Preaching and the Great Commandment

It is my pleasure to introduce a second guest entry by Dr Peter Mead of OM, in London.  His first posting, published here on January 4—“Preaching and Affective Hermeneutics”—was a compelling call to engage any given Bible text with a lens of spiritual and personal affectivity in order to capture and then to offer the transformative substance of that text in our proclamation.  In what follows here Peter presses the point back to the bedrock reality of our personal response to a God who calls for us to love him as a full-life response—and to discover a God who will properly “wreak havoc” on our former selfish ways!

Preaching is at the center of the life of the church.  This is not only true practically, in schedule and in logistics, but it is true theologically.  Speaking the Word of God is central because our God is a God who has spoken, a God who speaks.  Christianity stands apart from all religions in that in Christianity we have a God who initiates, who makes the first move, who speaks first.

All too often, sadly, churches are centered around a weak word.  The loving God who speaks through His Word is considered essentially silent.  Some churches look to the Bible for an ancient word that must be brought to bear on contemporary listeners’ minds through truth in proposition form, or with a skillfully generated attempt at “making that old truth relevant to today” (the skill varying from pulpit to pulpit).  Others treat the biblical revelation as a starting point for their own message.   Still others as a set of accepted vocabulary for a more contemporary attempt at speaking into the lives of those gathered – either by means of essentially new revelation (“as I was preparing, God told me . . .”), or the increasingly common lists of hints for living birthed out of human wisdom and then pasted onto a biblical narrative.

What does a Trinitarian and affective theology have to offer in the arena of preaching?  Much in every way.  If God is a loving God who speaks through His Word, then the church is to be a listening and responding community.  Listening to His Word and responding to His love.  The Father gives the Son and the Spirit, the object of our preaching and the source of its power.  The community of God’s people is called by a captivating love to be lovers: lovers of God and lovers of others.  The “Great Commandment” must be given freedom to wreak havoc in our individualized and self-centered lives as believers, but it also must be given freedom to run riot in our preaching.  What might this look like?

Preachers Loving God

To perhaps oversimplify the preaching process, it first involves the passage study phase, which focuses on the biblical passage.  Then it involves the message formation phase, in which the listeners are considered as the message is formed that will faithfully, clearly and relevantly present the teaching of the passage to them.

So, the preacher must consider carefully the study phase as a lover of God. This cannot be merely cold exegesis, original language study, commentary consultation and the derivation of a proposition statement.  The study phase should involve a prayerful, interactive and relational dynamic as we fellowship with our God in the study of His Word.  This is not to say that we are freed from the burden of the finest exegesis our skills will allow.  Surely a heart gripped by the love of a God who gives of Himself through His Word will earnestly desire to understand that Word as effectively as possible?  The goal here is not some sort of a mystical study phase divorced from the rigorous study of the revealed Word, but a spiritually sensitive study that is fired to rigorousness by the captivating love of God.  Paul urged Timothy to be a worker who rightly handles the word of truth (2Tim.2:15), having already told Timothy of his goal in all things – the goal of love (1Tim.1:5).

Equally, the preacher takes the fruit of that study of the passage and maintains the same God-captivated motivation when it comes to forming the message.  The goal here does not suddenly shift from the sublime to the pragmatic, from the spiritual to the practical matters of simply being ready to preach when Sunday comes.  The formation of the message is to be an act of responsive love in which the preacher seeks to bring pleasure to God by the diligent care poured into this aspect of ministry.  After all, when Sunday comes, this message will be spoken as a Word from God.  Inasmuch as it accurately reflects the teaching and relevance of the biblical text, it is spoken with an authority that is not the preacher’s, but is God’s Himself.  So, the preacher is looking to a God who is delighted to work in lives through this message.  A message that is at one and the same time both an act of worship, a form of doxological speech in which the preacher makes much of God, yet at the same time it is an applicational message of relevance to the lives of the listeners.  It is applicational and relevant because God loves them and cares about the specifics of their lives today. 

To preach effectively, a preacher must love God passionately.  But this is not enough.  In preaching the preacher stands between heaven and earth and in that moment not only loves God, but also represents (that is, re-presents) the love of God to the people.  In preaching there is potential for great reciprocity between the love of God extending out beyond the Trinity to the people that are His own, and the love of those stirred to respond to Him in that moment.  So the preacher must love God, but the “second commandment” also applies to preaching.  We are to love God, and to love others:

Preachers Loving Others

How does the preacher preach out of love for the listener?  Surely, a loving preacher would not merely preach to scratch itching ears, while at the same time failing to present the fullness of God’s message in His Word?  A loving preacher will give what is needed, not just what is wanted.  Surely, a loving preacher would not deign to offer his own nuggets of life skill in place of the grandeur of God’s self-revelation?  Surely, a loving preacher would not simply bruise listeners with the pressure of duty, after himself being warmed and delighted by divine captivating love in his own times with God?  How sad that so many churches perceive repeated tirades of guilt-inducing duty to be so spiritual (appealing to the flesh), while others seem satisfied with tips for living only ornamented by reference to an apparently now silent God. 

Listeners don’t need tips for living independent lives better, they need God.  Listeners don’t need guilt-stirring pressure to pull their acts together, they need God.  They need to be able to engage with Him in a faith response to His Word.  They need to experience in community the joy of God’s wonderful giving of Himself through the Word – both written and in the incarnation.  They need messages that are highly biblical, for the Bible is where God speaks.  They need messages that are communicated clearly, for what other standard is fitting for a God of such effective communication?  They need messages that are relevant in deeply spiritual and practical ways, for God is not pleased with irrelevant historical lecture, lofty theological ramblings or petty practical tips.  God loves these people, so our preaching of His Word should reflect that in its biblical content, effectual communication and genuine emphasis on relevance.

We must preach the Word as those genuinely captivated by the love of God in the Word of God.  We must preach contagiously as those who enjoy delightful engagement with this God.  Our listeners will subconsciously mimic our leadership in their own “spirituality” – the question is, what kind of spirituality will they mimic?  Will theirs be an intellect-only spirituality?  Or will it be a purely pragmatic, self-concerned spirituality?  Or will it be a pseudo-spiritual flight of fancy unearthed in the truth of God’s revelation in His Word?  Or will it be relational, Word-based, heart-level, real?

Conclusion

Perhaps many of the weaknesses of the church today reflect the weaknesses of the pulpit. It is easy to look back to reformers, puritans and other famous pastors of days gone by.  But the truth is we do not need the greats from previous generations: Luther and Calvin, Sibbes and Edwards, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones.  What we need are preachers greatly gripped by God in this generation.  We need preachers who are captivated by the love of God, gripped with a passion for God, and prepared to thoroughly preach the Word of God to the listeners of today.  

A Trinitarian and Affective consideration of the preaching ministry has much to offer the church today.  The only sadness is that what we have described in this article should really be the baseline from which to build, rather than a standard so often unreached in the contemporary pulpit.  God is a God who speaks through His Word.  He is a God who speaks because He loves.  We dare not stand and speak for Him if we are not captured by that love – a love responding to Him, and a love overflowing to others!

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