Preachers don’t get out much. My wife has been telling me that over what seems a life time of Saturday nights at home. Of course, she is right, and even more right than she probably realizes. The truth is most preachers do not get out of the rooms of their denomination or tradition very often. We talk to folks of our own tribe, get caught up in intra-tribal intrigues, jealousies and admirations. We even listen to and critique sermons in “our room” (even if it is a chat room!). That is why I have always appreciated the Beecher Lecture series.
For well over a hundred years, these annual lectures have allowed those of us who are called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to stand in a larger room. Every lecturer seems to have been aware of the ecumenical context. As I read the addresses in their published form, I am struck by the speakers’ attempts to translate a point about preaching or the theology that informs it to the widest possible audience. At the same time, I am thankful the tradition of the speaker is not denied or hidden. Indeed in most of the lectures, it is an element that sheds new light, or at least perspective, on our common calling.
For example, Charles E. Jefferson, speaking in his Beecher Lectures at the early part of the twentieth century, does not disguise his very free church view of the use of a common lectionary to be followed in the reading of and preaching from scripture. For him, following a table of readings devised by people three hundred years ago “irritates and fetters” ministers in the doing of this work.1
Joseph Sittler, a Lutheran delivering lectures in the same series at the middle of this century does not apologize for lifting up the importance of lectionary liturgy. He even chides his listeners, “let us not blanch in free church horror.”2 This truly ecumenical spirit, while sharing the best of one’s traditions with others of various communions, has been a hall mark of the Yale lectures.
Dr. James Forbes’ lectures in 1986 stand also in this larger room. But even in that larger room, Forbes opens some windows that bring fresh air to all who approach the “burden and joy of preaching.” Following the pattern of the best Beecher Lectures, James Forbes speaks to the widest possible audience, but speaks solidly from his own tradition.
He grew up in the cadences of the African-American Church, and in school heard the preaching of Mordecai Johnson, Howard Thurmon, Gardner Taylor, Samuel Proctor and Martin Luther King, Jr. His experience would not let him settle for a preaching that sought to speak only to the head, or solely to the heart. Before he encountered theories of proclaiming the whole gospel to the whole person, he had the experience of being caught up in such preaching by guest speakers at Howard University. His experience was even closer to home. He grew up in the United Holy Church of America. His roots were not only in the black church, but the American Pentecostal movement.
His experience as a student and later as a teacher at Union Theological Seminary has given him a deep love and commitment to the Church universal. He is in no way narrowly partisan on his approach to preaching. He has become convinced that much of contemporary preaching misses what was an unquestionable prerequisite for the preaching of his youth. Preaching, his father, Bishop James A. Forbes, Sr., would have called anointed preaching.
After reading James A. Forbes, Jr.’s explanation of what anointing is and isn’t, I am convinced that across cultural and denominational lines, pastor-preachers should not enter the pulpit without an anointing of the Holy Spirit. I also confess that this could well have sounded like so much gibberish to me before I read the published form of his 1986 lectures. “Anointed by the Holy Spirit,” has carried for me the connotation of emotionalism or a lack of solid biblical-theological preparation.
Television has not lessened my prejudice. No matter how much we decry the communications wasteland of TV, the Babylonian captivity of certain Christian television networks, we cannot resist the temptation to tune into a charismatic spellbinder after an especially mind numbing deacons meeting at Old First Church. Fess up. So there you are, late at night with the shades drawn, listening to a well oiled, well healed Tele-Evangelist-Entrepreneur repeating his favorite mantra, “You have gotta have the anointing.” It is enough to excise the word anointing from your personal lexicon, especially as it is used often by some TV preachers to promise the viewer the kind of material and spiritual success the preacher has obviously experienced. Such “anointed preachers” have not decreased on the American scene or screen since Forbes’ 1986 lecture. Harry Baker Adams in his 1995 Beecher lectures, refereed to the same phenomenon without using the word “anointing”:
“One TV preacher touted the advantages of being a Christian by pointing to all the blessings God had given to him, specifically the big cars he drove and the big home he lived in. Parenthetically, one can wonder about the wisdom of using such a personal example, since such luxuries were provided by the money of the people to whom he was speaking. It just might possibly have occurred to them that they were being exploited by the preacher. But from the enthusiastic response of the studio audience, apparently that thought had not bothered them.”3
Not only aren’t studio audience members bothered by such a material understanding of anointing, they seem attracted to it. For this very reason, when people talk about someone’s anointed ministry or say to me, “You certainly are under the anointing this morning pastor.” I am less than attracted. Then I began to doubt my doubts. Am I allowing my negative associations with a word keep me from fully entering in to an aspect of preaching and ministry that is not optional, but crucial?
