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Home » The Pulpit

The Tapestry of Preaching

Submitted by on September 17, 2011 – 8:59 amOne Comment

by David R. Schmitt

This article, including the diagram at the end, is reprinted from the Spring 2011 issue of Concordia Journal (vol. 37, no. 2). Readers may find it helpful that throughout the article Dr. Schmitt explicates a sermon that can be viewed here. David Schmitt teaches practical theology in the Gregg H. Benidt Memorial Endowed Chair in Homiletics and Literature at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. His recent work explores how art, faith, and aesthetic sensibility can be joined together in the preaching task.

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John Chrysostom once argued that part of the art of preaching involves evaluating one’s work. “Let the best craftsman be the judge of his own handiwork,” Chrysostom counseled.[1] Yet, like most words of wisdom, Chrysostom’s counsel is easier said than done.

Preaching for many pastors is a weekly task. Immersed in the activity of writing sermons, they find it hard to pause, even for a moment, for faithful consideration of what God is doing through their words. Yet faithful consideration forms faithful pastors: not pastors who approach preaching with haughty self-confidence, believing that whatever they say and do in the pulpit is praiseworthy simply because they say it and do it, but pastors who approach preaching as holy and see themselves as servants, servants of a God who uses many weak voices to utter one powerful word. It produces preachers who, after all of those years and all of those sermons, still return to the field of homiletics, pick up a preaching book or attend a preaching conference, and find something more that can be learned. Maybe that is why there is still a tremble in the hand and a nervous swallow in the throat as we begin the morning sermon, why we still watch with wonder as our wrestling with Scripture comes forth to impart a blessing before going on its way.

Now the question rises, how exactly do you evaluate what you say? How do you know when your attempts at telling stories moves your preaching beyond the realm of a sermon and into something more like entertainment? How do you know when a creative technique in the pulpit produces mass confusion in the pew? The field of homiletics has undergone a massive transformation[2] and, as we integrate learning from this discipline into weekly proclamation, how do we know when we still are preaching and when we are not? In an attempt to answer such questions, I offer this article on the tapestry of preaching. The tapestry of preaching is a metaphor I use to describe a simple framework designed for pastors to help them evaluate their public proclamation of God’s word.

The framework, itself, arises from theology. The greatest praise of preaching lies not in what people say about the sermon but in what God does through it. While faithful preachers are those who evaluate their sermons, faithful sermons are the ones in which God does what God desires to do through the office of preaching. God is at work through the sermon, reaching out to his people with words of salvation. God’s establishment of the preaching office and God’s call of the preacher, therefore, create the framework within which we speak. To evaluate preaching, we begin not with the theory of homiletics but with the theology of preaching, and we allow that theology to help us evaluate our sermons. Preaching is authoritative public discourse, based on a text of Scripture, centered in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for the benefit of the hearers in faith and life. If we consider this to be the work that God does as you preach, we recognize that the sermon is a multi-faceted speech act, an artful tapestry composed of four threads of discourse.

In the German film Wings of Desire, there is a wonderful scene where angels descend and pass through the reading room of a library. As these angels make their journey under vaulted ceilings and among massive tables, they are able to hear the thoughts of the people who sit and read. They pass through the silence of the library and yet the theatre is filled with sound. The film immerses its viewers in language. The silent reading of single books becomes for the angels a tapestry of speech. Many voices, many languages, many threads of discourse are woven together and, for a moment, the viewer is suddenly aware of the sound that can hover, like a tapestry, above the silence of a room. That scene captures some of what I call the tapestry of preaching. When writing a sermon, the preacher listens in on many conversations. Studying the text, pondering theology both ancient and new, seeking to speak for Christ and to speak to his people, the preacher finds himself immersed in different conversations. The art of preaching involves weaving together threads of these conversations. To be specific, preaching involves weaving together four threads of discourse: textual exposition, theological confession, evangelical proclamation, and hearer interpretation. Through the combination of these four threads, God reveals the divine drama of his saving intervention through preaching.[3]

When heard alone, one thread of discourse might sound like a Bible study or another like a piece of conversation you overheard on the bus, but when held together by the preacher in the context of the preaching office, these threads of discourse work together to reveal a God who comes and forgives his people this day. Through the interplay of these four, the hearer moves from hearing a Bible study or overhearing a conversation on the bus to participating in the event of God’s gracious working. The sermon, then, is a weaving together of four threads of speaking through which God does his work. At certain times with certain texts and certain people, certain threads tend to predominate. As one discourse rises to ascendance, say in the structure of the sermon, the others do not disappear; they are simply less apparent, less apt to be noticed. Yet it is the interweaving of these four, not the isolation of only one, that produces the event of the sermon. This is the difficulty of evaluating preaching.

As pastors read current homiletical texts and talk to one another about preaching, they tend to isolate one or two of these threads as the essential element of preaching. Some say the sermon should simply “do the text again to the people.” Others speak about preaching in the context of new Christians and how the sermon should be a teaching sermon, more like a Bible study. Others hold on to the thread of evangelical proclamation and state that when the preacher gets into the pulpit he simply needs to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” or “to kill people with the law and raise them to life with the gospel.” Others speak about the use of stories from contemporary life and how telling stories is the way to relate to people. Listening to these conversations is a lot like hovering above the reading room of the library. Each pastor has a part of the tapestry, a thread that is essential, but no one pastor has a grasp of the whole work. It is only as you weave these four together that you begin to touch on the mystery of preaching.

The discipline of evaluating preaching, then, involves recognizing the four threads of discourse and how they relate to one another in forming the tapestry of preaching. In this article, I would like to examine these four threads of discourse, consider their content and function, and see how they relate to the event of the sermon. My goal is to give us a way of talking about the sermon that will move us beyond isolationist tendencies of “preaching law and gospel” or “doing the text again” and help us speak to one another about the art of preaching. Rather than argue about what a sermon has to be, we will begin to recognize what a sermon can be. Rather than talk past one another, we will talk with one another about the four threads of discourse in preaching and how we discern the appropriate weaving of these four for a particular preaching occasion.

To evaluate our preaching, then, let us consider how God works through the words that we choose in the lives of the hearers to create the event of the sermon. I will describe each of these four functions of speech within the context of the sermon, and for each thread will offer an example of what that might look like as you preach.[4] Then I will close by commenting upon the interweaving of these four that constitutes the homiletical art of Lutheran preaching.

