Preaching from Astonishment

“The way to faith leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. Awe precedes faith.” (God’s Search for Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel)

I heard it first from Heschel: awe/wonder/ radical amazement precedes faith. Astonishment comes first.

Did you not find it so? At some point, and many points after, you were overwhelmed with the outrageous generosity of God. You got it! You realized with heart and mind that all living beings, including yourself, are enfolded in a gracious Mystery, most clear but not limited to Jesus. Amazing! You “saw” it, that the love you are wired for is already present, a gift to be received and lived from. In those moments that interrupted times of doubt and despair, you turned (repented), trusting yourself to this “hold on to your hat,” astonishing Presence. And your initial “turnings” led you to ordination then on to pastoral leadership.

But astonishment is hard to sustain. Like love, astonishment is both an effortless happening and the result of constant effort. We fall in love; we create love. Love happens to us; we make love happen. So it is with astonishment, awe, radical amazement.

With this in mind, let’s think about preaching. It can be difficult to sustain astonishment in our preaching. After all, as pastors, you preach—say, forty sermons a year, not counting the funeral and wedding messages. How can something so regular maintain its mystery and wonder?

Let’s get even more specific and practical. And personal too. I’m remembering a typical week of sermon preparation. For me it started on Monday. I loved, well mostly, I loved the discipline of wrestling with a text. It’s a spiritual practice I miss. Early in the week my pattern was to live with the text—think, pray and play with it, carry it around with me to the hospital and committee meetings. The text for the week was always just over my right shoulder.

Then about Wednesday I would pull out the commentaries and take some notes. Thursday, for me, was “fish or cut bait” time, because Sunday was a comin.’ With earnesty now, I looked for a path within the forest of possibilities in my head and notes before me. If sermons make one basic point, then by Thursday I was agonizing over the question, “What’s the point in this text that pierces? Where am I going with this? Where is it taking me?” This could be a very anxious moment for me. Sunday is coming closer and no clear point is emerging. No clear path could be seen. By now it might be Friday or even Saturday.

Over the years I developed this practice: With various ideas and the text before me, I kept asking over and over, “What’s astonishing about this text? Where am I being surprised and radically amazed by this passage? What about this scripture both summons and confronts me, and through me the church and community?”

Recently I was overhearing a debate about how much of the preacher’s life should show in the sermon. I think this is a confusing question. If this means lots of personal references, then we should wonder about ego promotion. But if this means the passion of the preacher about the text, then that is another matter. I assume the person in the pew benefits from our open and lively engagement of the Message. This invites their lively engagement with the text. They want to feel our passion, our curiosity, our questions, and, yes, our excitements.

I’m saying that the most important aspect of sermon preparation is your wrestling with the text—however long it takes—until it blesses you with astonishment. It’s the place to preach from.

How do you hear this?

5 Responses to Preaching from Astonishment

  1. Steve Hyde says:

    Mahan, just yesterday I was pondering the fact that I will soon begin my tenth year of preaching exclusively from the lectionary. My pondering was more of a question–how could this be? You have named it for me. It’s the astonishment of “handling” texts which continue to invite, evoke, prod, and sometimes even delight.
    There’s a wonderful unpredictability that is astonishing, and it comes from the texts. Last Sunday, for example–I had never noticed Hosea’s God as a lion with a tender heart, and the picture of the people trembling as they come home to a God whose love roars like a lion, not with an indulgent pat on the head. I couldn’t make this up!

    Thanks, Mahan.

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  2. elizabeth canham says:

    Does Vuic get your blog? Liz

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  3. Mahan, there may be another step that you acknowledge implicitly. You have a paragraph about happening & effort, and then at the end of the article you talk about wrestling with the text until (in hope of?) being astonished. So for those of us in the professional ministry, if astonishment precedes faith, then work precedes astonishment. Of course it’s nice when astonishment just happens, as it surely does, and sometimes when we least expect it. But for me work, or at least paying attention, usually comes first.

    Commentators on the current worship scene notice a change in the process of how secular people get involved in church, as compared with how it used to happen and how a great many churches still expect it to happen. (This analysis is widely known, so it won’t be news to most people.)

    The old way: believe, behave, belong. First you accept Jesus (or at least our propositions about him), then you clean up your act, then you are eligible to join the church.

    The emerging way is exactly the opposite: belong, behave, believe. First someone attends, gets involved, even joins. Then he/she starts to soak up the culture of the faith and the faithful. Finally, after practicing it and observing in in others, belief can happen.

    For example, one friend was pastor of a church where they let non-members be ushers and unbelievers take communion. Instead of being eligible to do these things after they measure up by adopting the right belief, they were encouraged to use these practices as a path TO belief.

    I think this might be another way of saying what you said in the article: First we do those things that set the atmosphere and lay the groundwork and contribute to the possibility for being astonished, then astonishment might happen, and then faith comes after that.

    George Hunter develops these ideas effectively in THE CELTIC WAY OF EVANGELISM, contrasting the Continental/Jesuit method of requiring faith before participation with the Fifth Century Irish/St. Patrick concept of participation as a pathway toward faith. The Jesuit model, he says, became the principal model for modern evangelicalism. Post-modern secular people, however, respond better to the Irish model.

    Enough rambling. Thanks for the stimulating article.

    Ed Beddingfield

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  4. Ben Wagener says:

    Mahan, I like your challenge as to where the astonishment comes from for proclamation.Barbara Brown Taylor once challenged a clergy group to not just encourage their people to practice what they preach but to realize that we preachers invariably preach what we have been practicing. To practice wrestling with the text has been for me like suddenly receiving a mild electric shock,seeing for the first time a word,teaching,or a story that brought tears, a marvelous insight, or raised a startling question for me to pursue further.Fred Craddock has taught me to slowly read the text over and over before going to a commentary. On my best days I do this practice but not always.
    I go back again to one of my favorite texts that amazes and reminds me to whom I belong:”If you abide in me,and MY words abide in you,ask for whatever you wish,and it will be done for you.”( John 15:7)

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  5. Bryan Hatcher says:

    The joy of working with people during critical developmental moments is witnessing the awe/wonder/amazement as it unfolds. Standing next to the awe often let’s a little creep in. I preach formal sermons occassionally in my current ministry, and find that much of the amzement for me is that people show up for this stuff — amazing evidence that it is about something much greater than we preachers.

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