James Forbes makes a convincing case that I have done just that. More importantly and positively, what he says about the Holy Spirit and preaching is a gift to the whole church. His is an emphasis whose time has come. We live in an age when technique and technology rule almost every human endeavor, including preaching. That, it seems to me is just the problem, preaching has become a human endeavor.
It is easy to become a practitioner instead of a prophet. I have read scores of books on the techniques that have made the great preachers great. Now I don’t even have to read the books, I’m on-line. I have their facility at my finger tips. Even if I do it the old fashioned way, spending a life time honing my craft, there is something missing. Can the problem be a preaching ministry that is thoroughly prepared and proficient but without spiritual power? James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York, believed that this is exactly the dilemma for too many of us:
“It is about this general problem that I write because I believe it isn’t just a minority of people who are Spirit-shy. My sense is that most of us find it difficult to experience the sacred — which may explain why the high calling to live out the mandates of the kingdom (righteousness, justice, joy and peace) finds decreasing compliance. To rise above preoccupation with, or fixation on, our own interests, or to respond to the mandate to give to others presupposes strong assurances about Holy Spirit support.”4
Forbes is not speaking a foreign language here. No matter what our denominational loyalties or geographic location, we who preach live in an age of the triumph of the technical. Seminaries are often caught up in leadership studies; their graduates are in for a life time of seminars on how to be successful, effective and able to speak to a world where success is everything. To speak a language that refers to the power and leading of the Holy Spirit seems to be out of touch with reality:
“The primary issue here is not how much one talks about the Spirit. Rather, the concern is that those forces that reduce our freedom to speak of the Holy Spirit also may be working against any diligence in seeking the guidance and the empowerment of the Spirit. It is not that preachers do not know the place of the Spirit. Rather, it is that those attitudes which urge silence or privacy regarding the role of the Spirit in our preaching also tend to rob us of the full empowerment crucial for all who preach the Word. Barriers to such anointings are very real and need to be faced if we are to experience additional dimensions of Holy Spirit power for more effective preaching.
What might it mean for preachers today if when we stand to preach we could say, ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon us, because the Lord hath anointed us to preach the gospel’? This is the question at the heart of our quest. It is my goal that preachers all over this nation, regardless of their denominational background, piety or theological perspective in general, would be able, with integrity, to say, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me for the preaching of the gospel.'”5
Even as I read those lines again about the Spirit of the Lord, I am both strangely attracted and repelled. I believe in the Holy Spirit and that there could be no preaching of the gospel without the Spirit’s power and guidance. Karl Barth talked about the Spirit coming in power when the Spirit is cried, sighed and prayed for; this has the ring of truth. But I hesitate to talk about the Holy Spirit upon me, the Lord has anointed me. It all seems so other worldly and presumptuous. Then there is the word anointed.
Forbes seems to know our objections; but he also knows our hunger. We do want to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. We know Jesus came preaching. It is also clear that Jesus had a sense of His proclamation of the Kingdom, even under stiff opposition to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. When He came to His own town and it was time to declare Himself, He unrolled the scroll and read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor.” Then He said the staggering thing, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:8, 21). Jesus the Christ — the anointed One was revealing His mission, but He was also revealing the power behind that mission. The spirit of God was upon Him.
It was the Spirit who emboldened Jesus to declare the Kingdom to those who knew His humble beginning best. The same Spirit has guided and guarded the scripture which proclaims the Kingdom to all people. Why then do we doubt that the Holy Spirit is necessary to preach with transforming power?