Textual Exposition

Definition

The first thread of discourse is textual exposition. Textual exposition communicates the intended meaning of the text in its historical context. Scripture is the word of God to us, but it is a mediated word. It is a word that has been spoken to someone else by someone else in a very real situation with very real consequences, and only now is that word entrusted to us. It is a word that uses forms of speech from another age: oracles and laments, parables and paraenesis. Only now, after some of those forms have been put away, do these texts come to us for our salvation and proclamation to the ends of the earth. Textual exposition, therefore, awakens hearers to the fact that they are listening to someone else’s letter, overhearing someone else’s prayer, sitting in church today listening in on a conversation from another room, and God in his wisdom is feeding them manna from another age. Such exposition is not comprehensive, the rehearsal of every detail of the exegetical complexities or the historical situation of a text. It offers only that information which is pertinent to the sermon, clarifying for this day this aspect of this text. Exegetes, therefore, suffer as preachers because they enter the pulpit every week knowing that there are many true, many important exegetical matters that today simply will not be proclaimed.

While textual exposition is narrowed down by what is pertinent to the sermon, it is also expanded by the forms of communication possible for contemporary hearers. Textual exposition does not need to be deductive and didactic, turning every text, whether parable or proverb, paraenesis or prayer, into a lecture that teaches its meaning. Rather, it is responsible yet creative: responsible in that it recognizes the poetics of the text; creative in that it uses the poetics of contemporary hearers to communicate. For example, a preacher could take an epistle of Paul, the letter to Philemon, and in the sermon assume the character of Philemon to communicate to the hearer the intended meaning of the text.[5] Here the contemporary form of dramatic monologue communicates the meaning of the classical form, the epistle. Such preaching demands much of the preacher. The preacher needs to be a master of two poetics: the poetics of the text and the poetics of the contemporary hearers. Through the poetics of the text, the preacher understands textual meaning, what the text says and does in its historical context; through the poetics of the hearers, the preacher communicates that meaning in a way that engages. When you are not an artisan of both, it hinders proclamation. Those who know the text but not the hearers offer a sound treatment of the text but a lousy chancel drama. Those who know the hearers but not the text create a persuasive drama but about something that was never intended. Being an artisan of both is the beginning of faithful textual exposition in the sermon. Textual exposition may be woven throughout the sermon or appear in isolated portions, but by the end of the sermon, the hearer will know the intended meaning of the text in its historical context.

Example

For example, you are preaching in the season of Pentecost, and the Old Testament reading records God’s visit to Abraham, his prediction of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the conversation that followed.[6] Part of preaching grows from reading this text as a biblical narrative and involves recognizing the historiographic, aesthetic, and ideological principles of this text.[7] From such reading, one recognizes that God once entered history to talk with a man named Abraham and we are listening in on that conversation. The sermon awakens the hearers to the power and the strangeness of this event: the threat of God approaching Sodom like a storm cloud on the horizon; the intimacy of God revealing what was to come in conversation with a mortal friend; the agony of Abraham, sounding like a seller of cheap wares, bartering for a bargain, when human lives hang in the balance; the faith of Abraham, grasping at the God he knows through the covenant when faced with the God that he sees in judgment; and the patience and righteousness of God, listening to such intercession and agreeing for the sake of 50, 45, 40, 30, 20, even 10—so much does he listen to the faithful prayers of his people. These are the events the sermon proclaims in a manner that captures their breath-taking reality. Image, drama, dialogue, description, any of a variety of tools might be used by the preacher, but all are used in service of communicating the reality of this event. This event brought Abraham to that place of silence, where all of life hangs in the balance and the only one breathing is God. His breath brought death and it brought life, saving Lot, a man who would force his virgin daughters to have sex in order to protect the angels who came under his roof. Oh the strangeness of this mercy of God!

Function

What is the function of such discourse in the sermon? First, textual exposition bases the sermon on a text. Sometimes preachers can begin to stray from the text in preaching. They mention the text but then leave it behind as they launch into their personal beliefs or contemporary topics only tangentially related to the text. Scripture is displaced as the preacher’s personal interests become authoritative for the sermon. Yet, God’s word is the authority heard through the office of preaching. It brought this world into being and now brings new life to his fallen creation. God has established the preaching office so that his authoritative saving word might be proclaimed. Textual exposition bases the sermon on a text, fulfilling God’s design for the office of preaching and turning the hearts and minds of the congregation to the confession of Scripture rather than the personal life of the preacher.

Second, textual exposition offers the hearers a model of how to interpret the Scriptures. Exegetes frequently emphasize the need to communicate what the Scriptures mean to our hearers. That is necessary and true. But we need to remember that we communicate not only what the Scriptures mean but also how the Scriptures mean. You model for your hearers how to read and interpret Scripture by how you handle these texts in preaching. Lutheran principles of interpretation, such as Christocentricity and Scripture interprets Scripture, are modeled every time we preach. And those who gather for worship are sent home with more than an understanding of one passage in Scripture. They are sent home with a way of understanding other passages as well. Through the sermon, we feed and form our hearers. We feed them with the word of life, but we also form them to meditate upon that word, teaching them how to read and interpret it in their devotional life.

Third, textual exposition proclaims God’s revelation in history and makes your hearers witnesses of this fact. The American culture tends to separate religion and spirituality.[8] Religion is the formal organization of dogmatic statements about faith and rules for its practice. Spirituality is the personal appropriation from these systems of whatever the individual deems helpful for his or her personal spiritual formation. Such a culture produces practitioners of a private spirituality who often come to the church as they would to a religious supply store, looking for items they might use, as one person told me, in her “journey to resurrectedness.” Such practical spirituality reduces Christianity to one among many systems of thought, one among many frameworks for the practice of belief. Hearers begin to pick and choose among beliefs in these various religious systems and try out different practices to see what happens to their faith. Such thinking obscures the active agent in faith. It hides the fact that there is something over which we have no choice and no control: God, who directly intervenes in human history. While people might personally select those things they find useful, whether they find him useful or not, God intervenes. That is what textual exposition communicates to the hearers: God is alive and active, at work in the world he created. Scripture is not simply a body of teachings, dislocated from history, and it is not simply a collection of stories, metaphorical worlds we choose to live in, but it is the historic revelation of a very real God who has intervened in human history. This God brings death, and he brings life. He takes into his hands a people, with all of the forms and functions of their language, and uses these people and their speech to communicate and give witness to his holy work.

To deny that historicity is dangerous, for it dislocates God from where he has placed himself in events in history. God becomes simply a matter of propositional truths to be understood rather than a God who is trusted. God is reduced to love rather than revealed to be Yahweh who loved Abraham and provided for Abraham and his descendants a means whereby they might live in faith as recipients of his love. Our God works through incarnation and by being incarnate, even in human speech; he works within human history to redeem his fallen creatures. We suffer from very real acts of sin, and God chooses to save us by a very real act of intervention, entering into history and carrying the burden of sin. The word of God is bound up with the events of God’s revelation, and we preach a God who cannot be detached from human history for he has placed himself there, going so far as to enter into history as a human and be hung there on a cross.

