During my first pastorate in a small town in northeastern Minnesota, I had the privilege of befriending an older parishioner named Howard Ballou, a gentle dairy farmer with huge hands and soft eyes, who lived to the ripe old age of 91. Throughout his long life, Howard suffered many losses: the death of his ten-year-old son; the sale of the family-run dairy farm (and even his precious Guernsey cows); the death of his wife and lifelong sweetheart, Chloe; and then at the twilight of his life, the reconstruction of both knees. Towards the end of his life, Howard struggled and ached. The once strong dairy farmer, who had worked 14 hour days, now clung to his aluminum walker with each painful step. At times, his body and his spirit shook with sadness. But even until his last breath, there was one thing Howard never lost: his childlike sense of wonder.
When I visited Howard six months before his death, he had a Bible (open to Leviticus 13) and a TV Guide perched on his lap. "Howard," I asked, "what in the world are you doing with Leviticus and the TV Guide?" Howard chuckled and then drawled, "Well, it's like this: God is so amazing. So I'm reading my Bible from cover to cover, and I'm watching all the nature shows I can. I still have so much to learn about God." Even at the age of 91, Howard lived before God with unquenchable, childlike wonder.
Unfortunately, unlike Howard, as preachers it's sometimes easy to lose our wonder for God's Word. After a while we can start approaching the Bible like a guy I knew who was planning his fifth sailing trip around the Caribbean.He nonchalantly told me, "Yeah, next week I'll be sailing through the Caribbean again—for the fifth time. Sure, it's beautiful—the crystal clear ocean, the blue skies, the hot sun, the white sandy beaches, the warm wind in your face—but how many times can you see the same stuff? I mean, it's nice, but it just gets a little wearisome. It's such a burden sometimes." I wanted to grab the guy and say, Are you nuts? Dude, how about if I take your place? Why don't you let me take this "burden" off your shoulders? Sadly, sometimes we approach biblical texts like this. Yeah, been there, done that, we say. Yeah, I've read Exodus before. Sure (yawn), I preached the resurrection last year. O, well, I guess I have to do Romans again.
On the other hand, as preachers we can see and then talk about God's Word in a way that's fresh and alive. Then we can also ask the Holy Spirit to enable our people to hear God's Word with wonder and excitement—even if they've heard the story of our text a dozen times before. But how do we do that? How do we live before God and then preach with a sense of wonder and awe, freshness and joy?
Learning from wonder-filled people
First, I love to study writers who exhibit a Howard Ballou-like wonder in the presence of God (even if they may not know Christ). These authors nurture my wonder-deficiency so when I approach a biblical text I can see it with fresh eyes and a childlike heart. The 20th century Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel helped me recover a sense of reverence for God. Heschel preferred one phrase that captures our response to the mystery of God—he called it "radical astonishment." For Heschel, "The beginning of happiness lies in understanding that a life without wonder is not worth living." I love that spirit—and I want to recapture that spirit every time I open the Bible and prepare to preach.
I've also learned a lot from a scientist named Lewis Thomas who argued that "the more we learn, the more we are—or ought to be—dumbfounded." One of his essays was titled "On Bewilderment." As he described the first brain cell that appears in the human body, Thomas effused, "All the information needed for learning to read and write, playing the piano, or the marvelous act of putting out one hand and leaning against a tree, is contained in that first cell." No one knows how an ordinary human cell turns into a brain cell. It just does. Thomas concluded his essay on a note of praise: "If anyone succeeds in explaining it within my lifetime, I will charter a skywriting airplane, maybe a whole fleet of them, and send them aloft to write out one great exclamation point after another, until my money runs out."
Again, that challenges me as I get to read God's Word and prepare to preach. I want God to help me approach the Bible with a similar sense of awe and wonder. God has something amazing to say to his people this week through this text, through this ordinary messenger.
Digging for the wonder in a text
Of course, that doesn't mean that it just happens. I usually have to work at finding the wonder in each text. At times I can easily act like that guy who was preparing to sail around the Caribbean again. So let's say I'm preaching on a familiar passage (like the Lord's Prayer or Psalm 23 or John 3:16) or a difficult passage (like Judges 3, where Ehud assassinates Eglon). Part of my job as a preacher is to keep reading the text, meditating on it, savoring it and tasting its sweetness, until I'm able to draw nourishment from its richness. That richness is always in the Bible. God's Word is more to be desired than gold, and sweeter than the honeycomb (Psalm 19:10). If it looks bland or even bitter, that may have a lot to do with the condition of my heart—or it's just a hard passage to preach. Or perhaps the Word of God looks blasé because I haven't dug into its depths. So part of my role as a preacher is to keep digging, keep praying, keep looking at the Scripture until the honey starts oozing out of it.
