Friday, April 1, 2011

The content of Christian preaching: not a 'how' or a 'what' but a 'who'

Instrumental in my call to preach was the story of Peter and the apostles being miraculously set free from prison in Acts 5. There the angel of the Lord opens the gates of the prison and leads them out commanding the apostles, “Go, stand and speak to the people in the temple the whole message of this Life” (Acts 5:20, NASB). When I read that verse as a teenager, it was as if the angel were speaking to me. My life’s task was to be the same as the apostles to stand and speak “the whole message of this Life.” That verse has continued to shape my theology of preaching.

Preaching is at its essence the proclaiming or heralding of a message. What is the content of the whole message of this life? It is the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the message concerning “the unique life God provides through Jesus.” It is the announcement of the kingdom of God that has become manifest in and accessible through Jesus Christ. It involves the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and the promise of his return. In a word, it is preaching the Word, who is Jesus Christ. I am continually struck by Christ’s preaching. It has one theme, the kingdom of God. Matthew’s report is paradigmatic, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (4:17, NIV). In the book of Acts, the followers of Christ are also spoken of preaching about the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12; 19:8; 28:31). The content of their preaching is the same as that of Christ. And yet, when Luke provides us insight into the actual words of their sermons, their preaching of the Kingdom is primarily a preaching about Christ! Peter, Stephen, and Paul all proclaim the kingdom by speaking of who Jesus is and what he has done. One can conclude, as William H. Willmon has put it, “Preaching like Jesus is preaching Jesus.”

Preaching, then, is not just any word. It is a word about and from God, specifically the God who has made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ, and who makes himself known today through the Holy Spirit. True Christian preaching focuses not upon how we can have better marriages or bigger bank accounts or healthier self-images. True preaching announces the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So the Christian word is a limited word; we do not speak on anything and everything. We speak of Christ. We speak of his kingdom come. But this limited word is the word the world so desperately needs. Again, it is the whole or entire message of this life. Jesus is the only word that matters eternally. He is the only word that lasts. Without him, all other words cease to be. So while there is a place to speak of having healthy marriages, or more sound financial practices, or better parenting skills, I doubt that place is the pulpit. In the pulpit, we must speak the word that only the church can speak, the word we've been commanded to speak - the Word, who is Jesus Christ.

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