As God intervened in history, then, in the text, so too he continues to intervene now through a word publicly proclaimed and elements joined to that word in sacramental action. The sermon and sacraments are not simply rituals we go through, nice remembrances of things past that make the service longer. And they are not simply the occasion for theological reflection or, worse yet, religious controversy. Rather, they are interventions of God now into the history of his people. Here and now he is known through a word and a work that is done. God comes claiming, redeeming, forgiving, strengthening his people, and through textual exposition his people see that work and are sent out of worship as witnesses of God. This, then, is the last function of such discourse. It forms hearers who believe in the work of God in history. Through the power of the Spirit working through the proclamation of God’s word, your hearers now join a company of witnesses, gathered around what others have heard, have seen with their eyes, have looked upon and touched with their hands concerning this word of life.[9] They become part of God’s people, witnesses of God’s story, certain of God’s saving work in this world and actively waiting the fulfillment of his promises for the next.

Theological Confession

Definition

The second thread of discourse is theological confession. Through the sermon, the preacher makes confession of the teachings of the faith. While this has been done in the past by passing over the text and moving on to theology, or worse yet by slapping a theological teaching onto the text, there is a way of proclaiming a text and unfolding theology from it.

The text raises questions for the hearers. Hearing of God’s historical intervention invites what Fred Craddock calls a direct uncritical transfer of the event of the text.[10] For example, when I hear that Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all that he has and follow him, I conclude that I must sell all that I have and follow him. Such a direct uncritical transfer blends God’s enactment in history then with his working in history now. When this happens, strange teachings arise. People are forced to tithe, preachers lay handkerchiefs on the dying, and those who are burdened with sickness hear about the healing of the lame man and wonder, “why does God not intervene and heal me?” Negotiating that distance between God’s singular action in the past and one’s present situation is hard. It is hard now, and it was hard then for the people who were there when God first acted.

Bethesda was a crowded place. Five pools of healing scattered among small alcoves did not provide enough space for the sick of the world who came to be healed. Though angels might come and stir the water, no angel came and parted the crowd so that one lame man could drench himself with healing. Yet this man finds healing in the words of the Lord Jesus.[11] But what of the others? Why was only one healed by our Lord when he was in a place where so many sick had gathered? Then, as now, negotiating the distance between God’s action in a single event and in the lives of others raises questions. It is through the confession of theological teaching that the sermon negotiates the distance. The preacher models a process of theological inquiry by which to understand this intervention and through which to address any questions it might raise. Thus, the theology of what it means for God’s kingdom to come and how miracles function in the ministry of Jesus creates a framework within which to hear and to respond to the healing in the text and the dark questions of today.

Such theological teachings fall into several categories: they reveal the nature and work of God, the nature and work of humans, and the relationship between the two. For example, on Trinity Sunday in series A of the three-year lectionary in LSB, the gospel reading is Matthew 28:16–20. In that text, you hear our Lord commission his disciples to make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. Within this text, there is a revelation of the nature of God. God is triune, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This revelation is probably a reason for the reading being appointed on Trinity Sunday. The text, also, however, reveals the nature of Christ. Jesus declares his omnipotence (“all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”) and his omnipresence (“Lo, I am with you always even until the end of the age”). Finally, the text reveals something about the relationship between God and humans as Jesus sends out his disciples, even though some of them doubted. The omnipotent and omnipresent God chooses to work through the weakness of humans, using their words and work as he brings his reign into this world. Any of these teachings about the nature and work of God, the nature and work of humans, and the relationship between the two are proclaimed by the thread of theological confession in the sermon.

Function

What is the function of such discourse? First, theological confession models theological inquiry. It teaches our hearers not only what we believe but how we arrive at what we believe on the basis of the interpretation of Scripture. It models how to think theologically and discern God’s self-revelation in Scripture.

Second, theological confession proclaims the whole counsel of God. One of the challenging aspects of our culture is that people are beginning to blend religious traditions. That is, they take one teaching from the Christian faith and combine it with another teaching from another faith. They may confess Jesus Christ to be their Savior, and yet they deny a final resurrection of the dead. Instead, they believe that, when we die, our souls are released to return to their beginning in one world soul. The larger understanding of the metanarrative of the Christian faith, a narrative that moves from creation through redemption to the new creation, is lost. People take bits and pieces of the Christian faith, a Bible passage here or a commandment there, and blend it with other religions or secular forms of wisdom, so that a parishioner asks her pastor, “Where does the Bible say that ‘God helps those who help themselves’?” Theological confession answers this problem. It offers the fullness of Christian teaching, proclaimed over time. Such confession of the faith is important. While it is frightening to imagine, some hearers may not attend Bible class and may not read their Bibles at home. The only contact they have with Scripture and the Christian faith could be what they experience on Sunday morning. If this were the case, what would such hearers know? What kind of Christians would they be? For these hearers and others, preachers can look at their sermons, preached over the course of a year, and consider their theological confession. How have they confessed the teachings of the faith? They can consider the question, “How have these sermons and the teachings they confess formed my hearers to know the essentials of the faith? To be Lutherans who know their catechism? To be Christians who confess the creed?”

Third, theological confession provides a framework for Christian living. Hughes and Kysar, in a textbook on preaching, argue that our hearers suffer from the fragmentation of experience.[12] We live in a fragmented world, where the nightly news offers us glimpses of experiences without any logic or order aside from the fact that they occurred. People become accustomed to life as a diverse, disconnected set of experiences and have trouble understanding how faith and the church fit in. So Christianity becomes a compartmentalized religious experience that occurs once on Sunday and, if the preacher is lucky, a few times during the week. Even there it is compartmentalized, seen as a retreat from the world into some private devotional space.[13] Theological confession answers this problem. It offers a framework for living in a disordered, fragmented world.[14] It gives the hearers eyes to see how God is at work in the world. It names his work and reveals the structures he has provided for the care of creation and the carrying of his mission to the ends of the earth. Rather than leave God behind as they leave church on Sunday, people see how God sends them forth for his service as they enter into his world.

Fourth, theological confession practices liturgical theology. It considers how the texts are joined together in the lectionary. The lectionary is the church’s use of her Scriptures. It is the public practice of theology as one text is joined to another in the liturgy in order to unfold a teaching of the faith. As the Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading are read in light of one another, Scripture interprets Scripture and leads the hearers to a confession of faith. Some Sundays, the sermon might be preached from this liturgical theology as a means of confessing the faith.

