Another Thank You

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.


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.