John Ruskin once wrote, “Preaching is thirty minutes to raise the dead.” This well-worn quote is worth hearing again. While our preaching during this pandemic may be shorter than thirty minutes due to online attention spans, the cultural moment that is tinged with death does call for the very best preaching from the church. Fortunately, the full witness of the Bible gives the preacher themes from cover to cover that can speak the Word of God into this age of anxiety and confusion. Whether one is using the Revised Common Lectionary to navigate preaching during these days or developing a personal plan for preaching, perhaps these biblical themes could be woven into the fabric of proclamation during this pandemic.
Creation – The creation account describes the great abundance of God. In the midst of this earthly paradise, God said, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden . . .” (Genesis 2:16, NRSV) What a gift of generosity! But God also said, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:17, NRSV) No sooner had God spoken of the abundance of the garden, God then spoke of a life within certain limits. We later learn that the sin of Adam and Eve was because they focused too much on what they could not have instead of rejoicing in the abundance given to them. Perhaps during this season we are once again being reminded about the limits imposed on us by nature. We can’t have everything. We sometimes forget that. But we can still have access to the rich abundance of God’s gifts for us. Good preaching can point our focus to all the other trees in the garden of God’s creation that still provide fruit for us even in our time of limitation.
Exodus – The grand story of the Exodus is an account of a people trying to escape bondage and finding their way to the land of Promise. In the middle was a long season of wilderness. That certainly sounds familiar. In the days of wandering and wilderness, God was present, manna was given, fire continued to direct, water was provided for the thirsty, and a covenant was established for the community. As we wander in the wilderness between the bondage caused by a terrible virus and the Promised Land of a vaccine, God still provides. Good preaching can help us understand that the manna, fire, water, and covenant will still give us “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”
Exile – Exile is when you are forced to live where you do not want to be. The Hebrews knew about this in the days of Babylonian captivity. We are clearly in an exile moment right now. It is one of the best ways to describe life – we are all in exile, longing for the pleasures of home. It is time to hear from the prophets again. Isaiah teaches us to understand the “little while” of this season as we are encouraged to “Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the wrath is past.” (Isaiah 26:20, NRSV) Passages such as Jeremiah 29:1-14 tell us that this period of time may be long, and we are to make the most of these days as we “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce . . . and seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (NRSV) What does that look like for us today as we live in exile? This is rich material for the preacher. Prophetic passages abound that teach us how to live in exile. Good preaching will lift up these passages and bring them alive for us in our exile.
Kingdom of God – Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than any other subject. That should tell us something about its priority in our own preaching. These pandemic days have reminded us about the powerful community of the Kingdom of God. When life is normal, we often focus on our own individual church. We worship in one place and care for one community of faith. Last Sunday I worshiped with five different churches. My emphasis was less about the one church where I serve and was more about the community of churches that has now become accessed in a greater way online. Good preaching will call us to a greater awareness of God’s reign in the world and will invite us beyond the walls of our church to participate in God’s work in the world.
Goodness of God – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, NIV) This pandemic may stretch our understanding of “all things” to the limit, but the promise is still true. What sightings of God working for good can we highlight today? What biblical stories of God working for good can help us to see more clearly today? Good preaching will help us to see the good that God continues to do in these difficult days.
Resurrection Hope – It felt like we “missed” Easter this year. True, preaching to a camera in an empty room did not feel like the wonderful celebration of a large crowd at Easter. But we only missed Easter if we allow ourselves to ignore the wonder of the resurrection. Our preaching during this season should proclaim the powerful message of resurrection – not just on April 12, but on every Sunday as we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death.” As we read in 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (NRSV) Good preaching will return to this theme of resurrection every week so that all who hear may be stirred with hope.
We have “thirty minutes to raise the dead.” Preach well, my sisters and brothers, during these difficult days when people are hungering for a good Word from God.