Fifth, theological confession forms Christian witness. Just as textual exposition models how we read Scripture, so too, theological confession models how we speak about the faith. For example, a pastor may use a question-answered sermon design, where the structure of the sermon mirrors the process of answering a question regarding the faith.[15] By engaging in faithful Christ-centered reflection on Scripture and the work of God in the world, the preacher helps his hearers think through several possible false answers before arriving at a faithful, gospel-based answer. In addition to learning theology, the hearers also learn how to think theologically and to share such theological thinking in conversation with others. Should the question come up in conversation out in the world, the hearers have been offered a way of thinking through that question with others and leading them to the proclamation of Christ and the confession of the faith.

Example

Earlier, as an example, I mentioned a sermon on the text of Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah. This text, set within the season of Pentecost, pairs Abraham’s conversation with God in the Old Testament reading with Jesus teaching his disciples to pray in the Gospel reading.[16] This liturgical framework suggests that the sermon teach about prayer. Textual exposition communicates the strangeness of prayer in the life of Abraham: God, intent on destruction, opens his will to the prayer of Abraham. Theological confession answers the question whether that will remains open today. Can Christians in prayer participate in God’s coming kingdom? Theological confession teaches about the practice of prayer. It is not a magical means of controlling God—God’s kingdom comes indeed without our prayer—but it is a way in which Christians participate in God’s divine working, praying that it would come unto us also. Like Moses on the mountain throwing himself down between God’s wrath and a fallen Israel, like Paul writing in Romans that he could wish himself cursed and cut off for the sake of his brothers, Abraham stands on the plains outside of Sodom, pleading with God on the basis of his covenant for the sake of the fallen. Hearing of God’s wrath, he holds onto God’s mercy and calls for God to save. Through theological confession, the hearers learn that they too live in such a kingdom, under a heaven thrown open to the prayers of the faithful. Though Abraham is gone, God’s wrath upon sin, his covenant of grace, the place of prayer in this now-not-yet kingdom, these things remain. Like the frame of the human body, people live through them. They order the way in which one enters and reacts to the world. No, I cannot expect God to come to me as I walk out to my car in the morning, telling me what he is going to do about a neighboring suburb. But as I drive into a world that seems so far from God’s kingdom, I do remember his hatred of sin, his covenant of grace, and the privilege of prayer in a now-not-yet kingdom. When unfolded from the real intervention of God in a text, theological confession is not distant from “real life” but intimately connected to it, and it leads hearers to think and to live theologically.

Evangelical Proclamation

Definition

The third thread of discourse is that of evangelical proclamation. This thread of discourse is the heart of Lutheran preaching. Through it, we enact Christ’s command that repentance and forgiveness of sins be preached in his name.

Presently, this type of discourse sets Lutheran preaching apart from much that surrounds us. While others see the sermon as an opportunity to proclaim God’s wisdom for daily living, to teach the fundamentals of the faith, to tell stories of God’s working, or to do the text again to the people, the Lutheran preacher understands that the sermon might indeed do any of these things but it will do it within the framework of the office of preaching. God established the preaching office that people might obtain faith through the proclamation of the gospel.[17] Without the proper distinction of law and gospel, Scripture remains a closed book.[18] God, therefore, calls pastors who rightly divide the word of truth into the preaching office so that the Scriptures are opened and the sermon is centered in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sin. God, through the sermon, continues to intervene in the world he has created, speaking the word that brings people to life and working salvation in their midst.

Evangelical proclamation is the present tense proclamation of the forgiveness of sins on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ. To preach this gospel in our contemporary culture, one needs to know two things: first, the difference between acceptance and forgiveness and, second, the difference between an attribute of God and an act of God.

In the American culture, people tend to confuse acceptance with forgiveness. For Americans, toleration is a public virtue. Our culture asks of its citizens that they tolerate one another. They may not agree with what other people are doing, they may not appreciate the lifestyle choices of others, but they are asked to tolerate their actions, to respect them, and to accept them as fellow citizens. Sometimes, this causes preachers to confuse acceptance with forgiveness. The proclamation of the gospel becomes a proclamation that “God accepts you.” “He loves you just the way you are.” This proclamation confuses law and gospel. God does not accept sin. He condemns it, and in Christ, he dies for it. When God sees sin in the lives of his people, he doesn’t tolerate it. He calls for repentance. What father would tolerate his child putting a loaded gun in his mouth? What father would accept that? Would he say, “I love you just the way you are”? No, he would tell his son, “Take that gun out of your mouth. Give it to me.” God does not tolerate people doing that which kills them. He calls people to repentance through the preaching of the law. He tells them “Stop!” and then he says, “Give that to me.” In Jesus Christ, God takes our sin upon himself. He dies on the cross under the punishment of our sin and then rises to proclaim forgiveness, new life, and salvation in him. By his death and resurrection, he forgives our sins and sets us free. Evangelical proclamation preaches this death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and to do that the preacher needs to know the difference between acceptance and forgiveness.

In addition, the preacher needs to know the difference between preaching an attribute of God and an act of God. Many preachers, even of other religions, proclaim to people that God is love. This is preaching an attribute of God: God is love. When you proclaim that God is love, many in the world will agree. Most forms of contemporary spirituality believe in a higher power that is benevolent. Yet, to preach “God is love” is not to preach the gospel. You are preaching an attribute of God, not an act. The question remains, “How does this God love?” When you answer that question, you find yourself at the foot of the cross. Here is God’s love in action forgiving sins: God loved the world by sending his Son to die for the sins of all people. When you preach God’s act of love, you preach the stumbling block of the cross. Now, not everyone will agree. For many, this is not how God loves. Yet, this is the way, the only way, in which God promises to forgive: Christ takes upon himself the wrath of God, dies under it, and rises to bring new life to God’s people. Evangelical proclamation is that thread of discourse in the sermon that preaches forgiveness rather than acceptance and the act of God in Christ—rather than an attribute of God—that forgives sin and sets God’s people free.

Example

Weaving this discourse into the body of the sermon is the art and the heart of true Lutheran preaching. For example, the story of Abraham that we have been considering has revealed God’s intervention in history. Evangelical proclamation takes this intervention and places it within the context of God’s saving work in Christ, bringing all of this to bear upon the present lives of the hearers.[19] The preacher might work thematically. He could identify God’s intervention to judge and to save at the time of Abraham and then lead hearers to God’s ultimate intervention to judge and to save in the death and resurrection of Christ. The preacher might work typologically, proclaiming Abraham as a type of Christ, revealing him to be one who, in the face of God’s judgment, intercedes so that God spares the wicked for the sake of the righteous.[20] There are many ways in which evangelical proclamation could be woven into the sermon, many frameworks and much metaphorical language that the preacher could use, but at some point in the sermon the hearers will be taken to that place where they do not want to go, where all of their sinful life hangs in the balance and the only one with a right to breathe is God. He breathes. He stops breathing. He breathes again, now, to you, with a life-giving word: “You are forgiven, and I am your life.” Evangelical proclamation, the proper distinction of law and gospel, opens up the text to reveal God’s working and brings about gospel speaking.

