If preaching were only a matter of writing a weekly essay, spinning out a metaphor in all its implications and applications, or even interpreting what a Bible passage means from the standpoint of its history and context, preaching would not be all that difficult, at east not for those who have an aptitude for reading, thinking, writing and speaking.
But preaching is more than this. It is laming the activity of God. It is reporting on the deeds of God with emphasis, though not narrow focus, or. God’s current activities. It is proclaiming the good news of God’s activity in Jesus Christ so persons can respond, as the Spirit leads, with knowledge, love, faith and obedience.
A Difficult Work
This strikes us as being a most difficult work. How can we possibly know what God is doing? While it is true to say that the God witnessed to in scripture is the God of revelation, it is also true to say God is hidden even it revelation. The God of the Bible is known but never completely known. The Bible never presents, and no biblical character experiences, God in God’s essence or fullness.
Jacob wrestles with some mysterious character by the Jabbok, but does not recognize who it is. It is only after the experience that he is able to say, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved” (Gen. 32:30). Much later, Moses is allowed to see only the back of God, but even then that back is not described. Later still, Isaiah and Ezekiel both have visions of the glory of God, but their descriptions of their visions focus on the majesty and mystery that surround God, not on God’s being or countenance.
New Testament material may add the force of new spiritual truth, but it does not add clarity. The disciples who are with Jesus at the time of His transfiguration are confused eyewitnesses at best, they do not know what to make of the changes coming over their Master or how to respond to them appropriately. They may have been relieved when He told them not to tell anyone about what they had seen.
Later texts which speak of the Resurrected Christ present an unrecognized Lord. Until He speaks her name, probably with an inflection, a plain reading does not pick up; Mary thinks Jesus is the caretaker of the garden. That same day, the two disciples plodding along the Emmaus Road do not realize that their new found companion is the long-awaited Messiah who is newly resurrected.
Our task as preachers is to report on the deeds of God, but these deeds always retain the quality of mystery. God is always revealing, yet always hiding. Barth recognized this and put it in the first volume of Church Dogmatics. He used the Latin that the guild of theologians have loved so long: and which sounds kind of nice “Deus revelatus is also Deus absconditus and Deus absconditus also Deus revelatus.” The God who reveals is the God who hides; the God who hides is the God who reveals. God reveals, but remains hidden nonetheless even within revelation. In light of this, it does not take any Latin to say that preaching is a most difficult and agonizing work. We are to declare the deeds of One whose acts are draped in mystery.
The difficulty of preaching increases when we recognize that the work of God is a work in progress. Our difficulty is that we do not know the specifics of what God is doing but we are called upon nevertheless to be specific enough about them to be relevant, to speak to our times and to our people.
In this regard, our work compares to that of newspaper reporters who must communicate as much as they know about a late-breaking story and do so within the confines of a daily deadline and sometimes uncooperative news makers. They cannot wait to print a story until they have everything in hand. It is incumbent upon them, for the sake of the public good, to go public with a truth partially known but too important to keep under wraps. Even the best reporting has some tentativeness about it, to say nothing of audacity, because the story is not finished but still in the making.
Likewise, preachers know part of the story but not the whole. The truths we know are the grand statements which ring out loud and clear about God’s intentions. What we do not know with similar clarity is how these grand truths are being worked out in the practical affairs of daily life. Preachers know the devil is in the details. We know that God is on the side of life and it is easy to preach that in abstract terms; the difficulty is in knowing how God is on the side of life in a particular instance. We know that God is working against poverty and injustice, but we do not know how God is working against them. We know the seed of the kingdom has been planted but we do not know where to look to find those seeds sprouting.
If we stayed on the theoretical level and preached nothing but the grand truths, our sermons would be accurate but innocuous. Perhaps they would reach the mind of the hearer, but they would have trouble getting into the heart and life of the hearer. The pew craves clarity from the pulpit. It wants to know particulars. It wants applications. It wants to know how a truth has impact. It wants the descent from theory into practice, from ideas into life. The pulpit wants all that too; the trouble is, the person in the pulpit can only see dimly as through a fogged-up window.
