I have a confession to make to you this morning.
The truth is: I really don’t know what I’m doing half the time I’m standing up here behind this pulpit. And if I don’t know what I’m doing, I feel certain that some, if not most of you, do not know what I am doing. This preaching thing is probably the hardest things about church. It’s hard on me, and I know it’s hard on you. I don’t know what is more difficult, preaching a sermon or listening to one.
After preaching for over nearly thirty years, I’m really not that certain if I really know how to preach. I’ve tried every technique. Every once in a while I’ll try to be creative. Try to tell some good stories. Embellish a few if I have to. Robert Fulgum called it “making up necessary facts.”
But it’s just so hard to talk about, and I know it’s hard to hear about the things of God. And how do you really talk to people about God’s relationship to this mystery that we call life. How do you talk about Christmas, Epiphany, and the way God reveals God’s self in this world? I am in full agreement with Harry Emerson Fosdick when he said:
“I would rather live in a world where my life is surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small that my mind could comprehend it.”
So if I cannot comprehend any of it, nor even want to comprehend any of it, how can I begin to talk about it?
And here’s the real difficult part: How do you speak in such a way that people don’t just hear about God, but are brought to God or experience God? How do you get people to get a sermon?
After all, you have so many distractions. There are so many obstacles to successful communication in this place. First of all there are the people around you. I remember how hard it was when I was growing up trying to get something, anything out of a sermon! There was always somebody was always playing with a candy wrapper, getting up to go the restroom, some coughing, some sneezing, some biting their nails, some whispering, some dozing off, some even snoring. And today you have all of these electronic gadget distractions. There are ipods and ipads and iphones.
And then there are all kinds of entertaining observations. “His hair sure is thinning. Her hair sure is graying. What is he wearing? And my, hasn’t she packed on the pounds! She must have really enjoyed herself some Christmas!”
Then there’s the temperature. It is either twenty degrees too cold or twenty degrees too hot.
Then there are all of those other obstacles that you bring with you—attention deficit disorder, up too late the night before, too many things on your plate, a whole slew of problems and shortcomings, and then there’s that thing called, “sin” that is so much a part of all of us.
Let’s be honest: It is an absolute miracle that anyone ever gets anything out of any sermon.
But sometimes, people do. Sometimes, people undeniably hear. Sometimes people do get it.
William WilIimon, who has written more books about preaching than anyone I know, once said that he suspected that the reason that most of you keep coming back here is “because having had the lightening to strike once, it could well strike again, and you want to be here for it. Having once shuffled in here—distracted, unfocused, unsure—you have despite everything, irrefutably heard.” You once came in here and caught a glimpse of something, and that something was undoubtedly from God.
You know what really annoys me about preaching? It is when I preach a sermon that I had intended to be good sermon, a sermon that could have been a good sermon if I had a little more time, perhaps a been little less distracted and a little more prayerful. It’s when I preach one of those sermons and you, you have the audacity to look at me on the way out of the church, grip my hand and say, “Thank you for that sermon. God really spoke to me today.”
You walk away to your car leaving me shaking my head thinking, “How did that happen? How did anyone get anything out of that sermon? Who pulled back the veil between us and God? I know it wasn’t me. It sure wasn’t anything that I said.”
It was just another ordinary day down at the river. John was down there baptizing people. At that time, baptism was a ritual that Jews sometimes went through, a kind of purification rite to prepare for the Advent of the Messiah.
“The Messiah’s coming!” John preached. And as the people were going through the motions, wading into the water, some of them would ask John, “Are you the Messiah?”
“No,” answered John. “I could not even tie the shoelaces of the one who is coming after me. I baptize with water; the one who is more powerful than I, will baptize with fire!”
John keeps baptizing. Then this one from Nazareth comes—and then, all of a sudden—a miracle happens—a dove swoops, the Spirit descends, a voice echoes, the heavens are ripped open, the veil is torn asunder!
This dove, this Spirit, and this voice is the biblical way of saying that heaven had come down to earth, and God’s Spirit was inexplicably but undeniably present.
