Whenever I have stopped to ponder my practice of preaching, as I have lately been prompted to do, I have returned, almost always, and again just now, to a late-19th century classic, Phillips Brooks’ Lectures on Preaching, in particular to his well-known description of preaching as the “bringing of truth through personality.”
That phrase remains the best brief characterization of preaching I know. “Truth through personality” acknowledges that preaching is irreducibly incarnational. In preaching, the word continues to become flesh; the message is inseparable from the messenger; and the treasure is both hidden and revealed in a clay vessel.
Truth remains mute without the person/personality who gives it voice. Without truth to seek, serve, and say, the preacher’s personality can be an interesting but also unruly collection of quirks, perspectives, and drives.
As compelling as Brooks’ description of preaching is, it strikes me that both major terms of it are now contested in our culture and in my own mind and heart. Just what does it mean to speak of truth in a culture of multiple and conflicted truths? And, just what is the significance of the preacher’s personality in an age which, simultaneously and paradoxically, demands and distrusts “personalities”?
A plethora of thinkers now tells us that, as a culture, we have worn-out the dominant worldview which characterized Western civilization for the last 500 or so years. We now live in a world we’ve not lived in before; it is a post-something world: post-modern, post- Enlightenment, post-liberal, post-Constantinian, post-Christian. At the very least, it is a “post-familiar” and “post-comfortable” world.
In this post-something world, our culture’s most basic assumptions about how the world is ordered are up for grabs. We aren’t sure how to be sure about what is true, right and good. We don’t know what, if anything, constitutes legitimate authority; therefore, the only ethics we have are inescapably situational.
I think that preaching in a time like ours needs to be something like prophetic, but I don’t have in mind merely a kind of issue-driven, style of preaching. I don’t envision what I have heard called “Christianity and” preaching—Christianity and Hunger, Christianity and War, Christianity and Cloning, and so on. A better term might be eschatological preaching, not in the sense of preaching about “last things,” but about ultimate things.
I mean, instead, preaching which addresses our current conditions from the vantage point of God’s promised future, which lifts our gaze beyond the brokenness of this world and gives us a vision of the world made whole, and which gives us reason-against-reason to hope. Jurgen Moltmann wrote, in his groundbreaking book, Theology of Hope:
From first to last, and not merely in epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological. . . is the medium of the Christian faith. . . . [T]the glow that suffuses everything here is the dawn of an expected new day. For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promise of the universal future of Christ. There is only one real problem in Christian theology, . . the problem of the future.
Eschatological preaching announces the dawning which has occurred and anticipates the flooding of the whole cosmos with light. It knows that the darkness has not been completely vanquished, but refuses to deny the light we have. It shines light back into the receding but real darkness and points toward the bright city which “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23).
Eschatological preaching does more than thunder for a more just, more peaceful, and more humane ordering of things in the here and now; it envisions and describes an all-encompassing and all-embracing reality which transcends and, ultimately, replaces the here and now. Eschatological preaching is not other-worldly. It isn’t escapist; it doesn’t counsel retreat from engagement with the so-called “real world.” It is, though, another-worldly. It does not imagine rearrangement, however radical, of the present order, but the realization of an utterly alternative order.
Its vision of a new world constantly impinges upon our present lives and creates in us a holy restlessness for complete transformation of ourselves and all things. That restlessness encourages us to live as if our world were that world, and it imparts energy, not just for coping with, but for changing the world by assuring us that we live toward, not the sputtering end of things, but toward the day when “all shall be well.”