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Keeping Preaching Fresh

Freshness comes when we stop trying to domesticate God.

To listen to Willimon's message, click here.

I've preached the Easter account of the death and resurrection of Jesus about fifty times, and it is possible for even so stirring a story as the resurrection of Jesus to elicit from somebody who has worked with it that many years a feeling of Easter, again?

I've always had respect for those pastors who can be located somewhere for twenty years and somehow find the spiritual resources to keep fresh. I remember teaching in a Presbyterian seminary one summer a short-term course, and I was impressed by how many Presbyterian pastors were in the library. They had taken a week or two, some longer, to work on their preaching for the coming year. I said to the dean, "That's just amazing to see all those pastors working in the library." He said, "Well, we're not like you Methodists. We stay somewhere long enough that we actually have to study to get something to say."

So how do you keep preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ without going stale? By the way, one thing you can do is get elected bishop, and then you get to preach at a different church every Sunday, and they don't know the sermon's been preached fifty times, and you can keep moving. But if you can't get elected bishop and keep moving, here are some suggestions.

The God We Try to Explain

Preaching is about the Trinity. It's about a living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not about us, not about finding a more meaningful, purpose-driven life. It's about being saved by the God we couldn't stand and didn't think we needed. It's about that kind of oddness.

You've got to work at it to make Jesus uninteresting.

I remember a young man I knew who came from a Jewish background, but he got into the Dalai Lama. He went to New York and paid five hundred dollars and got to have a couple hours with the Dalai Lama and a bunch of other people. When he came back, I asked, "Well, how was it?" and he said, "The peace—you could just feel when he walked in the room, everything just became serene." I said, "Really!" I asked him a typical Christian question like "What did he say?" and he said, "Oh, well, it's just … he just … he said, "Whatever is, is." I said, "I think Teresa Brewer said that in a song."

That's the dumbest thing I ever heard of. I know that's a prejudiced Christian comment, but what in the world is that? I know this is a prejudiced Christian point of view, but I just give thanks that I get to work with a different God. I get to work with this God who says very odd things. I just ticked off a few recent moments with this God in my own scriptural encounter. In John's Gospel: Lazarus, whom you love, is ill. Come quickly. Remember Mary, Martha, your best friends. Come over. John says, "And Jesus stayed there three more days."

Okay, was he doing some important lectures? Did he have a meeting that was crucial? No, he just stayed there three more days. Lord, what could possibly be more important than illness? When I go into my churches, and they have prayer requests, they don't pray about anything except the physical deterioration of older adults in that congregation. This is the whole purpose of prayer. What the heck were you doing for three days there? That's what he got asked by one of the sisters when he got there. Don't rush over to Bethany, Lord. He's dead now and smells very bad. So don't, you know—wouldn't want you to drop everything and come over here. Jesus, you don't mean to say there is something more important for a pastor to do than visit the sick?

Jesus says: Oh, this is for the glory of God. Sick people are narcissistic and demanding and—hey, I'd rather be around dead people. Lazarus, come out!

You've got to love a Savior like that. One thing about being a pastor is you've got to be willing to work with a Lord who is free to come and not to come. All those Sundays, I know I've done everything right; I've prepared, gotten a well-illustrated and well-delivered sermon with gestures from the torso, and—I don't have to be told—the sermon just dies. You can see it dying out there with the people. They're bringing in stretchers. They're giving oxygen. And I say to the Lord afterwards, "I guess it would be too much to ask for a little help?" But if it's grace, it's a gift, and a gift isn't a gift if it's predictable, if it can be programmable, or by using the right technique. To be a preacher means to have the courage to work with a God who is free to come and free not to come, free to make it a memorable sermon or free to just let it thud on the floor, and then we all sing the closing hymn, and that's it.

It hit me a while back; when Moses is hiding out there in Midian, and he is walking along, and a bush burst into flame, and "I've heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to deliver them. Now you go and tell Pharaoh, 'Let my people go, Moses.'" What really hit me, the way I figure it, the Hebrew children were in slavery for 430 years. Now, it's wonderful that "I've heard the cry of my people, and I've come down to deliver them from Pharaoh," but 430 years? I mean, don't rush right over.

Isaiah says: I'll tell you how your problem is going to be solved. A virgin will conceive. They'll call his name Emmanuel, God with us. That's about, what, 400, 600 years before it actually got around to happening?

Jesus stays in the tomb three days. Can you imagine what happened to his movement in three days? They watched him die. The Romans are on a rampage. That's really bad timing. Sure enough, they all go back home, and they said, "Well, you know, it was a good campaign while it lasted, but that's it. We've got to adjust to it."