In light of these difficulties, it is no wonder Barth believed that every preacher should feel a fundamental alarm at the very thought of preaching’s massive task. He phrased that inward alarm this way in The Word of God and the Word of Man: “What are you doing… with the word of God upon your lips? Upon what grounds do you assume the role of mediator between heaven and earth?”
When the work of preaching is to declare the deeds of God whose acts are revealed but retain a quality of hiddenness and whose labors are as yet undone, how can we possibly stammer any answer that is answer enough to quiet the alarm? As long as the deeds of God are draped in mystery, preaching will be fraught with difficulty.
A Necessary Work
These difficulties notwithstanding, preaching that declares the deeds of God remains a necessary work. We can find the necessity in the recognition that this is a work that cannot not be done. Men and women are called into this ministry and their hearts do not rest until their passion to serve God through preaching finds an outlet. Just as there are those whose hearts burn to preach, so there are those whose hearts ache to hear preaching that tells news of significance. Congregations grumble and joke about sermons that are long, dull or both, but anytime they look for a new pastor, they long for one who can preach. In light of this we notice that telling the good news of God’s activity in Jesus is a difficult work that must be done in spite of its difficulties. We have already discussed the difficulties.
What makes for the necessity? Preaching that tells the good news of God’s deeds is necessary because this is how God is revealed in Scripture. According to a foremost Old Testament scholar and churchman, Walter Brueggemann, ancient theological grammar focused on sentences which keyed on strong verbs. He develops this thesis in his 1997 book, Theology of the Old Testament. There he shows that, when Israel told its faith, it stressed the actions of God rather than the being or nature of God.
Indeed, Israel felt God was made known through these very concrete and specific actions. Brueggemann singles out five verbs as being of particular importance to Israel’s articulation of its faith. Each one of the five reports a deed of God: God creates, makes promises, delivers, commands and leads. None of this is to say nouns and adjectives do not have their place; it is only to recognize that, scripturally, verbs take precedent, for God is revealed through God’s actions.
Christian creeds and confessions have retained this quality, though some, such as the Nicene Creed, have ventured into more of a philosophical language that stresses parts of speech other than verbs. The Apostles’ Creed, however, stands out as one which maintains the primacy of verbs and, therefore, the primacy of the deeds of God.
These summaries of the Christian faith recognize that we know who God is because of the ways God has acted. We have not been given to see God in the abstract, we have been allowed to view only the results of what God has done. This is the nature of God’s revelation. For this reason, we cannot safely get away from a theology that centers in the deeds of God.
Preaching has relied upon this material historically. New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd is widely credited with identifying the kerygma, or the heart of early Christian proclamation. This Christian preaching gathers around the deeds of God. Its theme is what God has done for human beings in Jesus of Nazareth.
“The burden of the kerygma,” writes Dodd, “is that God has visited and redeemed His people.” The following messages were part of the kerygma: (1) the age of fulfillment has arrived; (2) this has come through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, all of which took place in accordance with the scriptures; (3) Jesus, by virtue of His res-urrection, is exalted to the right hand of God; (4) the Holy Spirit is sent and the Spirit’s presence in the Church is a sign of the present power and glory of Jesus; (5) Christ will return; and (6) because of all this, persons should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sin and the life everlasting. This is the story which, under the power of the Holy Spirit, grew a Church where there was none.
Thus, the story of God’s deeds in the past are crucial to Christian theology and proclamation. But Christianity is not interested in the past exclusively. Indeed, the key event which we report, the resurrection, means by its very nature that we cannot narrowly focus on the past.
The resurrection means that Jesus Christ is alive today. He is not properly discussed when He is discussed in verbs of the past tense alone. His resurrection means verbs of the present and future tenses apply to Him as well. If we do not include these present and future verbs in our preaching, if our preaching does not indicate what this living Lord is doing today, then we cannot say that it is the living Lord we are preaching. God is still acting through Jesus Christ and these deeds are still the necessary subject of preaching. It remains true that the Christian message relies upon the deeds of God as it relies upon nothing else.