Function

What is the function of such discourse? First, it reveals sin and proclaims forgiveness in order to create and sustain faith. Through such discourse, God kills and makes alive. He condemns sin and reveals salvation. He brings hearers to repentance and creates newness of life. Gerhard Forde, in his recent essay on preaching, “The Word That Kills and Makes Alive,” describes proclamation as “employing the distinction between law and gospel so that a new kind of speaking comes to light: gospel speaking.”[21] As Forde notes, such discourse is present tense and personal. It is present tense. While referencing the cross and resurrection, it does more than teach the hearers about these things. It brings the benefits of that action to the hearers now. The preacher at some point in the sermon speaks to those whom God has gathered this day and proclaims God’s sure and certain work, even now, forgiving their sin. It is also personal. This is the “for you” language of the sermon. It creates within the sermon a moment when God intervenes, taking from you your last dying breath and giving to you the first breath of life eternal.

Second, it models the variety of such proclamation in Scripture. Evangelical proclamation is not the formulaic repetition of law and gospel vocables at some point in the sermon, as if God works by magical incantation. Instead, it is a living proclamation of God’s gracious work among his people that varies in vocables from Sunday to Sunday. Just as the text varies from Sunday to Sunday and yet always remains God’s word, so too the language of law and gospel varies from Sunday to Sunday and yet always proclaims God’s gracious work. Preachers do well to attend to the metaphors of Scripture. In the metaphorical language of Scripture, preachers hear how God has chosen to reveal his grace, in beautiful and varied words. For example, God’s gracious work in baptism, joining us to the death and resurrection of Christ, is spoken of as a washing of regeneration (Ti 3:5–7), as a new birth (Jn 3:5), as a rescue from the flood (1 Pt 3:21), as a clothing in righteousness (Gal 3:27), as an adoption as God’s children (Rom 8:15), and as a burial and raising to new life in Christ (Rom 6:3). Different sermons will use different metaphors and yet always preach the same message of salvation. By attending to the varied language of Scripture, evangelical proclamation is freeing but not formulaic.

Third, evangelical proclamation centers the teachings and experiences of the sermon in the death and resurrection of Christ. It not only opens up the text and brings about gospel speaking, it also opens up the theological confession of the sermon. It enables the hearers to receive the teachings of faith in light of Christ so that they delight in them as a gift from God. For example, the sermon we have been considering teaches the hearers about prayer. Such teaching could be received as a burden. The hearers could be commanded to pray, brought to their knees through threats or conditional promises, or made to placate and please an angry and demanding God. The proper distinction of law and gospel ensures that such teaching is heard as a delight rather than a burden. God offers prayer as a gift, a privilege freely given to his people who have been forgiven of sin and brought to faith in Christ. Secure in God’s grace, longing for God’s kingdom, God’s people are given the privilege to pray that it might come unto us all. The hearers, then, walk away from the sermon not despondent over failures, not burdened by how to integrate prayer into daily living, but secure in God’s grace, comforted by God’s work, and delighted by his gifts. When daily life provides more than enough reason for desiring God’s kingdom to come, God’s people are delighted to know that God has given them the privilege of prayer. Evangelical proclamation centers the teachings and experiences of the sermon in the death and resurrection of Christ so that text and teaching reveal, and are received as, God’s gracious work.

Hearer Interpretation

Definition

The fourth thread of discourse is that of hearer interpretation. This is the language of the sermon that depicts and interprets the contemporary life experience of the hearers.

Frequently preachers can create a caricature of their hearers rather than recognition of them. During the sermon, the hearers are invited to participate in a game of “let’s pretend.” They are asked to pretend, for the sake of the sermon, that they are Simon the Pharisee and then in the midst of the sermon the preacher reveals how God has made them into the forgiven woman who anoints his feet. This is fine for pretending but in the real world, where they live, move, and have their being, they can be neither the Pharisee nor the anointing woman. It is impossible for them. Even if they wanted to be, they could not become either of these people. They are then left with a caricature of who they could be rather than a definition of who they are in the kingdom of God. Or preachers can speak in generalities. Their sermons take on a timeless quality, able to be preached to any one at any time, rather than to these particular people on this particular day.

Hearer interpretation recognizes that the people gathered before you are gathered there by God. Every hair on their head is numbered and every one of them is one for whom Christ died. Just as in evangelical proclamation we desire for our hearers to recognize Christ in the context of God’s self-revelation, so too in hearer interpretation we desire for our hearers to see themselves in the context of God’s eternal kingdom. We desire for our hearers to see themselves with the eyes of God. Thus, in the sermon, we offer them glimpses of what human life is and means in the context of God’s eternal reign that has come among us in Jesus Christ. God has sent you as his preacher to these people on this day, and your words are chosen for them, not others. They are God’s people, gathered in his presence, and will be sent forth into his world for his service in his kingdom. Hearer interpretation moves beyond caricature and generalities to set forth an accurate depiction of the life experience of one’s hearers in the kingdom of God.

Function

What is the function of such discourse? First, this discourse reveals how people are relevant to God. Preachers have often misunderstood the task of preaching as making God relevant to the people. Scripture and theology seem so distant from daily life that the preacher seeks to show people how God is relevant, useful for daily living. The preacher identifies a “felt need” among the people and then mines the texts of Scripture to find a way to make God relevant to that need. We have a need and, through the preacher’s overzealous manipulation, God somehow turns out to be a perfect fit for our need. Jesus ultimately becomes an object of our wish projection and a tool in our projects of self-definition. When needing strong leadership, Jesus becomes the great leader, and when needing a compassionate man, this Jesus who receives little children becomes that for us too. The people end up with a Jesus for their age rather than the Messiah of God’s kingdom, and instead of God’s work of salvation, preachers give people a way to work on themselves and use God’s name to do it.[22]

Yet, hearer interpretation is not revealing how God is relevant to people. Instead, hearer interpretation reveals how people are relevant to God. Consider our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount when he says to the disciples: “you are the light of the world.” In the Beatitudes, Jesus begins his sermon by naming the very real life experiences of those who have gathered around him. He identifies their poverty of spirit, their mourning, and their meekness, and he blesses them. As he continues speaking, he reveals them to be the light of the world. Jesus does not tell them what they could be if they tried hard enough or what they should be in the future or what he wants them to be after much work and prayerful study. No, he simply looks around him at those whom God has gathered and, in a strange enactment of grace outside the hallowed walls of the temple, he blesses them and tells them what they are in God’s kingdom: the light of the world. Their eyes have been opened not to how God is relevant to them and how they can use him in daily living but to how they are relevant to God and how God uses them in his work in the world.

