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Poetry, prophecy & preaching

By David Cornick.

(This is a version of a paper first given to the United Reformed Church’s National Lay Preachers’ Consultation in 2002)

1. The nature of preaching

In 1941 Herbert Henry Farmer wrote one of the great works of Reformed spirituality, The servant of the Word. [1] It is about the work of preaching. Farmer was a product of English presbyterianism, a teacher of theology at WestminsterCollege and in CambridgeUniversity.

“A sermon”, he wrote, “is not an essay in which you give utterance to your views and impressions of life, though it could hardly fail to contain in some measure your views and impressions of life...It is not a theological lecture...It is not a discussion of political and social and international affairs...It is not instruction in Christian morals...It is God's great activity of redemption in history in the world of persons...” [2]

Forty years previously the great Congregationalist theologian P T Forsyth had pronounced preaching to be “...the sacrament which gives value to all other sacraments..”[3]

Both were giving voice to the Reformed testimony that preaching is the highest of callings, an understanding that reaches back to the reformations of the sixteenth century and the recovery of the reality that God encounters people as they read Scripture and hear it expounded. 

Without witnesses, the cosmos-transforming events of the cross and resurrection would have been incomplete. “Make disciples,” says Matthew's Jesus as he takes leave of the eleven, “teach them to observe the commands I gave you”.  “Go and tell his disciples and Peter”, says Mark's angel to the terrified women on Easter morning. Luke goes even further and makes Jesus the first preacher, walking unknown on the Emmaus road unfolding the Scriptures. And his last instruction in Luke is: “..you are witnesses of this.”

Event and witness belong together. It is no accident that, way back in Galilean days when Jesus first sent out the Twelve (Luke 9.2), he told them to proclaim the kingdom and heal - in that order. Preaching, proclamation, words and telling are an essential component of God's redemptive activity. Foolishness undoubtedly, as Paul realised, but divine folly for “who shall hear without a preacher?” Salvation cannot exist without the willing co-operation of human speakers with their words, languages and symbol systems. That was why Christ the Word was spoken before there were words, and why redemption hung on Mary's “Yes”.

That might seem extreme, but that is God's way. God's activity in creation and redemption is person-centred and collaborative. As we read the Bible, the story that unfolds is one of God and men and women together. It is a story of individuals being chosen and invited to participate - Abraham and Sarai, Moses, Deborah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel - and there is always the chance that they may refuse, or as Moses did, seek to modify God's plans.

It should therefore not surprise us that the good news of redemption is given into our all-too-human hands. God has chosen to become part of his creation in this kind of way, and one of the ways in which God has chosen to encounter people is through the words of others.

So, preaching is an intensely personal business, a three-way encounter between the preacher, the God who reveals himself in Scripture, and the congregation. Somehow, in a way we shall never understand but for which we will always be thankful, God encounters us through preaching. That is to say, as Forsyth said, that it is a sacramental activity. All that is by way of saying that preaching is the highest of all callings, whether that vocation be lay preaching or the ministry of Word and Sacraments. Through the work of preachers, God comes.

2. The spirituality of the preacher

So, what of the preacher's spirituality? Like all Christians, preachers walk the way of Christ, up hill and down dale, through the slough of despond, up the hill beautiful, on the way to the Celestial city. Like all Christians, preachers live in the rhythm of the glorious presence and terrifying absence of God. They have their mounts of transfiguration and their gardens of Gethsemane.

(a)  Wrestling with Scripture

Unlike other Christians, however, they are called to a public ministry of preaching and leading worship. They are called to be witnesses, to speak of the God to whom and with whom they journey, and to bring into being each time they lead worship a word of God to God's people. 

That Word is made real to God's people as we re-present God's story to them in reading and expounding Scripture. At the heart of the preacher's spirituality therefore is a serious wrestling with Scripture. All Christians read the Bible and gain sustenance from it. The preacher's task, however, is not to hear what God might be saying to him or her in private, but to hear what God has to say to a particular community of God's people, to a particular part of his world. As such it has to be shaped, formed, prayed over and shared in the inter-personal encounter which every act of preaching is. Even if a full script is used, a sermon is not a reading, it is an event, an encounter between people which God graces with his presence.

That task is so awesome that it might strike us dumb did we not remember that the God of Jesus Christ knows how camels can pass through needles' eyes, the rich enter the kingdom and the unbelieving  be saved by the folly of preaching. And sometimes, such is his sense of humour, he even converts us through our own words!