I'm just saying, God is odd. God does not work on the time that I as a modern, twenty-first century American person work on. God's got a different definition of intervention than I do. Here's my point: To preach is to be dependent on that God who is free to come and go, to stay or to leave. It takes a lot of patience. There is a real sense of vulnerability knowing that, as Karl Barth says, there's only one preacher—Jesus—and you have to wait until he is ready to preach. That can be frustrating sometimes when you're in some forgotten place, and you're pouring your heart out for twenty years.

It takes patience to keep saying the same gospel over and over again even when you don't get the response you think it deserves. Karl Barth says as Christian theologians we can only repeat ourselves; all theology is repetitive. There's a word for my desire to be innovative and fresh; it's called heresy. That's what the church used to call creativity in preaching.

I once had to teach the same survey course eight times over a four year period to a bunch of freshman, and it was hard. I said to an older professor, "How in the world do you keep teaching this stuff. I already know all this. I take a shot of adrenalin, I drink six or eight cups of coffee before I go in there, but still it's dull. What do I do?" He said, "You've got to find a way to keep falling in love with the material." This was a Godless historian telling me that, but he was right, and preachers have to do that. It's no good for me to say, "I already know how the gospel ends at the cemetery and everything." You have to find a way to keep repeating yourself. I'd say that some of my most questionable theological moves are under the guise of attempting to be interesting to the people. Our people have itching ears, and they really want to believe, Yeah, I've heard all that before when I was a kid, when they've never gone on the journey that that Word demands. We should pray for the grace to keep repeating ourselves, to keep reiterating Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth says Jesus Christ repeats himself. He tends not, it appears, to innovate, but rather Easter keeps being redone. The same dynamic that happened when Lazarus is raised from the tomb occurs on those occasions when you proclaim the Word and somebody says, "Wow, that's good. You really preached to me today." That's Easter all over.

I remember I preached on one of the dullest books of the Bible, Proverbs, and I confessed to the congregation, I said, "I don't preach much from Proverbs. I don't like Proverbs. There's no God in Proverbs. There's no redemption in Proverbs. It's just these little helpful hints for homemakers: don't drink too much; get up early and go to bed early; tie your shoes; take precautions on dates, stuff like that."

I said, "Now, here's an interesting one. 'Better than silver or gold is a good reputation. A good name is better than riches.' Put that on a t-shirt and wear it out here at Duke this afternoon; let me know how you do in the fraternity rush. Hey, it's a sweet little saying, but nobody here believes it. There's nobody who's come here to Duke University for an education in character. We've all come here to get our ticket to success—upwardly mobile advancement—so we don't have to waste our lives being just a community organizer."

Well, anyway, the message was pretty flat, and this sophomore comes up and says, "Wow, I love it when you're just a pastor, and you really try to comfort us." I said, "Comfort you? How do you mean comfort?" He said, "Oh, that sermon. I'm going to call my old man tonight and tell him that I'm not going into law school. I'm going into elementary school teaching." I said, "Well, don't mention where you were at noon. Keep me out of it."

Now, I'll tell you, if the Holy Spirit can get in there in a book like Proverbs and use that bourgeois literature of the establishment for moral, spiritual, born-again transformation, wow! To be a preacher means to be willing to work with that. I'm afraid there's some problems here, though. For one, most of the literature that I read, and a lot that I write, about preaching can be called mostly rhetoric. It's technique. It's, Do these six things in a sermon and it'll work. Zing, you got it. Well, that's almost blasphemous. I don't think our need is for better homiletical technique; our need is for a more interesting God to talk about than the one I often discuss.

The Christ Who Rises from the Dead

The second challenge is that we preachers get to thinking our job is to take this prickly, difficult, Jesus gospel and explain it. You read some ridiculous story about Jesus, and you can feel the sphincters tighten, but you say, "Look, hey, let me explain this to you. Here's what Jesus was trying to say if he'd had the benefit of a seminary education. He didn't mean 'hate your mother,' okay? He meant put the old lady in proper perspective." Or, "He didn't mean give away all you've got to the poor. That would be irresponsible."

I read the sermons of a very popular preacher that I downloaded off the Web for about $19.95. It seemed to me that every one of these sermons started out with some perfectly inexplicable, difficult Scripture, but then the preacher would say, "I have three biblical principles that I want to talk about today." One of the sermons was entitled something like "How to have a happier marriage," and I thought Well, we're not going to be biblical today, are we? Point one was you've got to communicate, and then point two was you've got to care, and then three was you've got to—something with a C—caress or something. You see what's happening there? The mystery, the space between us and the throne, is being lessened. I am being deluded into thinking that the faith is about having the right principles; it's something I can do.