Preaching that names the deeds of God is necessary as well because God wants these deeds to be known. When we think of the activity of God today, we cannot ignore God’s work of revelation. Though the work of the Lord is mysterious and hidden in many ways, God is not some Wizard of Oz who prefers to pull the strings and levers of providence and all the while remain hidden behind some curtain. God is at work every day and wants people to see, appreciate, profit from and respond to much of what God does as Sovereign and Savior, Teacher and Friend.
The whole weight of scripture seems to lean in this direction. Amos declares, “Surely the Lord does nothing, without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Key to all the prophets is God as God clues the people in on what God is thinking, deciding and preparing to do. Nearly every instruction Ezekiel receives, for example, is accompanied by an indication of God’s aim for wanting each particular instruction to be carried out. “Then they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezek. 6:14 e.g.) is a recurring theme throughout Ezekiel’s book.
Other passages, too, depend upon God’s activity and awareness of that activity on the part of God’s people. Psalm 103, for example, as it invites persons to praise God, connects this praise to God’s work of forgiving, healing, redeeming, loving, satisfying, renewing and so forth. The New Testament shows God building a new community through Jesus, inviting persons to enter this new community, calling them to discipleship, faithfulness, obedience and love. All this is something the Lord wants known. There is no percentage in doing it only to keep it secret.
Thus we say that preaching takes the deeds of God as its necessary subject matter because God is desiring to put these deeds into public view. We may not understand them all, but God is constantly issuing press releases, as it were, indicating what God is up to in the world and in individual lives. God is trying to get the word out about what God is doing, and chooses to use preaching as an instrument in this revelation. Though it is difficult to know the deeds of God with clarity, as we have said, we must try to preach them nonetheless because this is what God is expecting us to do.
Preaching that names the good news of God’s activity is necessary because naming the deeds of God is what makes them available to the public. Persons cannot respond meaningfully to what they do not know even though they may be influenced by it.
For example, the stock market may plummet to a level that is extremely low. Those investors who are aware of this turn of events can respond as best they can and cut their losses. Those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of what is happening on the exchange, are affected by this news, but they do not realize it and cannot respond to it. From this point of view, the news is not available to the second group so they cannot enter into its reality.
A biblical example of this dynamic maybe the experience of Cyrus. Isaiah 45 speaks of Cyrus, king of Persia, as the Lord’s anointed, as one who is led by God, used by God and blessed by God even though Cyrus does not know God. Taking these matters at their face value, Cyrus is incapable of developing a relationship with God because God is not named for him. He is aware, no doubt, of what is happening in his life, but because no one interprets to him that it is God behind these happenings, he lives without God as part of his perception of reality.
A similar example can be found in Acts 19 where some believers first learn of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit becomes available to these believers only after they hear from Paul that there is such a Spirit who is active and upon whom they can rely. Paul’s report about the Holy Spirit does not create the Spirit, of course, but it opens up the reality of the Spirit for these particular believers so they can participate in the reality of the Spirit and the Spirit’s actions.
This leads me to say preaching defines reality in much the same way the morning newspaper defines the world in which we live. The paper tells us where there are wars and rumors of wars, where there is discord or negotiation, what laws were broken or enacted the day before, who has died, what the weather will be like for those who live, and much much more. The paper itself is not the news, but it points to the news insofar as the news is known. It provides a current description of reality so persons can make decisions about how to conduct themselves meaningfully and responsibly.
Preaching gives an account of reality. It breaks the story about what God has done and is doing. This naming of events allows persons the opportunity to make decisions about how to orient themselves in light of these events. All this accentuates the need for preaching that concentrates on the deeds of God and works journalistically to gather facts, put them in perspective, and report on them faithfully.
Faithfulness calls for honesty. This means that the preacher who would focus on the deeds of God and report them faithfully must not hesitate to speak forthrightly of being unable to find God at times. Consider the journalistic parallel. Newspaper and television reporters are not adverse to naming situations where government officials or other authorities were glaringly absent.
