Bringing the Past into the Present

The first books of the bible, even when they provide instruction, are carried by a narrative.  Deuteronomy, on the other hand, is primarily speech.  More specifically, it is sermon.  At the very least, it is a series of sermons.  Deuteronomy repeats earlier material from the Pentateuch and applies it to the present.  This is exactly what a sermon is supposed to do – apply earlier events to the present.

Deuteronomy chapter six is largely a sermon to encourage faith in the next generation.  It is a sermon that encourages a remembering of God’s great activity.  The context is a conversation between parent and child.  Specifically, the activity of God led to an ordinance of faith that led to a child’s question that led to a parent’s response.  “When your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What do the testimonies and the statutes and the judgments mean which the Lord our God commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us from Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Preachers would do well to be attentive to not only the content of Deuteronomy at this point, but also the process and movement.  I propose that we find here a homiletical move that may be helpful.  Listeners gather with any number of questions at any given time.  “Who is this God you talk about?”  “Why do you worship Him?”  “What does this have to do with me?”  “What is so special about this and why do you celebrate it?”

Walter Brueggemann suggests that the pronouns may have implications.  Everyone may not claim the faith that is celebrated in the sermon, yet the preacher follows the homiletical move and extends the claim to include the listener “We were slaves… the Lord brought us.”  Instead of insisting or coercing, the preacher affirms that the miracle includes the listener until the listener begins to recognize the miracle as their own.  Preaching, like Deuteronomy, takes the listener into the past and brings the past fresh into the present.

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Working With a Living God

Preaching Genesis is like following Abraham up Mount Moriah and laying our offering on the altar and praying for a miracle. Just when we are about to give everything we have, God comes through with more. It is like following Jacob to Peniel where we see God face to face and wrestle the text until a blessing is given. It is like following Joseph into the presence of the royal court where we are handed a text that can only be interpreted with the help of God.

Preaching Genesis is not an invitation to the easy life. Genesis is interested in another reality. It will challenge the certainties and the language of the current regime. Preaching Genesis reminds us that working with a living God is an invitation to the unexpected. And that the success of preaching is not in our hands.