Preaching John’s Wisdom

Ben Witherington is recognized for his exegetical expertise. Not as many know him as a preacher but his commentary John’s Wisdom shows his interest in homiletics as well. Look especially in the sections titled “Bridging the Horizons” for sermon starters. I will go straight to the back of the book to highlight some examples.

He offers a helpful reminder;

A great deal of good preaching involves drawing out the significances of the text for audiences vastly different from those originally addressed. This does not provide a warrant for making the text say whatever we would like it to say, for the starting point must always be, What did it mean in its original context? The later significances must be seen to be moving in the same direction as the text’s original meaning or drawing out its possible implications. Otherwise we lose contact with the original intent and purposes of the inspired author and the Bible becomes an ink blot into which we can read whatever we please with impunity.

Witherington goes on to give some sermon suggestions. Throughout the course of the commentary he suggests the characters of John’s drama as paradigms of people on the way to full Christian faith. In chapter 20 this changes with examples of Mary and Thomas who have met the Risen Lord. That is why Thomas can be referred to as “unbelieving” in 20.27 yet as having “believed” in 20.29. It is the episode with Thomas that prompts a memory of an Easter sermon “Late for the Holy Spirit.” Witherington then tells us about this sermon and its repeated emphasis to the largest crowd of the year that by not gathering with God’s people puts one at risk to miss out on the presence of Christ and the blessings that entails.

Witherington draws from Fred Craddock for a sermon idea in chapter 21 and what inevitably happens in churches after Easter. What does one do after a “mountaintop experience?” One is unable to sustain that level of enthusiasm constantly. Yet, the answer is not the one that Peter takes. The text does not call us to go about business as usual. Instead, Peter is called to get on with the mission “Feed my sheep.” This, Witherington reminds us, is what defines life’s work. Not mountaintop experiences.

Witherington goes on to offer further sermon fodder as he reminds us of the problems of comparing ourselves with others. As Peter turns to ask about the disciple Jesus loved “following”, we are reminded that though others may interest us, “Jesus in this passage insists more than once that the task of each Christian is to follow him, not be a follower of other human beings.”

While exegetes are a gift to the church, some seem far removed from this role. John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel is an attempt to connect sound exegesis and the ministry of the local church by offering starter ideas for preachers. I propose this is a helpful resource for those who attempt to communicate the message of John’s Gospel.

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Fred Craddock and John the Baptist

One of my favorite biblical characters is John the Baptist. Perhaps that is why I enjoy Fred Craddock’s sermon “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” The following excerpts allow us to see some of the skill of Craddock as he introduces the Baptist.

Have you ever heard John preach? “A lot of people did. If you take all the Gospels together, all the Gospels together, they came from what today we would call Lebanon, Syrophoenicia, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Arabia. Think about it. In the desert. Standing under the burning sun, sand swirling in your rice, people standing together who had sworn on their mothers grave, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead with those people!’ Jews and Arabs standing together because, when the Word of God is preached, you tend to forget why it is that you hate this person next to you.”

Have you ever heard John preach? “He was an oddity. He had long hair, and when I say he had long hair, I don’t mean he just had long hair. It wasn’t like the young businessmen in Atlanta with a little ponytail. He never cut his hair. I mean, he never cut his hair. He had a long beard, not a neat beard like some of you have. I mean, he had never trimmed his beard. He was a Nazarite. And he was strange. And dressed in an unusual way – camel’s hair and a leather band around the waist. And his food – he never went home with anybody for lunch, and I’m sure no one accepted his invitation.”

Have you ever heard John preach? “Here was no chef offering up fancy dishes. He broke the bread of God with his bare hands and said ‘Eat it and live.’ He was no politician trying to make yes sound like no and no sound like yes. He said, ‘The judge is coming, and I’m here to serve subpoenas.’ He was no candle in the sanctuary, he was a prairie fire with a stump or rock as his pulpit. The sun and moon and stars as chandeliers. And the Jordan River, his baptistry.”

