Preaching

The Holy Spirit in Worship (part 5)

There is a legend that C. H. Spurgeon, as he would climb the steps to his pulpit, would say “I believe in the Holy Spirit” at each step. The implication about the work of the Holy Spirit in preaching should be obvious: it is the preacher who speaks, but it is the Holy Spirit who must “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). If he doesn’t speak through our words, then our words are useless.

However, I want to discuss as well the fundamental role of the sermon when the Holy Spirit becomes an active participant. In my class on worship, we discussed the idea that all worship functions around a template of revelation and response. There is a progressive revelation of God’s nature and his purposes, and at each successive revelation, there is an appropriate human response. Debra Dean Murphy, in her book Teaching that Transforms, pays special attention to this dynamic in the act of preaching (where revelation is expressly apparent) in a chapter titled “Proclamation and Response.” “The preacher,” she says,

Interprets the Word for the community, placing the day’s appointed texts within the larger narrative scope of the biblical witness; allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture; acknowledging the multistranded nature of any given text’s meaning for the life of the community; recognizing the partiality and self-interest that undergird all our interpretations of the biblical texts; and letting the Word of God interrogate the community as much as the community, through the preacher’s own hermeneutical practices, scrutinizes the text.

This is a fairly accurate description of what I am being trained to do in seminary, via classes on exegesis and preaching. As a preacher, my job will be to write the equivalent of a research paper each week on the biblical text, and then present my findings to the congregation on Sunday, couched in a way that communicates the key points directly in a way applicable to their lives.

However, in view of the Holy Spirit’s work in preaching, I am beginning to think her description is insufficient. You will note the lack of any clear mention of the Holy Spirit’s involvement in the process. It seems to be her view that the Spirit may aid the preacher in his efforts at exegesis, but when it comes to the actual act of preaching, the Word of God reveals itself directly to the people, via the preacher. This isn’t right, because revelation is fundamentally not a human task. This is either example of binity, simply failing to notice the Holy Spirit’s role, or something worse, replacing the Spirit directly with the text: participation through the Bible in the Son’s communion with the Father.

I think it is worth pursuing whether preaching is solely an interpretive task, or whether it may be considered under the rubric of prophecy as well. This would require that the preacher, rather than merely repeating what he has learned in his study, must also express what he has become in his prayer closet. To quote Spurgeon again,

Burn all your manuscripts, that is No. 1. Give up your notes, that is No. 2. Read your Bible and preach it as you find it in the simplicity of its language. And give up all your Latinized English. Begin to tell the people what you have felt in your own heart, and beseech the Holy Spirit to make your heart as hot as a furnace for zeal.

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