Unexpected Words

I do not wish to constrict or limit preaching by claiming that it has to be done in a certain way, at a certain time, or about certain things.  I do wish to point out that near the end of the Gospel of Mark there are two episodes where we find unexpected people delivering an unexpected message about Jesus.  And I am convinced that these two episodes are helpful to preachers interested in proclaiming news about Jesus.

Admittedly, this is a brief look at these episodes.  Yet, even a brief look places us in situations where words about Jesus totally change the situation into which they were spoken.  It is not the words themselves that change the situation.  Instead, these words are recognition of what has become obvious to the speaker.  These words become an announcement of reality.

The first is in chapter fifteen where a Roman Military Officer reframes the crucifixion of a political criminal into a revelation that Jesus is the Son of God.  Unexpected words that readers of the Gospel have been waiting to hear.  Words that are different from words we are hearing from others.

And then in chapter 16 we are introduced to some well-meaning people. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come with good intentions. They are looking for Jesus. We are told that it was the first day of the week. They are right on schedule. They arrive in reverence, with respect, in order to pay tribute to Jesus. They love him. They are faithful to the ritual. They come with a question, “Who will roll away the stone for us?”  Perhaps we could paraphrase that question like this, “Will anyone be able to remove that barrier between us and Jesus?”

They come without expectation.  But then, things begin to happen. They discover that already, “the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large.” They are then greeted by a young man in a white robe who speaks to them some unexpected words. “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He said to you.”

As in Mark, on any Sunday, people will show up looking for Jesus. They may be well intentioned people, they love Jesus, they desire to pay him tribute. They would like to do something for him.  And then, the preacher utters unexpected words.  Words that are not being uttered anywhere else.  We talk about an impossible situation. We talk about something that only God can pull off. We are reminded that Jesus is not always where we expect him to be. We do not have a corner on what he does or where he shows up. That just because our intentions are good does not mean that we are about his business. And, as in Mark, the response might be astonishment or fear or both.

We have become trained to look for an outline. For something that might make a catchy slogan.  Or answer pragmatic questions.  We are looking for “How the Cross Improves Your Life.” Or, “Making the Resurrection Work for You.” Instead, we get unexpected words. Words as unexpected as Easter. No one expected the dead to come back to life any more than they expect our words to make a difference.  But, these words interrupt well intentioned plans. Interrupt those who come expecting to do something for Jesus.  Our task is still to interrupt the lives of people with the news of a Risen Lord.

We may consider ourselves unlikely candidates to speak such unexpected words.  Interestingly, in both episodes the preacher is also somewhat unexpected.  No one expected a Roman Military Officer to reframe the crucifixion quite like that.  Some may have been convinced that he was a failed messiah, a misunderstood prophet, or a guilty criminal.  No one was saying that maybe this was the Son of God.  But the words of this speaker cause hearers to rethink the reality of this situation.  Readers of Mark have been waiting for someone to speak these words for a long time.  But no one expected this particular preacher.

The expectation was to find a dead Jesus in the tomb.  They suspected that it would be the right thing to anoint the body.  No one expected a young man dressed in white to be seated there instead.  No one expected this young messenger to be speaking for Jesus.  No one expected Jesus to be alive and on the move in Galilee.  But the words of this preacher remind listeners that they are not finished following Jesus.

We preach to the curious.  The heckler.  The seeker.  The one who came to do something.  We preach to those who are just performing rituals.  We preach to those who came to hear about Jesus.  To those who thought that a criminal was crucified, here hangs the Son of God.  To those who thought they were about to anoint a dead body, that body is alive and wants you to follow him to Galilee.

Like the preachers of Mark, we may be speaking to observers or to those intentionally seeking Jesus.  To antagonists or to someone wanting to do something for Jesus.  To those who come thinking they will have to remove the barrier between themselves and Jesus, only to find out that it has already been moved.  Like the preachers of Mark, we bring words to our gatherings that cause listeners to rethink what is happening around us.  Words that may be contrary to appearances.  Words that suggest things are not the way they seem.    Our situation may appear to look a certain way, but reality suggests otherwise.  We are called to state that reality.

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The Announcement of Reality

Vision is a look at reality.  Preaching is a regular announcement of that reality.  On account of this, preaching and vision are inseparably linked.  Vision, by definition, suggests that there are greater things than what is obvious and in the present.  So it is with preaching.

First and foremost, preaching proclaims the word from God.  By doing this, it also articulates the vision for the people of God.  The application of God’s larger vision as it is to be lived out locally.  This is not promotion of what we want to hear, but a vision that recognizes the call of a specific group of believers.

Preaching is an announcement that God has done something to change the world.  It helps us to see realities that begin with the words of God.  To see how everything changed with the arrival of Jesus. Preaching strikes hard against what the world describes as reality.  In fact, the world is opposed to what God is doing among us.  We know this because Jesus is not crucified for repeating what the world has already said.  He is not put to death for agreeing with what the world sees as reality.  He does not die for articulating the vision of the world.

Preaching is commentary on the adventure of following Jesus.  Such preaching keeps listeners on course. At the very same time, preaching invites others to sign onto that vision.  To join a particular group heading in a particular direction.  Preaching presents a portrait of reality and invites others to become part of the picture.

Preaching is not a defensive reaction to the way the world is.  Preaching is proactive.  It is visionary.  It is an attempt to introduce others to and shape them according to our worldview.  Preaching suggests that our vision be their vision.  Calvin Miller suggests that we ought not “give seekers any reinforcement that their own worldview is ok as it is.”  Preaching disrupts what is tidy and comfortable.  It is like a collision with the way things are.  Preaching is more than thoughts about the bible.  Preaching is “war on the human heart.”  A sermon does not end in an attempt to convince us to construct our own vision.  It does not even suggest that we are capable of doing so.

While it may be true that the world finds little relevance in time spent with an ancient text, such work becomes extremely important to us.  For if we cease to spend significant time there, we will have nothing to say that the world is not already saying.  Preaching does not dabble on the surface or with non-essentials.  It is always about God before it is about us and without apology announces that reality is at stake.