Scripture is under attack in our time as provincial, partial, and nonapplicable – even in some conventional churches. Tradition is viewed by many as too binding, and there is a growing revolt to be independent from the past, to break with what has been valued, thought, said, and done by sainted believers in all earlier times and movements before this one. As for the norm of reason and the norm of experience, the arrogant intellectualism and consumerism in our culture have made idols of self-thought and self-will, so that nothing is reasonable or worthy of being experienced except what one prefers for oneself. Given this time and setting in which we serve, the importance of our task bids us to think carefully, intentionally, and prayerfully about our task, so that our understanding, our attitudes, our actions, and our expectations will be in line with what God desires, has planned, and requires on our part as commissioned stewards.
In I Corinthians 4:1 Paul described the province of the preacher’s stewardship as handling and heralding “the mysteries of God.” In Pauline usage “mystery” (musterion) has to do with the historical action of God, with how God enacted and enacts His salvific purpose in this world. Mystery encompasses that which is rooted in the eternal counsel of God but has found fulfillment or will be fulfilled – at some fullness of time. Mystery, in Pauline usage, has to do with the background and basis of the gospel, and with what the gospel makes possible to those who believe it – deliverance from sin, newness of life, inward and outward healing, answers to prayer, and more. We preach so that God’s saving and sustaining action can be experientially known by those who hear and believe us.
We who preach by divine appointment have as our distinct subject area “the mysteries of God.” It is important that I say something more here about what it is to which we refer in speaking about “mystery.” Gabriel Marcel offered a pertinent statement to aid us when he contrasted the difference between a “problem” and what is essential “mystery.” A problem, he explained, is something that can be solved; it is pro blema, out there in front of the self, and once a solution to it is found, one can move on beyond it. But a mystery is not something external; a mystery involves us existentially, it confronts and engages and pinches us, it situates us insuch a way that we know we must yield to its unmanageable strangeness.1
There is a story Dr. George Washington Carver used to tell about himself that well illustrates this. There was that day, he reported, when he had been meditating on life and nature. He moved from thought to prayer. He asked God, “Mr. Creator [his way of addressing the Almighty], why did you make the universe?” God responded to the query, but it was an admonition to ask for something more in keeping with what his mind might more readily grasp. So Carver revised his question, scaled it down, and asked God why He had made humans. He was told inwardly that he still wanted to know too much.
Praying there in his laboratory with his eyes open – his customary way – Carver noticed some peanuts drying on a nearby shelf, and he asked God to tell him the purpose peanuts were created to serve. The Almighty seemed pleased, and told Carver that if he would busy himself to separate the peanut into its many elements, then he would learn much about its uses. So, using what he knew of chemistry and physics, Carver worked and separated the oils, gums, resins, sugars, starches, and acids found in the peanut. In separating the constituent elements of the peanut in this way, Carver was working on a problem and, over time, his “solution” to the problem posed by the peanut uncovered or discovered or disclosed or invented new uses for the peanut – 300 new uses, actually – but the mystery of humans and the universe continued to haunt Carver’s mind and spirit across the rest of his life. Dr. Carver rightly embraced the mystery of being human in this kind of world, aware that the mystery had embraced him!
Yes, a mystery involves us existentially, because we are embraced by it. We cannot dismiss mystery because we cannot isolate mystery from our own being. Mystery is something whose utter strangeness and stubbornness forever resists all attempts on our part to domesticate it, dominate it, define it or dismiss it. Life is a mystery! Death is a mystery! The Incarnation – the coming of God in Jesus Christ – is a mystery! The Resurrection of Jesus from death is a mystery! Our life on this planet involves us in mystery. The Story of God’s gracious dealings with us through grace involves us in mystery! We can experience the mystery, but, try as we might, we cannot explain it. We who preach are stewards of the mysteries of God. What we offer and extend through preaching can be experienced but it is more wonderful – filled with what arouses wonder and awe – than we can fully explain.