So we wrestle with Scripture, and I use the word advisedly because so often the words won't come, and God seems far away. Then it is precisely through the hard work, the sweating over commentaries and trying out sentence after sentence and deleting them that the Word comes. I wish there was another way, but I expect Jacob thought that at Peniel.

And after the wrestling comes the offering, lifting to God this paltry twenty minutes, this inadequate scratchy performance in the hope that the miracle of grace which unites my weakness and God's strength will happen once more and God's people be fed.

We are caught in that cycle of encounter, wrestling, creation and offering. It is a cycle, I would argue, that is also found in the work of prophet and poet, and I want to explore the preacher's spirituality further by looking at some of the poetry and prophecy of Jeremiah.

The book of Jeremiah is a complex web made up of poems and prose by Jeremiah and an account of his life and ministry by his faithful secretary and administrative assistant Baruch.  I want to dip into this collection and glean from it some pictures of Jeremiah's spiritual struggle because the tensions that he endured mirror some of those which we know well as preachers.

(b) Living in prophetic tension (Jeremiah 20.7-18)

Jeremiah did not choose to be Yahweh's prophet. He didn't wake up one day, visit the school careers officer and ask for work experience in the firm of Elijah and Elisha inc., prophets by divine appointment. Left to his own devices he would probably have opted for a quiet life - librarian, archivist, something like that.

It was God who had different ideas, and Jeremiah imagines those intentions stretching back into the time before his birth and he hears God saying:

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;

before you came to birth I consecrated you;

I appointed you as prophet to the nations” (1.5)

Jeremiah felt compelled. There was no escape from speaking for Yahweh, even though the cost was appalling in both personal and political terms. Imprisonment, revulsion and derision were echoed internally in misery, self-hatred and a cruel sense of vulnerability. Sometimes the pain bubbled over and the hurt and resentment flooded out in violent, abusive, hurtful language and he curses his birth and longs to have died in the womb. In a resonant, powerful, deliberately sexual and frightening image, he rails at God for seducing him. He tries to do what anyone so maltreated would do:

“I would say to myself

I will not think about him,

I will not speak his name any more,

but then there seemed to be a fire

burning in my heart,

imprisoned in my bones.” (20.9)

He cannot forget or obliterate God. God's word is trapped in his bones like fire. He is caught, stretched on the rack of his conflicting desires, yearning for release from the oppression of God whilst knowing that God and his word is life.

An acutely sensitive poet, Jeremiah examines and articulates feelings which are common to many who are caught in relationship with God. John Donne picked up the picture in one of his divine sonnets:

“Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I

Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,

Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee. “[4]

The language of violent sexuality is uncongenial to an age so alive to possibilities of sexual abuse, but, in Donne's age, such language was the only imagery that had the power to convey something of the fearsome dimensions of the relationship between God and the soul. However, we know something of the struggle between autonomy and dependence which such language seeks to express, even if only at the level that we'd rather be watching the football than writing Sunday's sermon. It is part of being human, but a part accentuated in the spirituality of the preacher who is compelled to give birth to God's word, perhaps particularly so for lay preachers. Jeremiah was, of course, a religious professional, albeit a highly reluctant one. Much of his pain and inner anguish was a result of the compulsion to tell God's unpopular story in a culture that believed in a very different narrative. We live our lives to the rhythm of autonomy and acquisitiveness, of political independence and the righteousness of competition. They are some of the gods of our culture. But preachers are called to articulate God's alternative story, of the cherishing of mustard seeds, the wealth of widow's mites and the centrality of forgiveness, of a kingdom come as the nails were driven in and God's loving vulnerability laid low the powers of compromise, calculation and expediency. Living that tension, feeling it in daily living is an essential component of the preacher's spirituality. The resolution of the dilemma lies in the maturity of ready acceptance of Christ's demands, as the blind Scottish minister and hymnwriter George Matheson suggests,

“Make me a captive Lord,

and then I shall be free,

force  me to render up my sword

and I shall conqueror be.”[5]

But the meaning and the creativity, which are the heart of the preacher's art, lie precisely in the struggle with that tension.

The interaction between Jeremiah's vulnerability and God's strength illustrates the point:

“...to-day I have made you

into a fortified city,

a pillar of iron

a wall of bronze

to stand against the whole country..” (1.18)

It is by living at the intersection of God's story and Judah's history that Jeremiah brings into reality God's new and creative word of hope. There will be a new covenant. Jerusalem will be re-built. Prosperity will return to the land. The prophetic, transforming word is born in struggle, and comes to fruition in carefully crafted poetry.

