Posted on November 20th, 2012
When I have writer’s block in preparing a sermon, I try to think about explaining the text to particular members of my congregation, mentally bringing before me a child in our school, a young mother, an elderly person approaching death. I shouldn’t wait until I have writer’s block. Gustav Wingren, in his The Living Word: A Theological Study of Preaching and the Church, puts it this way:
When the Bible lies open on the preacher’s desk and the preparation of the sermon is about to begin, the worshippers have already come in; the passage contains these people since it is God’s Word to his people.
The “bad sermon” is not bad because it is “lifeless” or “uninspiring”; it is bad because “men [were] not present from the first.”
Being on sabbatical has afforded me opportunity to listen to quite a few sermons. They’ve been in a variety of communities and confessions, but all have validated for me this small—yet I think important—alteration I want to make in my approach to preaching. I am not going to “write a sermon” but prepare to “speak God’s Word to His people I’ve been called to shepherd.” I was toying with that thesis before I left, but reading Wingren’s book is confirming it. I need to worry less about impressing myself or others with exegetical insights, rhetorical flourishes, or witty phrases, and worry more about if what I’m going to say is God’s message, the Apostolic kerygma to these people.
Wingren explains that there is a false antithesis between “objective” and “subjective” preaching, where the objective deals only with the Word and the subjective deals only with the people. It’s false because the Word is never just information, but always a message.
In the Bible men, as hearers, are not additions to the naked Word spoken into empty space. That, however, is just the presupposition when division into objective and subjective is made. It is argued that first there is the Word, which loses nothing of its essential nature when it is neither spoken to, nor heard by, anyone, but rather belongs to a timelessly objective sphere and has its being in itself alone. Next, men are made to appear on the scene and in them the subjective element consisting in human appropriation and application of the Word. Where that mode of thought holds sway the usual reaction against any criticism is the anti-liberal reaction typical of today. According to the anti-liberals, anyone who upsets their scheme is denying that the word is fully objective. In a word, he is enveloped in ‘subjectivity’. Here the dilemma is a real one—there are only two choices. A third never appears above the horizon—indeed, cannot possibly be contemplated.
That third choice is that “preaching is to effect a meeting between the Word and men.” So the preacher’s job is both to understand the Word and to understand men, especially the people given to him to shepherd. He then gets out of the way, letting the Word speak to these people.