Dr. Gardner Taylor has told about an experience he and Mrs. Laura Taylor had near the end of his first preaching mission in Australia years ago.2 They were treated by their host with a visit to the studio of an outstanding Australian landscape artist, a man whose work had earned him a British knighthood. As Dr. Taylor looked about in the studio, his eyes caught sight of a massive canvas on which the artwork was only half-finished. He asked the artist about it. The artist shook his head, a little sadly Taylor thought, and explained that the unfinished picture was to have been a scene he had experienced during a visit to Australia’s northern territory, but after much trying he had been unable to depict the real beauty of the scene that had captured him.
Taylor saw in the felt limitation that artist confessed to a parable of the glory and pain of the preacher: while there is so much that can be seen and known and said about Jesus Christ, He is still a subject too vast to fully capture in our work because His sacrificial life and work are rooted in “the mysteries of God.”
I remember wrestling with the text and meaning of I Timothy 3:16 in order to preach on it for the first time. What a declarative and definitive word about the content, center, and circumference of the Christian faith! Notice how the Apostle introduces that grand hymn about the incarnate Christ, and how he refers to the facts of our treasured faith as “mystery”:
Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout he world,
taken up in glory.
I also remember my attempts to preach on that great Christological hymn that Paul preserved for us in Philippians 2:6-11. In the context of the first century church, this hymn not only proclaimed the mystery of the Incarnation and the drama of the saving death of Jesus, but also His present exalted role as cosmic Lord – and the universal homage to Him that God has purposed and will surely effect.3 What a grand and needed word to remind the church about our center of gravity! The Christ we are sent to preach about is not just Lord of the Church; the time is coming when He will be vindicated and acknowledged as Lord of the Universe! This truth is one among the many “mysteries of God” entrusted to our telling.
Paul took pride, although humbly, in being God’s steward in preaching such truths. Paul stated, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” He went on to explain, “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission” (1 Cor. 9:16-17). That word “commission” could just as well be rendered “stewardship” because behind it is oikonomia, a Greek term translated elsewhere as “stewardship.” Paul understood himself as one of God’s stewards, someone entrusted to handle and herald the gospel, someone whose province in preaching was “the mysteries of God,” or to use Paul’s words from his descriptive charge to a group of preachers gathered at Miletus, “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
Since this commissioning trust was committed not only to Paul and successive generations of Christian preachers but also to us, our concern should be to live and labor honorably as “good stewards.” Paul spelled out some requisites for doing so when he wrote, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (I Cor. 4:1-2). In a day when publicity blurbs seem demanded for all who seek acceptance in a highly competitive social arena, just how do you want people to think of you? How do you advertise or explain yourself?
Paul was eager to be thought of first as hyperetes, a “servant,” a category whose rich history of meaning includes the notion of “assistant,” someone who assists a superior, someone who is secondary to someone else who holds a place of importance.4 Paul went, secondly, to include “and steward,” using oikonomos, which I have already mentioned means “entrusted manager” – in keeping with guidelines supplied by the one who entrusted the appointed task. Then Paul followed up these descriptions with the statement, “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” [or as the KJV renders it, “faithful”]. Paul’s description here states the necessity for the person assigned a stewardship to “be found” (heurethe – discovered, disclosed, seen) as indeed trustworthy.
Being called a “steward” is not enough; one must be a steward. It is not enough to be called a preacher; one must be a preacher. And the true preacher, Paul tells us, honors the commission from God to handle and herald the divine “mysteries,” the startling, saving, sustaining truths of the gospel. Stewards are highly privileged persons.
Among the many memorable and insightful cartoons Charles Schulz created in his “Peanuts” series, there is that now-classic one that shows Charlie Brown striking out while at bat. As Charlie walked away from the plate, disgusted with himself, he saw Lucy seated on a nearby bench and lamented to her, “I’ll never be a Big-League player! I just don’t have it! All my life I’ve dreamed of playing in the Big Leagues, but I know I’ll never make it!” Lucy interrupted Charlie’s lament with the comment that he was thinking too far ahead. She suggested that what he needed to do was to set himself some limited, more immediate goals. “Immediate goals?” Charlie asked. “Yes,” Lucy replied. She then advised that when he walked out to pitch for the next inning, he should just try to walk out to the mound without falling down!