Have you ever heard John preach? “It must have been persuasive, because all the multitudes came out there. And when the sermon was over, they came over and said, ‘John, what are we to do?’ And he said, ‘If you have any food, share it. If you have any clothes, share them.’ The tax collectors came and said, ‘What are we to do?’ He said, ‘Don’t take any more than is your due.’ And the soldiers were standing on the rim of the crowd, and when everyone else was gone, they shuffled awkwardly up to the pulpit and said, ‘Any word for us?’ And he said, ‘No violence and don’t intimidate the people and don’t forage around here trying to supplement your income. Be content with your wages’… Did you ever hear him preach? It’s kind of frightening… What’s frightening about listening to John preach is that he puts you in the presence of God. And that’s what everybody wants, and that’s what everybody doesn’t want.”

Did you ever hear John preach? “He said, ‘God’s Messiah is coming. The kingdom is at the door. God’s Messiah is right next door.’ What a thrilling thing! Oh, of course, everybody jumped at that, like it was going to be the cure for everything. They were going to be turned around, of course, because their old motto, ‘Where the Messiah is, there is no misery,’ was going to be reversed: ‘Where there is misery, there is the Messiah.’ But they didn’t know it then. How exciting it was, and hope filling it was.”

“Did you ever hear John preach? If you haven’t, you will. Because the only way to Nazareth is through the desert. Well, that’s not really true. You can get to Nazareth without going through the desert. But you won’t find Jesus.”

A Chorus of Witnesses

According to Thomas Long and Cornelius Plantinga Jr., students of preaching should “study great sermons, learn their moves, and master some of their aims and forms.” This is not unlike the reason “aspiring composers study Haydn symphonies and Bartok string quartets” and “serious chess players learn the great games of Tanasch and Capablanca” and “army generals master the battle plans of strategic and tactical experts from Alexander the Great to Douglas MacArthur.”

This is good reason for A Chorus of Witnesses, a collection of sermons that the reader may “ponder, inspect, disassemble, praise, criticize, and generally, learn from…” It is true that all sermons are not equal and not everyone will agree on what a good sermon is.  Yet with sermons from the likes of Buechner, Brown Taylor, Craddock, Achtemeier, Barth, Lewis, Willimon, Peterson, and Buttrick to name a few, a volume like this one is an excellent starter for us to “tune our ears” and “untether our imaginations.”

“A written sermon is not a preached sermon. Reading a sermon is an importantly different experience from hearing one, and both differ from actually seeing a preacher aim and fire.” Reading a sermon is more like “reading the score of some musical masterpiece. Whether reading a piece is better or worse than hearing it depends in part on the quality of the performance.”

Reading excellent sermons can be helpful on a variety of levels. Even when we reject the theology in a sermon we may admire the form. Even when we think the sermon strayed too far from the text we may still feel that we have been strangely warmed. I will not guarantee that you will enjoy this particular collection of sermons but am in agreement that reading the sermons of others is a good practice. “Perhaps homiletic discernment, like general spiritual discernment, is a gift of the Spirit. In any case, serious study of widely varying sermons is likely to sharpen it.”

Remembering Fred Craddock

At the end of the year when magazines talk about notable persons who died in 2015, it is possible that many will overlook Fred Brenning Craddock.  Yet preachers and congregations will long be indebted to the influence he has had on many sermons.  Nearly every time I have read something about him it includes a line like “he is unassuming.” I have heard him preach and it is true.  It is not a coincidence that he titled an early book As One Without Authority.  I consider this good news for all of us, not one of us bring any authority of our own into the pulpit.

Craddock claimed his early attempts to teach preaching did not go well.  At that time he was encouraged to read Soren Kierkegaard and was struck by the line “There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and it is something one person cannot communicate directly to another.”  This line became a text of sorts for the Beecher Lectures at Yale which were later published as Overhearing the Gospel.

Craddock helped us to respect the listener.  While some have debated whether he removed too much authority from the preacher, we can probably all agree with his desire to create a dynamic conversation with the text.  Craddock desired sermons to create space for preachers to ask questions and for listeners to respond with yay or nay.  At the very least, this is a realistic place for a sermon to be.  He believed that in order for the listener to have a genuine response, yes and no must be real options.

We can also appreciate that he never removes authority from the text.  The dynamic conversation insists on the text having a say.  In his book Preaching, he states that though he starts with attention on the listeners “If one wishes to begin with the text, no objections come to mind.  The two will meet on down the road anyway, with neither one claiming to have had a head start.”

