Legend has it that when I was a very young child I would stand up in my crib and preach. I'd shake my finger and prattle away, speaking to no one in particular. I can't say that I was a great preacher in those days, but I did make an impression on my grandmother, who told my mother: "Someday Bob will be a preacher." Now, I can't confirm this story since my memory doesn't go back that far, but if it’s true, I hope I’ve improved on the quality of my sermons!
It takes a bit of audacity to be a preacher. Barbara Brown Taylor compares the preacher to a tight rope walker:
Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tight rope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins. The first clears her throat and spreads her notes; the second loosens his shoulders and stretches out one rosin-soled foot to test the taut rope. They both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do
what they love and fear and most want to do. If they reach the other side without falling, it is skill but is also grace -- a benevolent God's decision to let these daredevils tread the high places where ordinary mortals have the good sense not to go.1
There is much truth to this description of the preacher’s daring, because you never know what’s going to happen when the sermon begins. Some in the congregation might be offended and others might decide that what’s said isn’t worth the time given to it. But others might find in these very human words a word of hope from God.
Preaching has always played a central role in the church’s life. So whether it’s long or short; eloquent or halting, we expect to hear a word from God that will encourage, console, challenge or even incite us to action. And if a word from God does emerge, it will carry the power of the God who spoke the universe into existence (Genesis 1). We come hoping that our lives will be transformed by this most powerful of words. As a preacher, I come in the hope that my words will be transformed by the Spirit of God into God’s life changing Word.
THE REQUEST FOR THE WORD
THE REQUEST FOR THE WORD
Because a sermon is more than a speech, it involves more than simply a speaker and an audience. A sermon is a communal act that involves preacher, congregation, and God. Though it’s usually delivered as a monologue it can’t succeed if the congregation and God aren’t part of the process. It doesn’t matter if the delivery is eloquent or not, it only matters how it’s received by the people.
The Jewish exiles returned home from Babylon to find their homeland in ruins. When Ezra the priest returned home somewhat later, all he found was a small temple and city walls that were still in disrepair. The people struggled with daily life, wondering if Yahweh even cared. In the midst of their despair they longed for a word from God, a word that would give them hope to face tomorrow. And as they wondered, someone found a scroll containing the Torah. The people begged the priests to read it to them, and so Ezra, the Priest, picked up the scroll and read it to them.
A TIME FOR READING AND INSTRUCTING
Ezra had a wooden platform constructed so the people could hear him, and then, accompanied by his fellow leaders, he began to read from the scroll. The people came and stood there and listened because they believed that this scroll contained something special.
He began reading at 6:00 A.M. and didn't stop until noon. As he read from the scroll, the people listened with rapt attention. No one fell asleep, no one day dreamed, they just stood there glued to the words of the text. They could’ve been from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, Genesis or Numbers. It didn’t matter because the people were so hungry for a word from God that nothing could distract them.
As Ezra read, the people prostrated themselves on the ground and lifted their hands toward heaven. As the day wore on the people began to worship and the Levites taught small groups, interpreting the text so that the people could understand it and apply it. You see, it’s not enough to read it, you have to also interpret it. Perhaps it was at that moment that the sermon was born.
I’ve always liked the way theologian Karl Barth spoke of a threefold Word of God. He said that God's Word comes first of all in Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate. From this Word comes the second, the Word written, which we call Scripture. It points us back to the incarnate Word. And then there’s the Word of God proclaimed, or the sermon. Barth believed, and I believe, that when the sermon is truly rooted in Scripture it will point us to Christ, the self-revelation of God in human form.
THE RESPONSE OF FAITH
Psalm 19 says that the Law has the power to revive the soul, make wise the simple, cause the heart to rejoice, and to enlighten the eyes. Because it endures forever, it’s more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey. So powerful is this Word that this group of people who hadn’t heard the Law read in generations found themselves listening intently and receptively.
As they listened, they discovered the disparity between who they were and who God wanted them to be. And so they fell on their faces and began to weep. But Ezra wanted them to hear something else. Although they may have gone astray, Ezra wanted them to hear a word of hope. He wanted them to discover the energizing and liberating power of the Torah. And so, rather than telling them to put on sack cloth and ashes, he told them to celebrate with a feast of rich food and sweet drinks. He also reminded them to share their bounty with those who came unprepared. This serves as a reminder to us that our meals as Christ's body are communal. They felt the need to mourn, but Ezra told them that you can't mourn on a day that’s sacred to the Lord. The only proper response is to rejoice that God has reached out to us in grace so as to transform our lives. As we hear our own word from God, may we hear this promise of Ezra to us: "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1993), 76.
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 21, 2007