Why Listening Is Essential to Preaching

Excerpted from
Preaching Jesus Christ Today
By Annette Brownlee


Several years ago our daughter gave her father and me a small book for Christmas, The Asian Grocery Store Demystified. As the title suggests, the book takes the reader through the many unfamiliar vegetables and fruits sold in Asian markets and explains what they are and what to do with them in the kitchen. We love this book. We had recently moved to Toronto and bought a house near little Chinatown, just a block from its overflowing markets of strange fruits, vegetables, dried plants and seafood. We cooked with the book, and over time we moved from sautéing bok choy and Japanese eggplant to cooking amaranth and fuzzy melon. We love it all.

Though the analogy is limited, it offers guidelines for a theologically shaped practice of preaching Jesus Christ. It points the way for preachers to have more confidence in their knowledge of what to do in the strange world of Scripture’s fruits and nuts. To claim Scripture as God’s word to us—to claim it as authoritative in the church and in our lives—is only a beginning for preachers. We preachers often need help in knowing what to do with these commitments in our sermons, especially in a world in which this claim carries little currency. The guidelines that follow take the form of six straightforward questions for listening to Scripture as one prepares sermons, week after week, and for moving from interpretation to sermon text in the midst of daily congregational life. The inspiration for these guidelines comes out of the specific nature of the claim I am making: Preaching Jesus Christ is a theological practice. Let me briefly say [three] things this claim implies, all of which I explore in the chapters to come.

First, preaching is theological. It is based on a variety of theological commitments, implicit or explicit, that shape how we read Scripture, preach from it and move from Scripture to sermon in the context of worship and the church. As later chapters describe, these commitments have to do with what kind of text the preacher understands Scripture to be, the role of the church both in God’s purposes for creation and in the interpretation of Scripture, questions of the correlation or connection between Scripture and our worlds today, between then and now, and the role of the preacher in the pulpit and in the congregation. The chief theological claim on which this practice rests is this: The location of preaching in and for the church needs to be the primary business of preachers and must shape how they go about sermon preparation. Why?

The church is the God-given soil in which Scripture, preacher and people are rooted, and the Spirit uses Scripture to testify to the church and to form it into the Spirit’s witness to the nations. How might this theological claim shape how we as preachers read Scripture in sermon preparation, craft our sermons, understand our role and use doctrine and personal stories? How does it shape our understanding of the role of sermons in discipleship and mission? These are questions this book addresses. This project is part of the movement of theological retrieval that began with the postliberal theology of George Lindbeck and Hans Frei and has, more recently, moved into evangelical traditions. This is not primarily a book of theology; it is about one approach to the practice of preaching based on theological commitments about Scripture and the church that have been part of this movement. It is anchored, in part, in a retrieval of David Yeago’s understanding of the inspiration of Scripture, which is based not on plenary inspiration but on the use of Scripture in the church for God’s ongoing mission.

Second, preaching is a practice. It is one practice among many in the church, all of which are a response to God’s gracious action through the Spirit. The nature of this response in preaching is that preachers need to do something with their interpretation of Scripture. Sermons involve a lot of movement—from Scripture to sermon, from the beginning of a sermon to its end, from the preacher’s mouth to the people’s ears to everyone’s lives, from the gathered community out into the places people spend their weeks—all in the context of worship and a specific culture.

It doesn’t matter whether pastors preach from a written text, from notes or just wing it or whether they preach in a Baptist church, an Anglican church or a café. This movement is not primarily about sermon form, literary style or holding the listener’s (and the preacher’s) interest. It is about the power of God on the cross to bring into existence that which is not. In the synagogue in Thessalonica, Paul preaches about this power, the Messiah who suffers and rises from the dead; and what is the reaction of some who hear? They say, “These people . . . have been turning the world upside down” and send a mob in search of Paul and Silas (Acts 17:1–7; here v. 6).

Preachers need help knowing what to do with their theological commitments in their interpretation of Scripture and how to serve it up in a sermon. In my claim that preaching is a theological practice, I aim to expand the movement of theological retrieval to include not only the interpretation of Scripture but also the interpretation of Scripture for the practice of preaching.

Third, preaching is a theologically shaped practice of proclaiming Jesus Christ. This statement shows my theological hand. All Scripture reveals the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. In Scripture, through the Spirit, Christ addresses us individually and as a people; and, again through the Spirit, we are able to respond. Preachers do not have to figure out on their own how to make Scripture meaningful or relevant. Jesus Christ is implicitly relevant and is the meaning and telos of our lives and of all creation. However, preachers do need help in knowing how to pay attention to Scripture; how to see Jesus Christ, the son of ascended, and coming again. Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). Not what. The good news of the gospel is that Christ’s incarnation into the problematic particularity of the human condition is this fallen world’s redemption. In his incarnation Christ embraces the differences and inequalities that are part of being human, a creature in a particular time and place. In this embrace he offers us not a way to negate the chasms between ourselves and others, or a way to define them in terms of a struggle for dominance, but a way to love across the gaps. In what follows I endeavor to show that an attentive reading of Scripture, hard parts and all, focusing on the identity that Jesus Christ offers, gives us a way to preach—and most importantly to love—in a postmodern world.

Is this not our hope, that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life across all our contested realities? That he speaks in all times, cultures and places? The burden of making Jesus relevant in our time and context is too heavy for even the most gifted preacher. But before preachers open their mouths or Bibles, God has created the condition for us to be able to preach Jesus Christ. What is that? God has created us able to hear his Word. All of us, across centuries, continents and cultures. All of us together. Only God can create hearers of his Word, Luther claims; and God has done just that through the Holy Spirit. Thus preaching truly is first and last a response to the gracious action of the Spirit, which makes us able to hear God’s Word. As Augustine writes, before we are preachers we are hearers of the Word. Before we can be preachers we must listen to God’s Word along with our people.

This is who God has made us. The psalmist writes, “Hear this, all you peoples; / give ear, all inhabitants of the world, / both low and high, rich and poor together” (Ps. 49:1–2).

Such is our privilege: to learn to listen to the Word with those God has entrusted to us in our congregations. Our vocation as preachers is found in this: to stand under the Word with our people, in the context of the church, and to let it address and shape us.

Tell me more about this book »
Order this book from Amazon.com »

Annette Brownlee, Preaching Jesus Christ Today Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2018. Used by permission.