His legacy certainly includes preaching, but also teaching preachers.  Upon retirement from formal teaching, he started The Craddock Center.  Preaching workshops are among the core programming of the Craddock Center.  The workshops are offered at no charge for active preachers who serve small churches in Southern Appalachia.

I recall reading somewhere that he considered all of his preaching to be “semiautobiographical.”  I suspect the same is true for all of us.  The final paragraph of his Reflections on My Call to Preach says, “As for me, I believe God called me to preach; or, to put it another way, I decided to be a preacher.  Or, as Paul might put it, ‘I seek to lay hold of him who has already laid hold of me.’”  We are grateful and listeners to our sermons are as well.

Craddock and Boring Preaching

Some listeners in churches have come to accept boredom as one of the crosses that comes with commitment.  Fred Craddock is not one of them.  In Overhearing the Gospel, he suggests that boredom is not just a condition that prompts humorous stories about a dull preacher.  “Boredom is a form of evil.”  Craddock goes on “Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”

He seems to have company in Patricia Meyer Spacks who claims that in medieval times if someone demonstrated the symptoms we identify as boredom, that person was thought to be committing a “dangerous form of spiritual alienation.”  A devaluing of the world and its creator.  After all, who has time for such self-indulgence when worrying about basic survival.

Craddock talks about sincere but bored listeners who welcome interruption.  “Have you ever quietly cheered when a child fell off a pew or a bird flew in a window or the lights went out or the organ wheezed or the sound system picked up police calls or a dog came down the aisle and curled up to sleep below the pulpit?”  Craddock recognizes that the burden of boredom does not lie totally on the preacher but concludes “should we not then accept a large share of responsibility for the condition and move on?”

Part of the problem, according to Craddock, is that we have gained a great deal of knowledge but ignored the question of how to proclaim it.  I like the way he says it better, “How has been made to stand out in the hall while what was being entertained by the brightest minds among us.”  In response to this, he turns to Soren Kierkegaard, particularly this line “there is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking.”

He introduces Kierkegaard in a way that spurs my interest, “He delights in picking a fight with his reader, loading his sentences with exaggeration, humor, irony, sarcasm, and homely analogy, offering with one hand what he takes away with the other.”  (Makes me wonder what kind of preacher Kierkegaard would have been).  Then he tells us that Kierkegaard wrote thirty-five books, all in pursuit of how.  “How to be a Christian, here in this place, now at this time.”  Kierkegaard has convinced Craddock that the curriculum of the church, from Sunday School to seminary, should wrestle with how.

At its best, boredom forces creativity.  Some have made an effort, Craddock acknowledges this, but finds many efforts to lack creativity and become reactionary, defensive, anti-intellectual, unimaginative, shallow, and faddish.  As a result, this “reconfirmed and reinforced the original low opinion of programs centering on method.”  There is such a thing as appropriate style.  A style that is woven into the very fabric of the message we attempt to communicate.  A style that reflects the message that we attempt to proclaim.

How is a question that will not leave.  “If I toss it out the door… it returns through the window.”  How experiences are communicated is a major factor in defining what those experiences are.  There is no surgery by which what and how can be divided.  Our task is not just to say the word and tell the truth.  We are to get the truth heard.  We are to bring a new hearing of the word to people who have been repeatedly exposed to it.  There is nothing wrong with a preacher being lively and brilliant.  One of Kierkegaard’s characters said “boredom is the root of all evil.”  Craddock encourages preachers to do something about it.

We Do Not Stand Alone

In his book Preaching, Craddock reminds us that preachers are part of a tradition that goes back for centuries.  The tradition includes Isaiah “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings.”  And Jonah “yet forty days, and Ninevah will be overthrown!”  And John the Baptist “who dressed like yesterday but who spoke like tomorrow” and preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  And then, of course, Jesus came preaching.

The twelve apostles and Paul continue the tradition.  In fact, the New Testament gives preaching a central place in the early churches.  “The Gospels contain portions of the oral tradition of preaching.”  Acts “is heavily sprinkled with sermons and sermon fragments.”  And “the Epistle to the Hebrews is really a sermon in a form that flourishes even to this day.”

