through distraction, as the listener is invited to add his or her own interpretation and interest in the symbol, image, or figure. The difference here is like the difference between a lecture on love and an act of love.

For this reason, Jesus was more often frustrated than fulfilled in his role as teacher with his disciples. This is the pain of even the Master Teacher; being misunderstood is the ironic conclusion of being too quickly understood. Most sermons are misunderstood when they attempt to teach. Everyone’s notes are in a different dialect.

If one should dare to preach Word of God, be prepared to be exposed to the “naked” event of proclamation – just in case the computer for the power point slides goes down. But this might become a transforming event for all. Lord, deliver the Word of God from the technology and tricks that we use to make our preaching so effective!

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