“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?