What we Proclaim: read. watch. reflect. practice.


What we Proclaim

    In the fall of 2011, the Philadelphia Museum of Art hosted a landmark exhibition of Rembrandt van Rijns paintings, drawings, and prints entitled Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus.”  My wife Monica and I were given tickets to view the collection, but because we were unable to secure a babysitter, when we paid a visit to the museum to see the work of the Dutch master firsthand, so did our two three-and-five-year-old sons.

    Our two boys behaved perfectly- for the first fifteen minutes or so.  But as they began playing tag in a room of Rembrandts, my exasperation escalated quickly- and so did the security guards.  In an ironic piece of providence, as I bent down to scold my sons, seething and stewing on the inside, I looked up and realized that the three of us were all directly beneath a sketch of Jesus extending his hands in blessing to a crowd of small children.  Figures,I thought.  The place I pick to threaten the ways Ill make my boys suffer is directly below Rembrandts Suffer the Children.’”

     My wife, being the better parent, transformed the tense moment into a game:  I have an idea, boys,she offered.  Well walk around together and look at each painting; Ill ask you, Where do you see Jesus here? Where does he show up?and you have to find him.”  Our boys were able to pick up on the dramatic light and shade of Rembrandts chiaroscuro quickly, and so she thus saved a pastors family from being ejected from an exhibit of paintings depicting Jesus.  Their favorite painting, interestingly, was the dramatic moment of recognition in Luke 24 Rembrandt depicts in his Supper at Emmaus.”  As it happens, this was also a favorite of Rembrandt van Rijn himself: he painted it not once, but four times, and sketched the scene many times more.

     Where do you see Jesus?”  The answer of Jesusfrightened followers at Emmaus, and generations of mothers and fathers in Christian faith ever since, is that you find Jesus when the Scriptures are unfolded and the Gospel is announced.  You find Jesus in the sacramental alchemy that happens when a Christian preacher stands up in a cathedral, chapel, or storefront, reads the Scriptures, clears her throat, and then tells the Jesus-story.  You find Jesus, in other words, in Christian preaching.  Id like to invite you to join Cleopas and company for the seven-mile walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus to get a feel for how this alchemy works.

     Many of the Churchs observant thinkers and leaders have noted that the drama of Christian worship- its singing, praying, preaching, communing- takes its contour and shape from this narrative.[1]  Here, I will simply note a few features of this striking story which pertain to preaching. 

     On the first Easter evening, Jesus joins his downcast disciples, and probes what it is theyre discussing.  They cant believe this Stranger hadnt caught wind of the things concerning Jesus of Nazareth.”  “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,they say, more than a little wistfully.  We had hoped.  The Christian preacher will take a cue here from the risen Lord and begin her sermon where Jesus begins: with the great hopes and disappointments of her fellow travelers.  She will address the deep desires and darknesses of her hearers- the metanarratives that drive their lives- and demonstrate how they only cohere when they finally find their home in the person and work of Christ.  And she will take the time, Sunday by Sunday, to speak to her hearersquestions, misunderstandings, and unbelief.  This is never an exercise in browbeating; it is a weekly exercise in hospitality, in welcoming others to discover how the plotlines of their lives, and of the world as a whole, only make sense within the story of Christ. 

     As Jesus makes his way with his companions toward Emmaus, he interpreted the things about himself in all the scriptures.(Lk. 24.27) This is what happens in a Christian sermon: a preacher uses her words to rehearse and re-say what the narratives, poetry, apocalyptic visions and pastoral letters of Holy Scripture all say: that the one living God has acted in Jesus of Nazareth to rescue and reclaim the cosmos hes made.  Christian preaching preaches Christ from all of Scripture, from the first page of Genesis to the last Amenof St. Johns Revelation.[2]  As John Calvin put it, This is what we should in short seek in the whole of Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.[3]  So, what does a preacher preach?  Whether in a sturdy, steady old congregation of saints or a new church startup, whether listening to the words of Deuteronomy on the plains of Moab or the symphonic theology of Romans, the preacher, in a word, preaches Christ.

     After Jesus arrives at Emmaus, his friends invite the intriguing Stranger in; the guest becomes the host; Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives bread; and, somehow, their eyes are opened and Jesus is made known to them in the breaking of the bread- just as he has been, Sunday by Sunday, for millenia ever since.  As Jesus vanishes and they are coming to their senses, they wonder, Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?(Lk. 24.32)

     Here is the deep magic[4] of Christian preaching: as the preacher preaches Christ, the living Christ, in a way too mysterious and expansive for words, comes near to open eyes, warms hearts, nourish, bless, resurrect.  This, then, is the telos of preaching: that a congregation might be brought into contact with the risen Christ himself.  This mystery is what Karl Barth seeks to name as he calls Christian preaching a formof the Word of God itself.[5]  This alchemy is why the Second Helvetic Confession was bold to say that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.[6]

     A little while ago, I met a woman, whom Ill call Margaret, for coffee before the rush-hour commute.  As we sat in the corner table in a neighborhood cafe, she lowered her voice, not wanting to be outed by anyone at a neighboring table: Ive been coming to your church.”  She hurried to inform me that she was a credentialed research scientist, that she had all sorts of questions and doubts about Scripture and Christian faith, and that she had no idea how anyone who went to college can take seriously any of these fairytales that you Christians believe.”  I thanked her for her honesty, and simply told her Id be happy to be available to process her questions and doubts as she slipped in and out, week by week, of the back pew of our sanctuary. 

     Months and several coffee meetings later, Margaret asked to sit at table with me again.  Shifting uneasily in her seat, she ventured, Ive got a problem.

Whats that, Margaret?

Here it is: when you talk about Jesus, and then after the sermon, when we stand to our feet and say the Creed together- I dont think Im lying anymore when I say that stuff.  What should I do about that?

I think you should be baptized and become a Christian.

Margaret slouched, and heaved a sigh: Shit. I thought you might say that. 

Okay.  Lets do it.” 

 As I sat there, dumfounded, I thought: so, apparently, Jesus still does really show up. 

[1] for two sage explorations of Lk. 24 and Christian worship, see Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of The Liturgy, and ch. 7 of N.T. Wrights The Challenge of Jesus.

[2] for expert introductions to preaching Christ from the whole of Scripture, see Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture; Sidney Griedanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament; and Lesslie Newbigin, A Walk Through the Bible.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, p. 217-18

[4] I have gratefully borrowed this phrase from C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/1 ch. 1; I/2 ch. 3-4

[6] Second Helvetic Confession, ch. 1.


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Consider the questions below - ponder them in your mind and in your heart. Then write out your answers before meeting with your group.

As you read and watch, how do you...

...find yourself resonating with the ideas offered in the essay?

...find yourself experiencing resistance?


Reflect on the feedback you've received from your sermons. If you have not intentionally sought out feedback lately, think about how you might do this. Consider reading Thanks for the Feedback  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. How does proper, intentional feedback help the process of preaching?