(c) The crafter of words

Jeremiah is a craftsman with words. He takes immense care, constructing images, playing with rhythms, letting his disciplined imagination bring forth the possibilities that God offers. It is a striking characteristic of the prophets. Ezekiel imagines a veritable valley filled with dry bones. Micah pictures a king from Bethlehem. Second Isaiah imagines a desert transformed as mountains are leveled and valleys raised and a highway created to carry God's people back to Jerusalem.

Poets and preachers deal in words, in the pictures they make and the stories they tell. As we write and bring sermons to birth, God plays through our imaginations, just as he did with the prophets of old.

Poetry is the most intensely disciplined of the literary arts. R S Thomas wrote somewhere of the poet playing an image like a fisherman plays a fish. It is a picture of patience and attention to detail. Sermons are not poems, and preachers are seldom poets (although some are). Nor do busy people have the leisure to sit quietly over a blank pad for hours on end. And yet, as we consider Jeremiah, we can see that the vocation of the poet and the vocation of the preacher bear striking similarities. Both have to do with the process of waiting and the struggle to create. Both are offering vulnerable words to an interpreting public. Both find their intentions subverted by the actual process of waiting and creating. How many times have we started with a text we thought we would develop in one way, only to find a completely different sermon emerging? Like poets we need to take care of our words, to choose the images, ideas and illustrations we use with care because we engage not simply the minds of the people of God, but their imaginations. We all know that the greatest gift a congregation can give a preacher is expectation; expectation that the Word of God will come to them through our words. Sometimes the sheer force of our arguments will accomplish that, but more often than not, God engages his people through their imaginations - a word here, an image there, a stray thought, a throwaway line. The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who is much concerned about the way language works, has argued that people are changed by transformed imaginations, not by ethical instruction. Preaching makes the gospel real, brings God alive, by the act of imaginative utterance. It is not that we have the power to invent God, but rather that God, as he always has done, takes the terrifying risk of placing himself in human hands.

(d) conductor and interpreter

Scripture lies at the heart of Reformed theology and spirituality, and our worship reflects that. The Bible has pride of place. Reading and encountering it is central.

On Sunday mornings, for an hour, the drama of creation and redemption is re-enacted. We re-tell God's story and as the drama unfolds imaginations are engaged and God unfolds new horizons for individuals and communities. Preaching is a critical part of that. The Methodist theologian, Frances Young, wrote a book about interpreting the Bible, and she called it The Art of Performance.[6]  The text of Scripture, she suggested, is like the manuscript of a great symphony - wonderful music, but brought alive only when performed, and each performance is slightly different from all the others. Great art embraces varieties of interpretation, for only so can its richness be properly explored.

Let me suggest that the spirituality of the preacher is akin to the conductor's spirituality. Just as the conductor will return again and again to great works of music, so the preacher will return again and again to the great works that are contained in that magnificent collection of works about the relationship of God and humankind that we call the Bible, asking new questions of it and discerning which interpretation will entrance this particular audience or congregation.

The first requirement of any conductor is that they be drenched in the work, knowing it inside out, living with it, letting it get under their skin through study and reflection. That should be how we relate to the Bible. Conductors come in many shapes and sizes, from the flamboyant to the almost motionless. At their best there are servants of the work, allowing the composer's music to live and do its communicative work through their efforts of interpretation. At his or her best, the preacher is, in the Farmer's words, “the servant of the Word”.

Conductors are missed when they are not there. Long years of singing in choirs have taught me that once the conductor stops, things fall apart. The creation of worship is now often a communal experience, and the Christian living of a congregation depends on the discipleship of every member. Probing the analogy of the conductor might help us understand the dynamics of the relationship between worship and Christian living, as well as our regular work of returning again and again to Scripture.

Those four images - wrestling, living in prophetic tension, crafting words like a poet and interpreting the Bible like a conductor - open doorways into the spirituality of the preacher.

[1] Farmer, Herbert Henry The servant of the Word  (London, Nisbet  1941)

[2] Ibid p.29

[3] Forsyth, Peter Taylor Positive preaching and the modern mind (London, Independent Press 1907) pp, 4; 53-4;  Peel, David  Reforming theology (London, United Reformed Church 2002) p.209

 [4] Donne, John  'Holy sonnets' XIV’ in Hayward, John (ed) John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose (London, Nonesuch Press 1972) p. 285> [6] Young, FrancesThe art of performance (Darton, Longman and Todd 1990)>

David Cornick

Editor of Reform, the Magazine of the United Reformed Church

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You are reading Poetry, prophecy and preaching by David Cornick, part of Issue 42 of Ministry Today, published in March 2008.

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