When we think of Calvin Miller, many of us may think first of The Singer Trilogy. But he has contributed significantly to the craft of preaching. One of the things that has always stood out to me was the way he was able to unite zeal and art in sermon. To speak with urgency and with beauty is a rare gift indeed. Calvin Miller had that gift. It is our loss that Calvin Miller died this past year.
I rather like the way that he talks about preaching and the role of preacher in Spirit, Word, and Story. “Preaching first came as a shout of hope.” He goes on to say that “The Messiah had come at long last! Hell, eternal as it was, had been confronted by life… The sermon, born as a desperate reply, was created by two words: the rhema (rhetorical word) that disclosed the logos (incarnate word). Both words, however, were silent without the critical bearer of the news: the preacher.”
Spirit, Word, and Story contains a chapter titled “The Word as Art.” A peculiar chapter title since in it he prefers to speak with urgency about urgency (though admittedly, he does so artistically). “The desperation of first-century sermons needed neither reason nor art… Why outline or exegete or illustrate when the theater is afire?! Humankind was perishing and needed neither an artistic word nor a scholarly word. Only a desperate word was needed. Urgency takes no time for irrelevancies. John the Baptist would not even answer the simple question, ‘What is your name?’ ‘My name… My name… What matters my name?… I am a crying voice – Flee from the fire.”
He preached like a hayfield worker from Northern Oklahoma. “I think there is a time when the secular grime sticks to us and gritty, itchy boredom clings to us and we turn our eyes to Jesus Christ and reach for the tap that washes our obscene egos away. We look imploringly to heaven and cry out, ‘Please, God, I wanna get washed!’”
He preached like one who was familiar with the characters in the text. “Who was Habakkuk? According to some, his name means “Babylonian house plant.” Since I have never appreciated being called a house plant, I can only guess that it wasn’t much of an ego boost in 607 B.C. Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, but neither of them wrote poetry that caught on while they were alive. They must have presented quite a pair: Jeremiah crying all the time, and Habakkuk consoling him, “Now, don’t take it all so hard, big fellow. God isn’t listening anyway! Besides, Jerry, how would you like to have Dan Rather call you a Babylonian house plant every night on the 5:30 news!”
Miller is critical that “some contemporary sermons are little more than moral speeches that tip their homiletical hats to God. The fearsome trumpets of fiery desperation have settled into chatty liturgy.” Miller would rather we speak with urgency. Yet, he would desire us to attempt it in ways that grip and hold attention and cause others to remember. His sermon language is both urgent and artistic. Miller knew that urgent truth is not watered down when it is made beautiful. Perhaps, no one knew that better.
Thank you Calvin Miller.