Fleming Rutledge (an Episcopal priest in New York) is one of the brightest, best biblical preachers whom I know. She has written some wonderful books of sermons and has been an astute critic of some of my preaching. In her essay “A New Liberalism of the Word,” Fleming suggests that the core problem with much of today’s preaching is theological in nature. (Perhaps, at the core, this is always the most significant challenge of preaching in any age – to keep our talk in the pulpit as talk about God in Jesus Christ.)
Fleming says that our theological problem as preachers, “can be precisely identified in the words of Jesus to the Sadducees: ‘Is not this why you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?’ Jesus’ point against the Sadducees is that the power of God is able to create an entirely new reality that transcends all human categories.” Rutledge notes that the scriptures and the power of God are inextricably related. The scriptures mediate the power of God, a power that has in it the potential to transform and make new. The word is the unique, God-ordained vehicle for God’s transforming power. To know God’s word, to stand and speak God’s word, is to know the miraculous way God uses the word to raise up the church in every age.
Preaching is powerful when it is biblical, when it takes the biblical witness with primary seriousness, when it is first interested, not in the limits of the hearers, or in our felt needs and cares, but in what God, in power, wishes to say to us, how the Holy Spirit, in power, wants to transform us. Nothing can create the church, nothing can raise up a new generation of Christians, we believe, other than the originating, fecund, life-giving power of the word.
Let us meditate on that as we gather in our churches and submit to the Word this Sunday.
(Fleming’s essay is found in Loving God with Our Minds, ed. Michael Welker and Cynthia Jarvis; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004, p. 252.)P.S. This month Abingdon Press publishes Undone by Easter, my newest book on preaching. It's a study of the way that preaching keeps fresh by working with God's time.