“You do realize, of course, that most people today consider sermons obsolete.” We were in the cafeteria outside the main hall where an Anglican synod was in assembly. My newly met acquaintance drew meditative puffs on his pipe and oracle-like continued to expound the eclipse of preaching. “People today won’t stand for it. They want action and less talk. The preachers have had it.”
“But if that is so,” I countered, “shouldn’t the Church be honest enough to admit it has parted company with the New Testament?”
He didn’t think so. “Social action is the thing for today. Political action is this century’s best medium of Christian communication. The pulpit’s days are gone.”
This may well be a dominant view. The preaching of the Gospel is no longer regarded as our chief weapon against the establishment of the world. Harvey Cox says that most people consider preachers cultural antiques and have the same fondness for them that they have for deuxième empire furniture, especially when they dress up and strut about in their vivid ecclesiastical regalia.
The 179th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church was told by its avant-garde Standing Committee on Church and Society through committee chairman Robert McAfee Brown that the “Confession of 1967” had thrust a type of divine pressure on the Church that would and could only be expressed by vigorous and world-wide politico-social action. According to this view, the ministry of the Word of God through Spirit-filled preachers will no longer be regarded as the sine qua non of the Church’s evangel. Protest marches, increased aid to underdeveloped nations, pressure through groups organized for social renewal—these will become the main thrust of evangelism. We must concern ourselves with devising worldwide institutions to civilize the vast forces of change—and to challenge and overcome the three great disproportions of power, wealth, and ideology.
In a world being driven onward at apocalyptic speed by technology and science, it is easy to assume that political and economic policies should become the electives of the Christian Church. But we must mark clearly the point where we part company with the Christian mind. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal,” says St. Paul, “but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” Preaching is such a weapon. “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” When our Lord began his ministry, he came “preaching the gospel of the kingdom.”
In the noble words of the Book of Common Prayer, the Christian minister “receives authority to read the Gospel in the Church of God and to preach the same.” This is the right order: he reads and preaches. That is, he opens the Bible and expounds what he reads. To expound is to unfold, unravel, reveal, interpret, make clear. In himself, he has no authority; the Word before him is his authority, and as he reads and expounds and preaches the Word, the Holy Spirit anoints and empowers the declaration so that Christ himself is offered and made evident to the hearer by faith.
It is interesting to note the Apostle Peter’s method of preaching on the Day of Pentecost. He has no soothing, flattering speech, no outbursts of educated eloquence. He quotes Scripture and reasons from it. Yet, as he preaches, something happens in that mighty throng. The murmur gradually subsides; the mob becomes a congregation; the voice of the fisherman sweeps from one end of the crowd to the other, uninterrupted. He is preaching. And in his exposition of the Scripture there is heard the summons of God to every heart.
We must restore preaching to its rightful place. We must go back to the Bible and reverently search for the God-given message for our people. The New Testament pattern, so clearly set forth for every preacher to see, must become again our standard and our goal. Jesus Christ in all his glory must be central as he ever was in the witness of the apostles. “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth.…” Wherever the preachers of the early Church started, they made straight for the Christ. “We preach not ourselves,” declares Paul, “but Jesus Christ.”
Jesus himself used this pattern even after his resurrection: “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” God has but one Word for this world, and that Word is Jesus Christ. Our exposition of the biblical records will be wide of the mark if we fail to see our Saviour there. “Search the scriptures,” he said, “for … they … testify of me.” We present Christ to men truly and fully only when we present him in the context of all Scripture.
Expository preaching will also follow the apostolic example in tracing the divine program in human history. In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter pointedly stresses the sovereignty of God and shows from the writings of the prophets how closely entwined are the histories of redemption and sin. He interprets what is happening by recalling the words of the prophet Joel centuries before.
As he preaches, Peter sweeps across all history and sees God at work in it. He notes that God has been planning man’s redemption from the beginning of time. He sees the Cross at the heart of history and the resurrection as the mightiest act of God. He looks onward to the climax of history to what he calls the “restitution of all things” and emphasizes that this has been declared by “all the holy prophets since the world began.” His theme is that God is at work in history; that God has permitted sin and evil to enter and infect history; yet has provided both answer and antidote in Jesus Christ. His Word is therefore relevant to every situation, and the proclamation of his Word is the supreme need of every generation.
In the New Testament pattern of expository preaching, God’s way of salvation is made very plain. Through the words of this humble fisherman, a sword begins to pierce the hearts of the hearers. Presently the multitude finds itself asking almost with one voice the most crucial question of all: “What shall we do?” To this question, the apostle gives immediate answer: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Nothing could be more direct than that.
The expository preacher need not presume to explain all that God has said in Jesus Christ, but he must make it plain. We must not becloud our hearers’ minds with muddy verbiage or thinking. Our message must be crystal clear to ourselves, and out of a burning heart we must declare the wonder of the saving truth of Christ our Lord. Like Paul in Corinth, we must make it our “secret determination to concentrate entirely on Jesus Christ himself and the fact of his death upon the cross” (the Phillips translation of Second Corinthians 2:2).
—The Rev. WILLIAM FITCH, Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto, Ontario.
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