Monday, April 9, 2012

The Preaching Moment

Preaching a text is doing what is necessary to let the lion out of his cage. We come to the sermon as if we’re visiting a zoo that is all too familiar to us. We know which animal comes next on the tour, and we expect nothing more from them than peaceful slumber or, if we’re lucky, a whimper and a stroll. We leave thinking that we have seen a giraffe, or a gorilla, or a polar bear; we leave thinking we know what they’re about. But our desire for the animals’ domestication and our own security prevent us from the real seeing and real knowing that constitute a real event that effects real transformation. A visit to the zoo will do nothing that changes us...unless the lion is let out of his cage.

On Sunday morning we pay our weekly visit to church, expecting nothing but peaceful slumber followed by a cup of coffee to get us ready for the rest of the day. Often times the preacher fosters this disposition, choosing to tame the text in order to meet our deep-seated need for security and stasis. A text on repentance is domesticated, the act reduced to an apology for wrong things done and an empty promise not to do them again, carried out in the unspoken presumption that this God does not care about the idols to which our hearts cling; he merely cares about how good or bad we feel about ourselves. We exit the sermon and the church with our guilt deposited on the pews so that we can go about our lives outside of church as if God is not an active, powerful agent who determines the shape of our existence, and so that we can do so with a clear conscience. The text and the God of the text remain behind bars. We think we have heard the word of God; we think we know what it’s about. But our desire for the text’s domestication and our own security prevent us from the real hearing and real knowing that constitute a real event that effects real transformation.

The faithful preacher, however, lets the text out of its cage. She does not deny its appetite for destruction, because she knows that many of the lives which this text now confronts are based on structures and systems that need to be destroyed. She does not sedate it to a peaceful slumber, because she knows that sedating the word of God is sedating the people who are formed by this same word, and they are called to be awake, not asleep. The text’s familiarity breeds contentment that numbs, and so the preacher makes every effort to unfamiliarize the text and its God so that his strange passion and zeal becomes our strange passion and zeal in this moment of essential discontentedness. She creates a time and a space for this word to be heard afresh by those with ears to hear. She does not have to change or manipulate the text so that it becomes something it is not. She simply removes the shackles that have been placed on it so that it is free to do a work that she can neither predict nor control. She trusts the God of the text to really speak and to really be heard, because she has opened the text in such a way that faith is not only possible but necessary. When the lion is out of his cage, it requires great faith to stand in his gaze and encounter him as he really is. It is, after all, an awe-ful thing to be confronted by the living God. This confrontation, then, is the goal of the sermon. When all is said and done, the preacher can say to her flock, “The lion has roared; who will not fear?”


  1. Welcome back, Declan. The internet missed you.

    Am considering your proposal that confrontation is the goal of the sermon. I would have said the goal was exposition - literally exposing the text. Confrontation is a natural consequence of that. Mmm.

    Appreciated your use of the feminine in the generic pronoun. Rare. :)

  2. I guess I would just say it slightly differently by saying that exposition serves the true goal, which is for the congregation to be confronted by the living, speaking God.

    My fear, however, is that much exposition tends to blunt the force of this confrontation. Explaining, understanding, and grasping the text is often a way to control the God of the text and the response he desires of us, but to invoke Augustine and therefore make my argument iron-clad, "if we understand it then it isn't God." If that's true, then perhaps preachers should be aiming at having their congregation understand less than what they understood when they walked in, not more.