“If we intend to preach the gospel of Jesus the Christ, who calls us to serve the kingdom in our time, we need all the power that is available to us. Given the reality of a culture that has lost contact with the living Spirit of the One who announced to us the vision of the kingdom in the first place, we need preaching that is more than aesthetically delightful. Mere ranting and raving and excitation from some spirited pastor will not suffice. We need some sense of the Spirit accompanied by power sufficient to interrupt a decline in the sense of the reality of God.”6
This very note is missing from so much that is being taught and written about preaching. I read Dr. Forbes lectures some ten years after they were delivered, but they struck and strike a responsive cord far beyond the conventional wisdom about sermon making. I read the lectures straight through and kept thinking about the description of preaching as twenty minutes to wake the dead. Forbes takes that definition very seriously; for him it is not some old saying about an apathetic audience. It is an apt description of what God is up to in the world and what God’s heralds are called to do by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
Professor Forbes has told his preaching students for years that, “preaching is an event in which the living word of God is proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is done by a member or members of the covenant community.” This seems like a very good definition of preaching, but becomes even stronger when he adds this amendment for future homiletical classes. “Preaching is bearing witness to the resurrecting power of God, which extends itself into the regions of death, so that new life in Christ breaks forth in all dimensions of the created order.”7 Now that makes clearer to me the goal of preaching and the theater of preaching.
The realm we preach in every Sunday includes the walking death of loneliness, grief, infidelity and oppression. Its usually laundered, starched and well-disguised in us and in our people, but it is still death. Once we admit the arena, then we know people saying to us: nice sermon pastor or novel approach is not and cannot be the goal. When we figure out that the goal is Resurrection, then we know it can be brought in me and us only by the Holy Spirit. This means my yielding to the leadership and guidance of the Spirit and my praying for the same yielding to be done by the covenant community. Forbes counsels us not to be surprised by the response of fear:
“…afraid because we are in a culture where spiritual realities are not tangible enough to make sense to talk about; fearful that talking about the Spirit will require some growth in discipline, growth in dedication, growth in yieldedness; afraid that talking about the Spirit will take the organization out of our hands; afraid that the wind of the Spirit will blow in directions we have not considered; afraid to talk; afraid to be open; afraid to preach; afraid to let the Spirit be at the heart of our ministry: then we cannot participate in the ministry of raising the dead, for we are scared of the power by which it shall come. While it is natural at first to experience some degree of fear, we should remind ourselves that love casts out fear.”8
That love also breaks down theological and denominational barriers. Forbes, a Pentecostal, stresses that this anointing is not some brand new experience that requires a brand new vocabulary. This is not an alien spirit — this is the One who has attended our conversion, growth and call to ministry. We are already in the Spirit; we are humbly praying for more of the Spirit in us.
“No, we can’t be like the little boy whose mother wanted him to ask for the molasses correctly. He kept saying, ‘Mama, I want some ‘lasses’ and the mother would correct him, saying, ‘You mean, molasses.” He said, ‘Well, I can’t ask for molasses if I ain’t had no ‘lasses.”9
Several years ago when I was working on a project dealing with pastoral preaching, I traveled to New York from Nashville to interview Dr. Forbes. He had a reputation for prophetic preaching, and I wanted to know his view on the relationship of the prophetic and the pastoral.
What I remember most was his manner — gentle, humble, yet confident. He reassured me that both emphases come from the same Spirit. It is not a matter of adding mo to the lasses. The tender care of the people of God and the speaking truth to the powers of the present age are of one proclamation meant to raise the dead and that can only be done by the Holy Spirit.
1Charles E. Jefferson, The Building of the Church, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913) page. 250.
2Joseph Sittler, The Ecology of Faith, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1961), pages 8, 37.
3Harry Baker Adams, Preaching: The Burden and the Joy, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996), page 54.
4James Forbes, The Holy Spirit and Preaching, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), page 25.
5Ibid., page 26
6Ibid., page 25
7Ibid., page 56
8Ibid., page 78, 79
9Ibid.

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