Hearer interpretation helps your hearers to see themselves with the eyes of God and to interpret their lives as having a God-given place within God’s kingdom. When God graciously intervenes and brings people into his kingdom, relevancy is given. People are relevant not because of anything in them or anything done by them but simply because they are God’s, they live in God’s world, and God has a strange way of pouring out all that he has for the sake of reaching out to his world. Daily business is more than business, it is a vocation; and a conversation overheard on a bus is more than that, it is an occasion for graceful speech.[23] The fragile moments of our daily lives are filled with a meaning beyond our making and a love beyond our strength. Our lives are taken into the hands of God, and there, in his hands, we become the instruments of God’s work in the world.

Second, hearer interpretation identifies and forms God’s holy people. Unfortunately, preachers tend to gravitate toward the sentimental or the miraculous when it comes to hearer interpretation. Consider the sentimental. The pastor tells a story of an evening devotion in the perfect family. Children piously gather around the father and listen to his every word. They are built up in their faith and go to sleep with a “God be with you” on their lips. Such sentimentalized depictions of family devotions leave hearers wondering if God could ever come into the mess of a family that is theirs. Or the hearers are treated to stories of miraculous intervention: Christians confessing the faith in concentration camps, quadriplegics faithfully painting with a brush in their mouths, martyrs holding fast to the faith before lions, and sinners brought to the bottom of a bottle before the word of God flows through. These depictions gravitate toward the startling, the shocking, the marvelous, as if God is somehow made grander by the severity of the situation into which he comes. God does seem grand alright, almost too grand to come into the lives of most hearers, holed up in some cubicle entering data for a living. What would God want with such a life experience? Obviously he is attracted to more exciting places in the world.

In the face of the sentimental and the miraculous, the preacher depicts the average life experience of the hearers. Yes, it sounds silly, as if God would notice the lives of your people. That’s as silly as God noticing a bird of the air and providing it food, as Jesus noticing a widow’s mite placed into a collection box or a person sitting under a fig tree or a woman drawing water from a well. Our God works not only in the sentimental and the marvelous. He works in the mundane as well, and when your hearers spend their lives in mini-vans that haul children all over the city and live among cracks in the sidewalk that need cleaning every spring, it is a comfort to know that God sees, God hears, and God acts even in, especially in, these ordinary situations.

Third, hearer interpretation forms God’s people by confessing the variety and complexity of Christian life. Integrating the daily lives of our people into the sermon enables them to see themselves with the eyes of God. For God’s people, this is a joy, as they may not have looked at their lives in that way for a long time. As a homiletics instructor, I remember a time I was surprised (in a good way) by a student’s sermon. I had been teaching homiletics at the seminary for about seven years. On average, I grade 150 sermons every ten weeks, so it takes a great deal to surprise me. But I had a student who pictured a father in his sermon. This father was fulfilling his vocation as a Christian father, even though he only had his boys on the weekend. I stopped as I read that sermon. This was the first time, the first time in seven years, that I had had any illustration that treated a divorced parent as a Christian. What that student did for me that day was open my eyes to see how a Christian could live out his vocation as a father in life after divorce. People are good at seeing themselves as Christians when they worship on Sunday. Over time, and by God’s grace, they can be formed to confess themselves as sinners during the week. The hard part, however, can be for them to see God’s formation of them as his holy people, out in the world, during the week.

As preachers, we often complain that people compartmentalize their faith. That is, they think of themselves as Christians on Sunday morning but not the rest of the week. But what do we expect? In preaching, we can do a fine job of depicting the sins our hearers commit during the week (and I am not saying that this is wrong) and we can do a fine job of depicting the grace that they receive in absolution or at the table on Sunday (and I am not saying that this is wrong). Unfortunately, little is ever depicted of what God does through his people out in the world. A Lutheran might end up seeing the week to come as a time to go out for more sinning to prepare for another Sunday of salvation. It is as if the only time one is Christian is when they are being absolved in the service or receiving the Lord’s body and blood at the altar. While they are indeed God’s at that time, that is not the only time they are his. The service concludes, and they remain his, sent forth into the world as his holy people. Their lives are precious, and God has prepared them for vocational service to a world that is dying and separated from its Savior. Don’t misunderstand; I am not talking about exhortation, telling the hearers what they need to do. I am simply speaking about hearer interpretation, depicting or revealing what God does in the lives of his people in the mundane moments that fill up our days. Hearers begin to recognize their formation as God’s holy people and their vocation in the world as they await the coming of their Savior.[24]

Fourth, hearer interpretation opens the eyes of the hearers to the body of Christ. Our churches can be plagued by the problem of individual religion: “since everyone has a right to their own opinion, I believe what I want to believe, and for me, being a Christian means having a personal relationship with Jesus.” Outside the church, it’s “me against the world,” and inside the church, it’s just “me and Jesus.” This mindset has been partly promoted by our handling of illustrations of human life in the sermon.[25] Some preachers can choose illustrations that promote an insular and individualistic view of the faith without considering the matter of community and how community is reflected in the sermon. When we repeat the same types of life situations in sermon after sermon and always work with individuals rather than also with the community of God, we begin to stereotype the places in which hearers recognize God at work. But God, by grace, brings us into the body of Christ, and hearer interpretation opens our eyes to see this divinely given community. Through varied hearer interpretation, preachers help hearers see God at work not only in their lives but in the lives of others, not only for individuals but also for the people of God. Seeing one another in preaching, recognizing that the burdens of others are the burdens we share, we begin to know what it means for God to have called us and fashioned us into the body of Christ. Our eyes are opened to the community of the church and to the larger evangelistic work of God in the world.

Example

The story of Abraham conversing with God has been our example. The thread of theological confession taught us that God grants his people the privilege of prayer in a now-not-yet kingdom. Hearer interpretation now reveals what this looks like in daily living. It proclaims how people participate in that privilege today. No, they’re not miraculous prayer warriors spending two hours in prayer on their knees every morning. In fact, at 7:30 in the morning, they’re driving their mini-vans over highways congested with traffic. They turn on the radio and hear of a high school shooting. They wish it weren’t so. They remember saying goodbye to their kids and they worry about whether they’ll be safe at school. And woven into the wish and the worry is a longing for God’s kingdom, an end to senseless destruction and the fulfillment of God’s grace on this earth. Here, stuck in news that is worse than the traffic, God’s people find refuge for a moment in the privilege of prayer. It doesn’t sound like prayer, all sweet and sentimental, but neither did Abraham’s conversation. It sounds more like shock and worry and disgust and frustration all mixed up with a gracious longing, a holding onto God’s grace in the face of the sin that they cannot take away. But here are mortal friends, and here is holy conversation, and here at the intersection of highways 40 and 270, the kingdom of God is known in a very small way. God’s people are alive and live in relationship with a God who goes by the name of Yahweh, and in words more frustrated than sentimental, more mundane than miraculous, they pray that God’s kingdom would come.

