This series on “The Presence of God in Preaching” is a sequel to a book of mine now being published by Word Books, Inc. as The Presence of God in Pastoral Counseling.
I purpose to examine the work of preaching from what Samuel Terrien has called the “heart of Biblical Theology” in his book The Elusive Presence. The Presence of God is indeed not at our beck and call, does not keep our time-clocked schedules. Rather, we search for His Presence in creation, in strangers, in the darkness of the human spirit, in the faces of human suffering as we preach.
The Presence of God stands “over against” us and our people and in the Holy Spirit walks “alongside” us and our people. It is my plan to explore with you some of these aspects of the Presence of God in preaching.
Phillips Brooks said that when you and I preach, the truth must come through our persons, not merely over our lips, not merely into our understanding and out through our pen, typewriter, dictation tape, or our word processor. He differentiates between the preacher whom the Gospel goes over and the preacher the Gospel comes through. (Phillips Brooks, On Preaching.)
Implicit in this remarkable comment of Brooks is another burning issue for preaching today: “What is the central focus or heart of our preaching?”
For a century we have been taught that preaching is the communication of truth through the personality of the preacher. This was Brooks’ hyposthesis. However, the meaning of the word “through” gets lost and we come up with a distortion of the original.
Brooks did not mean that the truth was to stop in the personality of the preacher. That would make the preacher’s personality the heart of preaching. This is a major heresy of our times. The Presence of the Living Christ must be the center of preaching–not the preacher’s personality, nor situations of distress of human beings, nor pet doctrines of any kind, nor the sermon itself, nor psychological techniques of persuasion. The Presence of the Living Christ is the heart of preaching.
Personality-Centered Preaching
Charm, photogenic giftedness, “user friendliness” to the television screen, a hypnotic voice on the radio are personality traits of necessity in mass-media preaching today. In this sense, from a purely human point of view, we can name our age of preaching as the “triumph of the electric church.”
Recently I met a member of the church I attend going out of the entrance to the morning worship service as I was entering. This friend said: “I must hurry so that I can hear my favorite preacher on television!”
When the center of preaching is the personality of the preacher who is charming and photogenic in television close-ups, then the truth of the gospel has a great deal of trouble getting through the preacher. It stops and charm, appearance, hypnotic voice becomes the center.
Yet these are the criteria of many pastor-search committees when they recommend pastors to a congregation and of congregations as they vote silently by non-attendance, non-giving of money, and changing of church membership not to hear a preacher they “don’t like.” In this the awareness of the church as a dialogue between preacher and people is lost.
Harvey Cox was right when he said that “the widespread use of the media that are technically non-dialogical perpetuate a passive, quiescent, immature people.” (Harvey Cox, The Seduction of the Spirit, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973. p. 314.)
I would add that it breeds an authoritarian preacher who can become as fast and loose, as pathological as a Jim Jones without the checks and balances of a fellowship of Christians in dialogue with the preacher.
You and I see this tested in the New Testament. People were apparently overwhelmed by Paul’s letters but disparaged his personal appearance. They said: “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account.” (II Cor. 10:10)
He insisted that we have the treasure of the Gospel in “earthen vessels to show that the transcendency of the power may be of God and not ourselves.” (II Cor. 4:7)
Life Situations as Center for Preaching
A preacher can divert the audience’s attention from himself or herself and focus the message on themselves and the plight of the human condition itself. We can rightly insist that Jesus did this in His mission to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. These are situations for preaching.
Yet Jesus’ first priority was that the Spirit of the Lord was upon Him. The good news of God’s presence through Him was the center of the message. The human condition was the circumference of God’s compassion in this particular commission.
Much wisdom about effective preaching has been discovered in the excellent work of many preachers about situation preaching. In their writings have I discovered an insistence that the life situation is the starting point, the point of departure, not the point of arrival and consummation of the sermon.
If it remains with a particular human problem, the people are given an assay on the anatomy of their difficulty with some wise sayings as to what to do about it. In the end, however, they leave with the loneliness of their plight unless the Presence and participation of God in Christ in their situation is the central focus of the sermon.
The Sermon Itself as the Center for Preaching
We struggle hard as students of homiletics and rhetoric to perfect a style of preaching that is uniquely ours. Preaching is a calling, but the doing of it is a rigorous discipline and calls for studied, intentional skill and preparation.
This in itself can become the center of our commitment and concern: to produce the polished product of a finely-tuned sermon. When this happens, preaching itself becomes a performance that the congregation “watches” and in which they do not become involved. Their attention is absorbed in how well–in the opinion of some–and how poorly–in other people’s opinion–the performance is coming off!
Both the preacher’s and the congregation’s awareness of the Presence and intentions of God are made peripheral to the central concern of the acceptability of the sermon itself. To speak with liberty in the awareness of the awesome Presence of God puts even the sermon itself at the periphery and not at the center of the preacher’s awareness.
One Pet Doctrine as the Center for Preaching
Another seductive center much used for preaching today is a single “pet” doctrine of the preacher, however true that belief may be.
We are committed by ordination and the whole truth of the whole Word of God to preach the whole counsel of God. The history of Christianity is replete with the skewing effects of the extremism that exempts persons from the mercy and love of God because they do not join us as preachers in our obsession with one pet doctrine. You can form your own list of such doctrines which have been “harped on” until they have been “run into the ground,” as South Carolina forebearers of mine used to call it.
This has plagued one denomination after another throughout the centuries. Catch words and phrases become the rallying points of contending adversaries. These become the center and circumference of much preaching. The longer the heart of preaching focuses on pet doctrines, the more demonic and idolatrous the community of faith becomes.
The divine wisdom is epitomized in the meeting of the two men going to a village named Emmaus. While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. The meaning of the Scriptures became the center of the conversation. The Living Christ interpreted the Scriptures.
As He revealed Himself to them, they were pulled together in a communion of awe, wonder and fellowship with Him. His Living Presence put the whole truth before them. They said: “Did not our hearts burn within us as He talked with us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures.” Their eyes had been opened to His Presence and they saw the whole scope of the intention of God.
With His Presence as the Living Christ as the center of our preaching, we are delivered from the tunnel vision of the Gospel restricted in one pet doctrine. With His Presence, the personality of the preacher is transformed into an earthen vessel filled with a precious treasure through which people participate in His Presence.
The situations of suffering about which we preach are redeemed from their triviality and endowed with the love of God being shed abroad through the Presence of the Holy Spirit in their sufferings.
The whole counsel of God brings a steadfastness and encouragement to the people of God and they walk not alone when they leave your congregation to face the world. They see God’s truth steadily and see it whole.

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