The former Superintendent of Schools in a town near the one in which I work ran into serious trouble for not visiting classrooms, and a member of our State Assembly ran into some flack for being pictured on television while he was sleeping through a debate on an important piece of legislation. If a President or Governor does not tour a disaster site, the absence is the stuff of biting headlines and scathing editorials. Absence can make the heart grow angrier, and inaction can be just as newsworthy as action.
Preachers and parishioners deal less with the absence of God than with the hiddenness of God, for as has been mentioned already, God is hidden even in revelation. This Deus absconditus, to revert once more to the mysteries of Latin when identifying the greater mysteries of God, is part of the very nature of God, or at least, part of the nature of the divine-human relationship. If we are to be true in our naming of the activity of God, even true in our naming of our own experience of the activity of God, then it behooves us to mention with clarity where we looked and did not see God doing much of anything.
This is an issue with which persons of faith struggle at what is to them a frightening regularity. Indeed, if we do not name where it is that God seems absent or silent, then our sermons will be perceived as unreal, unauthentic and irrelevant. Truly reporting God’s activity means truly reporting God’s hiddenness and our concurrent struggle to discover what God is doing.
Psalms of lament can be a preaching model here. These psalms struggle with the absence of God, an absence they find painful, intolerable, and even unjustified. They certainly cannot understand it. As they call out to God, they name the human predicament to which they want God to come with strength and saving grace. Along the way, they name the attributes of God and past actions of God which lead them to believe God can do something to bring help to the present situation. Laments are acts of worship rather than mere complaints for they hold all of life up to God as to no other and trust God for help as they trust no other.
A Possible Work
The necessity for preaching that names the activity of God helps us face the difficulties of the work with courage and hope. The necessity emboldens us, as it were, giving us the audacity to attempt this work which is at once so difficult and so important. The importance of the work helps us see through its difficulty to its possibility. It is possible to name the deeds of God albeit in an imperfect way.
It is possible because there are sources upon which a preacher can rely. Chief among these sources is scripture. We cannot know how God is active in the world today unless we interview the Bible with care and interest. What we find in scripture are not propositions of doctrinal truth but testimonies to experience and interpretations of those experiences.
As we seek to understand and explicate those testimonies and interpretations, our aim is for new testimony and interpretation that can be confirmed or at least not disallowed by the old. The primary question to ask a text is what the text knows about the nature and purpose of God in relation to human life and, indeed, all creation. It asks how the text interprets our times even as it interpreted times gone by.
Walter Brueggemann points out that the Bible contains this approach to the scriptural past in itself. He calls it “double reading.” His discussion of this feature of scripture, which appears in Theology of the Old Testament, is instructive for us as we seek to discern God’s activity. Simply put, later writers reworked earlier materials in a way that spoke to their own times while respecting and not attempting to supersede their original setting or use.
Stories regarding the period of wilderness wandering, for example, became reconfigured during the exile, making the wilderness a cipher for exile. Part of Brueggemann’s point is that we need to be attentive to both time periods as we work with a text and see how one event is being used to interpret the other if we want a full appreciation of the text.
My point is that we can gain insights into God’s activity today through our own practice of the double reading of scripture. Fosdick did this is his excellent sermon “Handling Life’s Second Bests.” The text is Acts 16:6-10, especially verses 7-8: “When they had come opposite Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them; so, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas.” The text continues to indicate how Paul received a vision in Troas and was inspired to cross over to Macedonia. With that crossing, Christianity moved from Asia into Europe. Fosdick reports this was a major occurrence but it was not Paul’s first choice. He had wanted Bithynia but ended up in Troas instead. There the Lord appeared to him.
Fosdick’s sermon rereads that text as it were and makes it the story happening in the lives of his hearers. He describes them as people living out, not their first choice in life, but their second or even third. He describes them as people who wanted some Bithynia but wound up in some Troas. He describes them as persons with whom God is active to turn second or third choices into blessings.
