Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Advent Preaching: God's Graciousness Can Be as Unsettling as God's Displeasure

Two really good reads on preaching I've just discovered are

Can Words Express Our Wonder; Preaching in the Church Today Rosalind Brown, Canterbury Press 2009

The Word Militant; Preaching a Decentering Word Walter Bruggemann, Fortress Press paperback edition 2010

I've long been a big fan of Bruggemann, but Brown's writing is new to me. In some ways the two authors both come from similar places in that they understand preaching as the activity of the imagination engaging with secripture.  Brown uses a musical metaphor to talk of preaching as 'Singing the Lord's song in a new land' (Ps.137) The preacher learns to make their own melody from the raw materials of scripture and tradition, that is, tradition in the sense of the community which is already engaged in the adventure of preaching. I loved her insight that preaching is engaging for the listener because of the preacher's 'immersion in, not ingenuity with God's word.'  And her wisdom that preparation for preaching involves a challenge to live differently, not simply to speak creatively. This is why preaching has always been one of the main well springs of spiritual renewal in my own life - and also an unnerving barometer of my own spiritual health at times. The book is full of practical help for the preacher and an enjoyable read.

If you know Bruggemann, then there is nothing very unexpected in this volume but I found two chapters particularly helpful. The first, 'An Imaginative Or' sets out very clearly Bruggemann's  understanding of how the Old Testament leads to the New; it does not lead there 'singularly and necessarily' but only with 'immense interpretive agility'. The connection is grounded in the character of Yahweh and the character of the people who are called out of one kind of existence to something new and radical by their relationship (experienced in absence as much as presence) with this God, a God who holds out a series of moral either/or's. (Think of some of the NT parables.) When the people are under threat or in despair, these moral alternatives give the key to survival and transcendence of the threat through the possibility of living differently. Two examples; either it's every man for himself at the expense of others, or read Deuteronomy 24.19 - 22 where the three-cornered relationship of land owner, land and landless produces a way for all to live together; either become a 'punctilious community of religious discipline, engaging in religious scruple with amazing callousness about the world of human transaction' or read Isaiah 58.1-9 and learn to commit to your oppressed, hungry or homeless neighbour. And the thrust of all this? Decide, by an act of will ,to turn your back on the way things are and look for One who will show you how to live in new ways....

I also like the chapter called 'The Shrill Voice of the Wounded Party'. In it Bruggemann debunks the stereo-types of the Old Testament that portray the God of the Old Testament as unbending and unmerciful, governing through a rigid system of punishment for sin. He gives four examples that show brilliantly how subtle the Old Testament is in its understanding of sin and how sinners are dealt with. There are no absolutes here. Jonah, for example, finds God disturbing precisely because he percieves a forgiveness (for the transgressing but supposedly repentant people of Nineveh) deep within God that he had not expected or wanted. God's graciousness can be as unsettling as God's displeasure.

Chapters like these are giving me plenty to think about and chew on this Advent!

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