“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” (Galatians 3:1)
Let those who want to fulfill the ministry of the gospel in the right way learn not only to speak and proclaim but also to penetrate into consciences, so that people may see Christ crucified and that his blood may flow. When the church has painters such as these, she will have no more need of word and stone images. – John Calvin
I have been thinking a lot about what it means to preach. The cultural and intellectual shifts of the twentieth century have created a crisis for preaching. Changing notions of authority and communication, as well as philosophical challenges have left many preachers wondering about how to preach and what is happening when they preach. My own journey began without much reflection. I preached as I had been preached to. Out of love and a lack of broader experience, I imitated my mentors in style and content. I don’t regret this for a second. My preaching mentors have shaped me in deep and positive ways.
As Olga and I have ventured out as small town, rural pastors, we have spent more time preaching and less time listening to others preach. Our style and voice have changed. We have learned a lot about the kind of life, prayer, and relationship that sustains a vocation of preaching. But this journey has also raised questions about the nature of preaching in a new way. I began to feel the weight of my calling. By the grace of God, I had influence in this place. How would a lifetime sitting under my preaching shape a person’s faith? What would they regularly hear? What would they never hear? How should my preaching shape its hearers? What was a sermon supposed to be?
I began to look for the perfect sermon. I wanted to know I was doing it exactly right so that I could be comfortable and sleep easily during the week. Unsurprisingly (in hindsight), I have not found it. I am learning to show and receive grace. There is a gracious space between exposition, teaching, and proclamation that allows for different sermons on different texts to accomplish different tasks. I am learning to trust that God has called me and that his Spirit dwells within me. The success of preaching does not rest on my ingenuity or grit, but rests on the gracious work of God speaking to us.
Yet, the opening of the third chapter of Galatians forces me to ask a different question. Instead of detailing the perfect sermon, Paul tells what his preaching has done. The Galatians have seen Christ crucified. By the words Paul spoke, Jesus Christ becoming a curse for them was displayed before their very eyes. Commenting on this verse, John Calvin likens the preacher to a painter who uses words to paint Christ before the eyes of the congregation.
That is preaching.
Maybe there is a perfect sermon out there and maybe there is not. However, there is a goal for preaching. “Before your very eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” When people see the crucified savior, then they have heard the gospel, and the Word has been proclaimed. Whatever else our preaching does, it should at least do this. People should see Jesus.
May it be so in me and in you by the grace of God.