The Art of Preaching

In the past twenty years, the field of homiletics has broken open. Story, image, biblical poetics, drama, narrative, film, conversation, teaching, these are simply a few of the many approaches offered for pastors in the formation of their sermons. As you explore these matters and integrate them into your preaching, how will you know when you are preaching a sermon and when you are not? One way is to evaluate your sermon by the tapestry of preaching.

Faithful preaching is an art: the pastor weaves together four threads of discourse to form a sermon that is based on a text of Scripture, centered in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for the benefit of the hearers in faith and life. These four threads work together to form the event of the sermon. They are not always found in the same proportion or communicated in the same manner. At certain times with certain texts and certain people, certain threads tend to predominate. Yet they are all present, and it is through the artful interweaving of these four that the preacher faithfully serves God in the office of preaching. Evaluating one’s sermon, therefore, involves not only identifying these four threads of discourse but also maintaining an artful composition of these four that is appropriate for one’s preaching occasion.

What does it mean for the preacher to create an artful composition, an appropriate homiletical interweaving of these four threads of discourse? Creating this composition does not refer to the order of these types of speaking in the sermon, as if the sermon must start with textual exposition and then move through theological confession, and gospel proclamation to hearer interpretation. Where one begins and how one continues depend upon the text, the life situation of the hearers, and the complexities of the preaching event. Creating this composition does not mean a necessary amount of time spent in any one of these sections, as if, at the end of the sermon, the hearers need to have experienced five minutes of each discourse for a sermon to have taken place. Again the nature of the preaching event will encourage more time in one area than another. Certain texts pose difficulties for certain hearers and may require more textual exposition, whereas other texts for the same hearers might require less. Creating an artful composition means that the preacher considers four matters in evaluating his sermon for a particular preaching occasion: concrete definition, homiletical movement, internal coherence, and appropriate emphasis for each of these four threads of discourse.

First, a preacher considers concrete definition. It is helpful for a sermon to have concrete definition in each thread of discourse. Specificity in each thread prevents the problems of generic preaching and monotonous specificity where every sermon sounds the same regardless of the text or the occasion. In generic preaching, Sunday after Sunday, the hearers have a hard time recognizing anything different about the sermon as, due to the level of generality, they all begin to sound the same. In monotonous specificity, Sunday after Sunday, the hearers know precisely what the preacher will say as, regardless of the text or the occasion, he is certain to find something to say about what has become, for him, a favorite theme. Evaluating your sermon for concrete definition means being able to name what portion of the text you are focusing on, what teaching of the faith you are conveying, what the law/gospel dynamics of the sermon are, and what specific aspects of the lives of God’s people you are interpreting. It enables the preacher to be specific about the text, the teaching, the law/gospel dynamics, and the life situation chosen for this people on this day.

In addition to encouraging variety in preaching, awareness of concrete definition aids the preacher in incorporating new methods of preaching into his current preaching situation. Certain methods offer greater clarity than others to certain threads of the sermon. A sermon that uses a thematic structure, for example, is often quite clear in theological confession whereas a sermon that retells the biblical story in dramatic presentation might be clearer in textual exposition or in evoking a particular emotional response from the hearers in hearer interpretation. If the preacher knows the clarity that is needed in a particular thread of the sermon, he can better evaluate which method to use to accomplish that clarity for his hearers that day.

Second, a preacher considers homiletical movement. The sermon involves movement among each of these four threads of discourse. Most hearers recognize the value of any one of these threads of discourse for preaching. They readily assent to a preacher referencing the text or theology or Christ or life experience in a sermon. What becomes a problem, however, is when a preacher remains too long in any one of these threads of discourse. When the sermon remains too long in offering textual exposition, some hearers become frustrated and wonder when the Bible study will be over and the sermon will begin. When the sermon remains too long in hearer interpretation, others become frustrated and wonder what the preacher’s family vacation in Montana has to do with the text and the preaching of God’s word. Too much development in any one of these types of discourse can become frustrating for the hearers. Unless the preaching context warrants extended development in one thread of discourse,[26] the preacher generally desires homiletical movement among the four. By such homiletical movement, hearers are drawn into the living event of the sermon, and the preacher maintains an appropriate artful composition.

Third, a preacher considers internal coherence. While the sermon moves among these four threads of discourse, such movement is neither disconnected nor random. It is purposeful and planned. There is a pattern that can be discerned. In the event of the sermon, the four threads of discourse are not independent but interdependent. What occurs in one thread of discourse is purposefully related to what occurs in the others. For example, a typological gospel proclamation that occurs later in the sermon might cause the preacher, earlier in textual exposition, to emphasize certain details of the text rather than others. Abraham’s posture of prayer, standing there with the wrath of God above him and the sinful world below him and yet holding on to a promise of God’s mercy, is developed for the hearers because this image will be used later in proclaiming the gospel. Or a preacher may develop a moment of contemporary confusion for God’s people early in the sermon, because later he will use the clarity of theological confession to define what is going on. Simply throwing in a contemporary story, referencing a text, naming a theological teaching, or running to John 3:16 without knowing how they all hold together can confuse one’s hearers. Rather, the preacher considers internal coherence and establishes a purposeful interdependence among the threads of discourse in the composition of the sermon.

In addition, such coherence can be evaluated in terms of logical and dynamic relationships. Both are always present in a sermon, while one or the other might predominate. Internal coherence could be achieved thematically: for example, the preacher could use a traditional thematic sermon structure and rely upon logic to create a sense of unity in the event. The hearers consider three teachings about prayer as they are seen in the text, in their lives, and centered in the gospel. Coherence could also be achieved dynamically: for example, the preacher could intentionally soften a shocking opening story of hearer interpretation so that later textual exposition could serve as the climax of the sermon. Interweaving these four threads and functions of discourse calls for careful planning by the preacher. Each thread has a purpose in light of the others. For example, what appears to be a digression for the hearers in the opening story is the result of the preacher’s careful homiletical planning. In an apparent digression, the preacher casually glosses over an idea that later creates the climax of the textual interpretation of the sermon. The fact that this idea was first encountered in an understated manner in a contemporary story adds to its later climactic effect. In this case, considering internal coherence enables the preacher to design the peripeteia of the sermon.[27] Artful composition means managing the four threads of discourse so that they are interdependent and the event of the sermon coheres. The hearers are not distracted by any one thread of discourse within the sermon, wondering why you drew attention to verse 4 of the text, but are guided throughout the sermon by the appropriate, purposeful interplay of these four.

