A friend of mine posted a comment a few weeks ago about the fact that most of the things we do in church are a bit alien to most people in contemporary culture: sitting in formal rows for a meeting, singing together, listening to a talk and not being given a chance to respond... And so on... It struck me at the time that the concept of preaching is becoming more and more problematic. What are we doing when we ask someone to stand at the front and speak to us: Is it entertainment? A thought for the day that we can think about? An educational opportunity? A party policical broadcaste? Or a momment when an authorised representative of the church tells us what to think?
All a bit Alien?
These questions were raised again by comments after a recent church meeting. Some people expressed a desire for formal and structured exegetical teaching. But I, and others, have questions about what is meant by 'teaching' and whether this is appropriate on Sunday morning when church congregations are mixed and the needs of 'seekers' are a clear priority.
One of my friends pointed out that many of those who ask for 'sound teaching' are usually looking for familiar content delivered in a familiar way - it is the comfortable experience which is required - challenging or unfamilar content in a familiar form may not be received well...
And yet, as we shall see, Jesus broke all the rules in his own preaching - both in form and content. His message smashed through the conventions of his time and gave him a reputation for 'speaking with authority' - in contrast to the scribes and the Pharisees.
Preaching in history
In today's Reading from Nehemiah we are given a glimpse into the origin of Christian, and Jewish, preaching. Nehemiah constructs a raised platform from which the Bible is read. The people listen, but there are interpretors on hand to help them understand the message and apply it to their lives.
The image this gives me is reminicent of an evangelistic rally at which a message is given while teams of 'councilers' stand by ready to talk people through the four spiritual laws... Even in Nehemiah's day there were clear actions that people were asked to take as they received the word...
The synagogue tradition developed from the post-exilic community of Nehemiah's day. It involved reading the word and explaining it so that people are properly instructed in how they should live. This was taken up and developed by the early chuch. Justin Martyr wrote "And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things."
In the Renaissance, reformation and enlightenment eras the focus of preaching shifted to accademic learning and rational discourse. Preachers were expected to prove the gospel with reference to the received text and extract meaning using the tools of their day. Clerical dress developed during thus time resembled that worn in education or law.
There is a rich heritage of teaching in judeo-Christian tradition, which is great, but Jesus does something more radical...
Jesus the Preacher?
Jesus doesn't simply explain the text, or try to unpack what it might mean. He brings the eternal word into the imminent now. He spoke, we are told, not as the scribes and the Pharisees but with authority. Thus the Word of God becomes living and active.
In our passage from Luke's Gospel, Jesus simply says, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
It's one of the shortest sermons in history!
Rather than give an explanation, Jesus asks and raises questions. Building on the previous knowledge of his audience he compels them to look at their world again - making their own decisions about morality, faith and politics.
This is a technique that he uses again and again...
Fortunately, he also equiped his disciples to do this task:
1. He gave them the Holy Spirit - to remind and reveal (John 15 and 16).
2. He encouraged them to form a community which would share the task.
3. He gave them kingdom values which would help them determine the authenticity of interpretation.
We get a glimpse of this last one here where Jesus reads from Isaiah:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."If you want to know if your interpretation of God's will is authentic, ask these questions:
- Is it good news to the poor?
- Does it bring freedom for prisoners?
- Sight for the blind?
- Or set the oppressed free?
If not, then Jesus is probably not with you in this...
This is a twenty minute exegetical sermon about why twenty minute exegetical sermons are not a good idea - but I must do it properly and all such sermons finish with 'application' so here are my suggestions:
Engage with the Word: Rather than transmit or receive someone else's wisdom, try to find out what God is saying to you now. By all means, listen to the voice of tradition, scholarship or communal wisdom, but don't be content with that.
Do it together: We need to set our interpretations within networks, webs and communities of ideas and understanding. We need to listen and contribute rather than merely receive or teach. These webs of interpretation give us a great deal of help. Our partners are many: church, strangers, media, the Holy Spirit...
Do it with Jesus: Above all we need to aproach scripture with an 'interpretive companion' - Jesus himself. We must ask ourselves the question - "What would Jesus think?"
More practically, preachers need to focus on the creation of space for thinking rather than the transmission of ideas. As for listeners - well, listeners need to remember that there are no listeners - we're all in this together. And churches need to rethink the way they use both time and space so they create opportunities for shared thinking and discussion so that we become 'communities of interpretation', rather than just venues where a message is preached.