And this voice is of “heaven.” It is not of the earth. It is not from John. John, unworthy to tie the laces of the Messiah, would be the first to admit that. It has come from some other place. It has come from God.
I don’t know how many heard the voice that day. I’m just glad that somebody heard it, experienced something like a dove, felt the Spirit and had the foresight to tell us about it. Because maybe then we, with all of our distractions and obstacles, all of our doubts, all of our shortcomings, and yes, all of our sin, just maybe then, we may be open to such a voice and such a vision.
Professor Steven Vryhof writes about visiting a Lutheran church in a small village on the coast of Sweden where only fourteen congregants had gathered. The blonde-haired minister was very young and somewhat nervous, right out of seminary. Vryhoff struggled throughout the service with the Swedish hymns and the Lutheran tendency to stand to pray and sit to sing, the opposite of what he was used to. He joined the others at the front for communion, taking the bread and the wine and then returning to his seat.
While the minister had his back to congregation, putting away the elements, a parishioner, a middle-aged woman, returned to the front, but this time pushing a very elderly woman, presumably her mother, in a wheelchair.
He described the mother has having the “classic nursing home look: slumped to the right, thin, scraggly, colorless hair, vacant eyes, and a slack-jaw with her tongue showing just a bit.” She was there for communion.
There was an awkward minute as they all waited for the minister to turn around and notice the two waiting at the front. He finally did turn, perceived the situation, and then proceeded to retrieve the elements. He carefully administered the bite of bread and the sip of wine to the old woman. And then he paused.
It was then that Vryhof held his breath, because he knew what was going to happen next. The minister looked at the old woman, physically a wreck of a human being, and he said to her the most important words that one human being can say to another human being. The minister looked her straight in the eyes and said to her in Swedish: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose body and blood you have received, preserve your soul unto everlasting life.”
Vryhoff writes: “I suppose it was a coincidence, but it was a God-given coincidence nonetheless. At that precise moment, the bells of the church started pealing, ringing and resonating and resounding and reverberating through the church and through me, making the hair on the back of my head stand up. Heaven touched earth and it seemed that Jesus Christ, himself was saying, ‘Yes, I will do that!’
And then the Father and the Spirit joined the Son, and using the same words given to Julian of Norwich [in fourteenth century England], the Triune God proclaimed loudly over the ringing of the bells, “I may make all things well, and I can make all things well, and I shall make all things well; and I will make all things well, and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well!”[i]
No, the reality is that I can’t preach God’s Word to you. Forgive me when I try to explain Jesus or attempt to talk you about faith, God, epiphanies and this mystery life. I can’t do it. And it’s not because I’m a bad preacher. It’s not because I lack the experience or the training. It’s because true revelation, authentic recognition—when it’s about God—is always a gift from God. It’s always a miracle. It is always “from heaven.” The truth is, I can’t preach. And the truth is, you can’t hear, except as a miracle, except a gift of God’s amazing grace.
I’m not saying that the baptism of Jesus happened with a literal dove descending and with an audible voice. I’m not saying that visions like this happen every day. Because I really don’t know. I am saying that if we keep the faith, I believe it can and it will happen to you and to me!
You might be being baptized or receiving communion or listening to a sermon or a choir. You might be kissing a child on the forehead, holding a puppy or sitting on a front porch with a friend. You might be taking a shower, driving to work or just staring off into space doing absolutely nothing, and then, when you thought you’ve got your world all figured out, the once hushed heavens open up, and something like a bird swoops down. Heaven comes so close you can feel the breath of God. A voice speaks. It’s inexplicable but undeniable. Warmth fills your soul. And you know beyond any doubt whatsoever that you are God’s beloved child.[ii] Thanks be to God. Let us pray together.
Lord Jesus, rip open the heavens and come to us, reach down, reach in, disrupt, touch, embrace, speak to us. Do not leave us, O Lord, to our own devices. Abandon us not to our own voices. Speak to us, miraculously appear to us, and give us the grace to see and listen and the courage to follow. Amen.
[i]Crash Helmets and Church Bells, Perspectives, August/September 2000, p. 3
[ii] Inspired and adapted from a sermon by William Willimon in Pulpit Resource, Logos Productions, 2009.