Fourth, a preacher considers appropriateness to the preaching occasion. Artful composition means that the preacher consciously considers whether the concrete definition, the homiletical movement, and the internal coherence of the sermon are appropriate for the hearers when preaching on this text on this day. For example, where there is confusion among hearers about theological confession, a sermon that avoids any clear confession, telling a story eliciting multiple interpretations and ending in relativity of meaning, is not the best form. Here, a thematic structure that offers concrete definition of theological confession might be of great value for the preacher. The concrete definition needed in the preaching occasion enables the preacher to choose an appropriate form. In this same situation, however, telling a story that leads the hearers inductively through experience to a clearer grasp of the concrete theological confession and its importance would work effectively as well. In this case, the manner in which the method of storytelling is used is evaluated by the preacher and ultimately used in a way appropriate to the event of the sermon. Using this framework for the evaluation of preaching, the preacher can discern what approaches are appropriate for preaching in reference to his particular preaching occasion. His decision is not based on wanting to try something new this Sunday, and he does not mistakenly argue that the best approach is simply to do what he has always done. Instead, the preacher recognizes that the sermon is an event of God’s intervention among the people, and his decision is based upon faithful consideration of how God uses these four types of discourse to work through the sermon among people this day.

Conclusion

In this article, I have offered a means for evaluating your preaching based upon what God does through it. Preaching is a lively calling. You stand there at the intersection of God’s intervention into the lives of his people. Faithful preaching involves an artful composition, an interweaving of four threads of discourse, to form a sermon that is based on a text of Scripture, centered in the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins, for the benefit of your hearers in faith and life. Reading someone else’s sermon or trying to preach to people you don’t know or preaching a sermon you preached before just doesn’t seem to work. It is rightly unsatisfying because God’s present work is borne out of the work of a living person, the person he has called to interweave textual exposition, theological confession, evangelical proclamation, and hearer interpretation into a sermon for his people that day. God has not delivered a book of old sermons for preachers to repeat through the years. No, he has done something better. He has called a living person into the office of preaching to handle his word rightly. He has called one who is apt to teach and able rightly to divide the word of truth. As you preach, on this day, with this text, for these people, God intervenes. Your sermon is a holy event. It is God’s saving intervention into the temporal order of this world. As you faithfully serve at this moment of God’s gracious intervention, you will find that the image from Wings of Desire becomes more wonderful still. Instead of angels hearing the voices of people, people now hear the voices of angels, messengers sent by God to proclaim his gracious work. Echo joins echo as God weaves a tapestry of preaching, and all of those sermons, those brief moments in ministry, are woven by God into his gracious kingdom that never ends.

Endnotes

[1] John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 133.

[2] For an overview of the changes in preaching (now known as the New Homiletic), see O. Wesley Allen, Jr., ed., The Renewed Homiletic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010); Charles H. Cosgrove and W. Dow Edgerton, “Preaching and Interpretation in Transition,” in In Other Words: Incarnational Translation for Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 1–35; Richard Eslinger, The Web of Preaching: New Options in Homiletic Method (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002); Eugene Lowry, The Sermon: Dancing the Edge of Mystery (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997); and Paul Scott Wilson, The Practice of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 197–262.

[3] Richard Lischer in his 1998 Wenchel Lecture at Concordia Seminary (Concordia Journal 25.1: 4–13) and in a recent article on preaching (“Resurrection and Rhetoric” in Marks of the Body of Christ, eds. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 13–24) defines the sermon as “risen speech.” He also, however, acknowledges the difficulty of articulating what constitutes “risen speech.” This article is an attempt to define “risen speech” in terms of the functions of such speech in the event of the sermon.

[4] Readers who are interested may watch and listen to the sermon described in this article by visiting concordiatheology.org.

[5] Dr. James Voelz, no exegetical slouch, has effectively enacted just such an approach during morning chapel at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.

[6] The reading is based upon the LSB lectionary, Proper 12, Series C.

[7] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987), 41. Sternberg helpfully depicts biblical narrative as composed of an artful composite of these three types of discourse just as this article argues that the sermon is a composite of four threads of discourse. For me, the proper flow of the interpretative task moves from acknowledging the historicity of the event recorded by the text, to discerning the aesthetic form of the text (the way in which that story is told), to confessing how this aesthetic telling of this historical event reveals theology.

[8] Michael Downey, Understanding Christian Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), 7.

[9] 1 John 1:1.

[10] Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 137–138.

[11] John 5:2–17.

[12] Robert Hughes and Robert Kysar, Preaching Doctrine for the Twenty-First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 11, 74.

[13] James Kittelson, “Contemporary Spirituality’s Challenge to Sola Gratia,” Lutheran Quarterly 9.4 (1995): 377.

[14] Hughes, Preaching Doctrine, 11.

[15] For an article on the question-answered sermon structure and a sample sermon, see David R. Schmitt, “Sermon Structures: The Question-Answered Design” in Concordia Pulpit Resources 11.4 (2001), 5–11.

[16] In Proper 12 of Series C in the LSB lectionary, the Old Testament reading of Genesis 18:(17–19) 20–33 is paired with the Gospel reading of Luke 11:1–13.

[17] AC 5.

[18] SD 5, 1.

[19] For a discussion of various ways to move from an Old Testament text to the preaching of Christ based upon apostolic practices, see Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

[20] In this case, the preacher would note how Christ’s intercession is similar to but greater than that of Abraham as he takes the judgment of God upon himself that all might be spared for the sake of one righteous.

[21] Gerhard Forde, “The Word That Kills and Makes Alive,” in Marks of the Body of Christ, eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 6.

[22] Textual exposition prevents much of this error as Christ is heard within the context of God’s self-revelation and his work of salvation rather than our wish projection and work of self-improvement.

[23] Colossians 4:5–6.

[24] Properly distinguishing law and gospel in such depiction is difficult and therefore Walther offers four theses on the subject (Theses 16–19) in his work The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel, trans. W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1928), 296–332.

[25] One could also argue that Forde’s emphasis upon the personal nature of proclamation in preaching (i.e., “for you” in the singular) has led to an overemphasis on the individual rather than a revelation of the individual incorporated into the community of faith. C. F. W. Walther’s sermon, “Christ’s Battle with the Prince of Darkness and His Glorious Victory” (Selected Sermons [St. Louis: CPH, 1981], 40–50) demonstrates how a preacher can create a rhetorical space for various responses to the sermon even as he seeks to form God’s people in the community of faith.

[26] In this case, the hearers will be thankful for extended treatment of that which is gravely important in the preaching situation.

[27] Eugene Lowry’s narrative sermon structure lends itself well to the art of creating climax by embedding the “clue to resolution” in an earlier portion of the sermon. Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980).

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