Most of the mistakes we preachers run into happen when we're trying to be heard. Then we ratchet that up to wanting to be approved of. I just think that's God's problem. It's up to the Holy Spirit to get a hearing. Sure, I work on it—and believe it or not I've actually tried to organize these thoughts. But the Holy Spirit wants more than the transfer of accurate information. He wants everything, the whole life. Do I have the courage to keep repeating the story, and whether they hear or refuse to hear, at least they'll have to say, "You know, he really thinks that story is true. He keeps going over it again and again and again like it's true." The gospel has few hermeneutical allies in the world. I wish I preached more sermons that if Jesus did not rise from the dead and is not back harassing the very people who disappointed him the first time, then there's no way I can make it work. In a sense, every sermon is an experiment: Is the gospel true? Can the gospel still gather a crowd or not? Let's just try that and see where we are by noon. Let's just see who shows up.

The good news is it's the nature of this God to raise the dead. Keeping preaching fresh is something that this God does. One of the problems is, sometimes the people that hear my sermon are not the ones that I intended to hear it, and some of the people that get saved are not the ones that I like, but we take who we get.

I guess in all this I'm trying to say that preaching is always a theological issue before it's anything else. It's a question of, who is the God we're talking about, and can this God do what this God promises? My task as a preacher, through my prayer, through my biblical interpretation and study and reading and writing and all is, Can I keep growing in my love of this God? I've been at it, as you can tell, a very long time. It just amazes me to be in ministry this long and have tried to quit a number of occasions and had good reason to quit, and yet this God keeps rising from the dead and saying, "Follow me."

I was asked to speak briefly at a ministry we have in downtown Birmingham, a church just for homeless people. They had gotten a grant to train homeless people for employment. I get down there and I said, "Oh, you're just so lucky you're in the hands of the United Methodists. We got this money, and in these four weeks you'll be trained how to dress, how to present yourself for employment. You will be told what employers are looking for. You will be able to do good things for your families that you've wanted to do," and I was going on like this.

Suddenly this homeless man shouts out, "Where the hell does it say Jesus ever had a job?" I said to the pastor, "I'm unaccustomed to talking to people who've actually read the Bible." I said to the homeless man, "Well, his daddy was a carpenter." The homeless man said, "Did Jesus ever help him out?" I said, "Not that we know of, no." He said, "Did he ever own an apartment?" I said, "Well, that we have good biblical data on, and no, he was a homeless, unemployed beggar. That's why he went to so many of those dinner parties, because there was free food." This homeless man drew himself up and said, "Well, if it's okay with the rest of you, I think I'll just stick with Jesus. Good-bye."

Now, you've got to be a really bad preacher to make that dull. You've got to work at it to make Jesus uninteresting. Rarely do we really succeed in that undertaking of making Jesus uninteresting. Preaching is kept fresh because of Jesus. We get to work with a living, speaking, revealing Lord. Bonhoeffer says the purpose of preaching is to allow the risen Christ to walk among his people. From the pulpit you can watch him wandering around the congregation and calling people out, "You, you, you."

Another resource he's given us for keeping preaching fresh is Scripture. I tell you, you read the Koran, and you'll know why there is nothing but Muslim fundamentalists, because the literature just produces that kind of reader. Of course, I bogged down on the eight pages of women during their menstrual cycles, so I didn't read all of it.

But Scripture is just so bubbling, and Jesus is so unprincipled. You cannot get him in PowerPoint. "Jesus, what is God like?" "This man had two sons. One of the sons said, 'Dad, drop dead. Put the will into effect; I'm out of here.'" That is just so typical. "Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?" "Got a quarter?" "Uh-huh." "Whose picture is on it? Well, if George Washington loves this stuff enough to put his picture on it, give it back to him. You be careful, though. Don't you dare give to Caesar what belongs to God." Okay, what actually belongs to God and to Caesar? You didn't answer the question. Of course, we preachers learn to love that kind of stuff, because we get in there and say, "Look, here's what he would have said if he'd had time to say it."

It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to intrude. It is the nature of the risen Christ not simply to die for people's sins but to call people, to summon people. An appointed means of doing that—the major appointed of means of doing that—is your sermons. God give us the grace to keep Jesus as odd as he is supposed to be, and give us the grace, the theological depth, to keep preaching as difficult as it should be. That keeps preaching fresh.

William Willimon is bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also is editor of Pulpit Resource and the Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching (Westminster John Knox) and author of Undone by Easter (Abingdon).

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