Probing a text in this fashion, asking after its original meaning to be sure, but sticking with it through a series of follow up questions which wonder how the experience reported in the text interprets life today or indicates how God may be active today, sheds a great deal of light. This attentiveness to scripture which respects and reveres it without being confined to the time period it explicitly addresses provides many leads toward discerning the activity of God in our day.
There is great danger, of course, in letting the imagination run unchecked. Double reading cannot legitimately become lightly skimming. The leads we think we see in a passage must be checked against other passages and against other sources the church has found reliable and responsible. For this reason, if for no other, scripture, though it is the primary source for preaching materials, cannot be the only source for preachable ideas.
Tradition is another source that must receive careful inquiry. Indeed, it is possible to name the deeds of God today because there is a tradition upon which the preacher can depend. Here “tradition” refers to historical as well as constructive theology. It relates to the past and present of Christian thought on matters of doctrine and ethics. It is Christianity’s historical and collective reflection on scripture and thus on the nature and purpose of God as seen through the deeds of God as reported by individuals and communities. Particularly in terms of its historical dimension, it tells of how others perceived God to be active, what their hunches were about God’s activity and where those hunches led, whether to good or ill.
This material carries weight. With reference to the present day activity of God, the value of tradition is that it can help confirm a story. It may not be able to state with authority what is the case with regard to God’s current activities, but it can, on background as it were, lend authenticity to our reports by indicating whether certain actions or decisions are Godlike. It is useful in helping us know whether a lead we think we find in scripture is a promising pathway toward truth or a downhill slide toward heresy. Tradition cannot give us all the answers as to what God is doing today, but it can provide clues shaped by the wisdom of experience.
Other clues come from the experience of the living community. Naming the deeds of God is possible because there is a God who is active in the lives of our people. Ever since Ezekiel, if not before, the best preaching has grown out of insight into the life experiences of the people of the congregation. Ezekiel’s preaching started, not with a sermon, but with pastoral attentiveness: “Then I came to them of the captivity at Tel-abib, that dwelt by the river Chebar, and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days” (Ezek. 3:15).
This being with people yields insights for preaching. Our fundamental conviction is that God is active among the people, calling, directing, inspiring, challenging, healing, even judging. The Holy Spirit is ever trying to point their lives toward Jesus. Being with folks, listening to their stories, even if they are not ostensibly religious in outlook, can provide powerful clues as to the Lord’s deeds in our days. For this reason, if for no other, the best preaching tends to happen, as homileticians have long recognized, where pastoral relationships are strong.
It should also be said that discerning the deeds of God requires examining with careful thought and attention the places God tends to be active, according to the best reports we have of the nature and activity of God. This asks the preacher who would report on what God is doing to look with spiritual sensitivity for the liveliness and love of God anywhere that seems to be a place the God in whom we believe would like to work. I refer to places where human need cries out for answers, situations where injustice seems to prevail without challenge, circumstances where wrong is committed unknowingly or without challenge, areas of intellectual fogginess and confusion, to name but a few.
Phrased another way, discerning the deeds of God requires theological analysis of contemporary culture. The same Spirit who hovered over the deep at creation hovers over and abides within the deep of our culture and, I believe, wants to be known. As we give ourselves to this kind of theological reflection we will see, perhaps not God, but, evidences of where God has been, what God has done, or what God hopes to do.
This leads me to say naming the deeds of God is possible because there is a Spirit whom the preacher can trust. In the final analysis, we can thank God that preaching does not depend upon us. God uses our simple words to reveal grand truth. God opens the way for our testimonies about God’s activity to be authentic if not complete or completely accurate.
The preacher who is attentive to scripture, tradition, the lives of people, and the culture in which they live, will be given at least some insight into what the God of creation, exodus and Easter is up to in the modern day. This same preacher will be given the courage it takes to make the bold claim of knowing what God is doing and expecting. Faithful reporting on these deeds will give this preacher’s hearers the opportunity to respond to the reality freshly described. This response, like the preacher’s work, is in the hands of the Spirit. Along the way, the Lord is glorified, the gospel is served, and people are helped.

Share This On: