One of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, Huldruch (Ulrich) Zwingli understood the effective proclamation of the Word of God to be central to any meaningful religious reform.
Born in 1484 (the same year as Luther), Zwingli’s father was a chief magistrate for their district, located about 40 miles from Zurich. Zwingli attended the University of Vienna, then the University of Basel. In 1506 he was ordained and began a decade of service as priest in Glarus. During this period he carried on humanistic and theological studies, with growing sympathies for Renaissance scholarship. The young priest began a correspondence with Erasmus during this period of his ministry.
While serving the parish of Glarus, Zwingli earned a reputation as an effective preacher. In 1516 he became priest at Einsiedeln, which attracted pilgrims from throughout Switzerland because of a famous shrine. Large audiences enjoyed Zwingli’s preaching, which by this time had become expositions of the gospels.
In 1518, while still on good terms with the papacy and the Roman Church, Zwingli became people’s priest at the Great Minster in Zurich. With the opportunity to preach regularly before large audiences, Zwingli immediately began a program of biblical exposition, starting with the book of Matthew. This sermonic approach increased the popular knowledge of Scripture and helped lay a foundation for the religious reform that would soon follow.
Though not a great orator, Zwingli’s practical emphasis and occasional humor made him a popular preacher with the common people. He avoided use of manuscripts for fear it would restrict his freedom and energy in preaching. Zwingli usually preached about a half hour, though in his early ministry he often preached a full hour.
By the early 1520’s, the evangelical reform movement was underway in Zurich, with Zwingli recognized as its theological leader. In the years of political, military and religious struggle that followed, Zwingli moved to the fore as leader of his canton, and sought constantly to build alliances with other cantons and even with Luther — though unsuccessfully. He died in battle on October 11, 1531, while serving as a chaplain during the defense of Zurich.
Despite his death, the reforms which Zwingli inspired continued under the leadership of Heinrich Bullinger. Although on a small scale, at Zurich Zwingli had presented the first model of a church reorganized according to an evangelical understanding of scripture. Though he took on responsibilities in the political and military realm, Zwingli always recognized his primary calling as a preacher of the Word.
The selections that follow, drawn from several of Zwingli’s sermons, offer a glimpse of the preaching ministry of this significant figure in the history of the Christian pulpit.
From “On the Providence of God”
But man is not alone the offspring of God; all creatures are so, though one differs from another in nobility and freedom. They are by birth of God and in God, and the nobler any one is, the more it proclaims the divine glory and power. Do not the creatures of the species of rodents proclaim the wisdom and providence of the Godhead? The hedgehog when with its spines he most cleverly carries a large quantity of fruit to its dwelling place, by rolling over the fruit and planting its spines in it. Alpine rats or marmots, which we now call the mountain rats, station one of their number upon an elevation, that, as they run about intent upon their work, no sudden danger may fall upon them without his timely cry of warning, while meantime the rest of the band carry off the softest hay from all around. And since they have no wagons, they turn themselves into wagons by turns, one lying upon his back and holding fast with all his feet the hay loaded upon his stomach and chest, while another seizes by the tail his comrade thus transformed into a wagon, and drags him with the plunder to their dwelling place to enable them to sleep through the inclemency of the harsh winter season. The squirrel, dragging a broad bit of wood to the shore by its mouth, used it as a boat to cross the water, hoisting its bushy tail, and being thus driven by the favoring breeze, needs no other sail.
What word, what speech, pray can proclaim the divine wisdom as well as these creatures which are among almost the humblest of living things? And do not things without sensation bear witness that the might, goodness and lifegiving power of the Godhead are ever present with them?
A man complains that he has been confined to his bed many months and learns shortly after how much good it brought to him or how much harm he has escaped. A house is burned but a better one is raised in its place, and he to whom this disaster happened is humbled by it. Girls dance, some to learn to move their limbs with proper grace, others to advertise by unseemly gesture to an admirer that their chastity is for sale. Cato becomes drunk for a month, to relieve the burden of his cares and thoughts. Anthony prolongs last night’s intoxication, to plunge into lust and riot and destroy himself. Caesar seizes a monarchy, Brutus destroys one, the first sending headlong to ruin the Roman power already tottering to its fall, the other to tear out the tyranny of a Tarquin and make room for justice in a future democracy. So God uses for good all deeds both good and ill, though with the distinction that He turns to good for the elect even the evil they do, and the contrary for the rejected, while we meanwhile complain through impatience or ignorance. Thus all things happen, because all things are done by His dispensation and command.
From “Of the Clarity and Certainty or Power of the Word of God”
The Word of God is so sure and strong that if God wills all things are done the moment that he speaks his Word. For it is so living and powerful that even the things which are irrational immediately conform themselves to it, or to be more accurate, things both rational and irrational are fashioned and dispatched and constrained in conformity with its purpose. The proof may be found in Genesis I: “And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.” Note how alive and strong the Word is, not merely ruling all things but creating out of nothing that which it wills.
With God, in fact, there is no such thing as past or future, but all things are naked and open to his eyes. He does not learn with time or forget with time, but with unerring knowledge and perception he sees all things present in eternity. It is in time that we who are temporal find the meaning and measure of longness or shortness. Yet what seems long to us is not long to God, but eternally present. If you think that God often fails to punish a wicked individual or nation, suffering their arrogance far too long, you are completely mistaken, for note that they can never escape him. The whole world is before him, where then can they hide from his presence? Most certainly he will find them (Ps. 139). And if you think that he does not punish or save according to his Word you are quite wrong. His Word can never be undone or destroyed or resisted. For if it could, if God could resist it, it would not be almighty. But it must always be fulfilled. If it is not fulfilled at the time when you desire, that is not due to any deficiency of power but to the freedom of his will. For if he had to act according to your will, you would be stronger than he and he would have to consult you. But what could be more nonsensical? God will never leave his Word powerless, as he says in Ezekiel 12: “O you that are rebellious, I will say the word and will perform it.” And just after: “The word which I have spoken shall be done.” The whole teaching of the Gospel is a sure demonstration that what God has promised will certainly be performed. For the Gospel is now an accomplished fact: the One who was promised to the patriarchs, and to the whole race, has now been given to us, and in him we have the assurance of all our hope, as Simeon said in Luke 2. “For what can he withhold when he delivered up his own Son for us, and how shall he not with him freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8)
Oh you rascals — you are not instructed or versed in the Gospel, and you pick out verses from it without regard to their context, and wrest them according to your own desire. It is like breaking off a flower from its roots and trying to plant it in a garden. But that is not the way: you must plant it with roots and the soil in which it is embedded. And similarly we must leave the Word of God its own proper nature if its sense is to be the same to all of us. And those who err in this way we can easily vanquish by leading them back to the source, though they never come willingly. But some of them are such confirmed dunces that even when the natural sense is expounded in such a way that they cannot deny it, they still allege that they cannot presume to understand it thus unless the Fathers allow that it may so be understood; on the ground that many expositors will always have a better understanding than one or two. Answer: If that is the case, then Christ himself was in error, which God forbid, for most of the priests of the time held quite a different view and he had to stand alone. And the apostles were also mistaken, for they were opposed by whole nations and cities. And even today the number of unbelievers far outweighs the number of believers: are we to conclude then that their view is right and ours wrong simply because they are more numerous than we? No. Consider for yourselves; truth is not necessarily with the majority.
From “Concerning Steadfastness and Perseverance in Goodness”
I will gladly predict to you that I do not doubt that God will allow such dangers to encounter you and that you will see that he powerfully works for and shelters you. Thus, when the dangers come, do not be frightened! For God will only let you have trials and tribulations so that, confessing the sole honor of God, you may recognize his certain help all the better. For he will lead you into need so that you will not trust yourself to help. He helps you out, for you will see exactly that all things come from him alone, and that he also undoubtedly helps us.
From “On the Choice and Free Use of Foods”
These announcements seem to me to be enough to prove that it is proper for a Christian to eat all foods. But a heathen argument I must bring forward for those that are better read in Aristotle than in the Gospels or in Paul. Tell me which you think more necessary to a man, food or money? I think you will say that food is more useful than money, otherwise we should die of hunger with our money, as Midas died, who, according to the poets, desired that everything he touched be turned to gold. And so food is more important to preserve life than money; for man lived on food before money was invented. Now Aristotle says that money is indifferent — that is, it is neither good nor bad in itself, but becomes good or bad according to its use, whether one uses it in a good or bad way. Much more then is food neither good nor bad in itself (which I, however, for the present omit), but it is necessary and therefore more truly good. And it can never become bad, except as it is used immoderately; for a certain time does not make it bad, but rather the abuse of men, when they use it without moderation and belief.

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