How I remember the many Charlie Brown moments when disgust filled me after striking out in the pulpit! What preacher hasn’t had such moments? After “striking out” many times early in my ministry, I found encouragement in something Aurelius Augustine (354-430 A.D.), bishop of Hippo, confessed about his preaching efforts. Intent to help a discouraged friend regain inspiration to continue his work with readiness, Augustine wrote On Teaching the Uninitiated, and in that treatise admitted his own felt limitations as a preacher:
“For my part,” he wrote, “I am nearly always displeased with my discourse. For I am desirous of something better, which I often inwardly enjoy before I begin to unfold my thought in spoken words; but when I find that my powers of expression come short of my knowledge of the subject, I am sorely disappointed that my tongue has not been able to answer the demands of my mind. For I desire my hearer to understand all that I understand; and I feel that I am not speaking in such a manner as to effect that. This is so chiefly because intuition floods the mind, as it were, with a sudden flash of light, while the expression of it in speech is a slow, drawn-out, and far different process …”
While each one of us might readily and honestly identify with what Augustine confessed, it is to our shame if we fail to work as diligently at preparing to preach as Augustine continued to do. It is my judgment that in the pulpit work of that noble preacher-theologian, the greatest of the Latin Fathers, we have the best example of the stewardship of preaching since apostolic times. I hardly need to remind you of the extent to which Western Christianity is indebted to Augustine. His book On Christian Doctrine was one of the first manuals addressed to preachers to help their stewardship. The fourth section of that manual treats preaching style, offering Augustine’s methods for handling biblical substance, which he discussed in the first three sections of the book. Please note that Augustine gave more space to treating substance, “the mysteries of God” – Scripture – than he did treating style. Augustine wisely kept “first things first.”
Sooner or later one learns that the most fruitful approach to good pulpit work is “keeping first things first,” working forthrightly and faithfully to reach those immediate goals which make ascending the pulpit stairs meaningful and promising. One of those immediate goals one must reach is an engaging acquaintance with the Bible, the sourcebook of our faith, and the ground-plan for our recital; and a second immediate goal is gaining a sound understanding of primary texts from which preaching should issue. The “mysteries of God” entrusted to our handling have come to us by special revelation, and they are inscripturated in that book we know as The Holy Bible.5
As stewards of The Word, “The Story,” we are expected to study the Scriptures in order to know them, and to understand the Scriptures in order to utilize them properly, mindful of the apostolic injunction: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15).
When we are indeed serious in our study, and helped in that task by a hermeneutic that honors the biblical texts as a medium of special revelation, we can be stewards who are biblically informed in our approach and deeply committed in faith as we preach, seeking to share our witness with aptness and appeal under the approval of God who sends us forth. These are some immediate goals that we should seek, and they are goals that we can indeed reach. We need only commit ourselves to reach them.
From Stewards of the Story: The Task of Preaching by James Earl Massey. Copyright (c) 2006 James Earl Massey. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.
James Earl Massey is Dean Emeritus of Anderson School of Theology. Now retired, he lives in Greensboro, AL. He is a Contributing Editor of Preaching.
1. See Garbriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, vol. 2, Reflection and Mystery, ed. G.S. Fraser (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1960), esp. 260-61.
2. Gardner C. Taylor, sermon “Jesus Christ” in The Words of Gardner Taylor, comp. Edward Taylor (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002), esp. 6:120-21.
3. On this passage see Ralph P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Do., 1983). See also the discussion of Phil. 2:6-11 in Fred Craddock, Philippians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985).
4. On this, see William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, 1 Corinthians, A New Translation, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1976), 177; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 335f.
5. Augustine, De catechizandis rudibus 2:3, trans. as The First Catechetical Instruction by the Rev. Joseph P. Christopher (Westminster, MD: Newman Bookshop, 1946), 15. On Augustine as a preacher, see The Preaching of Augustine, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, trans. Francine Cardman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973); Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).