The Reality of the Promise

We find an interesting picture as the Joseph narrative is nearly finished and Joseph introduces his father Jacob to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Here Genesis gives a clash of world views. Two different histories. Two different ways of life. One appears secure, the other appears to have nothing. In fact, these two have only one thing in common – Joseph. Pharaoh is settled, safe and prosperous. Jacob is a nomad with nothing but a promise. Yet he believes this promise more than any of the Egyptian realities.

“Then Joseph brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.” Pharaoh asks a question, Jacob responds, but Genesis seems more interested in telling us again “And Jacob blessed Pharaoh.”

This conversation does not go the way we might expect. This meeting between Jacob of the promise and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Of all people to bless – Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Not only am I predisposed to think that Pharaoh does not merit a blessing. But, it seems that if there is a blessing to be made between these two players, it would be the other way around. Jacob appears needy, he is dependent on Pharaoh for resources. He sent his sons to beg Egypt for food. Pharaoh has everything at his disposal. Yet, Genesis is clear. Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Israel blesses Egypt.

Jacob is not alone in having an audience that may be looking elsewhere for stability. We are not the first to share blessing with people trusting in a more visible reality. As Pharaoh, people who hear our words of blessing may not be expecting a word from God. In fact, they may, as Pharaoh may have been, be thinking that they are ok with the way things are. Yet, God is not. So He sends a word.

I am struck by the fact that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that it is not necessary to have more than those we speak to. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that God is interested in people that we may find undeserving. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we realize the success of preaching is not in our hands. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded to believe in the reality of the promise more than the reality of the prevailing worldview.

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.

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.”

Preaching Genesis

Genesis is an invitation to a story about God and insists that we are part of this story. Genesis extends an invitation to reality itself. Not only the reality of God, but the relationship between creator and creation, especially His people. Genesis isn’t concerned about whether you and I agree that this is our story. Isn’t concerned with our debates whether it be myth or historical account. It is a theological affirmation, “in the beginning, God.” Genesis may be displeased if preaching becomes anything other than affirming the greatness of God.

Genesis gives a big picture but also becomes familiar and personal. Here we enter an arena where evil lurks and temptation is real, where flood and uncertainty are reality. But these are places where God is at work. His greatness is evidenced in His words, promise and blessing. Our preaching should follow the lead of Genesis and witness the greatness of God in situations that appear hopeless. Genesis wants us to know from the start that “And God said” is the driving force of all creation. And that people are central to his creation. Anything, everything we do is in response to “And God said.” Our preaching is but a response to “And God said…”

We are reminded that things have not changed much from the beginning. People can be disappointing. From the beginning people have struggled with desire. The urge to have a great name is not a modern notion. Genesis knows that we struggle with obedience so we are introduced to allies in the adventure of living as part of this story. People who are witnesses to the greatness of God. Our preaching should follow in their steps.

Walter Brueggemann structures Genesis in this way, a) 1-11 and b) 12-50, “God calls the world into being to be his faithful world” and “God calls a special people to be faithfully his people.” That makes Genesis a witness of these two calls. Brueggemann suggests that these calls must be taken together. The same God calls the world and the special community. Both creations, the world and the community of faith, have been evoked by the speech of God.

Therefore, we could say that preaching Genesis always has in mind the relationship between God, world, and community of faith. The implications are numerous. What is our relationship to God? His perspective of us? How does God view creation? How does creation respond to God? How are we to respond to creation in light of God’s view of it? How do we live among others who do not participate in the community of faith?  Genesis becomes important in our conversations about worship, stewardship, evangelism and a host of other topics.

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.

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.