Proclaiming the Word
The 2nd Aha!
How do you define preaching? Over the last several years I’ve read quite a few books on preaching. Here are a few of the definitions I’ve come across:
Kenton Anderson: 'Preaching is helping people hear from God ’
Fred Craddock: Preaching is... “making present and appropriate to the hearers the revelation of God.”
Mary Catherine Hilkert: “...preaching is an invitation to follow; it is a word of hope rooted in God’s promise. Preachers announce the word of life that empowers the conversion it demands.”
David Buttrick: “Christian preachers set the figure of Christ before the mystery of God and, in view of the cross, redefine the human world.”
Eugene Lowry: “Preaching is more than a faithful witness, more than a topical report, more than a moral lesson, more than an exposition of a text. It should be an event-in-time that intends a divine-human meeting in the context of corporate worship.”
Tom Long: “Preaching is when we go to the text on behalf of the people and bring it back to them as a witness…
“The task of preaching is not merely to recover the text’s original breaking of the surface but to express what happens when one of the ripples sent forth by that text crosses our spot in the pond.”
Phillips Brooks: “Preaching is the communicating of divine truth through human personality.”
My favorite definitions of preaching, however, come from Scripture.
In Exodus 4:12 God said to Moses, “Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what you should say.” Applied to what we are called to do every Sunday, we could say that preaching is: “Proclaiming the Word of God with the help of God.” That’s a pretty good definition.
Jesus had quite a bit to say about what He said. While most translations say, “the Father told me what to say and what to speak..” Peterson translates Jesus’ words in John 12:49-50 like this: “The Father who sent me gave me orders, told me what to say and how to say it. And I know exactly what his command produces: real and eternal life. That’s all I have to say. What the Father told me, I tell you.” (The Message)
We could say Jesus’ definition of preaching is: “Saying what the Father says, how He says to say it. Do that and it produces life.”
I love this definition. It reminds us preachers that we have to be concerned with not just what we say, but how we say it. We have to be attentive to both content and form. The same holds true for all forms of communication. It matters how (form) husbands and wives tell each other, “I’m sorry” (content). It matters how (form) a doctor shares a diagnosis with a patient (content). It matters how (form) a teacher tells a student their answer is incorrect (content).
Jesus’ definition also assumes that the Source for both sermon content and sermon form is God. Several years ago I attended a lecture by Fred Craddock at Midwest Baptist Seminary in Kansas City. I’m pretty sure that’s where I heard him say, “Unless the preacher has two ‘ahas’ the congregation is not likely to have one.” We need an ‘aha’ for the content because any given text has much more to say than can possibly be said in one sermon. We need God to give clarity about which word is the right word for this congregation, at this time. Waiting for that moment of clarity can create angst in the most seasoned preacher. We pour over the text. We pray through it. We engage it, sit under it, yield to it, and most of the time are troubled by it. We study it, ask questions, live with it and hope that it finds life in us. We wrestle with it in hopes that it will pin us. We read what scholars have to say. We may even listen to what others have said, all the while waiting the longed-for and oft times elusive moment of clarity. When it comes, it comes as part relief and part fuel for the fire that burns in the belly of the preacher. It’s the first aha. What to say.
But how much time do we spend laboring, praying, seeking, searching, and waiting for God to give that same degree of clarity about how to get it said? How long do we linger, awaiting the 2nd aha? How much attention do we give to the form?
Fortunately, we are living in a time when much is being written and taught about sermon form. A few suggestions would include, Preaching With Variety: How to Re-create the Dynamics of Biblical Genres by Jeffery D. Arthurs; The Sermon as Symphony by Michael Graves; How to Preach a Parable: Designs for Narrative Sermons” by Eugene Lowry; or “Ten Strategies for Preaching to a Multi-Media Culture” by Thomas Troeger. There are many more out there but if you’ve not read much in this genre, these would be great places to start.
As you look back over your last few months (or years) of sermons, has the form been as varied as the content? If not maybe you’ve not lingered long enough with the Source of both the content and the form. Don’t be satisfied with anything less than two ahas. Come Sunday, may we all be able to say with confidence, “The Father told me what to say, and how to say it.” And may His word through us produce the real and eternal life for which our listeners long.
Dr. Steve Estep
Clarksville Grace Church of the Nazarene, Clarksville, TN