The tradition goes on with the church fathers, including Augustine who “joined Christian preaching and Greek rhetoric in the first ever textbook on the science and art of preaching.”  The point is clear.  Craddock desires that we know that preachers are part of a long-standing tradition.  Preaching is a long and rich tradition and includes even contemporary preachers in that larger, greater tradition.

This could be a daunting task.  However, Craddock points out some benefits for modern preachers on account of the tradition.  Here we can find support when we wonder if there is any significance in preaching.  Here we realize that we cannot become comfortable in this undertaking.  Here we are reminded that we do not have to reinvent preaching, the history provides a rich history for sermon making and delivery.

I remember traveling with Arden and John to hear Fred Craddock preach.  Following the message Craddock responded to questions from listeners.  He was skilled at both prompting questions and answering them.  Craddock lured us into a message where he talked about hospitality as if it were easy.  He read from Hebrews and talked about a gray colored bowl of soup.  By the end, we were all well aware that we were falling short of the biblical expectations for hospitality.

The preaching tradition continues with every presentation of the gospel.  This should not be taken lightly.  We should be challenged by this call to stand where others have stood before.  We stand where Moses stood when he came down from Sinai with a word from the Lord.  We stand with the prophets of Israel, the Baptist, and the apostles.  Jesus himself is part of the tradition.  So is Fred Craddock re-preaching the sermon to the Hebrews and encouraging us to entertain angels unaware.   We stand in a long line of preachers who have had no small impact on history, including Arden and John.  We stand alongside world changers.  This could be somewhat intimidating.  Still, this is where we find ourselves every time we get up to preach.  And we do not stand alone.

An Interest in Reality

In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor is interested in reality – all of it.  You get the feeling she doesn’t want to miss anything.  So she becomes a tourist hoping to see something that she has only previously read about.  She becomes a child listening to a pastor’s sermon.  She becomes a “detective of divinity” looking for signs of God everywhere.  She becomes a student of Hebrew and Greek feeling like she is the first reader in the world to discover the meaning of words in scripture.

She seems to approach preaching as the woman in Luke approaches the lost coin.  She is looking under everything, moving things out of the room, lifting up heavy objects, all in the hope to find what she is looking for.  If she doesn’t find it the first time, she makes it a practice to look twice.  So at first glance she looks at Luke and sees a doctor with a bag full of medicines and bandages.  But after another look, a bag full of gospel stories with the power to heal.

Brown Taylor desires “To look inside every sentence and underneath every phrase for the layers of meaning that has accumulated there.”  She is like a gold miner, panning for precious metal.  She is like Cyrano de Bergerac passing love poems between God and congregation.  She is an imaginative realist.  Always attempting to see what is there but not obvious at first glance.

Fred Craddock says about Barbara Brown Taylor that “she talks about what she does and then does what she talks about.”  He also claims to be reminded of Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  I like the comparison and think that often when Dillard is writing one could often substitute “preach” for “write.”  For instance, how would it affect preaching if we made that substitution in the following quote?  “Preach as if you were dying.  At the same time, assume you preach for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients.  That is, after all, the case.”

A repeated theme in The Preaching Life is that preaching is not solitary.  “It is to examine my own life and the life of the congregation with the same care, hunting the connections between the word on the page and the word at work in the world.”  Preaching is something the whole community participates in.  Week after week listeners are invited to see the world as the realm of God’s activity.  Preaching is “a way of approaching the world, and of gleaning God’s presence there.”

She acknowledges how unusual preaching appears in our culture.  People are used to props and sound effects.  People are accustomed to texts and Facebook and television.  The odds are against a preacher.  “If the topic is not appealing, there are no other channels to be tried.  If a phrase is missed, there is not a replay button.”  Preaching is risky business.  It is “an act of creation with real risk in it as one foolhardy human being presumes to address both God and humankind, speaking to each on the other’s behalf and praying to get out of the pulpit alive.”

Brown Taylor does not want to hand out sacks of wisdom for listeners to take home and consume during the week.  She prefers to discover something and then “haul it into the pulpit and show others what God has shown me, while I am still shaking with excitement and delight.”