In this regard, I love the attitude of the British writer G. K. Chesterton, who once claimed that our entire spiritual life hinges on this choice to see God's wonders. As recorded in his autobiography, on his journey to Christ Chesterton found what he called "a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence." It became clear to him that the entire goal of the "artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder." This is one of the glad duties of the Christian life: to dig for this "submerged sunrise of wonder." It's also one of the glad duties of a preacher: to keep digging into a text—prayerfully, attentively, expectantly—until I strike the submerged sunrise of wonder in each Bible passage.
Recapturing the heart of a child
But this won't come to just anyone—or just any pastor or preacher. There's a certain inner disposition or attitude that allows us to keep digging and then to keep finding the beauty of God's Word. Jesus put it this way: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:4). Obviously, in terms of our salvation, that means that we can't buy our way to God, we have to accept it all as a free gift. So we come like little children with our hands wide open.
Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel preferred one phrase that captures our response to the mystery of God—"radical astonishment."
But this childlike attitude needs to continue throughout our entire lives with Jesus. There's one thing all children have in common: they aren't grown-ups yet. They're on the way; they're growing and learning all the time, but they aren't adults yet. They haven't arrived yet. So according to Jesus, once we think we've arrived, once we think we've mastered him or his Word, once we assume that we're qualified as experts of God's Word, we're in deep trouble. At that point all of the childlike wonder seeps out of us, our eyeballs glaze over, and our hearts grow cold. It won't be long before our sermons grow cold too. People will sense it. We can try to hide it and fake it, but sooner or later they'll figure it out.
We're always in danger of missing the wonder of God's Word whenever we approach a text with the thought that we completely understand it once and for all. I've got this. I've read this twenty times. I've preached on this three times. I know what this text says. But every time I approach a biblical text, the Holy Spirit is working in my life in a different place. My congregation is in a different place. The basic meaning of the text is the same, but I can always see things from a different angle that I never noticed before.
I want to come to the text as an open vessel, with the humility of a beginner, rather than the pomposity of the know-it-all. I want to come with the openness and expectancy of a little kid, as though this were the first time I've read this text. I want to have a sense of freshness and excitement. That's the key to finding the element of surprise.
For example, I've been thinking about Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," for over 25 years. But recently, after I went through a profound encounter with my own spiritual poverty, I now see that verse from a different vantage point. The meaning of the text remains the same, but my grasp of that meaning is deeper, richer, and also tinged with more pain and joy. In a similar way, when I was a younger man I preached on suffering, but my sermons were much more abstract and theoretical. But then after walking through a season of suffering, people have noticed and commented on how my sermons on suffering have suddenly come alive. Sometimes when people ask me, "How long did it take you to prepare that sermon on suffering?" I want to reply, "O, only about twenty years."
Asking God to make those dry bones live
Of course this isn't something that we just work at. We don't pump ourselves up with our own strength and energy so we sound excited about this particular passage. I usually begin every week with a text that, in all honesty, looks to me like Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones. I'm like the sailor who has grown too familiar with the beauty of the Caribbean. Every time I approach a text the Lord asks me, "Can these dry bones live?" and I respond, "Only you know, Lord."
In other words, every week I begin a sermon by looking at the text and basically praying: Lord, if you don't do a miracle with these dry bones, this sermon will just stay dry and dead, and dead bones can never produce life. So every week the sermon begins not with my inspiration or my excitement about the biblical text or my ability to say something fresh or creative or interesting. No, it's about God's ability to do a miracle and give me a childlike heart of wonder. But more than that, it's all about the miracle of a God who can take dry bones, breathe fresh life into them, make them live and then make them a blessing to other people. Ultimately, that's my only hope as a preacher.
In one sense God wants to open our hearts to the wonder of the entire gospel, and not just one biblical text or theme. Just to know that God would come and die for us even while we were still sinners—that's utterly outlandish, unpredictable, and incomprehensible. It's such lavish love. We didn't deserve it, and there's no way we could have seen it coming. But God did it for us. How should we respond to that? We can start by letting "radical astonishment" wash over our souls. We could rent a fleet of skywriting airplanes and write "God loves you" until our money runs out.Much better than that, though, we can stand up and declare the glories of our God each week with humbly sought, childlike wonder.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.