Magazine article The Christian Century

Living by the Word: Word Perfect

Magazine article The Christian Century

Living by the Word: Word Perfect

Article excerpt

Sunday, October 30 I Thessalonians 2:9-13

I LAUGHED out loud when I first heard Martin Luther's explanation of how the Reformation happened: "While I have been sleeping, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my friend Philip and with Amsdorf, it is the Word that has done great things.... I have done nothing, I have let the Word act. It is all powerful, it takes hearts prisoner." When I was sitting there in Intro to Church History sessions, preaching and reforming sounded heady, or easy. And now flying under the radar of the tee-totaling family in which I was reared, I drank with my friends Philip and Tom, and I anticipated how powerful the word would be in my ministry. I was even poised to answer cleverly the pastoral question, "Can Methodists drink?" The answer, of course, is "Some can, some can't."

As it turns out, whether I sleep much or little, and whether beer is involved or not, I am repeatedly puzzled over how the words I offer up in the pulpit might become the word. Seems like some can, some can't. Paul congratulated the early Christians for "accepting" his word, "not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God." Is this metamorphosis of my words to God's word up to the listener? My sermon's chances are ruined when they get stuck in critique mode, or when they leap to agree or disagree instead of letting the words do the word's work in them. But what is my role? How can my words have a chance to be heard as God's word?

Professors taught us to start by reading the text slowly, and in Hebrew or Greek if possible. But do we spot the word in a hitpa'el verb? Or in a modifying participle? Is the word revealed in the commentaries? Or are they nothing but jackhammers that dig up something under the pavement? Do I close my eyes and pray, hoping that when they open, the word will be there?

Maybe the secret to the words becoming the word isn't the words, but the silences between the words. Winston Churchill prepared his speeches carefully, including pauses and fumblings. Are may pauses and fumblings the open spaces where the Spirit can breeze in gently and take hearts captive? Frederick Buechner suggested that preaching is "putting a sort of frame of words around the silence that is truth because truth ... can at best be only pointed to."

But how do we point? Where we miss out on the words becoming the word, I suspect, is when we speak sweetly: "He's in a better place." "Just trust God and all will be well." "Jesus is the answer to every question." "The family that prays together stays together. …

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